Opera review: The Auction fits into its Westben festival setting like a rooster on a fencepost

Baritone Bruce Kelly, soprano Olivia Rapos and conductor Philip Headlam are among the performers in the world premiere of The Auction, a full-length opera presented to July 1 at the Westben Arts Festival Theatre (John Terauds photo).

It’s mystifying that one has to leave Toronto in order to see the premiere of a new, full-length Canadian opera.

We’re lucky that Westben festival co-founders Brian Finley and Donna Bennett have had the courage to take the risk, because The Auction, a two-hour, two-act opera by composer John Burge and librettist Eugene Benson, is getting a fine start in life.

Benson based his libretto on a Canadian children’s book of the same title by Jan Andrews. You’d never know the story was published in 1990, because it as well as the opera have a sweet, timeless, Norman Rockwell, Laura Ingalls, goodnight-John-Boy quality.

The original story is a tidy little tale of a young boy coming to terms with his newly widowed grandfather selling the family farm and its contents at auction the next day.

Despite having been inspired by a children’s book and having a child character, this is not a children’s opera. It is about coming to terms with loss, no matter how old or young one happens to be.

Benson has embellished the spare narrative with flashbacks of the grandparents’ meeting and courtship as well as ampler reminiscences by both daughter and grandson. The librettist has also added a best friend for the grandfather as comic relief.

In an obvious nod to French grand-operatic tradition, the play contains a ballet scene in Act II to illustrate the little boy’s dreams of scarecrows coming alive.

Burge’s score is as accessible as the story itself, filled with country-fiddle and other folksy melodic motifs. The Kingston-based composer has a knack for inventive variation of themes, which makes for compelling listening through much of the two hours.

The production itself, as seen at dress rehearsal on Thursday, is as rough hewn as the timbers in the Westben barn, with elementary set, lighting and costumes.

Allison Grant’s direction and choreography tends towards the obvious and fussy. But, given the pastoral context — a meadow just outside Cambellford — and the informal, friendly atmosphere fostered by Finley and Bennett (who live in a big, old farmhouse just a few metres from the barn), The Auction fits in with its setting like a rooster on a fencepost.

It helps that the six-member orchestra is excellent, and is capably led by conductor Philip Headlam.

Much, but not all, of the singing cast is strong.

Tenor Keith Klassen is as loud and showy as his auctioneer’s jacket, soprano Donna Bennett is affecting as daughter Alberta, baritone Matthew Zadow is a strong young Granddad and mezzo Kimberly Barber strikes the right balance between wisdom and insouciance as Grandmother.

Special kudos go to older Granddad Bruce Kelly, whose warm baritone and still, unaffected acting anchor him as the emotional centre of the opera, and to young soprano Olivia Rapos who, in an instance of gender-blind casting, does excellent work in the grandson’s role.

Overall, this is an enjoyable way to spend two-plus hours of holiday-weekend time. For it to be an outstanding experience, The Auction could benefit from 15 to 20 minutes of judicious cuts because, with Burge’s musical blessing, Benson has a penchant for ladling on the sentimental gravy.

Despite the quibbles, here is one more piece of proof that new, full-length Canadian opera is alive and well — everywhere except Toronto.

The Auction runs at the Westben Arts Festival Theatre Friday to Sunday, July 1 at 2 p.m. For all the details, click here.

John Terauds


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