The Little Opera Company has an impressive, 21-year record of showcasing local talent, maintaining that tradition by opening its 2016/17 season with the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel's Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock. The four-show production at the Canadian Mennonite University's Laudamus Auditorium last December was directed by Donna Fletcher, with Weisensel, who also penned Vancouver Opera's acclaimed Stickboy in 2014, leading the five-piece string orchestra, including two celli.
Set at the height of the Great War, the one-act, through-composed opera is loosely based on the beloved Canadian writer's quasi-autobiographical short story, in which an author--Leacock--struggles to pen a Christmas tale while grappling with horrific daily headlines. An all-knowing spirit, Time, and a shell-shocked Father Christmas guide him to realizing that his writing will only help bring joy to a wounded world.
Winnipeg-born, now Toronto-based James McLennan, as Leacock, first declaims: "The spirit, the beauty, the joy is gone," his tenor voice clear and even. He brought requisite angst to the title role, moving through despondency to ultimate hope and renewal. The cast also included two local artists: Rachel Landrecht (Weisensel's wife) sensitively crafted a benevolent Time. Her expressive soprano matched equally by her warm stage presence were immediately apparent in her opening aria, "I Am the Spirit of Time." Winnipeg baritone Matthew Pauls created a shaggy, heart-breaking Father Christmas, who staggers into Leacock's den with his sack of torn, soaked books and asks for schnapps to blunt his pain. His begging of Time to "Give Me Back My Children" rang with sorrow.
The opera proved at its best during the fuller trios, including its emotional climax. When the ensemble sings, "Children Are the Future," greater dramatic impact is created by its close-knit harmonies and vocal counterpoint. Also strong were the more textural sections, including the strings' pizzicato accompaniment that allowed more opportunity to hear the individual singers in Weisensel's compact, often densely written orchestration.
Fletcher's skillful direction successfully navigated the logistics of the tiny stage, with Sean McMullen's homey set given greater visual depth by Aiden Ritchie's archival video of harrowing trench warfare and potent images of embattled children.
Balance issues proved, at times, challenging, with the two male singers at risk of being masked whenever the higher strings came into play. The narrative's central plot device, a relatively tiny wooden toy horse that gets mended with beeswax, thus becoming a metaphor for hope and healing, did not read effectively. Still, kudos to TLOC for choosing this opera as one of its two seasonal offerings and for its proud ongoing championing of Winnipeg's lively arts community.--Holly Harris
Caption: James McLennan in the. title role of The Little Opera Company's staging of Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock