Last night saw the first of two workshop performances of Act 2 of The Enslavement and Liberation of Oksana G., a new full scale opera with music by Aaron Gervais and libretto by Colleen Murphy. Act 1 was similarly workshopped last year. It’s being produced by Tapestry New Opera in the Ernest Balmer Studio at The Distillery. The second performance is tonight.
The piece is about sex trafficking. Oksana is a Ukrainian girl tricked, raped and forced into an Italian brothel controlled by Russian organized crime. At the beginning of Act 2 she has escaped and is living at a refugee shelter run by a Canadian priest in Brindisi. The story concerns her relationship with the priest, her desire to return to her family and her pimp’s determination to get his hands on her again. It’s dramatic, emotionally charged and ends badly. It’s neither overly melodramatic nor crushingly intellectual and it works very well as an opera libretto. Somewhat oddly it’s written in four languages; English, Italian, Russian and Ukrainian, apparently for essentially “naturalistic” reasons. I think the logic is off but it didn’t reduce my enjoyment of the piece.
It’s harder to judge the music in a workshop setting where the “orchestra” is a piano and electronic keyboards off to the side but I’d say it was very promising. It’s basically “modern tonal” with elements of minimalism and it’s pretty easy to listen to without being schmaltzy or descending into pseudo-Broadway. I think, once fully orchestrated it will be quite powerful. The piece uses a big cast; ten soloists in Act 2 plus there must be at at least one other character who only appears in Act 1. There’s no chorus, at least for now, and it’s through sung with not much that one might call arias; closer to Birtwistle than Britten in that regard.
The performances did the work full justice, The bulk of the singing in this act falls to Oksana, very well sung by soprano Claire de Sevigny, and Father Alexander, sung by the increasingly impressive tenor Chris Enns. Eighteen months ago I wondered whether he had the vocal power to sing on a big stage. After Semele and now this I have no doubts! Terrific singing and acting from both of them. There were excellent performances too from mezzos Maria Soulis as the housekeeper Clara and Krisztina Szabo as Oksana’s mother. Keith Klassen was appropriately unpleasant as the gangster/pimp Konstantin. Wayne Strongman conducted.
In some ways it’s odd to see a new opera on the old theme of the sympathetic prostitute who comes to a bad end but this is a very 21st century take on the trope and a very powerful one. My strong feeling is that there is a potentially successful main stage opera in Oksana G. The rumour mill is positive. I gather that it’s a COC commission with a tentative production date of 2015/16. There are other houses interested and a co-pro with Fort Worth and SNO is a possibility. I hope that all works out because this is a work I want to see in full.