Manitoba Underground Opera: Mozart and Offenbach

Founded in 2008 by Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan-born conductor Brendan McKeen,
the youthful company’s mandate is to provide opportunities for performers
to sing with an orchestra. In addition to
this year’s pair of offerings, prior productions have included:
Mozart’sLa Clemenza di Tito and Così fan tutte,
Massenet’s Cendrillon, the Fable of Cinderella, and
Handel’s Alcina, as well as smaller-scale concerts and recital

This year, the company treated audiences to a “re-imagined”
version of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, performed amidst the
ruins of Winnipeg’s historic St. Boniface Cathedral, ravaged by fire in
1968 and located at the heart of its Francophone community. Its updated The
Magic Flute…Retold
(sung in German) essentially stripped away all
the opera’s notoriously racist references for 21st century
audiences, with the 125-minute production also including witty English dialogue
penned by the company’s co-artistic director, Brenna Corner.

Mozart’s masterpiece is ultimately a tale about fortitude, character
and steely resolve in transcending adversity. The company experienced its own
travails opening night, forced to grapple with mid-show rain showers,
ubiquitous mosquitoes and even a pounding rock concert heard from across the
Assiniboine River that competed with the Wunderkind’s sublime score. The
cast, orchestra and audience ultimately journeyed, well, underground to the
church basement for half of Act I, shepherded again outdoors again by the
unflappable McKeen for Act II.

Lyric soprano Andrea Lett (with alternating casts) crafted a particularly
strong Pamina, her acting skills notably having grown since she performed the
lead role in last year’s production of Cendrillon, the Fable of
Tenor Jonathan Stitt likewise convinced as her heroic Prince
Tamino, his mellifluous vocals soaring in “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd
schön,” or seamlessly blending with the three ladies (Emily
Diehl-Reader, Rebecca McIntosh, and Meghan Symon).

Audiences always wait on tenterhooks for the Queen of the Night’s
“big” aria. Soprano Ashley Boychuk did not disappoint, fearlessly
nailing her topmost notes while confidently skipping through florid colouratura
runs during “Der Hölle Rache” that earned the evening’s
only cries of bravo.

Baritone Elliot Lazar portrayed royal bird catcher Papageno as a
quasi-counter-culture, peace-sign flashing hippie, presented not with magic
bells but a flamingo-festooned music box. His characterization could still have
gone further (a few love beads would have helped) although his giddy Act II
scene in which he falls head over feathers with soprano Emily Ready’s
Papagena proved a highlight. Bass John Anderson crafted a suitably menacing
Sarastro, flanked by tenor Chris Donlevy’s Monastatos whose performance
needed to – and did – grow more intense throughout the show.

The 17-member chorus prepared by Lisa Rumpel sang with gusto, while McKeen
led the 23-piece orchestra throughout Act I, morphing into Renate
Rossol’s sole keyboard accompaniment for Act II due to the inclement

The company also returned to the Manitoba Legislative Building for its
second production, Offenbach’s comic melodrama Orpheus in the
. MUC first performed in the provincial government building with
Cosi fan Tutti in 2014.

This year, stage director Jacqueline Loewen further exploited the
building’s interior by cleverly moving actors and audience throughout its
three physical levels to depict Thebes, Olympus and the Underworld, thus making
the evening experiential. Its Tyndall stone interior that creates powerful
reverberation proved challenging, especially during the spoken English dialogue
sections that blurred, although conversely also underscored the gods’
solos and choruses – and especially bass Nicholas Urquhart’s
Jupiter – with otherworldly omnipresence.

Soprano Susan Watkins injected enough sparkling personality into her lead
character Eurydice to light up a celestial night sky, decrying fiddle-playing
“Bore-pheus” husband Orpheus sung by tenor Wes Rambo with her razor
sharp comedic skills as potent as her clear colouratura voice. She fleshed out
her long-suffering housewife with subtle nuance and pouty sighs, even daringly
rubbing thighs with Jupiter during the Act III Underworld party that also
included a raucous “Infernal Galop.” Mezzo-soprano Suzanne
Reimer’s Public Opinion provided steady ballast throughout the 90-minute
show, as she told her tale of “high ideals, heroism and

The quartet of vodka swilling goddesses added further hilarity, although
once again sound issues detracted from their choruses, including Act II’s
tongue-twisting rondo “Pour séduire Alcmène.”

McKeen held a firm baton over his compact orchestra, its six musicians
packing up their bows and stands to move with the audience and singers as we
made our own odyssey in the company of gods from heaven to hell.

Holly Harris

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