October 2, 2012



What: Rattenbury, by Tobin Stokes

When/where: Sept. 29 and 30, Crystal Ballroom, Fairmont Empress

Local composer Tobin Stokes’s new opera about architect Francis Rattenbury was previewed last weekend in a pair of public performances at, appropriately, the Fairmont Empress hotel – one of many iconic local buildings Rattenbury designed during the more than 30 years he lived in Victoria.

About 100 minutes’ worth of music, drawn from throughout the four-part opera, was presented (with one intermission) in a concert format, under the baton of Arthur Arnold, the principal guest conductor of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra and a longtime colleague of Stokes’s. (A narrator filled in gaps as required.)

To a composer, Rattenbury, who was born in England in 1867 and died there in 1935, is both a gift and a challenge: His largerthanlife personality, rollercoaster career, and tempestuous private life make him a subject ideal for opera, but how to distill this embarrassment of riches into one evening’s entertainment?

Judging from Saturday’s performance, Stokes, the creator of three previous operas, and serving here (not for the first time) as both librettist and composer, has succeeded in dramatizing the highlights of a very busy story while still finding time to explore the inner lives of its complicated central characters.

Titled simply Rattenbury, this is a chamber opera for seven singers (some tackling multiple roles) and an instrumental septet comprising violin, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet, horn and piano.

The piano is often prominent, since it was the instrument played by Alma Pakenham, the young performer and songwriter whose affair with the married, much older Rattenbury scandalized Victoria society in the 1920s.

Stokes is a versatile composer who works in an accessible and flexible idiom and is accustomed to writing music aimed at a broad public-good qualifications when it comes to opera. In Rattenbury, he succeeds in finding convincing musical analogies for a wide range of dramatic incidents and, more impressively, the psychological development of his characters – for instance, mobilizing sinuous chromatic lines when depicting the older Rattenbury’s fevered mind. Where the emotional temperature rises and the lyric element prevails, the music seems to genuinely flatter the voices.

Often the music has a period flavour; the instrumental ensemble sometimes recalls the genteel sound of “palm court” orchestras, and Stokes alludes to popular-songs styles of the day – for instance, in the young Rattenbury’s paean to the Empress, and in a song composed by Alma. (The latter, quoted in ghostly fashion in the opera’s bleak closing bars, is only the most important of many recurring motifs in both libretto and score.) The nostalgic quality of these period touches contributes to the thread of melancholy that runs through the vocal lines, harmonies and sonorities of Stokes’s score – and this, after all, despite some comic moments, no happy tale.

In last weekend’s previews, two singers wellknown to Victoria audiences shared the title role: the popular local tenor Ken Lavigne played the younger Rattenbury, while the internationally celebrated tenor Richard Margison, a Victoria native based in Toronto, played the older man whose professional and personal failures have left him a depressed, dissolute recluse. Their very different voices underscored the arc of Rattenbury’s life.

Lavigne’s lighter, more ingratiating sound suited a man brimming with ambition and confidence, while Margison’s darker, weightier, more heroic tone helped to make the declining Rattenbury a tragic figure – a once commanding personality reduced to raging against fate.

Soprano Kathleen Brett and mezzo-soprano Julia Morgan gave very strong performances as (respectively) Alma and Florrie, Rattenbury’s first wife – two women ultimately destroyed by Rattenbury’s demons, and for whom Stokes has written some especially passionate music. Also noteworthy was the youngest member of the cast, baritone Andrew Erasmus – still a conservatory student – as the teenager who, infatuated with Alma, killed Rattenbury and became the subject of a sensational trial.

Rattenbury is being developed with various levels of government and corporate support, under the auspices of the Other Guys Theatre Company, which intends to stage it in a future season. This weekend’s previews suggested that the opera has the potential to make for some compelling musical theatre.

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