1808-operaApril has become a month so replete with opera that May, which used to be rather quiet, is beginning to fill up with opera as well. The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Salome continues to May 22 and its production of Lucia di Lammermoor to May 24. They are joined on May 8 by the final opera of the 2012/13 season, Dialogues des Carmélites. What is usual among the other offerings this month is the high concentration of 20th- and 21st-century operas.

Dialogues des Carmélites (1957) by Francis Poulenc has not been seen at the COC since 1997. The opera is based on the true story of the 16 Carmelite nuns of Compiègne who were martyred during the Reign of Terror on July 17, 1794. The upcoming production is notable for its high concentration of Canadian talent. The cast unites such stars as Isabel Bayrakdarian as Blanche de la Force, Judith Forst as Madame de Croissy, Adrianne Pieczonka as Madame Lidoine, Hélène Guilmette as Soeur Constance, Frédéric Antoun as the Chevalier de la Force and Jean-François Lapointe as the Marquis de la Force. Except for the role of Mère Marie sung by Russian mezzo Irina Mishura, all the remaining roles are sung by such well-known Canadian singers as Doug MacNaughton, Megan Latham, Rihab Chaieb, Michael Colvin and Peter Barrett.

The production is directed by Canadian Robert Carsen who created it for De Nederlandse Opera in 1997 and is designed by Canadian Michael Levine, who designed the COC’s Ring cycle. The physical staging is minimalist, relying on a few significant props and the use of light to set the many different scenes. Carsen’s staging, however, uses more than 100 supernumeraries to evoke the constant threat of the French Revolution that Blanche does not escape by taking the veil. The opera runs May 8 to 25 with Johannes Debus conducting the COC Orchestra.

Among the new operas is the welcome return of Laura’s Cow: The Legend of Laura Secord composed by Errol Gay to a libretto by Michael Patrick Albano. The 75-minute opera written for the Canadian Children’s Opera Company, premiered in 2012 during Luminato as part of the commemoration of the War of 1812. It was specifically written to include all levels of the 200-voice CCOC from oldest to youngest, with the addition of three professional adult singers. Emily Brown Gibson and Mary Christidis alternate in the role of Laura Secord, Andrew Love sings the roles of Caller, Balladeer and Lt. FitzGibbon as he did last year; and Tessa Laengert sings the delightful role of the Cow. Having reviewed the opera last year for The WholeNote blog, I can testify that it is an ideal opera for the whole family. Laura’s Cow runs from May 3 to May 5 at the Enwave Theatre. Michael Patrick Albano directs and Ann Cooper Gay conducts the 14-member orchestra.

From May 10 to 12, Toronto Masque Theatre presents the world premiere of The Lesson of Da Ji by Alice Ping Yee Ho to a libretto by Marjorie Chan. The one-act opera plays on a doublebill called “The Lessons of Love” with John Blow’s 1683 opera Venus and Adonis and thus provides a view of the masque from past and present, West and East.

The story is inspired by real events in the Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1046 bc). In the version by Ho and Chan, Da Ji, the king’s concubine, takes music lessons from the young nobleman Bo Yi to play the guqin, a type of zither. The king becomes jealous and exacts a grisly revenge on Bo Yi.

The singers include Vania Chan, Charlotte Corwin, Benjamin Covey, Alexander Dobson, Derek Kwan, Marion Newman, Xin Wang and Timothy Wong; the dancers are Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière and traditional Peking Opera dancer William Lau. Derek Boyes directs and Larry Beckwith conducts the TMT ensemble. Ho’s composition blends period baroque instruments (recorders, violins, viola da gamba, lute and harpsichord) and Chinese instruments (guqin, pipa, guzheng, erhu, gongs and drums).

On May 14 and 15, the COSI Connection will present the world premiere of The Wings of the Dove by Canadian composer Andrew Ager based on the 1902 novel by Henry James. The story concerns Kate Croy and Merton Densher who are engaged but too poor to marry. The entrance of the rich but terminally ill Milly Theale complicates and completely alters the couple’s relationship.

Toronto audiences will remember Ager as the composer of the opera Frankenstein, first performed by TrypTych Productions in January 2010. When Ottawa’s Thirteeen Strings premiered the Interlude from the opera in 2011, the Ottawa Citizen declared, “It’s gorgeous, if intensely wistful. Ager’s writing is subtly layered, its emotions being persistent and powerful without ever venturing into a hint of melodrama.”  “COSI” stands for the Centre for Opera Studies in Italy that commissioned the work. Ager’s opera will launch the COSI Connection which intends to bring back to Canada the fruit of the labour and training Canadians have received at the centre in Sulmona, Italy.

