Rose-Ellen Nichols shines in City Opera Vancouver's Pauline

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      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.


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      May 26, 2014 at 6:04pm

      I disagree. Ms. Nichols was chosen because she fit the proper ethnic stereotype. While she wasn't a bad singer, the others, particularly the young doctor, were far better. You can argue that it was essential that a metis woman be played by a metis woman--but that would be being honest. That's not what's happening here.

      Charles Barber

      May 26, 2014 at 9:23pm

      Rose-Ellen Nichols first auditioned for City Opera back in May and June of 2008, when we were preparing our production of 'Der Kaiser von Atlantis'. She made an excellent impression, but we had no role to offer at that time.

      We next heard her in March of 2013. Competing with 53 other singers, she was invited to call-backs for 'Pauline' in June. She gave commanding work, and demonstrated to our deep satisfaction that her dramatic and vocal skills were equal to the role that Margaret Atwood and Tobin Stokes created.

      Rose gives an astonishing performance as Pauline Johnson. She was chosen for her voice, her power, her command of the stage, and her reading of the role. So were all the other members of our extraordinary cast.

      Rose's ethnicity is a happy irrelevance. The only stereotyping at hand is that imagined by your reader. Too bad Rose is not also a Quaker, as was Pauline Johnson's mother. He could have been wrong on both counts.


      Opera Lover

      May 27, 2014 at 11:13am

      It's hard to consider this review as a rave for Pauline, the opera. Indeed, it's a rave for Rose-Ellen Nichols but not much else. It's true. The opera is stilted, static and not much happens with anything: story, music, or character. The best component is the "three ladies" who bring comic relief and much needed energy to the proceedings.

      Norman Armour's direction is weak and static. Nothing happens on stage. At least, nothing interesting. Most of the time, characters just stand and deliver in the old style of opera directing. Where is the "edgy, contemporary" aesthetic Armour is supposed to be famous for? Gone fishing.

      I don't know why, but the opera begins in 3 minutes of silence with all the actors entering slowly (beginning with Pauline) to take their places. Since this is an opera, it might be a good idea for the composer to create some music for this entrance to establish some sense of place, or state of mind, or any of the possibilities suggested by the subject. Wasted opportunity.

      Atwood's libretto is dead on the page. Composer Tobin Stokes did his best, but you can't breathe life into a dead text. As a result, most of the music is the same. Nothing happens in Atwood's libretto, there's no conflict except that of Pauline's double-life and her sister's hatred of it. The most dramatic moment of the entire opera is (spoiler alert) when her sister tears up Pauline's letters. If that's the high-point of the drama, something is wrong with the script. Armour knows it, too.

      In a close reading Ms. Smith's review, I'd say that she was desperately looking for something positive to say and latched on to Rose-Ellen Nichols and her fine singing to give the positive spin she wanted. Ms. Nichols' singing was serviceable at best, certainly not as good as some others - especially her sister Eva played by Sarah Vardy in a thankless role that was 2-dimensional and hateful. Vardy sang with conviction and clarity, but her character was so 2-D, it was difficult to enjoy her marvelous contribution. Tenor Adam Fisher sang beautifully, but as our reviewer says, it was difficult to know which was which of his three characters he was playing. Nonetheless, one of his arias was breath-taking and the best music Stokes wrote all night.

      Pauline was built around Atwood's name and she delivered with full houses for City Opera. Too bad she didn't deliver a libretto worth doing.

      new opera fan

      May 28, 2014 at 9:15pm

      I agree with Opera Lover that Atwood's libretto is the major problem. When writing about a life, whether as autobiography or biography, it is essential for the writer to either find or make meaning of that life. Atwood's libretto reveals several aspects of Johnson's struggle -- with her dual identities, her desire for freedom, the loss of love, familial rejection -- but the struggle doesn't resolve. Not that a life story requires a pretty and sweet resolution all tied up in a bow, but something has to shift. The protagonist has to achieve some insight, no matter how small. Or perhaps if the protagonist can't, then the audience has to. The suffering has to have meaning. Then we, the audience, find from that meaning, something about what it is to be human.

      I have no idea what Atwood wanted us to learn from Johnson's struggles. I have no idea what she wanted to tell us about humanity and human suffering through the vehicle of Johnson. I hesitate to suggest that it looks to me like Atwood forgot that all characters in literature are vehicles for meaning, whether they're based on real people or fictional ones.

      So yes, as act 2 progressed and nothing changed, I felt the opera as static, and grew increasingly disappointed and frustrated. I have to commend both the soprano and the composer for doing as well as they did, given the lack of essential movement through struggle to change.

      new opera fan

      May 29, 2014 at 10:40am

      By "the soprano" I meant, of course, Rose-Ellen Nichols. I really enjoyed her presence on stage.