Offenbach’s La belle Hélène, given in English translation, opened at Toronto Operetta Theatre last night. The production by Guillermo Silva-Marin is an uncomplicated and fast paced romp. There a few cuts. The scene with Orestes and his girls for instance is gone and the dialogue, as is the norm, is gently updated with a Facebook reference and an allusion to a certain orange real estate magnate.
Victor Davies’ The Ecstasy of Rita Joe opened last night in a production by Guillermo Silva-Marin at the Jane Mallett Theatre. It’s based on the play by George Ryga that caused a stir when it opened in Vancouver in 1967. The play was described as indirect and allusive with no clear narrative thread by the critics back then and was praised perhaps more for tackling the subject than for its intrinsic merits which were far from universally appreciated. Interestingly, as is so often the case in Canada, although rarely performed it has attained “classic” status. One word Victor Davies uses to describe the play is “expressionistic” but curiously rather than taking that as a jumping off point for the music (as Strauss and Berg did) he decides it’s an inappropriate idiom for “the lyric approach needed for the melody to unfold”. Why one needs “melody to unfold” in a disturbing tale of a young native woman’s descent into a hell of sexual abuse, alcohol, drugs, prison and, ultimately, her murder and why that melody should be couched in 1940s jazz/swing terms wasn’t obvious to me.
I’ve been familiar with Voltaire’s satirical novella since I was a teenager and have reread it many times but I’d not seen the Bernstein operetta/musical version until last night when it opened at Toronto Operetta Theatre with, I think, the original Lillian Hellman 1956 book though a later reduced orchestration (I’m guessing on that). I was very curious because it’s not obvious how one might turn Voltaire’s sequence of drily narrated, utterly absurd scenes into drama. The answer turns out to be to insert the author as a spoken word narrator linking scenes and play it straight though the two mile high cliffs and sheep get lost in the wash. Fair enough. It works pretty well. The whole thing is reasonably true to the spirit of the original though in places, especially in the musical number, it’s definitely tailored to a 1950s Broadway sensibility.
Elizabeth Beeler with company and Tonatiuh Abrego as Candide
Lynn Isnar – wearing one of the dresses she wore yesterday
Calixa Lavallée’s main, perhaps only, claim to fame is that he wrote the music for O Canada! He also wrote an operetta, The Widow. Yesterday I saw it at Toronto Operetta Theatre in a production by Guillermo Silva-Marin. It’s pretty silly. The plot turns on a scheming widow who pretends to drown herself while most of the rest of the characters pretend either to be someone else, or to be married to someone else, or both. Still, it’s fast paced and quite funny and the various sillinesses work out more or less logically. The music is pleasant and well crafted but not strikingly original. I don’t think I actually recall a single tune. So, a worthwhile enough piece but hardly an undiscovered masterpiece.
The production, in variations on concert wear for the most part, was quite kinetic with lots of rushing about and some dance elements. There are probably more entrances and exits than a Brian Rix farce (and for much the same reasons) so that helps. Performances were pretty good. Julie Nesrallah struck the right note as the somewhat overripe Spanish widow Donna Paquita de something-something-something. She sang well and her knowing, almost wink-at-the-audience, approach was just shy of over the top. It made a good anchor. The vocal star was Lynn Isnar as Nanine. It’s classic operetta soubrette territory and her bright tone, easy top and controlled coloratura were just right. She has a nice sense of timing too. Her aria which opened the second act was the vocal highlight of the afternoon. The rest of the cast was made up of TOT regulars and young singers. Everyone sang well and the acting was also good. The young lovers, of both flavours, were appropriately decorative and there was a bumbling ineffectual aristo for Greg Finney to play. Michael Rose accompanied perfectly competently at the piano. So, basically, all operetta boxes ticked.
All in all, a pleasant enough way to spend a really gloomy November Sunday afternoon.
Toronto Operetta Theatre’s current production is Oscar Straus’ The Chocolate Soldier in the English version. It’s based on Shaw’s Arms and the Man but, as is usually the case with musical adaptations of Shaw, it’s rather less acerbic than the original. In fact, it comes over as a somewhat farcical love story with a few gentle pot shots at the military and militarism. There are some good comic lines and the music is tuneful and well crafted.
Toronto Operetta Theatre opened a run of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance at the Jane Mallett Theatre last night. Bill Siva-Marin’s production is competent and very traditional with some strong performers in the key roles. It won’t leave you with any new insights into the piece but it’s a well executed production which is lots of fun and very funny in places. When I say traditional I mean pirates in pantomime pirate dress, maidens in some stereotypically Victorian maiden garb and a Major General in a cod colonial uniform. Tnere are the traditional mild updatings to the libretto including a couple of rather well crafted verses in the MG’s patter song that reference the Glorious Leader of our neighbour to the south. There are also a few nice touches. In the second act the MG spends much of the time clutching a bust of one of his purchased ancestors and the “catlike tread” scene is noisily anything but. That said, the choreography and blocking are pretty formulaic though there are some deft touches in the Personenregie. Mabel’s body language in Oh! Is there not one maiden breast? is worth a look.
By an odd coincidence two season announcement pressers hit my in box today; Toronto Operetta Theatre and Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. Toronto Operetta Theatre have four shows:
The Waltz Rivals (November 6th at 3pm) is a Léhar and Kálmán greatest hits show featuring Lucia Cesaroni, Adrian Kramer, Holly Chaplin, Stefan Fehr and Greg Finney with Michael Rose at the piano.
Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance runs from December 27th to January 8th, 2017. Colin Ainsworth sings Frederic, Vania Chan is Mabel and Curtis Sullivan is the Major General. Derek Bate conducts and Guillermo Silva-Marin directs.
Oscar Straus’ The Chocolate Soldier, based on George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, runs on April 26th, 28th, 29th and 30th, 2017. Peter Tiefenbach leads the orchestra and the cast includes Jennifer Taverner, Anna Macdonald, Michael Nyby and Stefan Fehr.
Finally there’s an Offenbach tribute concert on June 4th 2017.
All performances are at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.