Hi! Hi! Nearly two years of pandemic silence since its last fully staged production in November 2019, Manitoba Opera has decided to return to the show Friday night on a ringtone and a prayer, featuring two intimate chamber operas inspired by the humble phone. .
The company, now 49, is gradually returning to a standstill season, presenting two back-to-back performances on weekends instead of its typical three shows that take place over a week. Seeing familiar, albeit masked, faces in most older generations, an audience physically distant from the Centennial Concert Hall seemed both familiar and surreal as if the last 20 months of the pandemic just hadn’t happened – so that it is so clear that they did.
The mainstay of the 105-minute program (including intermission) turned out to be Poulenc’s lyrical tragedy The Human Voice, (Human voice) composed in 1958 and based on the monodrama of the same name by French writer Jean Cocteau. It tells the emotional outcome of the character simply dubbed “She” during his last phone call to his five-year-old lover on the eve of his marriage to another.
However, the captivating opera also quickly became a showcase for the incomparable Canadian singer Lara Ciekiewicz, who also played the title role in the November 2019 MO production of Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah”, becoming a line-up. opera between the world we once knew, and the one with which we continue to struggle.
The Winnipeg-based soprano’s flawless performance, including laser diction of the French text, accurate intonation, and an innate ability to probe the depths of her being to create fully believable and painfully human characters is, as expected, too. powerful than ever, despite a void of live performance opportunities since March 2020 that has challenged even the most resolute.
The singer also had her work cut out for her in a leading role. Performing an entire 40-minute opera entirely solo, while bringing on stage an unusual Winnipeg symphony orchestra artfully conducted by Naomi Woo is no small feat. Ciekiewicz finely navigated the prismatic emotional shifts in his character’s narrative arc, filling the stage effectively lit by strategically dispersed tungsten lamps evoking the ghost lights of the theater while punctuating his overall performance with thoughtful and clear intention.
Several moments particularly resonated, such as Elle collapsing to the ground after hearing her unseen / unheard of lover tell her over the phone that he has to get married tomorrow, thus realizing the holy grail of directing – making sure that the public cares. Ciekiewicz also managed to walk a tightrope by instilling empathy for his increasingly desperate character’s suicidal thoughts without resorting to tearful melodrama.
There were also a few shocks that infused her performance with darker undertow and undertone, further enhanced by her 50s-style satin white suit evoking a wedding dress, evening gown, or funeral shroud. Suddenly ripping off Elle’s black wig as she chants mesmerized “lies” – and you could finally see her entire face – with that peeling off of her protective shell suggesting a whole new story with its own raw, emotional layers.
However, we needed to see more of those moments, and Jacqueline Loewen’s extremely sensitive direction (early MO) could have gone even further, including increasing Elle’s sensuality and even eroticism; especially since she anthropomorphized her phone to become her lover during the last moments of the opera.
One of the most terrifying scenes in the opera comes when She wraps the telephone cord around her neck – an ophelian moment from the mid-20th century, if there ever was one – symbolizing an emotional umbilical cord for her lover without name. However, she later ripped the cord off the unit at the end, an alleged act of empowering and freeing her callous lover was not fully read as the series’ heartbreaking climax felt too safe. .
We need to be gripped, sitting on the edge of our seats, and not just wondering what happened, and this true opera star is more than capable of really going there; chilling us to the bone or completely breaking our hearts as she has done many times before, with Ciekiewicz nonetheless receiving a well-deserved standing ovation for her convincing performance.
The double bill also included Menotti’s opera buffa The phone sung in English and performed by Winnipeg soprano Lida Szkwarek as Lucy, opposite Ben by Toronto baritone Johnathon Kirby. What a pleasure to finally hear these singers finally tread these boards together, both initially projected in the fateful production and canceled by COVID-19 of Bizet Carmen in March 2020.
Loewen carried the roughly 20-minute opera premiered in 1947, also comfortable on a Broadway stage, and generally associated with Menotti’s longer supernatural companion opera. The way, in the days of the 21st century, as Lucy gossips and chats not on a traditional landline phone like Ben tries to suggest to her, but on her mobile, ringing and selfie smartphone. This smart director’s choice instilled greater relevance and resonance while addressing contemporary life lived through ubiquitous cell phones and digital screens.
Szkwarek delivered a confident and self-assured portrayal of his denim-clad character, who is innocent and aware of the growing exasperation of her would-be fiancé on his way to catch his train. Her nimble voice was immediately apparent, as she easily handled Menotti’s quicksilver style changes, effectively projecting herself throughout and especially during her effortless coloratura sections, adding extra texture to the rarely heard orchestral score.
Her latest romantic duet with Kirby, as they seal their deal with a kiss – topped off with an “I love you!” reflecting Elle’s heartbreaking confession to her lover at the end of “The Human Voice”, was a highlight, as was her opening aria “Hello! Oh, Margaret, it’s you”.
Kirby’s burgeoning baritone provided comedic fodder throughout, first entering the stage on his bike and literally setting the stage for a picnic with a gang of Astroturf becoming his blanket. Once again, her stage activity, assaulting and reacting to Lucy’s conversation with her caller flow could have been taken further, to create a larger characterization, a commedia dell’arte street theater.
Last but not least, although it often comes down to a matter of taste, viewers (at least this one) crave “theatricality” – a precious commodity rarely seen in the past 20 months – and the overall pedestrian sensibility of the opera, including the characters dressed in jeans and sneakers, while doing this current for 2021, arguably created some blandness. The singers’ faces also sometimes fell into shadows that could have been easily corrected with brighter stage lighting.
However, none of this detracts from the undeniably thrilling experience of seeing the opera performed live in this city again. Manitoba Opera is to be commended not only for weathering the storms during this unprecedented time, but also for resolutely returning to production next spring with all lines open.