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GOING FOR BAROQUE

PERFECT BAROQUE? SYMPHONY NOVA SCOTIA IN ST. ANDREW’S UNITED CHURCH, HALIFAX, ON SUNDAY, MARCH 17, 2013.Well, what’s perfect? In a sense everything is. But this concert combined first-rate programming with first-rate performers and not much to beg for in the way of wishing any part of the performances themselves better.

Symphony Nova Scotia concertmaster Robert Uchida led the small string orchestra. The violins dispensed with chairs and stood to play the program of Vivaldi, Bach, and Mozart.

The soloists came from within the ranks of the players. Uchida himself was featured on lead violin in Mozart’s lively Divertimento in F Major, K138/125c, so big a favourite with string orchestras that it’s almost a requirement for being taken seriously.

It’s not hard to hear why that is and the first and third movements, marked Allegro and Rondo Presto, are usually played, as here, at break-neck tempos. I think they might have gained something if they had taken them a little less briskly. Mozart always tempts modern players to exceed.

But it was brilliantly if a little superficially done and certainly a dependably effective concert opener.

Next Uchida and oboist Brian James, SNS’s fine second oboe and English Horn player, soloed in Bach’s C Minor Concerto for Violin and Oboe. James’s sound was elegant, well-groomed and the duo nicely balanced and comfortable.

Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto is a concerto gross in fact, with three soloists: violin, trumpet and recorder. If you anticipated a dominating trumpet you would be right, but only because Richard Simoneau, playing the difficult piccolo trumpet, is such a stunning virtuoso.

Simoneau not only balanced out the milder timbres of the quicksilver violin (Uchida) and the sweetly cooing alto recorder (SNS bassoonist Ivor Rothwell), but flared up in virtuosic solar flares that drove the audience mad with delight. Prolonged applause, shouts of approval, and even the pounding of winter boots on the floor followed the final flame-throwing.

After intermission, SNS piccoloist Christine Feierabend tackled the tricky passage work of Vivaldi’s Piccolo Concerto in C Major, bringing off a coup de force of art and technique, and expertly meeting the hardest challenge of this sparkling work, that there is no place to breathe in the note-dense phrases.

Baroque composers treated solo winds like keyboard players, leaving it up to them figure out how to integrate the breath but absolutely requiring them to phrase long passages without drawing attention to themselves.

Feierabend was phenomenal.

The concert ended with flutist Jack Chen subbing as he has been doing all winter, for SNS principal Patricia Creighton, sidelined with a wrist injury. The work, Bach’s Orchestra Suite No. 2 in B Minor is an eight-movement flute (or recorder) concerto beginning with an Overture almost as long as the other seven movements together.

Chen plays like a champion, not a substitute. His sound is round and thick, his technique light and fluent, and at times in the Overture, his modern, silver flute tone took on the cooing timbre of the one-keyed baroque wooden flute.

As expected, in the Badinerie, the last movement of the Suite, Chen gratified expectations by blitzing through it like a Chinese fire-cracker to bring both the piece and the perfect concert home.

The strings were wonderfully kind to their fellow musicians as they stepped forward and took charge of the moment.The spirit of friendliness in SNS is warm. And, fine as the woodwinds and brass are, the strings make them sound even better.

Check it out

Here’s a link to a story in the Toronto Star on Dinuk Wijeratne with three videos that range across his work as composer, performer and conductor of the Nova Scotia Youth Orchestra. You’ll be impressed. Guaranteed.

http://thestar.blogs.com/soundmind/2011/07/canada-at-146-are-we-ready-for-a-national-culture-that-reflects-our-urban-realities.html

tree of life

Grace

Nature – One way hug

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Ron Hynes? Or the Man Of A Thousand Songs

(Photo credit: Kent Nason)

Documentary on Ron Hynes. Directed by Bill MacGillivray. Co-produced by Terry Greenlaw and Jordan Canning

Picture Plant, Lunenburg, Nova Scotia

Toronto International Fillm Festival Sept. 13

Atlantic Film Festival Sept. 19, Park Lane 8, 9:20 p.m.

