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Performances

02 Oct 2016

Manitoba Underground Opera: Mozart and Offenbach

Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.

Manitoba Underground Opera: Mozart and Offenbach

A review by Holly Harris

 

Founded in 2008 by Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan-born conductor Brendan McKeen, the youthful company’s mandate is to provide opportunities for performers to sing with an orchestra. In addition to this year’s pair of offerings, prior productions have included: Mozart’sLa Clemenza di Tito and Così fan tutte, Massenet’s Cendrillon, the Fable of Cinderella, and Handel’s Alcina, as well as smaller-scale concerts and recital programs.

This year, the company treated audiences to a “re-imagined” version of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, performed amidst the ruins of Winnipeg’s historic St. Boniface Cathedral, ravaged by fire in 1968 and located at the heart of its Francophone community. Its updated The Magic Flute…Retold (sung in German) essentially stripped away all the opera’s notoriously racist references for 21st century audiences, with the 125-minute production also including witty English dialogue penned by the company’s co-artistic director, Brenna Corner.

Mozart’s masterpiece is ultimately a tale about fortitude, character and steely resolve in transcending adversity. The company experienced its own travails opening night, forced to grapple with mid-show rain showers, ubiquitous mosquitoes and even a pounding rock concert heard from across the Assiniboine River that competed with the Wunderkind’s sublime score. The cast, orchestra and audience ultimately journeyed, well, underground to the church basement for half of Act I, shepherded again outdoors again by the unflappable McKeen for Act II.

Lyric soprano Andrea Lett (with alternating casts) crafted a particularly strong Pamina, her acting skills notably having grown since she performed the lead role in last year’s production of Cendrillon, the Fable of Cinderella. Tenor Jonathan Stitt likewise convinced as her heroic Prince Tamino, his mellifluous vocals soaring in “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön,” or seamlessly blending with the three ladies (Emily Diehl-Reader, Rebecca McIntosh, and Meghan Symon).

Audiences always wait on tenterhooks for the Queen of the Night’s “big” aria. Soprano Ashley Boychuk did not disappoint, fearlessly nailing her topmost notes while confidently skipping through florid colouratura runs during “Der Hölle Rache” that earned the evening’s only cries of bravo.

Baritone Elliot Lazar portrayed royal bird catcher Papageno as a quasi-counter-culture, peace-sign flashing hippie, presented not with magic bells but a flamingo-festooned music box. His characterization could still have gone further (a few love beads would have helped) although his giddy Act II scene in which he falls head over feathers with soprano Emily Ready’s Papagena proved a highlight. Bass John Anderson crafted a suitably menacing Sarastro, flanked by tenor Chris Donlevy’s Monastatos whose performance needed to - and did – grow more intense throughout the show.

The 17-member chorus prepared by Lisa Rumpel sang with gusto, while McKeen led the 23-piece orchestra throughout Act I, morphing into Renate Rossol’s sole keyboard accompaniment for Act II due to the inclement weather.

The company also returned to the Manitoba Legislative Building for its second production, Offenbach’s comic melodrama Orpheus in the Underworld. MUC first performed in the provincial government building with Cosi fan Tutti in 2014.

This year, stage director Jacqueline Loewen further exploited the building’s interior by cleverly moving actors and audience throughout its three physical levels to depict Thebes, Olympus and the Underworld, thus making the evening experiential. Its Tyndall stone interior that creates powerful reverberation proved challenging, especially during the spoken English dialogue sections that blurred, although conversely also underscored the gods’ solos and choruses – and especially bass Nicholas Urquhart’s Jupiter – with otherworldly omnipresence.

Soprano Susan Watkins injected enough sparkling personality into her lead character Eurydice to light up a celestial night sky, decrying fiddle-playing “Bore-pheus” husband Orpheus sung by tenor Wes Rambo with her razor sharp comedic skills as potent as her clear colouratura voice. She fleshed out her long-suffering housewife with subtle nuance and pouty sighs, even daringly rubbing thighs with Jupiter during the Act III Underworld party that also included a raucous “Infernal Galop.” Mezzo-soprano Suzanne Reimer’s Public Opinion provided steady ballast throughout the 90-minute show, as she told her tale of “high ideals, heroism and morality.”

The quartet of vodka swilling goddesses added further hilarity, although once again sound issues detracted from their choruses, including Act II’s tongue-twisting rondo “Pour séduire Alcmène.”

McKeen held a firm baton over his compact orchestra, its six musicians packing up their bows and stands to move with the audience and singers as we made our own odyssey in the company of gods from heaven to hell.

Holly Harris

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