Dominating the Toronto opera scene in February are two new productions by the Canadian Opera Company. On January 29 the company unveils its new production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Incredibly, for such an audience favourite, it has had no mainstage production since 1993, although the COC Ensemble Studio did stage its own production at the MacMillan Theatre in 2006. Then on February 5 the company presents its first-ever staging of John Adams’ 1987 opera Nixon in China. This is the first American work the COC has produced since the 1953 Wright and Forrest operetta Kismet in 1987. Some would say it’s about time we caught up with the operatic achievements of our neighbour to the south.

p14_15the_queen_of_the_night_sketch_-_photo_credit_myung_hee_choToronto has not been starved for Magic Flutes, it must be said, largely because of the rise of Opera Atelier. In 1991 OA unveiled its first production of the work followed by revivals in 2001 and 2006. The sets by Gerard Gauci, costumes by Dora Rust-D’Eye and direction of Marshall Pynkoski captured the sense of innocence and fun that make the work so appealing. In creating a new production the COC will find it is competing with one that Toronto audiences already cherish.

Diane Paulus, Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard University, will helm the COC’s new staging. She is perhaps best known for having directed the 2009 Broadway revival of Hair, which won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. Those fearful that she will transpose Mozart’s opera to New York’s youth culture in the 1960s need only glance through the set and costume designs by Myung Hee Cho on display on the COC website to assuage their anxiety. The designs reflect the opera’s pseudo-Asian setting and emphasize masks – a move quite suitable for a story where people are not quite what they seem.

With a run of twelve performances, the COC will use alternates in the principal roles. The opening night cast features Michael Schade as Tamino, Isabel Bayrakdarian as Pamina, Rodion Pogossov as Papageno, Mikhail Petrenko as Sarastro and Aline Kutan as the Queen of the Night. Schade and Bayrakdarian sing on January 29 and February 1, 3, 6, 8, 12, 16 and 18. Frédéric Antoun and Simone Osborne sing the parts on February 10, 20, 23 and 25. If Antoun’s name seems familiar, it may be because audiences remember the Québécois tenor as the charismatic Belmonte in Opera Atelier’s Abduction from the Seraglio in 2008. At a special performance on February 17, members of the COC Ensemble Studio take over as soloists with all tickets at $20 to $55. At all performances Johannes Debus conducts the full COC Orchestra and Chorus. For more information visit www.coc.ca.

Alternating with The Magic Flute is John Adams’ Nixon in China on February 5, 9, 11, 13, 19, 22, 24 and 26. The COC will be presenting the acclaimed production that premiered at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2004, the first major U.S. production after the work’s world premiere at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was this production of the opera that received its Canadian premiere on March 13, 2010, as part of the 2010 Vancouver Cultural Olympiad.

The opera, with a libretto by poet Alice Goodman in rhyming couplets based on news accounts and memoirs of the people involved, follows Richard Nixon’s historic five-day visit to the People’s Republic of China from February 21 to 28 in 1972. This was the first-ever visit by a sitting U.S. president to China and the first formal contact between the two countries in over twenty years. The purpose of the ardently anti-communist Nixon was a move to establish ties to counter what was deemed the threat of the Soviet Union. The opera intertwines grand public spectacle with moments of quiet reflection and, in the tradition of grand opera, even includes a ballet.

Baritone Robert Orth will sing Richard Nixon with lyric soprano Maria Kanyova as Pat Nixon, tenor Adrian Thompson as Mao Tse-Tung, coloratura soprano Marisol Montalvo as Madame Mao, bass Thomas Hammons as Henry Kissinger and baritone Chen-Ye Yuan as Chou En-lai. Pablo Heras-Casado conducts and James Robinson, who directed the 2004 production, will direct.

Adams has written, “Both Nixon and Mao were adept manipulators of public opinion, and the second scene of Act I, the famous meeting between Mao and Nixon, brings these two complex figures together face to face in a dialogue that oscillates between philosophical sparring and political one-upsmanship. Of particular meaning to me were the roles of the two principal women, Pat and Chiang Ch’ing. Both wives of politicians, they represented the ying and the yang of the two alternatives to living with someone immersed in power and political manipulation.” Those unfamiliar with Adams‘ music need only seek out the orchestra piece he extracted from the opera, “The Chairman Dances,” to recognize the appeal of Adams’ music in its use of chugging rhythms, soaring melodies and allusions to popular music, in this case the foxtrot. At long last, COC audiences will see that American opera has evolved quite a way from confections like Kismet.

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

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