SHELTER by Juliet Palmer and Julie Salverson (Tapestry/Edmonton Opera). At Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley). Runs to June 15. $55-$75. 416-368-3110. See listing. Rating: NNN
With its focus on creating new Canadian works, Tapestry is a rarity on the opera scene.
Its latest, Shelter, cleverly blends a little-known story about the birth of the atomic bomb and the tale of a family who wants an ordinary but good life.
Librettist Julie Salverson and composer Juliet Palmer, who first began working on the show through Tapestry more than a decade ago, have provided a clever spin on the narrative, which gives a human face to the science of atom-splitting.
We first meet German-Jewish physicist Lise Meitner (Andrew Ludwig), who flees her homeland for America. Despite the love she brings to her work in the field of nuclear fission, she refuses to become associated with the Manhattan Project and its plan to devise a bomb.
In Salverson's fancifully plotted libretto, Lise brings together Thomas (Andrew Love) and Claire (Christine Duncan), who quickly fall in love and have a rather strange baby, Hope (Teiya Kasahara).
How strange? She glows, and her protective parents keep her hidden at home and hire Lise to be her tutor. With her suggestive name, Hope is the promise of what nuclear energy can do. A war is on, though, and the arrival of a pilot with a mission (Keith Klassen) changes the lives of this simple family.
Partnering with Edmonton Opera, which premiered the work in 2012, Tapestry offers a committed production, directed by Keith Turnbull, which begins with Lise explaining her passion for the beauty of nuclear fission and her metaphoric overseeing of the match between Claire and Thomas.
There's some nice comedy in the early scenes, but the show comes to emotional life with the appearance of Kasahara, a bouncing baby who quickly morphs into a spiky-haired rock star. The tenderness between Hope and Lise, captured movingly by the two actors, is one of the show's strengths. There's also a powerful connection between the pilot and the increasingly prescient Hope, who develops a sense of her destiny despite the worries of her protective parents and tutor; Kasahara and Klassen's work enriches the bond between the fated couple.
Palmer's score, conducted by music director Leslie Dala, draws on lullaby, German lieder, rock and big-band influences, which provide a sense of period for the action and also trigger a subtle blend of emotions.
Sue LePage's set of tiny, cut-out suburban houses and the central couple's ultimately incendiary dwelling, lit by Robert Thomson, is also effective. The circular video projections by Playground Studios (Ben Chaisson and Beth Kates) is another plus, providing a visual sense of the magic and awe surrounding the science that will change the characters' lives and the world in general.
I wish, though, that the text had been easier to understand, a problem not with the excellent singers but the overlap of words and music. Surtitles would have helped.