On Feb. 4th, Voicebox (Opera in Concert) performed the Canadian premiere of Saverio Mercadante's opera I due Figaro at a disappointingly under-full Jane Mallett Theatre. As a big fan of the neglected Italian bel canto composer and predecessor to Giuseppe Verdi, I can't deny my bias. However, upon hearing the exclamations of surprise from several audience members during intermission regarding the amount of variation, comedy, and ingenuity in I due Figaro's score--not to mention the fabulous singers--I have never been so certain that Mercadante's operas deserve to be added to the operatic canon.
Composed in 1826, I due Figaro imaginatively continues Pierre Beaumarchais' tales of Figaro where Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro (1786) leaves off. We now encounter Cherubino, still sung by a mezzo-soprano, fully- grown and vying for the hand of the Count and Countess Almaviva's daughter, Ines. Unlike Nozze which centres on class conflict, I due Figaro is about the battle of the sexes.
Mercadante cleverly lays this out in one of the opera's many imaginative ensembles: a trio for three female voices--Susanna, the Countess, and Inez. The ingenuity does not end there. Whereas most composers would compose rigid ensembles, Mercadante's concerted numbers develop organically, allowing the drama to unfold and naturally progress from trio to quartet and then sextet as the farce becomes more complex.
Like other bel canto operas of this period, Mercadante's music demands virtuosity, endurance, and power which the performers were more than able to provide. As Cherubino, Maijorie Maltais showed off the entirety of her expansive range while singing Mercadante's florid runs and adding her own ornamentation. She boasts a warm chest register and a clear top. For me, the stand out performance came from soprano Holly Chaplin who charmingly portrayed the devious Susanna, adding several well-placed octaves which showed off her clear, almost bell-like, top register.
Tonatiuh Abrego sang the Count with an intriguingly full tenor voice. Although his coloratura was somewhat unarticulated and at times lagged behind the tempo, it was clear and resonant. As Figaro, Nicholas Borg showed off his ample baritone voice, but when it came to his fast-moving patter and coloratura his singing lacked accuracy. Nonetheless, Borg was an engaging visual and vocal actor.
The Countess was sung by Beste Kalender, who was presented with the 2018 Stuart Hamilton Memorial Fund for Emerging Artists Award at the end of the evening. Her performance demonstrated intelligent singing and lovely coloratura, with only occasional lack of polish at the extremes of her registers. As Inez, liana Zarankin, gave one of the weaker performances. Although she has a lovely timbre, the tension in her singing caused difficulty in her upper range. Plagio, the playwright, was well-sung by Stuart Graham, as was Torribio, a comprimario role performed by Edward Larocque.
The chorus, directed by Robert Cooper, gave a thoroughly engaging performance. My hat goes off to Music Director and pianist Narmina Afandiyeva who led the performance from the piano. She accompanied the singers with period style, setting up brisk tempos while still leaving room for expansion within them.Voicebox General Director Guillermo Silva-Marin's lighting and staging brought astonishing clarity to I due Figaro's confusing plot using a minimalist aesthetic.--Matthew Timmermans
Transferring a work from one creative medium to another is never an easy task; there are invariable comparisons that will unfold between the original and its translation. Such questions tend to revolve around the newer work's faithfulness to its source material and if the adaptation captures its themes and overall spirit. However, it's equally vital to consider what new insights the adaptation might have to offer, and whether it fully explored the potential of the translated medium to express what the original, perhaps, could not. Using all the resources of a different medium may provide a unique perspective not only on the work itself but on the times in which it was created, the themes it seeks to explore, the journey it sets out to tell.
Voicebox: Opera In Concerts The Ecstasy of Rita Joe (seen Mar. 24) missed these opportunities in many senses because its score hewed too closely to George Ryga's original play without exploring or fully exploiting its new medium. The issues within Ryga's seminal 1967 Canadian theatre work, about an Indigenous woman who leaves reservation life only to encounter tragedy in the city, are as pertinent (nay, urgent) now as they were then--arguably moreso, with the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission a decade ago, and with Indigenous issues having a far greater role in public consciousness now than at the time of Ryga's original presentation. While some of the language of the play has been retained in the opera (though characters' reactions to the word "Indian" notably reflect more contemporary attitudes), there's an over-abundance of dialogue, as if composer Victor Davies didn't quite trust his chosen medium enough to deliver the deep expressivity that the material and its array of fascinating characters demand. Davies has taken Ryga's expressionist work, which shifts in time and place with regularity, and reworked it into a narrative of sorts; the intention is good, but the execution failed to have the needed emotional impact, despite some wonderful performances.
Bass-baritone Everett Morrison, as Rita's father, was an especially captivating stage presence, as was Rose-Ellen Nichols, as an Old Native Woman. The opera's talented cast were limited, however, in what they were able to achieve creatively. Daviess Sondheim-esque score relies too heavily on exposition (read: lots and lots of talking), and while the five-member orchestra (led by Conductor/Choral Director Robert Cooper) created a lovely web of sound, they were too often shoved into the background by an onerous reliance on recited dialogue. A dramaturg would be of great use to Hie Ecstasy of Rita Joe the opera, not only to shorten and collate scenes but to add a more fulsome sense of characterization and narrative development, features the music, alas, is lacking; its presentation on opening night seemed like more of a workshop than a finished piece.
The work did, however, have special moments, particularly in its pretty choral writing, performed with aplomb by the youthful Opera In Concert chorus, and, notably, a powerful lead performance by mezzo-soprano Marion Newman; her pungent tonality and expressive, flexible midrange brought a lovely, human quality to the material. George Ryga's influential play may have to wait a bit longer for a satisfying operatic form, but clearly, its talented ensemble of performers are ready.--Catherine Kustanczy
Caption: Rose-Ellen Nichols (Old Native Woman) and Michelle Latterty (Eileen) in Voicebox's The Ecstaacy of Rita Joe