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Opera review: Lesson of Da Ji well taught by Toronto Masque Theatre

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Derek Kwan and Marion Newman, to the right, are standouts in Toronto Masque Theatre's premiere of The Lesson of Da Ji at the Al Green Theatre (John Terauds phone photo).
Derek Kwan and Marion Newman, to the right, are standouts in Toronto Masque Theatre’s premiere of The Lesson of Da Ji at the Al Green Theatre (John Terauds phone photo).

Toronto Masque Theatre is closing its season with three performances of a double-bill entitled The Lessons of Love. It pairs John Blow’s 17th century classic, Venus and Adonis, with the premiere of The Lesson of Da Ji by composer Alice Ping Yee Ho and librettist Marjorie Chan at the Al Green Theatre.

At the opening performance on Friday night, the new piece, by far the most challenging of the two works, received a stellar staging. John Blow’s piece, while carried off in the right spirit of masque-like entertainment, left a bit to be desired.

Let’s celebrate Toronto Masque Theatre’s success first.

Alice Ho has managed the most difficult of composerly feats, in bringing together traditional Chinese instruments with baroque-period western ones. Sitting with the violins, viola, gamba, flute, harpsichord and lute was a percussion array as well as three Chinese instruments: a pipa (lute), erhu (lap violin) and guzheng (zyther).

Ho’s orchestration moved freely between instruments and sections of the orchestra, periodically switching into giving us mesmerising solos by one of the players. It probably helps that period Western instruments are quieter than modern ones, allowing them to balance more easily with their Chinese counterparts.

Toronto Masque Theatre founding artistic director Larry Beckwith usually leads the orchestra with his violin, but in The Lesson of Da Ji, he picked up a baton to play the role of a traditional conductor, making everything flow smoothly.

Mezzo Marion Newman stood out in this excellently prepared cast ably directed by Derek Boyes.

Newman, who is on stage for the opera’s full hour, was able to bring a wide dramatic and vocal range to the role of Da Ji, the royal concubine whose love affair with her music teacher gets undone in a grisly way by her master, the King (in a wonderfully committed performance by bass-baritone Alex Dobson).

Tenor Derek Kwan was satisfying as lover Bo Yi, and there are two scenes featuring nice work from local Peking Opera master William Lau and soprano Vania Chan.

Dancer-choreographer Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière, who usually works in baroque style, provided a great banquet-scene solo in a completely different style — but her short haircut and silk gown made her look more like an escapee from a 1920s drawing room than a participant in a 3,000-year-old tale.

Ho’s music really came to life during that final banquet scene, which also featured some very clever interplay between Chinese and Western  instruments.

The whole premiere was so tight and nicely staged with projected-image sets by Caroline Guilbault and convincing costmes by Angela Thomas that it made a very strong case for this opera to be presented again as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, Venus and Adonis felt like this production’s poor cousin — saved by soprano Charlotte Corwin’s magnificent Venus and the wonderful talents of Lacoursière and her dance partner Marie-Laurence Primeau (who also showed herself to be a fine recorder player).

Beckwith’s orchestra did a tidy job, but the vocally uneven cast made the first half of the evening sound a bit threadbare.

That said, it’s worth sitting through this old baroque chestnut to sample something exciting and new that reaches across genres and cultures. Performances continue to Sunday afternoon (details here).

John Terauds

 

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