James Rolfe, THE OVERCOAT: Geoffrey Sirett (Akakiy), Peter McGillivray (Petrovich / Head of Department / Personage), Andrea Ludwig (landlady), Caitlin Wood, Magali Simard-Galdés, Erica Iris Huang, Courtney Stevens and Colin Heath, Members of the Vancouver Opera Orchestra, Leslie Dala (conductor), Morris Panych (libretto and director), Wendy Gorling (movement director), Ken MacDonald (set designer), Alan Brodie (lighting designer), Vancouver Playhouse, May 4, 2018.

All photos by Tim Matheson

All photos by Tim Matheson

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It’s good to see contemporary Canadian operas at this year’s opera festival, and no more so than The Overcoat by James Rolfe and Morris Panych, a co-commission of Vancouver Opera and Toronto’s Tapestry Opera. Panych has adapted his highly acclaimed wordless play based on the short story/parable of Nikolai Gogol into a fascinating and idiosyncratic operatic offering. His libretto is quite literary, witty, with constant rhyming (often mid-line words and end-line words) providing an enjoyable element of the dramatic fabric. It calls for a great deal of stylized acting, with much caricature and physical movement that derives from the world of clowns and mimes. This aspect is brilliantly done, thanks to the skills of the cast and the movement director, Wendy Gorling, and is entirely apt, given the clownish world the hero occupies. Add to this an inventive score from James Rolfe and you have a work that satisfies on all fronts.

Gogol’s satire presents a story of the alienation inherent in an uncaring bureaucratic society. It tells of a clerk, Akakiy, despised by his coworkers until he gains their momentary respect through a new overcoat, only to lose the garment and his new identity through a street mugging. Panych’s retelling substitutes visual gags for Gogol’s curious byways and accentuates the folly of trying to gain self-worth and recognition through material means. He goes further, showing this world as mad, with his use of the Mad Chorus throughout and Akakiy’s final arrival at an insane asylum. The clerk’s continuous obsession with numbers and the constant frenetic movement of the characters highlight this sense of madness and are at the same time comical, without vitiating the pathos of the piece.

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The cast was uniformly excellent. It is hard to characterize anyone’s singing because there were none of the kind of numbers that show off the voice; suffice to say that all sang their parts convincingly. Standing out—partly for the outlandishness of his roles, partly for his performance—was Peter McGillivray as Petrovich, as well as Head of Department, and Personage. His acting was broad, energetic, and very funny. Andrea Ludwig as the landlady played her role with a comic seductiveness, as did Meher Pavri as Secretary. Geoffrey Sirett was convincing and moving as the hapless nonentity at the centre of the work. Caitlin Wood, Magali Simard-Galdés, and Erica Iris Huang as the Mad Chorus sang their poignant melodies with skill and élan. Ms. Huang also provided a characterful Tailor’s Wife. Deserving of mention as well was Colin Heath, the Movement Performer who was constantly present, for his adept and amusing turn as a stage appendage with character. The whole was breathlessly choreographed by Wendy Gorlich and inventively directed by Morris Panych himself.

Leslie Dala provided skillful conducting of a colourful score, by turns quirky, rhythmically perky, and lyrical, with some lovely harmonies coming from the Mad Chorus. Most outstanding, perhaps, was its adherence to the libretto, exhibiting word setting of a high order and catching well the shifting moods of the opera. Both the vocal lines and the orchestration were gratifying to the ear. There were even witty echoes from the past, such as Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as Akakiy entered the insane asylum. The ironic contrast with Schiller’s idealistic paean to human brotherhood could not have been more pointed.

The set of Ken MacDonald—an ironwork corridor across the back of the stage, with an upper as well as lower level and a portable staircase between—was simple, attractive, and highly flexible, functioning well for the several locations of the opera (sometimes a subway, sometimes a hallway, sometimes an upper office) yet leaving a lot of playing space in front of it. Augmenting its effectiveness was the dramatic lighting of Alan Brodie.

Altogether, the opera was a delight, very much its own thing, and very much deserving of its standing ovation.  I expect it will have legs.


© Harvey De Roo 2018