Tapestry Opera: Rocking Horse Winner; Libretto by Anna Chatterton, Music by Gareth Williams — at Berkeley St. Theatre through June 4.
Even in an operatically well-endowed city like Toronto, it’s rare to experience a production where everything comes together as neatly and powerfully as in Rocking Horse Winner, a new hour-long work being premiered by Tapestry Opera at the Berkeley Street Theatre.
It all starts with a brilliant work co-commissioned by Tapestry and Scottish Opera: An adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s short story by Canadian librettist Anna Chatterton and set to music by Scottish composer Gareth Williams. Both have worked together to achieve maximum emotional impact with a minimum of material.
Chatterton’s spare, repetition-heavy text is a mere echo of Lawrence’s original, but that echo catches all the key points. It hooks our attention from the moment we are introduced to Paul, a developmentally challenged boy who wants to bring some luck to his self-obsessed Mom, Ava, who is as sour and unappealing as curdled milk. The men in their lives, Uncle Oscar and his caregiver, Bassett, decide to take advantage of Paul’s ability to guess horse race winners, and they run their young charge dry as their pockets, as well as Ava’s, soon begin to bulge.
Williams’ tidy, spare score packs a wallop in a minimum of material, as well. It, too, hooks us from the very beginning, an odd waltz that starts off limping before it becomes beguiling. Williams displays great skill at superimposing contrasting textures and themes to get his point across. Most of the music is tonal.
The singers are excellent vocally as well as dramatically. Soprano Carla Huhtanen is magnificently sad as Ava. Tenor Keith Klassen and baritone Peter McGillivray do not have huge parts, but they fulfill their roles perfectly. And tenor Asitha Tennekoon is a particular treat as Paul. Tenekoon is not a small man, but he somehow manages to heartbreakingly convey the earnest fragility of the doomed boy, who considers himself to be ever so lucky.
Williams cleverly uses a chorus of four voices (well sung) to not only augment the action but also the string quartet and piano that serve as orchestra. Conductor Jordan de Souza made a shapely whole out of the switchback-laden score.
Director Michael Mori, Tapestry’s artistic director, keeps everything tidy and meaningful on the clever, two-level set designed by Camellia Koo. Michelle Ramsay’s lighting is a kaleidoscopic treat.
These 60 minutes pass quickly, the opera packs an emotional wallop and is intelligently staged. The music is beautifully rendered. There isn’t a note or a word too many or missing. This is a remarkable feat for any company, even more so for a small one. It sings volumes about the level of talent available in Toronto, and is a very happy omen for the future of opera as a living art form.
Performances continue through June 4.
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