Stage Door Review 2022


Thursday, March 10, 2022


music by Ian Cusson, libretto by Colleen Murphy, directed by Julie McIsaac

Canadian Opera Company, Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre, 227 Front St. East, Toronto

March 9, 10 & 12, 2022

Manon: “Let’s make some wonderful memories”

With the world premiere of Fantasma, the Canadian Opera Company has presented its first live, in person opera since February 2020. Fantasma is a 45-minute-long opera for teens (though it will appeal to all ages) with music by Ian Cusson to a libretto by Colleen Murphy. The piece was commissioned by the COC as an Opera For Young Audiences in the 2018/19, but the pandemic changed its target audience to those 12-18 and delayed its coming to full production until now. Fantasma is worth the wait. It is a contemporary opera gratefully written for the voice with a story with an unhappy ending. This may be unusual for an opera for young people but it will certainly strike a note of truth with teens who too often feel neglected or unheard.

Using very simple but imaginative means, designer Camellia Koo has transformed part of the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre (once known as the Imperial Oil Opera Theatre) into half of a circus tent that reaches nearly to the ceiling. Brightly coloured hanging banners define the space where the Palladino Carnival takes place. A raised semicircular platform stands inside the curve of banners with a barker’s podium and a upright piano in front of it. Thus, when we enter the seating are we enter the carnival space as well.

The one curious design choice from Koo is to clad the workers at Palladino’s Carnival in styles from the late 19th or early 20th centuries and the those of visiting family in contemporary clothes including smartphones. The clash in styles may mean that the family is taking a step back in time by visiting such an old-fashioned business. One wonders if one-night-only travelling carnivals even exist anymore.

The story introduces us to the characters that make up the Carnival – the aggressive barker Emile (Owen McCausland); the anxious owner Ms. Palladino (Simona Genga); Tino, the accident-prone clown (Vartan Gabrielian) and John (Jonah Spungin), who haunts the Haunted Manor as Fantasma. There is also Dante (Vladimir Soloviev), who plays the upright piano but does not sing.

Into this antiquated world wander two friends, Léa (Jamie Groote) and Ivy (Midori Marsh). They come to the Carnival for some cheap entertainment and because they know the boy Noah (Alex Halliday) works there who they think is “hot”. Léa’s mother Manon (Charlotte Siegel), arrives holding an infant. We learn she is a single mother working at two jobs that barely make ends meet.

Manon rides the carousel with the girls but waits while they explore the carnival’s other attractions. Meanwhile, Emile has the idea that to drum up more business. John as Fantasma should not appear only in the Haunted Manor but pop up unexpectedly in other locations to create publicity that the carnival itself is haunted.

This he does scaring Léa and Ivy so much that they flee into the Haunted Manor. There they do encounter a ghost but it is not John but Marcel, a real ghost. Marcel is a young boy who was killed by an adult male in the washroom of his school. Hearing Marcel’s story the girls quickly overcome their fear and want to know what they can do to help. All Marcel needs to rest in peace is to find his grave. the girls vow to help and go get Manon to drive them around with Marcel. She, of course, does not believe them and neither does anyone who works at the carnival. This leads the girls to a difficult decision.

The cast have universally strong voices from former COC Ensemble members like tenor Owen McCausland and mezzo Simona Genga, through most of the current Ensemble members who make up the majority of the cast to Austin Buckley, a member of the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus. On opening night Buckley was, in fact, the star of the show. His rendition of Marcel’s murder, sung in such a pure voice with such a melancholy tone, was heart-breaking.

Otherwise, sopranos Jamie Groote and Midori Marsh as Léa and Ivy dominate the show both because they had the largest parts and because they throw themselves into playing teenagers with such aplomb. Both Groote and Marsh have solid voices – Groote’s lower lying and warmer, Marsh’s higher-lying and harder – each one well-cast for its character. The two are especially fine when singing together. The section when the two are on a Ferris wheel feeling weightless as their voices trace Cusson’s musical depiction through rising and falling lines of weightlessness. The trio the two have with Buckley as Marcel about finding his grave is exquisite in its close three-part harmony.

Musically, Cusson’s style is close to that of Giancarlo Menotti but without ever breaking into extended arias as his operas do. Cusson’s music is also more emphatically rhythmic and more willing to choose unusual chords and intervals. A particular high point of the opera is when all the characters ride the carousel, repeating the carousel theme heard earlier when the two girls took their ride, singing as a chorus capturing both the exhilaration and the oddness of the carnival.

The opera has only piano accompaniment played with verve and precision by current Ensemble member Frances Thielmann. It also has a pianist onstage as a character, Vladimir Soloviev as Dante. The times when the two played together – Thielmann providing the sonic background and Soloviev the wonky wrong-note melodies of the carnival – are so delightful I wished that Cusson had included more such duets and had been more Ivesian in his approach with the two playing in different time signatures or rhythms, for example.

While Murphy’s libretto does not give some characters like Tino the clown, Noah or John much to sing or do and while the scenes with the carnival personnel are never as interesting as those of the two girls, nevertheless the piece as whole has a powerful effect. This is especially surprising in that the show has such a short running time.

Given that this is an opera meant to be presented for schools, Marcel’s dilemma and the predicament of Léa and Ivy are sure to provide much to discuss, especially concerning what young people can and cannot do to help each other and how to get adults to believe what they tell them. I do hope that Fantasma is not exclusively presented as schools because adults will enjoy the show as much as teens and teens need to have the same discussions with their parents as with teachers.

Opera is the least successful theatrical genre when presented virtually since the effect of direct, unmediated sound on an audience is so essential to its impact. What a pleasure to hear an opera in person again and at the same time to hear a brand new opera, especially one written with such thoughtfulness and imagination.

For ages 12-18.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Jamie Groote, Charlotte Siegel, Midori Marsh and Vladimir Soloviev at the piano;  Jamie Groote and Midori Marsh; Owen McCausland, Simona Genga, Jamie Groote, Midori Marsh, Alex Halliday and Vartan Gabrielian. © 2022 Gaetz Photography.

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