Of the Sea. Music by Ian Cusson. Libretto by Kanika Ambrose. Directed by Philip Akin. Production by Tapestry Opera and Obsidian Theatre. March 25-April 1, 2023, 8 p.m. Bluma Appel Theatre. Tickets here.
Like many of the calamities of human history, the slave trade has the potential for treatment on the operatic stage. Of the Sea, which was seen in its premiere Saturday at the Bluma Appel Theatre, offers an abundance of good intentions but does not marshal them with enough narrative clarity to create a dramatic success.
The story concerns Maduka, who finds himself in an underwater kingdom peopled by Africans who were, like him, thrown overboard during the transit to the Americas. Temporarily settling for the sanctuary offered by one queen, he prefers the rebellious plan of another, which would allow him to secure the freedom (promised by the sun god he worships) of his baby daughter, whom he holds as a bundle most of the time.
Eventually, an insurrection is agreed on, and a storm is summoned, capsizing a passing ship. This leads abruptly to a future-tense happy ending, which spoiler rules mercifully forbid me to relate in detail. Let me say simply that the late introduction to the musical fabric of a calypso pop song was distinctly out of character with the rest of the evening.
That bare-bones synopsis might sound tolerably operatic, but the libretto by Kanika Ambrose failed to establish the interpersonal relations that are essential to opera as a genre. Too often the principals were in full-throttle mode, redundantly expressing their own feelings and rarely giving the impression of listening to each other.
There were problems at the very beginning as Maduka (the steely American baritone Jorell Williams) convulsed for minutes on end under a spotlight, then took to pacing this way and that — a strategy presumably endorsed by the director, Philip Akin. Composer Ian Cusson supplied a tonal score that was sometimes evocative in the pit (where Jennifer Tung led 19 players drawn mostly from the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra) but too vociferous on stage. Tapestry Opera and Obsidian Theatre might pride themselves on innovation but this show was remarkably like a park-and-bark production from days gone by.
All the same, there was some good singing, by the burnished Montreal soprano Chantale Nurse as Serwa, the rebel queen; and the sonorous B.C. baritone Justin Welsh as Izunna, whose attempts to dissuade Maduka from swimming to the surface introduced a welcome touch of informality to the opera. Soprano Suzanne Taffot, another Montrealer, had her edgy moments as Dfiza, the stay-put queen. There was a small chorus.
The set by Rachel Forbes was believably aquatic and the projections of Laura Warren adjusted the ambiance appropriately. In a post-curtain address, Tapestry artistic director Michael Hidetoshi Mori noted that an orchestra is rarely seen in the pit of the Bluma Appel Theatre. This place (managed by TO Live) has the potential as a small opera house.
Of the Sea is notable for its positive outlook. Some horrors are mentioned briefly toward the end, but the message is essentially hopeful. There is a template here for success. Maybe next time.
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