Ron Hynes stares into the camera. His pale blue eyes are friendly. But he does not blink and there is a hint of something unsettled.

At the start of Bill MacGillivray’s 90 minute documentary, The Man Of A Thousand Songs, Hynes says about the film, “I think it’s about Ron’s light side and his dark side.”

“The light side is Ron. The dark side is who he’s got to be every time he shows up on stage, the guy who kind of took over his life.”

In an interview in Halifax on a steamy Friday afternoon as Hurricance Earle shivered the leaves with anticipation outside a Halifax coffee shop, MacGillivray said, “I think Ron is a poet.”

“He knows how to use language to its best advantage. He understands irony. He’s also a master character actor. When he is on stage he is playing a role.”

Photo: Justin Hall

The role is different in different situations, MacGillivray adds. A bar is different from a nightclub which is different from a television studio or a soft-seater. With locations as varied as a CBC television studio —- Ron tailors his performances to his venue, as any artist will do.

But the role is the same. The role is the performer, The Man of A Thousand Songs. And he can be uncomfortably moody.

Ron says to the camera, “I think Ron kind of invented this guy.” Somehow,  the guy who got on stage and wrote all these songs began to change into a third guy, impatient, cold, dark.

“Somewhere along the way this guy took over my life. Ron realized if he didn’t get this guy under control, then this guy was gonna kill him.”

It’s a bit of a lurch when Hynes talks about himself in the third person. But this is a story not so much about multiple personalities as it is about a single personality with as many facets as palm-sized crystal.

With consummate skill and the uninhibited co-operation of Hynes himself, MacGillivray illuminates the crystal from within so that the facets project on the screen in a look, a tone, and most especially a song.

Which is the real Ron Hynes? The answer has to be all of them and maybe none of them.

Unlike many well-known Canadian songwriters, Ron does not observe and report, MacGillivray said. Ron takes it all to another level. “He is living the songs he sings.”

The Man of a Thousand Songs is as extraordinary a documentary as Ron Hynes is a poet of lived experience. The film is clean, raw, and holds nothing back. But it could not have been so without the extraordinary willingness of Hynes to tell all, to confront the camera with living, unsanitized reality.

“The thing is you are doing a documentary and you’re trying to raise money,” MacGillivray said. “You have to write a bunch of stuff and you have to send it out, and you write, ‘I would like to do a film on Ron Hynes and this is what it will be like’. So I wrote a probably 12 or 13-page proposal and we sent it out.”

“We’ve done it many times for documentaries, knowing full well that probably that will not be the film. You have to sell something, you have to sell the idea, but it’s pretty hard to say what your film is going to be. If you can, you’re telling, you’re not exploring.”

It’s an edgy way to do things.

“As part of our research we had with Ron, several times, Terry (Greenlaw) and I, the idea was to get pre-interviews, explore topics, see how far he would go, what he would be willing to talk about.”

“Towards the end of that process—we were sitting in a borrowed office in St. John’s with Ron at a table and we were asking questions—I think we were getting on his nerves, actually—he suddenly got up and started pacing back and forth, answering in a not confrontational but very direct kind of way.”

“Terry and I looked at each other and I said, I think we’ve got the basic formula for the film right here. Im gonna put him in black box and we’re going to interrogate him and put him on edge, basically.”

Photo: Kent Nason

“I said to Ron the next day, Ron what do you think? I said there’s no point in doing this unless you are willing to go the distance. And he said, ‘Well, let’s go the distance. I will not baulk at anything. Ask your questions, I will answer them all’.”

In the end, MacGillivray had to include in the finished film, not always the best answers, but those that best tell the story. “What we have chosen to use is what makes the story work, MacGillivray said.

Two other things happened before the film was done. The first was Joel Thomas Hynes, Newfoundland novelist and actor, author and star of an intense down-and-out-of-it ,novel-into-film called Down In The Dirt. Joel is Ron’s nephew. Terry saw a photograph of the two of them in the Globe and Mail.

