Category Archives: festival

Opera done differently

Last night I attended the Opera Nuova production of the Tchaikovsky opera Eugene Onegin.

It was fascinating.  It has one more performance, tonight at 7:30 at the Oasis Centre in northwest Edmonton.  If you like music or theatre and you aren’t sure if you like opera, this might be a good one to try.

Mind you, there are lots of other opportunities here to see outsider-accessible opera, thanks to the imaginative programming of Edmonton Opera.  But Opera Nuova tickets are less expensive, and this production makes fabulous use of its location.

I believe that’s called “site-sympathetic”.  On arrival at the Oasis Centre, audience members had an opportunity to buy food and drink in the lobby, and then we were directed to seats in a back garden amphitheatre.  I noticed that the audience included some families with children, and a wide range of dress from festive to casual.  (I was relieved about this, since I hadn’t gotten dressed up myself.)   We were seated on comfortable chairs around three sides of a courtyard (and some people were standing up too).  In the periphery I could see some attractive landscaping with pathways and an artificial waterfall.

Opera Nuova artistic director and this show’s director, Kim Mattice-Wanat, spoke from the covered bandstand where the orchestra was seated, explaining that later scenes would be set indoors and we would be directed where and when to move.  The sung lyrics would be in Russian, but instead of supertitles we would be given additional glimpses into what was going to happen by a narrator reading some description between scenes or units, Kelly Handerek, There was also a plot summary in the program.

During some instrumental music (overture?) by a 12 piece orchestra under the direction of Gordon Gerrard, some performers entered and seated themselves on garden benches.  The younger women turned out to be sisters Olga (Amanda Weatherall) and Tatiana (Jordanne Erichsen).  The older woman with spectacles, kerchief, and apron was Filipievna, the girls’ old nurse.  I was immediately charmed and impressed that she knitted a sock on four needles throughout the first scene, with the practised ease of an experienced knitter.  The fourth woman in the scene was Madame Larina (Zoë Gotziaman) the girls’ mother.   As advised by the narrator, I could see that Olga was the more outgoing sister, swept away in romance with visiting Lensky (River Guard), while Tatiana seemed to be head-down in her novel for most of the first couple of scenes before becoming awkwardly aware of equally-awkward eponymous Onegin (Aaron Murphy).  I got thinking about Pride and Prejudice at this point, and about how the socially-awkward one who started out seeming rude was actually the happy-ending suitor in that story.  (And then I started thinking about Colin Firth, and then I started thinking about Cordelia in King Lear too, and I was trying to figure out whether I liked this Onegin character or not.  I definitely liked Tatiana right away though.)

At some point in the outdoor scenes, the large ensemble also entered as farm labourers presenting the landlords with sheaves and baskets to celebrate the harvest, and dancing and singing in approximately-folkloric dress.   During the outdoor scenes, various characters and couples made use of the attractive forest paths and lawns.  The actors were all wearing headset microphones (which is not the usual practice for opera, although it is common in musical theatre for larger auditoriums).   The sound quality was not perfect, but was surprisingly good given the industrial-park site with large trucks driving by and windy weather.

The audience was then invited indoors, first to seats around an area set up as Tatiana’s bedroom.  Jordanne Erichsen was especially impressive in this scene, singing solo through almost the whole scene while conveying the emotions of being unexpectedly in love and taking the risk of writing to Onegin to ask if he would consider marriage.

Subsequent scenes shifted to the other side of the auditorium.  Short intermissions were taken as needed, not necessarily when the traditional 3-act structure prescribed.  Onegin turns down Tatiana in what looked to me like an emo mansplaining condescension (“I wouldn’t make you a good husband.  I prefer to be alone”) but then kind of rubbed it in by dancing with her sister at her name-day ball.  This led to an argument with his friend Lensky, Olga’s fiancé, and to a duel in which Lensky dies.  In these scenes I liked Triquet (Sebastien Comtois) who regaled Tatiana with French poetry, and Zaretsky (Xuguang Zhang) who seemed keen on promoting the duel and brought them the pistols.

We didn’t get to find out much about what happened to Olga after that, although in the scene three years later, she was standing to the side with her mother and no escort, watching Tatiana and her high-ranking husband welcome guests to a ball.  The dancing and costumes for the three ensemble-dance pieces (the labourers at harvest, the local friends at the name-day dance, and Prince Gremin’s ball) increased in complexity and spectacle commensurate with the class differences and were all fun to watch.  Choreography was by Marie Nychka and costumes by Betty Kolodziej.  The convention of having the chorus members all freeze in place while the principals acted and sang solos was a bit jarring at first but became easy to ignore.  Onegin predictably comes to regret his earlier rejection of Tatiana, and she now turns him down.  This would be a happy and fair ending if Tatiana were in love with Gremin, but her acting conveys that she would rather be with Onegin, but alas! duty and honour and marital vows.  So it’s sad.

