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Marion Newman and Jesse Clark in Giiwedin at Theatre Passe Muraille.


  • Written by Spy Dénommé-Welch and Catherine Magowan
  • Directed by Maria Lamont
  • Musical direction by Gregory Oh
  • At Theatre Passe Muraille
  • In Toronto on Thursday

So here's another little Canadian opera - Giiwedin, by Spy Dénommé-Welch and Catherine Magowan - and it's everything that little Canadian operas tend to be. It's earnest yet naive, modest yet ambitious, and about as uneven as the Rocky Mountains.

Premiered at Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille on Thursday evening, Giiwedin is a co-production of Native Earth Performing Arts and An Indie(n) Rights Reserve, two companies that specialize in native-themed work. The latter company is run by Dénommé-Welch and Magowan, two young composers who call Toronto home.

They wrote the music for their opera together, jointly creating a score that was a mixture of many styles, from baroque to tango, with a few native touches, but conspicuously avoiding a dissonant "modern classical" sound. In a further departure from modernist convention, there's a historical sensibility built into the opera's structure, with a formal prelude and overture, and scenes neatly subdivided into arias and ensemble numbers. The result is an impressively sophisticated pastiche - but a pastiche nonetheless.

Dénommé-Welch is given sole credit as the opera's librettist. Central to the surreal story of Giiwedin (which means "north wind" in the Anishinaabemowin language), is Noodin-Kwe, a 150-year-old woman fighting for her ancestral land in Northern Ontario. In her struggle she encounters a hapless French-Canadian Indian Agent, a Snidely Whiplash-like government official called the Minister, and finally the cheerfully genocidal Doctor Carlton. As well, there are roles for forest animals, bureaucrats and medical staff.

Under the able guidance of music director Gregory Oh (who conducted a tiny baroque ensemble of four musicians), Giiwedin got off to a good start. Stage director Maria Lamont brought a charming, lighthearted touch to Act I, as Jean, the Indian Agent, first encounters Noodin-Kwe. She rescues him from wolves and a bear - and despite her contempt for everything he represents, they become lovers.

Things change in the second and last act, when the Minister arrives and the dead bodies start to pile up. Unfortunately, it's at this point that Giiwedin gets lost in its own forest, and falls short, both musically and dramatically, of the emotional intensity it aspires to. Instead, the plot takes strange turns: a silly radio-show scene is followed by a gruesome finale in a psychiatric hospital.

The opera's saving grace was its cast, who rose to the occasion and gave a committed ensemble performance. Marion Newman, as Noodin-Kwe, displayed a clear mezzo with an impressive range. She was well paired with the smooth baritone of Jesse Clark as Jean. Also noteworthy were Nicole Joy-Fraser, Catharin Carew and Lawrence Cotton as Mahigan the wolf, Mahkwa the bear and Doctor Carlton, respectively.

However, there's not much I can say about James McLennan, who portrayed the Minister. Due to voice problems he was unable to sing, and instead merely acted his part and mouthed his words while tenor Martin Houtman sang the role from the side of the stage. Despite the best efforts of both men, this arrangement was an unpleasant distraction.

Giiwedin runs until April 24.

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