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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

Opera review: Composer Andrew Ager's quicksilver take on mercenary Henry James characters

By John Terauds on May 14, 2013

Soprano Leigh-Ann Allen as Millie Theale in The Wings of the Dove at Heliconian Hall on Tuesday night (John Terauds phone photo).
Soprano Leigh-Ann Allen as Millie Theale in The Wings of the Dove at Heliconian Hall on Tuesday night (John Terauds phone photo).

The Centre for Opera Studies in Italy (COSI) opened up new Toronto connections on Tuesday night at Heliconian Hall with the premiere of The Wings of the Dove, a compelling new one-act opera by organist-composer Andrew Ager and librettist Jeffrey Lewis. There is a repeat performance on Wednesday.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

The production, organized by COSI founding artistic director Darryl Edwards (also chair of vocal studies at University of Toronto), certainly left a good first impression.

Rather than using the tiny Heliconian Hall stage, director Michael Patrick Albano used the entire front room as his set, focusing on a large fireplace, complete with lit log, on the building’s south wall. The audience, seated in a circle around the action, was immediately drawn into the play.

Lewis’s plot was adapted from Henry James’s original, focusing on two mercenary couples and their prey at a Venetian hotel before World War I. The seven-person cast is large for an opera that’s less than an hour long, but there usually weren’t more than three people on stage at any one time.

Ager’s score — delivered by the composer at the piano — had a quicksilver quality. It is tonal, but not really anchored in any particular key. There are swirls of repeated musical fragments that come and go and repeat in much the same way as the opera’s characters.

There were a couple of affecting aria-like monologues, but most of the opera takes the form of sung dialogue, with the glancing relationship between accompaniment and melody giving everything a transitory feel — again reflecting the comings and goings of the people in the story.

The singers, all COSI alumni, were a fine representative sample of university-age voices. The acting was decent. Renée Brode did an excellent job with the space’s minimal stage lighting equipment, and Lisa Magill’s fine Edwardian costumes cemented this production’s serious intentions.

The opera itself could easily handle a few more scenes to flesh out and smooth out the progression of events, but that’s a quibble. Consider how this coming summer’s edition is only the sixth time that Edwards will have assembled eager young singers and their coaches and mentors in Sulmona, Italy, and this is the first time Edwards has asked for a work to be written specifically for his youthful ensemble.

To have accomplished so much in six years is remarkable enough. To be able to make the creation of new Canadian work a part of this educational process is worth celebrating and encouraging in every way possible.

For more information on COSI and The Wings of the Dove, click here.

Edwards notes in the printed programme how this year’s summer programme in Italy will involve 60 young singers and theatre artists. Activities will include presenting two opera productions (including Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito) as well as a performance of Vivaldi’s Gloria with members of Toronto’s Aradia Ensemble.

John Terauds

 

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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