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Swoon & The Bear

The Canadian Opera Company

At the Imperial Oil Opera Theatre

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In Toronto on Wednesday

The Canadian Opera Company's opera-house slogan -- "home at last" -- took on new resonance this week as the company staged its first Canadian opera for grownups in seven years. Swoon, the new one-act comedy from James Rolfe and Anna Chatterton, proved what thousands of kids (for whom the COC has staged several in-school works) already know: that home-grown opera can be at least as much fun as the imported kind.

The COC made the point with unintended force during Wednesday's opening-night performance at the COC's bare-brick rehearsal/performance space at the company's Front Street headquarters. Swoon far outshone the other work on the bill, William Walton's 1967 adaptation (with Paul Dehn) of Chekhov's one-act "jest," The Bear.

Swoon tells the story of two disaffected couples from different classes who work out their differences, and their jealousies, through real or contrived flirtations with each other's partner. This kind of amorous switcheroo was old even in Shakespeare's time, but Chatterton and Rolfe's brisk, contemporary comedy has given it freshness and humour.

Chatterton has set the piece in an upscale precinct of condo-land, depicted simply and elegantly by Victoria Wallace (set and costumes) and Reneé Brode (lighting). Mona (soprano Melinda Delorme) hires a new housekeeper (Leah, played by soprano Virginia Hatfield), not knowing that she's also taken on a spy: Leah's clingy, suspicious boyfriend Roy (tenor Lawrence Wiliford). Leah has hardly begun to swab the floors when Mona's hubby Ari (baritone Justin Welsh) decides that Leah is just the remedy needed to dispel the boredom of married life.

Like a good joke, this story's pleasures are mostly in the telling, and the two authors tell it very well. Chatterton's text was full of droll and outrageous things. Ari's opening move on Leah -- "Why is a princess like you folding my underwear?" -- is a pick-up line for the ages, as well as a neat one-line echo of Mona's earlier, more fulsome displays of obtuse class privilege.

A series of references to dancing (duly shown to be a metaphor for relationships) gave director Michael Patrick Albano plenty of opportunities to set his young cast in motion, and almost let Wiliford steal a scene in which he wasn't even singing.

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Rolfe's nimble score enhanced the script's comic momentum from the opening bars and never let it lag, while giving the story's more serious moments due time to unfold. His mostly tonal, often pointillistic music was generally quite simple, sometimes no more than a few scale-wise patterns and octave leaps linked to a rhythmic motto. But his stripped-down settings always suited the text and advanced the drama. Odd as it seems, one common fault of contemporary opera composers is a failure to listen to the words and the imaginative space they reveal. Rolfe has listened with real skill and humility, and the result is an airy yet resonant score that made it easy to understand almost every word sung.

In some ways the collaboration of composer and librettist reached its peak in the opera's least characteristic section. Leah's erotically charged address to Ari in one of the later scenes seemed to billow up out of nowhere, and took the opera into a new zone, closer to the Song of Songs than to the wry, jazz-inflected dialogues of the work's opening. But once it was made, this sudden shift felt right, because of the precision and poetic tone of Chatterton's language, and the responsive cantabile temper of the music, which was conducted with tact and sensitivity by Derek Bate.

The opening-night cast performed as a true dramatic ensemble. Wiliford's scenes with Delorme were especially ripe, and showed even more of this tenor's physical-comedy skills than we saw in the COC's recent Cosi fan tutte. Rolfe's very singable vocal lines gave everyone a chance to shine, and they all did, showing again what depth of talent the COC's Ensemble Studio program attracts.

Albano's direction cleverly played up the absurdities of Chatterton's situations, and never lapsed into the deadly broad posturing often seen on opera stages. The same couldn't be said for Ashlie Corcoran's direction of The Bear, which lurched along like a silent film with singing.

The charm of this three-voice "extravaganza" (as Walton called it) stems mainly from what remained, in 1967, of the kind of instrumental wit the composer showed years before in Façade. It was fun to hear, for instance, the sensuality that permeates the plaintive opening music, through which Walton lets us know right away that the mourning of the widow Popova (mezzo-soprano Lauren Segal) is a cover for more hot-blooded motives.

But the exposure of these motives, in Popova's confrontations with the coarse land-owner Smirnov (baritone Jon-Paul Décosse) was ponderous to witness and, thanks to Walton's stolid word-settings, often dull to hear in spite of the strong vocal talents of these singers.

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The production looked and sounded thrown together, with its borrowed set ( Swoon's condo façade with rustic doors and a few sticks of furniture) and sometimes imperfect contact between the orchestra (conducted by Steven Philcox) and the singers, including bass-baritone Andrew Stewart as an arthritically clichéd old servant.

Creatively, it was a better night for the home team than the visitors, and the COC ought to ponder this result when drawing up its future plans. If I were Richard Bradshaw, I'd be booking a Monday morning meeting with Rolfe and Chatterton to discuss what they could do with a full-length opening at the Four Seasons Centre.

Swoon and The Bear continue at Toronto's Imperial Oil Opera Theatre (227 Front St. E.) tonight at 7:30 and tomorrow at 2 p.m. (416-363-8231).

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