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CAMPBELLFORD, ONT.

The Westben Festival launched its 13th season with the Jun. 30 premiere of its first opera commission, The Auction. by composer John Burge and librettist Eugene Benson. Billed as a "Canadian folk opera," it's based on the Jan Andrews children's book of the same title. Thematically, however, this story about the sale of a family farm, told mainly from the perspective of a young boy, deals with loss and regret across three generations, and the opera makes more of the adults' experience. It unfolds rather like a ballad opera, with time shifts between past and present creating a nice dramatic layering.

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Written for voices and a small chamber orchestra--string trio, piano, guitar/banjo, percussion and musical saw--Burge's score is varied and colorful, providing the right soundscape and scale for a rural story that here premiered in a barn theatre. This must be the first Canadian opera to feature a musical saw in the plot and score, skillfully played by percussionist Beverley Johnston. Conducted by Philip Headlam, the staging benefited from the experience of a cast including baritone Bruce Kelly as the widowed Granddad, whose farm is for sale, mezzo Kimberly Barber as his wife (in the flashbacks) and soprano Donna Bennett as Alberta, their daughter. Tenor Keith Klassen, versatile as ever, took on the double role of The Auctioneer and Preacher, alongside tenor Tim Stiff as Mike Fedak, the rather yokelish family friend, and baritone Matthew Zadow as the young Granddad. Special mention must be made of the vivid portrayal of the young Todd, here played as a trouser role by Grade 5 student Olivia Rapos. Her voice was enhanced, so seemed in a different acoustical space at times, but here clearly was a very talented young artist singer-actor.

Burge's tuneful and witty score draws on many genres, (there are also a couple of dance sequences) and Benson's text is full of character and incident. At times, however, I thought some numbers a bit overextended; while very well wrought in themselves (Alberta's bluesy account in Act II of how she wanted to go onstage but ended up a farmer's wife is an example), they tended to put the narrative flow on hold. Overall, however, The Auction is a poignant and engaging piece that will resonate with audiences well beyond Westben's farmland setting.
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Author:Gooding, Wayne
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Sep 22, 2012
Words:384
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