One of the most notable developments in Toronto’s opera scene this season is Opera Atelier’s first-ever production of an opera from the 19th-century — Der Freischütz (“The Marksman”) from 1821 by Carl Maria von Weber (1786–1826). Even though the opera is standard repertory in central Europe, it has never had a fully staged professional production in Toronto as far as anyone can determine. The OA production will be the work’s first period production in North America.

on opera pages 34-35der freischutzWhat marks Der Freischütz as the first important Romantic opera is its use of local folk legend as the subject matter, as opposed to classical history or mythology, and local folk music as inspiration for many arias and themes. Set in Bohemia near the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, the story centres on the forester Max (Krešimir Špicer), who loves Agathe (Meghan Lindsay) and is set to succeed her father Kuno (Olivier Laquerre) as head forester if he can pass a test in marksmanship. During practice, however, Max continually fails and his fear of losing brings him under the influence of the malevolent Kaspar (Vasil Garvanliev), whose soul is already forfeit to the Devil and who hopes to substitute Max in his place. Max persuades Kaspar to cast seven magic bullets for him to use in the contest. This occurs in the mysterious Wolf’s Glen where Kaspar calls upon the infernal spirit Samiel (Curtis Sullivan) for assistance in the midst of frightening images and demonic sounds. Meanwhile, Agathe, filled with foreboding, is consoled by her friend Ännchen (Carla Huhtanen). The contest itself brings a series of unexpected mishaps but concludes with the advice of a wise hermit (Gustav Andreassen) on how to cope with the outcome.

In a telephone interview with OA co-artistic director Marshall Pynkoski, I learned how OA came to make this leap into the 19th century and how it came to choose Weber’s opera as its first experiment. Pynkoski says, “For a long time Jeannette [Lajeunesse Zingg] and myself and our designers had talked about the concept of a ‘period production.’ It’s hard to believe now, but our first conflict on this point came when we announced we were going to do a period production of The Magic Flute [in 1991]. People told us the idea was ridiculous, that the work was standard repertory and asked why we would do this. We had to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘No, we think there is a very important and legitimate statement to be made by hearing Mozart on period instruments and looking at a period-sensitive production that is unique and has not been said in a long time.’ Now no one even thinks there’s anything odd about Mozart on period instruments.

Freischütz simply takes the basic concept of Flute and pushes the envelope farther which we’ve wanted to for some time. It’s been a long time since we’ve used the word ‘baroque’ in our company description. We call ourselves a ‘period opera and ballet company’ and our point now is that a ‘period production’ can be a reference to any period. That’s what fascinates. Of course, our initial focus was the baroque and that remains our first love, particularly the French baroque. But it is only natural as you start to explore these things that it keeps pushing you into new directions. It pushes you back and it pushes you forward, into earlier repertoire and into later repertoire. I think it’s a natural progression. The whole reasoning behind it is, ‘What was the original intention of the composer, of the librettist, of the designers? Where does it sit musically, dramatically, politically, artistically? What have we lost touch with over time? Have we lost anything worthwhile that is worth coming back to re-examine and that can challenge us in a new way?’

“I don’t want to do a museum production of Freischütz and I don’t think Freischütz will ever have looked like what we are doing. What we are doing is a Freischütz that explores all the possibilities that would have been open to performers in the early 19th century. Those ‘restrictions’ for want of a better word, have become the most thrilling take-off point, just as they were with Flute, and it has made us make huge jumps musically, dramatically and in terms of design. It’s taken us in directions we never dreamed we were going to go.

“Just to take one example: For the famous Wolf’s Glen scene, full of those wonderful, frightening satanic visions, there is no record of how they were created at the time. My first impulse was that they must have used a cyclorama, a huge painting that passed by on rollers. But such a technique would be far too expensive nowadays. Of course, we have our dancers and they are a tremendous asset. We thought of the magic lantern coming into use at the time, but slide shows have a negative resonance for us today that they did not have in the period. Then we thought if we use images what would they be of? Samiel is referred to as the ‘Black Huntsman’ so images of the hunt seemed natural. I looked at Géricault with his violent scenes of lions and cheetahs tearing animals apart, but they were too exotic. Then I thought of the crazy painting ‘The Nightmare’ by the Swiss-born British painter Henry Fuseli [1741–1825], an exact contemporary of Weber. The more I looked through his catalogue of works, the more I realized his visions of horror were a perfect match for the atmosphere Weber conjures up in the Wolf’s Glen. So it will be images from Fuseli that we will project on stage during that scene in the mode of a period phantasmagoria. We will be doing nothing that was not available to artists in the early 19th century. We will just be using 21st century technology to recreate it.”

