Tracy Dahl (soprano), Jessica Chung (soprano), John Tessier (tenor), Krisztina Szabò (mezzo-soprano), Daniel Okulitch (bass-baritone), Ramona Luengen (piano): Vancouver Opera Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Jonathan Darlington, Queen Elizabeth Theatre, June 2, 2016.

One of the happiest events in an arts company’s life is the celebration of the accomplishments of one of its leaders. It is a time when generosity rules and good feelings prevail, even if substantial change is afoot.  This was the celebration of the departing James Wright’s seventeen-year tenure as General Director of Vancouver Opera. The generosity began with the words of the Master of Ceremonies, Pascal Spothelfer, Chair of the VO Board of Directors, and continued with Jonathan Darlington’s whirlwind appearance – flying in from Europe for the occasion and flying out the next day to Australia – and the presence of four soloists who have always added distinction to the Vancouver Opera stage.  Everyone, including the Vancouver Opera Orchestra and Chorus, gave their selfless best.

The evening was a well-planned and well-executed tribute to the man who has led Vancouver Opera with enterprise and foresight, and provided some of the best achievements of its career.  These include 12 premieres (the Canadian premiere of John Adams’ Nixon in China being the most prestigious); commissions, including Naomi’s Road by Ramona Luengen, based on the novel by Joy Kogawa, and Stickboy, by Neil Weisensel and librettist Shane Koyczan, both of which have toured as part of the Vancouver Opera in Schools Program, and an innovative Magic Flute created with a ground-breaking First Nations collaboration. Mr. Wright was also responsible for the appointment of Jonathan Darlington as Music Director of the Vancouver Opera Orchestra (in fact, one of only two opera company orchestras in Canada), a relationship that has triumphed successfully for well over a decade. Clearly notable throughout Mr. Wright’s tenure has been his willingness to stage productions that engage the community and focus on socially significant issues: Japanese-Canadian internments during WW II in Naomi’s Road; school bullying in Stickboy, and patriarchal abuse of women in Dark Sisters.  To honour and perpetuate such a focus, the VO’s Foundation has established the James W. Wright Creativity Fund, dedicated to supporting new works and innovation in all aspects of opera production in the future.

Everyone will have their own special memories of the productions that transpired during Wright’s long run. Sifting through a few of my own, I remember a mesmerizing Lucia with Elizabeth Futral in the title role, who absolutely blew me away. Then, a stunning production of the Dialogues of the Carmelites, with a fine performance by Measha Brueggergosman as Madame Lidoine and a revelatory one by Judith Forst as Madame de Croissy. I also have a warm recollection of an Ariadne auf Naxos, with the scintillating Zerbinetta of Tracy Dahl. More recently, I was grateful for the production of Don Carlo, which in my view is Verdi’s finest opera next to Otello and Falstaff, and one we rarely get to see. I enjoyed the sparkling Fledermaus last year. Don Giovanni was also a triumph, with Daniel Okulitch as one of the best Dons I have encountered on stage. One thing that few would deny is that production standards rose notably over the years!

The evening’s entertainment did Mr. Wright proud, and I should note the attractive documentation of the performances of the entire two decades through video clips. The soloists were excellent, as was the orchestra under Maestro Darlington. Not being consigned to the opera pit on this occasion, the Maestro’s elegant dance was a treat to watch, with body movements that showed true engagement with the music. The orchestra’s sound also seemed fuller and more natural when set on stage. Darlington’s tempi and articulation were fully satisfying, with a spirited and cleanly executed overture to Die Fledermaus to start things off, followed by an especially delicate rendition of the intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana. The chorus was well represented in a lovely humming chorus from Madama Butterfly and a stirring ‘Va Pensiero’ from Nabucco, which closed the evening.

Tracy Dahl was spritely and characterful in her turn as Adele from Die Fledermaus (‘Mein Herr Marquis’), and soulful in her rendition of ‘Morgenfrom an early set of four songs by Richard Strauss—a wedding gift to his wife Pauline, with whom he was very much in love. Ms. Dahl ended with a pursuasive portrayal of Donna Anna in the delightful quartet, ‘Non ti fidar, O Misera’, from Act 1 of Don Giovanni, where Giovanni is trying to convince a puzzled Donna Anna and Don Ottavio that his accuser is loopy.

John Tessier presented us with a sweetly rendered ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, a sparkling ‘Ah! Mes amis, quel jour de fête’ from La fille du regiment, with every high C easefully in place, and a suitably nonplussed Don Ottavio from the Don Giovanni quartet.  Krisztina Szabò offered a distinctive ‘Musetta’s waltz’ from La Bohème and a ‘Dove sono’ from Le Nozze di Figaro that nicely showed the Countess’ courageous shift to taking her problems into her own hands. She also portrayed a suitably exasperated Donna Elvira from the Don Giovanni quartet—a role she played with panache in the production of 2014.

Daniel Okulitch displayed an absolutely assured stage presence and acting ability that are catching a lot of attention these days: in his delightfully strutting ‘O better for to live and die’ from The Pirates of Penzance, a turn as Count Almaviva in ‘Hai già vinta la causa’ from Le Nozze de Figaro, performed with perfect pique, and a convincing Don Giovanni from the quartet. His mellifluous bass-baritone and impeccable enunciation were happy reminders of his top-notch recent VO appearance in the latter. An added treat was a medley from Naomi’s Road, sweetly sung by Jessica Cheung (Naomi in the 2005 premiere) accompanied on piano by the composer, Ramona Luengen.

Altogether, it was an evening that left everyone who attended glowing with satisfaction—at the performances, at the Vancouver Opera, at James Wright’s inspired direction over his seventeen-year span. And the audience, praised by Mr. Wright as an appreciative and generous body of supporters, indeed a key part of the opera company’s ‘happy family’.


© Harvey De Roo 2016

Photos courtesy of Vancouver Opera and Alex Waterhouse-Heyward