In previous years April has been the month in the year with the single highest concentration of opera presentations. This year that is not the case. The change may be because Easter falls between April 3 and April 5 pushing some presentations into March and delaying others. Or it may simply be that opera companies have tried to spread their offerings out more evenly over March through May. Even so, the Canadian Opera Company, Opera Atelier and Toronto Operetta Theatre all have productions this month, with TOT offering a rare revival and Opera Atelier a 19th-century revision of an 18th-century masterpiece.

2007-Opera-Barber.jpgCOC’s Barber: The first opera to arrive will be the COC’s new production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville playing 13 performances from April 17 through May 22. This is a co-production with Houston Grand Opera, Opéra National de Bordeaux and Opera Australia directed by the group known as by its Catalan name of Els Comediants. If the name of the group sounds vaguely familiar it is because the group was responsible for the staging of Rossini’s La Cenerentola in 2012, a production most people remember for its inclusion of stylized mice as onlookers. This will be the 11th time the COC has presented Barber, the last time in 2008 directed by Michael Patrick Albano. The production by Els Comediants debuted in Houston in October 2011, later to be seen in Bordeaux in September 2012.

The opera is based on the first of three plays by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-99) featuring the barber Figaro as a central character. An eternal confusion for operagoers is that the most famous setting of Beaumarchais’ second Figaro play, Le Mariage de Figaro (1784), was set first by Mozart in 1786, while the most famous version of the first play in the series, Le Barbier de Séville (1775) was set second by Rossini in 1816. (The third Figaro play, La Mère coupable (1797) did not become an opera until Darius Milhaud set it in 1966 and John Corigliano used it as subplot in his The Ghosts of Versailles in 1991.)

Based in Barcelona, Els Comediants, made up of director Joan Font, set and costume designer Joan Guillén and lighting designer Albert Faura, have created a Cubist-inspired set, painted in Day-Glo colours, that plays with scale and proportion. Xevi Dorca, who worked with Els Comediants on La Cenerentola, also choreographs Barber. On the podium will be Scotsman Rory Macdonald, last seen here as the conductor of Carmen in 2010

Singing the title role is Canadian Joshua Hopkins, chosen by Opera News as one of 25 artists poised to become a major force in the next decade. For most performances, American tenor Alek Shrader is the young Count Almaviva, with Romanian tenor Bogdan Mihai taking over on May 9, 19 and 21. Almaviva’s beloved Rosina is sung in most performances by Italian soprano Serena Malfi with American Cecelia Hall taking over on May 7, 9, 19, 21 and 22. Bartolo, Rosina’s jealous guardian is sung by Renato Girolami for most performances with Russian bass Nikolay Didenko taking over on May 9, 19 and 21. Don Basilio, Rosina’s music teacher in league with Bartolo, is sung for most performances by Canadian Robert Gleadow with Turkish bass Burak Bilgili taking over May 9, 19 and 21.

May 15 will be the date of the Ensemble Studio performance of the opera with tickets priced at only $25 and $55.

2007-Opera-Attelier.jpgAtelier’s Orfeo: The second major production of the month is Opera Atelier’s second ever foray into 19th-century opera after its highly successful production of Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz (1821) in 2012. This is the version by Hector Berlioz (1803-69) of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo et Euridice (1762). Gluck himself wrote two versions of Orfeo. The original of 1762 was written to an Italian libretto and was the first of Gluck’s operas that proposed to simplify the opera seria, then in vogue, by stripping away the complexities of music and plot that had gradually accrued to it. Gluck’s goals were a return to clarity of music and of storytelling. Twelve years later, in 1774, Gluck revised the opera to a French libretto, now called Orphée et Eurydice, to suit the tastes of the French public. This involved changing the role of Orphée from a castrato in the Italian version to a high male tenor, or haute-contre, in the French version. It also necessitated expanding the ballet sequences.

Because of Opera Atelier, Toronto audiences have had the privilege of seeing both versions: the Italian version in 1997 and the French version in 2007. Now OA will put Torontonians in a very special class by giving us the Berlioz version of 1859. When the Paris Opera considered reviving Orphée et Eurydice in 1859 it was noted that the role of Orphée was too high for an haute-contre. What had happened, as period instrument enthusiasts will know, is that concert pitch had gradually risen over the previous 75 years.The reason for this “pitch inflation” was the rise of independent orchestral music (as opposed to accompanying orchestral music) where instrumentalists felt that a higher pitch gave works a more brilliant sound. 

