The Atelier Lyrique of the Opéra de Montréal has a long tradition of nurturing incredible vocal talent, such talent which quite often develops into successful international careers in opera. It is, essentially, a young artists program for the most hard-working young singers in the region. Although tonight’s double billing of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Old Maid and the Thief and Amahl and the Night Visitors wasn’t technically a mainstage production for L’Opéra de Montréal, it certainly deserved equal respect.

Florie Valiquette & Rachèle Tremblay in The Old Man and the Thief © Yves Renaud
Florie Valiquette & Rachèle Tremblay in The Old Man and the Thief
© Yves Renaud

Staged in the petit but beautiful Salle Ludger-Duvernay, the two operas were to be united by a common theme by director Martine Beaulne: the first opera became a live radio broadcast replete with sound engineers, sound effects and an announcer, while the second opera was presented as a made-for-TV opera. Both of these scenarios are actually historically accurate: this production rather cleverly endeavored to reenact the première performances in their original idioms.

The first opera this evening, The Old Maid and the Thief, is the story of a wanderer who finds refuge in the home of a wealthy woman and her maid, both of whom fall desperately in love with him right away. When they learn that a thief is loose in their town who matches his description, they believe that it must be this wanderer, but out of hopeless lust they go to great lengths to protect him, including committing radically illegal acts themselves.

Everything about this production was right on. Beaulne’s conception of a radio show compensated completely for the general lack of props and minimal set arrangements, and kept the pace lively and tight. The singing was equally admirable, all around. Most impressive this evening was soprano Florie Valiquette who played the Maid. She has a bright, youthful voice which seems to effortlessly cartwheel up and down her range, and into the highest registers with ease. She is also quite comfortable onstage in an acting capacity. Baritone Cairan Ryan’s voice has blossomed of late into an exceptionally confident and expressive instrument. His portrayal of Bob, the would-be thief, was at times uproarious and at times embodied an air of Schubertian wanderlust - we would hear more of Ryan before the evening was through. Rachèle Tremblay played a very convincing Miss Todd and Karine Boucher, the rubbernecking friend Miss Pinkerton, also performed exceptionally.

The music for the first opera was wholly American-inspired. Jaunty, rhythmic and witty, one could easily hear influences of Kurt Weil and George Gershwin. One could also forget that there was indeed no orchestra present but only a piano – pianist Jennifer Szeto deserves a great deal of praise for her spot-on performance this evening. She played the part of conductor and orchestra, knew the score and text inside and out, and what’s more, treated the music orchestrally with rock-solid rhythm and a great variety of color.

Amahl and the Night Visitors also featured some fine singing and clever staging. All the voices were superb; one would be hard pressed to highlight a superior voice since the quality was so evenly dispersed. Frédérique Drolet sang a wonderfully convincing Amahl, both pitifully cute and inspiringly courageous, and Emma Char as his stern mother was both touching and firm, with a confident instrument at her disposal. The two sopranos’ voices went marvelously well together, which was most clear in their duets.

This opera is the story of the famous three biblical kings who brought gifts to the infant Jesus, only in Menotti’s story they stopped in the home of a poor widow and her crippled son, who would inspire them all with hospitality and selflessness.

The three kings were dressed grandiloquently in bright solid colors, reminiscent of futuristic Teletubbies – this juxtaposed with a positively Grapes of Wrath-inspired costume design for the rest of the cast. The voices of the kings blended quite well, particularly the low voices of Jeremy Bowes (Balthazar) and Cairan Ryan (Melchoir). Tenor Jean-Michel Richer (Kaspar), however, fit right in himself – he may sing in the rage of a tenor but he has the rich, deep tone of a full baritone.

When all the elements of tonight’s performance are summed up: the intimate performance venue, Jennifer Szeto’s indefatigable accompaniment, the keen collaboration of stage director Martine Beaulne and the rest of the creative staff and the continuously top-notch singing – it isn’t any wonder that Canada keeps producing some of the world’s most prodigious young opera talent as of late. L’Opéra de Montréal will have to work hard if they don’t want to be one-upped in their next mainstage production!