Clearly determined to maintain an active role as both educator and producer, the University of Toronto Opera School has originated a wide-ranging series of quality digital offerings in the form of an academic year end festival showcasing a series of infrequently presented one-act operas. Recently debuted online over the span of four consecutive evenings, the six brisk, highly diverting pieces, smartly mounted and filmed on stage at MacMillan Theatre, resonantly sung by over a dozen rising young artists, strike an inspiring, desperately heartening chord.

Le portrait de Manon — Jules Massenet

Conceived by the composer as something of an intimate, supremely sentimental sequel to his sprawling 5-act tragedy, this classic product of the late 19th century opéra-comique undergoes a carefully mounted rehabilitation at the hands of conductor Russell Braun and director Michael Patrick Albano. Polished and refined to a fine high gloss, Massenet’s compact melodrama of lost love and restored compassion achieves a surprisingly high degree of pathos, the walled panoramic monoset, much in evidence in various repurposed guises throughout the series, becomes as much a metaphor for the Chevalier des Grieux’s despair-driven isolation as a pragmatic nod to 2021 public health-mandated performance protocols. The loss of Manon has driven the shattered nobleman into emotional lockdown, isolated him from life, separated him from himself. The resulting blocky staging makes for a powerful physical statement.

Appearing as des Grieux, the only original role Massenet chose to reprise in his downsized follow-up to Manon, baritone Parker Clements firmly anchors the proceedings with great resolution and poignancy. Mezzo-soprano Lindsay Connolly is nephew Jean, soprano Sacha Smith is his lover Aurore, vital, complimentary vocal forces. Tenor Angelo Moretti sings des Grieux’s world-weary friend and counsellor Tiberge.

Pianist Vlad Soloviev partners, playing with great strength of tone and brilliance.

Il segreto di Susanna — Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari
Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario) — W.A. Mozart

A pair of testy comedies of manners offers a sharp change of tone. A clash of light-hearted archetypal lowbrow genres, opera buffa vs singspiel, this the first of two double bills included on the broad-ranging program, pits character against convention in a mock battle royal ringed by musicality and banter, vocal virtuosity and satire.

Wolf-Ferrari’s antic 1909 tribute to women’s emancipation, epitomized here by his heroine’s newfound fondness for smoking with all the resultant domestic tumult that confers, speaks of an age of rapidly changing social values, a feature manifestly expressed in Il segreto di Susanna’s unexpectedly layered architecture. Whereas music essentially mirrors antique convention, story anticipates the dawn of modernity. The time has come to crush male privilege as surely as a discarded cigarette.

If husbandly chauvinism and mistrust threaten to overturn the marriage of Wolf-Ferrari’s Count Gil (entertainingly embodied in best period style by charismatic baritone Alex Mathews) and wife Susanna (gorgeously sung by soprano Juliana Krajčovič), it is the outsized egos of Mozart’s feuding divas that cloud the decidedly problematic operatic plans of tenor turned promoter Herr Vogelsang. Liberally translated and adapted by returning director Michael Patrick Albano, this fundamentally remodelled Der Schauspieldirektor, stripped back to a bare, straightforward narrative framework and significantly depopulated, still reveals the hand of compositional genius. Arias and High Fs fly. Streams of repartee rush by. A gorgeous terzetto freeze frames time. Sopranos Heidi Duncan (Mme Herz) and Noelle Slaney (Mme Silberklang) consistently thrill. Appearing as the harried promoter, tenor David Walsh is a delight.

Andrea Grant provides fine, spirited piano collaboration.

The Bear — William Walton
Bon Appétit! — Lee Hoiby

An air of edgy domesticity, a strong whiff of impending peril on the homefront, overhangs these two taut humour-laden pieces, the first, a crisp, meticulously paced operatic farce based on a one-act comedy by Chekhov; the second, an irresistible slice of music theatre, as fresh and appetizing as the day it was first served at the Kennedy Center in 1989.

Directed by Mario Pacheco, pianist Andrea Grant undertaking added responsibility as music director, Walton’s pithy homage to exasperated middle-class Czarist Russian houswifery, a penniless, desperate condition bordering on collapse, displays a remarkable degree of operatic ingenuity. Written entirely as accompanied recit with frequent lengthy excursions into the realm of parlando, text rolls over the listener in wave after wave of highly inventive, intricately interwoven rhythm and rhyme. The effect extends beyond the merely poetic, the widow Popova (mezzo-soprano Renee Fajardo) and restive creditor Smirnov (baritone Nicholas Higgs) probing one another’s resolve, verbally thrusting and parrying to gain advantage as hapless servant Luka (baritone Luke Noftall) helplessly observes. Language is music is language here. Set and staging are left appropriately minimalist, a blank wall of open windows, singer actors — uniformly solid top to bottom — appearing and disappearing on cue.

Whereas Walton channels an underappreciated comic classic from the late 19th century, Lee Hoiby’s Bon Appétit! looks to 1960s public television for its inspiration. Julia Child, doyenne of French cooking, the woman who taught North America how and what and why to eat, re-appears in all her extravagant, floury, unflappable glory, delving into Hoiby’s musical recipe book to prepare Le Gâteau au Chocolat l’Éminence Brune. The results are utterly scrumptious, a fluffy, satisfying, not too sweet comic mini-masterpiece. Centre stage in a fully functioning kitchen, egg whites flying, dripping melted chocolate, mezzo-soprano Alexandra Fee triumphs in a performance of great charm and authenticity. Parody is a tricky artform and Fee executes it with superbly breezy understated panache.

La tragédie de Carmen — Georges Bizet

A tart 60-minute rendition of Peter Brook’s 1981 pastiche closes the ambitious small screen proceedings, presented here as something of a conte biographique, a breathless, gripping tale read aloud from the pages of a well-thumbed chronicle by Micaëla in an entirely plausible nod to Carmen creator, novella writer Prosper Mérimée. Darkness all but shrouds director Albano’s sombre, expressly literary perspective, extreme jeopardy sporadically flashed with the glare of obsession, jealousy and smouldering violence. A challenging visual aesthetic. But one that paradoxically illuminates as well. Set in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, design and staging brilliantly conjure mood, physical and emotional both, graphically replicating the psychology of soldier turned deserter that is Don José.

Radically abridged, action almost wholly consigned to imagination, La tragédie de Carmen, however pointedly presented, however intensely theatrical, is, at heart, a number opera. All the hits are here. Music director and pianist Sandra Horst miraculously summons huge swaths of orchestral colour from her keyboard playing with enormous resourcefulness and creativity.

Mélissa Danis appears as Micaëla, Elias Theocharidis as Don José. Alessia Vitali is Carmen, Alex Hetherington alternates. Danlie Rae Acebuque is Escamillo. Luke Noftall also assumes the role.

The singing is a joy.

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Opera in Miniature: A Festival of One Act Operas is available free of charge on YouTube. Additional online program information at uoftopera.ca

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