For a number of reasons, mainly economic, the chances of hearing Canadian works these days are highest in the programs of smaller companies, which, in Toronto, now includes Opera in Concert. Its second offering this season was a double bill of Charles Wilson's The Summoning of Everyman, which premiered in Halifax in 1972, and Timothy Sullivan's Dream Play, one of the first products (1988) of the Canadian Opera Company's composer-in-residence program. Though musically disparate, the two works are connected thematically as operatic takes on human nature and the human condition. Wilson's piece is a setting of librettist Eugene Benson's adaptation of the medieval Everyman morality play; Sullivan did his own adaptation of the Strindberg play about a goddess who descends to earth and comes face to face with all manner of human frailties. Presented in concert, this double bill had the benefit of the musical direction of composer and contemporary-music specialist Alex Pauk, who led an accomplished cast of young singers and members of his own Esprit Orchestra.
The COC's composer-in-residence program was launched to give experience in writing for theatre, and, frankly, Dream Play sounds like an apprentice work. It's a lugubrious piece, though that's largely because it focuses on human longing, suffering and unfulfilled dreams. It's vaguely optimistic in its bottom line--life is difficult, but love conquers all--but getting to this conclusion is rather heavy going, even in a sparely scored piece. It struck me that this was more oratorio than opera, though either way, the vocal writing seems in the end unsympathetic for singers and audience alike. The work is rhythmically rather than melodically driven, and while the soundscape is certainly accessible, it's very cool. Sullivan reserves his most lyrical vocal writing for the goddess Agnes's compassionate farewell to earth, which makes for a musical conclusion. But I fear the inspiration here, although not too little, is rather too late to save the whole. Soprano Rachel Cleland-Ainsworth made a committed attempt to realize the highlying role of Agnes, while bass-baritone Thomas Fleming, mezzo Lynne McMurtry, tenor Marcel van Neer, baritone Bryan Estabrooks and soprano Catherine Affleck, who each presented multiple facets of suffering humanity, gave the piece as strong a performance as it's likely to get.
These singers were frankly heard to much better operatic and vocal effect in The Summoning of Everyman, which, from its opening bells and a capella, scene-setting introduction, proved the more dramatic piece. To propel Everyman (van Neer) on his journey to meet his maker and account for himself, Wilson has fashioned a musically varied score in which the orchestral portion, for a dozen instrumentalists, serves very effectively as a commentary on the action and the vocal lines. Benson's taut libretto is also calculated to create tensions between the various characters, and there is clearly more than enough in it dramatically to support a fully staged production (paired, though, with something like Viktor Ullmann's Der Kaiser von Atlantis). The singers seemed more relaxed with Wilson's idiom, and, in addition to those from Dream Play, included baritones Calvin Powell, Trevor Bowes and Matthew Zadow, and tenor Jose Hernandez, who, standing in at short notice for an indisposed singer, did a particularly effective job of making Death come alive. Pauk conducted intently, as he did for Dream Play, and the Esprit musicians played with great precision and finesse.