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 www.luminato.com.

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

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 www.coc.ca.

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 www.essentialopera.com.

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 againstthegraintheatre.com.

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 opera@thewholenote.com.

on_opera_opera_atelier_company_of_armideAs this column has frequently noted, April has developed into the most opera-heavy month of the year. This year, because of an early Easter, many companies like Opera Kitchener and Opera York staged their season finales in March. Yet, even so, April still presents quite a heady concentration of opera. Opera Hamilton, for instance, presents Verdi’s Il Trovatore starring Richard Margison April 14, 17, 19 and 21. Toronto Operetta Theatre closes its season with a medley of Gilbert and Sullivan tunes called Topsy-Turvydom from April 27 to 29 replacing the previously announced H.M.S. Pinafore. Opera Belcanto presents Puccini’s Tosca at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts on April 5 and 7. And Opera by Request has two favourite operas in concert — Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro on April 20 and Don Pasquale on April 25 — both at the College Street United Church.

What is surprising this month is that the larger opera companies are offering works seldom or never seen in Toronto. Even Opera in Concert, which specializes in rarely-heard operas, outdoes itself this month with Die Freunde von Salamanka (The Friends of Salamanca) by Franz Schubert (1797–1828), surely one of the most obscure pieces they’ve ever presented. Schubert, who died at age 31, composed nine symphonies, innumerable chamber and piano pieces and over 600 Lieder, still managed to complete nine operas. Die Freunde von Salamanka was written in 1815, but, like many of his operas was not staged during his lifetime. It had to wait until 1928, the 100th anniversary of his death, for its premiere.

Freunde is a comic opera in the form of a Singspiel (like The Magic Flute) where spoken dialogue connects the arias. Three friends — Alonso, Diego and Fidelio — all try to help the Countess Olivia to break off her engagement to the foolish Count Tormes, whom she has never met. Shannon Mercer sings Olivia, James McLean is Alonso and Michael Ciufo is Diego. Kevin Mallon conducts the Toronto Chamber Orchestra. The opera is sung in German with surtitles in English. For tickets, see www.stlc.com.

While the role of Opera in Concert is regularly to fill in gaps in our operatic experience, this month the Canadian Opera Company takes on a similar task. From April 10 to May 14 it presents The Tales of Hoffmann (1881) by Jacques Offenbach and from April 26 to May 25 it presents the Canadian premiere of A Florentine Tragedy (1917) by Alexander Zemlinsky coupled with Puccini’s comic one-act opera Gianni Schicchi (1918). With Hoffmann, COC general director Alexander Neef has clearly studied the production history of the company, and has seen that certain aspects of the repertory were neglected under his great predecessor Richard Bradshaw. For example, it was no secret that Bradshaw was not a fan of operetta. So when the COC performs Die Fledermaus beginning October 4 this year, it will be the first operetta the company has staged since The Merry Widow in 1987. Die Fledermaus was once one of the company’s most popular works. Its previous COC staging in 1986 was the seventh since the COC was formed. Bradshaw also did not care much for 19th-century French opera and programmed only Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict, Bizet’s Carmen and Verdi’s French version of Don Carlos during his tenure as general director. In the case of the upcoming Hoffmann, it will be the first time the COC has staged that work since 1988.

It’s a strange fact that many successful operetta composers have felt the compulsion to prove themselves by writing a full-scale opera. Arthur Sullivan was obsessed with his Victorian duty as composer and produced the noble failure Ivanhoe (1891). Even Franz Lehár longed to see one of his works on the stage of the Vienna State Opera and was pleased when the company produced Giuditta in 1934. Though the work, unlike Ivanhoe, is still performed, the consensus at the time was that it was too grand to be an operetta yet too light to be an opera. Jacques Offenbach (1819–80) then, is the only major operetta composer (he wrote over 100 of them!) to have achieved the goal, with Hoffman, of also writing a grand opera. Offenbach died four months before the opera premiered which has meant that the work had been presented in widely varying versions ever since.

