In 1768, during a rare time-out from touring, a precocious 12-year old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart dashed off his very first opera, Bastien und Bastienne, a mischievous one-act romantic parody. A hundred and fifty years later, Russian émigré turned Parisian modernist Igor Stravinsky penned his own light-hearted farce, Mavra, an unexpected neoclassical salon piece that poked fun at bourgeois domestic pretensions.
With their shared spirit of irreverence, Loose Tea Music Theatre bundles the two works together, Mozart’s impish spoof reinvented as Andrew and Andrea, in an ingenious double bill brimming with satire. Bounded by a sense of common tone, singspiel and vaudeville mix, characters and comedy playfully transposed to midtown Toronto, 2014. Gleefully in search of mutual ground under the banner, Love in the Age of AutoCorrect, artistic director/librettist Alaina Viau cleverly repurposes the past, rooting out the ironic disconnect of failed communication and floundering relationships in today’s wireless world. Engagingly performed by a tireless young cast on the secluded terrace of designer Rosemarie Umetsu’s Yorkville atelier, AutoCorrect Operas sets a cracking pace.
Stravinsky’s mini-musical, Mavra, begins the adventure with a distinctly unrestrained take on an already riotous work.
All is not sunny in the sunroom of an upmarket middle-class mansion. Parasha is madly in love with the local pizza delivery boy. If only she could see him more often. Texting each other is just not enough. The two meet for a quick get-together. Pizza boy is nervous. Parasha’s single parent father, constantly fretting about money, is bound to disapprove of him. A crash of pots and pans and an offstage curse sends the boyfriend charging out the back door. Enter father from the kitchen. Dinner a disaster, he orders Parasha to find a new maid. Life has not been easy since the old one died the week before. Parasha hatches a plan. The pizza boy, preposterously disguised, is hired. Call her Mavra the maid. A little odd-looking, perhaps, but she will work for practically nothing. With Parasha and her father out on an errand, the pizza boy breathes a sigh of relief, slipping out of his humiliating costume confident that Parasha will text a warning before they return. The message is missed. Suddenly, father and daughter burst in to find Mavra the maid, razor and foam in hand, about to scrub off her five o’clock shadow. Panic! Chaos! Mayhem! Parasha’s father is accidentally knocked unconscious. Parasha and her pizza boyfriend race for the nearest exit.
The furious sweep of action here would be outrageous enough but combined with Stravinsky’s jazzy, syncopated score marked by flashes of atonality, this Mavra approaches the anarchic. Boisterously played by pianist Jennifer Tung on a supercharged electronic keyboard, the music forms its own narrative, singers contributing an added sense of the absurd as voices scramble, very nearly doubling over one another, to stay afloat in a riptide of parlando. The effect is utterly mad.
As pizza boy/Mavra, tenor Justin Stolz is a standout, transporting his character to crazed heights with a sure, understated command of gesture and expression. Never was a maid more flirty. Or hairier legged. Flicking the front rows of the audience with feather duster, passionately clenching Parasha, pining for love, Stolz summons attention, his singing as relaxed and confidant as his impeccable comic timing.
Morgan Strickland is a cunning Parasha, a young woman long accustomed to having her own way. Strickland’s big, open soprano bursts with energy and humour, particularly evident in her pivotal partnerings with Stolz. The two sing with a enchanting blend of strength and sweetness.
Gregory Finney, master of the exasperated head slap and rolled eyes, plays a remarkably sympathetic father. Finney’s uncomplicated, easy-going baritone is particularly well-suited to rambling rants and rages, a house specialty of this Mavra’s beleaguered patriarch.
If Loose Tea’s rendering of Stravinsky’s frenzied chamber opera is unashamedly slapstick, the company’s salute to Mozart, Andrew and Andrea, is pure sketch comedy. By far the more musically accessible of the two productions and arguably the more acutely observed, the second half of the evening’s lively double bill crackles with wicked wit.
A wedding reception is in progress. Andrea has stepped outside for a breath of fresh air. She is clearly in shock. Boyfriend Andrew has just sexted another woman, sending the message to Andrea’s iPhone by mistake. Fellow party guest and all-knowing tech guru Mark Z finds BFF Andrea in tears. Andrea pleads for his help to win back her fickle lover. Mark agrees. No one understands “The Game” better than him. Drawing Andrew away from the festivities, tablet at the ready, Mark confronts him with his misdirected text. At first, Andrew shrugs off the situation but prodded by Mark into thinking that Andrea is about to Unlike him by changing her Facebook status, he grows nervous. Re-encountering Andrea en route back to the bar, she and Andrew struggle to voice their genuinely deep feelings for one another face to face. After much squabbling, true love wins out. Agreeing to switch off their mobiles whenever together, the couple falls into each other’s arms.
Mozart purists may frown at this blithe transladaptation but, in fact, the core work underlying creator Alaina Viau’s sassy burlesque, the composer’s bubbly Bastien und Bastienne, was itself the product of endless alterations. What began as a straightforward pastorale written by moralist Jean-Jacques Rousseau was mercilessly lampooned for decades. Authenticity has never been a compelling factor in the case of this particular slice of operatic history. Preserving message is the only challenge that much matters. Loose Tea sails over the hurdle with its very modern iteration. There are no quick keystrokes to launch Love 2.0. Mozart would have understood that.
Back for uproarious second round performances, Morgan Strickland and Gregory Finney appearing as Andrea and Mark Z blaze to the centre of their characters the instant they hit the stage. Strickland, all vulnerability and self-doubt at first glance, quickly grows from soubrette to maturity in under an hour, forever convincing, endlessly funny. Finney similarly soars. His Mark Z is a delight, sarcastic, egotistical and an absolutely unshakeable centre of good. As an actor, Finney is unsurpassed. Singing is heartfelt. Strickland, too, her generous glowing instrument consistently warm and radiant.
Kennan Viau is a fine, philandering Andrew clearly more at home as a vocalist in musical theatre than opera but certainly far from out of place in the midst of Mozart’s eminently singable music. A skilled, disciplined tenor with a silvery tone, Viau lands his voice at the melodic centre of every note, drawing the maximum impact from his appealing Broadway style. Smooth and smarmy, vulnerable and needy, this Andrew is irresistible.
Love in the Age of AutoCorrect needs little in the way of serious correcting but there are a few distractions. Mavra’s overamped piano acoustic smothers singers’ voices at times. Diction can be less than precise. For all its high energy, the reimagined Stravinsky chamber work concludes on an oddly anticlimactic note. The conceit of love frustrated by technology and social media really only achieves solid expression in the second of the evening’s AutoCorrect Operas, Andrew and Andrea.
None of these issues are artistic deal-breakers.
Founded in 2013, Loose Tea Music Theatre, one of Toronto newest indie opera producers, has already earned itself a reputation for unique, resourceful, intelligent stage presentations. Love in the Age of AutoCorrect can only bring more tributes.