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A showcase for emerging opera talent

Joey and Toby Tannenbaum Opera Centre
12/06/2006 -   - and 7, 9 and 10 December
William Walton The Bear, James Rolfe Swoon
For The Bear: Lauren Segal (Popova), Jon-Paul Décosse (Smirnov), Andrew Stewart (Luka)
Ashlie Corcoran (Director)
Steven Philcox (Conductor)
For Swoon: Virginia Hatfield/Miriam Khalil (Leah), Melinda Delorme/Betty Waynne Allison/Yannick-Muriel Noah (Mona), Lawrence Wiliford (Roy), Justin Welsh (Ari)
Michael Patrick Albano (Director)
Derek Bate (Conductor)
For both works: Victoria Wallace (Designer), Renée Broda (Lighting)
Canadian Opera Company Orchestra

Every year the Canadian Opera Company performs a production to show off the members of its young artist’s program, the Ensemble Studio. The repertoire of choice is usually something off the beaten track, and this years it is the local premiere of William Walton’s The Bear plus a new commission, James Rolfe’s Swoon, to a libretto by Anna Chatterton.

The venue is the main rehearsal hall of the Canadian Opera Company’s production headquarters, a 19th-century gas works converted to its current use in 1985. For this production, the flexible space contains a 300-seat grandstand with a capacious stage (the same size as that of its performing home, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts). As there is no pit, the 17-member orchestra is placed off to one side.

For The Bear, Victoria Wallace’s cluttered set conjures up provincial pokiness. Walton created a lot of lively music for his so-called “extravaganza”, and director Ashlie Corcoran has Jon-Paul Decosse scampering about like a bear cub. This continuous movement plus his attractive but light baritone voice deprives the role of much of its menace. Lauren Segal gives the best performance of the evening as the widow Popova. The combination of her lovely voice with its dark colours and her striking looks make this character the riveting centre of the work.

The Walton work is overshadowed by the 45-minute new piece. Rolfe is best known for his 1999 Beatrice Chancy, a treatment of the incestuous Beatrice Cenci story transposed to Nova Scotia in the era when slavery was practised. Swoon, however, is a comedy set in an upscale urban milieu focusing on the romantic plight of two contrasting couples. Affluent Mona and Ari hire a new house cleaner, Leah, who turns out to be a young writer with an anxious boyfriend, Roy. On her first day on the job Leah is confronted by a needy, flirtatious Ari. Roy, lurking about, sees this and tells Mona - who then turns to him for comfort (here’s where Roy rhymes with boy and toy). Mona and Roy then deliberately stage a love scene to arouse Ari’s jealousy. This succeeds and both couples are briefly embroiled in arguments. However both are subsequently reconciled and we have an unambiguously happy ending, with true love rediscovered “forever”.

For Swoon, Wallace converts her set to fashionable minimalism for Ari and Mona’s residence, although projections on translucent screens hint of an underlying voluptuousness. Justin Welsh as Ari sings beautifully in his ardent paean to Leah, recalling the youthful love he and Mona once shared. Lawrence Williford throws himself into the role of the mercurial Roy, with its spiky lines and challenging rhythms. Melinda Delorme flutters about as a chatelaine who is both bossy and more than a bit bewildered. Virginia Hatfield is an intelligent though stolid Leah.

On the second night, the two women’s roles were performed rather more sharply by Miriam Khalil (Leah) and Betty Waynne Allison (Mona). The many followers of the young artists’ program can be gratified that this season’s group is doing well under the guidance of head coach Elizabeth Upchurch. We look forward to seeing them in mainstage roles.

The domestic nature of the piece is reminiscent of Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti while the interaction of the two couples is reminiscent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe. The happy ending is a bit of surprise in this day and age - but perhaps it’s time for that. Now that Toronto has a splendid opera house, the success of Swoon suggests that Rolfe (with Chatterton?) is also worthy of a mainstage commission.

Michael Johnson



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