And so, Mr. Riel…

So here is the promised review of last night at the Four Seasons Centre.  I have to phrase it that way because it was more than Somers’ opera Louis Riel though that of course was the major event.  The evening kicked off with a performance in the RBA by the Git Hayetsk Dance Group.  This is a west coast group and I’m not going to try and get into the complexities of nation, lineage and clan involved but it was a moving performance of traditional songs and dance with a brilliantly witty piece involving the trickster raven and a lot of stolen handbags. This was also the beginning of the public conversation about the use of the Nsga’a mourning song in Louis Riel.  That conversation continued when the same group made a brief appearance on the main stage immediately before the opera performance.  I understand that the intent is for the leader of the dancers to report back to the matriarch of the clan that owns the song on what happened and for the conversation to continue from there.

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Hopes fulfilled, expectations exceeded

Harry Somers’ Louis Riel is iconic.  It was the first Canadian opera to be performed by the COC (in 1967) and with its uncompromising musical modernism it stands out quite distinctly from the general corpus of Canadian operas.  Even after 50 years it retains an “edgy” quality musically.  It’s also iconic in that it uses the story of the Métis rebellions of 1870 and 1885 to explore the nature of Canadian identity.  It’s also hugely problematic in that the libretto, quite naturally, sees that issue in 1960s terms; i.e French vs English with a side of Ottawa versus the West.  There’s little room for Métis or First Nations sensibilities and the original production, recorded by the CBC in 1969, exacerbated that with a hyper-realistic treatment that made unfortunate use of a number of derogatory stereotypes of Aboriginal people.  This was compounded by the use of a sacred Nisga’a mourning song with new words as a lullabye; the most famous part of the opera – the Kuyas –  without acknowledgement or permission.

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The Ensemble Studio do Mozart, Bellini and Handel

Last night saw the Ensemble Studio’s big main stage performance.  Rather than perform one of the COC’s current productions (hard to imagine how they could cast one from the current line up) we got scenes from three operas; two of them from the COC’s current season.  They were performed with the orchestra on stage in front of the backdrop to the opening scene from the current Die Zauberflöte and in concert dress rather than costume (more or less, there were some nods to the roles in question) and with some blocking as far as limiting movement to the front of the stage permitted.

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Magic Flute – the other cast

Last night I saw the alternate cast of the COC’s Magic Flute.  Owen McCausland swaps First Armed Man for Tamino with Andrew Haji, Kirsten MacKinnon comes in as Pamina, Phillip Addis is Papageno and Matt Boehler is Sarastro.  The changes don’t really affect things much at all.  All the new faces are very good.  MacKinnon is a very perky Pamina which works well with Addis who has maybe a bit more of the “cheeky chappy” than Hopkins.  Fans of Owen McCausland and Andrew Haji will see exactly the differences in timbre and vocal technique one would expect but the interpretation is pretty much the same.  Overall, I would say that someone not very familiar with these singers would scarcely notice any differences.  What I did notice is how much better this production looks from Ring 3 than from the Orchestra.  Getting something of a “plan view” makes the antics during the overture look less cluttered and frantic and the trials scene is much more effective.  And the sound is better too.

Photos by Michael Cooper under the fold. Continue reading

Twilight

Last night the COC began its run of Götterdämmerung, the last and longest opera in Wagner’s epic tetralogy at The Four Seasons Centre.  It’s very different from Die Walküre and Siegfried.  The visual elements that tied them together; tottering Valhalla, disintegrating world ash, gantries, dancers, heaps of corpses are mostly gone.  In Tim Albery’s production the visuals are spare almost to abstraction.  The Gibichung Hall is a CEO suite with computer monitors and red couches, both Brünnhilde’s rock and the Rhinemaidens’ hang out look improvised, almost like squatters’ camps.  Costuming, apart from an occasional flashback, as in Waltraute’s scene, is severely modern business; grey suits, black dresses.  Only Siegfried himself in tee shirt and leather jacket stands out from the corporate crowd.  Dancing flames are replaced by red lights.  Everything that can be understated is and the world ends not with an overflowing Rhine and collapsing Valhalla but a stately pas de quatre between Brünnhilde and the Rhinemaidens.

