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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ten operas are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BBB-Opera1This month the Canadian Opera Company embarks on a season of greatest hits with operas (and even three productions of operas) that it has presented before. Over-familiarity, however, is not a danger, with many renowned singers making their COC debuts.

The COC opens the season with a new production of Verdi’s Falstaff directed by Canadian Robert Carsen, already acclaimed at the Royal Opera Covent Garden in 2012 and at the Metropolitan Opera in 2013 (which broadcast it live in December that year). Canadian baritone Gerald Finley returns to the COC for the first time in 20 years to sing the title role. The all-Canadian cast includes Simone Osborne as Nannetta, Frédéric Antoun as her lover Fenton, Russell Braun as Ford, Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Mistress Quickly and Lauren Segal as Meg Page. Johannes Debus conducts. Falstaff has seven performances from October 3 to November 1.

Running in repertory with Falstaff will be Puccini’s ever-popular Madama Butterfly in the timeless production created by Brian Macdonald and Susan Benson for the COC in 1990. The production plays from October 10 to 31. The 12-performance run conducted by Patrick Lange will necessitate the use of two casts of principals. Sopranos Patricia Racette and Kelly Kaduce, both making their COC debuts, will alternate in the role of Cio-Cio San. Tenors Stefano Secco and Andrea Carè, also both making their COC debuts, will alternate as Pinkerton. As Sharpless, Dwayne Croft, making his COC debut, will alternate with Canadian Gregory Dahl, while Elizabeth DeShong returns to sing Suzuki in all performances. The singers’ scheduled appearances are listed on the COC’s Butterfly page.

Czech Gem by Request: For operagoers seeking more unusual fare, one of Toronto’s smaller companies, Opera by Request, has come up with a real gem – the Canadian premiere of Antonín Dvořák’s Jakobín in the composer’s final version of 1898. Czech opera used to be a staple at the COC under Richard Bradshaw, but the company has not staged a Czech opera since Dvořák’s Rusalka in the 2008/09 season. That production was the fulfillment of a vow that Bradshaw had made to COC co-founder Nicholas Goldschmidt to stage the beloved work, but, sadly, both had passed away by the time the production premiered.

Jakobín is the seventh of Dvořák’s 12 operas. Rusalka is the one opera by Dvořák to join the repertoire outside of the Czech Republic, but according to John Holland, an expert in Czech opera and co-founder of the Canadian Institute for Czech Music, many Czechs regard Jakobín not only as Dvořák’s greatest opera but also as the most Czech of all his operas. The reason for this is that the opera is set in a Czech village and is permeated with the influence of Czech folksong and dance. In that way Jakobín follows in the tradition of Bedřich Smetana’s ever-popular The Bartered Bride (1866), the first Czech opera to enter the international repertoire.

BBB-Opera2The story of Jakobín, however, is quite different from that of Smetana’s opera. The piece is set in a small Bohemian village in 1794. The date is significant because the action shows how the events of the French Revolution, then ongoing, have repercussions in faraway Bohemia. We meet the elderly Count Vilém of Harasov, who is about to hand over his power and property to his wicked nephew, Adolf. The nephew has convinced the count that his son, Bohuš, who has been living in Paris and is sympathetic to progressive social policies, is in actuality a Jacobin, the name given to supporters of the French Revolution. The fact that Bohuš has a French wife (Julie) makes him even more suspect. The result is that when Bohuš returns home, the count disinherits him. How the falsehoods about Bohuš and Julie are discovered and how the count is reconciled with them form the main thrust of the action.

In the subplot, the count’s self-important burgrave (or châtelain) Filip pays unwanted attentions to Terinka, the daughter of the village choirmaster Benda. Terinka is in love with the gamekeeper Jiří, who helps her fend off the nasty Filip. In a review of a revival of Jakobín at the Buxton Festival this summer, critic Mark Pullinger noted, “Part of the opera’s charm involves a semi-autobiographical portrait; there are parallels between Jiří, the young gamekeeper, and Dvořák himself. Benda, the kindly schoolmaster, could easily have been modelled on Antonín Liehmann, who taught Dvořák the rudiments of music and also – perhaps not without coincidence – had a daughter named Terinka, with whom Dvořák sang in the choir.” Critic George Hall, commenting on the same production, noted that the strengths of the story lie in “its emphasis on a community holding on to its values at a time of wider social upheaval, and a second commentary on music’s ability to bind people together.”

