It used to be that come June Ontarians had to leave the province to seek opera performances elsewhere. That’s not the case this summer which is surprisingly filled with opera, especially with new ones.

Opera_1.pngThe season begins with a brand new opera festival – the Toronto Festival of Children’s Opera – running May 29 to June 12. The festival includes lectures and symposia and performances of four operas. There is the Adventures of the Magic Tree Fort created by the After School Opera Program; the world premiere of Dean Burry’s latest work, The Sword in the Schoolyard by VIVA! Youth Singers of Toronto; a version of Hansel and Gretel by Shoestring Opera and a remount of Dean Burry’s successful 2004 opera, The Hobbit, presented by the Canadian Children’s Opera Company June 9 to 12 with Giles Tomkins as both Gandalf and Smaug.

The same month Opera 5 concludes its 2015/16 season with an immersive performance of Die Fledermaus (1874) by Johann Strauss, Jr. The operetta is set in the midst of a party going on at 918 Bathurst Street with card playing and alcohol available. Michael Barrett sings Eisenstein, Rachel Krehm is Rosalinde, Julie Ludwig is Adele and Keith Lam is Falke. Patrick Hansen conducts an 11-member ensemble and a 13-member chorus and Aria Umezawa is the stage director. The party featuring dancers and surprise cabaret acts is set for June 8 to 11.

Also in June are three performances by Opera by Request, the company where the singers choose the repertory. First up on June 10 is the rarity La Wally (1892) by Alfredo Catalani. The opera is best known for the aria “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana,” made popular as the stolen recording in the 1981 movie Diva. Sarah Hood sings Wally (a nickname for Walburga), Paul Williamson sings Hagenbach whom Wally loves and Michael Robert-Broder sings Gellner who also loves Wally. One reason the opera is seldom produced is that it ends in an avalanche, but that will be no problem for Opera by Request since the work is presented in concert.

Also on OBR’s schedule is Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress (1951), an opera not seen in Toronto since 1985. Will Ford sings the role of the aptly named Tom Rakewell, Sharon Tikiryan sings Tom’s betrothed, Anne Trulove, and Michael York sings Nick Shadow, the Devil in disguise who leads Tom astray. The single performance takes place June 17.

OBR’s final offering on June 25 is Verdi’s Aida (1871). Carrie Gray will sing the title role, Paul Williamson will sing Aida’s beloved Radames and Ramona Carmelly will sing the jealous Amneris. For all three operas in concert, the tireless William Shookhoff will provide the piano accompaniment.

June 26 will see the first production of the mysterious Confidential Opera Project. In a unique arrangement, COP co-creators Marion Abbott and Gregory Finney choose and cast an opera and distribute the scores to the cast with the proviso that they keep the opera a secret. With no rehearsals, the cast and music director meet for the first time on the night of the performance and start the opera. The audience shows up without knowing what opera they’re going to see. The challenge for the performers is to create an ensemble on their feet in front of an audience. In his COP blog, Finney revealed this much: “Our first show, like all the ones we have planned after, is a beloved part of the Opera canon and let me tell you this: each and every one will leave you thrilled, awed and amazed!”

Farther afield the Westben Arts Festival in Campbellford is presenting the world premiere of The Pencil Salesman with both music and libretto by Brian Finley. The fully staged opera concerns Boris Ball, the patriarch of a family of inventors. While he lives in his glory days when he invented the Personal Touch Typewriter, it takes a pencil salesman to bring him into the present to get to know his own granddaughter. Among the eight-member cast, John Fanning plays Boris, Donna Bennett his wife Rose and Alexander Dobson the Pencil Salesman. Daniel Warren conducts a chamber orchestra; stage direction is by Michael Mori, artistic director of Tapestry Opera. The opera runs June 25, 26 and July 1, 2 and 3. There are also a series of workshops and vocal intensives connected with the opera.

Moving on to July, opera returns to Toronto Summer Music in the form of The Rape of Lucretia (1946) by Benjamin Britten on July 22. This, the first of Britten’s chamber operas, is based on a French play by André Obey, which gave the librettist Ronald Duncan the idea of having the story narrated by a Male and a Female Chorus who interpret the action from a Christian point of view. Set in Rome circa 500 BC the opera focuses on Lucretia, wife of Junius Brutus, who, after being raped by Tarquinius, chooses suicide rather than a life of dishonour.

The production, co-produced by Against the Grain Theatre and the Canadian Opera Company at the Winter Garden Theatre, features Emma Char as Lucretia, Iain MacNeil as Tarquinius, Owen McCausland as the Male Chorus and Chelsea Rus as the Female Chorus. Topher Mokrzewski conducts a 13-member ensemble and Anna Theodosakis directs.

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The end of July and beginning of August is the time of the productions of the Summer Opera Lyric Theatre, founded and directed by Guillermo Silva-Marin and this year celebrating its 30th anniversary. SOLT presents fully staged operas with piano accompaniment at the intimate Robert Gill Theatre at the University of Toronto. On July 30 and August 2, 4 and 7, it presents The Tales of Hoffmann (1881) by Jacques Offenbach. On July 30 and August 3 and 5, it presents Handel’s Giulio Cesare (1724).

On July 29 and 31 and on August 6, as part of its anniversary celebrations, SOLT presents its first-ever world premiere, A Tale of Two Cities with music by Victor Davies to a libretto by Eugene Benson. Based on Charles Dickens’ 1859 novel of the same name, the opera concerns Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer, who become enmeshed through their love for Lucie Manette and drawn against their will to Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror.

