Essential Opera is a relative newcomer to the Toronto scene. I watched their presentation of Massenet’s Chérubin tonight, a logical sequel considering that their debut earlier in 2011 (that I missed by the way) was Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.
Massenet’s piece is a light-hearted romp, devoid of any of the socio-political tensions that gave the Beaumarchais play such an edge in its day, and still gives da Ponte’s libretto so much relevance. Only Chérubin survives in this sequel by Francis de Croisset, as a seventeen year old officer, just as we’d expect from what we’d heard in Beaumarchais’ play and Mozart’s opera.
While there might be a Duke, a Count and a Baron, they are not differentiated in any way to suggest that, for example, this might perhaps be the Count Almaviva from the earlier plays. Instead they are more like a royal version of the Keystone Kops: which isn’t so different from the modern royals, come to think of it. There’s also a Countess and Baroness for the young soldier to pursue, although most of the time the women pursue the soldier this time. Amatory adventures, and the accompanying threat of duels are the chief action of this opera. Just as in Mozart’s adaptation via Da Ponte, the role of Chérubin (Cherubino in the Italian opera) is sung by a mezzo-soprano. While Massenet sometimes offers a hint of rococo, he writes for a romantic orchestra, ably impersonated for Essential Opera by pianist David Eliakis.
This work represents an ambitious choice of repertoire. Clearly Essential Opera were not afraid of the challenges when they chose a comparatively unknown work that requires several strong voices with a strong command of French both in singing and several declamatory moments.
The audience embraced their efforts. The comedy was not lost on us, often quite elaborately staged even in the concert context. The work began somewhat tentatively, but came to life with the arrival of L’Ensoleillad, the seductive dancer who is both the King’s favourite and Chérubin’s dream woman. Soprano Erin Bardua’s delightful coloratura and confident command of the stage silenced a restless audience, while helping to settle everyone else on stage. Bardua’s arrival improved everyone else, as the company gained energy and confidence the rest of the way.
Mezzo-soprano Margaret Bárdos as the trousered young soldier displayed a wonderful gift for comedy, both in her ironic expressions, her delivery and her delightful impersonation of a young man. As Nina, Chérubin’s true love (for now), Maureen Batt was the other outstanding vocal portrayal, treading a fine line between pathos and comedy, particularly when she seemed bound for a convent in the last act.
Hm, come to think of it, the two most impressive voices in the production happen to be the co-artistic directors, none other than Bardua and Batt. Good thing they had the good sense to employ such wonderful voices.
The other star –and he was the backbone of the performance—was Eliakis at the piano. Sometimes concert performances sound more like lieder, in the careful pianism one gets, but not this time. Eliakis was fearless, often challenging the voices to sing out with his passionate playing, yet without losing accuracy.
Essential Opera will be back in May 2012 with Handel’s Alcina, this time accompanied by chamber orchestra. I can’t wait!