The staged production at the Heliconian Hall in Yorkville will feature soprano Leigh-Ann Allen, baritone Bradley Christensen, soprano Clodagh Earls, mezzo Stephanie Kallay and baritone Dimitri Katotakis. Michael Patrick Albano is the stage director and the composer will provide the piano accompaniment. After the produc-tion in Toronto, the opera will be produced in July at COSI in Italy, with full orchestra, choir and soloists.

Opera by Request has several operas-in-concert on offer in May. There is Janáček’s Jenůfa on May 5, Mozart’s Così fan tutte on May 24 and Puccini’s La Bohème on May 27. The rarest of the offerings, however, is Douglas Moore’s 1956 opera The Ballad of Baby Doe on May 11. The plot is based on the true story of the “Silver King” Horace Tabor (1830–1899), who built the opera house in Central City, Colorado, his wife, Augusta, and the woman, Elizabeth “Baby Doe” McCourt, with whom Tabor had an affair before divorcing his wife. Lisa Faieta sings the title role, Keith O’Brien is Horace Tabor, Eugenia Dermentzis is Augusta and Tracy Reynolds is Baby Doe’s mother. All the Opera by Request performances this month take place at the College Street United Church and are accompanied by William Shookhoff at the piano. OBR takes a new step withBaby Doein that the performance will not be in concert but semi-staged, with Lisa Faieta as the director.

Those seeking out 20th-century operas from Spain need look no further than the double bill by Opera Five of Goyescas (1915) by Enrique Granados and El retablo de maese Pedro (1923) by Manuel de Falla. The singers include mezzo Catharin Carew, soprano Emily Ding, soprano Rachel Krehm, baritone Giovanni Spanu and tenor Conrad Siebert. Maika’i Nash is the music director and pianist.Aria Umezawa directs. Performances on May 1 and 2 take place at Gallery 345.

From May 2 to May 5, Toronto Operetta Theatre presents Offenbach’sLa Vie Parisienne(1866) as its season finale. Last staged in 1992, the new production stars Elizabeth DeGrazia as the Swedish baroness with Stuart Graham as her wayward husband. Adam Fisher and Stefan Fehr play Parisian rogues ready to show the two foreigners a good time and Lauren Segal is the glamorous comedienne, Métella, ready to gamble for love. Christopher Mayell sings the role of the billionaire Brazilian whose masked ball concludes the madcap proceedings. Larry Beckwith conducts TOT Orchestra and Guillermo Silva-Marin directs. 

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

On OperaApril, as has become usual, offers the most concentrated number of opera productions of any month in the year. Every April we can always count on large-scale productions from the Canadian Opera Company and Opera Atelier and the spring production from Toronto Operetta Theatre, while smaller companies and operas in concert serve the important function of adding variety and breadth. If we artificially extend the month to May 10, an opera lover can sample the whole history of opera from the 17th century to the present.

1683: Venus and Adonis by John Blow on May 10, 11 and 12 by Toronto Masque Theatre. The oldest opera presented in this six-week period tells of the love of the goddess Venus (Marion Newman) for the mortal Adonis (Alexander Dobson). The opera, fully staged with the TMT Orchestra conducted by Larry Beckwith, is on a double bill with the world premiere of The Lesson of Ja Di (below).

1733: La serva padrona by Giovanni Pergolesi on April 5 and 7. Metro Youth Opera was founded by Kate Applin in 2010 to give Toronto’s young opera singers the chance to perform complete roles. The company’s third production is a triple bill of comedies, the earliest of which is Pergolesi’s important work, often seen as the bridge between the baroque and classical periods. The plot is about how the maid Serpina (Applin) tricks her bachelor master (Janaka Welihinda) into marrying her. Alison Wong directs with Blair Salter at the piano.

1790: Così fan tutte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on April 27 only. Opera by Request presents the third of Mozart’s collaborations with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. Jonathan MacArthur is Ferrando, Josh Whalen is Guglielmo, while Naomi Eberhard and Alexandra Beley are the fiancées, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, whose faithfulness they test. William Shookhoff provides the piano accompaniment.

1791: Mozart’sThe Magic Flute on April 6, 7, 9, 10, 12 and 13. Opera Atelier remounts its much-loved production of Mozart’s fairy-tale opera with a cast of OA favourites. Colin Ainsworth sings Tamino, Laura Albino is Pamina, Ambur Braid is the Queen of the Night, João Fernandes is Sarastro with Olivier Laquerre as Papageno and Carla Huhtanen as Papagena. David Fallis conducts the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Marshall Pynkoski directs.

