Last night marked the last performance I plan on seeing before the holidays so it’s time for the annual “best of” posting. So what did your scribe enjoy or admire the most in 2019? Let’s look at it by categories.
Fully staged opera with orchestra
The COC had a decent year but two of their shows stood out for me. David McVicar’s production of Rusalka in October was perhaps all round the best thing the COC have done in years. The production was clever in that interrogated the material enough to ask lots of questions for those willing to think about them without doing anything to upset those not so interested. Musically one really can’t imagine hearing Rusalka sung or played better anywhere in the world. The other winner was Elektra in January. The orchestra and the singing was the winner here, especially Christine Goerke, but the production was better than average and we don’t see enough of the great modern classics in the Four Seasons stage.
Richard Strauss’ Elektra opened last night in a revised version of James Robinson’s 2007 production. The setting is fairly straightforward and a bit drab; vaguely Victorian, or perhaps Gormenghast, which seems about right for the hagridden House of Atreus. The stage is severely raked; back to front. and stage left to right. There are a couple of walls with entrances. There’s a strange little hut which, it turns out, forms a sort of trap door to the palace. Costumes are either shapeless (ladies) or vaguely reminiscent of evening wear (gentlemen). In this setting the action plays out convincingly enough with even difficult scenes like Elektra’s “death dance” well handled. The tricky scenes between Elektra and Klytämnestra and Elektra and Orest have the appropriate degree of tension and suspense.
The fall season will open with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin in the Carsen production as predicted yesterday. The (pleasant) surprise is that Gordon Bintner will sing the title role. Joyce El-Khoury sings Tatiana and Joseph Kaiser is Lensky. Johannes Debus conducts.
Last night the COC began its run of Götterdämmerung, the last and longest opera in Wagner’s epic tetralogy at The Four Seasons Centre. It’s very different from Die Walküre and Siegfried. The visual elements that tied them together; tottering Valhalla, disintegrating world ash, gantries, dancers, heaps of corpses are mostly gone. In Tim Albery’s production the visuals are spare almost to abstraction. The Gibichung Hall is a CEO suite with computer monitors and red couches, both Brünnhilde’s rock and the Rhinemaidens’ hang out look improvised, almost like squatters’ camps. Costuming, apart from an occasional flashback, as in Waltraute’s scene, is severely modern business; grey suits, black dresses. Only Siegfried himself in tee shirt and leather jacket stands out from the corporate crowd. Dancing flames are replaced by red lights. Everything that can be understated is and the world ends not with an overflowing Rhine and collapsing Valhalla but a stately pas de quatre between Brünnhilde and the Rhinemaidens.
François Girard’s Siegfried, a revival of his 2006 production, opened last night at the COC. Despite using the same basic set concept as Atom Egoyan’s Die Walküre, Girard’s Siegfried, has a rather different look and feel. The fragments of Valhalla and the remains of Yggdrassil are still there but they are supplemented in imaginative fashion by a corps of supers and acrobats who play a key role in shaping the scenes. For example, in the opening scene we have Yggdrassil festooned with bodies, as if some enormous shrike were in residence. Some of these are dummies and some aerialists who come into the drama at key points. The flames in Siegfried’s forge are human arms. Acrobats make a very effective Fafner in the Niedhöhle scene and the flames around Brünnhilde’s rock are human too. Most of the characters are dressed in sort of white pyjamas which makes for a very monochromatic effect on the mostly dark stage. The one visual incongruity is the “bear” who is present, tied to Yggdrassil, throughout Act 1. Frankly it looks less like a bear than John Tomlinson after a night on the tiles. Still, all in all, the production is effective without being especially revelatory.
This just in from frequent Operaramblings commenter and COC Adult Education Programs Manager Gianmarco Segato. The COC is launching Opera Insights, a series of free adult education events linked to the productions of the 2015/16 season. It’s a pretty broad range of programming ranging from scholarly discussions on reconstructing the score of Maometto II and the history of the ball gown to Traviata singalongs and Carmen themed dance lessons. Participants include composers Barbara Monk-Feldman and Norbert Palej, conductors Johannes Debus, Harry Bicket and Sandra Horst and singers like Christine Goerke plus, inevitably, lots of academics (we love them really we do). Looks like a lot of fun. The events are all free but are ticketed. Full details can be found here.
I was back at the Four Seasons Centre last night to have another look at the COC’s Die Walküre. The big news, which I heard pretty much as soon as I arrived, was that cover Issachah Savage would be singing Siegmund in place of an indisposed Clifton Forbis. This time, unlike last Saturday when he also sang, this was very much a last minute call. The reviews and the word on the street, and from my companion for the evening who had seen him in Seattle when he won the International Wagner Competition last year had been very positive so I was very interested to hear him. Clearly word had got out about his Saturday performance because when the announcement was made in the hall there was a curious ambiguous noise not at all like the collective sigh that usually greets such news.
Christine Goerke made her stage debut as Brünnhilde last night in Atom Egoyan’s production of Die Walküre at the COC. She didn’t disappoint. It’s a big voice with ringing high notes that ping over the orchestra. No scooping on the high notes either. She’s probably the next great Brünnhilde and that’s probably what last night will best be remembered for. With all the Elektras in her calendar it may also be a a case of “catch it while you can”. The rest of the singing was pretty distinguished too. Johan Reuter was a firm toned, perfectly solid Wotan. Heidi Melton, from beginning to end, was a wonderful Sieglinde to listen to; accurate, sweet of tone (for a dramatic soprano) and almost matching Goerke for power. Clifton Forbis, the Siegmund, still has genuine Helden high notes and was pleasant to listen to. One might have wished for a slightly more ardent approach to the Winterstürme scene but it was more than decent. Dimitry Ivaschshenko was a genuine solid bass Hunding who sounded just right and acted more, and better, than most. Janina Baechle made the most of her cameo as Fricka. The octet of junior Valkyries, made up of mostly younger singers, injected some youthful vigour into the whole enterprise to good effect. Johannes Debus in the pit impressed as a Wagnerian once more with a tightly structured and, at appropriate points, opulent reading of the score. The COC orchestra, always admirable, as so often last night pulled out their best for Johannes. So, admirable music making.
Russell Braun as Don Giovanni – Photo Credit Javier del Real
Yesterday evening saw the announcement of the line up for the COC’s 2014/15 season. The usual rather prosaic press conference was replaced with a glitzy reception and main stage show featuring Brent Bambury of the COC interviewing Alexander Neef, Johannes Debus and others plus piano accompanied performances by Simone Osborne, Russel Braun, Robert Gleadow, Charlotte Burrage and Aviva Fortunata.
There were few surprises, in itself no surprise given the number of official and unofficial “leaks” this time around. There are three productions new to Toronto, all COC copros, and three revivals so it’s an “all COC” season with no rentals or other imports. Here’s what’s coming up:
So I got my hands on the DVD documentary about Rufus Wainwright and the genesis of Prima Donna. There’s not all that much of the music on the disk but there’s enough to get a general impression. There’s also plenty of material for helping one judge where Wainwright is coming from and how he might approach a second opera.