English National Opera’s new season includes two Christopher Alden productions that originated at COC. Die Fledermaus is brilliant and a must see. Rigoletto may be a bit more of an acquired taste though it certainly has its strong points. The London cast for Fledermaus doesn’t look as strong (to me) as the Toronto cast but the Rigoletto has the estimable Quinn Kelsey in the title role, Barry Banks as the Duke and Anna Christy as Gilda.
Today saw the premiere of the Canadian Art Song Project’s second annual commission (My review of last year’s effort). This time it was Norbert Palej’s Small Songs; a setting of ten texts from Jan Zwicky’s Thirty-seven Small Songs & Thirteen Silences. It’s an ambitious piece drawing on a wide range of vocal and piano colours and occasionally on non-standard technique. That said, although sounding like a work from the 21st century it’s really quite accessible to anyone with any familiarity at all with modern art song. Some passages were really lovely. I especially like the haunting and clever setting of Small song on being lost which evokes the loneliness of the sea and the self. The piece that followed; Small song for the moon in the daytime was also rather special ending movingly on “the wind is nowhere to be found”. All in all, great integration of text and music as art song should be. The composer “warned” us up front that the music was extremely difficult to perform because he was writing it for two very fine musicians. They didn’t disappoint. Tenor Lawrence Wiliford used all of his range; dynamically, colourwise and pitchwise to give a very text sensitive reading and he was very well accompanied by long time collaborator Steven Philcox at the piano.
Just in! Soprano Simone Osborne replaces Layla Claire in the Coast Salish themed Magic Flute at Vancouver Opera opening March 9th. Simone will sing five of the six performances with Rachel Fenlon singing the final show. Simone’s recent stay in Scotland should have got her suitably acclimatized to lots of grey, rainy days. It’s apparently sung in English and hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ so I hope her hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ is in good shape.
She’ll join, among others, recent Met debutante Joshua Hopkins as Papageno, Teiya Kasahara as the Queen of the Night and the guaranteed to be hilarious Michael Barrett as Monostatos.
I guess being young, talented, hard working and a lovely person all help. A leg up from Marilyn Horne does no harm either. All of which is by way of saying that Simone Osborne makes her Carnegie Hall debut on Saturday in the Marilyn Hall Song Celebration. Simone has already made a big impression in Toronto (Pamina, Gilda and Lauretta at COC) and across Canada as well as in Japan while taking time out to charm sharks in the Indian Ocean and Lotfi Mansouri (no relation) in Zurich. There are some other singers too, including one Piotr Beczala, so New Yorkers might want to check this one out.
The lovely Simone Osborne has been announced as the winner of the first Maureen Forrester Award Tour. So Simone will be appearing with Anne Larlee in forty recitals across the country which will feature, among other things, a new work by composer Brian Current, sponsored by the Canadian Art Song Project. I guess recital tours have the advantage of there being no scenery to come crashing down on one’s head!
Maybe Gatsby should get himself a frequent flyer card and a really comfortable carrier.
Last night I saw the Canadian Opera Company’s double bill of Zemlinsky’s A Florentine Tragedy and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. I had a pretty good idea what to expect having attended the dress rehearsal a couple of weeks ago. I said then that I thought that there was something in this show for everyone, even the most traditionalist, and I would still hold to that view if I hadn’t read the very silly review by Arthur Kaptainis in the National Post. Apparently there are people who can’t cope with a simple change of time setting and there are editors who let them write for real newspapers. It’s very puzzling. So let’s just say something for anyone with a smidgeon of imagination or dramatic instinct. Continue reading →
It’s Spring in Toronto. The Canadian Opera Company has three productions in rehearsal and load ins and set building have started once more at the Four Seasons Centre. Here’s my take on what’s coming up.
