History has been slow to recognize the merits of La demenza di Tito, beginning with Empress Maria Luisa at the Prague premiere in 1791 describing Mozart's opera as "una porcheria tedesca" ("German hogswash") and continuing through to the early 20th century with Edward J. Dent's classic study of Mozart's operas declaring that "for the stage of today, it can only be considered as a museum piece."
In one sense Toronto's Opera Atelier did treat this formally constructed opera seria as a museum piece, climaxing the company's 25th anniversary season in April with what co-Artistic Director Marshall Pynkoski described, from the stage of the Elgin Theatre, as its first-ever period staging in North America.
But as a director, Pynkoski himself--together with conductor David Fallis and the period-instrument players of Tafelmusik, choreographer and co-Artistic Director Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg and her fellow members of the Atelier Ballet, and set and costume designer Gerard Gauci--imbued the opera with such animation, dramatic tension and at times even humor that Professor Dent's characterization of the libretto as "a pompous and frigid drama of Roman history" simply did not ring true.
The production further benefitted from one of the uniformly strongest casts Opera Atelier has thus far assembled, headed by the almost too robust-sounding Titus of Croatian tenor Kresimir Spicer, the ferociously tigerish Vitellia of Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman and the mellifluous Sesto of that remarkable male soprano Michael Maniacci.
Together with mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel's Annio, soprano Mireille Asselin's Servilia and baritone Curtis Sullivan's Publio), these able young singers may have pushed at times at the boundaries of opera seria style (just as did Pynkoski and Zingg at the boundaries of late 18th-century stage physicality), but the gains to dramatic impact were palpable.--William Littler
Rossini's La cenerentola traditionally ends with a finale of celebration and reconciliation, capped by Angelina's famous rondo, "Non piu mesta," strikingly sung by American mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong in the Canadian Opera Company production staged in April at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre. But in this staging--a co-production of Houston Grand Opera, Welsh National Opera, Gran Teatre del Liceu and Grand Theatre de Geneve--there is an extra scene, lasting mere seconds, showing Angelina (Cinderella) alone in servant's clothes, back in her kitchen, surrounded by commiserating rodents, as if all that came before, including her rescue by Don Ramiro (the prince) from the clutches of her stepfather and stepsisters, were nothing more than a dream.
An interesting, albeit revisionist, non-Rossinian touch to a production generally sympathetic to the subtle alternation of light and shadow emanating from the 25-year-old composer's score and notable for its bold use of Mediterranean colors (designs by Joan Guillen) and cartoon characterizations (direction by Joan Font), with a half-dozen dancer-mice humorously functioning as a (silent) Greek chorus.
Produced by the Spanish artists collective Els Comediants, the Toronto version of this production was fortunate in having in DeShong a heroine who sang (without register breaks) for character rather than simple vocal display and a Don Ramiro with the remarkable agility and unforced tone of the debuting Lawrence Brownlee.
Brett Polegato revealed a comic gift as Dandini, obviously unexploited in such previous COC roles as Don Giovanni and Eugene Onegin, with American bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen (Alidoro), Italian bass Donato Di Stefano (Don Magnifico) and two members of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble, soprano Ileana Montalbetti (Clorinda) and mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb (Tisbe), ably rounding out the cast.
Making a company debut, young Italian conductor Leonardo Vordoni led his orchestra with an idiomatic sense of style. Rossini had a good night.--WL
Hearing unfamiliar works is a rare treat, and Toronto Operetta Theatre satisfied that desire Mar. 9-13 with a production of the tuneful Luisa Fernanda by Federico Moreno Torroba. It was the operetta's Canadian premiere, with spoken English text and surtitles for the sung Spanish.
This zarzuela, the operetta of Spain, is filled with a gorgeous parade of Spanish-flavored music. Luisa Fernanda premiered in Madrid in 1932, and so has modern cadences to the score. On more than one occasion, the music was reminiscent of Hollywood musicals where the likes of Betty Grable and Lana Turner went man-hunting in South America. One expected Ricardo Montalban or Fernando Lamas to show up at any moment.
Zarzuela stories are complicated and involve the royal family in some way. As well, they don't turn out happily for everyone. Luisa Fernanda is set in 1868 in the reign of Queen Isabel II, whose regime is facing a republican revolution. Luisa (Michele Bogdanowicz) is a middle-class girl in love with army colonel Javier Moreno (Edgar Ernesto Ramirez). She is also, apparently, a republican sympathizer. There are a host of other characters who are denizens of Madrid's Plaza San Javier, most notably Mariana, an innkeeper and a republican (Eugenia Dermentzis), and Don Luis Nogales, head of the republican cause (Jeffrey Sanders).
