Category Archives: Opera

Opera Nuova’s Carousel

Opera Nuova’s two mainstage productions this year are The Cunning Little Vixen, an opera composed by Leoš Janáček, and Carousel, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. 

Carousel is set in a coastal village in Maine (Wikipedia says in 1873).  In the opening scenes, a touring carnival has set up outside the town, with various circus-style performers (a strong-man, dancers, a fortune teller, a juggler), carousel barker Billy Bigelow (Justin Kautz in tonight’s performance), and manager Mrs Mullin (Emily Stewart tonight).  The set includes three lovely carousel-horses, turned on a revolve during the opening waltz by members of the chorus.  (Apparently one can bid on the horses by contacting Opera Nuova before the end of the run).  Local mill girls Julie Jordan and Carrie Pipperidge (Krista Paton and Brittany Rae) visit the carousel, but the carnival manager gets jealous when Billy Bigelow pays too much attention to Julie, banning Julie from the carousel and firing Billy.  Both Paton and Rae have lovely soprano voices in the solos and duet setting up their friendship and the story.  Kautz portrays Billy as a cocky flirt, confident in his charm, but with foreshadowing of physical threat in the way he grabs Mrs. Mullin’s forearm and threatens Carrie in the first scenes.

The larger ensemble then gathers on stage for clambake preparations, and the enthusiastic “June is Bustin’ Out All Over”, featuring Olivia Barnes tonight as Nettie Fowler.   This piece is echoed later by “That Was a Real Nice Clambake”, again with delightful choreography.  In between are important scenes advancing the tragic story – Julie and Billy lose their jobs, get married, and discover Julie expecting a baby before they have any money, so Billy agrees to help his no-good friend Jigger Craigin (Nolan Kehler tonight) with a robbery scheme.

After Billy’s death (with a spectacular fall off a pier by Kautz, one of the founders of Toy Guns Dance Theatre), the scenes 15 years later focus on Billy trying to make amends to his daughter Louise (Emily Steers tonight).  Louise’s barefoot dance piece explores solitary childhood joy on the shore with hopscotch, innocent celebration with local boy Enoch Snow Jr (Jordan Sabo of Man Up dance troupe), being picked on by a group of local children and taking petty revenge by snatching one girl’s hat, and then being swept up in a group of performers, the carnival workers of the opening scenes, particularly being drawn to a young man among them.   Later, she confides in Enoch Jr that after graduation she plans to run away with them and become an actress.

One of the most disturbing scenes of the musical is when Billy, granted visibility by the heavenly guides in order to help his daughter, gets frustrated when she won’t take his gift and slaps her hand.  Louise flees to her mother, who comforts her and seems to reminisce almost wistfully about a hit that feels like a kiss.  The underscoring music hints at this being sweetly nostalgic, which is jarring against the horrifying but realistic thought that Julie’s good memories of her abusive husband might be encouraging Louise to expect no better.   The more hopeful ending is that Billy’s spirit enables Louise to take in the graduation speech about not being limited by one’s parents’ failures and not being alone.  We can’t tell whether her happy ending will continue with running away to be an actress, marrying Enoch Jr, or perhaps something better than either.

The lighting and costumes for this production create a muted palette for the modest village and mists off the sea.  Vernacular dialects (slightly different for the carnival workers and the villagers) add to the vintage down-home atmosphere.

There is one more performance of Cunning Little Vixen tomorrow night (Friday 29 June) and one more of Carousel Saturday June 30th, both at Festival Place in Sherwood Park.  Julie

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Julie Jordan and Carrie Pipperidge at the Carousel

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.

Die Fledermaus – a very fun opera!

The Edmonton Opera is currently performing Die Fledermaus, the light comedy written by Johann Strauss Jr.  The music is very waltzy with catchy almost-familiar tunes, as you might expect.  The story is silly, the characters are clever, funny, and not too complex, and the sets and costumes are delightful.  In this production, all the singing and spoken dialogue is in English.  The song lyrics are displayed on the supertitles the same way they are for operas in other languages.  All of this makes it a very accessible opera experience.

