In review: Offenbach/Hahn

In review: Offenbach/Hahn

Greg Finney

This is a guest post by baritone, theatre buff and frequent contributor Gregory Finney. For more by Greg, click here. Last night was opening night at the New Theatre Alliance Française de Toronto for Opera 5’s (check out their Opera Cheats) season opener: a romp through the French obsession with the Far East during the 19th century. We were treated to a double bill of Île du rêve by Reynaldo Hahn and Ba-Ta-Clan By Jacques Offenbach, two very different pieces that not only show the varied differences of the East’s influence on Western music, but also the versatility of a stellar cast of darn fine singers.

First up was the Hahn, an etherial sounding one-act drama (subject matter akin to Madama Butterfly et al…) set on the island of Bora Bora, in what we now know as French Polynesia.

Mahénu, a 16-year-old (#arenttheyalways) pure Polynesian flower, known throughout for the loveliness of her voice, meets and falls in love with the French Soldier B.F. Pinkerton (just kidding and it’s my last one, I promise). She falls in love Georges de Kervan - who the island girls later name “Loti”, which is much easier. Coming to the island, he seeks the maid who his now-deceased brother once loved to bring her the bad news. Teria, is found mad in the woods, and is coaxed back by the two lovers, only to see Mahénu go through the same tragedy she had years prior. As is often the way of these tales, Mahénu dies of a broken heart.

Teiya Kasahara sings a much more lyric line this time in the role of the 16-year-old flower of the island. The unforgiving acoustic of the hall was no match for the power, beauty and skill of her instrument. Long lines, skillful roulades and tasteful portamenti are what you’re going to hear from her performance. Adrian Kramer as Loti has a strong, masculine tenor that can be surprisingly powerful. A handsome lyric with a facility to move from his mid-range to very high that makes him a treat to hear. The staid Princess Orena, (who when for the first time in one of these stories the lovers decide to take the girl with them, we find out that the women of their Isle of Dreams wither and perish on foreign soil) was sung by Emma Bergin. A mezzo-soprano still in undergraduate studies, it’s a voice with promise and I look forward to hearing its growth.

Ben Covey’s delicious baritone lends a perfectly empathetic tone to Mahenu’s father, making the tragic end that much more poignant.

The music, Romantic with shout-outs to Debussy and Eastern harmonies, lulls you into a unique soundscape. The tempi are all very similar and all very moderato and I feel as though Hahn may have robbed the story of some of the drama. The stylized movement lent themselves well to the design and the soundscape of the piece, but I felt they may have been a little under-motivated.

Oz Weaver’s lighting design was magic. His use of ambient blues and magentas, along with fuschia and blue gradients on the cyclorama with the golden wash for the performers made you feel like somewhere light was definitely playing off the water.

Big-ups to the blooming-flower-dress-projection.

Intermission - I’m loving this trend of specific cocktails to go along with your show. Opera 5 loves to stimulate all five senses (get it? Opera 5?), so they served up a pineapple mimosa and a spiced rum and ginger beer to give an extra air of the tropics to the evening. I had one of each. They were delicious. Full stop. #awesomesauce

Up next we ended the night in uproarious farce Ba-Ta-Clan. We’re greeted by the full ensemble in a full on farce-chase scene as we hear the overture.There’s civil unrest and the people are really rallying behind Ké-Ki-Ko-Kan (Covey)(couMIKADOgh {but to be fair the Offenbach came first}) to rid themselves of Fé-Ni-Han (Kramer) and the other chinese nobles Ké-Ki-Ka-Ko (Justin Ralph) and Fé-An-Nich-Ton (Kasahara). Oddly enough, none of them are actually Chinese and have been pretending to be so to avoid execution in their native France. Just as it’s all about to go down, we find out Ko-Ko-Ri-Ko is actually French as well.

I found this piece to be a bit more accessible. Perhaps it’s my own intimate experience with operetta (I’ve done my fair share, I tell you whut…), or the fact that the extreme humour allows you to suspend your disbelief that much further. Or maybe it was the presence of up-tempo numbers, but who’s to say?

I’m a huge Offenbach fan. He’s incredibly difficult to sing, let alone sing well as all of these folks did.

Covey as the leader of the rebels, moves with a swagger befitting Escamillo (a nod to Bizet, conscious or no) handles the quick texts and Jasmine Chen’s active staging excellently.

Justin Ralph is Ke-Ki-Ka-Ko is hilarious! Also a seasoned operetta performer, he handled the score incredibly well, with a light, clear, piercing tenor that got put to great use whilst mimicking a trumpet, singing the Ba-Ta-Clan. Seriously though, it’s worth the price of admission just for this one number (but the rest is great so that’s gravy). Kasahara flexes those coloratura chops to our delight once again as Fe-An-Nich-ton, nee Virginie Durand. Operetta coloratura is surprisingly challenging, given how much of the scores are high octane polkas, mazurkas, marches and waltzes, and Kasahara dances over them with ease and pleasure. Her expressive face and ridiculous yet fabulous costuming are a perfect match for this kind of repertoire. It helps hide the serious satire under the guise of silly caricature and it’s really hard to attain the proper balance. She does and it’s wonderful.

And if that wasn’t enough, Kramer kills it as Fé-An-Nich-Ton.

Physical comedy and Classical singing are not always the best of friends. They both put extreme demands on your body and occupy an enourmous amount of your brain power. Yet when you see it done well, it’s breathtaking. Although, I found the role may have sat a little low for him, his character work was something to see. Everyone in the cast moves at a blistering pace, but Kramer runs circles around them, pulling out some choice takes in the process. #doffscap

Makai Nash’s playing was equally as versatile and nuanced. The Hahn, while having its own identity, definitely gave you the moments of Impressionism and Eastern flair dancing effortlessly around each other. The Offenbach, was playful, quick, nimble and precise. A fine orchestra indeed. Matthew Vaile’s production design married perfectly with both scores. A clean, crisp set for the Hahn, and a lush vibrant palette for the Offenbach.

The show runs again Saturday (September 19) and Sunday (20) at 7:30PM at the New Theatre Alliance Française. Tickets are available online or at the door: $25.00 General Admission/ $20.00 for Alliance members. (Bonus: They take credit cards)

Seriously folks, hit this one up, it’s a good time.

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