When Giacomo Meyerbeer suggested that French contralto Pauline Viardot (1821-1910), a composer in her own right, should sing Orphée, Berlioz agreed to revise the score with Viardot’s voice in mind. He was France’s greatest expert in Gluck, whose works he had championed since 1825. In 1856 he wrote: “There are two supreme gods in the art of music: Beethoven and Gluck.” In his revision Berlioz used the key scheme of the Italian version but most of the music of the French version, returning to the Italian version only when he thought it superior in terms of music or drama. This new version proved to be a major success and became the principal version played in opera houses until the advent of the early music revival of the 1970s.

Although Berlioz’s Orphée is based on 18th-century music, his 1859 revision marks the furthest into the 19th century that Tafelmusik or Opera Atelier have travelled. The production will star Canadian mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel as Orphée and feature OA favourite Peggy Kriha Dye as Eurydice and Meghan Lindsay as Amour. David Fallis will conduct and Marshall Pynkoski direct. The opera plays April 9, 11, 12, 14, 17 and 18.

TOT’s Earnest: The third major production of the month is the revival by Toronto Operetta Theatre of Earnest, the Importance of Being by Victor Davies to a libretto by Eugene Benson. The operetta was a TOT commission and first performed in February 2008. Now TOT gives the work that rarity among new Canadian operas – a second production. Davies is perhaps most famous for his popular Mennonite Piano Concerto (1975) and his oratorio Revelation (1996). His best known opera is Transit of Venus (2007) based on the play by Maureen Hunter.  He is currently writing an opera The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, based on the play by George Ryga of the same name.

Benson, among his prodigious scholarly and creative work, has written, among others, the librettos to Héloise and Abélard (1973) by Charles Wilson, commissioned by the Canadian Opera Company to mark its 25th anniversary, and to The Summoning of Everyman (1973) revived by Toronto’s Opera in Concert in 2004. 2012 saw the premiere of The Auction: A Folk Opera, for which he wrote the libretto set to music by John Burge. Benson, who believes, as does operetta expert Richard Traubner, that the differences between various types of music theatre are overstated, sees no difficulty in writing an “operetta” for the 21st century. As he says, “After all, Shakespeare’s plays have inspired successful works in all genres. Why not Wilde’s?”

The work’s premiere received very positive notices. Writing in the Globe and Mail, Ken Winters called the piece “..first rate… It left its audience … both startled and delighted. ... It is good entertainment of considerable charm … quite a lively, exhilarating affair.” You can listen to excerpts of the operetta in the opera section of Davies’ own website victordavies.com.  

Renowned mezzo Jean Stilwell heads the cast as the indomitable Lady Bracknell. Michelle Garlough will sing her daughter Gwendolen, Cameron McPhail will be Jack Worthing, Thomas Macleay will be Algernon Moncreif and Charlotte Knight will be Cecily. Other cast members include Gregory Finney as Reverend Chasuble, Roz McArthur as Miss Prism and Sean Curran as Lane. Davies has written a new scene especially for Stilwell in a score filled with lively tangos, marches, waltzes and ballads. Larry Beckwith conducts and Guillermo Silva-Marin directs. Earnest, The Importance of Being runs April 29 and May 1, 2 and 3.

Small company diversity: Productions from smaller companies lend diversity to the month. On April 16 and 18 Opera Belcanto of York performs Puccini’s La Bohème at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts. Stanislas Vitort is Rodolfo and Gayané Mangassarian is Mimi. David Varjabed conducts the OBC Orchestra and Chorus and Edward Franko directs.

On April 18, Opera by Request presents Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites (1957) in concert at the College St. United Church. Caroline Dery sings Blanche de la Force, Maude Paradis the Prioress and Lindsay McIntyre Sister Constance. William Shookhoff is the music director and pianist.

From April 24 to 26, Metro Youth Opera presents Berlioz’ Béatrice et Bénédict (1862) at Daniels Spectrum. Simone McIntosh and Asitha Tennekoon play the warring couple while Lindsay McIntyre and Janaka Welihinda sing their friends Héro and Claudio. Natasha Fransblow is the music director and Alison Wong the stage director.

This April may not be quite as superabundant in opera as Aprils past, but even with these six varied operas on offer Torontonians are spoiled for choice.

Christopher Hoile is a Toronto-based writer on opera and theatre. He can be contacted at opera@thewholenote.com.

