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As Paul, Asitha Tennekoon (centre), brings a silky, emotional presence to the stage.

Dahlia Katz

Title
Rocking Horse Winner
Company
Tapestry Opera
Venue
Berkeley Street Theatre
City
Toronto
Runs Until
Saturday, June 04, 2016

Tapestry Opera has a wonderful new production to close off its 2015-16 season. Composer Gareth Williams and librettist Anna Chatterton's Rocking Horse Winner is a taut, dramatic and well-performed adaptation of the famous D. H. Lawrence short story. Moving the story into the present day – an intersection between a sad, hesitant love between mother and child and the destructive transforming power of greed and want – has lost it none of its primal, spooky power. For just over an hour, Tapestry's wonderful musicians and singers cast a spell over you – as opera at its best can do.

It is the excellence of the production at all levels which is the most dominant characteristic of this show. Gareth Williams's score is so evocative and beautiful, tender when need be, raucous at other times, using a modern language that is never jarring or dissonant. Same for Chatterton's libretto – spare and economical, but with enough theatricality for its audience to hang onto. Michael Mori directs the show with a sharp eye for its contrasts, utilizing a two-tiered set cleverly: the bottom half is the haunt of the poor, unhappy and unloving mother while the upper half is where her son Paul, confused and loving, uses his rocking horse to predict the winners of horse races.

Jordan de Souza has only a string quartet to conduct, but his attention to detail and sensitivity to Williams's score – which needs it – is powerful. His players were equally up to the challenge of the work.

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But it is the cast that carries it off. It wasn't that long ago in Toronto that the calibre of the singing and acting in places such as the Canadian Opera Company was worlds distant from the standards set by smaller companies. No longer. There is an amazing pool of performing talent, partly because performers of COC calibre are happy to take on the challenges of newer work. Partly because, while folks have been agonizing for decades about the tenuous future of opera and serious music, a generation of younger performers has been embracing the art with verve and skill.

The financial future of serious music is still iffy, but the power and dedication of the performers is the greatest source of optimism to counter that precariousness.

As Ava, veteran Carla Huhtanen plays the mother to perfection: sad, never satisfied, alienated from, but loving toward, her needy son, Paul. Huhtanen has a silvery, powerful soprano , but it's always been her acting that I've admired as much as her vocal excellence. Peter McGillivray and Keith Klassen, both with a decade or so of experience behind them, were terrific as Bassett the gardener and Uncle Oscar respectively. Paul (aged a bit and brushed with autism for this adaptation) lacks a masculine presence in his life. Bassett and Oscar, with their simple greed and love of life, provide that for him, if in a stunted way.

The surprise of the night was Asitha Tennekoon as Paul. Tennekoon moved to Toronto just two years ago, but his silky, emotional presence on stage – both vocally and dramatically – gave the show a powerful focus. Chatterton has given Tennekoon a challenge: Lawrence wrote him as a small child, whose addiction to his rocking horse is natural, and whose dialogue with the supernatural is clear. But Chatterton's Paul is a young adult, so both the rocking horse and the clairvoyance need to be negotiated differently. Tennekoon managed both without once straining our credulity.

Rocking Horse Winner is a winner – a finely executed gem that hopefully stays in Tapestry's repertoire for some time to come and travels the world as well. It's definitely worth an evening of your time – many of its musical and theatrical images will stay with you for much longer.

Rocking Horse Winner continues until June 4 (tapestryopera.com).

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