The most common scenario has three acts with a prologue and epilogue. In the Prologue, we meet the German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776–1822) himself, his muse who appears as his best friend Nicklausse, his unobtainable love Stella and his nemesis Councillor Lindorf. In the three ensuing acts, Hoffmann recounts one of his great loves, each based on one of Hoffmann’s fantastic tales (which would later influence those of Edgar Allen Poe among many others). In Act 1 Hoffmann falls in love with Olympia, who, unknown to him, is an automaton created by the mad scientist Coppélius. Act 2 focusses on Hoffmann’s second love, Antonia, who is doomed to die if she sings for too long. The evil Dr. Miracle, however, encourages Antonia to do just that in the guise of a cure. In Act 3, Hoffmann falls in love with the mysterious Giulietta, who is only seducing the writer under orders from the nefarious Captain Dapertutto, who wants her to steal his reflection.

Offenbach intended that the four soprano roles be sung by the same soprano and the four villains be sung by the same bass-baritone. While the second requirement has become standard, the first is considered a daunting tour de force. In the COC production, borrowed from De Vlaamse Opera, John Relyea will sing all four villains. The four sopranos, however, will be sung by separate artists — Ambur Braid as Stella, Andriana Churchman as Olympia, Erin Wall as Antonia and Keri Alkema as Giuletta. Russell Thomas will sing Hoffmann and Lauren Segal will sing Nicklausse. On May 3 and 8, David Pomeroy substitutes for Thomas.

The COC’s second spring offering breaks new ground. Not only will the Florentine/Schicchi double bill represent the first professional production of a Zemlinsky opera in Canada, but it will also be the first time these two works have been presented as a double bill in North America. (The Wuppertaler Musiktheater presented the same pairing in 2010.) When Neef announced the 2011/12 season last year, he said that this was a combination he had always wanted to stage. There are valid reasons to combine the two. While one is a tragedy and the other a comedy, both take place in Florence and both were written during the same period and premiered within two years of each other, thus affording many fascinating points of comparison and contrast. Gianni Schicchi is one part of a triple bill by Puccini entitled Il trittico (The Triptych) that premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1918. The triptych begins with the melodrama Il tabaro (The Cloak), continues with the sentimental story of Suor Angelica and concludes with Schicchi. The COC has never presented Il trittico as Puccini intended and has instead combined each of the one-acters with other operas — Il tabaro with Pagliacci in 1975 and with Cavalleria rusticana in 2001, Suor Angelica with Pagliacci in 1991 and Schicchi with Pagliacci in 1996.

Florentine composer Alexander Zemlinsky (1871–1942) was a pupil of Anton Bruckner and teacher of Arnold Schoenberg who became Zemlinsky’s brother-in-law when he married Zemlinsky’s sister. Zemlinsky conducted the premiere of Schoenberg’s Erwartung in 1924. Zemlinsky was one of the many artists who fled Central Europe with the rise of fascism and whose works, condemned by the Nazis as “degenerate music,” have only been rediscovered in the last two decades. In Europe Eine florentinische Tragödie is usually paired with another Zemlinsky one-acter, Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) from 1922. The two make a sensible double-bill since both are based on lesser-known plays by Oscar Wilde. By coincidence, it happens that Isabel Bayrakdarian is singing the soprano roles in this very double-bill at the Liceu in Barcelona in April, leading one to wonder if Alexander Neef has plans to stage Der Zwerg coupled with another part of Il trittico.

