Toi Toi Opera
Barber – Knoxville Summer of 1915; A Hand of Bridge; Bernstein – Trouble in Tahiti
Director: Matthew Kereama Musical Director: Rachel Fuller
Singers: Matilda Wickbom – John Bayne – Emma Gilkison – Nigel Withington – Alex Robinson – Katherine Doig – Helen Acheson
In February last year, we, the opera stalwarts of Christchurch, headed along to The Great Hall of the Christchurch Arts Centre for the debut production of a new local company – Toi Toi Opera. Billed as Suor Angelica (Puccini) and Elegies (Britten, Butterworth, Vaughan Williams), it rather surprised us with its innovative, thought-provoking and imaginative approach to opera presentation. With its high production values, along with a well-chosen cast and creative team, it projected a considerable emotional and artistic punch.
In this new double bill those same qualities abound. The concept emerges, not so much as a double bill, but as an integrated and cleverly matched combination of three American pieces in which Toi Toi’s creative team have played as much a part as the composers and librettists. All three works share a domestic intimacy and a degree of commentary, sometimes overt, sometimes implied, on the elusiveness of the American (human?) dream.
Samuel Barber’s 1938 lyric rhapsody Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is one of the great masterpieces of American music and, in Toi Toi’s ingenious realisation and Emma Gilkison’s convincing performance, it proves a logical and effective prologue to the same composer’s ten-minute 1959 opera A Hand of Bridge in which the two couples (Helen Acheson, Nigel Withington, Katherine Doig, Alex Robinson) despairingly and, in the context of theatrical subterfuge, humorously reveal their supressed dreams and desires as they live out their somewhat routine and unfulfilled lives.
All five singers in this first part of the programme portray their characters with persuasive commitment and vocal distinction and, while Katherine Doig stands out for her willingness to communicate a more forthright and characterful projection of both voice and character, the others have a tendency to restrain their projection, perhaps as a way of conveying the characters’ repressed aspirations. In particular, in Knoxville, I would have welcomed a more expressive and opulent expansion of the higher, arching phrases from Emma Gilkison, where she has a tendency to pull back. At times her projection and diction are so restrained that the emotional flow of the music loses a degree of its impact. A slightly more fluid tempo might also highlight the dramatic contrasts of the piece, especially in the transition into the magical episode where the singer describes the family lying on quilts on the grass.
That same restraint is noticeable in the Greek-chorus-like trio commentary in Bernstein’s 1952 one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti. It’s not just a matter of volume, but of projecting the spirit of the musical and dramatic style of this feature of the score. Bernstein’s writing is full of subtle dynamic swells and falls for this ensemble (Emma Gilkison, Nigel Withington, Alex Robinson), but here everything is subdued and, although it seems to be a deliberate musical decision, it needs just a bit more . . . well . . . oomph! But it’s beautifully sung – the blend of the three voices, intonation, stylistic accord, and physical vitality and coordination are impressive and often very entertaining. The final scene where the trio represents the American dream peering in through the living room windows is particularly effective and dramatically compelling.
The two principal singers in this work embrace their roles with total conviction. John Bayne is a suitably self-opinionated Sam who has the requisite vocal and dramatic skills as well as the ideal physical attributes for the part. When dressed as the corporate businessman, Bayne tends to be a little wooden in his portrayal compared to his more liberated and amusing characterisation in the gym changing room. But he is always convincing in his representation of the husband in an increasingly dysfunctional marriage.
As his wife Dinah, Matilda Wickbom’s singing and acting makes her character the more sympathetic partner, although she too is not without flaws. Wickbom’s “I was Standing in a Garden” aria is, for me at least, the highlight of the evening – touchingly and beautifully done. And her contrasting “What a Movie” solo demonstrates an ability to find and communicate the diverse vocal and character facets of the part.
A superb onstage quintet of instrumentalists, led with vitality by musical director Rachel Fuller, supports the stage performances with pizzazz and subtlety as required, although they too, at times, are a little more subdued in their projection than I would have preferred.
Set, lighting and costumes are excellent – appropriate, but with just that inspired element of subtle caricature that highlights the stereotypes represented in the works themselves. Matthew Kereama’s direction ensures that the writers’ intentions are allowed to unfold without any meddlesome intervention, so that the music, acting and overall concept works superbly.
Toi Toi is certainly a company to watch – not only talented and professional, but innovative, imaginative and adventurous in a way that will surely develop a growing following as its reputation spreads.
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Tony Ryan has reviewed Christchurch concerts, opera and music theatre productions and many other theatre performances since the mid 1990s.
Tony has presented live and written radio reviews of numerous concerts, opera and other musical events for RNZ Concert for many years. An archive of these reviews can be found at Radio New Zealand - Upbeat
His reviews of opera, music & straight theatre and numerous reviews of buskers and comedy festival performances are available at Theatreview
An archive of Tony’s chamber music reviews is held at Christopher’s Classics
He has also reviewed for The Press (Christchurch). Links to Tony's Press reviews are listed below:
A Barber and Bernstein Double Bill – Toi Toi Opera
The Strangest of Angels – NZOpera
Will King (Baritone) and David Codd (Piano) – Christopher's Classics
Ars Acustica – Free Theatre
Truly Madly Baroque – Red Priest
The Mousetrap – Lunchbox Theatre
Iconoclasts – cLoud
Last Night of the Proms – CSO
An Evening with Simon O’Neill NZSO
Catch Me If You Can – Blackboard Theatre
Brothers in Arms – CSO
Fear and Courage – CSO
Sin City – CSO
Don Giovanni – Narropera at Lansdowne
Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – Funatorium
Weave – NZTrio
Tosca – NZ Opera
Sister Act – Showbiz
Broadway to West End – Theatre Royal
Chicago – Court Theatre
Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 – CSO
Homage – CSO
Last Night of the Proms – CSO
SOAR – NZTrio
Pianomania – NZSO
Rogers & Hammerstein – Showbiz
Songs for Nobodies – Ali Harper
The Beauty of Baroque – CSO
Travels in Italy – NZSO