Review: Offenbach & Hahn (Opera 5)

offenbachandhahn

Opera 5 brings two rarely performed operettas, L’île du rêve and Le Ba-ta-clan, to the Toronto stage

When a production is advertised as “rarely performed,” I can’t help but be curious. I have a passion for unusual plays, operas, and dances that rarely, if ever, sees the contemporary stage in Canada, so Opera 5’s double bill of Reynaldo Hahn’s L’île du rêve and Jacques Offenbach’s Le Ba-ta-clan, immediately got my attention.

These productions, performed back to back over the course of an evening, suggest some interesting questions regarding how and why smaller companies like Opera 5 choose their seasons. There is always a risk associated with the less-familiar productions where failure can be dramatically highlighted and where success still begs the question of whether specific works should ever make it to a contemporary stage.

L’île du rêve perfectly encapsulates the risk of experimentation. In the traditional tragic love story, a young girl, Mahénu (Teiya Kasahara), from the country Borra-Borra falls in love with a visiting French officer, Loti (Adrian Kramer). When he leaves, she is unable to follow and dies of a broken heart.

While Kasahara nails her performance, she is drowned out by the awkward staging that constantly plays against any emotional beats. Director Aria Umezawa clearly wants to use brief actions to emphasize the quiet beauty of the short but intense affair. Her decision, for instance, to move some of the vocals offstage worked beautifully for some small ethereal moments. Most of the time scripted breaks with the chorus make for awkward scenes with questionable projections and choreographed movements that look sloppy instead of poetic.

I don’t know if I thought L’île du rêve was bad, per se, but positioned as it is against the stunning Ba-ta-clan, it is hard to forgive its blandness.

Le Ba-ta-clan occupies a different artistic space. Four French citizens become stranded in a fictional land they mistake for China. Pretending to be Chinese, they inadvertently become the country’s rulers. As each leader faces rebellion, they discover those looking to overthrow them are also stranded French citizens.

There is a lot to unpack in this production but the audience, my guest included, absolutely loved it.

Directed by Jasmine Chen, the operetta is a rollicking little piece. The singers get a chance to flex their acting skills as they plow over each other in their various, well-cast roles. Again, Kasahara as Fe-an-nich-ton steals the show as an egotistical actor, but it’s almost a tie with Justin Ralph as Ke-ki-ka-ko and Kramer as Fe-ni-han.

Unlike its predecessor, Ba-ta-clan makes full use of the space and leaves no joke unturned. There are multiple clever meta-references including the use of emoticons to denote that the actors are speaking gibberish instead of an actual language.

On the one hand, I think the piece was flawless; on the other hand, while satirical in its time, I’m not sure it really escapes the fact that the satire stems from French exoticism of the east at the time the piece was created.

Chen notes that the premise “skewers practices of aristocracy, colonialism and appropriation” which, while true, doesn’t entirely absolve the operetta from its roots.

All of this brings me back to where I started. L’île du rêve, sadly, was a risk that I think really did not work. I found it mostly forgettable but my guest had a much stronger opinion. On the other hand, I thought Ba-ta-clan was fantastic, an honest must-see piece, but does the operetta deserve to be brought onto a contemporary stage? If there is an answer it’s one audience members will have to find for themselves.

Details

  • Offenbach & Hahn runs until Sunday, September 21st at Alliance Française (24 Spadina Road)
  • Tickets are $25, or $20 for students and Alliance Francaise members; tickets can be purchased at the door or online here
  • Show starts at 7:30 and runs until 10pm

Photo of Justin Ralph, Adrian Kramer, and Teiya Kasahara in Le Ba-ta-clan courtesy Opera 5

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