A City Opera Vancouver production. Libretto by Margaret Atwood, music by Tobin Stokes. Directed by Norman Armour. At the York Theatre on Friday, May 23. Continues until May 31
The ambitious new opera Pauline may not get everything right, but it gets the most important thing right.
Mezzo-soprano Rose-Ellen Nichols, a UBC Masters grad and relatively new name in the operatic world, so fully inhabits the legendary character in this marathon role that viewers will simply believe that she is Pauline Johnson.
It is not just that she is Coast Salish, though she told the Straight that allows her a deep bond with the half-Mohawk, turn-of-the-last-century poet-performer who she is playing. She is also endowed with a rich, varied mezzo that finds a deep patina in its lower register and yet a firm grip on the top range—even when her character is in a frenzied, opiate-addled state. What she has to pull off in this role is gruelling, never leaving the stage over two long acts as she manoeuvres the complex, swirling notes of Tobin Stokes’s score.
This was good news after the lights went out just before the opening for the first opera by Margaret Atwood, who attended the show. A B.C. Hydro power outage left organizers scrambling to get a generator as crowds waited outside the front doors, and the show started over an hour past schedule. After so many years of planning and fundraising for the project, it wasn’t exactly the start the small company was hoping for.
The opera is set in Vancouver 1913, as Johnson is dying of cancer, her memories and people from her past flowing back to her in the haze of morphine her doctor keeps administering. There is little story line or action. Instead, Pauline explores a woman torn between two cultural identities—white Victorian lady and First Nations artist—trying to find her true self before entering that last “river door”, as the ghost of her grandfather keeps beckoning her.
The key problem is structural. Pauline, apparently scaled back to a chamber opera from a larger work over the years of development, would be stronger as a single act rather than stretched over two 45- to 55-minute sections in this intimate setting. Without much action, there’s little narrative tension built before the intermission to propel viewers into the second act.
Johnson’s sister, Eva (soprano Sarah Vardy), has arrived from Ontario to tend to her—but also to judge her—in her final days. Pauline’s poetry, and her secret love letters, Eva believes, threaten her reputation in an era when that’s all a woman has—especially when that woman is both a travelling stage performer and of mixed race. “If only you’d stayed home like me and mother,” Eva tells her. Still, that sibling tension, established early and meant to build to an act of betrayal, is not enough to push the opera along for two hours.
Elsewhere, the doctor morphs into Pauline’s lover and manager, and while tenor Adam Fisher brings both vocal clarity and commitment to the three separate characters, it’s sometimes hard to differentiate them—let alone invest fully in her love and anguish at a broken engagement.
Everything plays out with sleek simplicity on a spare stage with a Victorian conversation couch at the centre. Two rows of chairs line either side, where the singers sit. The set is livened up by two screens hanging at the top of the stage, with projections of historical photographs, Native regalia, and Pauline’s handwritten poetry.
As for Tobin Stokes’s new-music score, it’s rich and evocative enough, from the whirling woodwinds of Pauline’s opening morphine haze to the haunting harmonies summoning her to the river door near the end. It’s a challenge for both listening and playing over the long haul, but the seven-member orchestra, boasting veterans like violinist Mark Ferris and clarinetist François Houle, is well up to its demands in the pit. And, as you might expect, the libretto, wherein Atwood’s own words intersperse with some of Johnson’s, is highly poetic, yet taut: “Those pale uncertain candle flames that shiver, dart, and die,” sings a trio of Victorian women about dying.
Yes, it’s taken a small but talented army of established names to resurrect Pauline Johnson, but it’s Nichols who emerges as the star here. She makes it hard to imagine anyone else in the role.
And blackout or no blackout, she creates a Pauline that’s electric.