Davies and Benson informed me that they began the piece as a musical before they became occupied with the operetta Earnest, The Importance of Being that Toronto Operetta Theatre premiered in 2008. They returned to the work and reshaped it as a grand opera with a large-scale scenes at a ball and in the courtroom. As Davies says, “The stuff of opera was always there, with the vocal requirements, high lyricism and large dramatic gesture.” Though the SOLT production will use only piano accompaniment, Davies says that an audience will easily be able to imagine the orchestral sound he intends. Michael Rose is the music director and Guillermo Silva-Marin the stage director.

In August the SummerWorks festival will include the opera Mr. Shi and His Lover by Njo Kong Kie, his fourth opera to appear at the festival. The most recent was the well-received Señorita Mundo in 2009. Mr. Shi and His Lover, commissioned by the Macau Experimental Theatre in 2013, is based on the same real-life story that inspired the play M. Butterfly (1988) about a Chinese opera performer and his French Diplomat lover who believed him to be a woman. Jordan Cheng from Macau and Po Jen Chen from Taiwan sing the two roles. The composer conducts an ensemble of piano, marimba and Chinese percussion and Johnny Tam from Macau will direct. The work running from August 5 to 13 is sung in Mandarin with English surtitles.

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

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Opera_1.jpgOpera this May is about making things new and making new things. Not only will Tapestry Opera stage the world premiere of a Scottish/Canadian collaboration but two other companies will provide new librettos to well-known works.

First up is Against the Grain Theatre’s production of A Little Too Cozy. The production, workshopped at the Banff Centre last year, reimagines Mozart’s 1790 opera Così fan tutte as a television game show. This will complete AtG’s series of “transladaptations” of the three Mozart/Da Ponte operas after Figaro’s Wedding in 2013, with the audience conceived of as wedding guests, and #UncleJohn, staged in 2014 as the wedding reception for Zerlina and Masetto. Like the previous two, AtG artistic director Joel Ivany has provided Mozart’s opera with a new English-language libretto.

Ivany is not the first to write a new libretto for Così fan tutte. The work was unpopular when it first premiered and had only ten performances in Mozart’s lifetime. In 1791, Friedrich Schröder called Da Ponte’s libretto “a miserable thing, that debases all women.” In 1875, critic Eduard Hanslick made the famous statement that “the boundless triviality of the libretto everywhere deals a death blow to Mozart’s lovely music.” Because of this attitude, which many people still hold, there were several unsuccessful attempts to rewrite the libretto. Only after the Glyndebourne Opera revival in 1934 did the work with Da Ponte’s libretto become standard repertoire.

In Ivany’s adaptation, the audience becomes the studio audience for a live taping of the final episode of a reality show called “A Little Too Cozy.” The show asks its contestants, “Can you fall in love with someone you’ve never met?” The opera will be presented in a real TV studio, CBC Toronto’s Studio 42 at 25 John Street. Before the show begins, the final four contestants have already found their match, but as the final test of the show, the women have to meet an additional set of people before they’re finally allowed to be with their fiancés. After that, the women must then decide if they still love their fiancés – whom they have never met in person – since from the start the men and women have been separated by the so-called Wall of Love. As Ivany says, “These four contestants go on the show because they’re tired of this superficial way that relationships are presented now, and they’re looking for something more authentic, more real, more rooted in our being. But then over the course of the show, they get messed around and played with.”

The two female contestants are Felicity (i.e. Fiordiligi) sung by soprano Shantelle Przybylo and Dora (i.e. Dorabella) sung by mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb. The two male contestants are Fernando (i.e. Ferrando) sung by tenor Aaron Sheppard and Elmo (i.e. Guglielmo) sung by baritone Clarence Frazer. Baritone Cairan Ryan plays the host of the show, Donald L. Fonzo (i.e. Don Alfonso), and soprano Caitlin Wood is his lovely assistant Despina. As with AtG’s previous productions conductor Topher Mokrzewski has also arranged the music The opera runs from May 12 to 21.

Opera_2.jpgToronto Masque Theatre: A second opera in May also has a libretto that has impeded its regular performance. This is The Fairy Queen from 1692 by Henry Purcell. As many people will know from recordings, the work contains some of the loveliest theatre music Purcell ever wrote. The problem is that this music what was called a “semi-opera” of the same name, adapted by an anonymous author from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Purcell’s music is concentrated in five masques, related only thematically to the play, each following one of the play’s five acts. The adaptation of the play is generally deemed to be dreadful and to perform it with Purcell’s music would take up to six hours.

Ever since the score was rediscovered in the early 20th century, the question has been how to redeem Purcell’s music from its original context. Various solutions have been adopted: having actors play selected scenes from Shakespeare’s original comedy before the five masques; or having a narrator recount the action of the play, rather than subjecting the audience to it.

Toronto Masque Theatre has come up with a far more ingenious solution – to do away not merely with the play but with the spoken word entirely. Director/choreographer Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière has reconceived the work in such a way that it consists solely of Purcell’s music but will still tell a story. Lacoursière’s starting point is the first lines of the first air: “Come, come, come, let us leave the Town / And in some lonely place, / Where Crowds and Noise were never known / Resolve to spend our days.” Rather than an arcadian scene, Lacoursière imagines nine singers and two dancers as vaguely contemporary people waiting at a train station. The scenario follows the individuals as they seek love, happiness and meaning in life. To tell the new story Lacoursière has had to reorder the musical numbers.

