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SCRUTINY | Canoe An Operatic Mixed Bag

By Arthur Kaptainis on September 16, 2023

L-R “Gladys” Nicole Joy-Fraser, “Constance” Kristine Dandavino. Canoe is presented by Unsettled Scores in partnership with Toronto Consort, Native Earth Performing Arts and Theatre Passe Muraille (Photo: Kaytee Dalton)

Canoe, opera in two acts, by Spy Dénommé-Welch and Catherine Magowan, with the Toronto Consort, Sept. 15 in Jeanne Lamon Hall.

Opera is a proven platform. There is no reason to exclude the Indigenous experience from its embrace. Canoe, which was heard in its official premiere Friday night at Jeanne Lamon Hall, exhibited the potential strengths of opera as a cross-cultural medium as well as its pitfalls.

More than a decade in the making, the two-act work by Spy Dénommé-Welch (librettist, co-composer, co-director) and Catherine Magowan (co-composer) varies widely in tone. The beginning is evocative, as Debaajimod, a storytelling spirit played warmly by the mezzo-soprano Michelle Lafferty, plants a seed and recites a Creation narrative as a symbolic canoe takes shape on stage. All seems peaceful until the more assertive of two sisters (Nicole Joy-Fraser as Gladys) starts up a chainsaw and falls a tree (played by Conlin Delbaere-Sawchuk).

This remarkable coup de théâtre led to a lengthy scene of unrelieved verismo as the sisters bickered about various matters, including family memories and the experiences of Gladys at a residential school. The dialogue was prosaic rather than operatic. Stories accumulated.

Act 2 was more engaging. While it was not clear where the sisters were going in the titular canoe, the journey created momentum. The ending, with references to the sky set to an impressive ostinato figure, successfully communicated an apotheosis. Indeed, the introduction and coda were by far the best parts of the slightly less-than-two-hour presentation, intermission included.

Of course, there were notable things in between. Delbaere-Sawchuk was an athletic and amusing Tree Spirit. The decision of Constance (Kristine Dandavino) to stab herself was certainly dramatic, especially as bathed in red light. It is worth mentioning that the monumental organ pipes of the Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, suitably lit, stand in nicely for a forest.

A quintet from the Toronto Consort, an early-music ensemble, made incisive and inventive sounds under the direction of Magowan. Period and traditional instruments are alike in their elemental appeal. In any case, the instrumental writing was more compelling than the vocal music.

Ultimately, however, the problem with Canoe resides in the whole rather than the parts. Too many stories crowd the narrative. I am quite prepared to concede that this judgement is conditioned by my experience of opera and the expectations it might inculcate. For better or worse, my own consciousness is the only one I carry into the auditorium.

It should be reported, however, that my skeptical opinion was not unanimous. Comic lines that left me stony-faced had some in the audience laughing heartily. The opening-night ovation was robust.

Canoe is presented by Unsettled Scores in partnership with Toronto Consort, Native Earth Performing Arts and Theatre Passe Muraille. The cast is Indigenous. There are two performances on Saturday.

Arthur Kaptainis
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