Stage Door Review

A Northern Lights Dream

Saturday, May 7, 2022

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music and libretto by Michael Rose, directed by Guillermo Silva-Marin

Toronto Operetta Theatre, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto

May 5-7, 2022

Mrs. Duke: “Just let the world unfold”

Toronto Operetta Theatre’s first live production in two years is the world premiere of A Northern Lights Dream by composer and librettist Michael Rose. Toronto’s Summer Opera Lyric Theatre presented a one-act version of the work in 2017. Rose’s new two-act version was to have been presented in 2020, but like so much theatre was postponed until now by the pandemic.

This modern operetta is unfailingly tuneful and delightfully orchestrated for an ensemble of eight. As one might expect from the title the story in inspired by Shakespeare’s most popular comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but Rose has altered much in the source material. The most obvious change is that Rose has moved the action from Athens and a magical forest on its outskirts to modern-day Shakespeare, Ontario, a village located about 15 km east of Stratford, Ontario, known, of course, for its Shakespeare Festival. The magical forest in the Bard’s play becomes the fictional Arden Hill outside the town of Shakespeare.

References to A Midsummer Night’s Dream are legion. There is no Duke Theseus as ruler but there is a Mrs. Duke (Karen Bojti), who seems to be the wife of the village’s wealthiest man. Helena (Christina Raphaëlle Haldane) is no reckless teenager but rather the middle-aged proprietor of the village’s tailoring and bridal shop. She is married to Demetrius (whom we never see), the local policeman.

In Shakespeare’s play the world is out of joint because of an obscure dispute between the fairies Oberon and Titania over possession of an Indian boy. In Rose’s operetta the dispute that threatens to upset the economy of Helena’s shop is the decision of Hermia and Lysander not to get married. If they don’t marry the shop will lose a huge amount of income and may well go under. Rather than trying to get Oberon and Titania to settle their quarrel, the focus in Rose is to get Hermia and Lysander to settle theirs. As it happens their fight is also over a child. Lysander wants to have one; Hermia does not. In a bit of metatheatrical playfulness, Hermia and Lysander are played very briefly by two actors dressed as and seated among the musicians (Abigail Veenstra and Taylor Gibbs).

Meanwhile, there is a character named Nick (Ian Backstrom), a reference to Nick Bottom in Shakespeare, who wears a donkey’s head to advertise the local donut shop, Donkey’s Donuts. He is hopelessly in love with a woman named Tanya (who does not appear but whose name refers to Titania above), who likes him in his costume but doesn’t know the real him.

In Shakespeare’s play Nick Bottom is one of the group of tradesmen known in lit crit as the Mechanicals. The only other one of that group of six to appear in Rose’s operetta is Taylor (Gregory Finney), a tailor in Helena’s shop, who is still mourning the death of his partner Pete (Peter Quince, perhaps?).

While Rose has demoted the fairy queen Titania to the human Tanya, he has not removed the supernatural from the work. One of the principal characters is the fairy Robin (Lauren Pearl), an androgynous spirit whose has been alive for 400 years – sometimes male, sometimes female – and who in this present time and place loves hockey. (Note the references to Robin Goodfellow in Shakespeare and to his more common name “Puck”.) Rather than a servant of Oberon as in the play, Robin in Rose says he is a servant of Cupid and strangely display no use of magic powers until late in the action.

Rose’s Robin is hopelessly in love with the goddess Aurora Borealis, who is due to appear soon. Robin can never approach Aurora to confess their love because she is guarded by three spirits of the air – Glita (Amy Moodie), Festa (Daniela Agostino) and Fetill (Lillian Brooks). There are no such characters in Shakespeare’s play, but these three women will remind opera buffs of a benign version of the Three Ladies in Mozart’s The Magic Flute (1791), who guard the Queen of the Night, and of the three Rheinmaidens in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (1876), who guard the precious Rheingold.

Despite these many allusions to Shakespeare’s play, what has got lost in Rose’s libretto is a plot. In Shakespeare there are three sources of conflict. Oberon and Titania must overcome there differences to set the world order aright. Hermia must marry whom she chooses (Lysander) not whom her father chooses (Demetrius). And Helena must try to see if she can win the love of Demetrius, who ignores her.

In Rose’s work the central conflict is shoved literally off to the side. The two actors seated among the orchestra have only two short scenes about their quarrel, but since whether Hermia and Lysander marry or not affects the economy of the whole village, it really should be made central to the story. While Nick’s unrequited love for Tanya is amusing and Helena’s unfulfilling marriage with Demetrius is sad, it’s quite awkward for both Nick and Helena to have to resolve their problems by conversing with the air, i.e. speaking with unseen characters who we have to imagine are physically present.

If Rose had to sacrifice two characters to add a Demetrius and Titania, the most expendable are Mrs. Duke and Taylor. Unfortunately, these are the two most vividly painted characters in Rose’s work. We can think of A Northern Lights Dream as merely a riff on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, rather than an operetta version of it, but still to work on stage there needs to be conflict of some kind, and here there is none. Robin merely tells all the characters to meet on Arden Hill at midnight, they meet, they solve their problems without struggle and that’s it.