How did OA come to choose Der Freischütz as its first foray into a new period? Pynkoski had considered doing a 19th century work for some time and had first considered Beethoven’s Leonore (1805), as the first version of his Fidelio is called. But it was conductor David Fallis, who suggested about three years ago that he and Jeannette Lajeunesse-Zingg have a look at Der Freischütz. What galvanized their attention happened in April last year when Krešimir Špicer was singing the title role in La Clemenza di Tito. Pynkoski, wondering when he and Špicer might ever work together again, said, “Kreš, tell me something you’re dying to do. We’ll do it for you. We just want you to come back. And he said instantly, ‘Well, I think you should be doing Freischütz and I should be singing Max.’” Pynkoski and Zingg went home, immediately listened to the CDs Fallis had given them, were overwhelmed by the work and told Špicer the next day they would be doing it — they didn’t know when — but they would be mounting it as a vehicle for him.

The 19th century may be new territory for Opera Atelier, but it is not for their orchestra, Tafelmusik. Tafelmusik has already played Beethoven’s symphonies to great acclaim and has programmed Chopin for next year. The most practical challenge is that the opera requires a 40-piece orchestra and David Fallis is still trying to figure out where to fit everybody in and around the pit at the Elgin Theatre.

Meanwhile, Pynkoski was bubbling over with news on a completely different topic. Two weeks after Freischütz closes, he and Zingg fly off to Salzburg to begin rehearsals for Mozart’s early opera Lucio Silla (1772), written when he was only 17. As it happens early music conductor Marc Minkowski has become the head of the Mozarteum in Salzburg. Ever since Minkowski first conducted for OA, he, Pynkoski and Zingg have longed to work together again, but Minkowski’s growing fame made scheduling trips to Toronto too difficult. Now he has asked the OA co-artistic directors to direct for him in Salzburg. Lucio Silla will premiere at the Mozarteum during Mozart Week on January 24, 2013, then travel to Bremen and Halle before returning to Salzburg in the summer.

But before that happens, Pynkoski and Zingg are focussing on Der Freischütz. Like The Magic Flute it is a singspiel, with spoken dialogue and sung arias. For Freischütz, the dialogue will be spoken in English and the arias sung in German with English surtitles. Flute and Freischütz make an excellent pairing. Both deal with the supernatural and both move from darkness to light, but Mozart’s focus is on the rational while Weber’s is on the irrational that lies just below the surface in everyday life. Der Freischütz runs from October 27 to November 3 at the Elgin Theatre. For tickets and more information visit

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

The 2012/13 season has a more conservative aura than have the past several seasons. For the large companies, this is likely a result of the perception four to five years ago when choices were made, that patrons with tighter resources would be less inclined to be adventurous. Nevertheless, while there is more standard repertoire on offer, there are still enough small companies in the city to offer the diversity we have grown used to.

COC:Compared to the past few seasons the upcoming choices of the Canadian Opera Company ( are decidedly mainstream. The fall season opens Verdi’s Il Trovatore, not seen at the COC since 2005. The production from L’Opéra de Marseilles runs September 29 to October 31, 2012, and stars Ramón Vargas as Manrico, Elza van den Heever as Leonora, Elena Manistina as Azucena and Russell Braun as the Conte di Luna; Riccardo Massi sings Manrico on October 28 and 31. Marco Guidarini conducts and Charles Roubaud directs.

36 opera amburbraid and mireilleasselin  2 photo by sn biancaAlternating with Il Trovatore is a new COC production of Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss, Jr. The operetta was once one of the COC’s most performed works with eight productions between 1955 and 1991, but neither it nor any other operetta has been staged by the COC since then. The fact that the COC has commissioned its own new production suggests that we will be seeing Die Fledermaus more often. Michael Schade sings Gabriel von Eisenstein, Tamara Wilson is Rosalinde, Ambur Braid and Mireille Asselin alternate as Adele, Peter Barrett is Dr. Falke and, following tradition, Prince Orlofsky is played by a woman, Laura Tucker. The production is directed by Christopher Alden, who has directed the COC’s Der fliegende Holländer and last year’s Rigoletto. Johannes Debus conducts.