It’s a long performance, but I didn’t mind and mostly didn’t even notice. I don’t understand Russian, didn’t know the story ahead of time, and didn’t recognize the melodies except for a bit that was vaguely familiar from Bugs Bunny (I won’t tell you where!), but I’m very glad I was able to see this opera.   Opera Nuova’s festival of opera and musical theatre continues tonight with a second performance of Eugene Onegin, has a concert Saturday night, and later in the month moves to Festival Place for productions of The Cunning Little Vixen (with supertitles) and Carousel.  Tickets to all are available on-line and at the door.

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Simon Chalifoux, as Prince Gremin, and his wife Tatiana Gremina (Jordanne Erichsen), in front of an unhappy Eugene Onegin (Aaron Murphy)

Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience

My mother was very fond of Gilbert and Sullivan.  She and I went together to the Stratford Festival a few times, to see Iolanthe, and I think Pirates of Penzance.  The next year I thought I was giving her an extra treat by getting tickets to Hamlet.  (Later that season I also got to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, in repertory with the same cast.)  But on the way home, she confessed with embarrassment that she hadn’t enjoyed the Shakespearean tragedy as much, and for the next Mother’s Day could we please go to another Gilbert and Sullivan operetta?   For her, it seemed that watching Shakespeare was a virtuous duty, and watching Gilbert and Sullivan was such a guilty pleasure that she didn’t deserve it, even as a gift.  That seemed odd to me, even for a former high school English teacher, because I already had the idea that theatre should be fun, just like books and movies and other ways of telling stories.

A similar confusion of duty and pleasure lies at the heart of Patience, the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta running until Sunday night (Jun 11) at Capitol Theatre in Fort Edmonton Park.  Patience, a naive and earnest milkmaid, has so little experience of love (“only for a great-aunt” she says, when asked by one of the chorus of lovesick ladies) that from observing the pining chorus and hearing that love is unselfish, she comes up with the idea that if it’s joyful and pleasurable it isn’t true love.  Therefore, it is more virtuous for her to marry a man she detests.

This odd interpretation leads to various nearly-implausible repercussions for all the characters’ romantic aspirations, but of course this being a Gilbert and Sullivan work, almost everyone ends up happily paired at the end.

There are many other ways this production, directed by Robert Herriot and conducted by Kathleen Lohrenz Gable, is an admirable example of what Gilbert and Sullivan were known for.  There is a large chorus of ladies and of Dragoon Guards, and lots of romantic happy endings.  There are long verses of rapid rhyming iambic feet as clever as rap lyrics, there are ridiculous characters with preposterous motivations, and there are opportunities to show off some very impressive voices.  

Of particular note are the singing of Patience (possibly Charlotte Stewart-Juby, soprano, in the performance I saw), and the comedic portrayals of Meghan Goguen (mezzo-soprano) as Lady Jane and Justin Kautz (baritone, better known locally as one of the principals in Toy Guns Dance Theatre) as Reginald Bunthorpe.   Timothy Carter (tenor) was also delightful as Archibald Grosvenor.

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Justin Kautz as Reginald Bunthorpe, garlanded by two of the lovesick maidens.

 

The chorus of “twenty lovelorn maidens” – actually about fifteen, which probably didn’t distract anyone else except me – was delightfully costumed in faux-Hellenic draperies in a pastel rainbow of shades, striking a series of expressive aesthetic poses in attempts to emulate and attract flamboyant poet/poseur Reginald.  I giggled a lot during this show, starting with the maidens’ first entrance.  Later in the play the robes and art-book poses are repeated in an even funnier way.  Good use was made of the various entrances to the auditorium, which helped make the proscenium-stage space more intimate.  Musical accompaniment was provided by one pianist, Kerry Agnew.

Opera Nuova’s festival of opera and musical theatre continues over the next two weeks with performances of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Leoš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, and the Rogers and Hammerstein musical Carousel as well as some other concerts and master classes.   Performances occur in various venues around the city and with a range of prices, allowing more audience members to attend.

History + storytelling = autobiography

The first show I watched from the audience at this year’s Fringe was the new work The Annotated Autobiography of Leone McGregor, by Savanna Harvey.  The performer credits for the show listed Kendra Lamothe as Leone, Savanna as The Writer, Vina Nguyen as Freud, and Heather Janzen as The Stagehand, and the performance starts with the Stagehand seated on the stage beside a box of props, putting a script up on an overhead projector and making notes on it as the narrative progressed.  This was an interesting layer, reminding me of lectures of a certain era.  Sometimes I would look at it ahead of what was happening on stage, in the same way that subtitles don’t always reveal the key points of a story at the same time as the French or foreign-language spoken dialogue does.  Sometimes the Stagehand’s presentation would prevent that by covering sections of the page with paper, and I remembered that teaching technique as well.  One page even contributed the inner dialogue of an imaginary reader in a classroom setting struggling to keep up with the text on the page.

But that was just a side thing – most of the storytelling evolved in a fairly linear and visual way, showing the life story of Leone McGregor, born in Saskatchewan early in the previous century to poor parents, attending Normal School at a young age and teaching school to raise money for university, then studying medicine as the only woman in the first medical-school class at U of Alberta, continuing to graduate school in pathology, the only medical research discipline that would offer her fellowships.  And eventually she was able to study and practice her real calling, psychotherapy.  “Until I acquired the word, how could I know what I wanted to be?” the character says.  This fits with musings earlier on, “concept without words, meaning without text, what is the point?” says the Writer, which is funny because this performance (as most) endows the non-verbal with layers of meaning.  The movement piece that expresses young Leone’s being teased and bullied and “just a game” assaulted by classmates, and its soundscape, was evocative and disturbing, as were other movement-heavy segments of the piece.

