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A Lively Blast from the Past

The Jane Mallett Theatre
11/05/2017 -  
Calixa Lavallée: The Widow
Julie Nesrallah (Dona Paquita), Diego Catalá (Marquis Peyrolles Beauseant), Gregory Finney (Duc de Trop), Lynn Isnar (Nanine), Ross Mortimer (Marcel DuBois), Julia Obermeyer (Lizette), Michael McLean (Gaspar Minard), Brian Dearden (Passepoil), Rosalind McArthur (Madame Grizelle), Tanya Paradowski (Adèle)
Michael Rose (music director/pianist)
Guillermo Silva-Marin (dramatic advisor)

J. Nesrallah (Courtesy of Toronto Operetta Theatre)

Calixa Lavallée’s The Widow (first performed in 1881) is an engaging oddity from the era when an array of musical works were churned out to help attract audiences to the countless “opera houses” that dotted North America in the 19th century. The Widow was taken up by impresario C.D. Hess and is known to have been performed in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, and Springfield, IL. A piano vocal score exists.

TOT has performed the piece before, back in 2004. This single semi-staged performance is one more event celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary because Calixa Lavallée, quite by accident, composed the national anthem O Canada. He was born in rural Quebec (then called Lower Canada) in 1842. His musical gifts were recognized at a young age, and while still an adolescent found himself touring as a violinist’s accompanist in the US, Mexico and South America. He spent most of his adult life in the USA, becoming a member of an army band in the Civil War, and later settling in Boston where he became president of the Music Teacher’s National Association. However, he spent a period of study in Paris and during one sojourn in Canada composed a song for a French-Canadian nationalist group that grew in popularity over the decades and eventually, 100 years after its first performance, became the official national anthem.

Thus the only reason the work is being performed is because of this historic connection, but aside from that, the work stands as a singular example of its era, displaying both the strengths (considerable)and weaknesses (a few) of its genre.

The libretto, by Frank H. Nelson, tells of a twice-widowed (and wealthy) Spanish woman, Dona Paquita, returning from her homeland to France where she will marry her fiancé, a marquis, only to find he has already married another woman, one Adèle, wealthier even than her. This sets in motion a convoluted set of plots involving Paquita’s supposed suicide (she casts herself into the Mediterranean), the caddish behavior of the marquis, the fraught relations of two sets of young lovers (Nanine and Marcel, Lizette and Gaspar) who must battle the opposition of their hidebound elders, the intervention of a servant, Passepoil (self-described as “delicate”), and the cheerful obliviousness of Madame Grizelle, mother to one of the young paramours. Of course it all ends happily and Paquita ends up marrying a duke.

The libretto was written by one Frank H. Nelson. It displays a very flippant attitude toward matrimony, bigamy, and widowhood. Some might have termed it “racy”. The plot could well have been used in one of the screwball film comedies of the 1930s which usually had improbable plots set in motion by the unpredictable actions of a woman.

Toronto Operetta Theatre’s General Director Guillermo Silva-Marin has tightened the sprawly piece up a bit by removing five of the 30 numbers. This still left lots of room for each the cast of 10 to have his/her moments in the limelight. He has interposed some piquant dialogue, some of it borrowed from O. Wilde (“steal from the best” is always wise advice).

The cast members were well-chosen (TOT is dependable in this respect) but the production could have used more rehearsal as many of the younger cast members seemed not fully at ease. (Just how much preparation can one expect for a single performance?) Julie Nesrallah, though, went full throttle in the title role, as did Gregory Finney as the Duc de Trop. Mr. Finney has the ability to insert innuendo in every line, very valuable in a work like this. Many of the numbers are in the style of parlour songs, there is occasional (and appropriate) Spanish style (as with Paquita’s “Happy and Free”), some bouncy Offenbach-style bits, and some novelty numbers such as a kissing song and a sighing song. At least one number Nanine’s “Smiling Hope” soars into operatic territory. Each act builds to a jolly finale. Michael Rose delivered yeoman service on the piano.

Overheard at the intermission: “I don’t know what the heck is going on but I love it”. An earth-shaking rediscovery? No. Agreeably amusing? Yes. An orchestrated version has been staged. Perhaps in the future for TOT?

Michael Johnson



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