Review: Songbook VI (Tapestry Opera)

Wallis Giunta Headshot 2 - Michael EdwardsTapestry Opera previews new Canadian opera works in Toronto in Songbook VI

Tapestry Songbook VI was very much like a series of opera trailers; teasers that left you wishing that Canadian new opera were performed in this city as often as Hollywood blockbusters.

Tapestry’s annual Songbook recital program is the culmination of its New Opera 101 program. Emerging artists perform opera excerpts by Canadian composers and librettists. The program provides an excellent opportunity to get a feel for new opera. The 2016 program gave viewers the chance to hear snippets from 14 separate works. Wallis Giunta was this year’s expert clinician, and Jordan D’Sousza its musical director.

There are several operas on the program that I would love to see in full. Iron Road is at the top of that list. The opera by composer Ka Nin Chan and Librettist Mark Brownell, tells the story of a young girl who disguises herself as a boy to find her father, a missing Chinese worker on the Canadian transcontinental railway. Soprano Anne-Marie MacIntosh gave a moving performance of the aria “Cool Mountain Water”. Pianist Ethan Rotenberg interpreted Ka Nin Chan’s beautiful introduction brilliantly, drawing the listener into the world of the story by using the piano to portray the river as the backdrop to sweeping, emotionally nuanced melodies.

There were also a number of riotously funny moments. Tenor Jonathan MacArthur, in addition to an amazing lyrical singing voice, has a larger-than-life flare for comedy that ensures him a bright future in classical and new opera buffa alike. His performance, with pianist Asal Iranmehr, of program opener “The Waiter’s Aria” was a side-splitter.

I am not sure if whoever decided to match Mr. MacArthur with soprano Gwenna Fairchild-Taylor knew they were giving birth to comedic gold, but their scene from “The Colony” was one of the most hilarious opera excerpts I have ever scene. Ms. Fairchild-Taylor played the queen of the ants, Mr. MacArthur played the exterminator. I’ll let you imagine the rest.

While I would travel through wind and fire to attend a festival where all of these works were performed in full, if someone woke me up in the middle of the night and asked me to pick my top two works to see it would be Iron Road and Nigredo Hotel by composer Nic Gotham and Librettist Ann-Marie MacDonald (Fall on Your Knees, Adult Onset). My companion’s exact words to me after pianist David Eliakis and soprano Sara Schabas’s haunting and nuanced performance of “Wisdom Aria” were “creepy AF”.

One of the best things about new opera is that it tackles new subject matter that is relevant to our 21st-century lives. The excerpt from She Sees Her Lover in the Light of the Morning, was a perfect example. Mezzo-Soprano Suzette Janse Rensburg, Soprano Whitney Mather, and pianist Natasha Fransblow gave a charming and relatable performance that captured the awkwardness, hopefulness, and vulnerability of the morning after.

I cannot imagine a better choice for a closer than “It’s My Wedding”. This aria from The Enchanted Pig by British composer John Dove was the only piece on the program that wasn’t Canadian, but well worth straying from the theme. Performed by rising-star Wallis Giunta, this year’s mentor for program participants, the aria shines a light into the life of a girl having a spectacular meltdown on the eve of her wedding to a pig. The libretto by Alasdair Middleton is based on a Romanian Folktale and it is on my shortlist of works from this program to keep an eye out for.

The show only ran for two nights, and the second night was sold out before I attended the opening night performance. Don’t be dismayed though, there are two opportunities to see feature length new operatic productions upcoming in Tapestry’s 2015-2016 season. The Devil Inside by Composer Stuart Macrae and librettist Louise Welsh opens on March 10. Rocking Horse Winner, by librettist Anna Chatterton and composer Gareth Williams opens on May 27.

New Opera 101 participants perform each year in the winter quarter of the season. The program is always a wonderful introduction to emerging talent and Canadian new music, so keep an eye out for the 2017 date.

Details:

  • Songbook VI played a limited run on February 5 and 6, 2016 at Ernest Balmer Studio

Photo of Wallis Giunta by Michael Edwards