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2006-On_Opera_1-Leslie_Ann_Bradley.jpgOn March 29, Voicebox: Opera in Concert will give Torontonians a chance to hear Louise (1900), the most famous opera by Gustave Charpentier (1860-1956). A staple of opera houses around the world for about 50 years, it is an example of the French version of verismo that we encounter more often in Jules Massenet’s Manon (1884) and Werther (1892). The opera, with a libretto by the composer, is a portrait of working-class life in Paris with its focus on the title character, a seamstress in love with her neighbour Julien, a young artist. Charpentier portrays Louise’s life with her family as stifling and her father’s possessiveness as bordering on pathological. When Louise’s parents oppose her marriage to Julien, she runs away with him, and Charpentier also makes clear that Julien may offer Louise love but no material comforts. When Louise’s father becomes unwell, her mother blackmails her into returning home. Once he regains his health, her father’s old opposition to Julien revives and Louise flees again, never to return.

The opera was revolutionary for its time in portraying with equal pessimism the grimness of family life and the naiveté of Bohemian life. The opera’s most famous aria, “Depuis le jour,” is now best known through recitals rather than performances. Two issues have blocked the opera’s continued success. First, it is similar to Puccini’s La Bohème (1895), even though Louise is a healthy Mimi and has parents. Second, the opera features 35 named roles versus only 10 in La Bohème. The opera has had important revivals in London (1981) and in Paris (2008) but the work is still seldom seen. In fact, the only other scheduled performance of Louise this year is in July at the Buxton Festival in England, where it will also be performed in concert, albeit with orchestra instead of piano.

Louise is therefore a rarity and Voicebox is providing it with a starry cast. Soprano Leslie Ann Bradley sings the title role, mezzo Michèle Bodganowicz is the Mother and baritone Dion Mazerolle is the Father. At press time, the tenor playing Julien was still to be announced, so stay tuned!  Peter Tiefenbach is conductor and pianist and Guillermo Silva-Marin the artistic advisor. The work will be performed in French with English surtitles.  

2006-On_Opera_2-Joel_Ivany.jpgFully staged: For a fully staged student production with full orchestra, one need look no further than Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène (1864) at the Royal Conservatory of Music’s Glenn Gould School of Opera. Performances are on March 18 and 20 at Koerner Hall with Uri Mayer conducting. Of particular interest to those who have been following the alternative opera scene in Toronto will be the fact that Joel Ivany, artistic director of Against the Grain Theatre, will be directing. Ivany and Against theGrain have gained a following for their inventive stagings of opera in unconventional locations – La Bohème in a pub, for example, or Pelléas et Mélisande outdoors in a courtyard.

In La Belle Hélène, Offenbach’s satiric portrait of ancient Greece and Helen of Troy, we should expect more of Ivany’s inventiveness. Via email he told me that the production would take the operetta’s setting, time of composition and period of performance into account: “What we’re attempting to do is to bring our 21st-century sensibilities to this classical operetta (which was originally called an opera buffa) by mixing elements of today into the traditional context of the piece. What people will see is a show set in antiquity, written in the 19th century, with a 21st-century dialogue (written by Michael Albano) and staging.”

When asked what he hopes the student performers will learn from his direction, Ivany says: “I hope that these students will take away a greater sense of speaking text. Half of the operetta is spoken dialogue. For opera singers  this is great training, as often you don’t get the opportunity to act spoken text. I also hope that students will be able to take away a sense of developing a character and having that influence choice, intention and interaction. Through this project I also hope that the students will take away a sense of their body through movement; how the body interacts with singing on stage and how they aren’t separate but in fact, work together. They’re fortunate to work with choreographer and dancer Jennifer Nichols who is taking them through dance warm-ups and is choreographing set numbers for these singers to dance in.”

2006-On_Opera_3-Nicole_Lizee.jpgTapestry’s Tables Turned: For something completely different, Tapestry Opera is presenting Tap:Ex Tables Turned on March 20 and 21. Tap:Ex (Tapestry Explorations) is Tapestry Opera’s annual experimental production that looks to define the future of opera. This year’s installment, Tables Turned, is a boundary-breaking multimedia concert where opera meets a DJ and turntables. Soprano Carla Huhtanen, well known from her performances with Tapestry and with Opera Atelier, joins with pioneering composer Nicole Lizée in reconfigured iconic moments from film and opera.

Remixed clips from Alfred Hitchcock films, The Sound of Music and video recordings of Maria Callas will be projected alongside the performers, whose turntables and vocals compete and fuse in a live duet. According to Tapestry, “Tap:Ex, now in its second year, is committed to evolution through innovation, exploring modes where the traditional genre of opera can assume a living, current form.”

