2206- BBB - On Opera 1.jpgThis March offers a feast for opera lovers who fancy a taste of something other than the standard opera fare. There are several opera rarities and two world premieres on offer and they are so scheduled that an intrepid operagoer can see them all.

The month begins with the world premiere of Odditorium from Soundstreams running March 2 to 5, a theatrical presentation of excerpts from R. Murray Schafer’s 12-opera Patria cycle. Director Chris Abraham has taken four sections of the cycle to create a 75-minute theatre piece for two singers (Carla Huhtanen and Andrea Ludwig) and two dancers in which Ariadne, one of the cycle’s reappearing characters, goes deep into a labyrinth where she encounters sideshows, lovers, buskers and Tantric experts. Schafer’s music has been re-scored for harp, accordion and percussion. Since the company devoted to presenting Patria last produced part of the cycle in 2013, Odditorium will provide audiences with a rare chance to become acquainted with Schafer’s magnum opus.

Krása’s Brundibár: Overlapping with Odditorium, running from March 3 to 5, is the first-ever performance by the Canadian Children’s Opera Company of Brundibár by Czech composer Hans Krása (1899-1944). Brundibár is an important children’s opera since it was written by a Jewish composer in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and first premiered in a children’s orphanage in Prague in 1942. By the time of the performance, Krása had been transported to the concentration camp in Terezin (then known as Theresienstadt). By the next year almost all the chorus and staff had also been transported to Terezin. Terezin was set up as a model camp for propaganda purposes and the inmates were allowed to pursue the arts. From 1943 to 1944 Krása and his casts performed the opera 55 times. (According to new CCOC artistic director Dean Burry, the cast had to be constantly replaced as children were sent on to Auschwitz for extermination.)

One would not know the gruesome circumstances surrounding the opera from the work itself, though. It concerns a brother and a sister who try to earn money for milk for their ailing mother by singing in the town square. Brundibár, an evil organ-grinder with a moustache, chases them away, but with the help of three animals and the children of the town, the children chase him away.

I spoke with Burry, who was involved in the first production of the opera in Toronto in 1996. He said, “Since the opera is only about 35-minutes long, the CCOC received permission to use the film The Lady in Number 6 (2013) to frame the live performance. The film is about Alice Herz-Somers, who played the piano for Terezin performances and whose son was in the opera. We will also be using songs from the cantata For the Children (1996) by Canadian composer Robert Evans (1933-2005) that uses poetry written by the children of Terezin.” The CCOC’s production will mark the 75th anniversary of the work’s first performance in Prague. That the opera should have been performed in a concentration camp, Burry says is “a testament to the power of art.”

One question is how aware the young performers are of the historical context of the opera. As CCOC’s managing director Ken Hall wrote me, “As for the understanding of the kids, we have taken some pains to educate them on the circumstances of the opera. They have met John Freund, a Terezin survivor who attended the opera in the camp and had a lecture session with children’s novelist and holocaust educator Kathy Kacer. Some of children will be taking the production on tour this summer where they will actually visit the Terezin memorial.”

Concerning what it is like to work with children, director Joel Ivany wrote me, “What I enjoy about working with these younger performers is the expectation that they have for this experience. They know they are working with opera professionals and they’re trying their best to think about stagecraft, musicality, character and focus. Also, to see the sheer joy they get when you give them a prop to use is a great reminder of why we do this.”

2206- BBB - On Opera 2.jpgThe Masqued Man: The second world premiere of the month, running March 10 and 11, is Toronto Masque Theatre’s The Man Who Married Himself by composer Juliet Palmer to a libretto by Anna Chatterton with choreography by Hari Krishnan. The story derives from an Indian folktale about a man who, unwilling to marry a woman, creates a lover from his own left side. He is enchanted by her perfect beauty until he finds that this new woman longs for freedom and desires someone else.

Chatterton describes the background of her libretto: “While writing the libretto for The Man Who Married Himself, I was inspired by the work of contemporary Indian poet, scholar and translator A.K. Ramanujan. His renowned collection A Flowering Tree (1997) includes the original folktale which underpins our contemporary masque. Ramanujan’s work as a translator led me to the mid-17th-century Telugu poet Kshetrayya, whose erotic devotional songs [or padams] were written for, and in the voice of, the dancing courtesans who performed for both gods and kings. For me, these padams bring to life the sensual and intimate world of the original folktale The Man Who Married His Own Left Side.”