In a telephone interview, TMT artistic director, Larry Beckwith, was reluctant to reveal too many details about the new story so that they will come as a surprise. He did say, though, that the figure of the Drunken Poet sung by Alexander Dobson, would feature prominently. Besides Dobson, the cast includes sopranos Juliet Beckwith, Vania Chan, Charlotte Knight and Janelle Lapalme; alto Simon Honeyman; tenors Cory Knight and Jonathan MacArthur; baritone Graham Robinson and dancers Stéphanie Brochard and Lacoursière herself. Beckwith conducts a seven-member baroque ensemble from the violin. Performances take place at the Arts and Letters Club May 27 to 29.

Tapestry’s Winner: In addition to presenting old operas in new ways, May also brings the world premiere of an opera co-commissioned by Toronto’s Tapestry Opera and Scottish Opera. This is Rocking Horse Winner by Irish-Scottish composer Gareth Williams, with a libretto by Canadian Anna Chatterton.

When asked how this collaboration came about, Chatterton wrote: “Gareth and I met in the 2009 Tapestry Lib Lab (a ten-day “speed dating” program for composers and writers to collaborate together by writing a five-minute opera in 48 hours). We really enjoyed working together and recognized a similar aesthetic and appreciated each other’s artistic style. Gareth also has a great sense of dramatic form, which is fantastic for collaborating on new ideas. We wanted to write something longer together and Gareth suggested adapting D.H. Lawrence’s haunting short story, Rocking Horse Winner.”

Lawrence’s short story was first published in 1926 and was made into a classic British film in 1949. The story focuses on a young boy, Paul, who lives in a family that feels it is dogged by bad luck. The family, however, also lives beyond its means and Paul’s Uncle Oscar and the gardener Bassett seek to increase the family income by betting on horses. Paul is literally haunted by mysterious voices in the house that tell him “There must be more money.” To solve the problem he rides his rocking horse until the name of the winning horse magically comes to him.

Chatterton says that she and Williams changed certain details of the story: “We set the story in the present and made the pivotal character Paul – originally a young boy in Lawrence’s short story – into a young man who is on the autistic spectrum.” Bassett is changed from a gardener to Paul’s health-care worker. Nevertheless, Lawrence’s original themes are still there and still relevant. As Chatterton says, “The story is very much about entitlement and greed, and also about a mother who can’t feel love for her son and all the complexities that come with that disconnect. We feel these themes still speak to today’s society.”

The cast features soprano Carla Huhtanen as Ava, Paul’s mother; tenor Keith Klassen as Paul’s Uncle Oscar; baritone Peter McGillivray as Bassett; and in his professional debut with Tapestry Opera, tenor Asitha Tennekoon as Paul. Tapestry’s artistic director Michael Hidetoshi Mori will direct and Jordan de Souza will conduct. Performances take place May 27 to June 4.

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

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BBB-OnOpera1.jpgWith more companies scheduling operas in March and May, April does not quite overflow with opera performances as it used to. Nevertheless, an astonishing variety of works are on offer from warhorses to rarities and from the eighteenth century to the present.

The month begins with the world premiere of the Canadian opera Isis and Osiris, Gods of Egypt composed by Peter Anthony Togni to a libretto by poet Sharon Singer. The opera, presented by Voicebox: Opera in Concert, concerns the central figures of ancient Egyptian myth.

Via email Singer explained the importance of the myth and the genesis of the opera: “I have been working on this project since before Peter became involved. My fascination with ancient Egypt goes back many decades. The myth of Isis and Osiris is the overarching myth of ancient Egypt since it explains and describes the creation of the world and how evil came into the world and the afterlife. The spine of the myth is the concept of ma’at which is the Egyptian word for law, order, truth and justice.

“The opera, Isis and Osiris, Gods of Egypt is inspired by this strange and compelling myth that centres on one of the world’s great love stories. Four siblings, children of the gods – Isis, Osiris, Seth and Nepthys – come to earth to live as human beings. The idealistic King Osiris and his sister-wife, Queen Isis, bring their people the gifts of civilization: agriculture, weaving, a code of laws, the arts, and worship of the gods. Their brother Seth, however, is jealous of their power, their wisdom and their devotion to each other. He murders Osiris and usurps the throne, provoking a conflagration that Isis with all her strength, love, and magic, must try to extinguish.

“This story cried out to be created as an opera, which had never been done before. It’s a larger-than-life tale filled with sibling rivalry, jealousy, fratricide, brutal murders, magic and resurrection. In spite of this bedrock of a story from prehistory, the opera is very contemporary in the issues that it explores such as the eternal battle between good and evil, the selfish and power-mad Seth, versus the idealistic Osiris, who seeks to create a peaceful kingdom founded on justice, fairness and compassion.”

“I had written the first draft of the libretto for the opera and I was looking for a composer. Peter and I were introduced by a mutual friend, mezzo-soprano Andrea Ludwig, who was enthusiastic about my libretto and recommended it to Peter. When he read it, he emailed me these words, ‘I read the libretto and I love it! Very dramatic, very singable…I would love to make this happen!!!’ Four years later, it is having its world premiere.”

Though the story deals with gods, Singer sees them as very human: “Since Isis and Osiris are incarnated as human beings, they had to have human as well as divine qualities.”

