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Another Opera Atelier success

Elgin Theatre
11/08/2008 -  & 9, 11, 12, 14, 15 November
W.A. Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail
Amanda Pabyan (Konstanze), Frédéric Antoun (Belmonte), Gustav Andreassen (Osmin), Carla Huhtanen (Blondchen), Lawrence Wiliford (Pedrillo), Curtis Sullivan (Pasha Selim)
Tafelmusik Orchestra and Chamber Choir, Ivars Taurins (Choir Director), David Fallis (Conductor)
Marshall Pynkoski (Director), Jeannette Lajeunesse-Zingg (Choreographer), Gerard Gauci (Set Designer), Margaret Lamb (Costume Designer), Kevin Fraser (Lighting Designer)

Curtis Sullivan (Selim), Amanda Pabyan (Konstanze)
(© Bruce Zinger)

Mozart’s “Turkish” singspiel hasn’t been seen in Toronto since 1980, when the Canadian Opera Company mounted it. Its return is a welcome occasion, and to make it yet more special this is the first period instrument production of the work in North America. David Fallis’s conducting of the Tafelmusik Orchestra in its 35-member configuration is suitably breezy (and lucky is the city where such a resource is at hand.) However a bit more Turkish clangor would not have been remiss: the Elgin Theatre is a dazzling venue for the type of work Opera Atelier does, but acoustically is has a dampening effect. Similarly, the 21-member Tafelmusik Chamber Choir is at a disadvantage in having to sing from the stage boxes (thus leaving the stage clear for the dancers), especially when they have to sing in sections.

A singspeil is a play with music and OA has chosen to have the players speak in English but sing in German, and this works well overall.

Opera Atelier always features dancers in its productions, under the direction of co-director Jeannette Lajeunesse-Zingg. She and 14 dancers portray members of the pasha’s seraglio and their male attendants. Historically, of course, there would have been no such displays, but this is a 2008 production of a Viennese entertainment of 1782 that does not seek to exactly replicate 18th-century Viennese or Turkish styles, but to use costumes and movement informed by the period to give a modern audience a good idea of what excited the audiences over 220 years ago - and this it does very well.

The dancers perform during both of the janissary choruses, and extra music has been found for them in two separate instances. Just before the first chorus (hailing the arrival of Pasha Selim), a Turkish-style march is played. This is a piece written by Mozart that might have been used in the original production but then not included in the first published scores (it appears in the Bärenreiter New Mozart Edition). Also at the opera’s finale, while the principals sing the praises of the Pasha’s magnanimity, a section of the overture is repeated so the dancers can join the festivities.

Much of the dancing is merely decorative (which is not a bad thing), but dancers appear two other times with more dramatic effect. The overture accompanies a mime sequence portraying the seizure of Konstanze, Blondchen and Pedrillo by pirates, and this sets the rollicking tone we see throughout the work. Dancers later appear, this time brandishing instruments of torture, during the prelude to Konstanze’s gigantic aria, Martern aller Arten. This lengthy prelude (a mini-overture really) is usually a dead spot in the work and this clever use of dancers solves the problem.

The work requires two lyric tenors and two stratospheric sopranos, and one of its pitfalls is that either the tenors or sopranos might sound too much alike. Such is not the case here. Frédéric Antoun makes his local debut in the role of Belmonte and is a real find, with both the vocal and visual dash one would want. I regret that his aria that opens the final act, Ich Baue Ganz, is cut. Lawrence Wiliford displays a suitably leaner tone in the role of Pedrillo, and gives the kind of all-out performance he is becoming noted for. He has the litheness needed for all the vigorous movement the staging demands, for example when he and Blondchen cavort in their undergarments in back of the oblivious Osmin. His voice is not as strong in the lower register as higher up (but better that than the other way around).

Also making his Toronto debut is Gustav Andreassen as Osmin, also giving a lively performance and demonstrating that he can achieve the required cavernous low notes which are among the lowest notes appearing in the mainstream operatic literature. A touch of grey in his beard would give more weight to his characterization.

The two sopranos are also nicely contrasted, although both (on opening night) displayed edginess at the top of their range. The role of Konstanze is extremely exacting and Amanda Pabyan (also a local debut) appears to have a bit of a struggle with it. Economic demands require the company to cram the six performances of the run into a mere eight days. One hopes that a singer does not regret taking on such a grueling schedule, especially in such a demanding role. (Double casting of some roles might be the answer, but that has costs as well.) Dramatically Ms Pabyan is fine. Konstanze is often portrayed as a serious character in contrast to the comic servants, but Marshall Pynkoski gets laughs out of her predicament, as when she wrings out her handkerchief which is wet from her copious weeping.

Carla Huhtanen is now a practiced member of the OA “family” and provides the ideal counterpart to Wiliford’s Pedrillo.

Curtis Sullivan cuts a fine figure in the spoken role of Pasha Selim and delivers his lines well. He looks matter-of-factly proud with his harem clustered about him.

Resident designer Gerard Gauci gives us yet another striking set, a Turkish fantasy of supersaturated colour. Margaret Lamb’s costumes, with their references to traditional commmedia dell’arte designs, are equally colourful, resulting in a visual riot at times, especially when the ensemble of dancers is going full tilt.

Opera Atelier achieved a new level of success last season with Idomeneo and, while this production doesn’t quite match up (given some vocal uncertainties), it is a solid success nonetheless. The opening night’s sold-out house gave it a deserved lengthy ovation.

Michael Johnson



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