Photo by Chung Chow
It had been a long day. Two press conferences, a tour, three stories to write, a photo shoot at the Sharing Farm, then a rush home for a quick supper before heading out to the Old Auditorium at UBC for the School of Music’s latest opera evening. My companion came along reluctantly, after his work day and an hour struggling to put together a second-hand greenhouse in the heat. It did not bode well. Opera is not his favourite.
The first surprise was how close the parking was, a half block walk. The second surprise was the revamped Old Auditorium. It is now a proper theatre with high-backed seats and the best leg room I have ever encountered.
Students in costume wandered the lobby offering 50-50 tickets. It was a warm evening. The UBC Opera hoodies sales were poor but the fizzy Italian orange drinks sold briskly.
Then the anticipation started as the professional Vancouver Opera Orchestra tuned up, the director Nancy Hermiston spoke, and the overture commenced.
The set for Il Tobarro (The Cloak), Paris early 1900s, was a river barge tied to both shores. In opera, as in most dramas, the audience needs to suspend their disbelief. Thus begins the tragic tale of love lost and forbidden love.
One love lost is the dead child of the young wife Giorgetta, sung by Gwendolyn Yearwood, and her much older barge-owning husband Michele, sung by Jason Klipperstein. The other love lost is that of the wife for her elderly spouse. The forbidden love is the young wife’s for the handsome young deckhand, Luigi, sung by Turgut Akmete in a stand-out performance with a commanding presence and a rich, clear voice.
For Giorgetta and Luigi, their passion is clear. Their path is not.
Even coming up for air with small breaks for comic relief, including the Mindinettes who include Richmond resident Tessa Waddell, and with a song about the benefits of drinking at the end of a day of hard labour on the docks, “Happiness lies at the bottom of a glass,” the drama runs apace.
Though written before movies had sound, let alone music tracks, the device of violins playing repetitive high notes to let the audience know something nefarious is afoot, comes alive under Puccini’s pen. The tension builds as Luigi brings a knife, intent on killing his love’s husband, so she can belong to him. (Again, suspend disbelief. Feminism wasn’t a thing then. It’s opera. Anything can happen.)
Spoiler alert: Old age and treachery beat youth, as Michele ends up killing Luigi, then hiding him under a great cloak. When Giorgetta arrives try to restart their marriage, after a brief musical discussion, Michele opens his cloak, revealing Luigi’s body.
It is engrossing and gripping, even for those who don’t think they like opera. Live opera bears little resemblance to the clips seen on TV or apps. The whole experience envelops the audience with music and spectacle. The costumes are spot on, setting the mood as much as the scenery, the orchestra, the lighting and the voices.
At the intermission, we tried to see the write-ups on each of the performers. The posters around the lobby were too hard to get to though. It would have been nice to have everyone’s bio in the program but, in a student production, cost is always a factor. It was the only time the issue of student versus professional came into play. All of the opera-goers asked raved about the quality of production. This is not Mrs. Klopushak’s elementary, or even high school, kids’ concert. It is professional in quality.
After going through the emotional wringer, we took a deep breath as the music started for the second opera, Gianni Schicchi (“Johnny Skeeky”) also penned by Puccini. Tessa Waddell, when interviewed, had claimed it was laugh-out-loud funny. It was. The scene opens in a luxurious home in Florence in 1299, with a dead person lying in an elaborate bed. Everyone tries to outdo themselves with their shows of grief, including the drunken scheming uncle running around in rags, pocketing valuables throughout the entire opera.
The vast cast featured many stand-out performances but what stands out most in memory is the laughter. The audience couldn’t help itself. Seeing roots of pantomime and even the political satire of Gilbert and Sullivan, Puccini’s comic opera is rollicking good fun. If you are sure you hate opera, give this a try. It’s full of naughty jokes that remind one of Shakespeare’s naughty bits or the ribald humour of BBC’s upper class quiz show, QI.
The story line in Gianni Schicchi starts with the death of a wealthy Florentine, his family’s discovery that he has left all his money to the church, and the family’s determination to fake a new will where they will divide up the spoils by having a local wheeler-dealer, Gianni Schicchi, impersonate the dead man to authorize a revised will.
This opera contains surprises. When taken in context, the gorgeous love song often sung as a moving solo, “O mio babbino caro” is actually a daughter saying the horrible things she will do to herself if her father, sweetly entreated, will not let her marry the man she loves. So too is the song that, on the surface, sounds like an ode to Florence when in context, it tells of the raw justice to be suffered if anyone reneges on the crooked deal the assembled family is cooking up; they will be exiled from their beloved Florence, after some particularly gruesome physical punishment. All the while, the ne’er do well wanders about, like a scruffy Johnny Depp in a pirate movie, nicking the candlesticks and other finery.
It all ends in a mad romp.
We left UBC’s Old Auditorium upbeat and reinvigorated. It was a joy. If you have ever laughed at antics on screen or in a play, if you have ever taken delight in poking fun at the elite, or if you have ever enjoyed an evening out at the theatre, give these UBC Opera performances a try. You won’t be sorry.
Performances continue through Sunday afternoon, June 24. Tickets: click or phone 604-822-6725 or in person at the Old Auditorium box office.