For his part, Togni explained his approach to composing the opera: “I have tried to be true to Sharon Singer’s wonderful libretto. In my musical response I am going for the humanity – a bright and rich sound rather than an approximation of what the music might have sounded like or a tip of the hat to Verdi! Much of music is already influenced by mystical and exotic sounds such as medieval chant and eastern scales. You will find this in my choral music for example – music that is ancient and modern at the same time. I am telling the story in my own harmonic language. I really wanted the opera to dance and as result I use many Arabic rhythms and scales.

“There is a slightly baroque influence mixed with that and the influence of some of the Russian romantic composers. Like a film score, the sound changes from scene to scene and the range is wide, everything from ancient sounding chords to shrieking jagged, blood-on-the-floor orchestral screams! The Egyptians were very forward thinking and I hint at this with my use of the electric organ and harmonies not unlike Pink Floyd and Coldplay. If anything, my music depicts them as a futuristic people.

“I have scored it for a chamber orchestra – two violins, viola, cello, double bass, oboe, clarinet, harpsichord, harp, organ and percussion – lots of percussion! Rather like a baroque band, it has to be tight and crisp sounding.”

Isis and Osiris stars soprano Lucia Cesaroni as Isis, tenor Michael Barrett as Osiris, mezzo Julie Nesrallah as Nepthys and Michael Nyby as Seth. With Robert Cooper conducting the chamber orchestra and the OIC Chorus, the opera runs April 1 and 3.

A Mozart Premiere! Next up is the rarity, Lucio Silla (1772), by the 16-year-old Mozart presented by Opera Atelier, April 7 to 16. This is the opera that director Marshall Pynkoski and choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg staged to great acclaim first at the Mozartwoche Salzburg and the Salzburg Festival in 2013 and later at La Scala in Milan in 2015. Two stars of the La Scala production will sing in Toronto – Kresimir Spicer as the Roman dictator Silla (i.e. Lucius Sulla, 138-78 BC) and Inge Kalna in the trousers role of Cinna. Joining them will be Peggy Kriha Dye in the second trousers role as the senator Cecilio. Mireille Asselin is Celia, Silla’s sister. And Meghan Lindsay is Giunia, Cecilio’s beloved, who is desired by Silla. David Fallis conducts the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra.

The COC's Cuban Carmen: Playing from April 12 to May 15 is Bizet’s Carmen presented by the Canadian Opera Company. Because of the long run there is a double cast. Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili and French mezzo Clémentine Margaine alternate in the title role. American tenor Russell Thomas and Canadian David Pomeroy sing Carmen’s lover Don José. American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn and American baritone Zachary Nelson sing the toreador Escamillo. And Canadians Simone Osbourne and Karine Boucher sing Micaëla. Paolo Carignani conducts.

The COC last presented Carmen in 2010 and premiered the current production designed by Michael Yeargan and François St-Aubin in 2005. The most exciting aspect of this revival is that it will be directed by Joel Ivany, the artistic director for the Toronto alternative opera company Against the Grain Theatre, which has presented such innovative productions as La Bohème staged in a real pub and recently a fully staged and choreographed Messiah.

I spoke with Ivany about what challenges there are in directing a pre-existing physical production where others have made the design choice to move the location to Cuba and the time to the 1940s.

Ivany says, “I’ve had to try and get inside the mind of the original artistic team to see what they were after. Thankfully the COC had all their reference material, including the original sketches, to find out why it was important for them to set Carmen in this time period.

Ivany tells me that he noticed “that some elements of those original sketches weren’t implemented into the production. I had a design person [Camellia Koo] look at it with me to see if we actually could add anything anywhere or change some elements from how this production had been done before.” The result will be that “the first three acts therefore are going to look a little bit different from what Toronto audiences have seen before.”

The area where Ivany can most exercise his creativity is in directing the acting, especially since the company is doing the original version with dialogue instead of recitatives. Ivany says, “For me so much happens in those dialogues. The storytelling is so incredibly crucial.”

Ivany states his goal: “What I’m going for is a good, character-driven spectacle event of what this piece is, within this set and within this company. The best approach is to celebrate what is best about this production and this piece and use its visual strengths and the chorus to the best advantage.”

About the contrast between working with his own company and with the COC, Ivany says, “It’s great to be able to do the big, but also to be doing experimental work with Against the Grain and seeing where that can lead. I think that’s what’s unique and great about Canada, and Toronto as well, and I think there are some good days ahead with leaders who are taking chances on those ideas to make sure that this art form keeps evolving and moving forward. It’s variety that spurs the creativity.”

Silva-Marin’s Zarzuela Love Affair: From April 27 to May 1 Toronto Operetta Theatre presents the Canadian premiere of the 1923 zarzuela Los Gavilanes (The Sparrow Hawks) by Jacinto Guerrero (1895-1951). TOT artistic director Guillermo Silva-Marin introduced the zarzuela, the Spanish version of operetta, to Toronto audiences, starting in 2003, immeasurably broadening the palette of music theatre in Toronto.

The action is set near a Provençal fishing village in 1845. Juan, now aged 50 and known as the “Indian,” has returned to the village after having made his fortune in Peru. He left hoping to make enough money to marry his beloved Adriana, but he finds that in his absence she married, had a daughter, Rosaura, and is now a widow. Because Rosaura so much resembles the Adriana he left behind, Juan vows to marry her, much to the anger of the village and of Rosaura’s boyfriend Gustavo.

Los Gavilanes will be the sixth full zarzuela that Silva-Marin has programmed, but this one has a special meaning for him. As he wrote via email, “Los Gavilanes was the first zarzuela I attended when it was performed in San Juan while I studied at Universidad de Puerto Rico. Actually, it was my first encounter with the lyric theatre during a time when I had little thought that I would someday become a singer.”