Don Vidal Hernando (TOT General Director Guillermo Silva-Marin), a wealthy farmer, is also interested in Luisa. He becomes a republican to gain her admiration. Duchess Carolina (Miriam Khalil), an ally of the Queen, shows interest in Moreno to keep him on the royalist side.
By the end of the operetta, and after all kinds of plot convolutions, the republicans win, the Queen is dethroned and the Duchess flees to Portugal. Luisa has promised to marry Hernando, who relinquishes her when he realizes her love for Moreno. Hernando is broken-hearted at the end.
The key roles belong to women, and lyric sopranos Bogdanowicz and Khalil both sang magnificently. The former has a thrilling voice, with beautiful phrasing and color, while the latter has a more delicate sound of great charm. Both are passionate in delivery.
Imported Mexican-born tenor Ramirez is a real talent. He has an Italianate voice of strength, command and beauty. Veteran baritone Silva-Marin showed he still has the chops. His voice was well schooled, and he showed a wonderful connection to the text. For this show, he was also stage director, set and lighting designer and choreographer. He kept the action lively through the convoluted plot.
Dermentzis is a mezzo-soprano to watch, clear of voice with a hearty sound in development. Sanders is a baby baritone whose voice still needs heft.
Conductor Jose Hernandez did a wonderful job in the pit. He is capable of great subtlety and nuance, as well as the grand effect. This TOT production was particularly well conducted.--Paula Citron
General Director Guillermo Siva-Marin's current Opera in Concert seasons are all about risk, which guarantees surprise and often considerable pleasure. His 2010/11 lineup of performances at Toronto's Jane Mallett Theatre was a season of premieres, with Haydn's La fedelta premiata a most entertaining midwinter (Jan. 30) entry.
Franz Joseph Haydn isn't the first name that springs to mind when contemplating opera. The composer's 25 such creations have received far less attention than his quartets, symphonies, oratorios and concertos, even though he ran an opera troupe that gave numerous performances for his wealthy patron family, the Esterhazys.
La fedelta premiata (Fidelity Rewarded) proved ideal musical fodder in its Canadian premiere for OinC, featuring eight named cast members, of whom six made their OinC debut, and its first collaboration with the responsive 17-piece Classical Music Consort (on stage instead of instrumentalists squeezed around it), directed by founder-conductor Ashiq Aziz from the harpsichord with proper tempi and good dynamics.
Their accomplished, disciplined presence on period instruments and the fresh energies the vocal newcomers brought to this 1781 dramma giocoso made for an appealing performance. The story is old-school mythology, with the goddess Diana displeased with her adherents in the city of Cumae, ordering two lovers sacrificed annually to a monster until a faithful swain offers to replace them. It's a situation ripe for exploiting by a venal priest, a philandering count, giddy flirts and devoted lovers, a shifting tale replete with alliances, betrayals and breakups.
Eventually, of course, one loyal lover, Fileno, saves the day by declaring he'll be the sacrifice. His beloved Fillide is horrified, but Diana forgives him and the city. Three amorous couples are at last united, though the priest has to die.
Haydn was proud of this work. It's clearly one of the best examples of his operatic writing and his music is often lushly beautiful, effectively contrasted by rousing vocal ensembles that conclude each of three acts. The singers seemed totally at home with the serious and the comic--in fact with almost all the demands of score, libretto and the need not just to stand and deliver. They also exploited the wit in the story.
The production was so well integrated that the presentation could easily be judged a collective achievement, since with the possible exception of Diana (Charlotte Knight) there are no minor roles. Debuting mezzo Susanne Holmes (a sensuous yet incisive voice with unforced radiant tones) portrayed Fillide well. Along with soprano Farah Hack (the flighty nymph, Nerina, interpreted with great finesse and luminous delicacy), they were perhaps the most effective singers by the slimmest of margins. Distinctive, bright-toned soprano Lesley Bouza as Amaranta set high standards with her lovely aria "Del amor mio fedele" and maintained them.