Offenbach – Tales of Hoffmann April 10th to May 14th
This is a house debut for British director Lee Blakeley who brings his production previously seen at Vlaamse Opera. The production looks on the face of it fairly conventional but word from the rehearsal studio is that it’s fairly “out there”. The casting is a typical mix of “A list” talent, local favourites and Ensemble Studio members. Probably the biggest draw is local boy John Relyea who is playing the four villains. American tenor Russell Thomas sings the title role. The four main female roles will be sung by Andriana Chuchman, Erin Wall, Keri Alkema and Lauren Segal; all familiar faces to Toronto audiences. Johannes Debus conducts. More information.
Herewith a personal take on the best things that came my way operatically in 2011.
It was a pretty good year for live opera in Toronto. I’m certainly not going to complain about two Robert Carsen productions in the same calendar year. Good though the Gluck was though top honours in the fully staged opera in a real theatre go to the COC’s Ariadne auf Naxos. Neil Armfield’s production was fairly conventional but the music making was superb. Adrienne Pieczonka, Jane Archibald and Alice Coote headlined with strong support from Richard Margison and a whole bunch of past and present Studio Ensemble members. The orchestral playing too was absolutely first class and Sir Andrew Davis conducting looked like he was enjoying it as much as the audience. Later in the year I think we had a bit of “a star is born moment”. Christopher Alden’s Rigoletto was challenging enough that I wanted to see it a second time so took the chance to get a cheap ticket for the B cast. Thus I got to see the extraordinary chemistry between two very fine young singers; David Lomeli and Simone Osborne. Go see them if you get a chance. Actually, nothing at the COC seriously disappointed in 2011 (well maybe the The Magic Flute had a bit of a 200th performance of my career feel to it.) It looks like we are moving at last into an era when Toronto gets consistently high class singers and conductors in decent or better productions. It’s a shame there are only seven productions per year.
As for smaller venues, highlights included Against the Grain’s funky La Boheme in the highly outlandish setting of the Tranzac Club and Queen of Puddings’ world premiere of Ana Sokolov’s Svadba – Wedding; an hour long piece for six unaccompanied female voices. There were also any number of excellent free lunchtime concerts in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre.
The surprise highlight of the year for me was the restored print of the 1961 Rosenkavalier from Salzburg. Everything about it is surprising and wonderful and undermines a great deal of received wisdom about opera in that era. Other personal discoveries were the Salzburg King Arthur (who knew Germans could be funny?) and Calixto Bieito’s truly disturbing Wozzeck starring Franz Hawlata at his very considerable best.
I started the year thinking I didn’t really like John Adams much. I had hated the Met broadcast of Doctor Atomic and while I liked some of the non-operatic stuff rather more I wasn’t a fan. After watching Nixon in China twice in 24 hours (COC on the Friday night followed by the Met broadcast on the Saturday) and attending a lunchtime concert of arias introduced by the composer and sung by Peter McGillivray and Betty Wayne Allison I was converted. I even went back and watched the Amsterdam production of Doctor Atomic on DVD. I still think Doctor Atomic has its weaknesses but Nixon in China is pretty much a masterpiece.
I started this blog as a way of keeping up writing analytically while I wasn’t working. It’s helped keep me sane. Through this and Twitter and other on-line stuff I’ve met some really cool people in 2011; some in meatspace including Lydia of Definitely the Opera, Cicely Carver from COC, couturier Rosemary Uhmetsu and up and coming soprano Simone Osborne. On-line folks who have helped this year along are really too numerous to mention individually but thanks anyway!
Other stuff that happened
I met Lawrence Brownlee and Leonardo Vordoni in the cinema at a MetHD broadcast! I discovered that baritone Brett Polegato (one of the funniest people in opera) has a little grey cat called Lady Jane Grey just like my little grey monster.
Last night was the second performance of the COC’s new Rigoletto and the first featuring the alternate leading role trio of Lester Lynch (Rigoletto), David Lomeli (Duke of Mantua) and Simone Osborne (Gilda). The rest of the cast was as on opening night.
