By Gooding, Wayne; Chapman, Geoff; Citron, Paula; Littler, William
Opera Canada , Vol. 51, No. 3
Opera has been largely missing in action at Toronto's Laminato Festival, but this June's edition had intriguing and entertaining music theatre. Tapestry New Opera Works launched the festival with performances oí Dark Star Requiem, a critical history of AIDS in 1 4 movements by composer Andrew Staniland to a dense, poetic libretto by Jill Battson. It's perhaps best characterized as a dramatic cantata, engagingly staged by the ever-resourceful Tom Diamond. Working with inventive designs and projections by Beth Kates and Ben Chaisson, Diamond succeeded in crafting an intricate theatrical veneer on a concert piece.
Tapestry's Wayne Strongman conduced an ensemble that consisted of the excellent Gryphon Trio and two full batteries of percussion (Ryan Scott and Mark Duggan) set like stereo speakers on either side of the stage. The quartet of soloists - soprano Neema Bickersteth, mezzo Krisztina Szabó, baritone Peter McGillrvray and bass-baritone Marcus Nance - and a chorus of 20 sang and acted their way around the musicians. Staniland's score is complex in tone, texture, color and genre, but the singers handled it all with panache. If Battson's libretto is too terse at times and too wordy at others, it nevertheless covers a dark and difficult subject thoughtfully, provocatively and even with some humor.
It's difficult to classify Tlxe Infernal Comedy: Confessons of a Serial Killer, though its creator, Michael Sturminger, calls it "a stage-play for Baroque Orchestra, two sopranos and one actor." Staged by M uzikkonzept, Vienna with that city's Ronacher Theatre, the piece is really an elaborate conceit, a show within in a show in which Jack Unterweger (a real-life serial killer, played here by John Malkovich) reflects on his life and crimes on a bookpromotion tour. As he thinks back, episodes take life on stage and Unterweger/ Malkovich interacts with two sopranos who sing selections from Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and von Weber. The period-instrument Vienna Academy Orchestra, conducted by Martin Haselböck, was onstage throughout. Sopranos Bernarda Bobro and Marie Arnet handled the varied music very well, and, together with Malkovich, created some good dramatic tension. I especially liked the segment in which one sang Beethoven's "Ah perfido" while Malkovich did the other in. The piece perhaps wears its artifice a bit too visibly on its sleeve, but nonetheless makes for engaging theatre.
The one Luminato offering promoted as opera was the much-hyped Prima Donna by popular-music icon Rufus Wainwright, but many begged to differ on the classification. It is at least about an opera singer who dreams of a return to the stage. (Loosely inspired by Maria Callas, the composer has said the character is an amalgam of himself, his singer-songwriter mother, the late Kate McGarrigle, and his sister, Martha Wainwright.) An opera fan since his early years, Wainwright has laced his score with references to his favorite composers - especially Puccini - and sought to write a grand opera for a new age. It got very mixed reactions on its two previous outings in England, though, as in Toronto, audiences were more favorable than critics. Director Tim Albery made as good a case as possible for a piece in which there's not much action to drive it forward, and the singers - principally Janis Kelly (Régine, the Prima Donna), Charlotte Ellett (lier maid, Sophie), Gregory Dahl (the faithful buder, Philippe) and Colin Ainsworth (the journalist, André) - did their best to flesh out the characters vocally and dramatically. The melodically driven music was pleasant, but ultimately sounded facile and unfinished. The orchestration, created on a computer by associates with Wainwright looking on, seemed disconnected from the vocal lines. And too much of it sounded like a pastiche of romantic grand opera. The strongest number, 1 thought, was Régine's final aria, when she seems to come to terms with her insecurities and with herself. Only in this ending did Wainwright finally seem to set his composer idols aside and trust to his own voice. …