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.
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This year’s fall offering from UoT Opera is three short comic operas presented at the MacMillan Theatre in productions by Michael Patrick Albano. The first is Paul Hindemith’s Hin und Züruck; a twelve minute musical joke which manages to send up a lot of operatic conventions in a very short time. It’s a musical and dramatic palindrome. A man discovers his wife has a lover and shoots her. The paramedics arrive and attempt to revive her. In this staging this includes a giant syringe and no prizes for guessing where that goes. The remorseful husband shoots himself. An angel (Ben Done) appears and explains that the usual laws of physics don’t apply in opera and the entire plot and score is replayed backwards. It was played effectively deadpan by Cassandra Amorim and Lyndon Ladeur while Jordana Goddard, as the elderly deaf aunt, sat through the whole thing entirely oblivious. Good fun.
The other Otello
Just as Rossini’s version of Il barbiere di Siviglia completely eclipsed Paisiello’s version, so Verdi’s Otello sounded the death knell for an earlier version; ironically enough by Rossini. It’s a bit surprising as the Rossini version is not bad at all despite having a rather patchy libretto and being hard to cast. The first thing one notices is that the story isn’t even close to Shakespeare/Verdi. This is because the libretto was based on a French play by Jean-François Ducis that was popular in the 18th century. I don’t know whether the plot’s weaknesses are due to Ducis or the librettist but there are a few. There’s no Cassio so the motivation for Jago’s plotting is unclear. All the Venetian notables (bar perhaps the Doge) hate Otello but Jago doesn’t seem to have any special reason for animosity. Between the end of Act 2 and the beginning of Act 3 Otello is exiled. There is no explanation. The finale is abrupt and weak. Immediately after Otello kills Desdemona the gang of notables burst in to the room and appear to be completely reconciled to Otello and to him marrying Desdemona, despite having spent the rest of the opera chewing chips about this. In fact one could argue that the happy ending variant (yes, there was one) is the more plausible as it would only take the guys to arrive about ten bars sooner for that to be the logical outcome. As it is, Otello listens with incredulity to the change of heart and, not unreasonably, kills himself.