November 3, 2017
By Tony Carter, Showbill.ca Staff Writer
Rattenbury is an operatic dramatization of Francis Rattenbury’s life, with music and libretto by Tobin Stokes. It’s also somewhat bizarre as an opera, which tempers its success.
For anyone unfamiliar with the man behind the title, Francis Rattenbury is the British-born architect who was responsible for designing a number of noteworthy buildings in British Columbia, including but not limited to the British Columbia Parliament Buildings and The Empress. The latter years of Rattenbury’s life were marred by scandal when he took a lover (Alma), divorced his wife, married Alma, and moved to England to escape the social repercussions that ruined his professional career. After their continued financial troubles caused their relationship to deteriorate, Alma began her own affair with her young chauffeur. The show ends with Rattenbury having his head bludgeoned in by a hammer, but the person responsible is left ambiguous.
This might read like a typical summary of the story, but that is almost the exact level of detail in the show itself. Events feel rushed to the point where it’s hard to care about any of the characters. We stay in one time and place just long enough for each person to do something nasty, and the end result is that everyone comes off as genuinely unlikeable. We are told that the only person on the pier when Rattenbury and Alma are sailing off to England is his son from his previous marriage, which would have a lot of emotional impact if we knew anything at all about his relationship with his son prior to this point. It isn’t even certain how old he is.
Which is all a shame, because the performers are very talented. In moments when any one of them is given the stage the show really works as an opera. But any time that more than one person is on stage, when the singing becomes dialogue, it doesn’t really make sense why this is not a play instead. A lot of the dialogue would be snappy and darkly humorous if it was spoken, but the fact that it is sung makes the pacing just a bit off. This, added to the relatively small venue, creates the feeling that this story wanted to be told differently.
This does create an oddly “Canadian” affect. The modest set does an effective job of reflecting the time, the 1920s to 1930s, and that dissonance between the projected scale of the show versus the actual scale of the show kind of does work. A lot of Can Lit does have that feel of being British without the production budget.
That all only became apparent upon closer inspection, though. And that is mainly because the orchestra did such a stunning job. Despite being small, only four strings and a piano, they gave the whole story an incredibly rich texture and body. The composition was easily the shows strongest and most consistent point. One scene in Act 3 also deserves special recognition, when Rattenbury is in a sort of limbo between life and death and all four actors come on stage. Their singing then has a wonderful layered effect that is a piece of musical genius.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
Rattenbury doesn’t work in all the ways that it wants to. But the parts that do work, work really well. And even the components that don’t still have some creative value. It is not difficult to see what another adaptation could do with the same material. It just feels like this adaptation was not sure exactly what it wanted to do with the material in the first place.