1816: Il Barbiere di Siviglia by Gioacchino Rossini on April 6 only. Opera by Request presents Rossini’s well-known opera based on the first of Beaumarchais’ plays about the wily barber Figaro. Jay Lambie sings Figaro, William Parker is his friend Count Almaviva and Nicole Bower is Rosina, the object of the Count’s desire. William Shookhoff provides the piano accompaniment. For those interested in comparisons, the Soulpepper Theatre Company presents an adaptation of Beaumarchais’ play itself with previews beginning May 9.

1835: Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti on April 17, 20, 26, 30 and May 9, 12, 15, 18 and 24. The COC presents the acclaimed production of Donizetti’s bel canto masterpiece created by director David Alden in 2008 for soprano Anna Christy and the English National Opera. Christy herself sings the title role with Stephen Costello as Edgardo, the man she loves, and Brian Mulligan as Enrico, Lucia’s brutal brother who forces her to marry someone else. Stephen Lord conducts the COC Orchestra.

1853: Il Trovatore by Giuseppe Verdi on April 18 and 20. Now in its eighth season, Opera Belcanto of York will present a fully staged production at the Richmond Hill Centre of Verdi’s opera about gypsies and children switched at birth. Guest soloists from the Yerevan State Opera include Tatevik Ashuryan as Leonora, Hovhannes Ayvzyan as the troubadour Manrico and Nariné Ananikyan as Azucena with Canadian Jeffrey Carl as the Conte di Luna. OBY founder David Varjabed conducts and Gabriele Graziano directs.

1866: La Vie Parisienne by Jacques Offenbach on May 2, 3, 4 and 5. The final offering of the season from Toronto Operetta Theatre is Offenbach’s first full-length operetta dealing with contemporary life in Paris rather than the mythological satires like Orphée aux Enfers (1858) and La Belle Hélène (1864) that made him famous. The story involves the first visit to Paris of a Swedish baron and baroness whose tour is confounded by the actions of a Brazilian millionaire and a Parisian courtesan. The cast includes Elizabeth DeGrazia, Lauren Segal, Christopher Mayell and Adam Fisher. Larry Beckwith conducts and Guillermo Silva-Marin directs. The TOT last staged this operetta in 1992. In an odd coincidence L’Opéra de Québec will later present the work May 11, 14, 16 and 18 in Quebec City.

1901: Rusalka by Antonín Dvořák on April 19 only. Opera by Request presents the first of two Czech operas that form a study in contrasts. Though separated by only three years, Dvořák’s opera is fully romantic, while Janáček’s Jenůfa is realistic. Janáček’s new style of composition based on Czech speech patterns is a break from Dvořák’s more traditional symphonic style. Deena Nicklefork sings the title role of the water nymph who falls in love with a mortal, Ryan Harper is the prince she loves, David English is Vodník, the ruler of the lake, and Karen Bojti sings Ježibaba, the witch who changes Rusalka into a mortal at a terrible cost. William Shookhoff is, as usual, the piano accompanist.

1904: Jenůfa by Leoś Janáček on May 5 only. Unlike Rusalka’s world of supernatural beings and courtiers, Janáček’s Jenůfa focuses on peasant life. Kostelnička (Monica Zerbe), stepmother of Jenůfa (Michèle Cusson), forbids her to marry Števa (Lenard Whiting), unaware that Jenůfa is already pregnant by him. Meanwhile, Števa’s half-brother Laca (Paul Williamson) loves Jenůfa and can’t understand her indifference to him. William Shookhoff is again the piano accompanist.

1905: Salome by Richard Strauss on April 21 and 27 and May 1, 4, 7, 10 16 and 22. For the first time since 2002, the COC revives Atom Egoyan’s acclaimed production of Richard Strauss’ shocker based on Oscar Wilde’s one-act play. Erika Sunnegårdh sings the title role, Richard Margison is her dissolute father Herod, Hanna Schwarz is her stern mother Herodias and Martin Gantner (April 21 to May 4) and Alan Held (May 7 to 22) sing John the Baptist, the object of Salome’s depraved desire. Johannes Debus conducts the COC Orchestra.

1915: Goyescas by Enrique Granados (1867–1916) on April 29 and May 1 and 2. Opera Five helps us fill in our knowledge of opera by presenting a double bill of two one-act operas from Spain. The title of Granados’ opera is best known as a piano suite reflecting various paintings by Francisco Goya. The composer was encouraged to turn the suite into an opera and so, contrary to usual procedure, Granados’ librettist had to write a libretto to fit the music. The story deals with two men, Fernando (Conrad Siebert) and Paquiro (Giovanni Spanu), who fight a duel over Rosario (Emily Ding), the woman they both love. Maika’i Nash is the music director and pianist and Aria Umezawa is the stage director. Performances take place at Gallery 345. 