I was fortunate to be offered a chance to attend a dress rehearsal with members of the media and with a lot of school children.   The children sitting near me seemed to love it, laughing at the physical comedy, cheering at the curtain call, and even making “rock on” signs with their fingers.  There was a lot of snickering when one character sang that she hoped the party would be gay.

The part that had me slapping my thighs and laughing til I had to take my glasses off, though, was something that probably went over the heads of some of the younger attendees at least in part.  See, apparently there’s a tradition that one particular monologue gets enhanced for local audiences from the Strauss book.    In this production, it was written by local playwright Stewart Lemoine, and if I hadn’t known that ahead of time from the press release I think I would have guessed.  It was exactly the same kind of topical humour that makes me laugh at the Varscona Theatre, and I had to fumble with my media package in the dark to see who was performing because it seemed so much like Jeff Haslam lines.  (It wasn’t Jeff Haslam; it was Julien Arnold, another local actor.)

The story is full of complications and cheerful deceits.  It has all the elements of a successful farce – a chambermaid with social and theatrical aspirations (Jacqueline Woodley, whom I saw as Miliça in Svadba last year), a marriage with both partners restless (Gordon Gietz and Betty Waynne Allison), an incompetent lawyer (Aaron Ferguson), a bed to hide under, and lots of doorways to pop in and out of.  It also has lots of music, about equally mixed between catchy singable waltz rhythms and what I think of as classic opera solos without significant rhythm, rhyme, or repetition.  The plot is full of broad dramatic irony and sarcasm.  Count Orlofsky (Gerald Thompson) was a counter-tenor with an astonishing vocal range and spot-on comic timing.

There are two more performances, Tuesday and Thursday evenings this week.  Tickets are available on line, and parking at the Jubilee Auditorium garage is free.

Scene from first act of Die Fledermaus

Scene from first act of Die Fledermaus

Die Fledermaus curtain call

Die Fledermaus curtain call

Choris members stroll towards the stage at intermission before party scene.

Choris members stroll towards the stage at intermission before party scene.

Contemporary opera: Svadba – Wedding

Last year I enjoyed Edmonton Opera’s production of Beethoven’s Fidelio, my first opera ever.  This winter I decided to try out a contemporary opera, Svadba – Wedding, by composer Ana Sokolović, produced by Toronto’s Queen of Puddings Music Theatre and part of Edmonton Opera’s ATB Canadian Series.

Svadba is Serbian for wedding, and the opera is sung in Serbian (with English surtitles of course).  It is performed almost completely a capella (with some percussive sound effects done on stage), with a cast of only six singers, four sopranos and two mezzo-sopranos.  The show didn’t really seem to have conventional linear storyline, but was rather a series of songs sung by a bride and her group of female friends throughout the night before her wedding and as she finishes preparing in the morning.  In one of the songs the bride, Milica, seemed to be saying that she wanted to marry Ilija but her mother was giving her to Jovan, but I’m not sure I understood that right since the later wistfulness and farewells could have just easily been a sort of farewell to unencumbered life with friends.

The close harmonies and impeccable timing of the singing were impressive.  I don’t know enough about music to tell why they worked so well, but Mark Morris’ review from the Journal explains some.  I was surprised before the show to see that there was a conductor, because I had never really thought about whether a conductor in a fully orchestrated opera would be directing the singers as well as the instrumental musicians.

The costumes were all black and red: flouncy short dresses, corset-inspired tops, and leather in a combination with both folkloric and modern allusions.  There was a lot of magenta-toned lighting making the reds harsher, and some effective dramatic use of other colours in a couple of songs.  Good use was made of interesting props enhancing the mood and imagery.

There are two more shows, Friday and Saturday night at C103 (the space on Gateway Boulevard formerly known as Catalyst Theatre), and probably not many tickets left.  My own operagoing experience was marred somewhat by an inconsiderate fellow patron who chose to occupy two seats until the last minute before the show, but I gather from the conversation that I couldn’t help overhearing that she’s gone back to Toronto now so you shouldn’t have that problem.

