Opera 5’s double bill of Ethel Smyth one acters, Suffragette, opened last night at Theatre Passe Muraille in productions by Jessica Derventzis. The second piece, The Boatswain’s Mate, was in every way the more successful of the two. It’s a straightforward enough story. Mrs. Waters is a widow and landlord of The Outlaw (renamed in deference to the production’s beer sponsor). She is being very unsuccessfully courted by retired boatswain Harry Benn. Mrs. Waters doesn’t want or need a husband but Benn decides that by enlisting a casual acquaintance, the former soldier Ned Travers, as a fake burglar from whom he can “rescue” the hapless landlady. Much mayhem ensues but the upshot is that Mrs. Waters takes a shine to the hunky soldier and they, at least, live happily ever after.
Derventzis’ production updates the setting to a sort of imagined 1980s and it’s straightforward enough. The piece features spoken dialogue and musical numbers so it’s easy enough to follow the plot even without supertitles. The central trio are very good indeed. Alexandra Smither is most convincing as Mrs. Waters; whether as baseball bat wielding battleaxe or smitten bride-to-be. She has a clear and flexible soprano and didn’t seem troubled by the tricky acoustic. Asitha Tennekoon as the hapless boatswain once again turned in a fine dramatic and musical performance. His clear bright tenor has become something of a fixture in the Toronto indie scene and it’s easy to see why. Jeremy Ludwig was equally good as Travers. The various drunken revellers, bar maid and rather lugubrious policeman, oddly in a uniform more reminiscent of the 1880s than the 1980s) managed their walk on roles more than adequately.
Musically this was quite distinctive. Smyth’s own voice is evident but she also utilises folk song elements and her own suffragette anthem The March of the Women. The score actually sounds quite modern for British music of the time (1913/14) and it got an excellent performance from Evan Mitchell conducting an 11 piece band in the composer’s own chamber reduction (with harp added back by Evan I think). In this case having the band off to one side (there’s no pit at TPM) didn’t seem to cause any problems.
Fête Galante, which formed the first half of the programme, was more problematic. This is a through sung opera-ballet after the manner of Lully and Rameau and features various pastiche elements (though not much dancing). It’s set at an aristocratic entertainment. There’s a king, a queen and the characters from the commedia who form a love polygon of some complexity. The king (and Harlequin) fancies Columbine who is in love with Pierrot who admires the queen from afar but she has an actual lover. The king accuses Pierrot of being that lover to which he confesses and kills himself before he gets hanged.
Derventzis sets this as some sort of 1970’s music industry party with party action taking place on various stage levels. It’s extremely confusing. The lack of supertitles, the acoustic and not so good diction from some members of the cast make it hard to follow, which, considering how little substance there is to it, is rather odd. The best thing about is Alan MacDonald’s Pierrot who seems to have stepped straight out of Camus’ L’Étranger. The other characters are hard to care about but cast tried. Elizabeth Polese and Jonathan MacArthur made an attractive couple as Harlequin and Columbine, for example. Musically it’s something of a pastiche with baroque dances, a madrigal and neo-classical elements not to mention bits that sound oddly like Richard Strauss. It was all played and sung well enough but here having the band off to one side definitely added to the sense of sonic confusion. I guess it made sense to pair The Boatswain’s Mate with another Smyth work but I’m not sure that this one was really up to the task.
Suffragette continues at Theatre Passe Muraille until Sunday.
Photo credits: Emily Ding