1922: Mavra by Igor Stravinsky on April 5 and 7. This rarely performed work is part of Metro Youth Opera’s triple bill of comic operas. (The COC last performed it in 1965 on a double bill with Salome.) Based on a story by Pushkin, the opera tells how the young Parasha (Laura MacLean) tries to deceive her Mother (Sarah Hicks) by smuggling her lover Vassili (Jan Nato) into the house disguised as the new maid “Mavra.” Alison Wong directs with Blair Salter at the piano.

1923: El retablo de maese Pedro by Manuel de Falla on April 29 and May 1 and 2. The second work on Opera Five’s Spanish double bill (see above) is a rarely performed one-act opera based on an episode from Don Quixote and usually translated as Master Peter’s Puppet Show. The opera focusses on the reactions of Don Quixote (Giovanni Spanu) to a puppet play presented by Pedro (Conrad Siebert) depicting Charlemagne’s adoptive daughter being abducted by Moors. As might be expected, Don Quixote cannot control his anger on viewing such an outrage.

1957: Dialogues des Carmélites by Francis Poulenc on May 8, 11, 14, 17, 19, 21, 23 and 25. The COC’s final offering of the 2012/13 season is Robert Carsen’s production of this 20th-century masterpiece created for the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2007. Isabel Bayrakdarian starred as Blanche de la Force in Chicago and does so again in Toronto. Daughter of an aristocrat, Blanche decides to become a nun to escape the chaos of the French Revolution only to find herself caught up in it after she joins the convent. The starry cast includes Judith Forst, Adrianne Pieczonka, Hélène Guilmette, Irina Mishura, Frédéric Antoun and Jean-François Lapointe. Johannes Debus conducts the COC Orchestra.

1961: Le magicien by Jean Vallerand (1915–94) on April 5 and 7. The third work on Metro Youth Opera’s triple bill is the rarest of all. It is the only opera by Québecois composer Vallerand, written for Jeunesses Musicales as a curtain-raiser for their tour of Debussy’s L’Enfant prodigue. The libretto, also written by Vallerand, concerns a magician who brings the marionettes Colombine and Arlequin to life only to find that they refuse to return to their former state. Though it was performed more than 100 times in the 1961–62 season and recorded in by the CBC in 1967, it lapsed into obscurity until it was revived in concert in Montreal in 1989. MYO does us a great service in giving us the chance to see it now.

2013: Inspired by Lorca by Chris Paul Harman on April 30 is not an opera but a song cycle now titled La selva de los relojes (The Forest of Clocks) based on the poetry of Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. I include it here because it is the last piece that the much-loved Queen of Puddings Music Theatre will produce before it dissolves at the end of August. Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó is the soloist and QoP co-founder Dáirine Ní Mheadhra conducts a chamber ensemble of piano, harp, cello, flute and percussion. The performance takes place at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre in the Four Seasons Centre and is free.

2013: Ruth by Jeffrey Ryan on May 4 only. This is a workshop performance given by Tapestry Opera (formerly Tapestry New Opera) of Ryan’s opera to a libretto by Michael Lewis MacLennan that reimagines the Biblical story as an immigrant tale about the struggle to find welcome in a new country. The performance takes place at the Ernest Balmer Studio in the Distillery District.

2013: The Lesson of Ja Di by Alice Ping Yee Ho on May 10, 11 and 12 by Toronto Masque Theatre. The newest opera presented in this six-week period is a world premiere written as a companion piece to the oldest opera here, John Blow’s Venus and Adonis (above). Based on a true story from the Shang dynasty (second millennium B.C.), it tells of the horrific revenge that a King wreaks on his concubine Da Ji for falling in love with her music teacher, the nobleman Bo Yi. Larry Beckwith conducts the TMT Orchestra on period instruments, augmented on this occasion with traditional Chinese instruments such as the erhu, pipa and guzheng.

Enjoy the bounty on offer in these six weeks and create your own opera festival. 

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

1806 on operaQueen of Puddings Music Theatre announced on February 8 that it would conclude operations at the end of August of this year. For many it comes as a shock that Toronto should be losing a company that for the past 20 years has brought an uncompromising vision to the development and production of new Canadian chamber opera. Their legacy is a series of works, acclaimed by critics and audiences alike, which have redefined not only what a Canadian opera can be but also what opera itself can be. Beatrice Chancy (1998–1999) by James Rolfe and George Elliott Clarke was the first opera about black slavery in Canada and launched the career of soprano Measha Brueggergosman. The Midnight Court (2005–2007) by Ana Sokolović and Paul Bentley was the first Canadian opera — and QoP the first Canadian company — invited to the Linbury Studio at England’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

