Toronto City Opera opened a run of three performances of Verdi’s La Traviata at the Al Green Theatre last night. It’s a bit of a mixed bag. Certainly less even than their Le nozze di Figaro earlier in the season. Director Alaina Viau sets the piece in contemporary Toronto which creates both possibilities and problems. I’ll come back to that because I want to talk about the performances first.
Toronto City Opera has been around for a while but its previous performance location at the Bickford Centre was quite sufficient to keep me away. The Miles Nadal JCC is quite another matter. The basic idea of TCO is that the chorus is open to, essentially, anybody and that their subscriptions, plus fund raising, allow the company to do a couple of staged shows each year with young professional soloists, director, conductor and pianist. So, in theory it’s a chorus centric endeavour so the choice of Le Nozze di Figaro seems a bit odd since it has less than ten minutes of chorus and that is usually covered by a small group of eight or so ladies. That said, Nozze is their first of two productions this season and I saw the last show in the run this afternoon.
Toronto City Opera puts on fully staged productions with young professional soloists and an amateur, unauditioned chorus. It’s piano accompaniment. I’ve never been to one of their shows, not least because until recently they have performed at the Bickford Centre which I loathe. Now they are at the Miles Nadal JCC which is a huge improvement and both Jennifer Tung and Alaina Viau are on the creative team, which is promising. This year they are opening their season with Le nozze di Figaro running on December 6th, 7th and 9th. The cast includes Dylan Wright as Figaro, Brittany Rae as Susanna, and Lillian Brooks as Cherubino. There’s also a Traviata in March with Beth Hagerman as Violetta.
Niccolò Piccinni’s La Cecchina or La buona figliuola is an opera buffa in two acts written for the Teatro delle Dame in Rome where it premiered in 1760. The libretto is by Carlo Goldini and, while said to have been inspired by Richardson’s Pamela, is actually a fairly straightforward masters and servants story of a similar nature to Pergolesi’s La serva padrona or even Mozart’s La finta giardinera; all, of course, firmly rooted in the conventions of the commedia dell’arte. Being written for Rome it was, originally, played by an all male cast. Last night at Koerner Hall the Glenn Gould School Opera presented it with female singers in the high roles.
Kendra Dyck as Sandrina and Asitha Tennekoon as the Marchese
The GGS Vocal Showcase is an opportunity to take a look at the vocal talent on offer at the Royal Conservatory. It’s a tricky exercise as the students range from the equivalent of first year undergrad to second year masters so one is constantly recalibrating expectations. We got to hear one bass, two baritones, three tenors, one mezzo soprano and fourteen sopranos in a variety of arias, art songs and ensemble numbers.
So, in no particular order my favourites and “ones to watch”. Lets start with the obvious. Gabriel Sanchez-Ortega is a genuine bass. We only heard him in some Haydn trios last night but he seems to have heft and genuine low notes and quite a wide range. He’s also still quite young. Singing with him was soprano Joanna Burt who also gave us an aria from La Cecchina. She has real potential as a dramatic soprano which is the one part of the tweeter market that isn’t flooded. She has some nice dark colours as well as weight. The trios were rounded out by tenor Zachary Rioux. He held his own with two pretty big voices so we’ll see.
There’s not that much Handel on offer in Toronto so it seems really rather odd that Alcina should get two productions within eighteen months. The attraction of the piece for Opera Atelier was obvious. It’s Handel’s only opera that incorporates dance. Why the Glenn Gould School at the Royal Conservatory should think it’s a good choice for a student production is less clear. Dance aside, it’s classic Handel; written for an audience who expected great virtuosity from the star singers (in this case Giovanni Carestini and Anna Maria Strada) plus the very latest in analogue SFX. Neither of these could reasonably be expected at Koerner Hall.
Back to relative quiet! The main event in the coming week is the GGS spring production. They are doing Handel’s Alcina. The cast includes Meghan Jamieson, Irina Medvedeva, Christina Campsall, Lillian Brooks, Joanna Burt, Asitha Tennekoon and Keith Lam. Leon Major directs and Ivars Taurins conducts. The publicity material suggests a 1920s setting. Anyway it’s at Koerner Hall at 7.30pm on Wednesday and Friday.
There are a couple of kid friendly March break concerts in the RBA. Tuesday sees what seems to have become an annual event; Kyra Millan’s Opera Interactive. This year she is joined by Tina Faye and Charles Sy. Then on Thursday Cawthra Park Chamber Choir and conductor Bob Anderson, one of the GTA’s leading school choirs, present various choral traditions and styles from the Renaissance to contemporary Canadian works. Charles Sy, a Cawthra Park alumnus also features in this one. Both at noon of course.
Then at the Newmarket Theatre on Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 2pm opera Luminata are performing. This is a rather odd spectacular thing with taped orchestra and pyrotechnics. I haven’t seen them but they got a rather more positive reception than I expected last time around. www.operaluminata.com for details.
Xavier Montsalvatge’s El Gato con Botas, given last night by the Glenn Gould School at Mazzoleni Hall, may not be the most profound thing in the opera canon but it is fun. The 1948 score is jazzy and accessible and the libretto has fun with the fairy tale of the scheming cat and her gormless monkey servant. The lighter, even absurdist, elements of the plot were rather played up, and to good effect, in Liza Balkan’s production. Mazzoleni Hall is not the easiest place to present opera. There’s no pit and no way to do surtitles. Not much in the way of wing space or scenery handling either. Balkan got round this by placing the band on stage and using very simple sets and props that often spilled over into the auditorium even getting Charles Sy, sitting in the front row, to take a selfie of the wedding party at the end. Given that the Spanish numbers were not surtitled, it was smart to add extra English dialogue, much of it improvised. I certainly didn’t have any difficulty following the story. Credit too to lighting designer David Degrow too for making the most of the limited resources of Mazzoleni.
Nicole Brook’s Obeah Opera is described as a “Nicole Brooks vision” which is probably a good starting point for an opera this isn’t. It’s an a capella stage piece with an all female cast, composed and taught to the performers orally and performed with mikes. If it resembles anything it’s a musical but really it’s a unique concept. It’s also clearly rooted in the oral traditions of African-American slavery and a kind of idealisation of the world they had left behind. For example, every slave women is a powerful sorceress from a long lineage rather as every Welshman is a gentleman who can trace his ancestry from King Arthur. It’s a musically rich and powerful tradition and this forms much the most effective element in the piece, especially as it’s where Brooks’ own talents and energy are most focussed.
There may not be a lot of opera per se in Hogtown during the summer but there’s a fair amount of music of interest to the likes of us.
Toronto Summer Music Festival has some interesting offerings. The opening night concert, Americans in Paris, features Measha Brueggergosman in works by Gershwin, Bolcom and copland as well as instrumental pieces. And pretty much closing the festival out is a Karita Mattila recital with Bryan Wagorn on piano, on August 7th in a recital that includes works by Strauss, Sibelius and Sallinen. Details at www.torontosummermusic.com.