Palmer mentions that she began writing the opera while in India: “My earliest work on the piece was while I was in residence at the Kattaikkuttu Sangam in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu. This is a training school for girls and boys in the traditional vernacular music theatre form of Kattaikkuttu. I worked collaboratively with students exploring the original folk tale through vocal and movement-based improvisation…Members of the creative team (Anna, Hari and myself) express ourselves through our own creative voices, grounded in our respective traditions. The dramatic combination of song and dance is common to many Indian forms of music drama, but unlike the role of movement in Western opera, dance is an equal partner in the work.”

The opera will feature countertenor Scott Belluz, jazz vocalist Alex Samaras, improvisational Carnatic singer Susha and dancers Jelani Ade-Lam and Sze-Yang Ade-Lam. The piece is directed by Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière. Larry Beckwith conducts a six-member period instrument ensemble. The percussionist’s set-up will include hurdy-gurdy, tom-tom, cymbal, rattle, woodblocks, triangle, cowbell and hand drum. Following TMT’s motto of presenting “performing arts in fusion,” The Man Who Married Himself will thus combine song, music and dance as well as East and West.

Two 18th-century rarities: Also noteworthy this month are two 18th-century rarities being presented by Toronto opera schools. On March 15 and 17 the Glenn Gould School presents La cecchina (1760) by Niccolò Piccinni (1728-1800). It is a perfectly delightful comic opera that anticipates Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (1786) by focusing not on the deeds of historical or mythological characters but on the lives of ordinary people of the composer’s own time. Cecchina is conducted by Les Dala and directed by Marilyn Gronsdal, a frequent assistant director with the COC.

At the same time, March 16 to 19, University of Toronto Opera presents the seldom-performed Handel opera Imeneo (1740), a piece for only five soloists. The production is directed by Tim Albery, who directed the COC’s fantastic Götterdämmerung. This opera is on a much more intimate scale. As Albery describes it: “At an estate by the sea five young people struggle with increasing desperation to unravel a tangled, intractable web of love, gratitude, loyalty and friendship.” This will be the Toronto premiere of Imeneo and, according to U of T Opera Administrator Catherine Tait, likely “the Canadian premiere of the original (1740) version in which the title role is sung by a bass.” The work will be conducted by renowned countertenor and early music specialist Daniel Taylor.

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

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2205 On OperaOn January 12 the Canadian Opera Company unveiled its 2017/18 season. The season will include the return of two recent COC productions, new productions of three operas not seen at the COC for 17 years or more and a company premiere of an opera by Richard Strauss. It is a well-rounded season that ought to have wide appeal.

One new feature in the evolution of the COC as a company was announced: the naming of its first artist-in-residence. For the coming season this will be renowned Canadian soprano Jane Archibald, who will appear in three of the six operas. In addition to her season-long residency, Archibald will perform in the COC’s Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre and work with the young artists of the COC Ensemble Studio and Orchestra Academy training programs in a mentorship capacity.

COC General Director Alexander Neef comments, “It’s exciting for the company and our audiences to have someone of Jane Archibald’s calibre choose to spend so much of her time with us… This kind of commitment from Jane is a testament to the international reputation of the COC, solidifying the company and our opera house as a showcase for the world-class talent working in opera today.”

Fall 2017: Opening the fall season from October 5 to 28 will be the company premiere of Richard Strauss’ Arabella (1933). Only the fifth opera by Strauss the COC has ever staged, Arabella is a co-production with Minnesota Opera and Santa Fe Opera and premiered with the latter company in 2012. The opera was Strauss’ final collaboration with his favourite librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who had written the libretti for Elektra (1909), Der Rosenkavalier (1911) and Ariadne auf Naxos (1912).

Arabella is a comedy set in Vienna in 1860 dealing with the financial crisis of the Waldner family. The family has two daughters, the beautiful Arabella, who needs to marry a wealthy man to save the family, and the younger Zdenka, whom they have brought up as a boy to save the expense of her coming out as a debutante.

