Rattenbury: Judging Ambition

September 30, 2012

One of the most exciting and satisfying aspects of living in an arts-centric city is watching the development of new work—and anticipation has been high ever since word broke that Tobin Stokes and The Other Guys Theatre Company were working on a new opera about the life of famed architect Francis Rattenbury. Anyone even passingly familiar with Rattenbury’s life, death and iconic structures (the Empress, the Legislature, Crystal Gardens and the CPR Steamship Terminal, among others) well knows his story is ripe for operatic treatment: inflated ego, towering ambition, two wives, triumph and tragedy, murder and suicide . . . once again, fiction pales in comparison to history.

But the question on everyone’s minds was whether this new opera could live up to Rattenbury’s own legend—and, as the packed house at Saturday night’s premiere concert performance in the Empress’ own Crystal Ballroom can attest, I’m pleased to say the answer is a firm yes. Composer/librettist Tobin Stokes has crafted a haunting, memorable and compelling new work that left the audience eagerly anticipating a full production. Starting with Rattenbury’s grisly death and tracing back over the highs and lows that brought him to that point, we see snippets of a story that was always larger than life.

Presented not as a full opera but as a collection of songs that capture the various key scenes in the story, Rattenbury benefitted by both the elegant setting and the strong casting. Cleverly splitting the title character between two singers—famed Canadian tenor Richard Margison as the older Rattenbury and popular local tenor Ken Lavigne as the younger—created an immediate sense of reflection and scope that one performer would not have been able to achieve; indeed, the parallels between the two were inescapable, and one of the strongest aspects of this production. Both were in fine voice here and were well-received by the house, with Margison providing a sense of gravitas to balance Lavigne’s plucky enthusiasm.

Five others rounded out the cast, notably mezzo-soprano Julia Morgan and soprano Kathleen Brett as wives one and two, respectively. Both had fine moments, with Morgan bringing an inherent sadness to her role and Brett holding the audience spellbound as she contemplates suicide in her final number. Credit too to VCM student Andrew Erasmus, who offered strong performance in a number of smaller roles, including Rattenbury’s (possible) killer. Conductor Arthur Arnold crafted a wonderful sound from the seven-piece orchestra, fully supporting but never overwhelming the singers. And lighting designer Rebekah Johnson worked her usual illuminated magic with the Crystal Ballroom, casting evocative colour washes behind the singers and using the room’s architectural elements to her advantage.

But the real star here is Stokes’ score and libretto, which delivers on the promise of his earlier major works (notably his 2001 opera The Vinedressers and his score for Ballet BC’s 2006 adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire) and surpasses them at the same time. The melodies compel the action forward, the lyrics use repetition and imagery to great effect and the pictures painted by the songs can’t help but linger in minds eye . . . especially upon leaving the Empress and stepping back into a city shaped by Rattenbury’s own talent, ego and legacy.

As visionary as the architect who inspired it, Tobin Stokes’ Rattenbury is the most exciting new work to come out of Victoria in years. Operatic purists may find it a touch too populist, and out-of-town funders may not appreciate the story’s relevance, but local and Canadian audiences will welcome this new chapter in our collective history. See this one now and you won’t have to kick yourself for missing it.

—John Threlfall

Rattenbury plays once more, at 8pm Sunday, September 30 in the Crystal Ballroom of the Fairmont Empress.