In contrast to these narrative-based works, QoP also explored the boundaries of opera. Love Songs (2008–2011) by Ana Sokolović, a solo opera that set various love poems and the words “I love you” in more than 100 languages, was declared the best production at the Zagreb Biennale and was subsequently presented at the prestigious Holland Festival. Beauty Dissolves in a Brief Hour (2010) by Pierre Klanac, John Rea and Fuhong Shi, presented three poems in medieval French, English and Mandarin in the form of a ritual that was hailed by EYE Weekly as “an exquisite piece of music theatre.” In 2012, co-founder and co-artistic director Dáirine Ní Mheadhra was awarded the Canada Council Molson Prize in the arts in recognition of her lifetime achievements and ongoing contributions to the cultural and intellectual life of Canada.

Why should Ní Mheadhra and co-founder and co-artistic director John Hess choose to end such an enterprise when it has reached the peak of its success? In some ways the question answers itself. The co-founders have decided that Queen of Puddings should end on a high note.

In an email interview near the end of last month, Ní Mheadhra agreed that she and Hess would answer a number of questions about QoP, its legacy and the future. Here it is:

 

Why did you decide that QoP should cease operations? Do you feel that QoP has achieved all the goals it was set up to achieve?

We decided that QoP should cease operations because after nearly 20 years we feel we’ve achieved what we set out to do, which was to commission and produce original Canadian opera to a high artistic standard and to develop an international profile for this work. In this current season the company is thriving, with the great success and critical acclaim for our production of Ana Sokolović’s opera Svadba-Wedding, now touring nationally and internationally. Coming up on April 30thwe are presenting the premiere of a new vocal chamber work, Inspired by Lorca, by composer Chris Paul Harman, sung by Krisztina Szabó with our ensemble at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre.

We’ve been considering our decision for some months, and while we realize that it’s unusual to cease operations when an organization is extremely healthy, it felt like the right decision for us both in this phase of our lives and in the life cycle of QoP. The end of our season in August 2013 feels like a very natural artistic ebbing point, and it also coincides with the end of our current three-year operational funding, and thus feels like the right moment to close the company. We want to conclude in a year like this, which is full of artistic highlights and the fulfilment of our goals — with continued financial stability due to a deficit-free track record.

What do you feel are QoP’s greatest achievements over its existence?

Probably our greatest achievement has been never to accept “received wisdom” about the state of new music/opera in Canada, but to have furrowed our own path with our individual beliefs. Just one example: when Dáirine arrived in Toronto from Ireland in 1994 we were told that there were only two singers in Toronto who could possibly sing new opera. We thought that was a load of old rubbish. It would never have occurred to us to segregate new opera from middle opera or old opera. For us it’s all a continuum — Monteverdi, Mozart, Puccini, Strauss, Shostakovich, Andriessen, Sokolović, Rolfe ... and the singers who sing those operas also sing contemporary Canadian opera — there’s no difference.

We think another very important achievement has been the international touring we’ve done of new Canadian opera, which hardly existed before QoP. That was hugely important to us. Before Dáirine came to Canada, she had no real impression of what new Canadian music was like as it didn’t have a strong profile internationally. But we’ve discovered that the best singers in the world live in Canada and that there’s huge composer talent here too. It has been our mission to deliver this news to the world!

For example, we’ve wanted to bring Ana Sokolović’s music back to her Serbian homeland for ten years, and last October we felt such inordinate pleasure walking down a main street in Belgrade with a big poster of Ana and Queen of Puddings outside the Atelje 212 Theatre announcing a performance of Svadba that night. In the performance the singers sang Serbian so well that we were asked how we ever managed to find six Serbian-Canadian singers! Shortly afterwards, we brought Svadba to Dublin (Dáirine’s hometown) and the audience could not believe the virtuosity of the singers and the sheer imagination and verve of the music. But all of this we knew all along, and knew that audiences outside of Canada just needed to hear these Canadian singers and music, and they would be bowled over. And they certainly were.

Are you worried that the gap left by the departure of QoP
will leave a gap in the creation of new opera in Canada,
or are you confident that QoP’s success as a deficit-free arts organization has left a model that others can build on?

We’d never have the hubris to think that we’d left a gap in new opera in Canada! People are very resilient and if there is a gap, it would be filled sooner or later. Now the deficit-free business, well that’s another story! That was a personal aesthetic — we would have been mortified to ever show up at a board meeting announcing that we’d gone into deficit. So along with our producer Nathalie Bonjour, we just made sure we never spent more than what we thought we could fundraise.

What will happen to the many works that QoP created? Will other companies have permission to perform them, or will they disappear along with the company?

