Opera News

Winnipeg Free Press - November 26th, 2007

Gwenda Nemerofsky

Premiere lives up to high hopes

Superb cast sets bar high in original opera - 4 out of 5 stars

It'S been years in the making and finally, on Saturday night, the collective work of countless artists and staff, with unprecedented financial support from private and public funders, made history on the stage of the Centennial Concert Hall. Transit of Venus, a brand-new opera, made its long-awaited world premiere before an anticipating audience.

This is Manitoba Opera's 35th anniversary season, and they have truly gone where no one has gone before. At a cost of $1.2 million, this mammoth production is an all-Canadian masterpiece, written and composed by two Canadians, librettist Maureen Hunter and composer Victor Davies and performed with an all-Canadian cast.

Director and CEO Larry Desrochers' vision and unflagging work have borne fruit in a big way, and he and many others must now be breathing huge sighs of relief.

The cast is rich with heavy hitters of the business: baritone Russell Braun, mezzo-sopranos Jean Stilwell and Judith Forst, Winnipeg-born soprano Monica Huisman, tenor Colin Ainsworth and bass-baritone Mark Booden. This talented ensemble had the once-in-a-lifetime honour (and daunting responsibility) of being the original cast for this work. They have set the performance bar -- and they set it impressively high.

Transit of Venus tells the true-life story of 18th-century French astronomer Guillaume le Gentil de la Galaisi?re, who spent much of his life trying to chart the transit of the planet Venus as it moved across the sun.

Braun is a dashing Le Gentil, bringing warmth and compassion to the role, while clearly portraying the astronomer's obsessive passion for his field. At the same time, Braun is the ideal romantic figure, with his glorious voice, power and presence.

Celeste, his love interest, is but a young girl, played by Huisman, whose own star is rapidly rising for good reason. She brings a memorable stage presence and confident demeanour to her depiction of the convent-raised young woman who is the object of Le Gentil's love.

There is just a hint of the spoiled child. Add to this Huisman's pinpoint-pure voice with its rapid, tremolo-like vibrato and you hear all the urgency and impatience of youth, tinged with the desperation of love.

The versatile Stilwell, who for some reason was given the least tuneful and interesting of parts, played Celeste's mother, Margot. She had to be satisfied with a series of recitative-like dialogues throughout the production. One notable exception was the moving This is my Celeste -- a mother's mournful plea, rife with concern for her child, but also with regret for her unrequited love. Her repeated, "She's so young..." just about broke our hearts. While Stilwell did a formidable job with what she was given, it seemed an opportunity missed to give her a range of just a few notes with which to work.

Veteran mezzo-soprano Forst was a show-stopper as Madame Sylvie, Le Gentil's mother. Her When I was at the Convent was a hilarious tongue-in-cheek account of her years in school, where she learned "next to nothing" and was eventually "deemed unfit for God and sent home -- alleluia!" Witty lyrics and an artful performance bordering on caricature made this a highlight. Who knew Forst had such comedic flair?

It was a pleasure to hear Ainsworth as Demarais. This was his Manitoba Opera debut and we can only hope we'll hear more from this charming young tenor with the clean, unaffected voice and honest delivery. Holding his own amid illustrious company, he brought a vibrant energy to his short appearances onstage.

You couldn't have asked for more from an ensemble. The entire company played its heart out in this performance, wringing every last drop of emotion from this historical tragedy. The chorus scenes were full of life, with diction so pure that the surtitles supplied were unnecessary. The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of James Meena, was spot on, with special mention going to the low brass, which were called upon frequently.

Despite this story being a period piece, the more modern language Hunter employed made it more accessible than traditional opera -- the emotions and values seemed more relevant to today's audience.

And the overall look of the production was marvellous, thanks to clever set and costume designer Brian Perchaluk. Beautiful sets integrated the celestial component in curtain design, banister construction and more. Perchaluk's lush period costuming and the mood-transforming lighting by Scott Henderson completed the scene.

There are two more sightings of the Transit of Venus - on Tuesday and Friday nights. It will also be broadcast at 1 p.m. on Dec. 1 on CBC Radio's Saturday Afternoon at the Opera.

4 out of 5 stars


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