Silva-Marin notes that Guerrero’s music may remind TOT fans of another great operetta composer. As he says, “Years later, I found myself thinking about Los Gavilanes in Toronto. By this time I had researched and presented Imre Kálmán’s works Countess Maritza, The Gypsy Princess and Der Zigeunerprimas. On revisiting Los Gavilanes years ago, I was struck by Guerrero’s similarity to Kálmán in sonority, orchestration and predilection for melodic invention, and smiled at recognizing that Madrid and Budapest were not truly too far apart. Being 1923, verismo in operetta was not at all an anomaly. Los Gavilanes cannot avoid a Spanish musical sensitivity, but it is not committed to a folkloric palette, rather a more universal sound evolving from the purely comical and satirical in operetta of previous decades.”

The dialogue will be in English and the songs sung in Spanish. Miriam Khalil will sing Adriana, Sarah Forestieri will be Rosaura and Ernesto Ramirez will be Gustavo. Guillermo Silva-Marin himself will sing the role of Juan. Larry Beckwith conducts the TOT Orchestra and Silva-Marin directs, assisted by Virginia Reh.

BBB-OnOpera2.jpgCOC’s Seventh Rossini: The month closes with the COC’s company premiere of Rossini’s Maometto II from April 29 to May 14. Acclaimed Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni makes his COC debut in the title role in this production created for Santa Fe Opera in 2012, directed by David Alden and conducted by early music expert Harry Bicket. This will be the seventh Rossini opera the COC has staged and only its second Rossini opera seria, after Tancredi in 2005. Many people will know the opera better under the title Le Siège de Corinthe, the name Rossini gave it when he rewrote the work for Paris in 1826.

Loosely based on history, the central character of Maometto II is the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II (1432-81) who conquered Constantinople in 1453 and later, in 1470, the Venetian colony Negroponte on the Greek island of Euboea where the opera is set. In Maometto II, the Venetian debate how to deal with the Turkish threat. Calbo counsels the governor, Paolo Erisso, to continue to fight while General Condulmiero counsels surrender. Yet, as with most opere serie, the focus is more on love than politics. Erisso wishes his daughter Anna to marry Calbo but she confesses that she is in love with a man known to her only as “Uberto.” As one might expect Uberto turns out to be none other than Maometto II.

Joining Pisaroni is tenor Bruce Sledge as Erisso, soprano Leah Crocetto as Anna, mezzo Elizabeth DeShong in the trousers role of Calbo, tenor Andrew Haji as Condulmiero and tenor Aaron Sheppard as the Muslim noble Selimo.

These five operas are only the largest scale works on offer in April, yet one could hardly hope for more varied and unusual fare.

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

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OperaBanner.jpg2106-On_Opera_1.pngAn unusual consensus is emerging in British media large and small, dailies and blogs, around the Scottish Opera and Music Theatre Wales co-produced opera The Devil Inside that premiered in January in Glasgow and that Tapestry Opera is bringing to Toronto this month thanks to the Scottish Government’s International Touring Fund. The Guardian and the Telegraph, The Scotsman and the Financial Times, Opera Britannia and the Boulezian Blog alike are heaping praise on the Stuart MacRae and Louise Welsh adaptation of a Faustian bargain story by R.L. Stevenson, The Bottle Imp, set in present day with a cast of four and a 14-member band. Said bottle central to the plot will grant any wish to its owner, but if it remains in his possession at the time of death, his soul will spend eternity in hell. The bottle changes hands and makes many a wish true, but the fever of greed grows and, with it, complications.

Michael Mori, artistic director of Tapestry Opera, has no doubt the work will resonate equally well with Toronto audiences. “The offer of making it rich, retiring at 30, living the high life without earning a cent–basically the temptations of the pseudo-American dream–are at the heart of this story, and a compelling examination of the fantasies we still hold dear today,” he explains. The adaptation is both loose and very faithful: the librettist Louise Welsh, one of Scotland’s greatest crime novelists, “has a great hand for animating characters that are both classic and clearly defined in the present,” he says.

Mori, a self-avowed fan of short stories with a touch of the supernatural by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and R.L. Stevenson himself, first heard of The Bottle Imp while collaborating on an Edinburgh Fringe Festival pitch with Scottish Opera. “We were working with Scottish Opera to pitch what was to become The Devil Inside, along with our own M’dea Undone, as a double bill for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The arrangement fell through, but the Scottish Opera team of MacRae/Welsh continued working on it independently. In the meantime I read up on the story and really fell in love with its dark magic…a little bit of Faust, and a little bit of Poe. The plot is intensely driven by human dynamics, not only of love but also of the struggle against greed and temptation.”

By all accounts, the director Matthew Richardson managed to create a visually rich production with fairly pared-down means. Michael Rafferty will conduct the 14 instrumentalists of the Scottish Opera Orchestra in the score by a composer Torontonians haven’t had a chance to hear before. Stuart MacRae works in the tradition of European modernism, so don’t expect the familiar, the well-travelled, the tonal or the melodic, but his music blends in with the drama and is genuinely operatic. Mori describes it as “energized and driven, managing to hold a shimmering tension while capturing vocal lyricism in each of his characters.” Nothing will stand out or distract: “During the show, you may not even think about the music. MacRae allows the listener to be completely lost in the story.”

The Devil Inside will be Tapestry Opera’s first time presenting an international company. “I hope to do more of this at Tapestry, and also look forward to bringing our great Canadian artists to Scotland and the world. The boldness and the immediacy of chamber opera provide a powerful incentive to find and create more works of this size.”

