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Great promise from new groups

Winchester Street Theatre
08/18/2009 -  & 19, 21, 22, 23, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29 August
Henry Purcell: Dido and Aeneas
Susanne Hawkins (Dido), Olivier Laquerre (Aeneas), Charlotte Corwin (Belinda/1st Witch/Chorus), Andrew Pickett (Sorceress/Chorus), Sarah Whalen (2nd Witch/Chorus), Dawn Bailey (2nd Woman/Chorus), John Bacon (Sailor/Chorus), Marc Michalak (Chorus), Kevin Sean Pook (Chorus)
The Classical Music Consort, Ashiq Aziz (Conductor)
Patrick Eakin Young (Director and Designer), Claire Warwick (Costume Designer), John Heginbotham (Video Choreographer), Burke Brown (Lighting Designer)

A. Pickett & witches (Courtesy of Opera Erratica)

Two youthful performance groups have combined forces to produce Henry Purcell’s little gem of an opera, Dido and Aeneas. On the musical side, we have the Classical Music Consort, conducted by Ashiq Aziz. On the production side, director/designer Patrick Eakin Young of Opera Erratica.

The venue is the Winchester Street Theatre, a 19th century church that has long been the home of the Toronto Dance Theatre. Nestled in a heritage neighbourhood (Cabbagetown), it contains a generous-size performing area with seating for 130. Thus there is a good deal of space for this energetic staging, along with valuable audience/performer intimacy.

“Multi-media productions of classical opera for the modern world” is the stated aim of the enterprise, and of course this is exactly what opera presenters have been trying to do for the past 400 years or so. Opera Erratica has made a video of three dancers (two women, one man, choreographed by John Heginbotham) who perform movement related to action in the opera. Using electronic manipulation, their figures have been reduced to silhouettes (sometimes black on a white background, sometimes white on black) and the movements of these “ghosts” is projected on to a movable semi-transparent screen. The opera’s live performers frequently double the movements and gestures of the ghosts, sometimes in front of the screen, sometimes behind it.

This concept both exploits and helps accentuate the work’s dual nature as it both tells us a tale and reflects upon it. Patrick Eakin Young’s direction also brings out the work’s abrupt juxtapositions of comedy (even silliness) and tragedy. At their best, the projections give the production a distinguished look, especially when images of disembodied limbs frame the action (see photo above). There are stretches, though, when the projections get in the way; it comes as a relief when Dido sings her great lament simply and directly, with a minimum of directorial intervention.

Another overused directorial device is a running set of comments about the work projected on the overhead screen normally used for surtitles. These comments definitely get in the way of our direct enjoyment of the piece. I’ve seen instances where suchcommentary was used successfully and, significantly, sparingly. We do get a few projections of singers’ lines, although ideally we shouldn’t need titles when the work is sung in English - and after all, Nahum Tate’s libretto is neither overly flowery nor antique.

Singers’ movements occasionally feature hieratic arm and hand gestures much like the patented style of Robert Wilson who has arguably done it to death.

Overall, Eakin Young seems to have many staging ideas, most of them good ones. However, there is a degree of directorial overload.

Claire Warwick’s best costumes are those for the witches (who seem to be related to the harpies of classical myth), and for the drunken sailors.

As to the performers: there are just nine singers in total, so everyone except the two title roles also sing in the chorus (this works just fine, by the way). Susanne Hawkins is a superb and very affecting Dido. Charlotte Corwin has a healthy bright voice with a real ping in it. She delightfully conveys her enjoyment of performing her several roles in the work - Belinda, First Witch and (as chorus member) one of the roistering sailors.

Another singer new to me is counter-tenor Andrew Pickett, a member of the UK-based 1607 Ensemble. He is an assured and expressive Sorceress.

Olivier Laquerre (Aeneas), familiar to Toronto audiences in several roles with Opera Atelier, is the most experienced member of the cast. Worryingly, he has moments when his voice loses its richness.

Ashiq Aziz, conducting from the harpsichord, obviously knows what he is doing as he leads his group of eight authentic instrument players My only criticism is that this group, the Classical Music Consort, has such a bland, generic name. In order to differentiate themselves from other local groups, such as the Toronto Consort and the Bach Consort, they ought to have a rebranding session, with a prize for the winning suggestion.

It is heartening to learn that this enterprise is receiving funding from the civic and provincial arts agencies. Their ambitions include the commissioning of new works. I look forward to hearing and seeing more from them.

Michael Johnson



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