The fact that music binds people together is evident not just in the opera but in how the Czech community has come together in supporting this production of Jakobín. Opera by Request is a small company where the singers choose the repertoire for performances in concert with piano accompaniment. Three of the singers in Jakobín had previously performed in OBR’s production of Leoš Janáček’s Jenůfa last year. They wanted to do another Czech opera, perhaps another Janáček work. John Holland suggested that they do something more unusual since, as it so happens, 2014 is designated as “The Year of Czech Music.” His choice was Jakobín, an opera never before staged in Canada and staged only once before in North America. Holland points out that Jakobín contains a wonderfully patriotic duet in Act 2, very appropriate to the émigré Czech community, about how Czech music has sustained them as they have wandered in foreign lands.

From the beginning Holland’s desire was to have the performance be bigger than the presenter’s usual opera in concert. The Czech Consulate, Czech Ministry of Culture and members of the Czech community lent their support to the project. Holland received a grant from the Ontario Arts Council to expand the accompaniment from a piano to a chamber orchestra, thus giving William Shookhoff, OBR’s indefatigable accompanist, the chance to conduct. The singers will be off-book and interact under the stage direction of Holland. The production is billed as “semi-staged” since there will be no set or costumes, but there will be both an adult and a children’s chorus as the score requires. And, while the opera will be sung in Czech, there will be English surtitles.

The cast includes baritone Andrew Tees as the Count, baritone Michael Robert-Broder as Bohuš, soprano Michele Cusson as Julie, bass-baritone Domenico Sanfilippo as Adolf, baritone John Holland as Filip, tenor Lenard Whiting as Benda, soprano Danielle Dudycha as Terinka and tenor Ryan Harper as Jiří. The single performance will take place October 24 at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. One can phone 647-969-3498 for more information or visit the website of the Canadian Institute for Czech Music at canczechmusic.ca.

Other rarities: While Jakobín, as a Canadian premiere, may be the principal rarity of October, there are performances of other rarities on hand to enliven the month. Opera by Request is also presenting a concert performance of Hamlet (1868) by Ambroise Thomas in Toronto on October 10 at the College St. United Church after performances in Montreal and Point-Claire, Quebec, earlier in the month. Simon Chaussee is the Prince of Denmark, Gerda Findeisen is Ophelia, Ioanna Touliatu is Gertrude, Norman Brown is Claudius, Danny LeClerc is Laërtes, Gianmarco Segato is Horatio and Simon Chalifoux is Polonius. William Shookhoff serves as pianist and music director.

Last, but certainly not least, Opera Atelier presents its first full-scale opera by Handel in the form of his Alcina from 1735. The opera runs from October 23 to November 1 and as usual is directed by Marshall Pynkoski and choreographed by Jeannette Lajeunnesse-Zingg, with David Fallis conducting the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. The story from Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando furioso (1532) concerns the Circe-like sorceress Alcina who lives in a magical world composed of the souls of her past lovers. The question is whether the Christian knight Ruggiero can resist her enchantments to set these souls free.

The cast is made up of singers familiar from previous OA productions. Meghan Lindsay, who sang Agathe in OA’s Der Freischütz, returns to sing the title role. Allyson McHardy sings the trousers role of Ruggiero and Wallis Giunta is Ruggiero’s beloved Bradamante. They are joined by Mireille Asselin, Krešimir Špicer and Olivier Laquerre.

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


For the 2014/15 opera season in Southern Ontario there will be a gap in offerings for fully-staged operas that many will feel keenly. This is the first season since 1980 in which there will be no Opera Hamilton. The company ceased operations early this year after its fall 2013 production of Verdi’s Falstaff. Management at Opera Hamilton used to say that the company functioned as the New York City Opera in relation to the COC’s Met, since OH was proud to showcase Canadian singers as often as possible. That comparison now has an ironic ring since the New York City Opera itself ceased operations in October last year. In March, Leonard Turnevicius, longtime reporter on the music scene for The Hamilton Spectator, wrote me to say, “It certainly looks as though fully staged, professional opera in Hamilton has come to an end.”