Christopher Hoile is a Toronto-based writer on opera and theatre. He can be contacted at opera@thewholenote.com.

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2005_-_Beat_-_On_Opera_-_Luca_Pisaroni.pngOn January 14 Canadian Opera Company General Director Alexander Neef unveiled the COC’s 2015/16 season including the first mainstage world premiere of a Canadian opera since 1999 and plans for other productions of Canadian operas in the future. Unlike the present season, the COC’s 65th season includes two evenings of works the company has never before presented and is a mixture of opera rarities and masterpieces.

The 2015/16 season will open with a new production of Verdi’s La Traviata, replacing the generally disliked production by Dmitri Bertman that played in 1999 and 2007. The new COC production is a coproduction with Lyric Opera of Chicago and Houston Grand Opera directed by Arin Arbus and was well received at its Chicago premiere in 2013. Russian Ekaterina Siurina and Canadian Joyce El-Khoury alternate in the role of Violetta. American Charles Castronovo and Canadian tenor Andrew Haji alternate as Violetta’s lover Alfredo. And American Quinn Kelsey and Canadian James Westman alternate as Alfredo’s father Germont. Italian conductor Marco Guidarini leads the COC Orchestra and Chorus for 11 performances from October 8 to November 6, 2015.

In repertory with Traviata is the world premiere of Pyramus and Thisbe, written in 2010 by Canadian Barbara Monk Feldman. For those who may wonder, Monk Feldman is the widow of renowned American composer Morton Feldman (1926-87), was formerly his student and married him shortly before his death. The story, as students of Shakespeare will know, is the subject of the play the Mechanicals present to the court at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595). Though the subject is serious, Shakespeare’s amateur troupe performs it so badly it is the comic highpoint of the play. As a tragedy of misunderstandings, Pyramus and Thisbe also served as the model for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet written in the same year as Dream.

To complement Monk Feldman’s one-act opera are two works by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) from the very beginnings of opera. The Lamento d’Arianna (1608) is the only fragment of music that survives from Monteverdi’s second opera Arianna about Ariadne’s abandonment by Theseus on the island of Naxos, later the subject of Richard Strauss’s Adriadne auf Naxos (1916). The second work is Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (1624), which is not really an opera at all but a section of Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme Liberata (1581) set to music. Toronto last saw it in a production by Toronto Masque Theatre in 2008. The major role is that of the Narrator who describes the encounter during the Crusades of the Christian knight Tancredi with his beloved Clorinda, who, unbeknownst to him, has disguised herself as an enemy Saracen knight.

Krisztina Szabó, who sings Erwartung later this season, will sing Monteverdi’s Arianna and Clorinda and Monk Feldman’s Thisbe. Phillip Addis returns as Pyramus and Owen McCausland is Testo in Il combattimento. Some COC regulars will be unhappy to learn that Christopher Alden, who gave us such unlovely productions as the Nazi Fledermaus in 2012 and the ruthless Clemenza di Tito in 2013, has been hired to direct. Johannes Debus, however, will conduct the seven performances from October 20 to November 7.

The winter season pairs Wagner’s Siegfried (in François Girard’s now familiar production) with Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in a production formerly owned by the Salzburg Festival. American soprano Christine Goerke, who will be making her role debut as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre this season, will return in that role in Siegfried. German tenor Stefan Vinke sings the title character. Austrian Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke sings the wily dwarf Mime, who raises Siegfried, and Alan Held sings the head Nordic god Wotan, here known only as The Wanderer. Johannes Debus conducts the seven performances from January 23 to February 14. 

The Marriage of Figaro is directed by acclaimed German director Claus Guth in a production popular at the Salzburg Festival since it first premiered in 2006. The cast includes Austrian bass-baritone Josef Wagner as Figaro, Canadian Jane Archibald as Susanna, Canadian Erin Wall as the Countess, Russell Braun, who sings the title role in Don Giovanni this season, as the Count and American Emily Fons as Cherubino. Johannes Debus leads the opera through 11 performances from February 4 to 27.

For its spring season of 2016, the COC revives its Carmen seen last only in 2010, this time directed by Toronto’s own Joel Ivany, artistic director of Against the Grain Theatre which recently presented its own inventive version of Don Giovanni as #UncleJohn last year. Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili and French mezzo Clémentine Margaine alternate in the title role. American tenor Russell Thomas and Canadian David Pomeroy alternate as Don José. Canadian sopranos Simone Osborne and Karine Boucher alternate as Micaëla. And Americans Christian Van Horn and Zachary Nelson alternate as the toreador Escamillo. Italian conductor Paolo Carignani leads the COC Orchestra and Chorus in 13 performances from April 12 to May 15.

