LSM-ONLINE-LOGO2JPG.jpg (4855 bytes)


Back Issues
LSM Issues
LSV Issues

Throat Doctor
Concert Reviews
CD Critics
Books Reviews
PDF Files


About LSM
LSM News
Guest Book
Contact Us
Site Search
Web Search

La Scena Musicale Online Reviews and News / Critiques et Nouvelles


Visit La Scena Musicale Online Reviews. [Index] Critiques de La Scena Musicale Online

Serinette: Harry Somers' opera receives a rare revival

By Joseph So June 9, 2001

Harry Somers, composer
James Reaney, librettist
Victor Feldbrill, conductor
Tom Diamond, dramatic consultant
Canadian Chamber Ensemble
St. James' Cathedral, Toronto
June 2, 2001

Mehgan Atchison, soprano
John Avey, baritone
Michael Colvin, tenor
Alain Coulombe, bass-baritone
Sally Dibblee, soprano
Doug MacNaughton, baritone
Allyson McHardy, mezzo-soprano
Lambroula Maria Pappas, soprano
David Pomeroy, tenor
Marcia Swanston, mezzo-soprano

Michael Colvin
Despite rumours to the contrary, opera as an art form is alive and well. According to statistics collected by Opera America, an umbrella organization that promotes opera as a performing arts medium, a total of 27 world premieres took place in the just concluded 2000-2001 season.  In North America alone, the past ten years saw a total of 133 new works produced by professional opera companies.  However, many works received their premieres and then were promptly forgotten.  Of the 133 operas, only 30 or so received subsequent productions, of which only 12 received more than one subsequent production. None can claim to have entered the so-called "standard repertoire."  The sad truth is, most new operas are relegated to a shelf somewhere gathering dust.

Such has been the fate of the operas of the late Harry Somers, one of the most important figures in Canadian music.  His best-known work, Louis Riel, originally composed for the 1967 Centennial year, has not been seen since 1975.  Mario the Magician received critical acclaim in a 1992 COC production, as was Serinette in 1990, but both have been out of the limelight.   Thanks to Soundstreams Canada and Lawrence Cherney, a Somers devotee, Serinette received its first revival last week. Originally staged at Sharon Temple in Newmarket, the site of the Children of Peace pacifist movement that figures prominently in the opera, this revival was relocated to St. James‚ Cathedral in downtown Toronto, the very church attended by some of the characters in the opera.

The story is a piece of local Canadiana, centering on the prominent Jarvis and Ridout families in the town of York just after the 1812 war.  Having the performances at St. James Cathedral is particularly meaningful since the tombstone of Ridout can be seen at the main entrance.  The libretto features such diverse issues as religious orthodoxy, pacifism, family conflicts, and of course, romance.  Perhaps its very Canadianism is a cause for its limited appeal -- local history doesn't necessarily travel well. In its effort to remain faithful to historical events, Reaney introduced dramatic action often without the luxury of space for full character development, such as the duel between Sam Jarvis and Ridout. There are a total of 19 scenes in a work that lasts about one hour forty-five minutes.  Perhaps it is a bit unfair to gauge its dramatic viability in a semi-staged concert performance, but as it stands, the work has a rather episodic, almost choppy quality. Given the physical limitations imposed by the church pews, dramatic consultant Tom Diamond did as well as could be expected in injecting credibility and a certain liveliness into the proceedings. 

It may not be to everyone's taste, but Somers‚ musical idiom is uniquely his own. The choral writing, of which there is a lot in this opera, is very fine.  The hymn that ends the opera represents Somers at his best.  Particularly in Act One, the orchestration for the chamber ensemble is brass and woodwind-heavy, full of short, staccato phrases while avoiding sustained legato lines, giving it a rather hard-edged sound. If the intention of Somers is to make us dislike the families of Anglican old guards, he succeeded. The abundant spoken dialogue, some of it narrative in nature, compromises a certain degree of musical continuity for textual and dramatic clarity. The extensive coloratura writing of the Bird Girl is a cross between Fiakermilli in Strauss‚ Arabella and the mechanical doll Olympia in Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann.  It was amusing at first, but by the fifth repeat of her stratospheric phrases, it becomes too much of a good thing. As if to contrast the violence and tension of the York inhabitants in Act One, the Second Act takes place at the Sharon Temple, the home of the Children of Peace, a pacifist group the main character Colin Jarvis decided to join. Musically, the second half is decidedly more lyrical and has a calming, almost spiritual effect.  The juxtaposition here proves dramatically quite effective.

Whatever real or imagined shortcomings of the work, it was well served by the excellent playing of the Canadian Chamber Ensemble under the seasoned baton of Victor Feldbrill. Of the ten soloists, all given multiple roles, there was not a weak link.  As the central character of Colin Jarvis, tenor Michael Colvin sang strongly throughout, his voice ringing out impressively in the reverberant space.  Also noteworthy were baritone Doug MacNaughton (David Willson) and Sally Dibblee (Ann Smith) for their vocal and dramatic contributions.  Judging by the seemingly unlimited supply of stratospheric high notes at the disposal of newcomer soprano Lambroula Maria Pappas, someone should quickly sign her as Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos!

For those who missed this revival, the production was recorded at the Glenn Gould Studio in the days following the performances, as part of the Windows on Somers recording project, a laudable initiative in documenting the creative output of one of Canada most important composers.  This recording is going to be "fast-tracked" and will be released in Fall 2001. For further information, contact Canadian Music Centre Distribution Service (attention: Richard Truhlar, Manager) at 416-961-6601.


Visit La Scena Musicale Online Reviews. [Index] Critiques de La Scena Musicale Online

(c) La Scena Musicale 2000