Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences from heaven to hell this summer, with Rameau’s Castor et Pollux, its second production of its Odyssey 2023 festival. This year’s line-up wraps up with Verdi’s The Corsair being staged on deck of the historic Nonsuch ship (replica) at the Manitoba Museum, September 20–23, 2023.
The four-show run held August 22 – 25, and performed al fresco at Winnipeg’s historic St. Boniface Cathedral featured an all-Manitoban cast. The baroque opera (1754 version) was stage directed by Adam Da Ros. Local audiences would have recalled Da Ros’s flamboyant and fearless MUO adaptation of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro held last year at Club 200–famously known as one of Canada’s longest running gay bars– as well as Mozart’s Idomeneo, and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas combined with Canadian composer James Rolfe’s Aeneas and Dido.
Castor et Pollux @ Paul McKeen at St. Boniface Cathedral
The intriguing choice to cast women in the traditionally male title roles felt both natural and wholly organic, with the (now) twin sisters—still Castor and Pollux—performed by a pair of sopranos. Da Ros ensured this alteration never overshadowed the narrative with an arguably overt political/societal statement; rather, the show’s “gender swapping” became a subtle, gentle nod to today’s increasingly fluid, non-binary world of diversity and inclusion.
Performed solely in French, the production also notably marked the 15-year old company’s inaugural use of sur-titles, with Pierre-Joseph Bernard’s original libretto with English translation projected against the cathedral’s looming, 200-foot tall Tyndall stone façade. The decision to incorporate both languages heightened the accessibility of the nearly 300-year old Baroque opera, while also paying homage to the work being staged in the beating heart of Winnipeg’s Francophone community.
A live, compact chamber orchestra under the impeccable baton of music director/pianist Shannon Hiebert accompanied the cast that also included a 14-member chorus.
State-of-the-art digital projections created by Winnipeg lighting designer jaymez were presented collage style against the façade; creating luscious eye-candy as the stone magically lit up in twinkling starlight and rosy pink hues. At times singers performed in shadows; and the visual projections—including sur-titles—naturally became more visible as darkness fell.
Soprano Paulina Gonzalez created a fine, convincing half-god Pollux who travels to the underworld to redeem the life of Castor, with an evening highlight during the August 24 performance becoming “Nature, amour, qui partagez mon coeur,” showcasing her clear diction. Soprano Nikita Labdon as her mortal twin, Castor, made every moment count, with her aria “Séjours de l’éternelle paix” sung with limpid sincerity as she drew listeners into her world of sorrow.
Another standout performance proved to be mezzo-soprano Hailey Witt as Télaïre, who delivered her eagerly anticipated, “big aria” “Tristes apprets” with heartrending pathos, underscored by expressive, lyrical phrasing throughout.
Mezzo-soprano Geneva Halverson brought dramatic intensity to Télaïre’s jealous sister Phébé, commanding the stage with every entrance, including the singer’s all-guns-blazing “Sortez, sortez d’esclavage.”
A role such as Jupiter requires powerful gravitas, and lyric baritone Paul Forget’s portrayal of the “God of Thunder” felt more earthbound than heavenly-sent; his voice not always fully projecting in the outdoors venue. His godly sidekick Mercure, brought to life by bass Wes Rambo (doubling as the Grand Priest) suffered a similar fate, with their performances becoming the production’s only weak link(s).
Da Ros’s thoughtful stage direction made sure all performers, as well as the chorus moved seamlessly throughout the burnt-out ruins, with the latter ensemble’s musical commentary matched equally by efficient blocking supporting the principals at all times.
The production also featured many delicious trompe l’oeil effects. Holographic statues of stone-faced gods flanking the stage, perching high above in nooks ostensibly became silent witnesses. Projected billows of clouds sweeping across the stone as “real” clouds visible through the cathedral’s hollowed out rose window—its original stained glass blown out by devastating fire in July 1968—slipped by, creating an all-immersive, late summer treat for each night’s capacity crowd.