Musically this was a really splendid evening. Everybody sang really well. I like Lester Lynch’s idiomatic playing of the title role and he managed to combine a not inappropriate amount of scenery chewing with being thoroughly musical. Lomeli lived up to the “dragged from obscurity by Placido Domingo” hype. I think there is a true Italian tenor emerging here. He nailed his arias with lovely ringing high notes and plenty of swagger. Osborne, on role debut, was lovely. Caro nome was one of the highlights of the evening and ,in general, she sounded very secure across some pretty tough music. The chemistry between the three was pretty good although the production maybe put more emotional distance between Gilda and Rigoletto than is sometimes the case. In any event the voices blended well and seemed well balanced. Among the other roles I was particularly impressed by Kendall Gladden’s Maddalena. She has a really smoky mezzo that created a pleasing contrast with the brighter voices. She’s a pretty fine actor too so it’s easy to see why she gets cast as Carmen! I also liked Philip Ens’ Sparafucile. He was a sinister presence and a genuine bass with a thoroughly solid lower register. All in all, the casting managed to combine very good individual singers into an ensemble that had a really good balance of tone/timbre. The orchestra and chorus were at their usual high standard and Johannes Debus kept things together very nicely and didn’t distract from the singing and I do think this is very much a singers opera.
The production and design (Christopher Alden and Michael Levine) was very decorative. All the action plays out in a lavishly panelled and furnished “gaming room” looking something like the smoking room at one of the better London clubs in the mid/late 19th century. It does duty for the duke’s court, Rigoletto’s home and Sparafucile’s inn. In a sense this creates a kind of unity; all of these spaces are misogynistic theatres of corrupt power and delusion. On the other hand it requires the audience to suspend disbelief more often and more willingly than usual. It’s an odd kind of secret that can be sung mezzoforte in front of the people it’s supposed to be secret from! The male dominated Victorian aesthetic seems to produce a kind of emotional coolness too. We never quite get enough emotional charge in the Gilda/Rigoletto dynamic to fully feel his loss (i.e. I didn’t cry at the end). The final scene though is splendidly and very effectively done.(*)
So summing up, I enjoyed the show. Musically it is first rate. The production was interesting but I don’t think the concept was quite able to carry the piece emotionally. It’s not a disaster and there’s nothing to shock the traditionalist. Maybe if I had seen Rigoletto a million times before I’d be more positive. Go see the show and judge for yourself!
The production runs until October 22nd and there is a choice of the cast we saw or Quinn Kelsey, Dmitri Pittas and Ekaterina Sadovnikova as Rigoletto, the duke and Gilda.
Today was the opening concert of the season for the free concert series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at the Four Seasons Centre. As has become standard practice it was a recital by the artists of the COC Studio Ensemble. All the members sang except for Ambur Braid who was ill and Ileana Montalbetti is singing in Elektra in Rome at the moment. I have to say it was great to be listening to live, unamplified singing again after a summer of mostly DVDs. I was most interested to hear newcomer Philippe Sly who I had not heard before. He sang one of the Count’s arias from Figaro. He has a very pleasant voice with plenty of power though I think he lacks a bit of variety and drama. He’ll learn that quickly enough in the Ensemble Studio program. The other newcomer was Mireille Asselin, who I had heard before. She sang a rather weird aria from Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tiresias. No lack of drama or humour in her performance! The other standouts for me were Adrian Kramer and Simone Osborne. Adrian sang “Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen” from Die tote Stadt. His diction and acting are superb and he managed an absolutely gorgeous floated pianissimo on the final “Zurück”. Simone gave us one of Norina’s arias from Don Pasquale. She just gets better. She has quite a powerful, rich voice with really strong, sweet high notes. The progress from even a year ago is obvious. She can act too. There is no question that she is one to watch on the opera scene. Fortunately, that’s exactly what I will be doing in ten days time when I shall see her role debut as Gilda in the COC’s production of Rigoletto. The season is off to a good start.