Leone’s letters (handwritten on the projections, read out by the actors) added pieces of the biography and also demonstrated the importance Leone placed on her friendships with other women, keeping in touch through her travels for career and new husband.   The samples of psychological counselling advice were odd, mostly seeming to include suggestions of resolving the problem by spending money on something – self-care, a romantic weekend, other indulgences.  I was reminded of the newspaper-advice segments of the 1960s in Shout.

I found the story satisfying, and the writing clever but not so clever it distracted me. Karlie Christie’s costuming is also worthy of mention, particularly Leone’s period-appropriate and movement-friendly outfit.  As Autobiography is playing in a BYOV space, it has more performance times than a lottery-venue show, and if this intrigues you, you should seek it out.

And now, back to the grounds!  See you at the Fringe!

Nextfest!

One of the events of an Edmonton June that I had missed in previous years is Nextfest, the celebration of emerging artists in various disciplines which used to be run out of the Roxy Theatre.  There is no Roxy right now, but Nextfest continues, with more events and performances than I’ll have time to catch.  High school performers (#NextNextfest) have a full schedule at the Mercury Theatre (former Azimuth/Living room).  Some things are along 124 Street.  And the mainstage performances are in the lower-level auditorium at Faculté St-Jean on 91 Street.

I’ve seen several mainstage shows.  Evolve was a set of short dance/movement pieces, solos and bigger ensembles.

Blackout was an hour of sketch comedy and improv. The pace was quick, the characters clever, and the inclusion of recent political events spot-on.  I liked it a lot.  It reminded me of the work of Hot Thespian Action, the troupe out of Winnipeg which was at Edmonton Fringe a few years ago.

Pinniped and Other Poems was a play written by Skye Hyndman and directed by Philip Geller, a lyrical indirect piece including flashback scenes, walrus mustaches, live goldfish named x0 and y0, an intriguing set making use of twine, rope, and translucent flats, and some effective and unusual stage business.  Alex Dawkins’ demeanour and costuming portrayed a mysterious woman from the protagonist’s past, while Connor Suart, Emily Howard, and Jake Tkaczyk all seemed to be presenting aspects of the main character.  Live music was provided by Vik Chu.  From a vocal production viewpoint I was impressed by how all the performers managed the dense text with clear articulation despite wearing what looked like straw and twine all over their jaws, and particularly how Jake Tkaczyk’s character managed to sound like an old man without losing volume or clarity.  If time permits I will definitely be watching this one again because I think there is more in the text than I picked up.

Shorts is a program of five short pieces.  I’m not sure if they’re all parts of longer works in development, but at least some of them are.  Louise Large and Andrew Dool each had solo pieces, both with unconventional treatments of fourth-wall conventions.  Kali Wells’s Forms of Communication was an entertaining escapade that started from a situation anyone might find himself or herself in, and then escalated.  It reminded me of some of the scenarios in Suburban Motel.  I also appreciated the value placed on hand-knitted socks by the characters!   Liam Salmon’s Un(known) Stories was a natural-sounding chat among three friends, exploring LGBT terminology and concepts, lived experience, and respectful disagreement.  Leif Ingebrigtsen’s Echoes of a Lost King was perhaps the most ambitious project, two songs and a scene from what seemed to be a fully designed original musical about a group of D & D players and their characters on quest, with Joleen Ballandine, Gabriel Richardson, Eva Foote, and Hunter Cardinal.   All four are strong performers and musicians, but in this short piece I noticed that the music was a particularly good showcase for Gabriel Richardson’s voice.

Desirée Leverenz’s Husk is playing in a space on 124 Street just south of 111 Avenue.  The space seems to be intended as some kind of semi-institutional residence, so it has good potential for site-specific work, with an intimate stage/risers room on one side, and the opportunity to wander through various small rooms and spaces on two floors.   The piece included a couple of full-ensemble scenes with cryptic story, movement, and sound exploration, along with a more experiential session in between where audience wandered among displays interacting with the performers as much as they chose.  Philip Geller’s and Morgan Grau’s interactions were particularly compelling, eliciting audience help or response; some of the others were more distant or diorama-like.  All seemed to be isolated, and to be embracing or struggling with some aspect of fluid and mess.  I think my favourite part of this piece was when I gradually became aware that what I thought was a completely comprehensible conversation among odd characters was actually a repetition of nonsensical phrases, imbued with actor intention as in some kind of Meisner class exercises.  (I did not actually notice this right away because I think I was assuming I hadn’t heard right and my brain was filling in more comprehensible narrative.)  Other performers in this piece were Roland Meseck, Emily Howard, Sophie Gareau-Brennan,  Stuart McDougall, Connor Suart, and a couple of others I didn’t know.

Nextfest continues until tomorrow, Sunday 14 June.