The new production will be directed by famed soprano-turned-director Catherine Malfitano. The conceit behind the production is that the same palazzo, designed by Wilson Chin, will serve as the site of the events in both operas — events in the 16th century for Zemlinsky and in the 14th century for Puccini. In Zemlinsky’s opera, Bianca, the wife of the merchant Simone, is having an affair with Guido Bardi. Given the title we know that it will not end happily. Malfitano links Zemlinsky’s opera to Puccini by having two of its singers appear in the second opera. In the Zemlinsky, Alan Held sings Simone, Gun-Brit Barkmin is Bianca and Michael König is Guido. In the second work, Held sings the title role while Barkmin sings the minor role of Nella, the wife of Gherardo (sung by Adam Luther), cousin to the dying Buoso Donato, whom Schicchi is impersonating. The primary female role is that of Lauretta (sung by Simone Osborne), who sings the most famous aria of the piece “O mio babbino caro.” The last time the COC presented the work an over-enthusiastic audience interrupted the short aria at least five times, mistakenly thinking at every pause that it was over. If you are in doubt, just wait until the conductor, Andrew Davis, puts down his baton. Then you will know for sure that the lovely aria has ended. For tickets and more information, visit www.coc.ca.

Turning towards rarities of the Baroque, in 2012 only three cities in the world will see a production of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Armide (1686) — Toronto from April 14 to 21, Versailles from May 11 to 13 and Cooperstown, New York (i.e. Glimmerglass Opera) from July 21 to August 23. As one may have guessed, it is Opera Atelier’s production, first seen here in 2005, that has been invited by the other two opera houses.

The topic of the love between the Christian knight Renauld and the Muslim princess Armide against the backdrop of the Crusades has only become more reverent over time. Colin Ainsworth returns to sing Renault, Peggy Kriha Dye is Armide and they join João Fernandes, Aaron Ferguson, Vasil Garvanliev, Carla Huhtanen and Olivier Laquerre, among others, and the full corps of the artists of Atelier Ballet. David Fallis conducts the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, Marshall Pynkoski directs and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg choreographs. Opera Atelier claims that the partnership with Glimmerglass has allowed it to add major design elements to make Armide “the most sumptuous production in OA history.” That is quite a statement coming from a company already renowned for its sumptuous productions. For more information, visit www.operaatelier.com.

All in all, April again lives up to its reputation as Toronto’s most exciting month for opera.

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

In february, the winter season of the Canadian Opera Company ended. In April its spring season begins, as does Opera Atelier’s. In between, opera-lovers need not despair because Toronto also boasts a host of smaller companies offering unusual fare. (If there has been any downside to the COC’s move to the Four Season’s Centre, it has been the elimination of the separate opera productions that the COC Ensemble Studio used to produce in venues like the Imperial Oil Opera Theatre and the Enwave Theatre. The repertoire alternated between the baroque and the modern and gave Toronto audiences the chance to sample the wide range of chamber operas intended for more intimate spaces. While it is great experience for the COC Ensemble Studio members to take over roles in an opera in the Four Seasons Centre, they do miss out on the chance to be reviewed in their own productions and Toronto misses out on more varied operatic offerings.)

The various opera schools around Ontario help fill this gap. In December last year, the University of Toronto Faculty of Music’s Opera Division staged the Poulenc double bill of La Voix humaine (1959) and Les Mamelles de Tirésias (1947), and this January it presented a new opera about Toronto’s own larger-than-life mayor. From March 8 to 10 it returns to more conventional fare with Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Performances take place at the U of T’s MacMillan Theatre. See www.music.utoronto.ca/programs/opera.htm for more information.

On March 21 and 23, the Glenn Gould School Opera presents La Calisto (1651) by Francesco Cavalli (1602–76), which was a big hit when the COC Ensemble Studio presented it back in 1996. Cavalli wrote for the smaller forces necessitated by the smaller public opera houses of Venice where he worked. La Calisto premiered in a house seating only 400. Of his 41 operas, only 27 are extant and provide the key examples of mid-17th-century Venetian opera, which, unlike the later opera seria, took a decidedly satiric view of the amorous escapades of gods and mortals. Here, Jove and Mercury plot to deflower Calisto, a follower of Diana, while Pan tries to draw Diana away from her lover, Endymion. It is a thoroughly delightful work and will surely whet opera-goers’ desire for more Cavalli in future. Brent Krysa directs, Adam Burnette conducts and Michael Gianfrancesco designs the sets and costumes. Performances take place at Koerner Hall. See www.rcmusic.ca for details.

