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Review: Oksana G. never loses its heart amidst troubling subject matter

Natalya Gennadi, who plays the titular character in Oksana G, admits the strain of playing the role has affected her during rehearsal.

Heather Kilner

Title
Oksana G.
Company
Tapestry Opera
Conductor
Jordan de Souza
Music
Aaron Gervais
Director
Tom Diamond
Stars
Natalya Gennadi, Keith Klassen, Adam Fisher, Krisztina Szabo
Venue
Imperial Oil Opera Theatre
City
Toronto
Runs Until
Tuesday, May 30, 2017

It is a tribute to the artistry of the performers of Oksana G., the new opera from Toronto's Tapestry Opera, that the vividness and explicit action of the opera never overwhelms the heart of the piece, never turns our attention away from the human stories portrayed in this affecting production. Because, after all, Oksana G. is about human trafficking and the international sex trade, and has scenes that are full of violence and degradaton and disgust. And sometimes the sheer brute portrayal of these scenes can have the opposite effect than the one intended and dehumanize us in the audience as well as the characters on stage, deadening the emotional content being portrayed.

And I say Oksana G. is about human trafficking, but actually it's not. It's about the competing powers of love and hate in the world, and what happens to us all when we are caught between the two, can't turn our back on either – victims, in effect, of both. Because counterpointed against Act 1's garish horror of Oksana G.'s descent into the international slave sex trade is a second act, set in a refuge in Italy, that opens up the question of the possibilities of faith, love and forgiveness, and which redeems the high-octane emotional ride of the beginning with a more reflective, lyrical strain. Unfortunately for the characters in the opera, that lyrical interlude does not last, and the opera ends operatically, in death and tragedy.

What keeps Oksana G. from veering into the melodramatic is both the skill of its librettist and composer, Colleen Murphy and Aaron Gervais respectively, and, even more importantly, the subtlety of the performers on stage. Natalya Gennadi puts in a fine performance as the title character, who begins as a young naive girl, hardening as the evening progresses but never ossifying, her heart retaining some pliability throughout. Gennadi's lyric soprano was a pleasure to listen to, and she tried, mainly successfully, to modulate her performance as the story progressed.

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I was especially taken with Adam Fisher as Father Alexander, the Canadian priest who runs the Italian refuge, who first supports Oksana with his faith and kindness, eventually with his love. Fisher had the advantage of singing most of his lines in English (the Russian and Ukrainian characters sing in those languages, making surtitles a troublesome necessity for most of the evening), but he also effortlessly provided the warmth that balanced the coldness of Oksana's servitude. And that coldness was personified in the figure of Keith Klassen's Konstantin, Oksana's abductor, jailer, pimp, would-be lover and obsessive, whose explosive energy beats at the troubled, evil heart of the work.

Klassen did a great job with Konstantin, but the contradictory nature of the character itself, who veers from love to hate, tenderness to destruction in the flick of an eyelash, was a tricky mix, sometimes escaping Klassen's tenacious grip. Both Krisztina Szabo and Alexander Hajek added a fine reflected agony to the proceedings as Oksana's parents, while Jacqueline Woodley and Andrea Ludwig, especially, provided strong support as Oksana's partners in degraded servitude.

Murphy's libretto had many fine, warm touches, especially in the Italy-set Act 2, and Gervais's score was extremely well-made. It was very atmospheric, with his stripped-down 15-person orchestra providing just the right colour and accompaniment to Murphy's words – often reinforcing them, just as often setting them off with a sonic counterpoint. Jordan de Souza led the orchestra with an extremely fine-tuned sense of colour and balance, keeping the music strictly controlled, but lyrical nonetheless.

Human trafficking may be the generating idea of Oksana G., but, as I left the Imperial Oil Opera Theatre on Wednesday, I realized that the power of the work does not really lie in the vivid and dramatic portrayal of that modern scourge, medieval in its barbarism and cruelty, but in the examination, as with all great art, of the complex and infinitely fascinating chambers of the human heart. It is a tribute to this ambitious work that it never lets the opulence of its drama overwhelm the power – modest but real – of emotion and caring in its fractured and trying world. It's what makes Oksana, in the end, a hero, not a victim.

Oksana G. runs May 24 through May 30 at the Imperial Oil Opera Theatre in Toronto (tapestryopera.com).

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