Opera by Request’s latest show tough to follow

William Shookhoff, director of Toronto opera company, Opera by Request, made his own request before presenting the company’s latest show.

Pass around the limited programs, Shookhoof warned, before taking his place as pianist for the company’s adaptation of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Saint of Bleecker Street.

The request was scoffed at by most of the audience at the Trinity Presbyterian Church last Saturday night, with program owners keeping their grip tight.

Unfortunate, as the opera’s story was impossible to follow within the first few minutes. And it didn’t get any easier from there.

For the casual, glassy-eyed audience members, it seemed like they stepped into the wrong theatre. From the moment the University to Toronto’s Scarborough Concert Choir and the Ensemble TrypTych Chamber Choir took stage, the story was lost in high pitched, vibrato translation.

The Saint of Bleecker Street, first performed in New York City in 1954, felt really dated. The story line, filled with religious anecdotes and biblical references, simply didn’t relate to the young audience. It was confusing; no one knew what religious blasphemies were happening throughout the story, and why certain characters would yell or be dragged off stage. The idea of a brother competing for his sister’s love with God, is an odd, old, and unsettling idea.

To cloud the storyline further, the show was presented in concert format. An older, stoic form of opera, all of the performers don’t act, only sing. Without the dramatic effect of body language, no one knew what was happening in the scene. One moment the characters would be celebrating at a wedding, the next, conversing in a subway station (according the program; most didn’t get it as it happened).

Also a bit irritating was the characters’ dialogue amongst themselves. A pseudo mix of talking and singsong conversation was awkward, as if the show was a William Shatner production.

Musically, the performers were strong. The two choirs provided tremendous, lush chorus in the backdrop of the show supporting the eight main performers. Shookhoff’s amazing arpeggios and little runs on the piano were the perfect landscape for the powerful vocalists. Protagonist Annina in particular, played by Deena Nicklefork, provided high-frequency, seat-raising solos.

The Saint of Bleecker Street is not for anyone with less than an exceptional attention span, or weak ears. The story has to be followed diligently, and even still, the religious references, singsong banter and paralyzed performers make it a chore, even for the opera aficionado.

Here’s hoping the next show request to the opera company will be a little more modern, a little more lively, and a lot more engaging.