Renowned Canadian soprano Erin Wall sings Arabella and Jane Archibald sings Zdenka. Mandryka, who woos Arabella, will be sung by Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny. Canadian tenor David Pomeroy is Matteo, whom Zdenka loves; Canadian baritone John Fanning is Count Waldner, the sisters’ father; German mezzo-soprano Gundula Hintz is their mother. COC Ensemble Studio graduate coloratura soprano Claire de Sévigné is the belle of the ball, Fiakermilli and Canadian mezzo-soprano Megan Latham is the Fortune Teller. The production is directed by Tim Albery, best known for his powerful production of the COC’s Götterdämmerung, currently being re-mounted, and is conducted by German conductor Patrick Lange.

Running in repertory with Arabella from October 11 to November 4 is a new COC production of Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love (L’elisir d’amore) from 1832. Elixir has not been seen at the COC since 1999. The new production is based on the 2008 co-production from San Francisco Opera, Colorado Opera and Kansas City Opera. American director James Robinson has relocated the action to a small town in the period before World War I. In this gentle comedy, the poor and shy Nemorino has fallen in love with the wealthy Adina. Despairing that Adina will fall for the dashing Captain Belcore, Nemorino buys a love potion from the travelling charlatan Doctor Dulcamara consisting only of red wine.

Three recent graduates of the COC Ensemble Studio training program take major roles. Tenor Andrew Haji is the lovesick Nemorino; soprano Simone Osborne is Adina; and baritone Gordon Bintner is Belcore. English baritone Andrew Shore is the sly Doctor Dulcamara. Toronto-born Yves Abel makes his COC debut at the podium.

Winter 2018: Beginning the winter season in 2018, from January 20 to February 23, will be a revival of the COC’s production of Verdi’s Rigoletto directed by Christopher Alden and last seen in 2011. Audiences will recall this production as the one where the entire action is set inside the central room of a Victorian men’s club. English baritone Roland Wood sings the title role and American soprano Anna Christy is his daughter, Gilda. American tenor Stephen Costello shares the role of the vicious Duke of Mantua with American tenor Joshua Guerrero. Georgian bass Goderdzi Janelidze makes his Canadian debut as the assassin Sparafucile and Canadian mezzo-soprano Carolyn Sproule makes her COC debut as Sparafucile’s sister Maddalena. Stephen Lord conducts.

Running in repertory with Rigoletto from February 7 to 24 is Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio (Die Entführung von dem Serail), not seen at the COC since 1980. The opera concerns the efforts of the Europeans, Belmonte and his servant Pedrillo, to rescue their sweethearts Konstanze and Blonde from captivity by the Muslim Turk, Bassa Selim. In this co-production with Opéra de Lyon, Lebanese-Canadian playwright and director Wajdi Mouawad has added his own prologue and reworked some of the dialogue to avoid caricature of the Muslim characters.

Jane Archibald performs one of her most acclaimed roles as Konstanze. Swiss tenor Mauro Peter sings Belmonte; Ensemble Studio graduates Claire de Sévigné and Owen McCausland are Blonde and Pedrillo, respectively. Croatian bass Goran Jurić is Osmin, Pasha Selim’s overseer and German actor Peter Lohmeyer appears in the spoken role of the Pasha. COC music director Johannes Debus conducts.

Spring 2018: The COC spring starts with the season’s only nod to modernity, a revival of Robert Lepage’s spectacular production of Stravinsky’s The Nightingale and Other Short Fables running from April 13 to May 19. Most notable as the production where the orchestra is on stage and the orchestra pit is filled with water, Nightingale, last seen in 2010, uses all forms of puppetry from East and West to illustrate songs by Stravinsky as well as the short operas Renard (1922) and The Nightingale (Le Rossignol, 1914).

Making her role debut as the Nightingale is Jane Archibald in her third opera of the season. Singing the Fisherman, who discovers the Nightingale, is Owen McCausland. The Emperor, whose life is saved by the Nightingale, is sung by American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn and American contralto Meredith Arwardy sings the role of Death. Johannes Debus conducts.

Concluding the 2017/18 season is the third in Donizetti’s so-called Three Queens Trilogy – Anna Bolena from 1830. The last time Toronto heard this work was in 1984 with Joan Sutherland in the title role and Richard Bonynge conducting. This time COC favourite Sondra Radvanovsky sings the role of Henry VIII’s spurned queen, the third queen after her Maria Stuarda in 2010 and her Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux in 2014.

