It’s that time of year when one reflects on the good and the not so good. What one would like to see more of and not. What seemed significant about the year. As I look back over my writings for the last twelve months one clear theme stands out, Reconciliation. There was the COC’s very thoughtful and thought provoking remount of Somers’ Louis Riel in April and all the fascinating events that went on around that. There were attempts by the TSO to incorporate Indigenous themes; the Tanya Tagaq concert in March and Adizokan with Red Sky in October. Neither of these quite came off but the intent was good. Then there was a really fine recital of works by Indigenous composers by Marion Newman at the beginning of the year. Then, of course, the Clemence/Current piece Missing, about murdered and missing Indigenous women, which premiered in British Columbia and which I haven’t seen yet but really, really want to. 2017 was also the year when Land Acknowledgements went mainstream in the Toronto arts world. I guess there’s some tokenism here but there does seem to be far more engagement with Reconciliation in the arts world than in, say, the political mainstream which is unfortunate because opera isn’t going to produce clean drinking water. We have to start somewhere I guess.
It was also notable that so many of the most exciting, stimulating and enjoyable shows didn’t fit easily into the categories of opera, recital or concert. There was Neema Bickerstaff’s show Century Song at Crow’s Theatre in April. There was the CASP commission of Ana Sokolovic’s dawn always begins in the bones performed by the COC Ensemble Studio in a really interesting program as part of 21C in May. There was a choreographed version of Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins with projections at the TSO and featuring great performances by Wallis Giunta and Jen Nicholls in June. Soundstreams brought us Claude Vivier’s Musik für das Ende, intriguingly packaged and realised, at Crow’s Theatre in October and a freshened up Electric Messiah 3 at Drake Underground in December.
Riel aside it was not a banner year for the major opera companies. The COC came up with decent revivals of Götterdämmerung and Tosca and an enjoyable, though hardly ground breaking new Arabella but I could have lived without the revival of the uninspired Magic Flute or the misconceived L’elisir d’amore. Opera Atelier were on form with a revived Médée in April but the fall Marriage of Figaro seemed muddled and, on opening night at least, had serious flaws.
The smaller companies were also a bit of a mixed bag with few real standouts. The best came from Canadian Children’s Opera with a piece in a more serious vein than has been their wont. Krása’s Brundibár is a piece conceived and created in the shadow of Nazism and thus perhaps especially appropriate for the Putin/Trump era. It deservedly went on a fairly extensive European tour. Bicycle Opera Project’s Sweat, by Anna Chatterton and Juliet Palmer was also notable for its political engagement as well as high musical and dramatic values. Tapestry’s presentation of Aaron Gervais’ and Colleen Murphy’s Oksana G (May) didn’t really live up to the, admittedly high, expectations for it though Bandits in the Valley (words by Julie Tepperman, music by Benton Roark – September) was fun in a lighter vein. Against the Grain were rather in transition as a new management team got their feet under the table. Their revival of the original Tranzac La Bohème in May though was fun and a bit nostalgic! Toronto Masque Theatre marked their last season with a very fine double bill of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Rolfe’s Aeneas and Dido with a killer performance by Krizstina Szabo as the Didos.
On the student production front the Glenn Gould School definitely edged out UoT Opera this year with a well directed and sung version of Piccini’s La Cecchina in the spring and a much abridged but fun Hansel and Gretel later in the year. The university’s best effort was their student composed Prima Zombie which outclassed their brave attempt at Handel’s worst opera Imoneo and a half-baked Don Giovanni.
There were a lot of really good recitals. Highlights included Goran Juríc and Ella Tsallagova in lunchtime gigs in the RBA during the Magic Flute run, Adrienne Pieczonka’s Winterreise at Mazzoleni on a truly wintery February Sunday and Soile Isokoski’s undemonstrative display of lieder mastery at Koerner in July. Barbara Hannigan’s much anticipated Koerner recital in November was brilliantly sung but, for me, suffered from over homogenous programming.
The TSO was a very mixed bag. The successes I’ve already covered but there were too many nights when singers were covered by the orchestra. The nadir was probably reached on 20th October when a completely pointless newagey commission by Howard Shore was paired with an awful performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. It’s a bit worrying. It’s fashionable to blame all this on Roy Thomson Hall and I don’t suppose many people would mourn it but I’ve heard good, audible performances there as well as less good ones. The combination of no CEO, no long term artistic leadership and deep financial problems is worrying. It’s a shame because the orchestra itself is good.
I watched a lot of videos over the course of the year. The standout was a brilliant Parsifal from Berlin’s Staatsoper directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov. It’s really hard for a video to have the emotional punch of a live performance but this one killed me. I also enjoyed Simon Rattle’s take on Tosca, in an intriguing modern production, from Baden-Baden and a spectacular Carmen from the lake stage in Bregenz. Brett Dean’s Hamlet isn’t out on disc yet but the Glyndebourne production got a very good BBC broadcast and established it in my mind as a very fine new opera. Actually, there was quite a lot of good opera and opera related programming on the BBC this year. I wonder if anyone at the CBC noticed.
My favourite CD of the year was, unexpectedly, a recording of Schubert’s The Lady of the Lake recorded in Nova Scotia by Maureen Batt and others. The year was also marked by the release of a boxed set of the Tafelmusik Beethoven symphonies. These are a must if you like HIP Beethoven.
Things that drove me nuts during the year? Long cringey pre performance speeches either apologizing for the “difficulty” of the work programmed (if you need to apologize, don’t do it!) or sucking up to donors. We shouldn’t be lavishing praise on bureaucrats for spending our tax dollars and private donors aren’t exactly short of recognition. At least I didn’t hear anyone feel the need to explain the Trojan War to us ignorant thickies this year.
What do I want to see more of? Be bold! Be brave! The best shows for the most part were the riskiest. New music, new venues, new concepts. Keep it coming.