The Devil Inside plays at Harbourfront Centre Theatre March 10 and 13.

2106-On_Opera_2.pngOpera Atelier is bringing Mozart’s early work Lucio Silla home to Toronto (April 7 to 16, Elgin Theatre), after notable Salzburg and La Scala runs with one of the best- known period orchestras in the world, Les Musiciens du Louvre, under one of today’s best-known practitioners of HIP (historically informed performance), conductor Marc Minkowski. And with this, some good news: the company has secured a recurring engagement with the Royal Opera of Versailles, which will host an Opera Atelier production every second year. Marshall Pynkoski directs and Jeanette Lajeunesse-Zingg is in charge of choreography, with a new set and costumes by resident OA designer, Gerard Gauci. (The production seen in Salzburg and La Scala was designed by Antoine Fontaine, French designer of baroque opera with a series of notable credits like Ivan Alexandre’s recent Hyppolite et Aricie at the Paris Opera and Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette among many other films.)

International collaborations of this kind can only be good for a company which is rather conservative in its instincts–faithful to its dance-focused “baroque gesture” aesthetics for 30 years now, whether it’s staging Lully or von Weber or anything in between, and faithful to a core group of returning artists (in Toronto, for example, the company’s performances with Tafelmusik are only ever conducted by David Fallis). Baroque operas are being staged around the world in all kinds of ways today, from those in modern clothes (Wieler’s and Morabito’s Alcina, for example) to spare and abstract (Pierre Audi’s Castor et Pollux, Robert Carsen’s Les Boréades) to fantastic reinvention (Laurent Pelly’s Platée, Jonathan Kent’s Hippolyte et Aricie) to, more rarely, those indeed in Antoine Fontaine-like stylized reconstruction aesthetics (Michel Fau, Ivan Alexandre). But Opera Atelier remains true to its 30-year-old blueprint.

And continues to divide baroque lovers in Toronto: there are its core fans and donors who like what it does and come back for exactly the familiar, and then there are those who, like myself, are wishing it would be bolder and stray from where it’s most comfortable – beautiful costumes, muscular dancers, stock gestures. One of the most memorable operas I’ve seen was a Charpentier’s Médée at the Frankfurt Opera set in present day, in a wealthy businessman’s penthouse that hosts Medea’s refugee family. Charpentier and the period band under Andrea Marcon went along just fine with a very modern interpretation by the director David Hermann. Why can’t I see productions like this at home, I wondered then. And I still do.

How much of the OA rulebook will be honoured in Lucio Silla, and whether the production will surprise us, remains to be seen in – there are a few clips from the La Scala performance on YouTube to whet the appetite. Krešimir Spicer (Lucio) and Inga Kalna (Cinna) of the original cast join Mireille Asselin (Celia), Peggy Kriha Dye (Cecillio) and Meghan Lindsay (Giunia). Trouser role lovers, rejoice: there are two in this production, Cecilio and Lucio Cinna. Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra under David Fallis will be in the pit.

Trouser roles: Speaking of gender-bending trouser roles, there will be two more on offer in Handel’s Alcina, the Glenn Gould School Opera’s spring performance at Koerner Hall, March 16 and 18. The romantic lead Ruggiero is a trouser role usually sung by a mezzo, and the small role of the boy Oberto often goes to a young light soprano. The opera also has one en travesti role in Bradamante, who is disguised as a man for most of the proceedings. Although arguably Handel’s best and most popular opera–okay, together with Giulio Cesare and a couple others–Alcina is all too rarely performed in Toronto. The long-time chorus master of Tafelmusik Choir, Ivars Taurins, will conduct the Royal Conservatory Orchestra on modern instruments, while as usual a selection of GGS students is cast in lead roles. Soprano Meghan Jamieson will be Alcina, while coloratura soprano Irina Medvedeva as her sister Morgana gets to sing what is probably the best known aria of the opera, Tornami a vagheggiar. Bradamante and Ruggiero will be interpreted by the mezzos Lillian Brooks and Christina Campsall respectively. The semi-staged Alcina will be directed by Leon Major, the artistic director of The Maryland Opera Studio for the University of Maryland, College Park.

Bunyan: Over at the Toronto’s other opera school, Sandra Horst will conduct the Britten-Auden operetta Paul Bunyan as part of the University of Toronto Faculty of Music Opera Series, March 10 to 13 in the MacMillan Theatre. The cast is large and varies between performances, but some names will already be known to opera-going Torontonians: mezzos Megan Quick and Emily D’Angelo and soprano Danika Lorèn, for example, who have joined the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio this year. The greater pleasure of attending student performances is of course discovering unknown talent, and the complete cast list can be found on the U of T Opera’s Paul Bunyan web page (uoftopera.ca/paul-bunyan). This fully staged production will be directed by Michael Patrick Albano and designed by Lisa Magill and Fred Perruzza.

Quick Picks

2106-On_Opera_3.pngMegan Quick can also be heard in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in the Schoenberg-Riehn arrangement for chamber orchestra on Mar 21 in Walter Hall, with the University of Toronto Faculty of Music Artist Ensemble, and Andrew Haji singing the tenor part. The mezzo will also sing Die Waldtaube from Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder, another piece rarely performed in Toronto.

