A WELL-SUNG AND INVOLVING EVITA FROM VANCOUVER OPERA
Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, EVITA, Caroline Bowman (Eva Perón), John Cudia (Perón), Ramin Karimloo (Che), Cooper Grodin (Magaldi), Shannon Chan-Kent (Perón’s Mistress); Conducted by Jonathan Darlington, Directed by Kelly Robinson; Tracey Flye (choreographer:): Queen Elizabeth Theatre, April 30, 2016.
An illegitimate child raised in rural poverty, escaping at 15 to the big city, climbing her way up by attaching herself to increasingly powerful men, marrying the future leader of her country, playing a decisive role in his climb to the top, first lady, advocate of women and the poor, beloved of the people, dying young—what could be more worthy of stage treatment? Whether you call Evita an opera or a musical, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber have concocted a heady brew that presents the charismatic Eva Perón in her considerable complexity and mystery. Evita has been a hugely popular work, played all over the world to great acclaim, and makes a canny choice for Vancouver Opera and its ventures into the crossover region inhabited by such works as West Side Story and Sweeney Todd.
The work operates by vignettes, beginning with Eva’s death, and then going back to her youth in Junín. The dream of the big city unfolds with her move to Buenos Aires, leading to the eventual meeting with Juan Perón. We see her rejection by high society, yet also her determination to help Perón rise to the top. In Act 2, Perón is elected and Eva makes her iconic speech to the people from the balcony of the presidential palace, followed by her goodwill trip to Europe, where she receives a mixed reception. Her good works continue to flow through the Eva Perón Foundation. Her ultimate decision to run for vice-president is cut short by the opposition of her husband and his generals—and the ovarian cancer that kills her at age 33. The outpouring of grief from the people of Argentina is immense.
Providing a kind of counter-focus to the trajectory of Eva’s rise and fall is the figure of Che Guevara (a fellow Argentinian), acting as a chorus, but whose cynical point of view -- constantly calling into question Eva’s motives and actions -- is not entirely trustworthy. He is right in pointing out the human cost of the Perón regime, but rather undersells The Peróns’ genuine achievements for women, and the poor and dispossessed.
The acting and singing of all three principals were compelling, though the miking tended to create moments of shrillness. The acting of Caroline Bowman in the title role was excellent, providing a winning mixture of brashness and vulnerability. Her singing was strong and nuanced, though her voice sometimes reproduced with stridency. Her rendition of the hit song, ‘Don’t Cry for me, Argentina’, was beautifully done, from its tender opening to its brassier finish. Ramin Karimloo as Che proved a convincingly angry observer of Eva’s life, singing with appropriate bite. John Cudia as Perón was excellent, showing strength in his public life (an authority matched in his singing and articulation) as well as a loving concern for his wife. In fact, Evita is as much a love story as a political biography, and a quite fascinating one. While each is using the other, and both are projecting their private life onto the public imagination for political gain, it is still evident that their love for each other is genuine.
The action moves from public spaces to private. For these scenes, the triptych set allows for various playing areas, both above and below. Mimicking a structure of industrial pipes, this setting played host to projections from the time of the Peróns, and seemed especially effective in the center panel. Yet, occasionally, it dwarfed the players, who seemed a little lost in the space, especially in the crowd scenes. The opening scene in the cinema, for example, was anemic. On the other hand, the rally ending Act 1 and the balcony scene of Act 2 put a few more bodies on stage and proved more convincing. Certain of the scenes showed visual imagination, as for example the Act 1 emergence of Evita in her Cinderella dress, which, if verging on kitsch, proved quite dazzling.
The production as a whole was consistently involving, thanks to good natural acting from the cast, tight direction from Kelly Robinson, and stylish dance sequences from Tracey Flye. Vancouver’s Shannon Chan-Kent made the most of her small part as Perón’s displaced mistress, acting well and singing her lament sweetly.
The score was effective, with engaging use of Latin rhythms, military blare, and lyric sweetness. While musicals characteristically seem to follow their own rules with respect to orchestration, settling at points for a sort of generic output, virtually all the tunes of Evita are apt and help in telling the story. The hit from the show—‘Don’t Cry for me, Argentina’—is deservedly famous. The orchestra under Maestro Darlington performed well, capturing many of the right feelings. My only reservation was that the orchestra’s volume sometimes seemed to challenge the voices, miked though they were.
On balance, I feel that Vancouver Opera gave us a strong presentation of a Lloyd Webber favorite that has now had legs for over forty years. The standing ovation opening night resoundingly attested to this.
© Harvey De Roo 2016