American bass-baritone Eric Owens is Enrico VIII, King of England; American soprano Keri Alkema is Giovanna Seymour; American Bruce Sledge is Lord Riccardo Percy; and Canadian mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy sings the role of Smeton, the musician secretly in love with the queen. Italian maestro Corrado Rovaris conducts and Stephen Lawless, who directed the other two works in the trilogy, directs.

Currently: While the 2017/18 season announcement presents the COC’s future plans, the present 2016/17 COC season continues. Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which opened in January, runs until February 24. It is joined from February 2 to 25 by Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, the concluding opera of his epic four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen. American soprano Christine Goerke, who captivated audiences as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre and Siegfried, the second and third parts of the cycle, returns to sing her first Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde. Austrian tenor Andreas Schager sings the role of Brünnhilde’s beloved Siegfried and German baritone Martin Gantner is Gunther, Siegfried’s rival. Estonian Ain Anger is Gunther’s villainous half-brother, Hagen, and Ileana Montalbetti is Gunther’s sister, Gutrune.

Tim Albery returns to direct his acclaimed production and COC music director Johannes Debus takes the plunge by conducting the massive opera for the first time.

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

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2204 On Opera 1The past two years have seen Toronto opera companies unveil exciting new works or new interpretations of older works in December and January. This season, both large and smaller companies are saving these kinds of productions for spring 2017. In April 2017, the Canadian Opera Company presents a new production of Harry Somers’ Louis Riel (1967). In the same month, Opera Atelier revives Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Médée (1693), which it will then take to Versailles. Tapestry Opera will present its grandest new opera since Iron Road (2001) in the form of Aaron Gervais’s Oksana G. in May. And Toronto Masque Theatre will present the world premiere of The Man Who Married Himself by composer Juliet Palmer. The reason for all this activity in 2017 is that companies are pulling out all the stops in celebration of Canada’s sesquicentennial that year.

For this December and January, however, most companies are sticking to the tried and true, and, given the general sense of unease in the world, perhaps that is not a bad thing. For professional, fully staged productions, Toronto Operetta Theatre is first off the mark with Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance (1879), the work by the duo most often staged by professional opera companies and the only one to be staged regularly in non-English-speaking countries. Since 2014, there have been productions of Pirates in Münster, Luxembourg, Caen and Saarbrücken.

TOT’s Pirates

This year’s Pirates will give audiences a chance to hear two performers who are better known for their work with Opera Atelier, sing in a genre far removed from Baroque opera. Tenor Colin Ainsworth, who will sing Jason for Opera Atelier in next year’s Médée, sings the role of Frederic, the young lad mistakenly apprenticed to a pirate. Bass-baritone Curtis Sullivan, who has sung La Haine in Armide and Samiel in Der Freischütz, will take on the role of Major-General Stanley. TOT favourite Elizabeth Beeler will sing Ruth, the “piratical maid of all work,” and Vania Chan will sing the Donizetti-like role of Mabel. Austin Larusson and Anthony Rodrigues will share the role of Sergeant of Police, and Nicholas Borg and Janaka Welihinda will share the role of the Pirate King. Derek Bate, resident conductor for the COC, will conduct and TOT artistic director Guillermo Silva-Marin will direct. The operetta runs December 27, 30, 31, 2016, and January 6, 7 and 8, 2017.

Mozart’s Flute

2204 On Opera 2The winter season at the Canadian Opera Company begins January 19 with Mozart’s The Magic Flute. This will be the first revival of the COC’s own production, designed by Myung Hee Cho and directed by Diane Paulus, that had its premiere in January 2011. For the revival, Ashlie Corcoran will recreate Paulus’ direction.

Tenors Andrew Haji and Owen McCausland will alternate in the role of Tamino. Sopranos Elena Tsallagova and Kirsten MacKinnon will share the role of Tamino’s beloved Pamina. Baritones Joshua Hopkins and Phillip Addis will alternate as Tamino’s bird-selling sidekick Papageno. And bass-baritones Goran Juric and Matt Boehler will share the role of the magician Sarastro, accused of having kidnapped Pamina. Coloratura soprano Ambur Braid, recently seen as Dalinda in Handel’s Ariodante at the COC, will sing the demanding role of Pamina’s mother, the Queen of the Night, at all 12 performances. Tenor Michael Colvin is Pamina’s guard Monostatos. The conductor will be Bernard Labadie, best known as the founding conductor of the Montreal-based period instrument ensemble Les Violons du Roy. The opera runs from January 19 to February 24.

