A menu for a musical feast! QuintEssence, a Vancouver-based vocal quartet plus pianist offered a literal “menu” of operatic favourites on Friday evening to a packed Frank Venables Theatre. This final program in the South Okanagan Concert Society’s 2014-15 season, from drinks and appetizers right through to the dessert choices, had zero calories. But there were some problems.
The evening kicked off with “Drinks,” a champagne toast: Verdi’s famous Brindisi from La Traviata. Some rather shrill soprano vibrato and smudgy tenor notes there, so not exactly a propitious start. Some people left—not because they hate opera, quite the opposite. They emailed me about it.
Second piece, although it was not on the “menu” ( nor was it identified, just dropped on the table, so to speak), a funny little drinking song, was thrown in. Then a rather cute vodka chaser, Vanka Tanka (throughout the evening, the English translations were projected on a back screen). However, the advertised third item on the “Drinks” menu was omitted. No explanation, just not delivered. Waiter?!
The first “Appetizer,” an Offenbach operetta favourite,Belle nuit, featured a quite lovely duet by soprano Robyn Driedger-Klassen and mezzo Barb Towell. This was followed by another French aria for soprano, Gounod’s Je veux vivre. (Pianist Tina Chang did a splendid job as orchestra throughout the evening. Our new Steinway piano sounds wonderful, too.)
The four “Main Course” offerings were drawn from some of the finest moments of Essential Opera: fromCarmen, the Flower Song (sung by tenor Frédérick Robert) and the famous Toreador Song (baritone Peter Alexander), then the soulful tenor-baritone duet from The Pearlfishers. The two artists obviously enjoyed singing this piece.
But the fourth item on the main course menu, the Quartet from Rigoletto, perhaps the best known of all opera quartets, and the Porterhouse steak item on the whole menu, was simply dropped, no explanations, and we got a serving of wieners instead of steak—the “upbeat and silly” (their words) quartet from Martha. So this was the third menu item change with no explanation. Waiter!?
Following intermission, the audience got to choose not one but three dessert pieces. This was a bit of fun for the audience, as the pieces were chosen by applause and a human applause meter. Two of the three pieces chosen allowed first the soprano, then the tenor, to provide what for me were the best performances of the evening.
The soprano piece, “Ain’t it a pretty night,” from the American composer Carlisle Floyd’s opera, Susannah (misspelled in the program guide, as was Bizet’s first name and Habanera and La Bohème). Soprano Robyn Driedger-Klassen deftly caught the bleakness of an innocent girl who is targeted as a sinner in a small mountain town of Tennessee. The audience held its breath. Moving, although the mood was somewhat altered in the louder, and might I say shriller, sections.
Tenor Frédérick Robert similarly created the perfect mood for “Lonely House” from Kurt Weill’s Street Scene. It was obvious how much more comfortable these two artists were through their body language alone as they sang in English. They got it, they projected it, we felt it.
Not so much in the third piece chosen by the audience, the quartet from La Bohème, which caught next to none of the profound pathos or irony of the piece.
To close the evening QuintEssence provided Liquors and Cognac with “Somewhere” from Bernstein’s West Side Story, but then asked the audience to sing along with them in the Log Driver’s Waltz. Some tried, but how do you sing along with a basically unfamiliar piece? If you really wanted us to sing along, QuintEssence, give us something we know.
Applause. Finish. But no, an encore, which though not announced, was the Champagne song from Die Fledermaus, and nicely sung. But then, another little bit that didn’t sit well with me. They wanted to video the audience appreciation of their show to send forward to their next venue, Salt Spring Island. They could have videoed the genuine reaction as they had the iPhone ready at the end of their act, but no, it had to be staged. But no standing ovation. No “tip.”
Many of the chosen program pieces are among those that form the heart of opera, transcending the often superficialities of sets, costuming and stupid plots, because they are brilliant; the music, words and drama magically uniting as they bring joy, yearning, betrayal, and other profound emotions to the heart. There wasn’t much of that here. So, one star—and that goes to the marvellous accompanist, Tina Chang. I’d be at the front of the line if she gave a recital here. But I don’t think I’d care to visit the QuintEssence restaurant again. Too much of a Joe’s Grill masquerading as Bishop’s for me.
As an addendum, American superstar soprano Renée Fleming said in an interview recently: “There’s no substitute for going into a hall and having a shared cultural experience—something you can talk to people about, something you can feel. You know, I want to learn something, or feel something. I want something to make me feel deeply. And it’s the arts that can do that…”
We here in Oliver have a beautiful performance hall where that can happen, thanks to groups like the South Okanagan Concert Society, among others. It was such a pleasure to see a full house for this concert. And by the way, while this was the final of the quartet of concerts offered by the Society this season, a very special fifth concert featuring our own soprano with class, Jena Moore, will be held on Friday, April 10th at 7:30.
See you there.