Vancouver Opera
The Music Shop
Music and libretto by Richard Wargo

When & Where: Available Saturday, March 13, 2021 at 7:30pm, then on demand until the end of the season | Filmed at the O'Brien Centre for Vancouver Opera Martha Lou Henley Rehearsal Hall

Music Supervisor Leslie Dala Director Dana Fradkin Set & Costume Designer Omani Elias Lighting Designer Jody Burkholder Stage Manager Michelle Harrison

Dmitri Luka Kawabata Ivan Ian Cleary Masha Jonelle Sills Wife Amanda Weatherall

Reviewer Elizabeth Paterson

Without being able to present live opera this year, Vancouver Opera has settled for small-cast, one-act, recorded and streamed presentations. There is no diminution in quality however. The current offering, Richard Wargo’s The Music Shop is a little gem of a farce, part of a longer trilogy, not performed in this presentation, based on short stories by the Russian master, Anton Chekhov, and a perfect vehicle to lighten the gloom..

Masha is assistant in a music shop to the grumpy Dmitri. She complains about her boss and dreams of a holiday and a raise. Dmitri, owner of the largest music shop in Russia, is having a good day: a friend has died and left him precious music to add to his collection. Intruding into their private concerns comes Ivan, comfortable bourgeois husband in town to shop for his wife. An armful of parcels attests to his diligence. Only the music for the piece she will sing at the Prince’s wedding remains – but he has forgotten the title. Before Ivan finally leaves to catch his train home, the shop has been turned upside down, there has been a fight, Masha has turned to extortion, Dmitri is exhausted and Ivan is hallucinating.

This is light stuff, but it receives serious treatment. The music is modern accessible. It drives forward nicely, is tuneful and rhythmic, complex without being difficult to listen to and very carefully constructed. The search for the melody presents the perfect opportunity for snippets of famous tunes from Handel to Humperdinck. Eventually a demented quodlibet pits, amongst others, Bizet’s Habanera against the Song of the Volga Boatmen – which works surprisingly well. Words and music also fit together remarkably well. Wargo’s being his own librettist is an advantage.

Wargo’s music is just right also for the accomplished young singers of the Yolanda M Faris Young Artists program. A lively and very talented cast of 4, are supported by pianist Amy Seulky Lee and directed by Dana Fradkin. All six are members of the program which is led by Les Dala, who also served as music director for this production. One aria, for Masha, peevishly sung by Jonelle Sills, a little duet for the two men, (Ian Cleary and Luka Kawabata) and the rest of the piece is largely ensemble work.

The current restriction on closeness was skilfully turned to advantage by Dana Fradkin to naturally mark out the status and class differences of the 19th century. The physically-distanced stage fight, in which the two men threw biffs and blows across the width of the stage, clown-wise, was very funny. So too was Amanda Weatherall as the Wife. As fitting for a character who is a hallucination, she never appeared inside the set with the rest of the cast, but instead delivered her tirades from the roof or through a window in fine operatic fashion. Diva of the quick change, she appeared as herself in morning dress, afternoon dress and evening dress, a judge, an angel, a gloriously unhinged Valkyrie, and countless other characters.

Set and costumes for The Music Shop were by Omani Elias. They evoked pre-revolutionary Moscow with onion-dome silhouettes in the skyline, a worker’s cap and waistcoat for Dmitri, elegant Persian lamb for the Ivan’s coat-collar. Attention to detail extended even to the choice of piano, a Petrov. Lighting (Jody Burkholder) and well-placed cameras together kept the action in focus.

What fun to have a brief hour of witty, silly music on the last day of dark winter evenings.

© 2021 Elizabeth Paterson