QoP has an excellent track record of repeat performances of new operas. When we commission a new opera, we have exclusive rights for a few years after, but that being said we’ve never turned anyone away who wanted to do their own production of a QoP work. That’s what we all want — more productions of new operas! Just last week, the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore presented their own production of Svadba and in fall 2013 there will be another US production of Svadba. Our 2009 production, Love Songs, has already had three other versions performed in Canada with a fourth coming up in a few months. And so on. We consider the new operas we have commissioned as living organisms which will continue to be performed well into the future and form a vital part of the emerging canon of Canadian opera.

What plans do you have for the future?

John has a recital with soprano Erin Wall on March 7 at the St. Lawrence Centre in Toronto and then a BC recital tour with Ben Heppner. For Dáirine, she’s been approached about a few projects, but in the short term she’ll probably take a break after August 31st and fuel the imagination with walks in the mountains in County Kerry and long coffees on the Avenida da Liberdade in Lisbon. Then she’ll start having ideas for new projects and be back knocking on someone else’s door!

Let me give you my deepest thanks for truly enlivening the world of opera in Canada.

We’ve had a marvellous run of 20 years and experienced huge generosity, support and warmth from our friends and colleagues in Canada. They’ve all been integral to our work and we couldn’t have given the best of ourselves without their belief that we would do no less. 

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

onopera-feb2013On january 23 Canadian Opera Company General Director Alexander Neef announced his 2013/14 season. Neef has assembled a particularly starry line-up of singers and directors, but what is immediately striking about this season, the COC’s 64th, is that three of the seven operas have never been presented by the COC before. This is only the fourth time since 1990 (1991/92, 2008/09 and 2011/12 were the others) that this has happened. Having their COC premieres, back to back in spring 2014, will be Handel’s Hercules, Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux andMassenet’s Don Quichotte. Adding spice to the season is that Hercules is also one of three COC-commissioned new productions.

The 2013/14 season opens, in fact, with one of these new productions: Puccini’s La Bohème. The opera was last seen here in 2009 and this will be its 15th appearance making it the COC’s most often staged opera. The new production, opening October 9, will be directed by Canadian-born British director John Caird, who directed Verdi’s Don Carlos for the company in 2007, and is probably most famous for the original production of Les Misérables, which has been running in London since 1985. Italian conductor Carlo Rizzi leads the COC Orchestra and Chorus. Alternating in the role of Mimì are Italian soprano Grazia Doronzio and Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury. The role of Rodolfo, Mimì’s lover, is shared by young tenors, Mexican David Lomelí (Rigoletto, 2011) and Romanian Teodor Ilincăi.

Alternating with La Bohème will be a production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes,  celebrating the centenary of the composer’s birth, and starring Ben Heppner in the title role. Last at the COC in 2003, this Grimes will be the company’s third. Australian director Neil Armfield, who directed Ariadne auf Naxos here in 2011, A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2009 and Billy Budd in 2001, directs, and COC Music Director Johannes Debus makes his Britten debut. Three COC Ensemble Studio alumni appear — soprano Ileana Montalbetti, tenor Roger Honeywell, and baritone Peter Barrett. Alan Held, last year’s Gianni Schicchi, sings Captain Balstrode.

 The winter season opens on January 18, 2014, with Mozart’s Così fan tutte  running in repertory with Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. Così will be a new COC production by Canadian film director Atom Egoyan, his third production for the COC (Salome, 1996 and Die Walküre, 2004). Debus conducts. Cast as the sisters are two Canadians — soprano Layla Claire in her COC debut as Fiordiligi and mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta returning for a second season in a row, this time as Dorabella. The sisters’ two suitors are American tenor Paul Appleby (Ferrando) and COC Ensemble graduate bass-baritone Robert Gleadow (Guglielmo). Beloved Canadian soprano Tracy Dahl returns to the COC stage after a 19-year absence in the role of the wily servant Despina. Famed baritone Thomas Allen makes his COC debut as Don Alfonso.

For Un ballo in maschera Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka and Greek-American tenor Dimitri Pittas make their role debuts as lovers Amelia and Riccardo. British baritone Roland Wood is Renato, Amelia’s husband; acclaimed Canadian mezzo-soprano Marie-Nicole Lemieux is the fortune teller Ulrica; and rising Ensemble Studio graduate, soprano Simone Osborne, is Oscar the page.

A question that always arises with Ballo is where it will be set — in 18th-century Stockholm, as Verdi intended, where King Gustav III was assassinated in 1792, or in Boston during the British colonial period, where censors forced him to move the action because of its incendiary plot. The directing duo Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito stir the pot again, by locating this production from the Berlin Staatsoper in the American South of the 1960s with its resonances of Kennedy-era tensions and assassinations.

