The adventurous Against the Grain Theatre pushed the envelope yet again with a double-bill of song cycles, pairing Janacek's unfamiliar Diary of One Who Disappeared with Gyorgy Kurtag's even more obscure Kafka Fragments. Seen fully staged on opening night (Mar. 1) in an unconventional space known as The Extension Room, it turned out to be a musically rewarding evening and a tour de force for the artists. Scored for soprano and violin, the atonality of Kafka Fragments combined with the prevailing darkness of text drawn from Kafka's diaries to create an atmosphere of acute emotional tension. Soprano Jacqueline Woodley displayed fearless vocalism and strong dramatic instincts. Given the difficulty of the piece, she could be forgiven for using the score. Violinist Kerry DuWors was no mere accompanist but an equal partner, and she shone throughout. If one were to quibble, the episodic nature of these fragments gave the work a fits-and-starts quality, and the lack of subtitle projections made it a challenge for non-German speakers.
Side by side with the angularity of Kafka, the Janacek cycle emerged as the epitome of lyricism. The work was inspired by the elderly composer's love for Kamila Stosslova, a woman 40 years younger. Tenor Colin Ainsworth, known for his soft-grained sound in Baroque repertoire and Mozart, surprised everyone with his power and intensity as the protagonist, an unknown man who falls in love with a gypsy girl and runs away with her. He coped well with the high tessitura and painted from a full palette of tonal colors, including two impressive high Cs at the end of 40 minutes of strenuous singing. Mezzo Lauren Segal was the ideal Gypsy, singing her relatively short role with luscious tone and exuding physical allure. Lesley Bouza, Sarah Hal-marson and Eugenia Dermentzis were a fine trio of Gypsy women. The work was orchestrated posthumously for staged performances, but with Christopher Mokrzewski's excellent piano playing, one didn't miss the orchestra.
AtG concluded its season with Figaro's Wedding, a radical reimagining of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro resituated to 2013 Toronto in a libretto rewritten by AtG Artistic Director Joel Ivany. The basic structure is recognizable--Susanna and Figaro are tying the knot, while the marriage of Rosina and Alberto (aka the Countess and Count) is on the rocks. But instead of an upstairs-downstairs scenario, Alberto (also the Best Man) is Figaro's boss, with the money to bankroll the wedding it only Susanna would "put out." Bartolo is now the Minister, Marcellina the Event Manager, Basilio the Wedding Coordinator and Cherubino a Lesbian Bridesmaid--it's funnier than it might sound. Almost all of the music is intact except for Bartolo's aria, the Susanna-Marcellina duet, all chorus and Barbarina. The Letter Duet has morphed into a text message via iPhone--everyone seems to carry one. Completely sold out on opening night (May 29) in another unconventional space--the c.1907 Burroughes department store building on trendy Queen Street West--the audience whooped it up through three hours of music. The singing was excellent, with a standout Figaro in Stephen Hegedus, and a sultry and luscious-toned Susanna in Miriam Khalil. Lisa Di Maria, typically cast as a soubrette, surprised everyone as an improbably good Rosina, nailing her two arias with panache. Special kudos must go to Teiya Kasahara as a very convincing butch-lesbian Cherubino. The Music in the Barn Chamber Ensemble played with great energy and verve, with Christopher Mokrzewski at the piano matching them note for note in his own arrangement for quintet.
It there's a casualty, it's the inherent darkness in the original Mozart. The class struggle, the seriousness of the Countess's marital predicaments and the sinister designs of the Count on Susanna are glossed over or absent altogether. What we get in this repackaging is undeniably cute and delightful, with more opportunities for belly laughs than one would have thought possible. It isn't profound, but in this sort of zany updating, tbat's perhaps beside the point.--Joseph So
Trust David Alden, one of operas notorious Alden twins, to come up with a new snapshot of an old warhorse, most recently for the Canadian Opera Company in an Apr./May production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor that effectively turned Sir Walter Scott's tale into a study of Victorian Scottish adolescent molestation.