The winter season brings the first staging of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde by the COC since 1987. It runs from January 29 to February 23. Ben Heppner is scheduled to sing Tristan with Burkhard Fritz taking over on February 8 and 23. Melanie Diener will sing Isolde with Margaret Jane Wray taking over on February 8 and 23. Famed director Peter Sellars will recreate his production for L’Opéra national de Paris that makes extensive use of video by Bill Viola. Renowned Czech conductor Jiří Bělohlávek will wield the baton. In repertory with Tristan, from February 3 to 22, 2013, is Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, not seen at the COC since 1991. Michael Schade sings the title role in Christopher Alden’s production created for the Chicago Opera Theater. Johannes Debus conducts.

In the spring season we have Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, not seen since 2004, running from April 17 to May 24, and starring Anna Christie in the title role. In repertory with Lucia is a revival of Atom Egoyan’s staging of Salome, not seen since 2001, running from April 21 to May 22. Erika Sunnegårdh sings the title role with Richard Margison as Herod. In May the two operas are joined by Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, not seen since 1997, which runs from May 8 to 25. Isabel Bayrakdarian sings Blanche de la Force with Judith Forst as Madame de Croisy. The production from De Nederlandse Opera is directed by Robert Carsen.

36 opera vasil garvanliev  credit phil crozierAtelier: In 2012/13 Opera Atelier ( breaks exciting new ground with its first-ever production of a 19th-century opera, Der Freischütz (1821) by Carl Maria von Weber. Even though the opera is standard repertory in central Europe, it has never been staged by the COC. The OA production will be the work’s first period production in North America. While the 19th century may seem a stretch for OA, it is not for the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra that has already played Beethoven’s symphonies to great acclaim and has programmed Chopin for next season. Der Freischütz, running October 27 to November 3, stars Krešimir Špicer as the title marksman Max, with Vasil Garvanliev as the villain Kaspar and soprano Meghan Lindsay as Max’s beloved Agathe, whom he hopes to win as his bride in a contest of marksmanship. As usual Marshall Pynkoski directs and David Fallis will conduct Tafelmusik.

In the spring, OA revives its beloved production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, running April 6 to 13. Since both Der Freischütz and The Magic Flute are singspiele (using spoken dialogue instead of recitative) and since both involve the supernatural, they make a fine pairing — Mozart emphasizing the triumph of reason over the irrational and Weber portraying just the opposite. The Magic Flute features many OA favourites including Colin Ainsworth, Olivier Laquerre, Ambur Braid and João Fernandes.

TOT: Toronto Operetta Theatre ( will present only two works this season. The end-of-year treat is Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow from December 28, 2012, to January 6, 2013, starring Leslie Ann Bradley, Elizabeth Beeler, Adam Luther and Keith Klassen. In the spring, TOT has Offenbach’s 1866 operetta La Vie parisienne, not seen at the TOT since 1992, which runs from April 30 to May 5. It features Elizabeth DeGrazia and Lauren Segal, and is conducted by Larry Beckwith.

Beckwith is also the artistic director of Toronto Masque Theatre ( From May 10 to 12, TMT will present a operatic double bill combining new and old, East and West. The first work will be Venus and Adonis (1683) by John Blow. The second will be the world premiere of The Lesson of Da Ji by Toronto composer Alice Ping Yee Ho to a libretto by Marjorie Chan based on the Ming Dynasty fantasy novel The Investiture of the Gods. Beckwith will lead an orchestra of combined baroque and Chinese instruments.

OH:For further fully staged operas, Torontonians will have to take a trip down to Hamilton. Opera Hamilton (, which now performs in the more congenial Dofasco Centre rather than in Hamilton Place, will present Verdi’s Rigoletto on October 20, 23, 25 and 27, 2012, and Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers on March 9, 12, 14 and 16. OH has Jason Howard and Simone Osborne lined up for the Verdi and Brett Polegato and Virginia Hatfield for the Bizet.

In concert: Operas presented in concert help give breadth to the season. On November 1 and 3, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra ( will present a double bill of Beethoven’s Symphony No.8 with Manuel de Falla’s one-act opera La Vida breve (1913) with a cast of singers and flamenco dancers from Spain conducted by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. On February 15 and 16 the Toronto Consort will present the Canadian premiere of The Loves of Apollo and Daphne (1640) by Francesco Cavalli with Charles Daniels, Katherine Hill and Laura Pudwell.

