Some people might say Saskatchewan and opera are a strange coupling, but in Pacific Opera Victoria’s Mary’s Wedding, the unusual pair bond beautifully to form a contemporary, quintessentially Canadian piece of epic operatic theatre.
Part of the legendary nature of the production is the amount of work that went into creating it — essentially from scratch. It was three years ago that POV decided to adapt playwright (and now librettist) Stephen Massicotte’s award-winning play of the same name and commission its first original work, making its world premiere now at the McPherson Playhouse.
Every aria, duet and choral number had to be created, the libretto written and the set constructed through a series of meetings, readings and workshops. The result is a contemporary opera that Victorians can be proud of — because it tells a definitively Canadian story.
Mary’s Wedding is set in the dream of a young immigrant from Britain, Mary Chalmers (aptly portrayed by soprano Betty Waynne Allison, former POV chorister and UVic grad), on the eve of her wedding. Her imagination conjures up memories of her first love Charlie Edwards (tenor Thomas Macleay in his POV debut), a modest Saskatchewan farm boy who has never seen the ocean but signs up to sail to Europe and fight in the First World War.
Mary’s imagination takes her through a non-linear trip into the past, guided by letters Charlie wrote to her during the war. The story juxtaposes romantic horseback rides with gallant cavalry battles, and the civility of tea parties with the barbarism of war.
Though the whole opera is set in Mary’s dream, the setting often changes — from the field where the two young lovers met, to the front lines of the war. Set designer Ian Rye deserves accolades for the creation of a very versatile set, featuring three undulating ramps which effectively portray the vastness of the Canadian prairies, the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean and the abysmal craters of no-man’s land on the front lines of battle.
But the set doesn’t bring you there on its own. The music, by award-winning Canadian composer Andrew P. MacDonald, seamlessly moves from one scene to another forming a complete continuous piece with love themes and battle songs intertwined. The augmented percussion section is a welcome addition and an essential part of bringing the battle scenes to life.
The chorus and the principle role of Sergant Flowerdew (bass Alain Coulombe) are thoughtful additions on the behalf of MacDonald, who uses both to add layers and texture to the whole. The chorus allows some of the supporting characters who are only mentioned in the play a chance to shine in the opera, bringing Mary’s neighbours and Charlie’s comrades to life.
Although some might hesitate to see this new opera because of its setting or its language (it’s entirely in contemporary Canadian English — think buzzwords like bacon and swears like Shit!), those are also two of the best reasons to show some support for POV’s risky (and expensive) endeavour — to help Canadians remember the stories of love and loss that helped build this amazing country.
Mary’s Wedding continues at the McPherson Playhouse Nov. 16 and 18 at 8 pm, and Nov. 20 at 2:30 pm. Tickets at rmts.bc.ca. M