Closing the 15/16 season is the COC premiere of Rossini’s rarely performed grand bel canto opera Maometto II (1820), featuring star Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni in his COC debut. The libretto is based on the historical Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II (1432-81), who set out to conquer the Holy Roman Empire. The production from Santa Fe Opera’s successful 2012 revival is directed by Christopher Alden’s identical twin brother David, who gave us Rigoletto in a men’s club in 2011. Joining Pisaroni are American mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as the Venetian noble Calbo, American soprano Leah Crocetto as Maometto’s forbidden love Anna and American Bruce Sledge as the Venetian governor Erisso. Baroque and classical specialist Harry Bicket conducts the seven performances from April 29 to May 14.  

It’s odd that Neef would rehire both Alden brothers after the loud disapproval their work has received here over the past several years (especially in light of a decline of 4924 subscription tickets from 2013 to 2014). Nevertheless, there is very good news in Neef’s reaffirmation of the COC’s commitment to new Canadian operas. Donna, previously  commissioned from composer John Rolfe and librettist Anna Chatterton, will have a workshop production at Banff this summer.  Hadrian, commissioned from pop composer Rufus Wainwright and playwright Daniel MacIvor, is moving ahead – a first draft of the libretto is at hand. New this year is the announcement of a commission of The Girl King, by Ana Soloković, composer of such hits for the much-missed Queen of Puddings as The Midnight Court in 2005 and Svadba – Wedding in 2011. The libretto will be by Quebecois playwright Michel Marc Bouchard based on his play of the same name about Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-89) that played last year at the Stratford Festival. And also in the works is a revival of Louis Riel (1967) by Harry Somers to star Russell Braun.

2005_-_Beat_-_On_Opera_-_Whisper_Opera_2.pngSoundstreams: It’s important when Canada’s largest producer of opera commits to producing so many new operas over the coming years. Yet, we should not forget that many of Toronto’s smaller companies have always had a commitment to producing new work. One such is Soundstreams. From February 26 to March 1 Soundstreams hosts the Canadian premiere of the whisper opera (2013) by Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer David Lang. Lang’s libretto is compiled from search-engine responses to such prompts as “When I think of you, I think of …” to explore the tension between our private and online selves. Soprano Tony Arnold and New York’s International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) have already received acclaim for the piece at Lincoln Center and at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

The opera is so quiet and so delicate that it can be experienced by only 52 people at a time. For this reason Soundstreams will present it at The Theatre Centre at 1115 Queen Street West, in a configuration never before used there. In order to maximize the closeness of the audience to the performers the playing area consists of four squares around a central hub, with the audience, seated in twos, forming the dividing lines between the squares.

In the midst of an overabundance of recorded music, Lang is composing various works that can only be heard live. As he has written, “With the whisper opera I had another of these ideas – what if a piece were so quiet and so intimate and so personal to the performers that you needed to be right next to them or you would hear almost nothing? A piece like this would have to be experienced live. In honour of this, the score to the whisper opera states clearly that it can never be recorded, or filmed, or amplified. The only way this piece can be received is if you are there, listening very very closely.” Listening very closely is, of course, something we all should do at any performance, but at the whisper opera, Lang makes this a virtue one hopes we carry over into other experiences of music.

Christopher Hoile is a Toronto-based writer on opera and theatre. He can be contacted at opera@thewholenote.com.

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Opera 31The two largest-scale opera productions for the period from December 1 to February 7 are those of the Canadian Opera Company’s winter season. Taken together they provide an example of the two models that the COC is currently following: partnering and production.

From January 24 to February 21, the company presents Mozart’s Don Giovanni, a co-production with Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Bolshoi Theatre and Teatro Real Madrid. This production is an example of what the COC calls partnering: the company contributes money toward the production, but there is little or no COC input in the design or direction.  So, much depends upon choosing one’s partners wisely.