Venturing farther afield, Laurier Opera at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo is offering quite an innovative Canadian double bill. From March 2 to 4 it will present Gisela in Her Bathtub (1991) and City Workers in Love (1992), both composed by Vancouver-based Neil Weisensel to libretti by Michael Cavanagh, better known to the opera world as an opera director. The first one-act opera focuses on the bathing Gisela, who is reading a novel that suddenly comes to life around her. The second opera takes place on a typical Canadian construction site and exposes the foibles and fortunes of the city workers. Both works have been expanded and revised for this production. You can hear three excerpts from City Workers in Love on Weisensel’s website, www.neilmusic.com. Rob Herriot directs and Leslie De’Ath conducts a chamber ensemble. Performances take place at Theatre Auditorium on the WLU campus. See the WLU website for details.

While opera schools do their share in keeping the operatic offerings in Toronto and environs diverse, so do the various companies that present opera in concert. The most established of these, Opera in Concert, has provided this service since 1974. Coming up on March 4 is the Canadian premiere of Giuseppe Verdi’s first opera Oberto (1839). The opera is a fictionalized account of the life of Cunizza da Romano (born c.1198), who appears in the Third Sphere of Dante’s Paradiso. Here in his first opera, Verdi is already exploring in Oberto and Leonora the dynamics of the father-daughter relationship that threads through all his work. Giles Tomkins sings Oberto, Joni Henson is Leonora, Michele Bogdanowicz is Cuniza and Romulo Delgado is Riccardo, Cuniza’s fiancé who seduces Leonora. Alison d’Amato is the music director and pianist and Robert Cooper prepares the Opera in Concert Chorus. Visit www.operainconcert.com for more.

31_Michelle_Minke_Headshot_1Meanwhile, Opera by Request celebrates its fifth anniversary on March 10 with a gala presentation of Verdi’s Don Carlo. For those who saw the COC’s production of Verdi’s French version of the Don Carlos story in 2007, this will be an easy way to compare it to Verdi’s later Italian version. OBR is unusual in that the cast comes together to choose the repertoire, not the company directorate. Yet, for this special celebration, OBR’s artistic director, pianist William Shookhoff, says he has departed from the mandate and has personally chosen the production and cast, which consists of “people who have contributed in a special way over the past five years.” He notes, “With the fifth anniversary comes the 50th production (not performance). And, by the time the fifth anniversary occurs, we will have engaged 150 singers, many of whom I did not know five years ago, and some of whom I only met through their colleagues who invited them to participate.” Paul Williams sings the title role, Michelle Minke is Elisabetta, Steven Henrikson is Rodrigo, Monica Zerbe is Eboli, Robert Milne is Philip and Larry Tozer is the Grand Inquisitor. The performance takes place at the College Street United Church. Visit www.operabyrequest.ca for more information.

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

This february has become a month for new opera. Toronto will see a world premiere of a Canadian work, the professional world premiere of another Canadian work and the Canadian premiere of an acclaimed 21st century opera. In the depths of winter we already see the new growth of spring. The world premiere is Obeah Opera by Nicole Brooks running February 16 to March 4. For more on that work, see Robert Wallace’s interview with Brooks in this issue.

18First to appear is the Canadian premiere of L’Amour de loin (Love from Afar or more accurately “The Far-Away Love”) by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho at the Canadian Opera Company. Not only will this be the first time the COC has staged an opera by a Finnish composer, it will also mark the first time it has staged an opera by a female composer.

This opera that premiered in 2000 at the Salzburg Festival tells the story of a world-weary 12th century troubadour from France who carries on a long-distance love affair with a beautiful woman living in Tripoli, Lebanon, whom he called in Languedoc his “amor de lonh.” Although they never see or speak to each other, their feelings develop and grow through the efforts of an enigmatic Pilgrim, who carries messages of love and yearning between the two. Saariaho drew her inspiration for the work from the life and song texts of Jaufré Rudel (died c.1147), a French prince and troubadour who wrote of his obsessive love for an ideal, unattainable woman. This is the well-known theme known as “courtly love” that swept Europe during this period. The yearning expressed has a religious component, due to the rise of Mariolatry, that leads the poet to ask whether such a love is best preserved from afar.