“They were standing on a corner and they look like two corner boys—the Bad Boys of St. John’s or something. And Terry said, we’ve got to have Joel in this film and see if we can get them in that situation.”

The third element that helped to make the film work was Andrew MacCormack who edited the film. “He’s a young kid and this is the very first long-form documentary he’s done,” said MaGillivray. “And he did an extraordinary job, understanding where we wanted it to go and bringing all sorts of youthful and really playful uses of imagery into the film.”

The choice of Joel as a foil to Ron gives insight and perspective to The Man of a Thousand Songs. “Joel’s second novel is called Right Away Monday,” MacGillivray said. “Both his novels are very, very dark books, both very much along the same line as Ron. They’re very much about himself and exploring himself.”

“Somebody read the second bok and said, ‘Oh my God. Joel’s going to kill himself!’ And Joel flipped through the book and said, ‘Oh my God, it’s a 300,000 page suicide note!’ Joel’s not suicidal,but he has also been an addict, like Ron has been, and at the same time, he’s the one who got Ron into rehabilitation, so they sort of played off each other.”

“As a kid, Joel went to Ron in search of family. Ron took him in and raised him and encouraged him to become an artist and then of course, when he became an artist, that’s when the conflicts started. Then Joel sort of spiraled on his own downward spiral, now since recovered.”

“Joel is a remarkably intense guy, very, very bright.”

All of these elements have been melded into a brilliantly fine film. It was inspired by Ron Hynes’s astonishingly lean and expressively loaded songs. And they fill this film. The artist and the life can not be separated.

William Butler Yeats once asked, “How can you tell the singer from the song?”

As MacGilivray’r and Greenlaw’s film makes clear, you can’t.

How Can You Tell The Singer from the Song? (Photo: Justin Hall)

John Walker’s Dream

Horacio Hernandez drums for the sun

AT THE ATLANTIC FILM FESTIVAL

SEPTEMBER 17

PARK LANE 8

9:30 PM

A shoe fell in New York in 1969 for NFB film-maker John Walker. He wasfd 16 years old. The other one took almost 40 years to flop on to a 300-acre farm in Ontario between Ottawa and Kingston.

“I heard about this drum camp,” Walker said over coffee as traffic buzzed nearby on Chebucto Road in Halifax this week.

“My immediate reaction when I heard the line-up was, ‘I’ve got to go!’ Within 10 or 15 seconds after that, I had to go with a film crew. I was going to observe, make a film, not learn the drums.”

The line up included Mike Mangini (the fastest drummer on the planet); Paul Rekow (conga-ist from 1976 with Santana); virtuosically creative rock drummer Kenwood Dennard who has played with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie,Gil Evans and Joe Zawinal; Horacio “El Negro’ Hernandez who has presided over the marriage of jazz, rock and Cuban music to becom Afro-Cuban music’s most visible drummer;  Giovanni Hidalgo a congaist from Puerto Rico with an irresistible joy in music who is in a class by himself; and Dennis Chambers, whose power and speed let alone his invention with players like John Scofield, John McLaughhlin, Steely Dan and Santana dazzles the senses.

All this high-powered talent was gathered together by another extraordinary drummer, Canadian Nasyr Addul Al-Khabyr. He is part-owner of the farm which hosted some 40 young drum players eager to learn from the masters. Nasyr, as Walker calls him, teaches at Vanier and Concordia Colleges in Montreal.

“He put it up on the website that these seven artists were coming,” Walker said. “They were getting calls as far away as Australia saying, this is a hoax. This can’t be true. Giovanni Hidalgo? If you’re a fan of congas, he’s it. His knowledge of conga is encyclopedic.”

John Walker

Walker knows. He’s a drummer himself from the age of 8. He played in in a band called The Downbeats who were in New York in 1969 preparing their first record. The band was heavy, Hendrix influenced. Their agent sent a tape to California.

“My Montreal band was invited by Frank Zappa to open his concert in Haight-Ashbury,” Walker says in his bio. “The thing is, a few days later I was offered a summer job in a film studio.”