Opera in Concert ( which is rebranding itself as “Voicebox,” has scheduled the Canadian premiere of Rossini’s Armida (1817) for November 25, 2012, Handel’s Orlando (1733) for February 3 accompanied by the Aradia Ensemble, and Massenet’s Thaïs (1894) for March 24, starring Laura Whalen. Meanwhile, Opera by Request ( has immediate plans for Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chenier (1896) on September 22 and Wagner’s Die Walküre (1870) on September 29 with Rachel Cleland as Brünnhilde.

June opera: June was once devoid of opera — but no longer. Sometime in June the upstart company Against the Grain (, known for staging opera in non-traditional venues, plans to present a new version of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro titled Figaro’s Wedding, rescored for piano and string quartet. And also sometime during the month Tapestry New Opera ( will present the Toronto premiere of Shelter by Juliet Palmer to a libretto by Julie Salverson about “a nuclear family adrift in the atomic age” with a child who glows in the dark. Tapestry will also present a workshop production of Ruth by Jeffrey Ryan to a libretto by Michael Lewis MacLennon based on the book in the Old Testament but applying the moral “your people shall be my people” to contemporary Canadian society.

And coming full circle: Speaking of Tapestry New Opera, too late to deal with fully in this column, but just in time for this note, this September 21 to 23 will be the presentation of Tapestry’s 12th annual “Opera Briefs,” featuring the best of the new works arising from its invigorating annual summer composer-librettist workshop affectionately known as the “LibLab.” See the listings, and the Tapestry website, for details. 

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

For toronto opera-goers, summer is usually a time to leave town to sample the myriad musical festivals outside Canada. Yet there are a number of intriguing productions to see in Toronto over the next two months and at festivals nearby.

For staged operas with piano accompaniment, Summer Opera Lyric Theatre has been an oasis for opera since 1986. This year SOLT ( offers an especially interesting program by presenting operas based on all three Figaro plays by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732–99). Everyone knows the first two of the Figaro trilogy. Beaumarchais wrote The Barber of Seville 1773 and it served as the basis of Rossini’s opera in 1816. Beaumarchais wrote the sequel to Barber, The Marriage of Figaro, in 1778, which became the basis of Mozart’s opera in 1786. Other composers used the plays as plots for their own operas such as the Barber by Giovanni Paisiello in 1782 or the Marriage of Figaro by Gaetano Rossi in 1799, but time has crowned Rossini’s and Mozart’s versions as the most successful operatic treatments of their respective sources.

Less known both in the theatre and on the opera stage is the third part of Beaumarchais’s Figaro trilogy, La Mère coupable (The Guilty Mother) written in 1792. If you thought that The Marriage of Figaro revealed the relationship of Count Almaviva and his Rosina as rather less than happy, La Mère coupable goes even further. Set 20 years after the previous play, it appears that the Countess did have a relationship with Cherubino and that the product was a son, Léon. Meanwhile, the Count, although he has had an illegitimate child of his own named Florestine, is intent on punishing the Countess for her betrayal and prevent Léon from inheriting a sou. Figaro and Susanna are still happily married but must solve this problem, especially when they discover that Léon and Florestine have fallen in love with each other.

There are two main contenders for operatic treatments of the third Figaro play. The first is La Mère coupable by Darius Milhaud from 1966. The second is The Ghosts of Versailles by John Corigliano of 1980 which includes a performance of the third play as a part of a larger plot set in the afterlife. SOLT has chosen the Milhaud which has a Canadian connection. It was Louis Quilico who created the role of Milhaud’s Count Almaviva at the world premiere in Geneva.

SOLT is thus offering what is likely the first chance ever in Canada to see operas based on the entire Figaro trilogy in repertory. The Barber of Seville will be performed in English on July 28, 31, August 2 and 4 with Maika’i Nash as music director. The Marriage of Figarowill be performed in English July 27, 29, August 1 and 4 with Jennifer Tung as music director. And La Mère coupablewill be performed in French July 28, August 1, 3 and 5 with Nicole Bellamy as music director. All performances take place at the intimate Robert Gill Theatre on the University of Toronto campus.

