The Lion Heart: a first look

I watched the live-stream of The Lion Heart, the premiere of a new opera from Corey Arnold (composer & conductor) and Kyle McDonald (librettist and singer of the lead role).

Or at least part of it. Alas connection issues prevented me from seeing Act I and part of Act II, missing the first 40 minutes. I think I saw more than half of the work, which ended at 9:40 pm, after beginning at 7:30 (or so I assume).

First off, let me mention some important subtext for me and hopefully for you. Any first opera should be permitted to fail, to contain bad choices, from which the composer and librettist learn and grow. Verdi and Wagner each wrote several operas before they had any real success. What we witnessed was a first opera, and as such it was quite good.

I try never to judge, I seek to understand, but please note that I had no program, no synopsis and no titles for an opera sung in English that was often unintelligible due to the reverberant space at College St United Church, especially when two or more were singing at once. I wonder if this is what all the virtual customers face in which case I’d say they need to fix that. I had a comp ticket, facing the additional puzzle of coming into the show half-way through.

Yes that’s a humongous preamble. Even so there’s lots one can say.

I believe it’s more or less the same story as that of Richard Coeur de Lion by Gretry (courtesy of opera-arias.com):

On his way home from the Third Crusade, King Richard has been imprisoned by Leopold, Archduke of Austria. The king’s faithful squire Blondel seeks him out disguised as a blind troubadour. He arrives in Linz where he meets the English exile Sir Williams and his daughter Laurette, who tell him of an unknown prisoner in the nearby castle. Laurette is in love with the prison governor, Florestan. Countess Marguerite, who is in love with King Richard, arrives and offers Blondel her help. Blondel goes to the castle where he sings the song Une fièvre brûlante (“A burning fever”). Richard recognises the music and tries to communicate with Blondel, who is seized by the guards. But he is freed when he tells Florestan of an assignation Laurette wants with him the following night. Blondel reveals the truth to Williams and the countess and they plan to free the king. Marguerite holds a party, during which Florestan, who had come to meet Laurette, is held captive. The countess’s troops besiege the castle and rescue Richard.

I’m one of the few people around here with some experience of that opera, produced long ago in Europe, for which I had the fun of playing through the score as my brother learned the role of Richard. And I think Opera Atelier spoke of doing it somewhere in Europe, although I don’t know if that ever came to fruition. Otherwise it’s rarely mentioned although it deserves to be better known, one of the earliest of the genre known as “rescue opera”.

For the new opera The Lion Heart the characters are partly the same. We again have Leopold and Blondel and Richard. Once again we have Leopold imprisoning Richard while he was presumably on a crusade (I suspect that’s something we hear about in the first act). The ending seems to be a successful rescue, although not as triumphant as I would have wished. Perhaps that’s something to be enlarged in a future revision, with additional choral & orchestral firepower in support.

And once again we have an opera where almost everyone is male. I mention that because we have seen some young companies started in the Toronto area who seemed to have the gender question as part of their raison d’etre, producing new operas that might offer women roles, when they are otherwise starving for opportunity.

We heard a fourteen-piece orchestra led by the composer. It’s a melodic score, diatonic for the most part, with ventures into chromatic harmonies and occasional dissonance. Arnold was successful at generating suspense in the scene where Richard earns his nickname, battling a lion. For my money that’s one of the greatest things you can have in an opera, namely music that paints a picture and sets a mood.

I didn’t notice anything like an aria or a conventional operatic set piece, as the arioso (singing with orchestra in other words) was more or less continuous, the singers zipping through the text at a faster rate than what one usually sees in opera. That’s a mixed blessing. It’s good because the story is advanced, but problematic if singers don’t enunciate. Titles (which can be a lot of work and/or expense) would be ideal. It may be that the production team didn’t realize how this was going to sound in the performance venue, which is likely more reverberant than their rehearsal spaces.

The presentation was semi-staged, the singers attired as for a concert performance.

There are times when the orchestration shows subtlety, as for instance in a lovely cello solo during one of Richard’s solos in Act III. I found the libretto a bit verbose at times. As the characters stand there in the semi-staged version it makes sense that they tell us so much, but ideally we’d have action as in cinema. Verdi’s Otello is an ideal macho creation through his terseness, a man of few words; I wish Richard were more like that, especially when he is alone. Without subtitles I’d wish the text were delivered slower, to enable me to hear every syllable clearly, which wasn’t possible tonight.

There were some scenes that were better than others, possibly as a reflection of the composer’s commitment & inspiration. The scene in the last act between Richard and Mirella (sung by Nicole Dubinsky) was very sensitively scored, the orchestra very unobtrusive, the vocal lines soaring easily and intelligibly. The scene between Richard and the Captain of the Guard (Andrew Tees) was a great pleasure; for all the testosterone in the scene, the singing was beautiful and sensitive.

The scenes including Blondel (Tonatiuh Abrego) and the sadistic Leopold (passionately delivered by Andrew Derynck) called for lots of high notes, splendidly sung. Speaking as a tenor, I wonder if composer Arnold –himself a splendid tenor—might reconsider the demands he makes on these two, in the interest of getting the work produced. You shoot yourself in the foot if you make the piece so difficult to sing that no company dares to undertake it. Rossini’s William Tell, for instance, features so much spectacular singing that the work is almost impossible to produce, because of the challenge in finding enough talent. I don’t mind the music, but am speaking now about the challenges the composer imposes upon the company who would produce the work.

I don’t dare say much more, indeed maybe i’ve already over-stepped, as I didn’t properly see the work. Watching from home, and missing the first half, working without a synopsis or program, I’m hardly in a position to say anything. Had I been able to attend I might have a different perspective, and might have heard the text more clearly.

I did see that the work was well-received. I have a screen capture of the applause, wishing my own bravo could be added for all cast, crew and especially the creators.

Librettist & star Kyle McDonald takes his bow at the end.

But I do look forward to more from Kyle and Corey, two young creators who have just begun. Of course if you look at their website you can see that they’ve got lots of irons in the fire, projects upcoming. They’ll be back soon.

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2 Responses to The Lion Heart: a first look

  1. OA did the Grétry at the Royal Theatre, Versailles

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