His 22-year-old band leader helped him consult the I-Ching. “The great Chinese oracle revealed that I was faced with two roads and whatever choice I made would be for life.”

“I chose the studio—gave away my drums and never touched a pair of sticks again.”

He must have had many second thoughts on that Ontario farm. Great drummers, top of the line gear, and a heady ferment of day and night-long drumming.

Classes and lessons and practicing went on all day, then dinner. In the evening, one of the artists played drums, frequently inviting other teachers to sit in since they all pretty well knew each other not only by reputation but often through personal experience as well. Several of them played with Dizzy Gillespie at one time.

“It was like a three-ring circus,” Walker said. “Then we did the Master Jam, the one where all the musicians jammed together.”

To capture this inspired uproar, Walker and his cinematographers Kent Nason

Kenwood Dennard

and Nigel Markham, filmed the performances. They also filmed interviews with the artists and sometimes took shots of students as they set up their traps by the lake and entertained the fish.

“We had four cameras. Kent and Nigel shot with big HD cameras. The overhead camera suspended above the drum set-up was static. When we got into shooting three musicians I took a third camera, just one of the little cameras to cover more of the musicians. So there was always a camera on one of the musicians.”

“I didn’t think there would be three playing, just the one drummer. In the end all seven played together.”

The resulting sound is amazing, but the visuals are equal to it. They both put you in the middle of the drum set, so much so, that by the end of the 83-minute doc, your head is buzzing.

Walker chose camera positions to show close-ups of the set-ups. At floor level you can see that Mangini had six pedals for his feet, four more than the usual ones for high-hat and bass drum. We get a mouse-eye view of it all.

“I tell people I was on a non-drug-related high for weeks after that,” Walker said. “ What I liked about the experience for me was I wasnt only connecting to the music but to the personalities –  the dynamic quality – their passion for each other, their camaraderie – their friendship, their openness, their desire to pass on their knowledge to these kids – just such incredible artists.”

Mike Mangini the fastest drum in the West

For Walker there was no need to show any lessons being given or taken. On one level, he said, the film is a masterclass on Life. “The open-ness and love they showed for each other, their way of working hard, it wasn’t just about how to play the drums, but about how to live your life.”

NOTE: Not all photos available at publishing deadline. Will add more when (if) they come in. SP

Susannah, The Elders and The Youngers

The elders peep on Susanna bathing in this 1617 painting by Guercino            Source: PD-Art(Wikipedia)

The story of Susannah and the Elders is a classic tale of unrequited lust turning to something even uglier. American composer Carlisle Floyd based his 1955 opera Susannah on the apocryphal tale found in Catholic bibles, but omitted from Protestand ones.

I took in the August 8 matinee performance of the  Halifax Summer Opera Workshop production of Floyd’s opera,  directed by Nina Scott-Stoddart in the Dunn Theatre on the Dalhousie University campus.

The singers were all young, skilled, and eager to hone their skills in an actual live opera production. The staging was minimal but evocative, it’s simplicity emphasizing the puritanism of the rural community of  New Hope Valley, Tennessee.

The Elders as The Book of Daniel tells the tale, plot the seduction of the beautiful Susanna by hiding in her private garden to watch her bathe.

Inflamed by the sight of her naked body they surprise her and tell her they will accuse her of meeting a young man if she does not consent to lie with them. She refuses and there is a trial, and the Elders condemn her to death from their untouchable height as venerated spiritual leaders. Daniel hears of it, questions them, traps them in a lie and Susannah is saved. The Elders are executed.

Satisfying as that ending is, Carlisle imagined his own out of his outrage with the televised McCarthy hearings of the 1950’s in which just an accusation by McCarthy’s House Unamerican Activities Committee, of having anything at all to do with Communism was enough to destroy the career of an artist, intellectual or Hollywood producer so named.