Collectif Toronto is a new addition to the alternative operatic scene in the city, an ensemble formed by the singers Danika Lorèn, Whitney O’Hearn and Jennifer Krabbe. On Mar 20 at 7:30pm in Haliconian Hall, the three singers and Tom King on piano will perform As a Stranger, a dramatized and adapted but complete Winterreise, Schubert’s sombre song cycle. Concept by Whitney O’Hearn, direction and videography by Danika Lorèn.

Canadian Opera Company’s midday Vocal Series is getting interactive on Mar 15, in a concert of operatic arias and sing-along choruses featuring young artists of the COC Ensemble Studio and Kyra Millan, soprano and opera educator. Love the tenor voice? There’s a COC Vocal Series performance for that. In the “Four Tenors” concert on Mar 29 Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure, Aaron Sheppard, Andrew Haji and Charles Sy join forces in a program of tenor arias and ensembles.

Soprano Teiya Kasahara will collaborate with the drumming ensemble Raging Asian Women Taiko Drummers and percussionist/flutist Heidi Chan on a program titled “Crooked Lines: Stories in Between,” Mar 11 to 13. Kasahara is a 2010 COC Ensemble Studio graduate whose career is expanding to Germany: in May of this year, she returns to Aalto-Musiktheater Essen to resume the role of Fata Morgana in Prokofiev’s Love of Three Oranges.

And a new Canadian work to conclude with: Isis and Osiris: Gods of Egypt (music by Peter Anthony Togni, libretto by Sharon Singer) will premiere in concert at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. Soprano Lucia Cesaroni and tenor Ernesto Ramirez sing the title roles, with mezzo Julie Nesrallah as Nephtis and baritone Michael Nyby as Seth, Stuart Graham as The Grand Vizier, Christopher Wattam as Imhotep and Leigh-Ann Allen as Sennefer. The soloists, the chorus and the 11-piece orchestra will be conducted by Robert Cooper on Apr 1 and 3

Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto. Her new book of fiction–a novella All That Sang–is coming out in April with Véhicule Press.

2105-Opera.jpgOn January 16, Canadian Opera Company General Director Alexander Neef unveiled the COC’s 2016/17 season. Where the 2015/16 season featured the first mainstage world premiere of a Canadian opera since 1999, the 2016/17 season will feature the first professional revival since 1975 of Harry Somers’ Louis Riel (1967), perhaps the best-known Canadian opera ever written. Other good news includes the company premiere of an opera by Handel, star casting in classic roles, greater use of Canadian directors (and a first female Canadian conductor) and the renewal of Johannes Debus’ contract as the COC Music Director.

Bellini and Handel: The 2016/17 season will open with a new production of Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece Norma (1831), last seen here in 2006. The new COC production is co-produced with San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago and Gran Teatre del Liceu of Barcelona and is directed by American Kevin Newbury. Two of the most in-demand sopranos today – American-born Sondra Radvanovsky and South African-born Elza van den Heever – alternate as the Druid high priestess Norma. American Russell Thomas returns to sing Pollione, Norma’s Roman lover. American mezzo-soprano, Isabel Leonard, returns to the COC in her role debut as Adalgisa, Pollione’s new lover. And Russian bass Dimitry Ivashchenko, last heard here as Hunding in Die Walküre, is Oroveso, Norma’s father. Bel canto specialist Stephen Lord, who conducted Norma here in 1998, will take the podium. Norma has eight performances from October 6 to November 5, 2016.

Running in repertory with Norma will be the company premiere of Handel’s Ariodante (1735), one of several operas by Handel based on Ludovico Ariosto’s Renaissance epic Orlando Furioso (1532). This will be the sixth opera by Handel the COC has staged and the third since 2012. After falling into obscurity in the 19th century, Ariodante was revived in the 1970s and is now regarded as one of Handel’s greatest operas. The COC production is co-produced with Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam and Lyric Opera of Chicago, and is directed by Richard Jones, who directed The Queen of Spades here in 2002. British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, last seen here in 2014 as Dejanira in Handel’s Hercules, returns in the trousers role of Ariodante. Canadian soprano Jane Archibald makes her role debut as Ginevra, Ariodante’s wronged fiancée. Armenian mezzo-soprano Varduhi Abrahamyan makes her Canadian debut as Polinesso, the jealous rival of Ariodante. Young Canadian coloratura soprano Ambur Braid is Ginevra’s friend and unwitting betrayer, Dalinda. Canadian tenor Owen McCausland is Ariodante’s vengeful brother, Lurcanio, and French bass François Lis makes his Canadian debut as Ginevra’s father, the King of Scotland. Johannes Debus will conduct his first Handel opera. Ariodante has seven performances from October 16 to November 4, 2016.

Mozart and Wagner: The winter season pairs two familiar COC productions – Mozart’s The Magic Flute, last seen in 2011, and Wagner’s Götterdämmerung last seen in 2006. The Magic Flute will be staged by young Canadian director Ashlie Corcoran based on the original direction by Diane Paulus. Québécois early music specialist Bernard Labadie, music director of Les Violons du Roy, will make his COC debut as the conductor. Canadian tenors Andrew Haji and Owen McCausland alternate in the role of Tamino, Russian Elena Tsallagova and Canadian Kirsten MacKinnon alternate in the role of Tamino’s beloved Pamina, and Canadian baritones Joshua Hopkins and Phillip Addis alternate as the bird-catcher Papageno. American Kathryn Lewek and Canadian Ambur Braid share the coloratura soprano role of the Queen of the Night, while Croatian bass Goran Jurić, in his Canadian debut, and American bass Matt Boehler share the role of Sarastro. The Magic Flute runs for 12 performances from January 19 to February 24, 2017.