Just about everybody lusts after poor, girlish Lucia, from her avaricious older brother Enrico to her older lover Edgardo and her older bridegroom Arturo. In the debuting American soprano Anna Christy, who enjoyed considerable success in the production when it premiered at English National Opera in 2008, Alden had his ideal protagonist, visually credible, secure in her coloratura technique yet surprisingly girlish in sound.
As her principal lusters, baritone Brian Mulligan (Enrico), tenor Stephen Costello (Edgardo) and tenor Nathaniel Peake (Arturo) brought suitable voices and convincing characterizations to their roles, as did bass Oren Gradus (Raimondo), tenor Adam Luther (Normanno) and soprano Sasha Djihanian (Alisa). In short, the cast argued the production's dramatic concept convincingly.
Conductor Stephen Lord, a bel canto veteran, opened up some of the scores once-standard cuts and led the highly responsive chorus and orchestra with his accustomed authority. And as it any extra elements were needed to complete this bleak interpretation of Donizetti's opera, Charles Edwards' sets, Brigitte Reiffenstuel's costumes and Adam Silverman's lighting (recreated by Andrew Cutbush) did the job. Scotland's reputation may never recover.
No matter how you slice it, Cole Porter once told us, it's still Salome. And the COC has been slicing Strauss's Salome a la Atom Egoyan since 1996, in a co-production with Houston Grand Opera and Vancouver Opera. For its Apr./May revival (it was also restaged in 2002), Egoyan has continued to refine his vision of a tale less about a femme fatale than about the consequences of voyeurism and frustrated desire.
Like the title character in David Alden's Lucia, with which it ran in alternating performances at the Four Seasons Centre, the adolescent Salome takes the abused child's ultimate revenge, becoming a murderess.
The debuting Swedish-American soprano Erika Sunnegardh was spared the indignity of having to disrobe her way through the Dance of the Seven Veils (we should remember that Strauss asked for an impossible interpreter, a teenager with the voice of an Isolde), thanks to filmmaker Egoyan's insight of employing, instead of a literal dance, projections by Phillip Barker, incorporating shadow design by Clea Minaker and choreography by Serge Bennathan, alluding to the princess's abuse.
Sunnegardh was certainly equal to the vocal demands of her role, as were mezzo Hanna Schwarz (Herodias), tenor Nathaniel Peake (Narraboth) and baritone Martin Gantner (sharing Jochanaan with Alan Held), not to mention Richard Margison, whose Herod surely ranks among this distinguished tenor's finest characterizations.
Still, the true star of the production had to have been the COC Orchestra, augmented to an impressive 106 members, whose playing of the Dance of the Seven Veils under the direction of Johannes Debus (conducting the opera for the first time) was little short of hair-raising.
In the famous John Dexter production of Dialogues des Carmelites at the Metropolitan Opera, the curtain rose on a steeply raked stage dominated by a huge cross. Not for Robert Carsen the "hypertheatricality" of such an image; together with his frequent design partner, Michael Levine, he accommodated Poulenc's opera within a minimalist black box on the stage of Toronto's Four Seasons Centre this past May in a much-travelled production premiered by Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam in 1997. The largely abstract approach reflects a plausible belief that the nature of the opera is anti-theatrical, largely concerned as it is with a series of dialogues between the characters about faith and suffering.
The suffering of Madame de Croissy, the old prioress, dying in agony through her loss of faith, enabled that remarkable vocal actress, mezzo Judith Forst, to give the production its emotional high point. Not that the whole cast was less than equal to the vocal if not always to the dramatic demands of the opera (Carsen remains more impressive as a conceptualizer than as a molder of individual characterizations), with Adrianne Pieczonka's Madame Lidoine and Isabel Bayrakdarian's Blanche heading a roster otherwise distinguished by the fine contributions of soprano Helene Guilmette (Sister Constance), mezzo Irina Mishura (Mother Marie) and tenor Frederic Antoun (Chevalier de la Force).
