A new production of Rudolf Friml’s 1924 operetta Rose Marie premiered on April 15, the first full production by Toronto newest opera company, Wish Opera founded last year by soprano Tonia Cianciulli.  The production was generally well cast and demonstrated that the work is still stage-worthy.  Yet, any new endeavour can’t be expected to get everything right the very first time, and Wish Opera should be prepared to learn from its mistakes.  While Rose Marie was musically quite good, the overall experience of seeing the opera was not.

The first difficulty was the venue itself, the John Bassett Theatre in the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.  If the auditorium for an operatic presentation is so large that it requires amplification, it is simply too big.  The Basset Theatre has 1000 seats but the large balcony was nearly empty suggesting that the 500-seat Jane Mallett Theatre where the Toronto Operetta Theatre performs without amplification would be more appropriate.  Unlike the Mallett, the Bassett does have a pit, but it is so deep and Wish Opera’s orchestra so small (only 14 strong), that it had to be miked. The TOT often uses an orchestra of 14 to 16, but they are placed on the same level as the audience.

In the few moments when the sound technician forgot to turn on the mics, it was clear that the Bassett Theatre has a dead acoustic.  It was intended for conference presentations, not music, which is why the stage itself had to be miked, amplifying not only the singers but their footsteps.  Wish Opera at this time can afford only minimal set decoration.  The Bassett Theatre stage opening is so wide, it only emphasizes the paucity on stage.  Wish Opera wants to use real designer fashions, furniture, lighting fixtures and jewelry in its shows, but for an audience to appreciate items which are ultimately intended to be seen close up, a more intimate space is a necessity.

It is admirable for Wish Opera to seek to attract new audiences to opera, but it also has a responsibility to ensure that its audiences are aware of theatre etiquette.  Ms. Cianciulli spoke before the presentation but there were none of the warnings that precede all theatre presentations nowadays and none in the programme.  As a result, the performance was plagued throughout with cellphones ringing, bursts of flash photography and the constant goings and comings of patrons.  This was disturbing not only to the audience members but to the artists on stage.  The playing of recorded music in the auditorium immediately before and after the opera and during intermission was a further insult to the performers.  We have come to hear a live performance and live music and applause should be the first and last things we hear.

Setting these difficulties aside, Wish Opera fielded a generally fine cast.  Mezzo-soprano Maude Brunet was charming and effervescent in the title role with a voice that was at once rich and bright.  Todd Delaney as Rose Marie’s beloved Jim make a strong impression with his full yet agile baritone.  One might have thought that the once-popular “Indian Love Call” was too hackneyed now to be effective, yet when sung with such youthful ardour by Brunet and Delaney its attractions shone like new.

In the comic parallel plot baritone Michael York was a standout as Sergeant Malone in charge of a troupe of Mounties arrayed in dress uniforms throughout.  York captured exactly the right spirit for such a show--a sense of fun that never descended into camp.  As the cowardly “Hard-Boiled” Herman, Bass Dann Mitton displayed his huge, rich voice and contralto Deborah Overes as Lady Jane, his on-again-off-again girlfriend could be depended on both for comedy and fine singing.

The name of bass-baritone Olivier Laquerre raised expectations, but his role as Rose Marie’s brother turned out to be primarily a speaking part.  Geoffrey Butler as Hawley, the villain of the piece was too weak vocally and dramatically to be effective.  The same could be said for Sarah Christine Steinert as the Native woman Wanda, whose role demanded more intensity than it was given.

Stage director Lesley Ballantyne did little more than traffic control.  She seemed to provide no guidance in interpreting the story or the characters, leaving the singers to fend for themselves.  Phil Chart’s lighting design left much to be desired, especially when he allowed the elaborately costumed Okama Native Dancers to perform in near darkness.  Cianciulli’s notion of wedding designer fashion to opera produced certain anomalies.  Even though the setting was moved from the 1920s to the present, with BlackBerries and all, it is more than a bit improbable to find the female patrons of Lady Jane’s saloon in Fond-du-Lac, Saskatchewan, sporting haute couture.

Maestro Kerry Stratton coped with the adverse conditions as best he could, including being tapped on the shoulder during the performance by a patron who wanted him to move his podium light.  The amplification which tended to muddy the sound in general was especially unkind in emphasizing the artificial sounds of the electronic piano over the other instruments.

Until Wish Opera has developed a product that demands a larger space, the company’s first priority should be to find a more appropriate (i.e., smaller) venue where opera can be sung and played without amplification.  As much as opera is an amalgamation of all the arts, the music must come before all else.  Wish Opera will succeed only if creating a first-class, live musical experience becomes its primarily goal.

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