Don Giovanni had its premiere at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in 2010, directed by acclaimed Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov. The most controversial aspect of the production is that Tcherniakov has replaced Da Ponte’s original scenario with his own. He reimagines Mozart’s characters as the neurotic members of one present-day bourgeois family. Zerlina is now Donna Anna’s daughter from her first marriage, while Leporello is “a young relative of the Commendatore’s, living in his house.” Don Giovanni is presented as unhappily married to Donna Elvira. In the new plot Don Giovanni does not destroy himself, rather, his relatives combine to destroy him. The production has been around long enough that it is already available on DVD and in excerpts on YouTube for anyone who wishes to see whether Tcherniakov’s concept works or not.

For the COC, Russell Braun sings Don Giovanni, Kyle Ketelsen is Leporello, Jennifer Holloway is Donna Elvira, Jane Archibald is Donna Anna and Michael Schade is Don Ottavio. Michael Hofstetter conducts.

In terms of COC original productions, from January 31 to February 22 it presents Die Walküre, a production designed and directed by Canadians and owned solely by the COC. This COC production of Wagner’s Die Walküre had its premiere in 2004 and was revived in 2006 as the second opera of Wagner’s complete Ring Cycle. This will be the first time it has been revived on its own. Atom Egoyan directs, Michael Levine is the designer and Johannes Debus conducts.

Of particular note is that renowned German soprano Christine Goerke will be making her role debut in Toronto as Brünnhilde. Clifton Forbis, who sang Siegmund in this production in 2004 and 2006, returns to sing the role again. Sieglinde, Siegmund’s sister and lover will be sung by Heidi Melton; Wotan is Johan Reuter; Hunding, Sieglinde’s brutal husband is Dimitry Ivashchenko; and Fricka, Wotan’s implacable goddess-wife is Janina Baechle.

Crunching the numbers: At the end of October this year the COC held its Annual General Meeting covering the 2013/14 fiscal year and reported “an impressive average attendance of 94 percent (an increase of 4 percent over last season),” a figure that was duly disseminated in the media. By comparison in 2012/13 the COC had 90 percent attendance.

Digging deeper into the numbers is interesting though: in 2012/13 the company presented  61 performances totalling 114,133 tickets sold. In 2013/14 it had 94 percent attendance for 58 performances totalling 111,421 tickets sold. Thus the percentage “increase” of 4 percent at each show had as its corollary a 2.4 percent decline in overall attendance.Worrying is that the number of tickets sold has now declined for the fifth year in a row. Average attendance of 94 percent per show is indeed impressive, but not if the only way to achieve those numbers is by decreasing the number of productions, and the number of performances of those productions.

Opera 32Other diversions: The COC winter season only begins at the end of January, but there are many operatic diversions in December. The starriest of these is a concert production with orchestra of Gioacchino Rossini’s last, and, many would say, greatest opera, Guillaume Tell (1829). It is based on Friedrich Schiller’s play Wilhelm Tell (1804) about Switzerland’s struggle for independence from the Habsburg Empire in the 14th century. The most famous episode is when the Habsburg tyrant Gessler demands proof of Tell’s skill as a marksman by having him shoot an apple off the head of Tell’s own son. Musically, the opera is best known for its overture, which despite the fame accruing to it from its use in The Lone Ranger and in countless cartoons, in fact provides a précis of the entire action of the opera.

The single performance on December 5 is part of a North American tour of the Teatro Regio Torino with its full orchestra and chorus. The opera-in-concert will be presented in its Italian version (from 1833) with English surtitles and will be conducted by the company’s famed music director Gianandrea Noseda. Featured among the all-Italian cast are baritone Luca Salsi as Guglielmo Tell, mezzo-soprano Anna Maria Chiuri as his wife Edwige, soprano Marina Bucciarelli as his son Jemmy and bass Gabriele Sagona as the villainous Austrian governor Gessler. The running time is approximately four hours.

Next in December is another reimagining of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, this time as #UncleJohn by Toronto’s small but feisty Against the Grain Theatre which produced a highly successful Pelléas et Mélisande outdoors earlier this year. Director Joel Ivany’s notion is to change the period to the present and to set the entire action at the reception for the marriage of Zerlina and Masetto. There is no stage. Instead, the singers mingle with and sing from the audience as invited members of the reception. Ivany has translated and updated Da Ponte’s libretto so that Leporello’s famous catalogue aria now counts up Uncle John’s social network followers. Ivany’s version was developed in conjunction with the COC at Banff and had its highly praised premiere there in August 2014.

Cameron McPhail sings Uncle John, Neil Craighead is Leporello, Miriam Khalil is Donna Elvira, Betty Waynne Allison is Donna Anna and Sean Clark is Don Ottavio. The design is by Patrick Du Wors and the accompaniment is by a piano quintet with conductor Miloš Repický at the piano. #UncleJohn plays at The Black Box Theatre, December 11, 13, 15, 17 and 19.

