North Saskatchewan stars in riverside opera
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.