North Saskatchewan stars in river­side opera

Edmonton Journal - - A&E - ED­MON­TON

We use many words to de­scribe opera — ad­jec­tives like grand, melo­dra­matic, larger than life. “In­ti­mate” isn’t what usu­ally comes to mind. Typ­i­cally, op­eras are played in large au­di­to­ri­ums where we can’t help but feel dis­tanced from the action be­ing played out on stage.

Mer­cury Opera’s new pro­duc­tion of Puc­cini’s Il Tabarro is a very dif­fer­ent kind of show, a fresh, in­ti­mate piece of out­door the­atre that gives its au­di­ence the feel of eaves­drop­ping on real peo­ple with real prob­lems.

Il Tabarro, or The Cloak, tells the story of Michele, a barge owner, who fears his young wife, Gior­getta, is tir­ing of him. When he dis­cov­ers Gior­getta’s plans to run away with a hand­some young steve­dore, Luigi, his jeal­ousy ex­plodes in mur­der­ous rage.

The one-act opera was orig­i­nally set on a barge on the River Seine. Mer­cury’s in­ven­tive artis­tic di­rec­tor and pro­ducer, Dar­cia Parada, who also sings Gior­getta, had the in­spi­ra­tion to move the action from Paris to post-Civil War New Orleans, and to mount her pro­duc­tion on the Ed­mon­ton Queen pad­dle­wheeler.

The action un­furls on the boat deck, the gang­planks and the rocky shores of the North Saskatchewan, while the au­di­ence watches from the steps of Rafter’s Land­ing.

It might sound like a mere mar­ket­ing gim­mick — es­pe­cially given that your ticket in­cludes a pre-show river boat cruise, com­plete with figs and brie. But the­atri­cally, Parada’s con­cept works. The au­di­ence is in the cen­tre of the action, just a few me­tres from steve­dores and strolling mu­si­cians who dab­ble their hands in the river or toss rocks into the wa­ter. Be­cause Il Tabarro is so rarely per­formed, it doesn’t have the big “hit” arias of Puc­cini’s best-known works, Madama But­ter­fly and La Bo­heme. Since you’re not wait­ing for show-stop­ping chest­nuts, it’s eas­ier to lose your­self in the story, to watch, not a for­mal, rit­u­al­ized opera, but a hu­man-scale drama with all the sul­try pas­sion of a play by Ten­nessee Wil­liams.

It helps, too, that Parada’s cast can act as well as sing — par­tic­u­larly smoul­der­ing bari­tone Zurab Ninua, who plays the cuck­olded hus­band Michele with Othello-like men­ace.

But while Parada’s the­atri­cal ex­per­i­ment suc­ceeds bril­liantly, her mu­si­cal ad­ven­ture is less suc­cess­ful. In an at­tempt to com­pen­sate for the dis­tance be­tween the up­per boat deck and the au­di­ence on shore, Mer­cury uses mi­cro­phones to pump the mu­sic back out through an on­shore speaker. It cre­ates the un­for­tu­nate ef­fect of lis­ten­ing not to live per­form­ers, but to poorly recorded canned mu­sic. Even leav­ing aside the feed­back squeals and mike pops, the am­pli­fi­ca­tion is wildly un­even. The small or­ches­tra is miked well — too well, so that the 15 mu­si­cians fre­quently over­whelm the singers.

De­pend­ing where she’s stand­ing, Parada’s light so­prano of­ten dis­ap­pears en­tirely, mak­ing her Gior­getta a ghostly ab­sence, rather than a com­mand­ing pres­ence. Only Chris­tian Se­bek, as Luigi, has a voice, and a dra­matic per­sona, big enough to over­come the curse of the sound sys­tem, as he fills the river val­ley with his warm, vir­ile tenor.

The cast ap­par­ently had only one chance to prac­tise with the sound sys­tem — a dire hand­i­cap. Tech­nol­ogy sold their hu­man tal­ent short.

Yet de­spite those real short­com­ings, Mer­cury Opera’s risk largely pays off. Il Tabarro works as a de­light­ful sum­mer di­ver­sion, opera al fresco. Its true star is the North Saskatchewan, as dra­matic a back­drop as the Seine or the Mis­sis­sippi could ever be. Parada and her am­bi­tious com­pany de­serve ev­ery en­cour­age­ment to keep find­ing ways to take opera to new venues — and new audiences.

SHAUGHN BUTTS, THE JOUR­NAL

Dar­cia Parada as Gior­getta and Chris­tian Se­bek as Luigi re­hearse for Il Tabarro, set on the Ed­mon­ton Queen.

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