UoT Opera Division’s production of Arthur Benjamin’s A Tale of Two Cities, currently playing at the MacMillan Theatre, is really rather good. Its partly the work itself which surely deserves to be better known. It’s a 1950 work to a libretto by Cedric Cliffe. It was written for the Festival of Britain and was considered a success at the time. It is in many ways typical of mid 20th century English opera (though Benjamin was a peripatetic Australian rather than a Brit). It’s colourful and uses a large orchestra with lots of brass and percussion and combines lyricism with some fairly heavy dissonance. It also includes a few good arias, notably one for Lucie Manette, the romantic female interest.
The llbretto condenses Dickens’ sprawling novel into a tight series of scenes which really articulate just two of Dickens’ subplots; the love triangle of Charles Darnay, Sidney Carton and Lucie Manette and Thérèse Defarge’s search for revenge on the family of the Marquis de Saint Evrémonde. Culminating of course with Carton replacing Darnay on the scaffold at the execution engineered by Mme. Defarge. Dramatically it’s effective though I don’t think t would win any poetry prizes and it rather awkwardly mixes spoken dialogue with recitative. Still, given the richness of the score it’s surprising it’s disappeared so completely.
Kelly Robinson’s production is fairly literal; period costumes, no odd conceptual ideas, but efficient. It’s greatly aided by a slick set design by Scott Reid enhanced by rather good projections by Gabriel Cropley though I’m a bit dubious about Dr. Manette having a house in Soho that looks like it could stand in for Pemberley.
There is some very enthusiastic acting, especially from the crowd of male and female sans culottes; waving tricolours and singing and dancing enthusiastically to the Ça ira. There are some fine performances too from the principals. Perhaps the standout is the “terrible” Thérèse Defarge sung with power and precision by Cassandra Amorim. She makes this obsessive character credible and so effectively more human. Emily Rocha is a sympathetic Lucie Manette. She has a voice that already sounds really good and she can act. She gets the best aria in the opera and she makes the most of it. There’s a good chance she’ll grow into a very fine lyric soprano.
The men are good too. Burak Yaman is solid and sympathetic as the elderly Dr. Manette and the pair of Benjamin Done (Darnay) and James Coole-Stevenson (Carton) are convincing as the rivals for Lucie’s affection. The latter is especially good in the final scene. It may well be a far, far better thing than he has done before. Greg Dahl probably makes the shortest appearance of his entire career as the Marquis senior.
Sandra Horst conducts and is her usual sympathetic self. Singers occasionally get a bit overwhelmed by the orchestra. It is huge! But for the most part the singers are really well supported without in any way diminishing the impact of the orchestra. She makes a compelling case for this music.
As usual with UoT Opera there are, in theory at least, two casts. Last night’s appearing again on Saturday and a second for tonight and Sunday’s matinee. In practice this time it’s practically the same cast with just a few changes in the bigger roles.
Bottom line, this show is really well worth seeing. A rarely seen work is presented in a way that shows off its many virtues. There’s some excellent singing and acting and the orchestra sounds great.
Photos courtesy of UoT Opera Division