Again conducting an opera for the first time, COC Music Director Johannes Debus once again proved himself one of the company's finest assets, drawing playing of real sensitivity from his splendid orchestra. --William Littler
Opera in Concert gave a semi-staged performance of Thais, Massenet's late-Romantic piece about a 4th-century Egyptian courtesan converted by a Cenobite monk (Mar. 24). There was basic blocking, but no scenery and a slight nod to costume. Post conversion, Thai's wears a sort of burlap shawl over her party dress, while the monk, Athanael, loses his bow tie in his final distraught phase. Despite these production touches, most of the singing was from music stands with the cast in various forms of concert attire. There was piano accompaniment, with a violinist coming in for the Meditation and its many reprises. It felt rather half finished, so perhaps OinC would benefit from either going back to a strictly concert format or taking a further step towards the minimalist but highly effective production style we've seen recently from such companies as Against the Grain Theatre.
Musically, the highlight was Laura Whelan in the title role. She sang with power, control and a pleasing tone even in the notoriously difficult passages. James Westman's Athanael was less successful. His powerful, indeed stentorian, baritone rather overpowered the space and the accompaniment and left me wishing for more subtlety and variation in tone color. Alain Coulombe was very effective as the elderly Cenobite leader, Palemon, lending some affecting gravitas to the proceedings. Adam Fisher also sang sweetly as the pagan noble, Nicias, though one feels he might have been struggling with the role with full orchestra. Members of the chorus took the minor parts.
The ladies of the chorus performed very well throughout, while the gentlemen improved after a slightly shaky start in which both intonation and ensemble went slightly awry. Music director Raisa Nakhmanovich accompanied effectively on piano, and Carolina Herrera was featured on violin.
All in all, it was enjoyable without being especially memorable. Thais is perhaps not the most felicitous choice of repertory for this space or this performance style. No doubt it can be done without Renee Fleming's notorious Lacroix gowns at the Metropolitan, but a little more glitz would help with the sanctimonious plot and the sometimes saccharine music.--John Gilks
Toronto Masque Theatre put together an entertaining show in May of John Blow's Venus and Adonis (1683), considered the first English opera, and The Lesson of Da Ji, a new commission with music by Alice Ping Yee Ho and libretto by Marjorie Chan. TMT Artistic Associate and choreographer Marie-Nathalie Lacoursiere directed the Blow with no surprises. A specialist in Baroque arts, she is not going to drift very far away from the roots. Written as a masque for the court of Charles II, Lacoursiere presented it as light-hearted entertainment, except Venus's final lament for Adonis.
Artist Caroline Guilbault portrayed Arcadian tranquility in charming graphics, while Angela Thomas garbed the cast in suitable Grecian attire. TMT Artistic Director Larry Beckwith led his small ensemble in excellent music making. The result was a pleasant foray into Baroque music and dance, both cute and sad by turns.
The Lesson of Da Ji has a cracking good story and fascinating music that blends Chinese, Baroque and other western forms. Chan has written a libretto with all the elements needed for good opera--love, betrayal, murder--while Ho mined her music influences to draw out every point of drama. TMT Artistic Associate Derek Boyes provided excellent direction that demonstrated he really understands theatrical tension, and the fusion of reality and ritual.
The opera is based on a real historical figure, the concubine Da Ji, who, during the Shang dynasty, became a queen with a very bloodthirsty reputation. Chan regards her as a victim of war and wanted to humanize her through an invented love story. As the opera opens, Da Ji is learning to play the Chinese zither, though the lessons are just a guise to bring her and lover Bo Yi together, He is the son of the King's hated enemy, the Duke. When Da Ji finds out that the King intends to invite the Duke and his wife to a banquet and steal their land while they're in his palace, Da Ji sends Bo Yi a warning note on the sheet music of the beautiful song he has written for her. Da Ji's maid Ming betrays her to the King, who kills Bo Yi and serves him up to his parents as the main course. He also has reserved Bo Yi's heart as a special culinary treat for Da Ji.
This was an absolutely gorgeous production to look at. Thomas's beautiful burgundy-and-black color scheme for the costumes was rich, while Guilbault did wonders with decorated pillows and renderings of elegant Chinese furniture for the set. Her projections were details of Chinese landscapes. Lighting designer Gabriel Cropley bathed the stage in ominous shadows.