Street Scene by Request

If one is looking for more unusual fare, Kurt Weill’s American opera Street Scene (1947) is coming back to town for the first time since Voicebox/Opera In Concert mounted it Feb 1, 2015, at the Jane Mallett Theatre. This time, Opera by Request is taking the ambitious project on. With lyrics by the poet Langston Hughes and a book by the playwright Elmer Rice, based on his own play, the action takes place outside a multi-ethnic tenement on the East Side of Manhattan over two hot days in 1946. The opera has two plots involving the Maurrant family. One plot line follows young Rose Maurrant and her romance with a neighbour Sam Kaplan, though she is being harassed both by her boss and by another neighbour. The other follows Rose’s parents, Anna and Frank, and Anna’s affair with the milkman Steve Sankey. Subsidiary stories deal with a woman about to have a baby and the eviction of a couple who can’t pay the rent.

One impediment to the opera being produced is that it has 19 named singing roles, ten named speaking roles and other roles for children and dancers. The cast is headed by soprano Shannon Mills as Rose, soprano Kellie Masalas as Anna, baritone Austin Larusson as Frank and Avery Krisman as Sam.

Music director and pianist for the opera, William Shookhoff, provided me with some background to the production. “Street Scene came about as a project envisioned by Shannon Mills, who works with a number of the COC children, and Brandon White, whose specialty is collaborative theatre and design. It was their feeling that this piece was as relevant now as ever (perhaps more so since November 8) and that, to do it justice, it needed to be presented in a more descriptive format than the usual concert arrangement. The church will be transformed by use of backdrops, suggesting tenement apartment windows, and various minimal set pieces. Dress will indicate hot summer and there will be no music stands, with far more interaction than concert format allows.” Street Scene runs December 2 and 3 at the College Street United Church.

Opera by Request has two other concert performances slated for January. On January 14, it presents Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel (1891) with Kate Carver as the pianist; and on January 27, Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787) with William Shookhoff as the pianist.

St. Anne’s G&S Treat

For Gilbert and Sullivan fans there is a real treat coming up in January. The amateur company St. Anne’s Music and Drama Society (MADS) will present a fully staged production, with an 18-piece orchestra, of The Grand Duke (1896), the final comic opera written together by the famous duo. In its day, it was the partnership’s only financial failure, unlike the equally rare Utopia, Limited (1893) that preceded it. Like G&S’s first collaboration Thespis (1871), it concerns a theatrical troupe that takes on political power. The Central European setting allows Sullivan the chance to imitate Viennese music extensively for the first time. The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company did revive Utopia, Limited once for the company’s centenary in 1974, but it never revived The Grand Duke, even though it recorded both. This neglect only helped reinforce the view elsewhere that these two were undeserving of revival.

Productions by other companies such as MADS, however, have found that with cuts mostly to Gilbert’s unusually extensive dialogue, The Grand Duke is eminently enjoyable. MADS, first launched in 1963 by pianist Clifford Poole, wife Margaret Parsons, and Roy Schatz, has placed The Grand Duke in its regular cycle of G&S operas, meaning it is performed every 11 or 12 years. It was previously staged in 1996 and 2007.

Roy Schatz’s daughter Laura, the stage director, informed me of the challenges and rewards of the piece: “I very much like The Grand Duke and think it deserves to be performed more often. One of the challenges for any group who wishes to perform it is the number of leads necessary – 14 to be precise. It should not have come up in our rotation for another couple of years, but our group recently had an influx of very talented singers and I wanted to be able to feature them as well as our regular wonderful leads. We have a cast of over 50 and they are enjoying the challenge of learning one of the G&S operas that is seldom performed.” The Grand Duke will be staged at the Parish Hall of St. Anne’s Anglican Church from January 27 to February 5 for four evening and four matinee performances.

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

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The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Norma may end on November 5 and that of Ariodante on November 4, but November still holds much of interest for opera lovers with operatic rarities, new opera and experiments in narratives with music.