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Magic Flute revived at COC

Last night saw the first performance of this season’s run of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the COC.  It’s a revival of the Diane Paulus 2011 production with Ashlie Corcoran as revival director.  It has a “theatre within a theatre” overlay in Act 1; it’s supposed to be an aristocratic birthday party for Pamina where the guests perform the opera, which mysteriously disappears in Act 2 though it makes an odd reprise right at the end where all the characters appear to perform a country dance.  Strip that element out and it’s a workmanlike Flute with nothing much to say but some pretty visuals.  The animals are cute and the trials scene is rather well done.  There is one notable change from 2011.  Pamina’s lurid pink Disney princess outfit is gone, replaced by something Regencyish and far less jarring.

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So basically it’s all about the performances and here we were well served by a (mostly) youngish cast with a strong Canadian element.  The star of the show for my money was Elena Tsallagova as Pamina.  She combines a sweet voice with plenty of projection and very affecting acting.  She nailed the big numbers and combined beautifully with Andrew Haji’s Tamino and Joshua Hopkins’ Papageno.  Haji too was excellent.  He really does have the ability to shade his voice and vocal technique for the piece he’s singing in so last night he, I think, throttled back a bit and concentrated on sounding beautiful and stylish rather than heroically Italianate.  (Some of this may have been where I was sitting where everything sounded a wee bit “throttled back”).  Hopkins’ Papageno was well sung.  Perhaps not the most exuberant Papageno ever but quite funny and convincing.

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Ambur Braid showed us why she is so much in demand as Queen of the Night.  The two big arias were spot on with some real menace in Der Hölle Rache and pinpoint coloratura.  It was also great to have a genuine bass with real low notes in Goran Juric as Sarastro.  The supporting roles were heavy on past and present Ensemble Studio members with Michael Colvin (Monastatos), Jackie Woodley (Papagena), Aviva Fortunata, Emily D’Angelo and Lauren Segal (Girls biker gang aka Three Ladies) plus Owen McCausland, Neil Craighead, Charles Sy and Bruno Roy all getting in on the action.

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Bruno Labadie conducted and brought a brisk, HIP sensibility to the piece.  He didn’t let his singers wallow and things kept moving without being too frenetic.  He was probably also responsible for pushing the singing style somewhat towards a lowish vibrato baroque kind of sound.  The COC chorus and orchestra were, as usual, top notch.  All in all then, a serviceable and well sung Magic Flute but hardly revelatory.

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There are eleven more performances between next Friday, when the alternate cast will sing, and February 24th.  I’ll be back to see that cast with Owen McCausland, Kirsten MacKinnon, Phillip Addis and Matt Boehler coming in as Tamino, Pamina, Papageno and Sarastro respectively.  The Magic Flute is playing at the Four Seasons centre and tickets are available from the box office and at coc.ca.

Photo credits: Chris Hutcheson, Gary Beechey and Michael Cooper x2.

Norma encore

Back to the Four Seasons Centre last night for a second look at Norma.  This time with Elza van den Heever singing the title role.  Van den Heever has a more conventional voice than Sondra Radvanovsky.  It’s perhaps not as dramatic and distinct but it’s an accurate, flexible instrument with plenty of colours and big enough for the role.  She’s also every bit as good as an actress so I don’t think the production suffers from losing its “headliner”.  Russell Thomas impressed again.  He’s so much better as Pollione than he was as Don José.  The acting is convincing and he really gets the chance to let rip here with what is a truly glorious tenor voice.  All the obvious comparisons suggest and are not ridiculous.  Isabel Leonard was also very fine last night and the duets with van den Heever were perhaps the highlight of the show.  Hat tip too to Charles Sy who never sounded out of place even when Thomas was singing all guns blazing,  It’s only two years since he was singing in a student production of HMS Pinafore.

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