Concert Review: Passionate Puccini!

“Welcome to Hamilton’s Opera House!”

These are the words I have used for several years to introduce the opening night of the Buchanan Park Elementary School Opera Club’s annual production.
The line always gets a laugh, as we are all squeezed into a barebones, rather dingy elementary school gym that teacher Dawn Martens’ wonderful children will turn into a land of magic.
As with all laughs, its seeds are in tragedy. Not five minutes away, sits a world class opera house built by the citizens of Hamilton’s monthly contributions from hard earned pay cheques. For years It has been bereft of the world class opera that once made it’s rafters ring and its citizens proud.

So, imagine my joy as I sat in First Ontario Concert Hall, (a.k.a. Hamilton Place) Saturday night and heard the magnificent voice of tenor Luc Robert sing Che gelida manina from Puccini’s most popular opera, La Boheme.

I bowed my head and tears poured down my cheeks. Even I was shocked at that.

The occasion was BrottOpera’s Passionate Puccini.

Artistic Director Boris Brott had gathered up his wonderful National Academy Orchestra, three brilliant, internationally acclaimed singers, soprano  Mary Dunleavy, tenor Luc Robert and baritone James Westman, armfuls of Puccini’s most passionate arias and enough support from Hamilton City itself to pry open the doors of the prohibitively expensive Hamilton Place to take the first cautious steps in returning great opera to Hamilton’s true Opera House.

How the armfuls of delicious song were gathered from the rich fields of Puccini’s genius I have no idea.
All “best of” compilations generate  furious arguments that are great fun.

“We had Tosca and a tenor and no E lucevan le stelle,” etc. etc. etc.

Never mind all that, we had soprano Dunleavy give us a ravishing Un bel di from Madama Butterfly, warm her tiny frozen hand with an utterly charming Mi chiamano Mimi and break our hearts with a tragic Senza Mamma from Suor Angelica. James Westman’s noble baritone foamed with jealous rage in Michele’s aria from Il Tabarro, The Cloak he will tear aside to show his wife her lover freshly strangled by him. But he really made the flesh crawl as evil police chief Scarpia lustfully gloating over his ambitions to ravage Tosca while kneeling in hypocritical prayer as the Te Deum fills the Cathedral. Ah, Opera. How I have missed you.

The perennial star of Italian opera, however, is always the tenor.

And Luc Robert has the voice and what I love to call insouciance. A devil. may care rascality that great tenors must have because every time they open their mouths to sing they test the very limits of human physical possibility. His Nessun Dorma brought the house to its feet in roaring approval and brought more depth to the feckless yankee Pinkerton than any I’ve heard before. He shared star of the evening honours with the consummate accompanying of Brott and his superb Academy orchestra. Honourable mentions go to the fine work of the chorus and tenor James Smith who left the chorus ranks to fill gaps to excellent effect. Jacqui Muir’s projections in lieu of scenery were most effective.

One of the dangers of the PopOpera/Popera format is the fact the singers must turn to see the conductor who is not in front of them in the pit but behind them with the orchestra on stage. The separation of singer and score can happen in a nano second. How this was prevented in the final scene of Tosca was a marvel of Brott’s professional skill and brilliant singing by Dunleavy.
Co-Artistic Director Taras Kulish’s intros to each operatic segment were probably the only practical answer to the lack of surtitles but the costuming I felt was a distracting mistake.

U.S. Navy Lieutenant Pinkerton looked like a White Russian deserter (with bright red socks in case the other side won?) and Butterfly didn’t fly. Only Scarpia looked right and unless these things are done perfectly they should remain undone. Perhaps the easel and painting could have reappeared in Tosca to explain the paint stains on Caravadossi’s smock?
What we never expect from “best of” compilations is a very, very rare piece of music.

The show opened with Puccini’s Scherzo in a minor written in first year composition studies in Milan as part of a string quartet and later arranged for string orchestra. Perhaps the piece he wrote just before that, a song called Melancholia might have been more characteristic of his melodic sense but it has been lost to us. Probably just as the ink dried on the paper.
Loud and long bravos for all who made this first cautious step. Brott described it as “taking a shot” at bringing opera back. It’s now up to us to load the guns.

By Hugh Fraser

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