The Rev Olin Blitch (Jonathon Dick) forgiving Little Bat (Patrick MacDevitt)

In his opera, Susannah Polk (sung by soprano Taylor Strande) is peeped upon by elders of the New Hope Baptist Church as she bathes in an isolated stream they are exploring as a possible site for baptisms.

They persuade the simpleton Little Bat McLean (Daniel Wheeler), who is passionately in love with Susannah, to tell the community that Susannah seduced him. The next Sunday in church, the Rev. Olin Blitch (Jonathon Dick) invites sinners to come forward an be forgiven. Everyone looks at Susannah but she runs out of the church.

Susannah and Sam in happier times.

Blitch follows her to her home in the woods where she lives with her brother Sam, a trapper and a drunk. Sam is away tending his traps, and Blitch who fails to persuade Susannah to confess, rapes or seduces her–the staging is not clear though the program notes state rape unambiguously.

Discovering she is a virgin he is overcome by remorse

Blitch seducing.

and tries to persuade the community to forgive Susannah without, of course, implicating himself. But the fat’s in the fire. Sam hears of the rape when he comes home, grabs his gun and heads out to kill Blitch.

The community is once more outraged. The swarm along to Susannah’s home to confront her, but she has her own gun and makes it clear knows how to use it. They leave in rage and confusion. Only Little Bat remains. Susannah invites him seductively to come close, then slaps his face.

The opera must have served Carlisle as an exorcism: at last, an accused defies the community and stands up for herself. In the McCarthy case, the giant-killer was an army lawyer named Joseph Welch who shamed McCarthy in the public, televised hearings.

Taylor Strande is a talented soprano with a great deal of expressive power in the way she uses her voice. The innocent vocalise she warbles off-stage while the music (played by pianist/music director Tara Scott) ripples along with some water music is one of the operas most enchanting moments.

Her second act aria in her house just befor the Rev Blitch arrives is the expressive hightlight of the show, and powerfully sung. As a dramatic moment it’s only rival is the heartfelt embrace from her brother Sam (Joshua May) after she has been shunned by the congretation.

Bass-baritone Jonathon Dick as Rev Blitch is tall and gaunt with enough warmth in his dark voice to mellow its sharp edges. He is one of the few in the cast whose words are really clear.

The opera is in English so there were no sub or side titles. There is an assumption that anglophones will have no trouble getting English  words. Not so. These are young singers who develop considerable artistic control of their singing voices, but seldom match these acievements with the kind of diction that makes their words entirely intelligible.

Even many of the best professional opera singers sacrifice their consonants to their expressive vowels when the blood is up and the dramatic stakes high. Even then we lose the words.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter so much when the opera plots and librettos are well known. But with a new opera, or one that is seldom performed, it matters.

So why not ease the potential for confusion, for missing the point of a vocal highlight by including titles even when the opera is in English? English TV programs have close-captioning to help the sluggish ears developed as people age. DVD’s most frequently do.

It would certainly enhance the enjoyment of the Halifax Summer Opera Workshop’s adventurous programming. If your goal is to develop audiences for opera where it has never been as popular as it is in Europe, you need to give them a little help.

That said, the production of Susannah is well worth seeing, and the action and staging are clarity itself. With the exception, perhaps, of the off-stage gunshot when Sam kills Blitch. It sounded too much like a cap-pistol the night I went.

Susannah plays this weekend on Aug. 13 with a mostly different cast, and Aug. 14 (same cast I saw). Both performances start at 7:30 p.m. in the Dunn Theatre in the Dalhousie Arts Centre.

Susannah shunned. Sam anguished.

Blue Engineers Jennifer Jones, Anne Simons, Alexandra Bates and Hilary Brown

Apart from their superb playing, we keep coming out to Blue Engine String Quartet concerts because of their interesting programming. They are just about the only professional ensemble around that gives contemporary compositions a second and even a third chance.

Last Tuesday night (Feb. 23) in Pier 21’s Heritage Hall they played for at least the second time, string quartets by Peter Togni, Peter Allen and Steve Tittle, and premiered a new work by Scott Macmillan for poet, marimba and the BESQ.