There are, of course, many modern music theatre works that have no plot. One thinks of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats (1981) or Stephen Sondheim’s Company (1970) or Assassins (1990) among others. The problem with A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that one expects a plot. After all, Benjamin Britten managed to capture Shakespeare’s plot in his 1960 adaptation of the play into opera.

As with the best plotless musicals, what carries us along is the music itself. Punctuating the action are gorgeous, high-lying wordless choruses from Aurora’s protectresses. The voices of Amy Moodie, Daniela Agostino and Lillian Brooks soar, blend and intertwine beautifully. What makes these choruses so delightful is Rose’s piquant orchestration which seems to take its inspiration for the French composers known a Les Six, with its use of piano and percussion. The final chorus where the mortals join the three spirits in hailing Aurora Borealis is stunning and the musical highpoint of the work.

The songs are all attractive and except for the jazzy “The Unemployment Blues”, tend toward the realm of Stephen Sondheim, without Sondheim’s smart-alecky wordplay, and meant for operatic not Broadway voices. Three songs stand out as especially good. One is “Invisible” for Nick in which he complains about being invisible to Tanya. Another is “Any Room” in which Helena wonders aloud whether there is any room in Demetrius’ closet (with a double meaning) for her love. The third is a song for Mrs. Duke “Let the World Unfold” about not trying so hard to control things around you. Rose’s lyrics and music are of such a high order that these three already felt like classics from the Canadian Songbook.

As Helena, Christina Raphaëlle Haldane sings with subtlety and a consistently beautiful, rounded tone. She is expert at controlling her dynamics and effortlessly sings out her high notes. It is too bad Rose lets us know Helena only for her unhappiness over her loveless life with Demetrius and doesn’t let us see more sides of her personality.

Robin is central to Rose’s adaptation and in Lauren Pearl he has an ideal interpreter of the role. Pearl is totally at ease in speaking, often directly to the audience, and in singing. Rose’s song about hockey doesn’t show off Pearls abilities to the best advantage. Rather the songs like “Change” and “A Little Thing” where Pearl is allowed to let her voice open up and soar are truly impressive. The combination of well-controlled power with a velvety tone is immediately appealing. It is the jaunty, mischievous personality that Pearl gives Robin that imbues the entire show.

Karen Bojti says in her bio in the programme that she has played “the full spectrum of merry matrons” in Gilbert and Sullivan. See her good humour and the strong contralto she uses as Mrs. Duke one can easily imagine how perfect she would be as Buttercup, Land Jane, Dame Carruthers et al. Though Mrs. Duke could have been the main blocking figure to the comedy, Rose decides to diffuse her anger early on and to make her sympathetic as a women who tends to speak before she thinks. Bojti delivers the lovely song Rose gives Mrs. Duke, “Let the World Unfold”, with fine musicality and feeling.

As Nick, Ian Backstrom has a rather raw, untamed tenor, but given his youth we can only imagine that soon he will be in command of greater control and nuance. Even so he brings off his big song “Invisible” with panache. Backstrom has the advantage of appearing perfectly at home on stage and displays a completely natural acting style.

Gregory Finney has become of the de facto comic tenor in the TOT’s troupe of players, but, luckily, Rose does not force him to remain in that category. He gives Finney’s character Taylor a funny/sad song “Pete”, remembering Taylor’s deceased partner Peter, which ends on a deeply emotional note. Finney has not had the chance to play much outside of comedy, but his delivery of this song definite shows he can. It also shows how over time Finney’s voice has gained in strength and control.

What makes Northern Lights an operetta (or Singspiel or opéra comique) is Rose’s use of spoken dialogue between the songs. Rose’s dialogue is not exactly flat but it could certainly be punched up a notch and brought closer to the present. Gay men don’t need to cruise the bushes when they have Grindr.

A Northern Lights Dream gives the impression of a sequence of beautiful music in search of a dramatic form. The playing of the eight-piece ensemble by Kate Carver conducting from the piano is consistently lively and the band clearly relishes Rose’s use of unexpected harmonies and modern rhythms. Let’s hope that after these live performances Rose can find a way to tweak his operetta both to save the music he has written and to give the work a more urgent comic shape. If this involves more characters on stage and more music, so be it. That would be so much better than performers speaking off into space to important but invisible characters. Michael Rose does have a delightful musical voice which should be part of Canadian music theatre. Let’s hope a revision of A Northern Lights Dream can make that a reality.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Lauren Pearl as Robin and Christina Raphaëlle Haldane as Helena; Ian Backstrom as Nick; Lillian Brooks, Amy Moodie and Daniela Agostino as the Three Ladies; Karen Bojti as Mrs. Duke and Gregory Finney as Taylor. © 2022 Barcsay Photography.

For tickets visit www.torontooperetta.com.