In repertory with Mozart’s lighthearted opera is Wagner’s doom-laden Götterdämmerung, the fourth opera of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, that concludes the action begun in Das Rheingold and carried on through Die Walküre and Siegfried. The charismatic American soprano Christine Goerke, who stunned audiences here with her effortless Brünnhilde in Die Walküre in 2015, returns to complete the valkyrie’s fateful journey in Götterdämmerung. Austrian tenor Andreas Schager makes his COC debut as Brünnhilde’s beloved Siegfried. German baritone Martin Gantner is Siegfried’s rival Gunther. Estonian Ain Anger makes his Canadian debut as Gunther’s evil half-brother, Hagen. Ileana Montalbetti is their sister Gutrune and Canadian bass Robert Pomakov is the dwarf Alberich. The original director, Tim Albery, takes the helm and Johannes Debus conducts his first Götterdämmerung. The opera runs for seven performances from February 2 to 25, 2017.

Somers’ Riel and Puccini’s Tosca: The spring season opens with what will surely be the opera event of the year – the revival of Harry Somers’ Louis Riel in a new production directed by Canadian Peter Hinton and conducted by Johannes Debus. Somers wrote the opera for Canada’s centennial in 1967 and now the COC is reviving it as a co-production with the National Arts Centre in Ottawa for Canada’s sesquicentennial in 2017.

The opera, with a libretto in English, French, Latin and Cree by Mavor Moore and Jacques Languirand, focuses on the Manitoba Métis schoolteacher Louis Riel (1844–85), who led the Red River Rebellion of 1869–70 and the North-West Rebellion of 1884–85. It is a story that serves as a nexus for tensions in Canada among the English, French and First Nations. Led by Riel, the Francophone Métis prevented the newly appointed Anglophone, William McDougall, from entering the huge territory acquired by the newly formed Canadian government. Riel set up his own provisional government and negotiated directly with the Canadian government to establish Manitoba as a province. With the arrival of Canadian troops, Riel was formally exiled from Canada but returned to lead the unsuccessful North-West Rebellion of the Métis in what would become Saskatchewan, where he was tried for high treason and executed.

Singing the title role is COC favourite Russell Braun. The all-Canadian principals include baritone James Westman as Sir John A. Macdonald; soprano Simone Osborne as Marguerite, Riel’s wife; mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy as Julie, Riel’s mother and confidante; tenor Michael Colvin as Thomas Scott, the Orangeman executed on orders from Riel; and bass John Relyea as Bishop Taché, the cleric who helped the government betray Riel. The COC gave Louis Riel its world premiere in Toronto in 1967 and later performed it in Montreal. The COC revived it in 1975 and took it to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where the Washington Star described it as “one of the most imaginative and powerful scores to have been written in this century.” The opera runs for seven performances from April 20 to May 13, 2017.

Moving from the unfamiliar to the familiar, the COC closes the 16/17 season with Puccini’s ever-popular Tosca (1900), last seen in 2012. This will be the second revival of the production designed by Kevin Knight and directed by Paul Curran. In 2012, Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka sang the title role. This time because of its extended run, she will share it with American soprano Keri Alkema. Returning to the COC is renowned Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas making his role debut as Tosca’s lover, Cavaradossi, a role he shares with Italian tenor Andrea Carè. German bass-baritone Markus Marquardt makes his Canadian debut as the tyrannical Scarpia. The production runs for 12 performances from April 30 to May 20. Canadian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson will make her COC debut at the podium.

Also good news at the season announcement was that the contract of popular COC music director Johannes Debus has been extended through the 2020/21 season. The revival of Somers’ Louis Riel seems to mark a new commitment to Canadian opera after this season’s staging of Barbara Monk Feldman’s Pyramus and Thisbe. The staying power of operas from the past can only be marked through revivals and the COC is the only company in Canada big enough to revive a large-scale opera like Louis Riel.

Also, the COC showed a new interest in fostering Canadian directing talent with the selection of Ashlie Corcoran and Peter Hinton. The late COC General Director Richard Bradshaw did much in this area by pairing a wide range of Canadian film and stage directors with operas. This led to such successes as Robert Lepage’s Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung in 1992, Atom Egoyan’s Salome in 1996, François Girard’s Oedipus Rex with A Symphony of Psalms in 1997, not to mention a heart-wrenching Dialogues of the Carmelites by Diana Leblanc 1997, a riveting Tosca by David William and an eerie The Turn of the Screw by Christopher Newton in 2002.

The only negative note is that the number of performances will shrink to 53 in 2016/17 from 55 in 2015/16, thus continuing their gradual decrease from a high of 70 in 2009/10 season.

Turning to the current season: Turning to the present, two COC productions will be playing in February. From February 2 to 14 is François Girard’s acclaimed production of Wagner’s Siegfried. German tenor Stefan Vinke sings the title role while the amazing soprano Christine Goerke returns as Brünnhilde in this, the third opera in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. They are joined by Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as the dwarf, Mime, Alan Held as Wotan and Phillip Ens as the dragon, Fafner. Johannes Debus conducts.

Running in repertory with Siegfried is Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro from February 4 to 27 in a production from the Salzburg Festival directed by Claus Guth. Josef Wagner stars in the title role with Jane Archibald as Susanna, Erin Wall as the Countess, Russell Braun as the Count and Emily Fons as Cherubino. Johannes Debus conducts. The COC Ensemble Studio takes over the principal roles on February 22. 

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

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