Rare as it may be to encounter a full evening of opera from Canadian composers, that’s what Summer Opera Lyric Theatre offered tonight in their season opener. The Robert Gill Theatre was packed with a receptive crowd for a double bill of John Beckwith’s Night Blooming Cereus paired with the world premiere of Michael Rose’s A Northern Lights Dream.
SOLT is a summer training program for singers that is one of the usual stepping stones for young talent seeking to establish themselves. While they’re also presenting Carmen and The Marriage of Figaro, there are special challenges & opportunities in doing new works. Instead of well-known arias & ensembles, the cast for these two works had the chance to make something entirely their own.
We began with the Beckwith, a work with a libretto by James Reaney that premiered in 1959. Although we may call it “modern” the town and its mores are quaint and anachronistic compared to what we see nowadays in the media. The characters are quirky without being evil or neurotic, which is another way of saying that they seem very Canadian in their innocuousness. The language is poetic, stylized perhaps to make this seem artificial or even to invoke something magical & ritualistic. Reaney’s language is ostentatious, and at times feels pretentious. Beckwith’s score –in a piano version played with exquisite clarity by music director Suzy Smith – manages the libretto’s transition from frustrated longing towards the possibility of happiness & fulfillment, a rhapsodic conclusion of great beauty.
After the interval came Michael Rose’s work for which he created the libretto as well as the score. It’s in a style that includes dialogue and numbers with full stops at the end, inviting applause: which was enthusiastic throughout. Rose’s libretto has lots of intertextual connections to the play with the similar title (not A Midsummer Night’s Dream but A Northern Lights Dream). Helen is married to Demetrius (just as Helena chased Demetrius), Robin is the same Robin Goodfellow, aka Puck, albeit 400 years later. It’s not Nick Bottom the weaver who wears the ass’s head, but Nick who works in the donut shop, wearing an ass’s head to attract customers. And Mrs Duke suggests nobility as well.
In keeping with the allusions to the older play, Rose follows the same pattern as Mendelssohn, who you may recall for his choice to underline the social strata of the play with his musical choices, between the Faeries, the nobility of Athens, and the rude mechanicals. The faerie Ladies sing to music that is more classical sounding, sometimes employing canonic imitation. We also hear music in a more bluesy vein, even if the singing is sometimes quite challenging. The resulting work is somewhere in the middle ground between opera and music theatre. I think the genre question is not important, recalling that opera singer Michael Burgess made a great success as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. The young singers of SOLT could do very well in the realm of music theatre.
I do think that Michael Rose made the work shorter than it needs to be. There is a great deal in this story that I wondered about at the end, as I pondered: could this work be lengthened, could it be a full evening rather than sharing the stage? Only the composer knows for sure, but I think there’s more there, more that he could add. But it needs to be said that Rose has a gift for dialogue and pleasing melodies. I laughed loudly and often.
SOLT rotate Carmen, The Marriage of Figaro and this all-Canadian double-bill at the Robert Gill Theatre until August 6th .