23 May Swoon
Librettist: Anna Chatterton
Commissioner: Canadian Opera Company (Richard Bradshaw, Artistic Director) with the assistance of The Canada Council for the Arts
Premiere: 6 – 9 December 2006, Imperial Oil Opera Theatre, Toronto, Ontario
Performers: 4 voices (2 sopranos, tenor, baritone), 13 players (flute/piccolo, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, percussion, 2 violins, viola, cello, bass)
Duration: 45 minutes
“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive…” (Shakespeare)
Leah and Roy, a young couple, arrive at Mona and Ari’s immaculate home, where Leah has been hired as a maid. The jealous Roy tries to get Leah to skip her first day on the job, but Leah, a practical punctual poet, is having none of it. Mona whisks Leah off on a dizzying tour of her duties. Husband Ari is at home, feeling sick and neglected. Leah reminds him of an old flame from years ago, and he is smitten again. While telling her his tale of lost love, he lavishes Leah with coy compliments. Leah is shocked, yet intrigued by his attentions.
But Roy (who has been spying) is in a jealous fury, and when Mona discovers him, he tells her about Ari’s advances. Mona is despondent and coaxes Roy to comfort her, which he does with increasing warmth. An alarmed Leah stumbles upon them, whereupon Mona hatches a plan to use Roy to bring her husband to heel–a plan to which Leah reluctantly agrees. Mona whisks Roy off, and Leah is left on her own to worry and wonder. When Ari approaches, she challenges him to live up to his sweet words. Ari is aroused, but then he hears his wife giggling in the next room. Mona gleefully introduces Roy, who is “here to fix all that’s broken.” She hurries Leah out of the room, leaving the two men alone.
Ari tells his woes, but Roy is disdainful, and struts off to play lover with Mona. Ari and Leah eavesdrop until Leah can take no more and calls a halt. Everyone is betrayed and humiliated, and angry accusations are spit back and forth until it is Roy’s turn to call a halt. He woos Leah with surprising eloquence, and she is won over. Not to be outdone, Ari tries the same with Mona, who rises to the occasion. The day’s wrongs are righted, and love is found again all round.
Swoon, the new one-act comedy from James Rolfe and Anna Chatterton, tells the story of two disaffected couples from different classes who work out their differences, and their jealousies, through real or contrived flirtations with each other’s partner. Chatterton and Rolfe’s brisk, contemporary comedy has given it freshness and humour. Like a good joke, this story’s pleasures are mostly in the telling, and the two authors tell it very well.
Rolfe’s nimble score enhanced the script’s comic momentum from the opening bars and never let it lag, while giving the story’s more serious moments due time to unfold. His stripped-down settings always suited the text and advanced the drama. Odd as it seems, one common fault of contemporary opera composers is a failure to listen to the words and the imaginative space they reveal. Rolfe has listened with real skill and humility, and the result is an airy yet resonant score that made it easy to understand almost every word sung.
In some ways the collaboration of composer and librettist reached its peak in the opera’s least characteristic section. Leah’s erotically charged address to Ari in one of the later scenes seemed to billow up out of nowhere, and took the opera into a new zone, closer to the Song of Songs than to the wry, jazz-inflected dialogues of the work’s opening. But once it was made, this sudden shift felt right, because of the precision and poetic tone of Chatterton’s language, and the responsive cantabile temper of the music … Rolfe’s very singable vocal lines gave everyone a chance to shine.
– Robert Everett-Green, Toronto Globe and Mail, 9 December 2006
Swoon is worlds away from James Rolfe’s Beatrice Chancy, his 1998 tragic opera that became a critical and popular success. In Swoon, Rolfe and librettist Anna Chatterton set themselves the ambitious goal of writing a dramma giocosa on the model of Mozart’s Figaro but set in contemporary Toronto. Even if Swoon falls short of its lofty model, it succeeds so well it is sure to see future productions.
Chatterton’s libretto confronts a poor, young couple, Leah and Roy, with a wealthy, middle-aged couple, Mona and Ari. When Leah goes to work as a maid for Mona, she becomes the object of Ari’s attentions and Roy’s jealousy. Realism gives way to the artifice of eavesdropping, plots and counterplots and, unlike Figaro, we never feel any real sense of danger. Under Michael Albano’s insightful direction, the work ends ambiguously with each couple publicly reaffirming fidelity while privately anticipating future affairs.
Rolfe’s attractive music took three basic forms–quirky syncopation to accompany staccato scenes of plot development, Latin dance when characters reach some accord, and, for passages of reflection, slowly thickening build-ups of orchestral tension supporting beautifully soaring vocal lines.
Sopranos Virginia Hatfield as Leah and Melinda Delorme as Mona and tenor Lawrence Wiliford as Roy all displayed light, agile voices and a gift for comedy while the baritone of Justin Welsh as Ari stood out as impressively rich. Conductor Derek Bate led a thirteen-piece ensemble in deftly creating Rolfe’s precise degrees of sheen, spice and ecstasy.
– Christopher Hoile, Opera News 2007-3