Edmonton’s Mercury Opera has both a conventional and an audacious bent. The little company that stages traditional operas on no particularly predictable schedule has presented Madama Butterfly, Cavalleria rusticana, Il tabarro, La traviata— its inaugural 2000 production of Respighi’s seldom-seen La fiamma (The Flame) took place in New York City. The company’s boldness comes from its unconventional notion of a proper opera venue. But unlike Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre for example, it doesn’t rework the original while also performing it in surprising spaces.
Mercury Opera takes on unconventional venues
On the unconventional side, Butterfly was done in a big tent in Edmonton’s Little Italy; Il tabarro was set on a docked riverboat on the bank of the North Saskatchewan River, and for Mercury Opera’s latest venture, artistic director and founder Darcia Parada enlisted the cooperation of a legendary strip joint in Edmonton’s downtown.
The dancing pole was removed for the production, but the audience on opening night, Mar. 1, were urged to keep the intermission break tight because Chez Pierre’s usual clientele would be arriving for a 9:30 ‘cabaret.’ Chez Pierre’s, which opened in the ‘70s, is a small, dark space with a bar at the back and a mirror wall behind the postage stamp-sized performance platform. The singers in the party scenes were packed tight, but the concentration of human bodies blasting operatically in such a low-ceilinged club created an unambiguously dramatic musical effect, and the cast, both principals and secondary characters, were accomplished, if not well-established in the business, so the artistic effect was satisfying.
Ailing singer soldiers on
One singer, though, baritone Chris Childs Santos, was so sick that in one scene he had to mouth the lyrics while fellow baritone Jay Stephenson sang from the wings. Fortunately, Stephenson prepared the role to sing on alternate nights, so the show could go on. In a weird way, the wretched look of the ailing Childs Santos enhanced his portrayal of Alfredo’s conflicted father, Giorgio Germont. Stephenson’s own role for the evening was Alfredo’s rival, Baron Douphol, and he delivered both duties solidly.
Tenor Boris Derow sang Alfredo with palpable passion; he was suitably menacing in the scene where he lashes out at Violetta before their death-bed reconciliation. The effect of having the performers a couple of metres from your table was a strength; the singing held its own dramatic purpose, but the singers also acted with conviction, and so the passions and the intimacy in any given scene were immersive and compelling.
Soprano Kathleen Morrison riveting as Violetta
This was especially true of Kathleen Morrison’s portrayal of the courtesan Violetta. Her performance was under a microscope in the tiny space, and still Morrison, whose career is based in Berlin, presented a nuanced and emotionally forceful Violetta. The cramped quarters in the final death scene made for a bit of awkward manoeuvring between Violetta and Alfredo, but the impact was effective enough.
I sat with three operagoers at a table close to the stage, people who attend performances regularly at Edmonton’s 2,000-seat Jubilee Auditorium, where nuance and power can be dissipated in such a large room. Throughout this Traviata, they murmured appreciatively about how emotionally and musically intense the experience of seeing opera this up-close was for them. The concept of using such a venue definitely left a positive impression.
Some benefit of the doubt has to be given to just how polished a rendition of an opera is possible such odd performance spaces, but the energy, the quality of the singing (with the exception of the poor, hacking baritone) made for a unique artistic experience that the opening night crowd clearly enjoyed.
Mercury Opera’s La traviata by Verdi (his name was accidentally left out of the program) continues its run March 8-10 at Chez Pierre’s with two matinees at another location.
The company’s next production, Carmen in the Badlands, will take place at the Badlands Amphitheatre in Drumheller, Alberta in August.