2203 On Opera 1Salon Cinderella at GGS: Of the two principal rarities on offer, the rarer is likely Cendrillon from 1904 by composer Pauline Viardot (1821-1910). Born to a Spanish family in Paris, Viardot was the younger sister of the famous opera diva Maria Malibran. While Malibran lived (until 1836), Viardot gained fame as a pianist and counted Chopin as a friend and piano duettist. After Malibran’s death she astounded Paris with her mezzo-soprano voice and composers like Gounod, Saint-Saëns and Meyerbeer wrote leading roles with her in mind. In Germany she sang the first public performance of Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody.

As if these were not accomplishments enough, Viardot was also a composer. She wrote over 50 lieder and five salon operas, the last two, including Cendrillon, to her own libretti. Cendrillon is written for seven voices and piano and had its premiere in Viardot’s own influential Paris salon. Though inspired by the famous tale of Charles Perrault, Viardot made her own changes. The setting is 1904; she changes the evil stepmother into a foolish stepfather and the fairy godmother appears as a guest at the ball Cinderella attends. Cendrillon will be the Glenn Gould School’s fall opera and will be performed on November 18 and 19 at Mazzoleni Concert Hall. Peter Tiefenbach is the music director and Against the Grain Theatre’s Joel Ivany is the stage director.

In a conversation in October, Ivany said that the goal of his production is “to recreate the salon atmosphere of Cendrillon’s original performance.” Ivany’s specific inspiration is the Hôtel de Rambouillet, site of the Marquise de Rambouillet’s renowned salon. Thus, the piano will be on stage as it would have been and the singers have been assigned identities as Viardot’s guests who will then sing their roles in her opera.

Voicebox Bellini: Anyone inspired by Bellini’s Norma at the COC will be pleased to hear that another Bellini is on offer in November. This is I Capuleti e i Montecchi from 1830, Bellini’s setting of the story Romeo and Juliet based on Italian sources and not on Shakespeare’s play. The opera was a huge success all over Europe into the 1860s when its popularity began to wane and Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette (1867), based on Shakespeare, began to gain ground. The story begins quite differently since Romeo and Juliet are set to marry as part of a peace plan between the two families, a plan that Capulet rejects preferring her to marry Tybalt. Musically, the main peculiarity of Bellini’s version is that Romeo is a trouser role for mezzo-soprano.

The work’s popularity has been rising since the middle of the last century and it is now Bellini’s third-most produced opera after Norma and I puritani (1835). Voicebox: Opera in Concert will present the opera on November 20 with Caitlin Wood, Tonatiuh Abrego and Anita Krause with Raisa Nakhmanovich as music director and pianist.

New work of note: the Toronto premiere of Naomi’s Road by Canadian composer Ramona Luengen to a libretto by Ann Hodges is worthy of attention. The 2005 opera for four singers and piano is based on the 1986 novel of the same name by Joy Kogawa. It follows a nine-year-old Japanese-Canadian girl Naomi and her brother, whose lives are overturned during World War II when they are sent to internment camps in the BC interior and Alberta. It runs from November 16 to 20 at St. David’s Anglican Church, the home of the last Japanese-Canadian Anglican parish in Toronto. (For more about Naomi’s Road see the interview with Michael Hidetoshi Mori, artistic director of Tapestry Opera, by Sara Constant elsewhere in this issue.

2203 On Opera 2Toronto Masque Theatre’s experimental double bill: From November 17 to 19, Toronto Masque Theatre presents an unusual double bill of works that strictly speaking are neither operas nor masques. The first piece is a staging of Handel’s secular cantata Apollo e Dafne from 1710. Though cantatas were not intended for staging, Toronto has seen successful examples in the past such as the COC Ensemble’s production of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Coffee Cantata in 2003 and Volcano’s production of Handel’s Clori, Tirsi e Fileno in 2012. Apollo e Dafne is Handel’s most elaborate secular cantata and many scholars state that it prefigures Handel’s later work in opera.

Its story concerns the mischievous Cupid who shoots two arrows. One, tipped with gold, wounds Apollo and causes him to fall in love with the nymph Dafne. The other, tipped with lead, wounds Dafne and causes her to loathe Apollo. To escape Apollo’s advances Dafne transforms herself into a laurel tree.

The TMT production features soprano Jacqueline Woodley and baritone Geoffrey Sirett in the title roles along with Montreal dancer Stéphanie Brochard. Larry Beckwith leads a period-instrument ensemble from the violin and Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière directs and choreographs the piece.