Not helping to alleviate the pall cast by the failure of Opera Hamilton was the announcement by the Canadian Opera Company that it would present only six productions in 2014/15 instead of its usual seven. The last time the COC presented only six productions was in the 2000/01 season when there was no separate COC Ensemble Studio production. (The last time the COC Ensemble Studio had its own production was in the 2007/08 season.)

Besides this, unlike last season when the COC presented three company premieres, this year not only has the COC staged all six operas before, but three of the productions are already familiar to COC audiences. What will make the new season exciting is the chance to see many well-known singers making their COC debuts.

features - on operaFinley in Falstaff: The season opener is a new production of Verdi’s final opera Falstaff by Robert Carsen running October 3 to November 1. This is a co-production with Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Teatro alla Scala, the Metropolitan Opera and De Nederlandse Opera. Many will have already seen what the production looks like from the The Met: Live broadcast of it in December 2013. Carsen has moved the setting forward from Elizabethan times to 1950s England.

For many fans the main draw for Falstaff besides Carsen’s production will be the chance to see Canadian baritone Gerald Finley in the title role, back at the COC for the first time in 20 years. Canadians in the rest of the cast include Simone Osborne as Nannetta, Frédéric Antoun as her lover Fenton, Russell Braun as Ford, Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Mistress Quickly and Lauren Segal as Meg Page. Johannes Debus conducts. 

Racette in Butterfly: Running in repertory with Falstaff will be Puccini’s ever-popular Madama Butterfly in the timeless production created by Brian Macdonald and Susan Benson for the COC in 1990. The production running from October 10 to 31 has proved so successful one only wishes the COC had asked the duo to created more opera productions. The production will mark the COC debuts of several singers. Patricia Racette and Kelly Kaduce will alternate in the role of Cio-Cio San and Stefano Secco and Andrea Carè will alternate as Pinkterton. Dwayne Croft, making his COC debut, will alternate with Canadian Gregory Dahl as Sharpless, and Elizabeth DeShong returns to the COC as Suzuki. Patrick Lange conducts.

Braun in Giovanni: The winter season begins with a new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a co-production with Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Bolshoi Theatre and Teatro Real Madrid. The stage direction is by the Russian Dmitri Tcherniakov, though Tcherniakov has not stuck to merely directing Mozart’s opera. He has also given it a new story. Donna Anna is the daughter of the “Commander” but so is Zerlina. Donna Elvira is Donna Anna’s cousin and Don Giovanni is her husband. Leporello is said to be a relative who lives with them. The production had its world premiere in 2009 at Aix and that performance was filmed and is available on DVD from BelAir Classiques for those who want to test how they like Tcherniakov’s concept.

Russell Braun will sing Don Giovanni with Kyle Ketelsen as Leporello. They will be joined by Jennifer Holloway, Jane Archibald and Michael Schade. German early music specialist Michael Hofstetter will conduct. The opera runs from January 24 to February 21.

Goerke in Walküre: Running in repertory with the Mozart is a return of Atom Egoyan’s production of Wagner’s Die Walküre, first seen on its own in 2004 and last seen as part of the full Der Ring des Nibelungen in 2006. The cast is full of singers making their COC debuts, most notably renowned soprano Christine Goerke making her role debut as Brünnhilde. Also appearing with the COC for the first time are Heidi Melton as Sieglinde, Johan Reuter as Wotan, Dmitry Ivaschenko as Hunding and Janina Baechle as Fricka. Clifton Forbis returns in the role of Siegmund and Johannes Debus conducts. The opera runs from January 31 to February 22. 

Hopkins in Barber: The spring season opens with a new production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, last seen here in 2008. This is a co-production with Houston Grand Opera, Opéra National de Bordeaux and Opera Australia. The stage director is the Catalonian Joan Font and the production is credited to a group called Els Comediants. If these names seem familiar it is because they were responsible for the colourful rat-filled production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola seen here in 2011. Again there will be many performers new to the COC, such as Joshua Hopkins as Figaro, Alek Shrader as Almaviva and Serena Malfi and Cecelia Hall alternating as Rosina. Rory Macdonald conducts and the production runs April 17 to May 22.

