Monday, November 14, 2011

Review of Mary's Wedding - Monday, November 14th, 2011

Photos, Top to Bottom: POV Chorus and Betty Wayne Allison as Mary in Mary's Wedding (Credit: Bruce Stotesbury,; Thomas Macleay as Charlie (in shirt at top), Alain Coulombe as Sergeant Flowerdew (in hat at right), and Betty Waynne Allison as Mary in Mary's Wedding (Credit: David Cooper,

1) There's been a lot of anticipation around this world premiere of a brand new commissioned opera at the POV. What was your take on this project?

I was quite surprised when the POV project was announced and Stephen Massicotte’s two-hander play was chosen. The play is a dialogue between young Saskatchewan farm boy Charlie and his his girl Mary back home, told in flashback two years after the end of the war, in 1920. Mary is dreaming the night before her wedding, and we see her dreams played out for us, her memories of her first love Charlie and his time in the trenches and cavalry of World War I. She doubles up as Charlie’s platoon Sergeant Flowerdew, so we get the sense of her being with him “over there” through this third character. The play is quiet, filled with the mostly unfulfilled idealized longings of first love, and the inevitable loss and letting go. Wow, I thought, how do you turn a small and intimate play about love, war and loss into anything that might work on a larger stage and in the larger performance form of opera?

2) How did the production deal with these issues of adaptation?

The solution of course, was the addition of an actively involved dramatic chorus, which composer Andrew MacDonald adds and director Michael Shamata uses well in this adaptation. The play is filled with Charlie’s letters home to about his experiences in France. These scenes become much more vivid when we see a platoon of soldiers and hear them singing their way into battle. Sergeant Flowers, as Charlie calls Flowerdew (a real historical figure), becomes a separate third character in the opera, but Mary is seen close at hand through all of these war scenes, right in the trenches with these men, as only dreams can allow. This dreamlike effect transfers very well into an opera format, which generally deals with larger-than-life themes, plots and characters. Certainly, the themes of love, war, loss and grief are large enough for an opera, even if the canvas that Massicotte (who created the libretto from his play) paints is intentionally small scale, concerned as it is with the intimacies of this young couple. So audiences need to be prepared to see a less typically grandiose narrative than seen in Wagner and Rossini—and one that is very Canadian in its historic representation of Canadian troops in the First World War—but is nonetheless a story that still packs an emotional punch. Andrew MacDonald’s music is fairly non-melodic and tonal, as he is a contemporary composer, and this may frustrate opera traditionalists. While his music did not make a huge impression in me overall, it was extremely well-played and sung, and I thought some of the orchestration of the chorus was excellent at key moments in the production.

3) How did you feel director Michael Shamata and the design team did in their respective tasks?

Shamata showed his skills to best effect in staging the show in a fluid way that kept both the eye and attention held. He is well-supported with an elegant design from Ian Rye, and lovely lighting by Alan Brodie. Shamata choreographs the chorus to portray many people and events, although I wondered if it might have been possible to more realistically evoke the sense of the Lord Strathcona Regiment’s ill-fated cavalry charge late in the opera. The central characters and chorus mime horse-riding and show the charge using good use of slow motion, but the lack of any horselike imagery took away some of the power of this climactic moment for me. Perhaps I have been spoiled by having seen the British National Theatre’s amazing production War Horse last year in London? That play, also set in the Great War, has horses sent to the front played by life-sized puppets, and that powerful presence of doomed animals on the battlefield is lost in Mary’s Wedding. But despite this one missing element, overall the chorus is incorporated seamlessly into the dialogue between Mary and Charlie, and they bring to life Mary’s memories of an afternoon tea in her small town, as well as the departure of the town’s men for war, and Charlie’s terrible descriptions of battle, injury and death.

4) Were there any standout performances?

This is Ladysmith-born and UVic-educated soprano Betty Waynne Allison’s role of a lifetime, as she is onstage throughout the two and a half hour long show, and her voice nor presence never faltered. A lovely performance, genuine, nuanced and beautifully sung. Tenor Thomas Macleay makes his POV debut as Charlie Edwards and plays him with bravado and sensitivity, even if his voice cannot quite match the power of Ms. Allison’s. Bass Alain Coulombe brings gravitas to his portrayal of Sergeant Flowers, and a resonant voice to the role. Timothy Vernon conducts the Victor Symphony with his usual passion and panache, and the orchestra is in fine form, as ever.

5) What's the take-away from this opera?

I think it is something to celebrate, the premiere of a homegrown Canadian opera, based on an already celebrated Canadian play. While the contemporary score will interest some more than others, it is a very polished and eventually quite moving musical interpretation of the ancient themes that can be found in all opera: What it means to both love and to lose, and (perhaps) to survive and move on.

NOTE: Mary's Wedding continues tonight, Wednesday and Friday night this week, plus a Sunday matinee, all at the McPherson Playhouse. Tickets are available at 386-6121 or online at

1 comment:

Barbara Wollman said...

Thank goodness: another educated and perceptive review. Too bad you don't write for the Globe and Mail.