The Ensemble Studio Competition again last night. Seven singers were competing with Ben Heppner’s jokes for cash prizes, champagne and, possibly, a place in the COC Ensemble Studio. There’s one thing I think is vital to understand about the Ensemble Studio Competition. The judges have been working with the singers for a week. The audience gets to hear them sing one aria. It’s easy to see why there isn’t always concurrence between the hall and the judging table. (That’s my excuse anyway).
David McVicar’s production of Dvořák’s Rusalka opens with a prelude while the overture plays. We see the Foreign Princess and the Prince. She appears to be upbraiding him and he is drinking hard. Are we seeing a failed/forced marriage that in reality the Prince made rather than some preferred alternative? Is what we see over the next three and half hours some dream version of what might have been? In this most Freudian of operas, why not?
Beatrice Cenci is an opera by Berthold Goldschmidt; a composer who moved from Germany to London in the 1930s for the usual reason. Beatrice Cenci was written in 1950 but the orchestral style sounds rather earlier. Comparisons with Mahler have been made though I don’t really see that. Richard Strauss or Korngold perhaps? In any event the work didn’t get performed at all until the 1980s and had to wait until the 2018 Bregenz Festival for its first fully staged production directed by Johannes Erat. Curiously, though originally composed with an English libretto it was given in German in Bregenz.
I managed to catch the fourth performance of the COC’s current run of Verdi’s Otello last night. It’s a David Alden production that first aired at ENO and it’s a very dark take on an already dark story. It’s set maybe circa 1900 and the sets are stark but the lighting is dramatic with lots of contrasts and giant moving shadows. The overall Zeitgeist seems to be of a society that has seen too much war; a sort of collective PTSD. This comes over in a number of ways. The scenes that usually lighten things up a bit; the victory celebrations in Act 1, the children and flowers in Act 2, don’t here. In fact they are downright creepy. There’s also a female dancer, used rather as Christopher Alden used Monterone’s daughter in Rigoletto, who clearly doesn’t expect good things from returning soldiers.
Last night the main stage of the Four Seasons Centre was the setting for celebrating the award of the twelth Glenn Gould prize to the great Jessye Norman. There were speeches, of course, celebrating Ms. Norman’s life as a singer rising to the top of the profession from unpromising origins as well as her lifetime of educational and philanthropic endeavours. They were decently short and to the point allowing us to get onto to the music, though not before we had heard Ms. Norman’s heartfelt and very touching acceptance speech.
There’s much to like in this year’s unfussy TSO Messiah. It’s not bloated. For most of the piece conductor Johannes Debus deploys around thirty strings, chamber organ, harpsichord, oboes and bassoon. Trumpets and timpani are added for the grand moments later in the piece. He even manages to get quite a delicate sound out of the largish (100+) Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. The delicacy is a recurrent thread. That and a really bouncy sense of rhythm. One could dance to Debus’ Handel.
I finally got to see Rufus Wainwright’s new opera Hadrian, to a libretto by Daniel Macivor, at the Four Seasons Centre last night. There’s been a lot of hype around it and I was interested; the few bits of music from it that I had heard intrigued me but I’m no fan of his earlier work Prima Donna. One thing was certain. The piece does not lack ambition. There are four acts totalling something like 160 minutes. There’s a large cast, a large orchestra, a large chorus and an epic storyline. It’s clearly an attempt to produce a “grand opera” for our times. Does it succeed?
The COC’s revival of Robert Lepage’s 2009 production of Stravinsky’s The Nightingale and Other Short Fables, revived by Marilyn Gronsdal, is a delightful mix of witty and clever stagecraft coupled with some fine music making. It’s very much a work of two contrasting halves. The first is a carefully constructed program of shorter Stravinsky vocal and instrumental works; all from the period 1911-1919 and all with a sound world reminiscent of The Firebird or Petrouchka rather than The Rite of Spring or the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto. The full line up was:
- Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet No.1
- Berceuses du chat
- Two Poems of Konstantin Balmont
- Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet No.2
- Four Russian Peasant Songs
- Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet No.3
- The Fox
For the last few years the COC has had a fairly glitzy evening at which the next season is announced and there are interviews, a few performances etc. This year, for whatever reason, the two elements were divorced. The season was announced in a press release win January with no fanfare; not even a press conference. The glitzy bit happened last night with a cocktail reception and a stage event hosted by Brent Bambury.
Here is what’s coming up. Valentine’s day sees two vocal recitals. At noon in the RBA there’s Clare de Sévigné and Rachel Andrist with The Truth about Love; the story of a young woman’s love gone awry. At 8pm Ian Bostridge has an all Schubert program at Koerner Hall. Thursday is also busy with members of the Ensemble Studio in a Russian program in the RBA at noon, a Johannes Debus masterclass at UoT at 2pm and Opera Trivia at the Four Seasons Centre at 7pm. Then on Friday at 7.30pm in Walter Hall there’s a free concert; Vocalini, from the undergrads of the UoT Opera. Also Thursday and Friday MYOpera have a couple of opportunities to see emerging artists. There’s a public masterclass with Philip Morehead at 6pm Thursday at the Edward Jackman Centre and a concert at 7.30pm Friday at the Vandenberg House.