Relyea in Lepage revival: Running in repertory with the Rossini is the third revival of Robert Lepage’s double bill of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Schoenberg’s Erwartung. The surreal pairing was first seen in 1993 and last in 2002. The production marked the first time the COC was invited to the Edinburgh Festival and later to BAM in New York. The production, like François Girard’s Oedipus Rex in 1997, came from a time when the COC created Canadian productions that the rest of the world demanded to see rather than from simply partnering with well-known companies and seeing the results after the bigger companies had staged them.  

For this revival, John Relyea and Ekaterina Gubanova will sing Bluebeard and Judith in the Bartók while Krisztina Szabó will take on the role of the anonymous Woman in Erwartung. Johannes Debus will conduct and the double bill will run from May 6 to 23.

Atelier Breaks New Ground: While last season both productions by Opera Atelier were revivals, this season both not only are new but break new ground for the company. Running from October 23 to November 1 is OA’s first-ever production of a full-length Handel opera, in this case his Alcina of 1735. The story, from Torquato Tasso’s baroque epic Gerusalemme Liberata (1581), concerns the Circe-like sorceress Alcina who lives in a magical world composed of the souls of her past lovers. The question is whether the Christian knight Ruggiero can resist her enchantments to set these souls free.

The cast is made up of singers familiar from previous OA productions. Meghan Lindsay, who sang Agathe in OA’s Der Freischütz, returns to sing Alcina, Allyson McHardy sings the trousers role of Ruggiero, and Wallis Giunta is Ruggiero’s beloved Bradamante. They are joined by Mireille Asselin (Morgana), Krešimir Špicer (Oronte) and Olivier Laquerre (Melisso).

OA’s spring production is Hector Berlioz’s 1859 version of Gluck’s Orpheus et Eurydice. Berlioz drew from both of Gluck’s earlier French and Italian versions of the opera to recast it in his own orchestration, scoring the role of Orpheus for a contralto. Mireille Lebel will sing Orpheus, OA favourite Peggy Kriha Dye returns as Eurydice and Meghan Lindsay will sing Amour. The production is significant both for Opera Atelier and for Tafelmusik since it will mark their furthest incursion to date into the 19th century. The opera runs April 9 to 18. As usual Marshall Pynkoski will be the director for both productions and Jeannette Lajeunnesse Zingg will choreograph the artists of the Atelier Ballet.

features - on opera2TOT In Earnest: For additional fully-staged productions Torontonians have only to turn to Toronto Operetta Theatre. Its season begins with the zarzuela La Gran Vía (1886) by Federico Chueca on November 2. The work is a celebration of the old neighbourhoods of Madrid that were about to be destroyed by the Haussmann-like creation of a boulevard in the city. The TOT’s end-of-year show is a return of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado running from December 27, 2014, to January 4, 2015. The season concludes in April with a revival of the TOT-commissioned operetta Earnest, The Importance of Being (2008) by Victor Davies and Eugene Benson, based on the famous comedy by Oscar Wilde. This will be a rare occasion where a new Canadian work receives a revival after only seven years. 

features - on opera3Centuries apart: Enriching the season are two fully-staged productions of music theatre from completely opposite ends of the time spectrum. The Toronto Consort has performed many operas in concert but from May 22 to 24 it will mount a fully-staged production of The Play of Daniel, an English version of Ludus Danielis, a sung medieval play from the 13th century that tells the biblical story of Daniel in the lions’ den. Kevin Skelton will sing the role of Daniel with musical direction by David Fallis and stage direction by Alex Fallis.

In contrast to this, Soundstreams will offer the Toronto premiere of The Whisper Opera (2013) by American composer David Lang from February 26 to March 1. The opera explores the tension between our private and online selves by using a libretto made up of search-engine responses to questions of association. Soprano Tony Arnold and New York’s International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) make their Canadian debuts in an opera so quiet that it can be experienced by just 60 people at a time.

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


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