Yesterday’s concert in the RBA, the first I’ve been to in a while, featured the five members of the Orchestra Academy; violinists Joella Pinto and Gloria Yip, violist Carolyn Farnand and cellists Erin Patterson and Alison Rich, with Joel Allison and Samuel Chan and Rachael Kerr on keyboards. It was an interesting concert in many ways. We don’t get to see the young instrumentalists much nor do we often see Ensemble members sing with a chamber ensemble. It was also interesting to hear the contrast between Joel’s dark toned bass-baritone, often singing in a very low tessitura, with Sam’s much brighter, lighter baritone which sometimes was well up in tenor territory.
I’m not, in the normal run of things, a huge fan of obscure bel canto operas. A very long list of them languish in obscurity for very good reasons. So, my hopes were not all that high when I stuck the 2015 Glyndebourne recording of Donizetti’s Poliuto in the player. I was wrong. This is probably the best martyrdom opera from Glyndebourne since Peter Sellars’ production of Theodora in 1998.
Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, in a production by Stephen Lawless, opened last night at the COC. Bel canto fans, canary fanciers and, just maybe, the rest of us should rush and see it. The singing is extraordinary. The cast is led by Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role and she gives, pretty much, a masterclass in bel canto technique. The control is extraordinary with gleaming top notes, exquisitely floated pianissimo, genuine trills and real emotion. Only a slight raspiness occasionally evident in the recits even hinted that this was a singer who was too sick to perform only a few days ago. Where to go next among some very fine performances? Bruce Sledge as Percy I think. This was thrilling tenor singing with passion, ringing high notes and wonderful musicality.
One thing the Donizetti Festival in Bergamo is noted for is unarthing Donizetti rarities. The 2016 edition was Rosmonda d’Inghilterra; a dramatically rather slight piece based on the story of Henry II’s mistress, generally known as “The Fair Rosamund”. In the opera version Rosmonda is locked up in a tower by her lover Edegardo who has promised to marry her except he’s really Henry II (Enrico) and Leonora (Eleanor of Aquitaine) is going to have something to say about that. Complicating matters; Enrico’s page Arturo is in love with Rosmonda and her dad, Clifford, is the king’s principal counsellor and not at all happy about his daughter carrying on with a married man. Clifford’s plan to save the family’s honour is to have Arturo take Rosmonda off to Aquitaine and marry her. Rosmonda’s is to retire to a convent (as, apparently, the historical Rosamund did) . Enrico’s is to divorce Leonora (given Enrico’s problems with the church this seems highly implausible but, hey, bel canto) and make Rosmonda his queen. Leonora isn’t having any of this and shows up at the tower and kills Rosmonda. Finito. Along the way there’s lots of very workmanlike Donizetti music which sounds pretty much like most Donizetti operas.
Shortly after their marriage in 1996 Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna appeared together in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore at Opéra de Lyon. At the time she was 31 and he was 33 so pretty much ideal for the roles. The production was directed by Frank Dunlop. It’s straightforward, set in the 1920s and essentially traditional though there are a few nice touches. It’s what the recent COC production might have been if the asinine attempts to be “relevant” had been ditched.
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!
Last night the Canadian Opera Company announced the line up for the 2017/18 season. It was all pretty much as predicted. My predictions post got five out of six right and Dylan was right on the money down to timing. So what do we get?
The fall season features, finally, Tim Albery’s production of Strauss’ Arabella first seen at Santa Fe. Erin Wall, as expected, takes the title role while Jane Archibald, in one of three season appearances, sings Zdenka. The Mandryka will be one of the few high profile imports, Tomasz Konieczny. There are welcome appearances for David Pomery as Matteo and Claire de Sevigné as Flakermilli. It’s a season full of Ensemble Studio graduates. Patrick Lange conducts. Partnering Arabella is Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore in a production by James Robinson adapted to set the piece in pre WW1 Niagara on the Lake. Simone Osborne and Andrew Haji play Adina and Nemorino with Gordon Bintner as Belcore. This is, I think, the first time I’ve seen husband and wife as soloists at the COC though the Pomeroys have been seen on stage together quite a few times. Brit Andrew Shore rounds things out as Dulcemara. Yves Abel makes his COC debut in the pit.
This review first appeared in the print edition of Opera Canada.
Lebanese Canadian soprano Joyce El Khoury’s new CD on the Opera Rara label is a sort of “tribute album” to 19th century Belgian diva Julie Dorus-Gras. Mme. Dorus-Gras was a fixture at L’Opéra de Paris in the middle decades of the century, though only after she had starred in the performance of Auber’s La muette de Portici which sparked off the Belgian revolution of 1830. In Paris she created many new roles including Alice in Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable and Princess Eudoxie in Halévy’s La Juive. She thrived on the mixture of bel canto and grand opera that flourished in Paris in this period.
Edita Gruberova in recent years has pretty much cut her repertoire down to a handful of bel canto roles; Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux and the title roles in Anna Bolena, La Straniera, Norma and Lucrezia Borgia. The last of these was recorded in Munich in 2009 in a production by Christof Loy for the Bayerisches Staatsoper. It shows that Gruberova still very much at the height of her powers but the production is less satisfactory.
Lunchtime saw the annual concert featuring visiting members of the Atelier lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal. It turned into something of a Donizettifest. First up was soprano Cécile Muhire with Adina’s aria Prendi, per me sei libero. This was quite competently sung though she seemed very nervous. The nerves seemed to vanish though when she was joined by her Nemorino, Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure, for the duet when he tries the elixir. One of the things that has always struck me about the Ensemble Studio is how quickly it teaches singers to have stage presence. J-P was a very funny, rather drunk, Nemorino and his swagger seemed to rub off on Cécile who looked much more at home in this number.