Last night Tapestry and the Wilfred Laurier University Faculty of Music co-presented a workshop of Ruth, a new piece by Jeffrey Ryan to a libretto by Michael Lewis MacLennan. It’s not exactly an opera, perhaps more like one of Britten’s Church Parables. It is quite short; one act of nine scenes, six of which were given in full last night with a read through of the three not yet set. The whole piece lasted maybe an hour. The emphasis is very much on the voices; three soloists and the choir. Last night it was given with piano accompaniment but the composer suggested that it would work for either organ and/or a small ensemble.
The libretto is based on the biblical story of Naomi; a woman of Judah who has emigrated to Moab with her husband. Her husband and sons having died, she returns to Judah with her daughter in law Ruth. Both are treated as outcasts until a local big man, Boaz, decides to marry Ruth to general rejoicing. It was presented as a story about immigration and the treatment of immigrants but I’m not convinced it actually works as that. It’s more obvious to read it as a story about women who have no place in society except in relation to a patriarch, which is a bit discomforting.
The music is very much made to serve the words, all of which were clearly audible last night in a performance without surtitles. There are distinct influences from Jewish liturgical music and the overall impression is one that seems to be increasingly common in contemporary works; music that is accessible but recognisably modern and which doesn’t leave a very strong impression. It’s not the sort of thing one hums on the way home. Still, the music does serve the words well and it all makes for good theatre. In a more atmospheric space with organ and so on it could be very moving.
The standout among the soloists was Geoffrey Sirett as Boaz. He’s a powerful singer and, helped by the small space, was very much the “big man”. Kimberly Barber was an impassioned Naomi with accurate singing and excellent diction. Stephanie Yelovich was equally effective as Ruth. The chorus was drawn from the students at Wilfred Laurier and did a fine job. Wayne Strongman, Tapestry’s Artistic Director, conducted and provided both structure and momentum.
Once completed this will be a handy addition to the repertoire. I don’t see it on a big opera stage but it could easily, and inexpensively, be given by smaller companies in a variety of spaces.