Opening Opera Hamilton’s season with Mozart’s morality tale of the music’s power over mere mortals turned out to be an ideal choice on many planes.
Originally to have been seen and heard a year ago, the financial strain on the now-defunct Opera Ontario (which included performances both in Hamilton and Kitchener-Waterloo’s Centre in the Square) was too much to bear—no amount of institutional or corporate magic could prevent a largely “dark” year, giving the front office and the beleaguered board some breathing room before administering the last rites or rising from the ashes fuelled by unbounded ego and willfull blindness.
There’s been no shortage of other nearby arts organizations finding themselves in similar peril. With the arrival of music director James Sommerville and a Herculean effort from volunteers, staff, and players, the Hamilton Philharmonic is well-positioned to dramatically improve its bottom line and musical standards.
Just down the ever-widening QEW, the abrupt departure of long-time conductor Daniel Swift has afforded that organization the wonderful opportunity of rethinking its artistic vision even as it makes steady progress towards slaying the financial albatross of accumulated debt.
A couple of years back, the Kitcher-Waterloo Symphony made unwanted headlines as its artistic and management leaders couldn’t solve their differences behind closed doors.
The similarity of all of these highly charged, art-threatening situations (quality is often the first casualty of “reinvigorating” these precious recreators of our most universal art) is the heartening unwillingness of the public and governments to let their companies die. Why should anyone bother when, arguably, higher quality is readily close by in either Toronto, Buffalo or just a Porter flight away in the Big Apple? Don’t more and more prefer to stay home and savour their digital paradise of the world’s most spectacular creations?
Simply put, it’s the chance that at any time, at any performance the elements of talent, tone and temperament will combine to unleash unforgettable moments of emotion and pleasure that immediately forgive the lopsided balance sheets or—just seconds before—dank intonation and shaky ensemble.
At the Hamilton Place opener, both the ecstasy and agony of Mozart’s last opera shared the stage and the pit.
It was instantly clear from the incredibly pedestrian and untidy reading of the Overture that it would fall to the singers to provide any musical excitement or beauty. Conductor David Speers seemed content to beat time, letting the details of dynamics and heavenly phrases wither on the vine. The recitatives largely lacked punch and the transitions from one tempo to another frequently drew unwanted attention. With such an onerous task already as the general and artistic director, perhaps there weren’t enough hours left in the day for what—finally—matters most.
Happily the voices rewarded the audience with largely satisfying results. At the head of the class was Kevin Langan’s magnificent portrayal of Sarastro. Here is a consummate artist whose beautifully nuanced, compelling voice rendered the bass lines as well as anyone has or will. Equally convincing were his acting skills which subtly sculpted the complex character of a tough-love ruler.
At the other end of the spectrum was Audrey Elizabeth Luna’s attempt to sing the storied, stratospheric part of the Queen of the Night. What the upper reaches lacked in pitch was only overshadowed by rhythmic inaccuracy (clearly the latter being her own reaction to the former). More’s the pity as Luna’s presence and verbal characterization was at one with stage director Michael Cavanagh’s in-your-face-diva design.
Shannon Mercer was a fine Pamina with only a slight edge in the upper register interrupting the ebb and flow as she finds love, seems to be shunned by her intended, then contemplates “marrying a dagger,” before the trio of “boy” spirits (sung and played with zest and exuberance by Sarah Barr, Katerina Gimon, and Katherine Lynn Barr) proved that—in the affairs of the heart—silence speaks louder than words. Tamino, the object of her desire was Colin Ainsworth whose fluid tenor and engaging visage were utilized to great advantage while passing through Sarastro’s trials along the path of truth.
The famous birdman (Papageno) provides comic relief as the love story progresses. Alexander Dobson soared through his music with style, flair and understanding that will keep his schedule full for decades. Sadly, the dialogues (in English while the vocal portions remained in German) have been “adapted”—like Gilbert and Sullivan—to include present-day issues (e.g., avian flu) that drew a few chuckles but seemed totally at odds with the music.
Rounding out the troupe were the Queen of the Night’s attendants (Leslie Ann Bradley, Michèle Bogdanowicz, Wendy Hatala Foley), knocking off the Sesame Street serpent with ease and singing up a storm in garb that would be the envy of drag queens everywhere. Gerald Isaac’s Monostatos—even as the long white drape missed an early cue—was more than up to the task of guiding his colleagues about their business.
Welcome back Opera Hamilton: here’s to more magic ahead! JWR