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Schubert's only opera, Fierabras, is rarely performed and it's not hard to see why.

Schubert's only opera, Fierabras, is rarely performed and it's not hard to see why. It's quite long and has a convoluted and rather implausible plot. It's also 'Christians versus Moors' which makes it particularly difficult to deal with in the current political climate. That said, it has some memorable music, especially in the choruses, and it stands as one of those rare 'missing link' German operas that appear sporadically in the period between Mozart and Wagner.

Presenting the work in shortened concert form as VOICEBOX/OIC did on Feb. 3rd, made a lot of sense. Staging would require either a literal approach, involving all kinds of risks, or a more conceptual interpretation that would further complicate an already all-but-indecipherable plot. Guillermo Silva-Marin's decision to stage it in concert dress with minimal blocking for the principals and with the chorus static behind the orchestra worked quite well. He also chose to omit the German spoken dialogue, and quite a lot of music, and replace it with brief expository passages in English spoken by the singers. This not only shortened the work considerably, but also made it much easier to follow.

The performance was musically satisfying. Silva-Marin assembled a strong cast with baritones Alexander Dobson as the rather too-good-to-be-true Charlemagne and Evan Korbut as his main man Roland. Both sang powerfully and clearly and made their characters believable. Two contrasting tenors, Matthew Dalen, more baritonal, and Lawrence Wiliford, more ethereal, took the roles of Fierabras, the captured son of the Prince of the Moors, and Eginhard, a Frankish knight in love with the king's daughter. These two get the best of the arias, albeit arias set demandingly high, and they did very well with them.

Amy Moodie sang the part of Charlemagne's daughter, Emma, in a light, bright soprano. She sounded a little insecure in the first few minutes but soon got over that to sing with some style. The darker, richer toned Jocelyn Fralick sang her Moorish opposite number, Clorinda, to good effect and pulled off a convincing swoon on hearing her lover had been sentenced to death. Baritone Justin Welsh surmounted the near impossible role of Moorish Prince Boland with some solid singing. Frankly, no one could make this character--who in an instant goes from homicidal maniac to all-round-nice-guy--seem dramatically convincing. The chorus sang their many fine numbers extremely well.

The Aradia Ensemble--ten strong for this performance, conducted by Kevin Mallon--provided the accompaniment, as well as the "Scherzo" from Schubert's Octet as an overture. A reduced instrumental ensemble is pretty much ideal in a small space like the Jane Mallet Theatre. All of an orchestra's colours were there, but also, a clarity that's hard to match with a full-sized group of musicians.

Sensible production decisions, strong casting and consistent execution made for a very viable and enjoyable performance of a rare and rather problematic piece.

One is never sure how 'staged' (or not) a VOICEBOX/OIC production is going to be. For Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (seen Mar. 30th), director Guillermo Silva-Marin goes well toward the 'fully staged' end of the spectrum. While scenery was minimal--really just a stepped platform and some projections--there were costumes and lots of movement. Almost all the music was sung from memory. It was effective and one didn't feel this piece needs any more elaboration. Critiquing excess with excess probably isn't smart!

There were cuts. The piece came in at around two hours and, while mosdy unobtrusive, one or two cuts created minor continuity issues--especially the elimination of the boxing match. Not only is this the device by which Alaska Wolf Joe is 'removed,' but his death is but one count in the indictment against the main male character, Jimmy Mahoney. Maybe in an opera where so much is 'told' rather than 'shown' it doesn't matter too much, and the excision does compensate for Brecht's habit of never making a point once when it can be made three times. The piece was mostly sung in German. Of course, where English was used in the original production, such as in the well-known "Alabama Song" and "Benares Song," it was likewise used here. The spoken dialogue was also in English. The combination worked well enough.

OIC's Mahagonny was strongly cast overall with a touch of star quality in Michael Barrett's highly kinetic and, eventually, very moving Jimmy Mahoney. A first class operatic tenor doesn't seem at all out of place. The 'founding trio' of Widow Begbick, Fatty and Trinity Moses (Beste Kalender, Joshua Clemenger, Evan Korbut) were suitably idiomatic, with Kalender, in particular, exuding a kind of exotic sleaze with her smoky mezzo. Sean Curran caught just the right tone as the Speaker in a way curiously reminiscent of the Streetsinger in Pabst's film of The Threepenny Opera. I'm less sure about Elizabeth DeGrazia's Jenny. She has a very light, bright sound that seems more Broadway Weill than Leipzig Weill. I could have used something a little more abrasive.

The minor parts were well covered and the chorus, excellent. They had a lot to do singing and acting-wise and did it very well. It was all extremely well coordinated too, despite conductor Robert Cooper being off to the side of the stage. Narmina Afandiyeva did a very decent job at the piano but it still sounded like a piano. This is a piece where an extra two or three musicians could have made a world of difference towards achieving that 'cabaret' sound one looks for.

Mahagonny is rarely performed in North America so it was good to see OIC taking it on. Their version made good use of limited resources and delivered a satisfying evening at the theatre.--John Gilks

Caption: Elizabeth DeGrazia (Jenny Smith) and Michael Barrett (Jimmy Mahoney) in VOICEB0X/ OIC's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny
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Title Annotation:TORONTO
Author:Gilks, John
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Jun 22, 2019
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