A singing teacher I know tells me that he always gives a speech to his students early on. It’s about the math, the reality of having a career in opera, when there are so many people studying, so few actual jobs.
This is some of the subtext for Opera By Request, William Shookhoff’s Toronto-based project to give the surplus talent opportunities to be heard singing operas in concert with piano. Bill is a wonderful pianist who has already produced fifty operas in five short years, responding to those requests from singers.
Tonight was a kind of fifth anniversary / fiftieth opera celebration, a sparkling reading of Verdi’s Don Carlos. Although Shookhoff has on occasion brought in choral collaborators, on this occasion Verdi’s grandeur was mostly supplied by Shookhoff’s piano, the soloists and our imaginations. Opera By Request’s usual venue of College St United Church felt appropriate considering the religious context for the story, a political struggle in the time of the Spanish Inquisition. It’s not the first time this opera made me breath a sign of relief to be in a predominantly Protestant country with a clear separation between church and state.
Working without chorus I found myself thinking that maybe the quest for textual authenticity that governs operatic fashion worldwide might be a tad misguided in making the Five-Act version (heard tonight) the norm. Minus the chorus which is at best a divertissement in the first scene (aka filler), not an essential piece of action, we watch Carlos the Infante approach Elisabetta, declare his love, and then literally moments later discover that she must marry his father (King Philip II) instead. A relationship that was never consummated and has lasted perhaps 5 minutes isn’t much upon which to build an entire opera. So in other words, maybe the tradition of the four act version that begins with Carlos telling us of his heart-break is the better idea, at least dramaturgically. Sometimes (this time!) the earlier version of a work that is discarded or changed, is left behind for good reasons.
That being said, we heard some wonderful singing tonight from one of the strongest casts Shookhoff has ever assembled, in an opera full of great solos & ensembles.
Paul Williamson was a wonderful Carlos, singing with no sign of fatigue whatsoever in such a huge taxing role. Always Italianate, with a gorgeously shaped line and wonderful musicianship, I hope to have the opportunity to hear him again.
Michelle Minke’s Elisabetta was every bit as musical, her voice often luscious sounding, and at times breath-taking in its beauty.
Monica Zerbe’s Princess Eboli was a great crowd-pleaser in her two big scenes, both vocally & dramatically. Steven Henrikson’s Rodrigo was splendidly sung throughout, including a heart-rending death scene.
The climactic scene between the Robert Milne’s King Philip II & Larry Tozer’s Grand Inquisitor, and their two powerful bass voices, was one of the highlights of the evening.
I didn’t miss the orchestra, as Shookhoff led a wonderfully tight performance.
Opera By Request return April 20th with Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro, and Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress May 5th. Before you know it, they’ll reach 100.