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A fado chamber opera

Enwave Theatre
02/22/2009 -  & 25*, 26, 28 February, 1 March
James Rolfe: InÍs
InÍs Santos (InÍs), Giles Tomkins (Pedro), Shannon Mercer (Constanza), Elizabeth Turnbull (Maria), Thomas Goerz (Alfonso)
Dairine Ni Mheadhra (Conductor), John Hess (Piano), Rob MacDonald (Guitar), Aya Miyagawa (Violin), Peter Pavlovsky (Double Bass), Michele Verheul (Clarinet)
Nathalie Bonjour (Producer), Jennifer Tarver (Director), Yannick Larivťe (Set and Costume Design), Kimberley Purtell (Lighting)

I. Santos, G. Tomkins, S. Mercer (© John Lauener)

Queen of Puddings Music Theatre was founded in 1995 by the husband and wife team of John Hess and Dairine Ni Mheadhra with the aim of commissioning and performing new small-scale operas. Their most widely-performed work, and one which was also broadcast, was Beatrice Chancy (1999), composed by James Rolfe, based on the lurid tale of Beatrice Cenci, but transferred to colonial Nova Scotia. It helped launch the career of Measha Bruggergosman.

InÍs is their second commission for James Rolfe and in this case the librettist is Paul Bentley, whose most noted work to date is probably the libretto for Poul Rudersís The Handmaidís Tale. Like Beatrice Chancy, InÍs is also a treatment of an pre-existing tale, that of the doomed love of Prince Pedro of Portugal for InÍs de Castro, lady-in-waiting to his wife. His father had InÍs murdered and some time later, when Pedro became king, the legend is that he declared InÍs queen and had her corpse placed on the throne. This irresistible tale has received a multitude of dramatic treatments over the centuries. In this case, the action is brought into Torontoís Portuguese immigrant community in the late 1960s where one Pedro Carmona falls in love with a fado singer fatally named....InÍs.

Just like the 14th-century prince, Pedro is married to a woman named Constanza. They have quite the back story which links them with issues of the day: Pedro was a surgeon in colonial Angola and as a matter of conscience has fled to Canada where he has taken a job in construction while he works toward getting Canadian accreditation. He also (and this is crucial) has a part-time menial job in the city morgue. Constanza is unhappy with both their reduced circumstances and wintery Toronto. When Pedro and InÍs meet, they quickly make note of the coincidence of their names and those in the gruesome legend and seem to sleepwalk toward the same fate. InÍs becomes pregnant, Constanza discovers their liaison and Pedro moves in with InÍs. His distraught parents (his father is a general and supporter of the Salazar regime) arrive from Portugal. After a confrontation his mother kills InÍs with her husbandís gun. Pedro discovers her body in the morgue. He summons his wife and parents to a church where they are confronted with InÍsís corpse and Pedro compels them to drink her blood. He then shoots himself; the dead InÍs sings a farewell song.

This is quite the story to pack into 80 minutes and it almost works. The action moves along at a decent clip until the murder of InÍs. Pedroís reaction to discovering her body is so brief and muted as to barely register. The final scene in which he compels his wife and parents to participate in a bizarre inversion of the mass simply does not have the musical or dramatic impact it needs. The blood is served in ordinary wine glasses and the performers look like a group of solemn people at a wine-tasting. Composer Rolfe is obviously trying to distance himself from the dear old verismo traditions as exemplified by Cavalleria Rusticana (and well he should), but the denouement of InÍs ought to be downright creepy and it just isnít. The final ten or 15 minutes of the piece need more work and perhaps a bit more time to make the effect the creators want.

The singers are accompanied by an instrumental ensemble of just five members. The number might seem meagre, but the music fills the 300-seat space more then adequately. Effective atmospheric music comes notably from the guitarist and double bassist. Unfortunately many of soprano Shannon Mercerís lines are closely doubled by the clarinet; the result is not support for the words but interference with them.

The strongest performer is bass-baritone Giles Tomkins who has a solid, rich voice and clear diction. Shannon Mercer makes the best of her unsympathetic character, and Elizabeth Turnbull and Thomas Goerz make strong impressions in their brief roles as the avenging parents. The title role is performed by InÍs Santos, a young fado singer from Portugal. Her vocal technique is microphone-dependent and thus her voice is discreetly amplified. This works better than any other experiences I have had when amplified and acoustic voices were combined in performance, but her delivery of spoken lines is still weak.

The small playing area is divided into no fewer than five separate locales, such as Pedro and Constanzaís spartan apartment with its chrome dinette set, and the fado club where Pedro and InÍs meet. The advantages of this outweigh the disadvantages. The different scenes flow smoothly, and deft lighting adds much to the overall striking look of the production. At times one wishes the performers had more room to express the storyís big emotions. The subject is probably too robust for a chamber opera treatment.

There is much to recommend in Rolfeís music, notwithstanding reservations mentioned above. He has composed some fado-like pieces for the character InÍs; she has the warm, sensuous voice for the music (just as one would expect) and itís a pity her songs donít seem to have the melodic profile of ďtrueĒ fado. (Repeated hearing of the pieces Rolfe has composed for her might change my impression; fado has its subtleties.)

The work is performed in a mix of both English and Portuguese and Iím not sure if language has been fully worked out. The fado pieces are sung in Portuguese (with English surtitles), but most of the rest of the work is in English. Given the charactersí background, the entire work could logically be performed in Portuguese.

In 2006 James Rolfe (with librettist Anna Chatterton) created Swoon for the Canadian Opera Companyís Ensemble Studio. It is a 40-minute domestic comedy and, based on its success, he and Chatterton have been commissioned to create a main stage work for the COC in 2012. The 80-minute seriously dramatic InÍs might eventually be seen as a valuable stepping-stone towards more definitive work.

Michael Johnson



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