Ho's instrumentation includes Chinese bowed stringed instruments, lutes and the zither for the love scenes, as well as an array of Chinese percussion. The lute, viola da gamba, harpsichord and recorder represent the Baroque period, along with one violin and one viola.
Ho has produced a wide range of evocative music, from the beautiful love duet and Bo Yi's song to the harrowing sounds and heavy percussion of the Kings revenge. If the Chinese instruments were given pride of place, it was tor good reason. For example, when the King forces Da Ji to play the zither (as a result of all her lovemaking, she can't play a note) at the banquet, a miracle occurs. Bo Yi's spirit causes a riot of virtuoso notes to emerge courtesy of musician Cynthia Qin.
Except for mezzo Marion Newman as Da Ji and Peking Opera specialist (in women's roles) William Lau as Moon II, the singers participated in both operas.
Newman continues to impress with both her acting and vocal skills. Her beautiful voice has heft and power, but at the same time an innate sweetness. She modulates it extremely well. Lyric soprano Charlotte Corwin (Venus/Duchess) displayed a lovely legato and an expressive sound that can soar. Soprano Xin Wang, also a good actress, has a clear, bright sound that worked as the Maid in Da Ji, but was too harsh and strident for Cupid in the Blow. Coloratura soprano Vania Chan (Shepherdess/Moon 1) showed a sweet, light voice in the Blow and Peking Opera skills in Da Ji, making a formidable partner with Lau.
Baritone Alexander Dobson (Shepherd/King) radiates confidence, deploying an excellent voice that he can adapt seemingly at will. It was fun to see him as a chorister in Blow, but he was just right as the King in Ho's opera--sly, menacing and absolutely tyrannical. Fellow baritone Benjamin Covey (Adonis/Duke) has a lighter voice of great promise and fluidity. With his pleasant tenor, Derek Kwan (Shepherd/Bo Yi) held his own in both operas. More importantly, he brought key acting skills to the part of Bo Yi.
One sincerely hopes that The Lesson of Da Ji finds a permanent home on the operatic stage.--Paula Citron
Opera York's 2012/13 season consisted of two perennials--La traviata and The Merry Widow. The Verdi warhorse (seen Nov. 1) starred Albanian-Canadian soprano Mirela Tafaj, who has previously sung Micaela, Mimi and Tosca with this company. Possessing a dark-hued, Italianate soprano, she sang a fine Violetta, with sufficient agility to do justice to the Act I vocal fireworks and the requisite full middle and lower registers for the rest of the role. Her portrayal was marred by the occasional mannerisms, and she took a few liberties with tempi, phrasing and text. As Alfredo, Ricardo Iannello showed promise, singing with pleasing, youthful tone and possessing the right dramatic instincts. London-based Canadian baritone Jeffrey Carl returned to sing a Germont of firm tone and gravitas. Frank Pasian's budget-wise set was acceptable, and Penelope Cookson did a good job as stage director. On the debit side, the chorus was threadbare and the orchestra under Sabatino Vacca sounded rather undernourished.
Due to illness and casting choices, Merry Widow (Mar. 2) wasn't as good as it might have been. It was announced after Act I that baritone Dion Mazerolle was suffering from a cold. While he was a dramatically credible Danilo, his top was precarious all night. The soubrette timbre of soprano Anna Bateman, a good Fledermaus Adele last season, is simply not right for Hanna, and she was nearly inaudible at times. As Valencienne, Alexandra Smither had the more substantial voice and sang well, but she looked matronly in an unflattering wig and costume. Ryan Harpers Camille was solidly sung and acted, while veteran character baritone Dousglas Tranquada was appropriately blustery as Baron Mirko Zeta. Conductor Geoffrey Butler did an honorable job with the small orchestra, an ensemble in need of some bolstering. Designer Frank Pasian did a really nice job with the sets, even though the vests for the men made them look like crossing guards. Renee Salewski was excellent with her middle-of-the-road stage direction.--Joseph So