The 2010/11 Canadian Opera Company season in review

On paper this looked like the strongest season the COC has ever staged. Every production featured a judicious balance of international stars and local talent. Most of the casting would not have looked shabby in any opera house in the world. In execution it didn’t disappoint. All seven shows were better than competent and the best were very good indeed. The critics were mostly positive though La Cenerentola was less enthusiastically received. Despite all that ticket sales don’t seem to have been all that great. There’s been a fair amount of discounting and definitely more empty seats than one expects at the Four Seasons Centre. The grapevine also tells me worrying things like that the most positive feedback came for a pretty mundane production of The Magic Flute.

So what’s up? I really don’t know but I’d love to see the full stats on ticket sales and see what demographic is growing and which shrinking. I’d hazard a guess that we are seeing a typical Toronto phenomenon; not quite daring to be first rate. The good people of Toronto love to think of themselves as “a world class city” but faced with the awful prospect that they might actually have something that is first class they get scared and, for example, elect a buffoon as mayor. It happened with straight theatre about twenty five years ago. There was a brief flurry of innovative, edgy productions of classic plays but it all sputtered out as audiences couldn’t quite engage and the major theatres were rapidly recolonised by Broadway shows for tourists and straight theatre slunk back into the ghetto of producing plays nobody had heard of in tiny scruffy theatres. Hopefully it’s just a generational thing and a new audience that appreciates what’s on offer will be created. Next season is, if anything, even more exciting than 2010/11 so we will see.

(ETA: There’s also a section of the audience I just don’t understand. More specifically I don’t understand why they are there; they cough, they snore, they whisper, they come in late, they leave the second the curtain falls etc. Why do they come? Do they not realise how rude they are? Is it an entitlement thing?)

So back to the season; the good, the bad and the controversial. Highlights for me were, unexpectedly, Tim Albery’s gritty production of Aida which opened the season. This probably generated more hate mail than any production in COC history but I thought it was bold and effective, though like most bold statements not flawless. Certainly nothing else matched it for raw emotion. Less controversial but just as satisfying was Ariadne auf Naxos. Nothing better exemplified the COC’s ability to blend international stars with local talent (though as three out of five of the international stars were Canadian the categories are not exclusive).

Robert Carsen’s Orpheo was an aesthetic masterpiece entirely in keeping with Gluck’s ideas about simplicity. Beautifully performed, it was enjoyable but in an entirely celebral way. Much the same could be said for Death in Venice; design, direction, singing all beyond criticism but somehow failing to engage at the gut level. The problem lying, I think, with the libretto and its source, rather than anything the COC did to it.

La Cenerentola got a lukewarm reception from the critics who didn’t like the production or the conducting much though all praised the singing. I thought they were harsh. It’s not my favourite opera but I liked the production. The much criticised mice were rather fetching, the production design was a caricature but then so is the work, and the singing was splendid. It would have been a great one to have taken kids to as their introduction to opera.

Nixon in China compared very well with the Met’s version, directed by Sellars and conducted by the composer, which is perhaps all we need to say about it.

That leaves The Magic Flute, apparently the vox populi favourite of the season. Well colour me “blah”. It was OK, even rather good. The production was OK if lacking any real imagination. The singing was extremely stylish but lacked gut punch. Maybe I’d have felt different if it was my first Flute rather than my umpteenth. All in all, I enjoyed the Ensemble Studio performance better. What it lacked in polish it more than made up for in spontaneity.

So, a very high standard over all with a raft of star singers and conductors. Why wasn’t the company playing to packed houses? It’s a mystery.

Next season; more Adrienne Pieczonka, Jane Archibald, Robert Carsen and Sir Andrew Davis plus appearances by Susan Graham, Russell Braun, Christopher Alden, John Relyea, Catherine Malfitano and Alan Held among others.

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