December and January also hold offerings for those seeking music theatre written before Mozart or after Rossini. Toronto Operetta Theatre presents Gilbert and Sullivan’s ever-popular The Mikado December 27, 28 and 31, 2014, and January 2, 3 and 4, 2015. The production features Joseph Angelo, Lucia Cesaroni, Adrian Kramer, David Ludwig and Giles Tomkins. Derek Bate conducts and Guillermo Silva-Marin directs.

From January 15 to 17 Toronto Masque Theatre presents a new production of Handel’s Acis and Galatea (1718) at the Enoch Turner Schoolhouse. Lawrence Wiliford sings Acis, Teri Dunn is Galatea, Peter McGillivray is Polyphemus and Graham Thomson is Damon. Larry Beckwith conducts a seven-member period instrument band from the violin. Daniel Taylor’s Schola Cantorum will be the chorus.

Meanwhile Opera by Request is busy with Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel (1893) on December 7, Moreno Torroba’s zarzuela Luisa Fernanda (1932) on December 10, the Canadian premiere of Danish composer August Enna’s The Princess and the Pea (1900) on January 11 and Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail on January 24. All performances are in concert at the College Street United Church with William Shookhoff as pianist and music director.

 Finally, on February 1, Voicebox: Opera in Concert presents Kurt Weill’s Street Scene (1946) with Jennifer Taverner and Colin Ainsworth. Robert Cooper is the conductor and pianist.

Christopher Hoile is a Toronto-based writer on opera and theatre. He can be contacted at opera@thewholenote.com.

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On November 1, after the COC’s new production of Verdi’s Falstaff and Opera Atelier’s new production of Handel’s Alcina both finish their runs, Toronto’s smaller opera companies take centre stage to explore rarities and brand new works.

beat - opera 1La Gran Vía: Operas from the seldom-heard Spanish repertoire bookend the month. On November 2, Toronto Operetta Theatre presents the Canadian premiere of La Gran Vía (1886) by Federico Chueca (1846-1908) and Joaquín Valverde (1846-1910). La Gran Vía will be the latest zarzuela, or Spanish version of operetta, that the TOT will have introduced to Canadian audiences. Unlike the previous zarzuelas, however, La Gran Vía is not realistic and romantic but surrealistic and satiric. The subject concerns the plan to build La Gran Vía in Madrid – a wide, modern boulevard like those Haussmann built in Paris between 1853 and 1870. Like Haussmann’s boulevards, La Gran Vía would entail the destruction of many old streets and neighbourhoods.

The zarzuela begins, in fact, with a collection of these threatened streets and plazas, personified and gathered to complain about the new boulevard. Two allegorical characters enter, El Paseante (the stroller) and the Caballero de Gracia (the graceful gentleman) to explain how the boulevard is unlikely to be built for a long time due to lack of funding and municipal infighting. (How right they are since the real Gran Vía was not begun until 1904 and completed in 1929!) Further allegorical figures include Prosperidad, Pacífico, Injurias, Petroleum and Gas. After many satirical swipes at contemporary scandals in Madrid (continually updated in performance), the piece concludes with the unveiling of the completed boulevard and a salute to the Madrid of the future. The zarzuela was a huge success in Madrid and eventually went on to further success in Paris, Vienna and Prague. Indeed, the work’s satire of city planning and the destruction of old neighbourhoods is something that any large city, including Toronto, should be able to appreciate. The show features Margie Bernal, Fabian Arciniegas, Pablo Benitez and Diego Catala with José Hernández as pianist and music director.

Voicebox: On November 30 Voicebox: Opera in Concert presents La Vida Breve (1913) by Manuel de Falla (1876-1946). La Vida Breve was Falla’s first opera, his previous works for the stage all having been zarzuelas. The libretto written in Andalusian dialect concerns the gypsy Salud who is in love with the wealthy man Paco. He has led her on, not telling her he is already engaged to be married to a woman of his own class. Salud’s uncle and grandmother know Paco’s secret and try to dissuade Salud from interrupting Paco’s wedding. But all is in vain and tragedy results. French composer Claude Debussy directly influenced Falla in transforming the work first written as a number opera into one with a more continuous orchestral flow.