Spring 2014 brings the three premieres. First up on April 5 is Handel’s Hercules (1745) in a new co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago directed by the renowned Peter Sellars. Sellars’ production which moves the action from mythological Greece to the present day won universal acclaim when it premiered in Chicago in 2011. The COC presentation will use the Chicago cast, and what a cast. American bass-baritone Eric Owens makes his COC debut as Hercules; British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote is Hercules’s wife Dejanira; American countertenor David Daniels returns to the COC as Hercules’ trusted aide, Lichas; American tenor Richard Croft returns as Hercules’ son, Hyllus; and British soprano Lucy Crowe makes her COC debut as Iole, a princess Hercules has taken captive. Conducting is Baroque specialist and COC favourite Harry Bicket. In 2012 Tafelmusik presented a staged concert version of Hercules directed by Opera Atelier’s Marshall Pynkoski. Anyone who saw it will know that it is a powerful drama told in glorious music.

Beginning April 25, 2014, is a real rarity, Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux (1837). This opera, along with Maria Stuarda (1835) and Anna Bolena (1830), comprises what is sometimes called Donizetti’s “Three Queens” trilogy. It was first presented as a trilogy in 1972, with Beverly Sills as the slighted British monarch in each production. From 2007 to 2010 Dallas Opera mounted all three directed by Stephen Lawless and using a set inspired by Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. The COC’s Maria Stuarda was part of the Dallas Opera series and so is this Roberto Devereux. Is there an Anna Bolena in the wings?

American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, our Aida in 2010, makes her role debut as the central character Elisabetta, in love with the courtier Devereux. Making his COC and role debut as Devereux is Italian lyric tenor Giuseppe Filianoti. Also making role debuts are COC favourites, Canadian baritone Russell Braun and mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy as the Duke and Duchess of Nottingham. Italian conductor Corrado Rovaris makes his COC debut.

The final presentation of the 2013/14 season is another rarity, Don Quichotte (1910), one of the last operas by French composer Jules Massenet (1842–1912). The last time the COC presented an opera by Massenet was Werther in 1992. Don Quichotte has become a showcase work for great basses with Samuel Ramey, José van Dam and John Relyea recently essaying the role. Italian Ferruccio Furlanetto makes his COC debut in the title role of the iconic idealistic dreamer. Metropolitan Opera star, Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova, makes her COC debut as Quichotte’s beloved Dulcinée. American baritone Quinn Kelsey, acclaimed here for his Rigoletto in 2011, returns to makes his role debut as Don Quichotte’s realistic sidekick, Sancho Panza. American Linda Brovsky, who helmed this production at the Seattle Opera, makes her COC debut as director. Johannes Debus conducts. Many see this opera not only as Massenet’s loving study of Cervantes’ hero but as the composer’s farewell to the age of romanticism that had inspired him throughout his life and that he saw fading with the dawn of the 20th century. The opera runs May 9 to 24, 2014. Visit coc.ca to inquire about subscriptions. 

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

There were so many opera performances crammed into November that it may come as a relief to opera fans that the pace lets up a bit for the last month of 2012 and the first of 2013. The period takes on a distinctly Germanic flavour with the COC’s GrimmFest (a tribute to the 200th anniversary of the Grimm brothers’ collection of fairy tales), Toronto Operetta Theatre’s production of The Merry Widow and the COC’s production in January of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The key, though, is that there is opera available to appeal to a wide range of tastes.

onopera coc-grimm-7520GrimmFest: December begins with the COC’s GrimmFest (coc.ca/GrimmFest) running from December 4 to December 8. The occasion is the 200th anniversary of the publication in 1812 of Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) by linguists, cultural researchers and brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. One of the effects of the rise of Romanticism was research into folk traditions in an effort to uncover the strands of national identity. Besides that, people were aware that with the rise of industrialization, the traditions of an oral culture were gradually dying out and many scholars set out to record oral poetry and stories before they were lost. There is some dispute about the sources that the Grimm brothers used, but the result of their work gave us such famous stories as “Rapunzel,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “The Fisherman and His Wife,” “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Bremen Town Musicians,” “Tom Thumb,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Snow White” and “Rumpelstiltskin” among the two hundred tales collected.

The centrepiece of GrimmFest will be the 500th performance of the children’s opera The Brothers Grimm by Dean Burry. The anniversary performance by the COC Ensemble Studio takes place on December 7 at Daniels Spectrum in Regent Park with two more performances on December 8. The opera was commissioned by the COC in 1999 and has since become the most performed Canadian opera of all time. Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm are characters and the 45-minute opera shows how they were inspired to write “Rapunzel,” “Rumpelstiltskin” and “Little Red Riding Hood.” It has been a staple of the COC’s annual school tour since it premiered in 2001. In March 2012 it had its European premiere in Cardiff, Wales.

