In review: Bandits in the Valley
Being a hardcore opera fan means being comfortable with the extremes of the spectrum of human emotions; adulterous detentes, accidental infanticide, self-sacrifice, we take them at face value with an unquestioning nod of approval. It's funny though, how we often forget about the joyous end of that emotional spectrum, where smiles come easily and silliness is abundant. Maybe that's why Tapestry Opera's Bandits in the Valley was such a refreshing dose of fun.
The short, opera-esque piece of theatre - by composer Benton Roark and librettist Julie Tepperman - happens in various sites around Toronto's Todmorden Mills, the historic location that beautifully serves the concurrent tales of George Taylor (whose paper mill celebrates its 25th anniversary), the travelling theatre troupe who specializes in Gilbert & Sullivan, and The Rift Rafters, the group of bandits. The stories converge, as most operas do, largely over the love of a woman - in this case the woman is Lily Pollard (Jennifer Taverner), the theatre troupe's prima donna; among her suitors are the wealthy Taylor (Alex Dobson), the bandit Jeremiah (Keith Klassen), and the pianist Henri, a.k.a. Henrietta (Sara Schabas).
Spicing up the action are the maid Birgitta (Stephanie Tritchew, whose love for Jeremiah borders on manipulative bribery, and accordionist-and-secret-bandit Freddy (Jacques Arsenault), who plays to his advantage the assumptions that he's illiterate and inattentive to the goings-on around him.
It's a story that seems familiar, yet the experience seems new. The ideas of a blustering rich guy or a man who finds himself with the means to change his fate, are operatic staples, and even the devices of audience participation, interactive theatre, and a combination of original and borrowed music (in this case, some delightfully well-known bits of The Pirates of Penzance) are tried-and-true methods of drawing an audience in.
With opera, it's still a fairly novel experience to take in a show in multiple venues, and it's certainly rare to hear singers pick up instruments and become their own orchestra. Bandits in the Valley is no series of gimmicks, either. Helped by a strong cast and organic direction by Michael Mori, there are true moments of opera in this piece. As Henri, Sara Schabas found a fine balance between exaggerated wooing and the realities of unrequited homosexual love in the 1880s; Jacques Arsenault's Freddy is a standout performance in itself, an impressive combination of powerful singing, solid accordion chops (we're told that this was Roark's first foray into writing for the accordion), and heartfelt acting.
Plus, there's a battle of the recorder-players, and a very G&S-inspired dwelling on the phrase, "buttock birthmark".
Bandits in the Valley plays Septebmer 16, 23, 24, and 30 at Todmorden Mills and on September 22 at the Westben Arts Festival's Barn & Farmhouse. Tickets to the Toronto shows may be hard to come by, but there are rush seats available prior to each performance; you can find out full details here, and for the Westben performance here.