It is the unhappy fate of most new Canadian music that it vanishes after the premiere without a trace other than a score, one set of parts, perhaps a single radio broadcast, and the printed program archives of the performer(s) who premiered it.

Meanwhile, and I do not seriously object to this, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and Brahms. Chopin and Schumann continue to dominate unending classical music reruns.

Togni’s four-movement quartet, sub-titled Hymns of Heaven and Earth—Hymn of Remembrance, Hymn in Praise of Mary, Hymn of Earth, Hymn of Light) is characterized by modest development of repeated motifs over which solo voices rise in lyrical, often intense musical imagery.

Violinists Jennifer Jones and Anne Simons, cellist Hilary Brown and violist Alexandra Bates subbing for Margot Aldrich, have developed extraordinary confidence which allows them to pace the music and to firmly place the notes which spin the phrases forward, giving what Jane Austen described as “consequence” to musical contours, with a significant gain in clarity.

Steve Tittle’s let it shine all the time was also a second performance. It was first performed by the BESQ ten years ago with the same soloist, vibraphonist D’Arcy P. Gray,

It's all there all the time for vibraphonist D'Arcy P. Gray

who had then to be imported from Montreal, but now is more conveniently imported from Dalhousie University’s Music Department.

Tittle wrote the piece for the fledgling Kronos String Quartet and they premiered it in the early 70s on an iNOVAtions in MUSIC concert in the Cohn with Jimmy Faraday playing the solo.

Tittle’s style wears well. His use of uncommon scales like the Lydian or the Phrygian Mode (familiar to jazz musicians) instead of the more familiar sound of the Dorian and Aeolian Modes (heard in most Anglo-Celtic folk songs), lends a still vivid strangeness to his writing.

His music appears at first to wander about aimlessly, but after awhile the sensation of a lack of direction mysteriously evaporates, and we start listening not for familiar cadences (which is the most confusing habit we bring to contemporary music), but to sound as it happens, the sort of thing usually only arrived at through improvisation.

Part of this impression arises from the role of the vibraphone, which floats freely at times, exploring it’s own path, suggesting outer space as its playground, while the other instruments busy themselves with motor rhythms and a seizing of the vibraphone’s melodies to turn them over in a strong light for examination. Meanwhile, a suddenly emerging dance section captures the attention of all in a typically whimsical and naively charming manner.

Peter Allen’s Quartet, especially in the outer two movements, is astonishingly remindful of the music of Shostakovich. Allen responds to the energy, and to the Russian composer’s neo-classical clarity of melody and line, which avoids the usual musical logic with unexpected and ambiguously placed chromaticisms.

Characteristically a solo melody spins around in the low register

Hilary Brown delivers lyrical power from the anchor position

then begins to mount in an awkward, jumping fashion like that of a mountain goat galloping up a sheer rock-face. Very exciting.

The middle movement is romantic with strong emotional imagery.

Scott Macmillan’s setting of Irvine Carvery’s We Are Africville for string quartet and marimba, featured Carvery himself reading the poem with Gray providing integrated commentary on the marimba over the quartet’s somewhat agitated musical texture.

The first three notes of Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Lady appeared as a motif throughout, along with inversions diminutions and augmentations of fragments of the famous song. Ellington’s second wife, whose family, the Dixon’s, were from Africville though she was born in Boston. But it is not clear that she was the sophisticated lady the handsome Ellington had in mind when writing the song.

(Just in passing, jazz pianist Erroll Garner was evidently unable to resist the charm of these three notes: he used them brilliantly as the opening salvo of his ever-popular Misty.)

Macmillan consistently based his musical imagery on the pictures of children

Scott Macmillan and Irvine Carvery

growing up in Africville that Carvery evoked in the nine short, two-line stanzas (over the ninefold repeated phrase “We are Africville”).

Some of these references were less clear than others in the vigorous, complex contrapuntal texture of the string parts, but a series of jazz phrases broke out in a more standard setting, (for the children twitching to the music in church) with Gray giving the offbeat anticipations and entries a seriously swinging and infectious inflection.

