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Kamouraska with Esprit Orchestra

By Charles Wilson

Opera in Concert

Jane Mallett Theatre

In Toronto on Saturday

Anne Hébert's dramatic novel Kamouraska tells a dark tale of brutality and revenge, murder and guilt, human frailty and its pitiable consequences. It is a natural for transformation into an opera of the old kind. It cries out for a Verdi. Later, a Strauss might have served, or, closer to our own day, a Berg, a Shostakovich, a Britten. In Canada, Somers or Schafer could have done something striking with it, but I doubt it would have tempted either of them.

Thirty-five years ago this harrowing melodrama did tempt Canadian composer Charles Wilson. By the mid 1970s Wilson had enjoyed some success with three of his operas, all completed in 1972: the church opera The Summoning of Everyman , the children's The Selfish Giant , and the grand Heloise and Abelard , the last a commission by the Canadian Opera Company to mark its 25th anniversary. So, in 1975 he approached Kamouraska with a measure of experience; but not, perhaps enough.

Wilson's Kamouraska was not accepted for performance at the time. And when his next opera Psycho Red (commissioned by the Guelph Spring Festival for production in 1978) was not a critical success, he seemed to close down his operatic endeavours.

Kamouraska lay smouldering in a drawer, unproduced till now. Its belated brave premiere, in a chamber revision for two performances (Saturday and Sunday) by Toronto's valiant Opera in Concert, left us longing for more and less. More clearly profiled arias and ensembles, abetted instead of interfered-with by the orchestra of 14 players. More simple intelligibility. More areas of relief to spell off the dramatic highs. Less strife and clutter in the orchestral fabric. Too often it was too noisy to hear.

Apart from a general unintelligibility (we should accept the cynical truth that English surtitles are now a necessity in English-language opera) some of the singing was remarkably good.

The exquisite Miriam Khalil as the young Elizabeth D'Aulnieres and the stately Loralie Kirkpatrick as the mature Elizabeth were excellent. Baritone Alexander Dobson was a mellifluous Dr. Nelson and a handsome one, somewhat impeded by his Salvador Dali hairdo. Mezzo-soprano Erica Iris Huang gave the best singing of the evening as the sympathetic Aunt Adelaide. And Gillian Grossman and Mia Harris were well-cast as the other two aunts. Tenor James McLennan was an effectively despicable Antoine Tassy, Elizabeth's abusive first husband. Jenny Cohen was a bold Aurelie Caron, Elizabeth's maid and confidante. Baritone Gregory Finney was a plausible Jerome Rolland, Elizabeth's dying second husband.

Conductor Alex Pauk did his florid best with Wilson's overwrought score, and Guillermo Silva-Marin managed adroitly the moving and grouping of his cast to convey the changing times and places of the story.

But if the opera is to have a future in needs a subtler, cannier scoring and a greater practical concern for the detailed conveyance of its text.

Special to The Globe and Mail