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Erewhon, Canada's first opera of the new century, debuted February 19 at Victoria's Royal Theatre. The co-creation of Mavor Moore and Louis Applebaum reached the stage with the support of outstanding local enthusiasm, a $680,000 budget and the courage of co-commissioners Pacific Opera Victoria, Music Canada Musique2000, and William and Nona Heaslip. Moore's libretto was inspired by Samuel Butler's forward-thinking satirical novels Erewhon (1872) and Erewhon Revisited (1901). In Moore's rendering, the biting witticisms turn on issues such as national unity, bank mergers and the Royal family, while larger philosophical and moral issues gird the work. This commingling of the comic and the serious may recall for some Mozart's Die Zauberflote. Others might think more of Gilbert and Sullivan. But no matter how you classify it, Erewhon is a production that is strikingly Canadian and entertaining.

The opera traces the fate of John Higgs, an adventurous Canadian Methodist who chances upon the unusual land of Erewhon (an anagram of Nowhere). Higgs is perplexed: "Everything in Erewhon is either back to front or upside down! The sick are kept in prison, and criminals in bed. Thinkers think how not to think, and everyone believes the sun is God!" The potential evolutions of modern society have been glimpsed as evil and eschewed--but for the better? Despite an amorous encounter with the Warden's daughter Yram, Higgs realizes he must leave this strange land. He manages his escape through another amorous encounter and a hot-air balloon.

In the second act, Higgs returns to Erewhon 20 years later and is surprised to find he has become a mythical deity. His ways have been broadly adopted but also dangerously misinterpreted. One faction strives toward social justice, while the leader of the Banks pushes toward omnipotence by misquoting Higgs: "Money is the root of all love." The plot concludes with Higgs persuaded to leave his mythical image and the bizarrely Utopian Erewhon intact, unshattered by simple reality.

Even with much doubling, the cast of Erewhon is substantial. The premiere team was solid across the board. Notable standouts included the nimble actor/tenor Stuart Howe as Higgs, Sally Dibblee's lusciously lyrical rendition of Yram and the generous bass-baritone of Curtis Sullivan, who lent the Bank president Gurgoyle (and the Warden) extra bite. Thomas Goerz and Blaine Hendsbee were slick as the comic pair Hanky and Panky, while Sandra Graham (Mrs. Ydgrun), Doug MacNaughton (Dr. Downie) and Robert Milne (Strong) each offered sharply characterized, confident performances. The whole cast demonstrated that, while hummable tunes may be wanting in Erewhon, vocal expressivity is not.

The instrumental side of the music presented some challenges. The 37 instrumentalists of the POV orchestra filled the pit but not the theatre. On many occasions, promising moments in the score fell just short of reaching fruition. Both of the finales seemed musically undernourished. Applebaum's music was best when mainly atmospheric or providing comic counterpoint to the stage action, and conductor Timothy Vernon made the most of these moments.

Brian Macdonald's clean staging paid special attention to the prominent chorus, but an even sharper edge could have been used to clear a space for the audience to enjoy a vast amount of politically incorrect material. In this respect, Debra Hanson's often whimsical and boldly symbolic designs were overwhelmingly successful and sophisticated. In many senses, this opera is more visual than musical. That said, the CBC recording of Erewhon for a Saturday Afternoon at the Opera was most welcome.
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Author:Syer, Katherine
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Jun 22, 2000
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