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Vancouver Opera Festival.

The Overcoat has resonated deeply in the collective Russian consciousness since it was written in 1842. In Vancouver, playwright Morris Panych's obsession with Nikolai Gogol's pungent satire began more than 20 years ago when he transformed it into a brilliantly original, wordless theatre piece with the same tide as the short story. It was staged successfully around the world, recorded and filmed.

Now, as a co-production between Vancouver Opera and Toronto's Canadian Stage and Tapestry Opera, it resurfaces as an opera under the name of The Overcoat-A Musical Tailoring. Its Toronto ran ended mid-April; a nine-performance run opened the Vancouver Opera Festival at the Vancouver Playhouse on Apr. 28.

Retaining much of the hyperkinetic physicality of the original theatre piece, The Overcoat-a Musical Tailoring, also has on board several members of the original production team: movement director Wendy Gorling, set designer Ken MacDonald, costume designer Nancy Bryant and lighting designer Alan Brodie. Panych is back of course, this time as librettist as well as stage director.

Panych's crisp, witty libretto is accompanied by Canadian composer James Rolfe s deftly-wrought score to produce a fully-fledged, bona fide opera. It was courageous of Rolfe to take on this project: the music supporting the original version 20 years ago was adroitly chosen by Panych from the works of Dmitri Shostakovich (who adored Gogol). A hard act to follow.

Although Rolfe uses some typical Shostakovich stylistic devices--sparse textures, spiky musical lines, sardonic harmonies--his music is not derivative but a clever underpinning to the often hilarious onstage antics. At times, it tilts cannily toward musical theatre and, without cheapening or sentimentalizing his material, Rolfe endows a number of moments in the score with a punchy thematic and motivic memorability.

Kingston, Ontario native baritone Geoffrey Sirett's vocal prowess was matched by his physically expressive body language as the main character, Akakiy Akakiyevich Bashmatchkin, a rank-and-file clerk who works too hard at his office, engendering the antipathy of his coworkers. At his dank and depressing apartment, Sirett touchingly revealed his characters obsession not just with dry numbers but also, their beauty and symbolism. His character remained utterly unresponsive to the offers of cabbage soup and sex foisted on him by his landlady, played seductively--albeit to no avail--by Regina mezzo-soprano Andrea Ludwig. However, there was a telling, poignant moment when she attempted to warn Akakiy that acquisition of a splendid new overcoat may not turn out to be all it promises.

Nevertheless, Akakiy remains convinced his troubles will all be solved by purchasing the overcoat. So he does--with money he doesn't really have--from booze-swilling, snuff-snorting tailor Petrovich, swaggeringly sung with devil-may-care panache by Saskatchewan baritone Peter McGillivray whose body language was as persuasive as his voice. McGillivray was also cast as the Head of the Department where Akakiy works and portrayed him as a pompously opportunistic authority figure--the kind his underlings pay obsequious lip service to but scorn behind his back.

There was much fine singing from the rest of the cast, whether as office drones, street thugs or a surreal Mad Chorus of three women's voices. The twelve-piece pit ensemble under the expert direction of Leslie Dala was always tightly synchronized with the complex onstage action, which could not have been easy with a score that had to be absolutely new to the players. Alan Brodie's lighting was a major factor throughout but especially in transforming the moment when Akakiy first appears at the office in his magnificent new overcoat into a visual tour-de-force that had the audience, as it were, in stitches.

Panych's eloquent, kinetic direction and Gorling's ever-watchful eye coordinating the nervy, resdess onstage movement added up to a fast-paced but highly cohesive night at the opera--and yet another slant on Gogol's wickedly satirical original. --Robert Jordan

Gianni Schicchi has ben paired with a variety of one act operas, but seldom in Vancouver with its stable mate, Il tabarro. Nancy Hermiston, who has a special touch with Puccini (having staged Vancouver Opera's La Boheme in 2012 and 2016) matched them up for UBC Opera at the university's Old Auditorium with brilliant results. Her firm direction exploring all the subtleties of both operas (seen Jun. 23) gave the audience an evening to savour and cherish.

With the confident leadership of Leslie Dala in the pit conducting the Vancouver Opera Orchestra, the student cast created two perfectly balanced gems from Puccini's trilogy, Il trittico. The set for Il tabarro by Alessia Carpoca was realistic and infinitely functional: the doors and windows opened easily, the gang plank was stable and the barge almost seemed to be rocking gently in the Seine. For Gianni Schicchi, the design was traditional 13th-century Florentine, with a high curtained bed and a large cassone at its foot. Lighting by Jeremy Baxter set the very different moods for each opera.

As Michele, the barge captain in Il tabarro, Jason Klipperstein introduced an aura of discontent at the outset with his well articulated baritone, only to have his concerns dismissed by his wife Giorgetta (soprano Gwendolyn Yearwood), as a result of his "ageing." With suspicions unallayed, he muses about the men who might possibly be involved with her. Discovering Luigi (tenor Turgut Akmete) coming for an assignation with Giorgetta, he confronts and murders him, concealing him in his cloak (the titular il tabarro) until he is able to expose her dead lover's body to his wife. Akmete has a clear and resonant tenor voice that blended well with the vibrant sonority of Yearwood.

Gianni Schicchi begins with fake tears as the relatives 'mourn' the death of the wealthy Buoso Donati--tears which are quickly transformed to real ones once his will is read, disinheriting them all. By the operas end, they are changed to tears of joy for the new will created by the wily Gianni Schicchi, but all ends in tears and anger when they learn he has left the fortune to himself to provide his daughter Lauretta with a dowry to marry the man she loves. Schicchi was beautifully sung and humorously acted by baritone Sunghoon Oh. His daughter, Lauretta, soprano Cassandra Karvonen, delivered the most famous aria in the opera, if not all operas(!),"O mio babbino caro," with love and respect.

The other members of the cast exhibited excellent ensemble work, portraying their characters with sincerity and panache. Outstanding among them was bass Luka Kawabata, hilarious as Buoso s poor, stoned brother-in-law.

This double bill made for a great season-end wrap-up before the class flies out for its annual summer opera experience in Europe.--Hilary Clark
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Author:Jordan, Robert; Clark, Hilary
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Mar 22, 2018
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