University of Toronto Opera. George Frideric Handel’s Imeneo. Tim Albery (director) Michelle Tracey (design), Jason Hand (lighting). At MacMillan Theatre. Sunday, March 19.
One of the pleasures of opera-going in Toronto is the opportunities to hear up and coming voices. And this week is a particularly good one, with both RCM/GGS’s La cecchina and the U of T Opera’s Imeneo running simultaneously.
Last evening, I attended the third of a four-performance run of Imeneo, at the MacMillan Theatre. Instead of sitting in regular seats in the auditorium, the audience was put on stage, within a few feet of the performers! It makes for a very intimate experience, the stated objective by director Tim Albery and set designer Michelle Tracy, in the Director’s Comments in the program. The small chamber orchestra was placed on one side. This has the effect of drastically reducing the theatre capacity from 815 seats down to about 250. Seating is unassigned, first come first served.
With that in mind, I decided to show up super-early for a good spot. It meant waiting/standing in a narrow corridor with a bunch of people for what seemed an eternity, in a very confined, uncomfortable space with zero air circulation. Thankfully, the door opened 30 minutes before the show, thus avoiding any possible asphyxiation of elderly patrons in the lineup! I lucked out by getting a fantastic seat, in the second row, in the middle. Others were less fortunate.
Not surprisingly, the middle section had the best vantage point and the most balanced sound. I spoke to a few people seated on the two sides at intermission, and they either complained about having to cope with a loud orchestra, or having to crane one’s neck to catch the action on the far side. I mention all this because while my own experience was very enjoyable thanks to my location, others may not feel the same. Your mileage may vary, as they say.
Imeneo is an obscure Handel piece, and for good reason. The music has flashes of greatness, but never quite makes it. It’s relatively short and has only five principals plus chorus, a manageable size for student productions. I believe McGill put it on a few seasons back. The plot is quite simple. A young woman, Rosmene, has been abducted by pirates. She, together with a friend, Clomiri, are saved by Imeneo, who gets on the pirate ship disguised as a woman. Imeneo falls in love with Rosmene and wants to claim her as his bride. But Rosmene loves Tirinto, the brother of Clomiri, who in turn loves Imeneo. The story centers on Rosmene having to choose between a man she loves or the one who saved her life. Confusing? Well, it’s par for the course when it comes to baroque opera plots!
As is typical of Handel, the arias are in the Da Capo style, and given there’s a dearth of action on stage, and the repeats can be a bit tedious. It could use some judicious cutting, although I am told there were only minimal cuts of the repeats given the shortness of the piece. Tim Albery’s inventive directorial touches managed to create action where there was none, in any case, clever enough to hold my interest. The staging and costumes were all modern if somewhat indeterminate in time. Musically, things moved along well, thanks to the excellent chamber orchestra under the joint directorship of Daniel Taylor and Adrian Butterfield. Right in front of where I was sitting was a loudspeaker, presumably to augment the chamber orchestra, particularly the harpsichord.
I liked the singing from all five soloists, with top vocal honours going to bass-baritone Joel Allison as Imeneo. He sang with beautiful, rich, ringing tone, and his Italian diction was exemplary. Sarah Amelard has a pleasant, light lyric soprano and she was a convincing Rosmene. Baritone Micah Schroeder sang a good Argenio, the head of the household and the father of both Clomiri and Tirinto. That said, he desperately needed old makeup — it took me awhile to figure out the relationships of the characters! While I’m at it, Rebecca Apps (Clomiri) should not have to endure all of Act 1 wearing floral-patterned tights in a baroque opera. Tirinto, here a trouser role, is perhaps the least interesting — all he does is mope around, pining for Rosmene. After a bit of a nervous start — hers was the first voice of the evening — high mezzo Camille Rogers sang well as Tirinto, although one wished for a bit more volume. The eight-person chorus supplied not just healthy, fresh voices capably, but also served as furniture movers.
At the end of the day, a legitimate question needs to be asked. Was the unconventional staging, with all the accompanying disruption, worth it? Couldn’t theatrical intimacy be achieved some other, less intrusive way? This sort of staging seems to be de rigueur in contemporary theatre these days, but its relative utility in opera staging remains questionable. Could a smaller venue like Walter Hall be used? Granted, it would not be possible to fit all the props used for this production, or have the necessary stage machinery. Personally, I had a good experience, but I am also aware of complaints by other patrons. If I had a bad seat, I think I would have felt quite differently. As I see it, directorial creativity is all well and good, but in the final analysis, it should be the audience experience that comes first.