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Queen of Puddings Music Theatre

At Enwave Theatre

in Toronto on Sunday

Contrary to what British papers may say, royal mischief has fallen on hard times. None of the current Windsors, or their European peers, can compare with Pedro I, who after ascending the Portuguese throne in 1357 is said to have exhumed his mistress (already years in her grave), propped her on a throne and ordered his subjects to honour her as their queen.

Several poets and opera composers have had a go at this story, in which Pedro and his mistress, Inês de Castro (who was killed by order of Pedro's father), generally emerge as tragic lovers undone by court intrigues. Scottish composer James MacMillan's lurid English-language version of the tale premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 1996, and was taken to Portugal by Scottish Opera five years later.

Inês, the new one-act chamber opera by composer James Rolfe and librettist Paul Bentley, transfers the bones of the story to 1968 Toronto, where a Portuguese army deserter named Pedro falls in love with a fado singer named Inês. Their affair is discovered by his wife, his parents come over from Portugal to yank their son back to the path of duty, and Inês is killed.

The lovers are well aware of their legendary namesakes; in fact, their dialogues are laced with allusions to them. Bentley may have gone a little too far with this: Nobody in West Side Story harps on about Romeo and Juliet. The libretto gives Pedro a job in the morgue, which makes it easy for him to spirit Inês's body off to the local cathedral for the denouement.

Bentley's references to Portugal's ugly colonial adventures in Angola (from which Pedro has fled) are timely, but they tend to make the parents' concern for duty to family and country more rigidly unappealing than it might have been.

Inês's occupation gives Rolfe a good excuse to import a little fado flavour into his score, mostly through the harmonic character, strophic shape and ornamentation of his first number for Inês (sung by the Portuguese fado-pop singer Inês Santos). But in this opera, fado (sometimes called the Portuguese blues) is less a musical presence than a guiding spirit of sadness and fatality.

Rolfe's writing for his five-player ensemble (guitars, violin, clarinets, piano and bass) is transparent enough that I could distinguish virtually all of the sung English at Sunday's opening performance (a translation of the Portuguese sections flashed across an overhead screen). Rolfe also gives the listener plenty to hold onto throughout the piece, through repetitions of material that familiarize the ear with the music and give extra dimension to the drama.

For example, the running instrumental figures that open the opera return again and again, as do the single-note repetitions on John Hess's piano. Both of these devices reinforce the notion of people caught in a situation, or an obsession, from which they cannot escape.

The fugal glimmerings that first appear during an early aria for Constanza (Pedro's wife, sung by soprano Shannon Mercer) recur at the start of a scene in which the parents (mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Turnbull and bass-baritone Thomas Goerz) lament their son's desertion, and again when the father confesses to Pedro that he, too, had a love that had to be abandoned.

Fuguing is a form of musical relay in which each voice is bound to imitate the previous one, and Rolfe cleverly uses it to illustrate the desire of each of these singers that Pedro (sung by baritone Giles Tomkins) quit fooling around and act like every honourable, duty-bound man before him.

The whole score was put together at that level of skill and economy. Rolfe also found timely occasions for a vocal duet, a trio and a quartet, which are all somewhat rare in contemporary opera. His sung dialogue, however, often seemed arbitrary and seldom told me much about the character. His serene setting of the final scene glossed right over Pedro's macabre act of sacrilege, which may explain why neither Pedro's parents nor his wife reacted with anything like the horror and fear you might expect. Stage director Jennifer Tarver may have realized that any large response would be out of place.

Otherwise the opera was well staged, in a multilevel set defined by Yannik Larivée's life-sized picture frames, and cunningly lit by Kimberly Purtell. I thought each cast member caught his or her character's signal characteristic very well, from the parents' two degrees of rigidity to the wife's wounded honour, to Pedro's robust desire to escape his boy-man identity.

Santos did a remarkable job as an almost accidental player in this family romance, a trait reinforced when her amplified pop alto contested the scene against the operatic voices of the others. Dairine Ni Mheadhra's direction of the tiny orchestra was fleet and attentive.

In the end, however, I wasn't really sold on this well-conceived, carefully made work. Its central theme, the conflict between freedom and duty, is an old one, and I didn't feel that it got any fresher in this enactment. No scene grabbed me by the throat and forced me to care about these people.

As Pedro I's subjects might have said, looking at their queen: The bones are there, but the flesh is somewhat lacking.

Inês continues at Harbourfront's Enwave Theatre through March 1.