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James Westman as Sandy Keith in Calgary Opera's "The Inventor" (Trudie Lee)
James Westman as Sandy Keith in Calgary Opera's "The Inventor" (Trudie Lee)

Music: Opera review

The Inventor: Tale of Canadian con man convinces Add to ...

The Inventor

  • Calgary Opera
  • Music by Bramwell Tovey, libretto by John Murrell
  • Conductor Bramwell Tovey
  • Director Kelly Robinson
  • At the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary on Saturday

"I dreamed dreams that caused death." That confession, from a 20th-century serial killer, could be the motto for The Inventor, a new opera about a 19th-century Canadian con man whose final exploit resulted in more than 80 deaths.

Alexander (Sandy) Keith Jr. fleeced people under several identities in several countries before a botched insurance scam brought his career and life to an end in the German port town of Bremerhaven. His many names are just about the only phony thing about The Inventor, the ambitiously wrought music drama given an impressive premiere by Calgary Opera on Saturday.

Bramwell Tovey's strongly theatrical score and John Murrell's artful trilingual libretto (some of it written in rhyming couplets) takes us chronologically through the main stages of Sandy's life and career. We see his profiteering deals with Lincoln's Confederate foes (whom he quickly betrays), the domestic scams he practised on two wives and their children, and finally his attempt to reap an insurance windfall from a cargo ship he planned to blow up.

Director Kelly Robinson animated much of the story within designer Bretta Gerecke's heaped-up set of memory boxes - rooms with closeable fronts that doubled as a screen for Scott Reid`s projections. Gerecke's costuming suited the milieu, with full gowns for the smart set Sandy found in Dresden, and drabber outfits for Halifax and New York, lit appropriately by Harry Frehner.

Sandy (robustly portrayed by baritone James Westman) is a very bad man, but he's also a dreamer, and the opera works hard to get us to appreciate his dreams. There's a yearning quality to much of Tovey's score, which often brims with saturated chords and perfumed harmonies. These bring us close to the private utopias of many of the opera's characters, and tell us that Sandy (who dreams of a big house on the harbour) is really just an optimist who isn't fussy about how he reaches his goal. His optimism is what allows him to simply quit the latest disaster and invent a new identity in another town.

But the music also has a strong narrative drive, and clings tightly to depicted reality. There's a lot of music within the drama, including the first scene's broad wassail chorus (which returns in metrically irregular form), the rollicking drinking song in Sandy's New York bar, and (above all) the sea shanty that recurs throughout the opera and summarizes its narrative arc. The score's broader style also shifts to suit the milieu: We get syncopated American rhythms for Sandy's Confederate conspirators, and late-Romantic, Germanic harmonies for the leave-taking scene at the Bremerhaven docks.

The orchestra often comments on the action, and undermines characters when they seem to be most sure of themselves, quoting and twisting motifs from other contexts. At times, the score offers a musical reward to those who can't get what they want. Mezzo-soprano Judith Forst's splendidly vengeful soliloquy (as the mother of Sandy's latest romantic target) doesn't prevent a marriage, but it does set up the powerful vocal quartet with chorus that closes Act I.

Forst and tenor Roger Honeywell (a vivid presence as the Confederate conspirator Smoot) act as Sandy's accusers throughout the opera. Smoot morphs somewhat schematically into a town crier of Fate, popping up like a jack-in-the-box to spoil Sandy's latest scam. We get a bit too much of him, as of the watchmaker (played by the superb multitasking bass Phillip Ens), who has a wonderful little scene that unfortunately drags the narrative just as it needs to move up a notch after the fine reflective reckoning between Sandy and his disappointed bride Cecelia (soprano Erin Wall, who gave radiant accounts of some of Tovey's best vocal writing).

Murrell wants a simple explanation for the fatal twist in Sandy's character, and offers one right at the beginning of the opera. We see the young Sandy (played by boy soprano Max Kennett) absorb a "rosebud" moment of trauma (à la Citizen Kane), while Westman sings along in falsetto. It's an odd way to meet the opera's principal figure, unless we take the "false" in falsetto as a sign of things to come. The bigger problem with this scene is that the flashback that's meant to contain the whole opera isn't really set up properly. Unless we read the program, we don't know at what point in time this recollection is occurring.

The opera, like Sandy's sea shanty, has a happy ending of sorts, as his women and their children gather to mull over the man's good points and bad. This gives Tovey a chance for an orchestral summing up, and a good final trio, with soprano Laura Whalen, who gave a very convincing performance as the put-upon survivor, Mary. Smaller parts were capably handled by sopranos Erin Armstrong and Allison Cecilia Arends, mezzo-sopranos Jennifer Sproule and Cassandra Warner, tenors Adam Fisher and Martin Sadd, baritones Brent Calis and Vasil Garvanliev, and members of the Cantaré Children's Choir.

Tovey led the soloists, the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and Calgary Opera Chorus in a robust and colourful account of his score. He may not have broken much new ground compositionally, but he and Murrell have certainly written a broadly powerful work for music theatre.

Calgary Opera performs The Inventor again on Feb. 2 and 4.

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