Florence: The Lady with The Lamp

Opera in Concert resumed live performance Sunday afternoon with their first of Three Extraordinary Women, namely Florence: the Lady with the Lamp, composed by Timothy Sullivan and with libretto by Anne Mcpherson, an interesting balance between the contemporary and the historical.

It’s contemporary in its echoes of the horrors in the news, what with a war in Crimea and the challenges in the profession of nursing, while giving us some historical background about the figure of Florence Nightingale. There’s also Opera in Concert’s own history, who selected Florence as their first Canadian work ever to be presented.

Florence premiered at the Elora Festival in 1992, which makes a lot of sense when you listen to Sullivan’s score. Elora is practically synonymous with choral singing. Maybe Sullivan’s original commission stipulated that he needed to make good use of the Elora Singers. Or at the very least he realized he was in the right place to create a challenging piece. I’m just speculating. But as you can tell the opera’s score foregrounds choral music. The two most dramatic parts of the work remind me a bit of West Side Story for their dramatic tension, syncopated orchestration and subtle use of choral colours. Sullivan earned his fee with his wonderful ensembles.

The remainder of the opera also contains some beautiful music, although it’s rarely as dramatic. We watch a group of nurses sadly singing of the war, even though (if I didn’t mess up in my comprehension of the text they sang) they haven’t yet arrived. Moments thereafter comes their brilliant encounter with male personnel who disrespect them & their profession while insisting that they don’t belong there: leading to one of Sullivan’s wonderful choral scenes I alluded to. I loved that scene, but wonder: wouldn’t it have been even better if these would-be nurses were idealists, singing happily the moment before? Musically and dramatically it needs some contrast, not so much unrelenting sadness. I’m recalling the foolish optimism we see from the boys going to war at the beginning of All Quiet on the Western Front. And while we’re speaking of mood, why does the announcement that the Crimean War is over seem to elicit such a blasé sadness? Surely there should be cheers or drunken revelry, especially if they have been miserable. Okay maybe I’m too susceptible to cliché ideas of war and soldiers. Sullivan offered us some lovely melodies, especially from the sad soldiers singing offstage (a lovely chorus again).

Full marks to Conductor Sandra Horst and Chorus Director Robert Cooper for their sparkling work. Horst led an eight-member orchestra who never overpowered the singers but usually gave us plenty of colour.

Lauren Pearl was our Florence, a role taking her to the edges of her range, even if the character seems more saintly than human, a likeable person who is maybe too good to be true. Danlie Rae Acebuque had an appropriately abstract way of singing as the missionary John Smithurst, aided by Guillermo Silva-Marin’s staging, making him seem almost like a spiritual personage remote from real life, situated far outside the story, or at his pulpit. Whenever he appeared, the story seemed to come back to its roots. Ryan Downey’s provocative appearance in the 2nd Act was like a shot of adrenaline for everyone in the show, between his lovely voice and his fearless manner onstage.

Opera in Concert’s season of three operas (compressed into a shorter period than usual due to the pandemic) features “3 extraordinary women”. They continue with Samuel Barber’s Vanessa April 10th followed by Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of us All May 22nd.

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