The clarity of Macmillan’s imagery to accompany Carvery’s pictures of children sliding “down Aunt Noggie’s Hill in sleds” feeling the wind in their faces, was also strikingly effective.

What didn’t quite work in the performance was Macmillan’s convention of delaying the imagery of each line in order to underscore the repetitions of We Are Africville, and to set the scene before actually beginning to roll the musical camera on the children playing throughout Carvery’s delightful vignettes. It tended to delay the game.

Carvery himself, alternately grooving to the music with slight motions of his head and tapping out the rhythms with his fingers on the podium, spoke the lines of his poem with ideal clarity and pacing.

Irvine Carvery taps out the rhythms of We Are Africville

All photos and text © Stephen Pedersen

DEATH AND MELODRAMA AT DAL

Gianni Schicchi (Jonathon Kirby) sorts out the plot with Rinnuccio (Jonathan McArthur)

GIANNI SCHICCHI: One act comic opera by Puccini. THE FACE ON THE BARROOM FLO0R: One act melodrama by Henry Mollicone. Both presented in the Dunn Theatre by the Dalhousie Music Department’s Opera Workshop. Both operas directed by Nina Scott Stoddart. Music director and pianist Lynette Wahlstrom.

Photos courtesy Dalhousie Music Department Opera Workshop.

Gianni Schicchi is a rogue who lives by his wits and is sneered at by the upright citizens of Florence in this late (1299) 13th century tale. But when the wealthy mill-owner Buoso Donati dies, he gives his mills, his donkey and his house to the local monastery.

A host of relatives, upright citizens all, descend upon the dear departed like flies to a dead shark. When they discover they have been left out of Donati’s will, they shriek with despair and anger. They send for Schicchi.

He catches them in a trap and alters the will in their favour, except he keeps the mills, the donkey and the house for himself, thereby enabling his daughter Lauretta to marry Rinuccio, nephew of Donati’s cousin. It’s a classic come-uppance story. The upright citizens were left to gnash their teeth.

The gist of this story was more or less clearly presented by the Opera Workshop on Friday night though not without some confusion. With a cast so large (at least 16), it is hard to keep track of everybody, athough the prinipals, Schicchi, Lauretta and Rinnucio were clearly defined.

Besides the size of the cast, their modern dress, and above all their youth and their mixed ability to project the words clearly (even though singing in English), obscured many of the finer points of Puccini’s wit, apart from what he included in the music itself.

But as an ensemble, the cast put on a very good, robustly sung

Rita Wood, Ryan Josey, Maria Murphy and Taylor make a show of sorrow at the death of Buoso Donati.

and enthusiastically exaggerated farce, ably coordinated at the podium by Gregory Servant, with Dean Bradshaw at the piano.

Natacha Fam (Lauretta in the Friday night cast) did a fine job of the well-known aria O mio babbino caro (Oh, my dear papa), and Owen McCausland brought admirable clarity of diction to the busy role of her lover Rinnucio.

Morricone’s The Face on the Barroom Floor is short and melodramatic. The legend of a face of a woman who had been murdered in the western bar (placed in Colorado) and whose face appeared in a portrait on the floor of the bar, becomes a fatal element in a double homicide.

Becca Topp on Friday night sang both the part of Isabelle, a modern day tourist, and Madeleine, whose face appeared on the floor a century ago. Geordie Brown played Isabelle’s companion Larry, and Madeleine’s masher Matt. Iain MacNeil played the bartenders, Tom and John.

The idiom of the opera is modern, Menotti-esque though without Menotti’s gift for melody. All the singers sang very well, and the performance itself had both musical and narrative integrity.

The accompaniment included pianist Lynette Wahlstrom (in a feather boa at a barroom piano) as well as Chris Mitchell on flute and Peter Goddard on cello.

It made a good contrast to Gianni Schicchi. The Face on the Barroom Floor is more theatre exercise perhaps than opera, though it is complete in every way. The cast made excellent use of the spacious stage whose only articles of furniture were a bar and a small café table with two chairs.

