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SCRUTINY | Energy And Enthusiasm Mark Glenn Gould School Chamber Operas Performance

By Joseph So on November 5, 2023

The Perfect Match
The Perfect Match, Photo: Taylor Long

Ice Time (Chan Ka Nin & Mark Brownell): Emma Pennell, Alexia Frankian / The Perfect Match (Anthony Young & Krista Dalby): Yanik Gosselin, Simon Gidora / The Laurels (Jeffrey Ryan & Michael Lewis MacLennan): Emma MacNeil, Colin Mackey / The Perfect Screw (Abigail Richardson & Alexis Diamond): Olivia Morton, Christian Masucci Facchini, Yanik Gosselin, Simon Gidora) Mazzoleni Concert Hall, Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto, November 3, 2023.

Glenn Gould School, named after the legendary Canadian pianist, is the professional arm of the Royal Conservatory of Music. Over the years, it has trained many singers who have gone on to significant careers. To be sure, GGS students are at varying stages of their artistic development, so their performances are really works in progress. One thing is certain – they are uniformly blessed with innate talent and estimable potential.

I attended the first of two evenings of GGS Chamber.  A total of four short pieces showcasing eight singers altogether, some appearing in more than one work, all commissioned by Tapestry Opera between 2002 and 2009.  The operas take place in such unusual settings “as an ice rink, a sock drawer, a park, and a hardware store.” Three amusing pieces plus one frighteningly dark piece, a bit of an incongruous pairing, to be honest. These short, rather unconventional pieces allow the students to explore the dramatic possibilities within each mini-drama.

The stage of the 250-seat Mazzoleni Concert Hall isn’t designed for opera, and certainly not for elaborate sets. Frankly ample imagination on the part of the audience is needed.  The performing area is further reduced on stage right by the presence of a chamber orchestra, expertly conducted by the retiring Peter Tiefenbach.  That said, some video projections would have been helpful.  Kudos to director Dana Fradkin for the ingenious use of the space, both onstage and off.

A more serious issue is the lack of surtitles. While the sung text is in English and the singers all have good to very good diction, surtitles would have been helpful, given these are new works unfamiliar to the audience. Operatic singing emphasizes vowels and suppresses consonants, and the higher the voice, the harder it is to understand the words – that’s simply the physics of vocal production.

Emma Pennell and Alexa Frankian. Photo: Taylor Long

Of the four works, Ice Time was the most enjoyable. The music by composer Chan Ka Nin — of Iron Road and Dragon’s Tale fame — is tonal and accessible. It also featured two of the best voices of the evening, with top vocal honours to soprano Emma Pennell as the reluctant figure skater. Also very fine was soprano Alexa Frankian as the Coach and Mother. While billed as a comedy, I find the piece quite thought-provoking.

It was followed by a genuinely light-hearted piece, Perfect Match, about two socks that find each other. Mildly amusing and unpretentious, well sung and acted by Yanik Gosselin and Simon Gidora.  It didn’t prepare me for the third piece, The Laurels – talk about a change of pace! It’s a frighteningly dark story of a woman (Emma MacNeil) who has killed her lover (Colin Mackey) but is haunted by his spirits. To be honest, the abrupt change from the comic to the macabre was more disconcerting than enjoyable.

Thankfully with the final piece, The Perfect Screw, we were back to frivolity. The longest of the four, it lasts perhaps 30 minutes, but somehow, the creative team of Abigail Richardson-Schulte and Alexis Diamond managed to squeeze in multiple threads that include competing Robertson and Phillips screwdrivers, plus a liberal dose of Canada/US politics — with snippets of the Star-Spangled Banner. Even Henry Ford (wickedly played by countertenor Christian Masucci Facchini) and Detroit Motor Works got in there somehow! I confess I was more confused than entertained by the storyline. It’s also the raunchiest of the four, with an over-the-top dose of double-entendres. Perhaps this was one piece that surtitles would have helped poor humourless me to better appreciate the jokes. Overall, I give the singers full credit for their energy, enthusiasm, and commitment to the material. While I can’t say I loved every moment, it was a rather fun way to spend an evening.

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Joseph So
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