Review: ROCKING HORSE WINNER

by Lynn on November 9, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Streetcar Crowsnest, Toronto, Ont. A Tapestry Opera Production in association with Crow’s Theatre. Runs until Nov. 12, 2023.

www.crowstheatre.com

Composer, Gareth Williams

Librettist, Anna Chatterton

Director, Michael Hidetoshi Mori

Music director, Kamna Gupta

Costumes by Ming Wong

Lighting by Echo Zhou

Set by Jawon Kang

Cast: Lucia Cesaroni

Alex Hetherington

Keith Klassen

Midori Marsh

Peter McGillivray

Asitha Tennekoon

Korin Thomas-Smith

Anika Venkatesh

Background info. The opera Rocking Horse Winner is based on the short story “The Rocking Horse Winner” by D.H. Lawrence. In transitioning from the short story to the opera, the “The” in the title of the short story was dropped for the opera. I don’t know why. One of life’s mysteries.  

Tapestry Opera first produced Rocking Horse Winner in 2016, winning a 2017 Dora Mavor Moore Award for Best Production and Best Direction among others, in the Opera Division. Tapestry Opera and Crow’s Theatre have collaborated to remount the production.

The Story. From the Tapestry Opera website: “This is the story of Ava and her son Paul. Their house and an old rocking horse whisper words only Paul can hear. When the voice of the house grows more urgent in whispering, “There must be more money,” Paul enlists his lucky rocking horse to tell him the names of live horse race winners. He begins betting with great success, but each win comes at an enormous cost.”

The phrase: “The love of money is the root of all evil” is certainly true in Ava’s case. She feels that it’s better to be lucky than rich because one can be rich but lose the money. If one is lucky one has money constantly. Eva laments that her husband had no luck and for Eva there was never enough money to keep her in the style to which she wanted to be accustomed. It is now only her and her son Paul in the house.

Paul is a fragile minded man-child. He lives at home and is mindful of his unhappy, unsmiling mother. He wants to make her happy. He wants to be lucky. He discovers a secret way to do it. He finds that if he rides his over-sized wood rocking horse frantically to a frenzy the name of the winning horse in a future local horse-race will come to him. The theory is tested when his uncle Oscar and Bassett the family servant take Paul to the races. They bet on the horse Paul picks and win for the most part.

His mother is happy, for a time.

The Production. NOTE: Because this is in part an Opera, I’m not commenting on the singing or the music. Not my vocabulary. I will comment on the theatricality of the production.

Jawon Kang has done a terrific job designing a set that gives the sense of size and former grandeur. The house is two storied. There is a winding staircase to the second floor stage left. The sense of light pours in from large windows. On the first floor Eva (Lucia Cesaroni) drinks sherry and when Paul (Asitha Tennekoon) starts making money on his betting, she changes to champagne. There is a grand piano. The more luck Paul has with his winning the louder “The House” whispers “There must be more money.” A chorus of four singers, usually in shadow, represent “The House.”  Eva’s need to feed her extravagant life-style, regardless of there being money or not, is the reason the house is haunted with those whispers, and why Paul is obsessed in winning.

Michael Hidetoshi Mori directs with clarity, economy and passion. The frenzy in which Paul rides the horse is unmistakably sexual—you can’t have work based on a D. H. Lawrence short story and not mention the sex. As soon as Paul reaches his climax of frenzy and finds the name of the next winner he is spent, exhausted. All this pressure to find the winner; the frenzied riding; and the toll on his body makes Paul weaker and weaker with dire consequences.

Librettist Anna Chatterton realizes the elegance, subtlety and subtext in D. H. Lawrence’s short story, and creates a story as gripping.

Rocking Horse Winner is a terrific piece of theatre, pulsing with energy, passion, ecstasy and the desperation for love. All Paul wants/needs is to make his distant mother happy and because of her failings it becomes his as well. Emotion packed.

A Tapestry Opera Production in Association with Crow’s Theatre presents:

Runs until Nov. 12, 2023.

Running time: 60 minutes (no intermission)

www.crowstheatre.com

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