By Richard Todd
ST. JOHN’S, Newfoundland – The First of July is Canada Day, celebrated from coast to coast to coast, as they say. But in Newfoundland it is also known as Memorial Day, commemorating the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel, the first significant engagement in the Battle of the Somme. It was fought on July 1, 1916, when 800 soldiers of the Newfoundland Regiment were ordered “over the top” by their British officers. The battle was over in about 20 minutes, and when it was, only 68 of the Newfoundlanders were able to answer roll call.
This might not seem likely as the subject of an opera, but composer John Estacio and librettist Robert Chafe fashioned one. It is called Ours, and it was premiered at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre one hundred years to the day after the battle.
St. John’s, though it is the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador, has a population of less than a quarter million. There are cities much larger that cannot sustain an opera company – Ottawa, for example. Opera on the Avalon (St. John’s is on the Avalon Peninsula), formed in 2009, is the only opera company in Canada’s four Atlantic Provinces. It bills itself as “Canada’s newest opera company in North America’s oldest city.” Its seasons are limited in scope, this year presenting Sweeney Todd, Ours, and a group of school programs, but there is nothing bush-league about their productions if Ours is any indication.
Composer Estacio’s musical idiom is neo-romantic. He has been compared to Puccini, whose La bohème was the major production of OOA’s 2014 season, and it’s true that Estacio’s harmonic language would not have seemed strange to listeners of a century ago. It’s also true that audiences today find his music entirely accessible, but there are major differences. For one, Estacio doesn’t provide much in the way of arias or other items that people might hum as they’re leaving the theater, though his music is constantly lyrical.
The structure of the opera includes a number of sudden shifts in time and place. It begins and ends in Rhodesia 1949, with a man constructing a cross such as one sees in military graveyards. Newfoundland became a province of Canada in 1949 — or, to put it differently, gave up its independence. The significance of the cross was lost on me until the end of the opera but was likely apparent to the Newfoundlanders who made up most of the audience.
The bulk of the story takes place during and shortly after World War I and is focused on Thomas Nangle (sung by baritone Brett Polegato), a priest who enlisted as a chaplain in the Newfoundland Regiment against the wishes of his archbishop (tenor Roger Honeywell). After the war, Nangle, a historical character, returned to France to try to identify the rotting corpses of the fallen soldiers and give them decent burials. He was also the man assembling the cross in 1949, mourning the death of Newfoundland as an independent country.
Members of the large cast were all more than adequate, with Polegato being especially persuasive, musically and dramatically. Soprano Lara Ciekiewicz was outstanding as May, the love interest of one of the soldiers. The chorus of 32 voices was solid, well balanced, and thoroughly musical. Its members moved around the stage with considerable grace. In fact, everyone executed director Glynis Leyshon’s movements deftly.
Conductor Judith Yan held things together well and the orchestral playing was very good. It was a small orchestra with only 12 string players, but Estacio doubtless took the small forces into account when he orchestrated the score, so it wasn’t much of a problem.
For all the fine qualities of Ours, the work is not perfect. Throughout most of its length it has a fast-moving and almost cinematic pace, but late in the second act (of two) it became ponderous as the ghosts of a number of the soldiers told their stories. It plays like a patriotic cantata, which is very good in and of itself but a definite roadblock in the unfolding of the drama.
The 1949 scenes at the beginning and the end struck me as unsubtle, but they may have been more congenial to the bulk of the audience to whom the Beaumont-Hamel history was intimately familiar. The date would have had an immediate resonance as well.
The standing ovation the production received was deserved, as was the roaring applause occasioned by Estacio’s appearance with the cast. But there was one final joy to the production. After the applause had been duly acknowledged, the cast and production people began singing the “Ode to Newfoundland,” a beautiful provincial anthem. Virtually everyone in the audience knew it and sang along. Of course there were some who didn’t know it, my wife and I among them. That’s because, as the Newfoundland expression has it, we’re “from away.”
Richard Todd is a semi-retired music commentator whose 35-year career included 21 years as the principal English-language critic in Ottawa, writing for the Ottawa Citizen. He is also a fine-art photographer.