Reviewing the opera in 2000, New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini wrote that Saariaho’s music “combines vivid orchestration, the subtle use of electronic instruments and imaginative, sometimes unearthly writing for chorus ... The vocal writing is by turns elegiac and conversational. Her harmonic language is tonally grounded, with frequent use of sustained low pedal tones, but not tonal. Bits of dissonance, piercing overtones and gently jarring electronic sound spike the undulant harmonies, but so subtly that the overall aural impression is of beguiling consonance … Her evocations of the troubadour songs, with medieval modal harmony and fragments of elegiac tunes, are marvelous.”

The new COC production is conducted by COC music director Johannes Debus and directed by Daniele Finzi Pasca, known for his work with Cirque du Soleil. It features an all-Canadian cast. Baritone Russell Braun is Jaufré Rudel, soprano Erin Wall is his beloved Clémence and mezzo Krisztina Szabó sings the role of the mysterious Pilgrim. Sung in the original French of Lebanese librettist Amin Maaloof, L’Amour de loin (which, unlike other companies, the COC insists on calling Love from Afar) runs for eight performances from February 2 to 22. For more, visit www.coc.ca.

Taptoo! is the opera receiving its professional world premiere, with music by John Beckwith and libretto by James Reaney. The opera written in 1995 was given its world premiere by Opera McGill in 1999 and was later staged by the University of Toronto Opera Division in 2003. Toronto Operetta Theatre is presenting its professional premiere as part of the national commemorations of the bicentennial of the War of 1812. The title refers to the last drum-and-bugle signal of the day that would later expand into what is now known as a military tattoo.

19bThe work was conceived as a prequel to Harry Somers’ opera Serinette which had had a highly successful premiere in 1990 at the Elora Festival. As Beckwith writes in Unheard Of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer, to be published in February 2012, “Where Serinette was set in York and Sharon during the 1830s, the new piece deals with the founding of York by John Graves Simcoe in 1783 and covers a time period from the American War of Independence to just before the War of 1812.” Beckwith says that the opera features a number of Reaneyesque devices: “Cast members assume a variety of roles, changing age or gender rapidly, functioning solo for one scene and in the next, as part of a chorus; the orchestral players are sometimes required to join in the action.” In the TOT production, he says, a cast of 18 singers will cover 26 characters including historical figures, like Simcoe and Colonel “Mad Anthony” Wayne, and other imaginary ones like boy soldiers Ebenezer and Seth, the aboriginal Atahentsic, settlers and adventurers.

TOT lays claim to the work because Beckwith himself says he was inspired by ballad operas, the earliest examples of what would later become operetta. As Beckwith says, “Two period productions of early music theatre affected me around this time [of composing]. John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera and Thomas Arne’s Love in a Village were the most-often-performed ballad operas of 18th century England … I saw Taptoo! as the modern equivalent of a ballad opera, in which scraps of familiar songs and dances would now and then drift into the musical score. I included about 20 such musical references — hymn tunes, popular sentimental or patriotic songs, dances, marches and, of course, historical military music.”

The TOT cast includes Michael Barrett as Seth, Robert Longo as Wayne, Todd Delaney as Simcoe, Allison Angelo as Atahentsic, with Mark Petracchi and Sarah Hicks as Mr. and Mrs. Harple, Eugenia Dermentzis as Mrs. Simcoe and boy sopranos Daniel Bedrossian and Teddy Perdikoulias. The composer’s son, Larry Beckwith, conducts and TOT general director Guillermo Silva-Marin directs. Taptoo! runs only February 24 to 26. For more information see www.torontooperetta.com.

Beckwith says of his collaborations with James Reaney, “Without articulating our objectives further, I believe we wanted to affect our audiences in two ways — to move them and to cheer them.” We must thank TOT for giving Taptoo! a chance to achieve these goals.

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

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