The second half of the double bill is the unusual work Enoch Arden by Richard Strauss, a piece written in 1897, the year after Also Sprach Zarathustra. It is a melodrama in the original sense of the word, that is spoken word accompanied by music, in this case with piano accompaniment. The text is the poem of the same name by Alfred, Lord Tennyson from 1864. The story concerns a shipwrecked sailor who returns home after a ten-year absence to discover that his wife has married his childhood rival. Franck Cox-O’Connell will be the actor and Angela Park the pianist.

As a side note, there is a Canadian connection to the history of this piece since the first ever recording in 1962 featured Glenn Gould as the pianist with Claude Rains as the actor. Writing about the double bill, TMT Artistic Director Larry Beckwith says, “I have always enjoyed programming double bills that juxtapose two vastly different pieces that somehow share a mood or sensibility.” Of Enoch Arden, which he has seen twice before, as a partner for Apollo e Dafne, he states, “The story is so melodramatic, but Tennyson’s language and imagery draws one in, along with Strauss’ sentimental and evocative music. I have such fond feelings for both pieces and somehow feel they will work brilliantly side by side.”

Genres fused in Ayre: A third production in November also breaks contemporary notions of genre. This is the song cycle Ayre (2004) by Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov (born 1960) presented by Against the Grain Theatre from November 10 to 12 at the Ismaili Centre. The title in medieval Spanish means “air” in both the sense of “song” and the air we breathe. The song cycle is a juxtaposition of Arabic, Hebrew, Sardinian and Sephardic folk melodies and texts. The soloist will be Miriam Khalil accompanied by an 11-member ensemble with stage direction by AtG founder and artistic director Joel Ivany and lighting by Jason Hand.

Golijov, Ivany and Khalil all met at Banff this past summer and Golijov sat in on rehearsals of the piece. Though not an opera, critics have repeatedly called the work “dramatic.” Ivany says this is the first time anyone has “taken the work a step further” by staging it. He says, “Miriam will have memorized the entire piece and will thus be free to use movement and gesture to illuminate the texts and to tie them together visually.” Ivany is excited that Golijov plans to attend the first two of the performances in Toronto. A special preview of Ayre will be offered on November 10 at noon as part of the free concert series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, presented by the Canadian Opera Company at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

Christopher Hoile is a Toronto-based writer on opera and theatre. He can be contacted at opera@thewholenote.com.clip_image001.gif

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As the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Bellini’s Norma continues its run, two Baroque operas will receive full-scale productions in Toronto in October. The first to open will be the COC’s first-ever presentation of Ariodante, an opera from 1735 by George Frideric Handel, running from October 16 to November 4. The second will be a new production from Opera Atelier of Henry Purcell’s masterpiece from 1689, Dido and Aeneas, running from October 20 to 29. The productions provide a contrast in approach to operas from the same period and country of origin.

2202-OnOpera-Photo1.jpgDido: Opera Atelier presents Dido and Aeneas, after a hiatus of ten years, in a new production. Writing in the Opera Atelier blog, Marshall Pynkoski said: “Of all of Opera Atelier’s repertoire, Dido remains perhaps the closest to our hearts. In 1986 Opera Atelier was officially launched with Canada’s first staged production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, which took place at the Royal Ontario Museum. Since that inaugural production, Dido has become one of Opera Atelier’s most important calling cards internationally.” Dido has in fact toured internationally more than any other Canadian opera production.

“Why stage a new production and what constitutes a new production for a period performance company?” I put these questions to Opera Atelier co-artistic director Marshall Pynkoski.

Pynkoski explains: “Opera Atelier has been moving more into the storytelling itself. We had a wonderful beginning focusing on period style, but we had to ask what does this mean as a means of communication rather than a means of gorgeous display. I want people to listen and take in what these operas have to say. And so we’ve been stripping back the look of the company. If you look at our early productions and how incredibly elaborate they were with the wigs, the makeup, the sets, and what they’ve become now, I like to think we’re getting closer and closer to the core of what this work is.

“I still love period productions, I like exploring within that idiom, but the idiom isn’t dictating to us now. It’s become much more a means of expression. So with the new Dido, the set designs and the costumes have been simplified tremendously with far less applied detail. Instead of wigs, all the women are wearing their hair down for the first time. Instead of the tight control over design we’re allowing a more human element to enter everything. To increase the drama we’re allowing everyone a little bit more freedom in how they’re moving through the aesthetic gesturally and rhetorically.