According to Burry, “When The Brothers Grimm premiered in 2001, I never expected that we would be celebrating its 500th performance 11 years later. It means so much to have been a part of this incredible journey and to have introduced so many young people to opera through the magic of these incredible fairy tales.”

Toronto Operetta Theatre (torontooperetta.com) will, as usual, present an operetta during the immediate pre- and post-New Year’s Eve period with a gala performance on New Year’s Eve itself. This year the work will be that ever-popular evocation of turn-of-the-century Paris, The Merry Widow (1905) by Franz Lehár. This will be the TOT’s fourth staging of the piece after productions in 1995, 2000 and 2007, bringing it equal with Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Die Fledermaus as the company’s most performed operetta.

Anyone who found the COC’s recent production of Die Fledermaus rather too concept-heavy should know that the TOT has always placed its emphasis on a work’s musical values above all else. The story involves the plan of the ambassador of Pontevedro, a bankrupt Balkan country, to find a Pontevedrian husband for Hannah Glawari, the country’s richest citizen, so that her money will remain in the country. With the current monetary crisis in the European Union, this amusing plot has acquired a strange new relevance. For the TOT production Leslie Ann Bradley sings the title role; former COC Ensemble member Adam Luther is Count Danilo, the man sent to woo her; David Ludwig is the ambassador Baron Zeta; Elizabeth Beeler, a former Hannah Glawari herself, is his wife Valencienne; and Keith Klassen is Camille de Rossillon, Valencienne’s admirer. Derek Bate, assistant conductor at the COC, conducts and Guillermo Silva-Marin directs. The operetta runs from December 28, 2012, to January 6, 2013.

onopera tristanbillviola-videoparis2005Tristan: One of the most anticipated offerings of the COC’s 2012-13 season is its production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, the company’s first production of the masterpiece since 1987. This staging is also notable as the COC debut of renowned American director Peter Sellars. Sellars first created this vision of Tristan in 2005 for Opéra Bastille in Paris. Its most notable aspect is the use of a film by video artist Bill Viola that is projected on a colossal screen above the singers’ heads throughout the entire length of the work. The film can be justified on the grounds of Wagner’s goal of creating a Gesamtkunstwerk or “total work of art” in the theatre that would combine the various artistic disciplines. Wagner’s own view of the role of the visual arts in opera was rather conventional as can be seen in sketches of the first production of the Ring Cycle, where stagehands push the Rhinemaidens mounted on trolleys back and forth behind painted waves. Sellars’ notion is that Viola’s film will serve not just as the set but will provide an ongoing visual commentary on the action as a parallel to Wagner’s concept of the orchestra as chorus.

Using extreme slow motion, Viola’s video uses actors to portray the metaphorical action behind Wagner’s story. He views the first act as an extended ritual of purification for the two lovers, while on stage the two characters maintain a strained stance of indifference to each other. As one can see from the examples on the COC website, Viola makes much use of fire and water imagery. Viola’s video has accompanied concert performances of Tristan in Los Angeles in 2004 and in New York, Los Angeles and Rotterdam in 2007. Only at the Bastille Opera in Paris — and now recreated for the COC — has the video been used for staged performances.

Ben Heppner, who sang Tristan for the premiere of Sellars’ production in 2005, sings the role January 29, February 2, 14, 17 and 20, with German tenor Burkhard Fritz of the Staatsoper Berlin taking over on February 8 and 23. German soprano Melanie Diener sings Isolde on the same dates as Heppner with American Margaret Jane Wray taking over opposite Fritz. Franz-Josef Selig sings King Marke, to whom Isolde is engaged. Daveda Karanas is Isolde’s maid Brangäne, who misguidedly concocts a love potion for her mistress, and Alan Held sings Kurwenal, Tristan’s loyal servant. At the podium is the world-renowned Czech conductor Jiří Bělohlávek, who has recorded widely for Chandos, Harmonia Mundi and Deutsche Grammophon among other labels.

In his program note for the original production, Sellars described the love duet in Tristan by saying, “We hear the celestial voice of compassion expounding Buddha’s four noble truths to mortals.” Given the influence of Buddhism on Wagner via the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), this statement is not as far-fetched as it might at first appear. Sellars aims to present Tristan as an exploration of spirituality, rather than sex as past directors have done. Whatever the result, the chance to see Tristan und Isolde in Toronto after such a long absence and to see Sellars’ work in our own Four Seasons Centre will start the new year on an aesthetic high.   

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

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