For another French rarity in concert, Opera by Request (www.­ will present Léo Delibes’ Lakmé (1883), famed for its “Flower Duet” and the “Bell Song”, on August 10 at the College Street United Church. Soprano Allison Arends sings the title role, tenor Christopher Mayell is her British lover Gerald, and baritone Michael York is Nilakantha the High Priest who disapproves of their love. William Shookhoff is the pianist and music director.

For fully-staged opera, Torontonians will have to wait until August 20 to 31 when the renowned Volcano Theatre (www.­ teams up with music director Ashiq Aziz and his Classical Music Consort (a period instrument band) to present A Synonym for Love at the Gladstone Hotel. Synonym is in reality the 1707 cantata Clori, Tirsi e Fileno by George Frederic Handel given a modernized English libretto by Deborah Pearson. Rather than a love triangle of two shepherds and a shepherdess, Pearson has turned it into a triangle among three guests at the hotel and the audience will follow the singers as their drama moves through hallways and bedrooms of the hotel.

The score of the cantata was thought to be lost until 250 years later a single copy was discovered in Germany. This will be the first fully-staged production of the work in Canada. Soprano Emily Atkinson, countertenor Scott Belluz and soprano Tracy Smith Bessette will be the singers, Ross Manson will direct and Ashiq Aziz will conduct. 

The Shaw Festival ( has presented both musicals and operettas in the past, but this year it is presenting its first opera, the one-acter Trouble in Tahiti by Leonard Bernstein from 1952. The 45-minute opera with a libretto by Bernstein depicts a day in the life of a typical suburban couple who suspect that their perfect life is missing something. Meanwhile, a Greek-style chorus comments on the action. Mark Uhre plays the husband Sam and Elodie Gillett his wife Dinah. Jay Turvey directs and Paul Sportelli conducts. The opera runs as a lunchtime show at the Court House Theatre July 7 to October 7.

Further afield, the Westben Arts Festival ( in Campbellford opens its season with the world premiere of The Auction with music by John Burge to a libretto by Eugene Benson. Based on the children’s story of the same name, the opera tells of how a grandfather explains to his grandson (and himself) why he has to sell the family farm and why things must change. The seven-member cast includes Bruce Kelly, Kimberly Barber and Keith Klassen. Philip Headlam conducts the Westben Chamber Orchestra and Allison Grant directs. The premiere is June 30 followed by only one more performance on July 1. Let’s hope for a revival in the future.

Just as a reminder, fans of Opera Atelier may wish to head down to Cooperstown, New York, to cheer on the company. OA has been invited to stage its highly acclaimed production of Lully’s Armide as one of the four offerings of music theatre at Glimmerglass Opera ( this summer. Armide, with the same cast that played in Toronto last April, runs in repertory with Verdi’s Aida, Weill’s Lost in the Stars and Willson’s The Music Man July 21 to August 23.

Have a great summer! 

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

opera_robertwilson_and_philipglass_photo_by_lucie_janschThe operatic highlight of the year arrives this June as part of Luminato. It’s the Canadian premiere of Philip Glass’ iconoclastic 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach in its first new production in 20 years. The New York-based organization Pomegranate Arts premiered the new production in Montpellier, France, with the express purpose of touring it to places where it had never before been seen. As a seminal creation that redefined what opera is, it is the one work this year that no lover of modern opera can afford to miss.

Einstein on the Beach resulted from the collaboration of composer Philip Glass, director Robert Wilson and choreographer Lucinda Childs. The notion was to create a plotless, image-driven, multimedia exploration of the world-changing ideas of one great man. The title itself combines the name of the subject with the title of Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach, about the end of life on earth due to a nuclear holocaust.

Einstein on the Beach breaks all of the rules of conventional opera, including the relationship among the work’s creators. Robert Wilson did not write a traditional libretto but rather created a series of storyboards suggesting structure and designs that inspired Glass’ music. Non-narrative in form, the work uses the development of powerful recurrent images as its main storytelling device in juxtaposition with abstract dance sequences created by Lucinda Childs.

opera_einsteinonthebeach_2_photo_by_lucie_janschEinstein on the Beach is structured in four acts connected by five danced “knee plays.” The four acts of the opera –Train, Trial 1 & 2 and Field/Spaceship — refer to Einstein’s theories of relativity and his hypothesis of unified field theory, with the “Trials” focussed on the misuse of science as implied in the second half of the title. Instead of a traditional orchestral arrangement, Glass composed the work for his own amplified ensemble consisting of three reed players — flute (doubling piccolo and bass clarinet), soprano saxophone (doubling flute), tenor saxophone (doubling alto saxophone); solo violin (played by the non-singing character Einstein on stage) and two synthesizers/electronic organs. The cast requires two females, one adult male and one male child in speaking roles with a 16-member chorus with one male and female soloist. Because of its nearly five-hour length, there are no traditional intervals. Instead, the audience is invited to enter and exit at liberty during the performance.