January playbill

I’d noticed before that sometimes food businesses with a holiday rush sometimes close for vacation in January – bakeries, restaurants, vendors at Strathcona Farmers’ Market.  But I’d never noticed before this year that theatres and performance spaces might also be dark at the start of the year.  It seems a little counterintuitive that there isn’t much to watch between Christmas and New Years, when people with academic schedules might have time off and be done their pre-Christmas to-do lists, but it does make sense for performers to take a break after New Year’s, when it’s cold and dark and the viewing public might be feeling frugal or unsociable.

Both Rapid Fire Theatre and Die-Nasty were dark between Christmas and New Year’s, but then jumped right back in to their weekly entertainments.  Rapid Fire is now filling up Ziedler Hall for many of their Friday-night and Saturday-night shows, so fans should buy tickets on line or line up early.

Other companies have been in rehearsal, meaning that several shows are opening this week.  The new Canadian opera Svadba, in Serbian with English subtitles, is playing at C103, the space formerly known as Catalyst Theatre.  Azimuth Theatre previews Free-man on the land at the Roxy starting Tuesday (tickets here).  A Clown Double Bill opens Tuesday at The TACOS Space in that awkward bit of neighbourhood that nobody can decide whether to call Ritchie, CPR Irvine, or “you know, behind Wunderbar, there” (tickets through Tix on the Square). Westbury Theatre, Transalta Arts Barns, welcomes the musical Legally Blonde starting Wednesday.

Deep Freeze Festival wraps up (see what I did there) today, Ice on Whyte sparkles in a couple of weeks, and ForkFest fills up January.  So if you’ve been hibernating the last couple of weeks, it’s  time to bundle up and check out what’s happening in Edmonton entertainment.

A different kind of show

The last time I was at the Jube (Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, concert hall by campus) was for City and Colour. Last night, I went there to see my very first opera, Beethoven’s Fidelio.

The story is about a woman who disguises herself as a man to successfully rescue her political-prisoner husband, somehow accidentally getting herself engaged to the jailer’s daughter along the way, but in a bigger picture it’s about love and hope vs. forces of tyranny.

The costumes and sets of this production were vaguely modern-ish, with the prison workers all wearing black cargo pants (I wondered whether the soprano heroine got to wear cargo pants for many roles). Near the end, when the evil prison-governor was denounced and arrested, the soldier who escorted him away was actually wearing a UN-blue beret.

I did not listen to enough of it ahead of time to recognise the tunes, except the overture, and I didn’t really feel like most of the songs were the kinds of melodies that would stick in my head. I was sitting in the front row, so I had to move my head a bit from the singers to see the surtitles. Also, there was a lot where three or four people were each singing a different line at the same time, and it wasn’t entirely obvious from the surtitles who was singing which line. (I think that the next generation of surtitles needs to have sort of cartoon speech bubbles.)

Anyway, at the end, after the arrest of the evil prison governor, the chorus of prisoners is freed and the chorus of their families wanders across the stage trying to find their family members, and they are all slowly reunited. Only … only I noticed right away that in the crowd of young and middle-aged women and maybe about four children, there was one man in a cap, making his way to the side of the stage near me, finding a prisoner who looked to be about the same age, then embracing fiercely. All the rest of them were clearly nuclear families – one woman, or one woman and an older child, to each prisoner, and there was this couple along with the rest of them. I burst into tears. My seatmate, whom I’d told it was my first opera, probably thought I was just happy about the happy ending or the beautiful music, and I didn’t disillusion her.

It cost about three times as much as going to see Joel Plaskett Emergency last week – only I took a taxi home from that show and used my bus pass to get home from this one, so that evened it out somewhat. The rest of the audience was mostly over 40 and mostly dressed up, but not entirely either. I could see doing that again — especially if there are more operas with admirable female characters.