2202-OnOpera-Photo2.jpg“We still want to work within a framework that allows this very stylized art form, but the stylization isn’t going to dictate to us. Instead it becomes a point of departure and a means of creating something new.” Pynkoski says his point of reference has always been George Balanchine who could not have created something new for American Ballet Theatre without having been steeped in the strictures of Russian classical ballet. “Balanchine asked how much he could take away from the art form and still have it remain classical ballet.”

As for the common practice of updating productions to the present or recent past, Pynkoski says, “If we do that we lose all sense of history and what we can learn from history. If we insist on seeing everything as a mirror of ourselves, we see ourselves as a little moment in history that is divorced from everything that has come before. The past informs us. We’re part of the past. Rather than being provocative, an updated setting puts us into the realm of the familiar and the familiar gives us comfort and acts as a buffer. In my experience it is the past that can jolt more than the present. Familiarity can make us miss an enormous amount that is there.”

In the all-Canadian cast of the new production, rising mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta makes her role debut as Dido and tenor Christopher Enns makes his role debut as Aeneas. OA mainstay Meghan Lindsay will sing Belinda, Dido’s sister and confidante, beloved mezzo Laura Pudwell returns to sing the Sorceress and tenor Cory Knight sings the Sailor. In a nod to the work’s first performance at Josias Priest’s girls’ school in 1689, the Toronto Children’s Chorus will be the Chorus. As usual, Pynkoski will direct and David Fallis will conduct the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra.

Ariodante: Taking a non-period approach to performance is the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Handel’s Ariodante, a co-production with Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Dutch National Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, already seen in Aix and Amsterdam.

Ariodante derives its plot from Cantos 5 and 6 of Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso (1532). Ariosto’s 46-canto work is set during Charlemagne’s reign as Holy Roman Emperor (800-814AD) during a fictitious war on Europe waged by the Saracen “King of Africa.” The action involving Ariodante takes place in Scotland, where Ginevra, daughter of the King, is happily betrothed to Ariodante. When Ginevra rejects the lewd advances of Polinesso, the Duke of Albany, he tricks Ariodante and her father into believing she has been unfaithful. As a result Ariodante attempts suicide and Ginevra is condemned to death. Fortunately, Ariodante’s brother Lurcanio challenges Polinesso to a duel, which Lurcanio wins, and forces Polinesso to confess his treachery.

For Andrea Marcon, who conducted the premiere of Richard Jones’ production at Aix, Ariodante is the “perfect” Handel opera in its structure, in the strength of its melodies and arias, and in the consistency of its melancholic tone. Many critics have noted that Ariodante is written on a much more intimate scale than some of Handel’s other operas. It is perhaps because of this and because of the work’s sombre tone that British director Jones has almost totally changed the opera’s setting, doing away with all the trappings of heroism and chivalric romance and relocating the action to a small Scottish fishing village in the 1970s where Ginevra’s father is not a king but merely a powerful man. The emphasis is thereby shifted to a more contemporary aspect of the plot – the intolerance of a small religious community that shuns a woman simply because she has been accused of immorality.

Since Handel had available the services of dancer Marie Sallé and her company for this opera and for Alcina (1735), these are the only two operas by Handel that contain so much dance music, especially in interludes at the end of each act. A company like Opera Atelier with a resident corps de ballet would have no problem with the inclusion of dance as it showed in its 2014 production of Alcina. Yet, according to reports from Aix and Amsterdam, while Jones does include Scottish dancing, he intriguingly substitutes table-top puppet shows for the end-of-act dance interludes to foreshadow developments in the plot.

British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, last seen at the COC in 2014 as Dejanira in Hercules, will sing the role of Ariodante, originally written for a castrato. Canadian soprano Jane Archibald will sing the much abused Ginevra. Armenian mezzo Varduhi Abrahamyan sings the trouser role of the villainous Polinesso, no longer a duke but reconceived by Jones as a Protestant minister. Canadian soprano Ambur Braid is Dalinda, Ginevra’s servant who is secretly in love with Polinesso. And Canadian tenor Owen McCausland is Ariodante’s brother Lurcanio. With Ariodante, COC music director Johannes Debus conducts his first Handel opera.

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

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