After the better part of June-July 2020 spent grappling with the then altogether alien COVID-imposed protocols of virtual performance and rehearsal, Tapestry Opera appears to have quietly abandoned the experiment to reframe its multiple Dora Award-winning chamber opera, Rocking Horse Winner, as an on-line remount in favour of an audio-only reprise. Unexpectedly, thankfully, much of the magic of the company’s original Berkeley Street triumph lives on.
While obviously limited by virtue of any digital album’s ability to conjure little more than fleeting fragments of theatrical reality, the current, strikingly affecting 55-minute cast recording is by no means lacking in actorly resonance or conspicuous dramatic effect.
For anyone with still graphic memories of Tapestry Opera’s stunning 2017 premiere, the polished, glowing soundscape here comes as something of a considerable relief. The towering production design and dazzling scena of Rocking Horse Winner’s original incarnation may well be entirely absent. But a good deal of the excruciating tension and touching tenderness so compellingly present in composer Gareth Williams and librettist Anna Chatterton’s electrifying stage work remains, underscoring the listening experience with dotted notes of neo-gothic fantasy accented by human tragedy.
Adapted from author D.H. Lawrence’s 1926 short story, a typically sharply observed social critique wrapped in crisp evocative prose, Rocking Horse Winner tells a bizarre, disquieting tale. Paul, a troubled child, re-imagined as a developmentally challenged young adult by Chatterton, falls prey to the greed of his mother, genteel, self-absorbed Ava, and hapless Uncle Oscar when they discover he has the eerie power to predict winning thoroughbreds at the track. Paul’s futile attempts to win his mother’s attention, Ava’s scramble for status, Oscar’s hunger for easy cash fuel Lawrence’s unsettling, relentless spiraling narrative. A surging allegory of soulless materialism, a timeless appeal to our better natures, Rocking Horse Winner, the recording, exhales the message rather than declaims it.
Williams’ score, with its stark minimalism and frequent bursts of deeply affecting lyricism, deftly plays out against the composer’s relentless drive to catharsis, a high stakes race to the finish, plaintive tunefulness and edgy chromaticism galloping neck and neck. A close listening reveals a wealth of carefully gauged tonal detail. Sensitive unadorned keyboard motifs, particularly those associated with Ava courtesy pianist Stéphane Mayer, speak of weariness and worry, detachment and despair. A brief, eternally sad melodic theme performed by violinists Aysel Taghi-Zada and Suhashini Arulanandam, violist Brenna McLane and cellist Bryan Holt brings a moment of passing reverie to an emotional close. The House, part sanctuary, part prison, pulses with a strange preternatural buzz — anxious portamentos played by restless strings.
Recurrent interludes of great beauty and taut inventiveness belie the agony of Paul’s frantic desperation to please, forcing the peaks and valleys of music and story to assume increasingly precipitous dimensions reminiscent of Puccini or perhaps Benjamin Britten. Track after track, the operatic beats pile up.
Tenor Asitha Tennekoon (Paul) essentially commands the proceedings, an active omnipresent centre of innocence. There is a boyish quality to this voice, a vulnerability, a ringing impetuousness ideally suited to Tennekoon’s role as confused man-boy. His singing, infused with pathos, tinted with pain, is profoundly poignant.
Soprano Lucia Cesaroni, the only principal not part of the first Toronto Rocking Horse cast, sings an unforgettable Ava, tormented by a cruel, unshakeable sense of personal failure. How does that child crawl into my thoughts so? He is always with me, even when he’s not, sings Paul’s mother in one of the very few fully elaborated arias in a work dominated by accompanied recit. Cesaroni sends the anguish soaring. Limitless. Beyond recall.
Tenor Keith Klassen contributes an exceptionally well-defined performance as Oscar, positively luxuriating in Chatterton’s abundant patter of quick-witted parlando. Warm and appealing, listening to his Oscar brings all the character’s complexity, all his scheming and conflicted compassion into measured focus. A mile is made of eight furlongs. A fifth of a second equals a length. Bloodlines make a speedy horse. Racing makes order in an unruly world, exalts his character, Klassen playfully drawing out the legato with delicious abandon.
Baritone Peter McGillivray is Paul’s hired companion, Bassett, rough-hewn, rock steady.
A splendidly articulated chorus — Midori Marsh, Alex Hetherington, Stephen Bell and Korin Thomas-Smith — voice the whispering, sinister haunted House. There must be more money. There must be more.
Overseen by originating stage director Michael Hidetoshi Mori with music direction by Kamna Gupta, produced by David Jaeger, engineered by Dennis Patterson, this vividly recorded, vibrantly realized Rocking Horse Winner is a remarkably exciting ride.
* * *
Rocking Horse Winner is available for purchase as a digital download at https://tapestryopera.bandcamp.com/releases