Casts alternated for the four performances. Most of Friday’s (Feb. 5) cast will sing the final performance on Sunday (Feb 7). The Thursday opening night cast perform Saturday night (Feb 6). A few, like Geordie Brown, and Jonathon Kirby (the titel role in Gianni Schicchi) sing all four nights.

Rinuccio (Johnathon Kirby) persuades La Ciesca (Maria Murphy)

Matt (JoshWhelan) comes on to Madeleine (Sarah Loveys) in The Face on the Barroom Floor.

Nick and Beth contemplate love near the Fontana d'Amore

WHEN IN ROME: Starring Kristen Bell, Josh Duhamel, Angelica Huston, Danny DeVito, Jon Heder, Will Arnett and Dax Shepard. Written by David Diamond and David Wessman. Directed by Mark Steven Johnson. Running Time: 91 mins. Rating: one star out of four.

For an expensively produced romantic film comedy, When In Rome is remarkably bad. It is contrived and calculated, as most comedies/movies are. But unlike the good ones, the contrivances are embarrassingly obvious.

It’s two locations, Rome and New York are sutiably scenic. Setting a romantic comedy in Rome and including a fountain of love in a vast piazza, summons up memories of Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. But this is no Roman Holiday and not even a Three Coins in the Fountain.

Grant and Hepburn had style. But style is subtle. And you cant be subtle by taking the rock-n-roll approach to casting. There is nothing subtle about hot babes and hunks.

Writers Diamond and Weissman gambled on being able to evoke memories of those award-winning films without invoking comparisons. Older audiences won’t forgive them. Younger audiences won’t get it.

Kristin Bell plays Beth, a young, pretty and knowledgeable curator at New York’s Guggenheim Museum. She’s within days of mounting a big show but still hasn’t received the exhibit’s big centre piece as her boss Celeste (Angelica Huston) warns her when she asks for a day or two off to attend her sister Joan’s (Alexis Dziena) sudden wedding in Rome.

While in Rome, Beth meets the Italian groom’s best man Nick (Josh Duhamel), and predictably, though against her will, she begins to fall for him, and he for her. Beth is leary of marriage. Her father, a faithless husband, once explained his philandering lifestyle by telling her he couldn’t help falling in love. It made her gunshy.

The rest of the plot has to do with misdirection and stake-raising as Beth alternately trust and distrusts Josh. Disillusioned with Josh after a hilarious wedding reception for her sister, Beth climbs into the fountain outside the palazzo full of revellers, and picks up five coins, or rather four coins and a poker chip.

It is, naturally (painfully so), a magic fountain of love with a semi-clad Venus rising from the centre. Each coin she picks up triggers a bolt-of lightning moment for the men who threw the coins in. They immediately fall passionately in love with Beth. And for the rest of the movie they (a painter, a street magician, a model, and a sausage manufacturer) pursue her through the streets of New York.

Whether three of these characters (Jon Heder, Dax Shepard, and Will Arnett) are truly funny I can’t really say. But Danny DeVito, the sausage maker, is.

Josh (Duhamel) pursues Beth as well. He demonstrates a real knack for well-timed prat-falls. As a football player, it seems, he achieved fame by being struck by lightning during a football game.

The twists and the unlikely, even for comedy, means by which the stakes are raised—which, for calculated contrivance without credibility, rivals TV’s 24—barely succeed in concealing their artificiality. The story’s skeleton keeps peeking through the commotion.

When in Rome is a classic illustration of How To Write A Screen Play, which under some such similar title, is the mandatory text book for a course in Screenwriting 101. You don’t even need the formulaic outline beside you to tick off the points.

The people are appealing, the scenery is superb, but the plot—well, the plot, not to put too fine a point on it, the plot sucks.

Nick and Beth stroll up the ramp at the Guggenheim Museum in When In Rome

Correction to Sexy Laundry photos

All photos in this review of Neptune Theatre’s Sexy Laundry were taken by Scott Munn.