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Calgary Opera.

In recent years, Calgary Opera has become something of a risk-taker among Canadian opera companies, mounting productions of contemporary operas as well as commissioning new operas such as last year's Filumena by John Estacio.

This year, the new venture was Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, a work that explores the artistic space lying between contemporary opera and the Broadway musical. Inevitably, the production drew much from the basic concept of the Harold Prince original. The set, designed by Teresa Przybylski, recalled the Prince production in general outline, effectively blending abstraction and realism to depict both the grimness of 19th-century factory London as well as the more local details of Mrs. Lovett's pie shop and Sweeney Todd's barber shop. This single set served effectively as the context for Kelly Robinson's imaginative staging, which moved seamlessly between the principal singers and individual members of the chorus, the story unfolding with the taut pace of music theatre. The Calgary Opera Chorus rose marvellously to the challenge of the complex staging, singing with authority and acting fully in character.

The cast was remarkable for its consistency. At the centre of the production was baritone John Fanning in the title role. His voice was perfect for the part, its natural touch of huskiness suggesting a hint of popular singing but with both the low notes and the commanding top the part requires. Dramatically, he was a powerful presence. Manic and possessed where required, he was also sympathetic and frequently comic in the scenes with Mrs. Lovett. Louise Pitre (Mrs. Lovett) brought the experience of musical theatre to the production, her natural ability with comedy a major asset both in the clever songs and in the action. Her solo song. "By the Sea," and the wonderful Act I closing duet with Fanning, "A Little Priest," were magical moments.


The secondary roles were equally well cast. Joseph Kaiser (Anthony) sang with leading-man urgency, well matched by the pure soprano of Jennie Such as Johanna. Mark Pedrotti was outstanding as the judge, his major aria happily included in this full-length version of the show. John Mac Master as the judge's beadle provided tenor delights in the vocal area, as well as oily evil on the dramatic side. Michel Corbeil sang the difficult role of Tobias with great vocal confidence, as did Benoit Boutet in the comic role of Perelli.

Eminent Canadian mezzo-soprano Jean Stilwell completed the roster of principal singers, bringing a strong characterization to her pivotal role as the beggar woman. In a cameo role, Calgary Opera general director Bob McPhee, dressed as a London dandy, quickly took the audience into the surreal world of mid-19th-century London with his performance of the powerful organ prelude. The CPO under conductor Jeffrey Huard provided an idiomatic account of the score, leading the combined forces with clarity and a fine sense of Broadway style.

Offenbach's Les contes d'Hoffmann was the final production of Calgary Opera's highly successful season. The company followed the original order of the three internal acts and stayed with the opening Muse transformation scene, but it included Dapertutto's final "Scintittle, diamant" aria, as well as the recall of Hoffmann's "Kleinsach" aria from the prologue. In all, it was a dramatically compelling version of the opera, as happy a compromise as any.

The scenery and costumes, from the Portland and Minnesota opera companies, trod a fascinating path between traditional and modern. Glynis Leyshon's staging, detailed and precise, was compelling, the cues beautifully timed, the chorus blended into the drama. Although Hoffman is, ultimately, a serious opera, Leyshon's experience in comedy was of great benefit, giving the production the touch of the comically fantastic that is important to the full sense of the work.

Happily, the singers were up to the challenging roles, especially, the two male leads. As Hoffmann, William Joyner was a first-class French tenor, with just the right ring to his voice, as well as the beauty and suppleness of tone required in the romantic arias. Bass-baritone Eduardo Chama, singing with power and a firm tone at both ends of the vocal spectrum, projected the various flavors of villainy his four roles encompass with authority and style.

Soprano Maureen O'Flynn (Hoffmann's four loves) was fetching in her stage presence, with a fine sense of the dramatic element. She was heard to best effect in the Antonia act, where her voice was most suited to the vocal writing. Her voice, essentially an operetta soprano, was beautiful in those parts needing lyricism; in other places, it tended towards shrillness when pressed. Calgary mezzosoprano Norine Burgess (Nicklausse) gave her finest performance before a home audience. Tall and willowy, she was a credible male counterpart to Hoffmann and a beautiful muse in the framing portions of the work. Vocally, this is the perfect part for her highly attractive lyric mezzo, and she made the most of it.

The smaller parts contributed considerably to the production. Peter Blanchet was remarkably versatile in his three comprimario roles, especially the comic Franz; Steven Pithanen was alternately fatherly and villainous in his parts; and Steve Michaud was clear-toned in his twin roles as Nathanael and Cochenille.

The chorus continues to go from strength to strength, handling the highlying chorus parts with aplomb and rhythmic vigor, as well as participating in the action with confidence. Brent McMunn conducted with a level, controlling hand, leading the responsive CPO through the score with a sure sense of tempi and pacing.
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Title Annotation:Calgary
Author:DeLong, Kenneth
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Jun 22, 2004
Previous Article:Calendar.
Next Article:Edmonton Opera.

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