In review: Suffragette The cast of Suffragette, Opera 5, 2017. Photo: Emily Ding Photography.

In review: Suffragette

Greg Finney

Dame Ethel Smyth: composer, activist, suffragette.

In today’s political atmosphere and with the conversations that are at the forefront of the current Zeitgeist, Ms. Smyth’s works are a perfect fit for Opera 5. Their current production, aptly titled Suffragette, was a celebration of Smyth’s accomplishments as a composer - the first female to have her work performed at the Metropolitan Opera.

l-r: Eugenia Dermentzis (The Queen), Alexandra Smither (Puppet), Jonathan MacArthur (Harlequin), Jean Philippe McClish (The King), Jeremy Ludwig (Puppet) in Suffragette, Opera 5, 2017. Photo: Emily Ding Photography.

The show is a double-bill of Fête Galante and The Boatswain’s Mate. Fête tells the story of a young lady, Columbine, who while at a party thrown by the King and Queen, fights with her realization that her lover Pierrot is madly in love with the Queen. No one is being particularly faithful to each other and the plot line works in a metatheatrical way. The piece opens with the “puppets” performing a piece that pretty much mirrors and foreshadows the rest of work.

The Boatswain’s Mate tells the story of a “woman of a certain age” (considering the time it was composed she was probably like 23, or 24) who runs the public house (transformed here into the Outlaw Tavern) and is constantly fending off romantic advances from a former sailor who spends his days trying to woo her by filling her cash register. He befriends an army man and hatches a plot to make Mrs. Waters fall in love with him (Spoiler alert: it does NOT go the way he planned).

(l-r) Jonathan MacArthur (Harlequin), Elizabeth Polese (Columbine) in Suffragette, Opera 5, 2017. Photo: Emily Ding Photography.

Opera 5 has assembled a crack team of performers for this show. In no particular order: Alexandra Smither sang Mrs. Waters in Boatswain, her voice was beautiful, elegant, and masterfully manipulated. Smyth’s scores have that nasty Puccini-like quality where they sound easy, but are rather difficult. Smither portrayed the bar “matron” with verve and spunk. She was animated and engaging.

Singing Columbine, Elizabeth Polese was a treat. Her journey through Fête was thorough and organic. I particularly enoyed her relationship with Harlequin, played by Jonathan MacArthur. MacArthur shows us, once again, how he’s one of the funniest men on stage in Toronto. “Chewing the scenery” is very effective when done well, and MacArthur is one of the best. It also helps that he’s an extraordinary singer and pretty nice to look at.

Jeremy Ludwig (Ned Travers), Asitha Tennekoon (Harry Benn) in Suffragette, Opera 5, 2017. Photo: Emily Ding Photography.

Tenor Asitha Tennekoon sings the role of Harry Benn (the sailor in The Boatswain’s Mate) with his characteristc crystalline tenor. I could listen to him for days. Hot on the heels of his Dora Award nomination for last year’s Rocking Horse Winner, Tennekoon is blossoming lately and each facet of his performance keeps getting better and better. We’re all lucky to be here at this time of his career.

Playing the title character of The Boatswain’s Mate Ned Travers, baritone Jeremy Ludwig was well sung and charming. As debonair as one can be in a denim vest with matching stonewash jeans, you were on his side from the second he walked on the stage. Singing Pierrot in Fête Galante, baritone Alan MacDonald gave us a truly melancholy portrayal with gorgeous singing. He has a heroic yet comforting tone and complete ease and grace on the stage.

Alexandra Smither (Mrs. Waters) in Suffragette, Opera 5, 2017. Photo: Emily Ding Photography.

Mezzo Eugenia Dermentzis brought us an elegant and conflicted Queen in Fête. Her rich tone and stately manner were a match made in heaven, but it was her shedding of all this and becoming just another woman in love that was the real delight. Her scenes with her “Lover” were palpable.

Speaking of The Lover, what a revelation is Kevin Myers. A tall, strapping, handsome man with a strong tenor that has a delicate overtone it was a genuine treat to hear him sing Smyth’s music. I can’t wait to hear more. Jean-Phillippe McClish as the King seemed to struggle a bit. I’m not sure if it was the venue or his chosen drunken characterisation (believe me when I say this - playing genuinely drunk is one of the hardest things to do on a stage. Full-stop.) but I feel like it robbed him of a lot of the potential beauty in his rich bass-baritone.

Alexandra Smither (Mrs. Waters), Alan MacDonald (Pub Crawler), Chris Gao (Accordion Player), Eugenia Dermentzis (Pub Crawler), Michaela Dickey (Mary-Ann), Jonathan MacArthur (Sammy), Kevin Myers (Pub Crawler) in Suffragette, Opera 5, 2017. Photo: Emily Ding Photography.

Michaela Dickey as Mary-Ann in Boatswain was a breath of fresh air. She sang beautifully and brought all the 80’s pluckiness of a young Cindi Lauper to “The Outlaw”. The full cast did double duty as chorus (puppets, pub crawlers, etc.) in both the shows and the ensemble singing was glorious.

The performances were FANTASTIC but I had a few issues with the concept - or maybe the application of the concept. After reading the press in the lead-up to this show and seeing the promotional materials, I have to confess, I was expecting an edgier show that had more of a feminist slant. Yes, Dame Ethel Smyth fought tirelessly as a suffragette, yet I felt that the political angle could have been applied to the pieces a little more successfully. The plot lines of the two shows seem directly at odds (in my view) to what the name of the night and the promotional materials suggested.

in Suffragette, Opera 5, 2017. Photo: Emily Ding Photography.

The two women (Columbine and Mrs. Waters), while they have depth to their characters, their function in the plot is still reactionary to the way they’re treated by men - which is kind of like property. I felt Mrs. Waters, while plucky and spunky, is still just a foil to Ned Travers (Ludwig) who succeeds in winning her over with his “charm”. I didn’t feel like Mrs. Waters or Columbine had the power in either of their stories. Columbine was second to Pierrot and Mrs. Waters second to Ned Travers.

Jean Philippe McClish (Policeman), Jeremy Ludwig (Ned Travers), Asitha Tennekoon –(Harry Benn), Alexandra Smither (Mrs. Waters) in Suffragette, Opera 5, 2017. Photo: Emily Ding Photography.

For some reason, director Jessica Derventzis opened The Boatswain’s Mate with a rousing British chorale vigorously waving Canadian Flags, Gay Pride Flags, and Trans Pride Flags - only to not introduce a single queer character. It seemed disjointed, out of place, and kind of pandering. While I respect that there are queers all over this industry, if you’re going to wave our flags in your opening number of your show, we should at least be in the show somewhere. Ultimately, I felt like Dame Ethel Smyth’s suffragette mentality and protest spirit was missing in the material. Smyth’s operas seemed to be at odds with who she was as an historical figure.

Under the baton of Evan Mitchell, the chamber ensemble felt a little huge for the venue. There were often balance issues - I suspect caused by the space - but it did pull you out of the show sometimes. The players all played fantastically, and the unity from the “pit” was delicious - I wish I could have heard more of the singers especially in the more quiet passages. Mitchell made special note in the program of the work needed to include the harp in Boatswain. While it sounded lovely, the space was far too small and intimate for a full concert harp in the audience (TPM doesn’t have an actual orchestra pit) and from where I was sitting, I ended up missing a lot of Smither’s delivery of her main soliloquy.

Despite the issues I may have with the concept and its application, these are works that need to be heard more often and Dame Ethel Smyth is a part of all our history that we should learn more about and celebrate as much as possible.

Suffragette plays through June 25 and you can buy your tickets here.

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