Seasoned tenor Graham Thomson made a splendid love-obsessed Fileno, singing with fierce bravado; tenor Rocco Rupulo was a powerful presence as Lindoro; experienced baritone James Levesque was assured as ever as predatory Count Perruccetto; and baritone Marco Arthur Petracci personified the manipulative, meddling priest, Helibeo.--Geoff Chapman
Allison Grant's staging of Mozart's Don Giovanni at University of Toronto Opera Division began intriguingly with the Don flipping through his cellphone contact list during the overture, surrounded by phantoms of his former conquests. But after the orchestra, under the direction of Miah Im, gave its rather stately account of the overture, the action pretty well reverted to a standard historical look and feel, the 20th century relegated to back projections that changed with distracting abruptness and frequency. Indeed, this staging was a bit disappointing given Grant's experience in both opera and theatre. There were, to be sure, some well-conceived and executed scenes--a very sexy encounter between the Don and Zerlina, for example--but these were offset by lacklustre blocking, too much stand-and-sing and the false drama of too many characters being thrown to the ground.
The cast (seen Mar. 12) was strong, and worked well together as an ensemble. Geoffrey Sirett's rakish, amoral Don provided an eloquent focus, the aristocratic, dismissive treatment of everyone around nicely complemented by the broader humor in Fabian Arciniegas's nuanced musical portrayal of Leporello. Jessica Strong, a little too blustery calling for revenge, settled down to become a determined, bright-voiced Donna Elvira, her "Mi tradi" delivered with real vocal grit. Aviva-Fortunata Wilks similarly had a nervous beginning, but by "Or sai chi I'onore" settled into a firm and forceful Donna Anna. Julia Barber was a fine Zerlina, partnered ably by Andrew Love as Masetto but singing particularly well with Sirett's Don. Andrew Haji seemed a little awkward in the admittedly ungratefully stiff character of Don Ottavio, though sang nicely. His "Il mio tesoro" was smoothly handled even at the rather fast pace set by Im. Vasil Garvanliev had the gravitas for the Commendatore, though it would have been nicer to see him sing the final challenge to the Don rather than resort to video. Fred Perruzz's production design and Lisa Magill's costumes worked well enough in a production that, for all its musical accomplishments, never quite found a cohesive dramatic focus.--Wayne Gooding
With the opening of Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music, the Glenn Gould School Opera has gained a much more sympathetic performing space than it had in Mazzoleni Hall, as was very evident in March in its innovative and hugely entertaining double bill of Bizet's Le Docteur Miracle and Ravel's L'heure Espagnole. The bigger stage with pit and. excellent acoustics provided a fine showcase for some young voices that handled the widely (and wildly) diverse styles of these two one-acters handsomely. The Bizet was particularly welcome, since it's considerably rarer in performance than the Ravel, which in fact was done in 2009 by the University of Toronto Opera School.
Bizet's operetta, written at age 18, won him joint first prize in a competition organized by Jacques Offenbach. The farce is predictably silly, convoluted and involving multiple disguises. Suffice to say that an inventive young man finally gets his girl, the daughter of the strict Mayor of Padua and his wife. This is probably the only work in music theatre in which the making of an omelette is key to the dramatic development and a musical highlight. Starting with a danced pantomime in the lively overture, the young artists embraced this silliness with great gusto, with Zachary Finkelstein marshalling a lovely light tenor as Silvio/ Pasquin/Docteur Miracle (hence the disguises) and soprano Jennifer Taverner a burnished soprano as Laurette. Danielle MacMillan and Maciej Bujnowicz were good foils as the parents.
Bujnowicz and Finkelstein were back again, effectively, in the Ravel as Gon-zalve and Don Inigo Gomez. Leigh-Anne Marin's sassy and assertive Concepcion, however, was rightly the focus, a difficult role she sang confidently and with great clarity. Todd Delaney made the macho most of the muleteer Ramiro and Andrew Byerlay was (appropriately) blandly oblivious as the cuckolded Torquemada. The orchestra, under the direction of Uri Mayer, handled the shifting moods and sonorities of the beautiful Ravel score very well.
A good part of the success of this smart Brent Krysa staging came from the unit set and costumes devised by Michael Gianfrancesco. Both operas involve a lot of comings and goings through multiple opening and closing doors. And the much-used, oversized clocks in the Ravel were a perfect surreal complement to the omelette-making in the Bizet. Though written more than 50 years apart by two wholly different musical sensibilities, these pieces looked as if they belonged together.--WG