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theatre review

Isis and Osiris

Voicebox: Opera in Concert

Jane Mallett Theatre

Mounting a brand-new opera production may be the most daunting and difficult task in the entire world of contemporary performing arts. The vast floods of money, time, dedication, sweat, and toil it takes to make this fusion of the arts come together on a stage in front of an audience is astonishing. When it's a new Canadian opera, double that.

Which is the first thing that must be noted about the new production of "Isis and Osiris" by librettist Sharon Singer, composer Peter-Anthony Togni, and artistic director Guillermo Silva-Martin, whose Voicebox: Opera in Concert organization staged the world premiere on Friday night. That it exists at all is a testament to their combined dedication, expertise and perseverance.

And there's a fine opera lurking within the two hours plus of Isis and Osiris. Many times throughout the evening, some of Singer's libretto lifts off the page into exquisite poetry, and Togni's music does the same on innumerable occasions. But overall, those moments are often submerged in an overly-didactic, too literal telling of what, after all, is a great story. Isis and Osiris are siblings and Queen and King of ancient Egypt, half mortal, half demi-god, intent on announcing a new era of peace and tranquillity within their kingdom. Their other brother, Seth, resists the call to harmony, wants to embark on a personal and political reign of destruction in the world, and kills Osiris (or tries to) to further his ends. Isis, channeling ancient wisdom, finds Osiris's body and returns it to life. The two create a child to cement their program of the positive, of life's blessings. But Seth has the opera's last word (a la Malvolio in Twelfth Night) reminding us all of the darkness ever present in the world.

And when Singer and Togni let the drama of the story have its sway, they were remarkably successful. The Act 1 love duet between Isis and Osiris is gorgeous, and elicited spontaneous applause from Friday's audience. Some of Seth's malevolent arias were very effective. The scene where he tricks Osiris to enter a "magic" sarcophagus, only to lure him to his death, was quite effective. But these scenes were just a bit too infrequent to allow the opera to be as completely overwhelming as it might have been. Without knowing for sure, one suspects that librettist Singers's fascination with all things Egyptian lured her into filling the opera with way too much exposition about Egyptian gods and Late Kingdom political realities. Some of that, as important as it is to the political and intellectual dimensions of the work, might have been offered to us in a severely truncated form and still managed to be effective. And Singer's lengthy expository sections hampered Togni's natural musical tendency towards the Romantic and the expressive, forcing him to compose lengthy "recitative"passages in a faux-Middle Eastern modal texture. When the two of them let loose on the drama of the story, her prose turned into poetry, and his music soared into life.

Although the staging for the opera was minimal, it was quite effective, with soloists and chorus dressed basically in black with Egyptian-style ornaments over top. And the principals did a fine job, I thought, with both the dramatic and vocal challenges of the work. Michael Barrett was a persuasive Osiris, somewhat naïve in his belief in mankind's essential goodness, and all too trusting in his malevolent brother. Lucia Cesaroni was a fine Isis, with a beautiful, powerful voice, capturing a large emotional range with great success. Julie Nesrallah, playing Nepthys, the fourth sibling in the Egyptian quartet of deities, married to her brother, Seth, has less to do in the opera, but her burnished mezzo-soprano added a fine lustre to the overall sound on stage.

But it was Michael Nyby's Seth that really stole the show. Maybe it's the unfortunate truth of all drama, but despite Singer and Togni's desire to show that harmony and peacefulness win out in the end over evil and destruction, the Devil, as they say, has all the good tunes. Nyby's Seth, although somewhat uni-dimensional in his fierce malevolent pride, overwhelms all the other characters in the opera. He makes his poor brother, Osiris, look like a naïve sap. His sexual appeal to his widowed sister, Osiris, is visceral. His love of power is overwhelming. He's sort of a cross between Richard the Third, Lucifer and Donald Trump. And Nyby gave Seth everything he had, singing and acting the role with great force.

In the pit, conductor Robert Cooper led his eight-person orchestra with great energy, trying to shape the music to fit the action on stage as tightly as possible, wringing all the drama he could from Togni's score (and there's a lot of drama in there).

Isis and Osiris is not perfect in its current incarnation, but one hopes that its current incarnation will not be its final shape. The history of opera, if we choose to read it carefully, tells us that all the great masterpieces we now honour went through long periods of gestation, trial, change and polishing. One hopes that Isis and Osiris is given the same opportunities. There's too good a story, and too many fine moments in the work for it not to stay alive.