This afternoon I saw the closing matinee of EARNEST, The Importance of Being, presented by Summer Opera Lyric Theatre and Research Centre (aka SOLT), at the Robert Gill Theatre. It’s an operetta based on Oscar Wilde’s play with music by Victor Davies and libretto from Eugene Benson, directed by SOLT General Director Guillermo Silva-Marin.
It’s my second look at the adaptation I previously reviewed in a presentation by Toronto Operetta Theatre back in 2015 (and premiered in 2008), when I think I misread the work in my first look at it. Today I had the chance to chat with the composer during intermission.
Davies & Benson faced an interesting set of options in taking up one of the greatest comedies in English. How are we to understand genre, or more to the point, what were their aims in their adaptation? I mistakenly called the piece a musical (the implications of that headline from back in 2015) , wishing I could see it in the hands of a cast such as the outstanding students at a school such as Ryerson. But in places the women’s parts, especially the vocal challenges of Cecily, are simply beyond what you’d usually expect from a player in the realm of musical. Oh sure, graduates are now what we’d call “triple threats”, with capabilities as actors, singers & dancers. But when you drill down on that you discover that the vocal capabilities are for a pretty voice but not necessarily the extreme skillset required of Cecily, whose part ascends to the stratosphere many times. So in other words I was wrong.
This is an operetta: because Benson & Davies were mindful of the context for Wilde’s play. One can’t help thinking of Gilbert & Sullivan while listening to this score, and not just because G & S are roughly contemporary with Wilde. It’s a tuneful adaptation but perhaps more important, it’s deliberate. There are several places where a small pretense in the text turns into an aria or an ensemble expanding upon that little gem. A 21st century musical would never be so deliberate, as the commercial imperative would push the piece to move quicker, and in so doing, to feel less authentic. Cecily & Gwendolyn are positively Victorian in their manners, adorably detailed creations. If Davies & Benson were not quite as successful in capturing that magical essence in the men, it’s only because they get blown off the stage by these remarkable women: not just the young ones but also Miss Prism & Lady Bracknell as well.
So in other words the four female cast members today were exemplary. You couldn’t take your eyes off of Karen Bojti’s Lady Bracknell whose every movement generated hilarity with a voice & a presence that was truly larger than life. Katelyn Bird (Cecily) seems aptly named for her brilliant coloratura & precise intonation, while Anika-France Forget (Gwendolyn) was an effective contrast, every bit as playful & vocally impressive. Stephanie O’Leary has her moments too as Miss Prism, especially in her big scene near the end of the piece
Perhaps most important, the operetta is quite a funny piece of work that had me laughing out loud throughout. The adaptation doesn’t lose the wit of the original, and director Silva-Marin gave his cast lots of great business to illuminate the text. Whatever the abilities of this cast — and they range from beginner to expert –Silva-Marin ensures that they all look good even when we can see that the performer is just learning how to act: so that the illusion is compelling & absorbing. We get a great piece of theatre.
SOLT are a force training young singing talent for the world of opera. I put that headline on there, playing with the operetta’s title as I contemplate the future for Guillermo Silva-Marin. My mind is thinking of succession planning for at least a couple of reasons:
- Because it’s something we’re looking at within my own organization
- Because Alexander Neef is now known to be leaving the Canadian Opera Company, and speculation has begun as to his successor with the COC
- Because in the lobby there was a mysterious lobby display with balloons mentioning retirement. I was asked about it, and I don’t think it’s for Guillermo (as far as I know) but rather from the Centre for Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies, –the home department at University of Toronto in the Robert Gill Theatre– and who hosted a retirement reception for a professor back in May.
That’s my best guess.
I was looking at his many accomplishments on Guillermo’s website, including
- founder of Toronto Operetta Theatre in 1985 (34 years ago)
- founder of Summer Opera Lyric Theatre in 1986 (33 year ago)
- And General Director of Opera in Concert since 1994 (25 years ago)
If he were to decide he’s had enough and walked away from his tripartite career who would take over at the helm of his many important activities? SOLT? Opera in Concert? Toronto Operetta Theatre? I don’t have any answer, and indeed I hope I don’t seem impertinent for mentioning this. But SOLT (like TOT & Opera in Concert) is an important organization. We need for all three to continue.
I am tempted to sing the blessing from Turandot that’s addressed to the Emperor. God bless Guillermo.