So last night was this year’s iteration of the COC’s glitzy competition with cash and places in the Ensemble Studio at stake. It’s a bit of a weird thing to write about because the public, and this year the media, only see a fraction of what the judges are judging. We saw each singer do one aria. There had been a closed round earlier in the day to which, unlike in previous years, the media were not invited. Then there’s what the judges have seen in rehearsal, reputation etc. All in all what happens on the night influences the outcome about as much as at an Olympic figure skating event. So, in many ways it’s surprising that my picks were as close to the judges as they were.
James Robinson’s production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore was designed for various American regional houses. It has been updated to 1914ish and been given “regionalization” tweaks in the towns in which it has appeared. The version that opened at the COC last night has been transported to small town Ontario, Niagara on the Lake perhaps, during a Fall Fair. There’s a bit of a problem. The iconography; Kitchener recruiting posters, steel helmets etc, clearly place the action during, rather than before, WW1. Maybe an American director just doesn’t get, or doesn’t care about the implications but Adina buying Nemorino out of the army for example would hardly have been seen as virtuous in the white feather infested British Empire of 1914. Fortunately most of the audience either didn’t get it or didn’t care either and frankly even persnickety me was prepared to let it go and just enjoy the rather silly romp that we got. After all, this is not the other opera about love potions!
Tim Albery’s production of Richard Strauss’ 1933 opera Arabella, first seen at Santa Fe in 2012, finally made it to Toronto last night. It’s, I believe, a Canadian premiere for the piece, which is a bit shocking for an important opera by a major composer. It’s not a perfect piece. The librettist, the incomparable Hugo von Hofmannsthal, died before he and Strauss could revise the second and third acts and there are places where it feels a bit unfinished but it’s still an impressive work. The plot’s a bit contrived perhaps, though no more so than many more famous operas, but there’s real depth of humanity and Mandryka, the landowner/tribal chief from the southern fringes of the Habsburg empire, is a really fascinating study.
As is their wont the COC run of Tosca is double cast, at least as far as the principals go, and last night was the second performance for the alternate cast. Keri Alkema sang Tosca, Kamen Chakev was Cavaradossi and Craig Colclough played Scarpia. Sometimes the cast change makes a big difference, for better or worse, in the show. This time I really didn’t feel that was the case. This felt very much like the show I saw on opening night with minor differences.
Maybe Alkema’s Tosca is a bit “girlier” than Pieczonka but it’s very fine and Vissi d’arte brought the house down. If you alternated Colclough and Marquardt as Scarpia I’m not sure I’d notice. The biggest difference (and it’s still a fine one) is Chakev. He has the Italianate sound I rather missed in Puente though I think he saved most of it for the last act. In any event it made for a very fine Act 3 duet; probably the highlight of the night. So, bottom line, whichever cast one chooses to see it’s a good show.
Paul Curran’s production of Tosca, seen in 2008 and 2012, opened at the COC yesterday afternoon. It didn’t feel like a routine revival production of a warhorse. In fact it felt much fresher and focussed than last time around. Perhaps Mr. Curran, who is again directing, found some new insights or, more likely, the chemistry between the principals is better this time. The result is a very satisfactory show.
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.
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.