Einstein on the Beach was Glass’ first opera and the first collaboration between Glass and Wilson. For the new production, they are working with a number of their long-time collaborators, including Lucinda Childs, who will serve as choreographer, as she did for the original production and for the revivals in 1984 and 1992. All of these artists are now in their 70s, with this production the cornerstone of Glass’ 75th birthday year.

Speaking of the new production, Glass has said, “For Bob and me, the 2012-13 revival of Einstein on the Beach will be a most significant event, since in all likelihood, this will be the last time that we will be together and able to work on the piece. For audiences, few of whom have experienced Einstein apart from audio recordings, this tour will be a chance finally to see this seminal work.

“In this production, my composition will remain consistent with the 1976 original. The technology of theatre staging and lighting has improved to such an extent that it will be interesting to see how Bob uses these innovations to realize his original vision.”

Wilson has said, “Philip and I have been always been surprised by the impact that the opera had and has. I am particularly excited about this revival, as we are planning to re-envision Einstein with a new generation of performers, some of whom were not even born when Einstein had its world premiere. Aside from New York, Einstein on the Beach has never been seen in any of the cities currently on our tour, and I am hoping that other cities might still be added. I am very curious to see how, after nearly 40 years, it will be received by a 21st century audience.”

Einstein on the Beach is the first of what later came known as Philip Glass “portrait operas,” each centred on a man who changed the world not through force but through the force of his ideas. Einstein was followed by Satyagraha (1980) about Mahatma Gandhi and Akhnaten (1984) about the Egyptian pharaoh (14th century BC) who was the first man in recorded history to promote monotheism. In all, Glass has written 13 full-scale operas and five chamber operas, of which only one has ever been seen in Toronto — La Belle et la Bête (1995), one of his trilogy of Jean Cocteau film operas.

Glass’ musical style has been called “minimalist,” a term he dislikes, preferring to call it “music with repetitive structures.” Notable features include a prominent steady pulse, consonance (rather than dissonance) and repetition leading to the gradual additive transformation of musical phrases. Glass’ early works like Einstein feature near constant arpeggiation of each note of the melodic line. As Glass explains it, “My main approach throughout has been to link harmonic structure directly to rhythmic structure, using the latter as a base. In doing so, easily perceptible ‘root movement’ (chords or ‘changes’) was chosen in order that the clarity of this relationship could be easily heard. Melodic material is for the most part a function, or result, of the harmony.” Once a minority style in the 1960s, then still dominated by serialism, it has now become the most popular experimental style in classical music as represented by such different composers as Steve Reich, John Adams, Michael Torke, Michael Nyman, and the so-called spiritual minimalists Henryk Górecki, Arvo Pärt, Sofia Gubaidulina and John Tavener. For more information and tickets visit

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

May offers opera lovers productions on both a large and small scale. The Tales of Hoffmann and the double-bill of The Florentine Tragedy and Gianni Schicchi continue at the Canadian Opera Company and are joined in May by Handel’s Semele. Meanwhile, a new opera company also presents a Handel opera, but in a deliberately minimalist fashion, and Against the Grain Theatre moves its next production from the pub to a theatre.

14_opera_essentialopera-promo2_katie_cross_photography_bardua_and_battThe Canadian Opera Company’s first-ever production of Handel’s Semele runs May 9 to 26. Like Handel’s Hercules (1745), seen earlier this year in a staged concert performance by Tafelmusik directed by Opera Atelier’s Marshall Pynkoski, Semele (1744) was written as an oratorio. The audiences of the day found that Semele was so operatic in its conception and execution that they suspected Handel was presenting them an opera (inappropriate for the Lenten season) in the guise of an oratorio. Consequently, it, like the Hercules that followed, was a failure and fell into neglect until the 20th century — neither revived until 1925. Since then, it has become one of Handel’s more frequently-performed operas.

