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Calgary: Frobisher.

It cost $1.5-million to mount the Jan. 27 premiere production of Frobisher, the latest collaboration between composer John Estacio and librettist John Murrell, though the artistic return on investment is perhaps more debatable than on the creators' hugely successful Filumena. There was a huge buzz around the Calgary Opera production (the co-producing Banff Centre for the Arts mounts the work in August), which featured a strong ensemble cast and an engaging multimedia staging by director Kelly Robinson. Appropriately enough for a plotline that revolves around making a movie, video projections helped set scenes effectively, especially in conjuring the Far North.

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Estacio's gifts for orchestration and sympathetic vocal writing were evident throughout in a score that proceeds as a numbers opera with set-piece solos and ensembles. It's a conventionally structured piece, though I think charges that the music conventionally unoriginal and more akin to Broadway than opera are misplaced. Musically, it summons a sound space that invokes opera, musicals and film--again appropriate for the subject matter--but in a distinctive and sophisticated way. If it's music theatre, it's in a realm of voices as disparate as Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein and Kurt Weill--and that's surely not a bad place to be. If Frobisher has less impact than Filumena, it's less because of the music than the subject matter. The opera is misnamed because it's not really about the explorer Martin Frobisher. He's really just a hook (left sitting backstage midway through Act II, while his Queen doesn't make it beyond the intermission) to explore ideas about dreaming impossible dreams, and then dealing with the reality of not achieving them. This theme, though, is presented through the experience of Anna and Michael, who are making a movie about the explorer. And this theme in turn is presented through the eyes of the grieving Anna, who loses Michael in a blizzard in the first scene. The dramatic focus keeps shifting, and not even the insistent regularity of Murrell's rhyming couplets can chart a clear narrative path through the multiple layers.

Even so, the cast and orchestra, under the direction of Jean-Marie Zeitouni, made a committed case for the work. Soprano Laura Whalen and tenor Marc Hervieux both made the most of the often-soaring music for Anna and Michael. His aria, "To Frobisher," is a real showcase for the tenor voice, and just one of many pieces that make the work viable. Another is the Act II aria for Frobisher, sung with dramatic panache by baritone John Fanning. Mezzo Elizabeth Turnbull was underutilized vocally and dramatically as Queen Elizabeth, though Kimberly Barber fared better in this respect as Anna's mother, Jessica. Bass David Bedard bought all the right bragging bluster to the movie mogul, Stephen Wagman.

Frobisherwill not likely enjoy the national audience Filumena did--a pity because it deserves a wider stage (CBC Radio will rebroadcast it this summer). But Estacio and Murrell are already at work on a commission for Vancouver Opera, so there's something else to look forward to from a collaboration that has enriched contemporary Canadian opera.
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Author:Gooding, Wayne
Publication:Opera Canada
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 1, 2007
Words:508
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