2013 is not even one quarter gone yet already I’m sure we’ve seen the cleverest title to promote a pair of one-act operas (partly because they don’t exactly grow on trees). Essential Opera’s program is called Two Weddings and a Funeral.
I suppose I am aware of the cleverness of the promotion because suddenly Toronto’s opera market is getting competitive. Ten years ago? We had two opera companies, plus the regional wannabes in the suburbs.
And now? There are so many companies I can honestly say I can’t remember them all even with google’s help. I saw a singer from one of those companies turning pages for the piano player tonight, while another singer I’ve reviewed with yet another company sang capably tonight, for Essential Opera. I bring this up because of the lovely collegiality on display. These companies aren’t fighting, but happily supporting one another. If it’s not a love-in they’ve completely got me fooled. Everyone is Facebook friends with each other, coming out in support of the operas being presented by the other companies. And in the process the standards keep improving.
Major laughs. I found a great deal more humour in Essential Opera’s Gianni Schicchi than in the recent –modernized—production from the COC. There are of course always trade-offs in theatre & opera. In a big house with an orchestra you get big effects, but details get blown away by all that sound. The COC’s Schicchi was played by the Wagnerian Alan Held –recently Kurwenal in Tristan und Isolde—easily commanding the stage and the powerful orchestra when necessary. When he throws the greedy relatives out his voice has the authority to make it happen.
But those twenty seconds are the only time the unsubtle and blustering Held might be preferable over the subtleties of Essential Opera’s lyric baritone James Levesque. Tonight’s portrayal –which I saw up close in the wonderful intimacy of the Heliconian Hall—had wonderful nuances. The family was fully fleshed out, from the strident Zita of Catherin Carew to the squeaky doctor of Keith Lam. Levesque gave us a stylish schemer of a Schicchi, including a fun turn as Buoso Donati. Ryan Allen and Maureen Batt were a believable pair of young lovers, Batt delivering an understated reading of the famous aria “Oh mio babbino caro”.
The backbone of both operas was pianist & music director Michael Rose, who matched the style of each composer. I heard a concert Schicchi a year or so ago, played correctly but without such a strong sense of style or so much drama. Rose gave us a very Wagnerian reading, holding the huge ensembles together, while playing Puccini’s bold textures fearlessly, always adding to the comic tension .
Beginning the program, Rose showed us a different personality in the bubbly score of Donizetti’s Il campanello. Again, the ensemble work was rock solid, perfectly tight and with a delicacy that was a complete contrast to what we heard in the Puccini.
While I had expected to laugh during Schicchi I laughed much more at the Donizetti, a work that’s brand new to me. Levesque made a solid contribution to this opera as well, this time as the straight man. The comic star of the evening was Fabián Arciniegas, a most impressive performance on several fronts. He started out seeming to be a parody of a romantic tenor, mugging shamelessly while singing with great intensity, but Arciniegas was just getting started. We saw him in disguises, taking on different voices, and never ceasing to be hysterically funny, while offering the clearest articulation of his Italian text. At times he could have been giving a master class on how to use your voice in opera buffa.
As I said, the bar keeps getting raised higher. Essential Opera gave us great music and side-splitting comedy. I wonder what they’ll do next time.