14-opera_christopher-enns_coc1107taminothreeladiesHandel chose for his libretto one written by famed English playwright William Congreve in 1707 for an opera by John Eccles. The story found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book III, is set at the Temple of Juno in Thebes, where King Cadmus is preparing for the marriage of his daughter Semele to Prince Athamas. Semele has been trying to postpone the marriage because she has a secret lover — none other than the god Jupiter himself who disguises himself as a mortal. Spurred on by Juno, enraged that her husband is yet again seeking pleasure elsewhere, Semele demands that Jupiter show himself to her in all his godlike splendour. Jupiter warns her of the consequences but she cannot be dissuaded and as a result is burned to ashes by the flames of his glory. The one positive outcome (which the COC production omits) is that Jupiter is able to rescue his son from Semele’s womb, who will become Bacchus (Dionysus in Greek), god of wine, epiphany and tragedy.

The COC production, designed and directed by Chinese artist Zhang Huan, was first presented at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels in 2009 and then in Beijing in 2010, where it became the first major production of a baroque opera in China. Zhang provides an Eastern take on Western subject matter, but it is worth bearing in mind that the story of Semele and Dionysus is not originally a Greek story. It is a myth that the Thracians assimilated when they were resident in Asia Minor before finally settling in Greece. The name “Semele” itself comes from a proto-Indo-European root meaning “earth” and Dionysus is one of numerous gods in world mythology who die and are resurrected and are related to primordial vegetation cults. James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890) is devoted to this subject and finds parallels for Dionysus in Osiris in Ancient Egypt, Tammuz in Ancient Babylon and Krishna in Hinduism, among many others.

What makes this production so unusual is that it features an actual 450-year-old Ming Dynasty ancestral temple on stage. Zhang salvaged the temple from destruction after its owner was executed for murdering his wife’s lover. As Zhang says in his Director’s Note, “This old temple is the chapel where Semele is to get married, the heaven where she creates love, the crematory where she is destroyed, and the holy land that she is reborn in.”

At the podium is Rinaldo Alessandrini, who has recorded baroque repertoire extensively with Concerto Italiano and is considered one of the world’s leading specialists in baroque opera. The cast includes Jane Archibald as Semele, Allyson McHardy as both Semele’s sister Ino and as Juno, William Burden as Jupiter, Anthony Roth Costanzo as Athamas and Steven Hunes as both Cadmus and Somnus, god of sleep. On May 23, members of the COC Ensemble Studio take over the roles at a special performance. For tickets or more information, visit

Lovers of Handel’s operas should consider performances of Alcina (1735) presented in concert by a new arrival on the opera scene, Essential Opera, founded by sopranos Erin Bardua and Maureen Batt. Though Alcina is one of Handel’s most popular operas, it has never been staged by the COC. Essential Opera presents the work accompanied by period instruments at the Trinity-
St. Paul’s Centre on May 25 and as part of the New Hamburg Live! festival in New Hamburg, near Stratford, on May 31. The cast includes Bardua and Batt as the sorceresses Alcina and Morgana; Vilma Vitols as the knight Ruggiero entrapped by Alcina’s love-spells; and Vicki St. Pierre as both conductor and the heroine Bradamante, who disguises herself as a knight, to rescue her betrothed Ruggiero. Alcina is sung in Italian with English surtitles. For tickets and more information, see

Switching to the 20th century, Against the Grain Theatre, known for its popular pub presentations of Puccini’s La Bohème, moves to the 112-seat Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse on the U of T campus, for an intimate production of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw (1954).

This is only the second fully-staged production by AtG, whose goal is to make opera a cozier, more relaxed experience. The show will have sets by Camellia Koo and costumes by Erika Connor. AtG founder Joel Ivany directs with Christopher Mokrzewski at the piano. Miriam Khalil will sing the role of the troubled Governess, COC favourite Michael Barrett will be the mysterious Peter Quint, Megan Latham will be Mrs. Grose and Johane Ansell and Sebastian Gayowsky will be Flora and Miles, the two children who fall under Quint’s malign influence. For tickets and more information, visit

Editor’s Note: Information about this AtG production arrived too late for our concert listings deadline: performances are May 24, 25, 26 and 27, at 7:30pm.

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

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