Performers include Isabel Bayrakdarian, Ernesto Ramírez and Guillermo Silva-Marin. José Herández is the pianist and music director and Robert Cooper is the director of the Voicebox Chorus.

beat - opera 2Tapestry Opera: In between these two Spanish-centred evenings, Tapestry Opera launches its 35th season by providing a glimpse into the future of opera with TapestryBriefs: Booster Shots running November 13 to 16. The Booster Shots consist of ten new short operas performed in and around the Distillery Historic District. Each night begins in the Ernest Balmer Studio, Tapestry’s studio and bar, with subsequent scenes taking place in other Distillery spaces – from freight elevators and brick-lined halls, to intimate corners and public galleries.

The ten operas will be performed by various combinations of only four singers. Newcomer, soprano Catherine Affleck, a recent graduate of Yale University School of Music, joins familiar Tapestry performers baritone Alex Dobson, tenor Keith Klassen and mezzo soprano Krisztina Szabó.

The Booster Shots have been created by an illustrious group of playwrights and composers. The group includes: Governor General Award-winning playwrights Nicolas Billon and Morris Panych; Siminovitch Prize-nominated writer Hannah Moscovitch; Dora Mavor Moore Award-winning playwright Donna-Michelle St. Bernard; Governor General Award-nominated playwright David Yee; composer Ivan Barbotin; Dean Burry, who has composed works for the Canadian Opera Company and the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus; Jules Léger Prize-winning composers James Rolfe and Nicole Lizée; Benton Roark, co-recipient of the Tournon Branley Prize for collaborative work in architecture and music; and SOCAN award-winner and co-artistic director of the Toy Piano Composers, Christopher Thornborrow.

The ten operas are:

 1984: The Folded Paper  by Christopher Thornborrow to a libretto by Nicolas Billon that stages an episode from George Orwell’s famous novel.

Bessie by Christopher Thornborrow and Morris Panych about a jazz singer who struggles with her boyfriend just before she is to go on stage.

Blind Woman by James Rolfe and David Yee about a dancer who has lost her vision.

Brooks Bush Gang by Benton Roark and Hannah Moscovitch, which focusses on a real woman-run 1860s gang responsible for ahigh-profile murder in Toronto.

Damnation by Ivan Barbotin and Morris Panych about a man condemned to hell who tries to devise a way to get out.

Fetishistby Ivan Barbotin and David Yee concerning an Asian woman who undergoes surgery to look more Caucasian.

Memes by Dean Burry and Nicolas Billon about a hipster couple on a first date who find they have almost nothing in common.

Oublietteby Ivan Barbotin and Donna-Michelle St. Bernard dealing with a young woman who has escaped imprisonment in a suburban basement and tries to regain a lost sense of self.

The Overcoatby James Rolfe and Morris Panych that stages a scene between two tailors from Nikolai Gogol’s short story of the same name.

R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Nicole Lizée and Nicolas Billon, an adaptation of a scene from Karel Čapek’s 1921 play that gave us the word “robot.”

The ten Booster Shots are directed by Tapestry artistic director Michael Hidetoshi Mori and designed by Yulia Shtern. Piano accompaniment will be provided by Christopher Foley and Jennifer Tung.

beat - opera 3Postcard and Pinafore: In addition to Tapestry’s 21st-century works, both of Toronto’s opera schools are producing fully-staged operas this month. On November 21 and 22 the Glenn Gould School of Music presents Postcard from Morocco, an opera from 1971 by American composer Dominick Argento. The libretto concerns seven characters waiting at a train station who are glad to sing about what they do but who do not wish to discuss the contents of their luggage. Though the passengers seem to be under the control of a mysterious puppetmaster, one of them struggles to break free. The work is an existentialist parable about how people define themselves; to reflect this Argento draws on an eclectic range of musical styles, ranging from cabaret to Wagner to operetta, to suit each character. Peter Tiefenbach conducts and Brent Krysa directs.

The following week the Opera Division of University of Toronto Faculty of Music stages the Gilbert and Sullivan chestnut H.M.S. Pinafore (1878) from November 27 to 30. It’s hard to believe but the last time the Opera Division staged a G&S operetta was Patience in 1990. Sandra Horst, Chorus Master for the COC, will conduct and Michael Patrick Albano will direct.

It should also be noted that Opera by Request performs three operas in concert this November – Mozart’s Don Giovanni on November 19, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly on November 21 and Handel’s Giulio Cesare on November 29. William Shookhoff is the pianist and music director for all three.

Christopher Hoile is a Toronto-based writer on opera and theatre. He can be contacted at opera@thewholenote.com.

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