Hello! Hello! Almost nearly two pandemic-silenced years since its last fully staged production in November 2019, Manitoba Opera dialed up its return to live performance Friday night on a ring and a prayer, featuring two intimate chamber operas inspired by the humble telephone.

Hello! Hello! Almost nearly two pandemic-silenced years since its last fully staged production in November 2019, Manitoba Opera dialed up its return to live performance Friday night on a ring and a prayer, featuring two intimate chamber operas inspired by the humble telephone.

The now 49-year old company is inching its way back into a business-as-usual season, presenting two successive weekend performances in lieu of its typical three-show run held over a week. Seeing familiar faces, albeit masked, in the mostly older generation, physically-distanced audience at the Centennial Concert Hall felt both familiar and surreal as if these last 20 pandemic months simply didn’t happen — when it’s so clear they did.

The 105-minute (including intermission) program’s pillar proved to be Poulenc’s tragédie lyrique La Voix Humaine, (The Human Voice) composed in 1958 and based on French writer Jean Cocteau’s monodrama of the same name. It chronicles the emotional unraveling of the simply monikered character "Elle" during her final phone call to her five-year lover on the eve of his wedding to another.

However the gripping opera also quickly became a showcase for incomparable Canadian singing-actress Lara Ciekiewicz, who also performed the title role in MO’s November 2019 production of Carlisle Floyd’s "Susannah," thus becoming an operatic through-line between the world we once knew, and one we still continue to grapple with.

The Winnipeg-based soprano’s flawless performance, including laser-sharp diction of the French text, spot-on intonation, and an innate ability to plumb the depths of her being to craft wholly believable, achingly human characters is, as expected, as potent as ever, despite a vacuum of live performance opportunities since March 2020 that has challenged even the most resolute.

The singer also had her work cut out for her in a role debut. Carrying an entire, 40-minute opera completely solo, while projecting over an unusual, onstage Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra artfully led by Naomi Woo is no mean feat. Ciekiewicz navigated the prismatic emotional shifts of her character’s narrative arc with finesse, filling the stage effectively lit by strategically scattered tungsten lamps conjuring theatre’s ghost lights while pacing her overall performance with thoughtful, clear intention.

Several moments particularly resonated, such as Elle’s crumpling to the ground after hearing her unseen/unheard lover tell her by telephone he is to wed tomorrow, achieving the Holy Grail of stagecraft — making audiences care. Ciekiewicz also successfully walked the tightrope of instilling empathy for her increasingly-despairing character’s suicidal ideation without resorting to maudlin melodrama.

There were a few shocks, as well that infused her performance with a darker undertow and subtext, further heightened by her 50s-style satiny white costume evoking a bridal gown, party dress, or burial shroud. Suddenly ripping off Elle’s dark wig as she sings of "lies" fascinated — and you could finally see her entire face — with this peeling away of her protective carapace suggesting an entirely new backstory with its own raw, emotional layers.

However, we needed to see more of these moments, and Jacqueline Loewen’s (MO debut) keenly sensitive direction could have gone even farther, including ramping up Elle’s sensuality and even eroticism; particularly as she anthropomorphized her phone to become her lover during the opera’s final moments.

One of the opera’s most terrifying scenes comes when Elle wraps the phone cord around her neck — a mid-20th century Ophelian moment, if there ever were one — symbolizing an emotional umbilical cord to her nameless lover. However, her later tearing the cord from the unit at the end, a presumed act of self-empowerment and liberation from her callous lover did not fully read, with the show’s harrowing climax feeling overly safe.

We need to be gripped, sitting on the edge of our seats, and not merely wondering what happened, and this true opera star is more than capable to really go for it; chilling us to the bone or utterly breaking our hearts as she has done many times before, with Ciekiewicz nonetheless receiving a well-deserved standing ovation for her compelling portrayal.

The double bill also featured Menotti’s opera buffa The Telephone sung in English and performed by Winnipeg soprano Lida Szkwarek as Lucy, appearing opposite Toronto- based baritone Johnathon Kirby’s Ben. What a pleasure to finally hear these singers finally tread these boards together, both originally cast in MO’s fateful, COVID-19 canceled production of Bizet’s Carmen in March 2020.

Loewen transported the roughly 20-minute opera that premiered in 1947, equally at home on a Broadway stage, and typically paired with Menotti's longer, supernatural companion opera The Medium, to 21st century times, as Lucy prattles and gossips not on a traditional corded phone as Ben attempts to propose to her, but on her mobile, ringtone-happy, selfie-snapping smartphone. This clever directorial choice instilled greater relevance and resonance while speaking to contemporary life lived through ubiquitous cellphones and digital screens.

Szkwarek delivered a confident, assured portrayal of her denim-clad character, who's innocent and clued out about her aspiring fiancé’s growing exasperation en route to catching his train. Her nimble vocals were immediately apparent, while she easily handled Menotti's quicksilver stylistic shifts, projecting effectively throughout and especially during her effortless colouratura sections adding further texture to the rarely-heard orchestral score.

Her final romantic duet with Kirby, as they seal their deal with a kiss — capped by a "love you!" mirroring Elle’s heartbreaking admission to her lover at the end of "La Voix Humaine," proved a highlight, as did her "Hello! Oh, Margaret, It's You" opening aria.

Kirby's booming baritone provided comic fodder throughout, first entering the stage on a bicycle and literally setting the scene for a picnic with a swath of Astroturf becoming his blanket. Once again, his stage business, mugging and reacting to Lucy’s conversation with her stream of callers could have been pushed further, to create a larger-life characterization a la commedia dell'arte street theatre.

Last but not least, while it often boils down to a matter of taste, viewers (at least this one) have been craving "theatricality" — a precious commodity rarely sighted during these past 20 months — and the opera’s overall pedestrian sensibility, including the characters garbed in jeans and sneakers, while making this au courante for 2021, arguably created a certain blandness. The singers’ faces also at times fell into shadows that could have been fixed easily with brighter stage lighting.

However, none of this takes anything away from the undeniably enthralling experience of seeing opera performed live in this city again. Manitoba Opera is to be commended not only for weathering the storms during these unparalleled times but now firmly easing its way back to full production next spring with all lines open.

Holly.harris@shaw.ca

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