No big surprises in the announcement of new members of the COC Ensemble Studio. It’s the three prize winners from last year’s Centre Stage; tenor Matthew Cairns, bass-baritone Vartan Gabrielian and mezzo-soprano Jamie Groote. Also joining is pianist and intern coach Alex Soloway. Cairns and Groote are UoT grads and are well known to many Toronto opera goers through their appearances in UoT productions and elsewhere. Gabrielian is a Toronto native but studied at the Curtis so is not so well known. It will be interesting to get to know him.
The annual Student Composer Collective opera at UoT is, as far as I know, unique. A libretto is written. The work is divided up and student composers write music for their assigned section(s). The finished work is presented fully staged with orchestra. In recent years the libretto and direction has come from Michael Patrick Albano, as was the case with this year’s effort presented in the MacMillan Theatre yesterday afternoon. Who Killed Adriana riffs off Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur. Adriana Amaro, a very divaish diva, is making her Covent Garden debut as Adriana. In the first half of the show, set backstage between Acts 2 and 3, we see her waspishly putting down all the other characters before making her grand entrance. This time though the poisoned violets of the final scene are just that and the second part is a whodunnit search for the murderer. Along the way no stock opera joke is left unused. Tenors are neurotic, understudies insecure, managers harassed, fans obsessive, there are fake Italians and so on. But in typical Albano style it works and provides a coherent, and at times very funny, plot line for the composers to work with. And some of the jokes were new. Adriana’s chauffeur, Umlaut, is revealed as the answer to every Austrian’s prayer; the inventor of musical strudel.
My first chance to take a look at this year’s UoT Opera Program came up on Sunday night in a concert staged jointly with the UoT Symphony and the MacMillan Singers. It was a series of opera orchestral pieces and ensembles kicking off with the overture from Die Zauberflöte, where the orchestra was Klemperer sized but the tempo distinctly quicker. The evening proceeded via more Zauberflöte, Don Pasquale, Cavelleria Rusticana, Die Meistersinger and Carmen to the party scene in La Traviata.
There are some pretty silly opera plots. Donizetti’s Emilia di Liverpool comes to mind but the Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing probably tops even the thundering torrents of the Mersey as it descends from the Cheshire Alps for silliness. Basically one John P. Wintergreen is a candidate for POTUS. His campaign gimmick is that he will marry whoever wins a beauty contest, held naturally enough, in Noo Joysy. Unfortunately(?) he falls in love with the homelier corn muffin maven Mary Turner and marries her instead. He duly gets elected but diplomatic complications with the French follow when it is revealed that the pageant winner; Diana Devereaux of Louisiana is the “illegitimate daughter of the illegitimate son of the illegitimate nephew of Napoleon”. Impeachment proceedings follow but, of course, there’s a happy ending. Along the way almost every US institution and region gets gently pilloried and the jokes are even funnier because what might have seemed risque in 1930 seems “business as usual” now, as when three White House interns sing about how the Presidential Mansion is the safest place in America for a young girl…
The Opera Division’s fall production this year is Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a production by Marilyn Gronsdal. Let’s start with the production. The sets are all paper and boxes with a few props and the costuming is 1940s. The aesthetic is film noir. There are trilbies and Don Ottavio is packing a piece in a shoulder holster. It set, for me and my companion at least, an expectation that this would be a “film noir production” but although there were nods in that direction; Leporello as the comic sidekick, statuette of the Commendatore as the murder weapon for example, the idea wasn’t really developed at all. Instead we got a very straightforward narrative with the a few twists. Gronsdal included a chorus of silent women who comment on the action (didn’t she do this in Saskatoon as well?) and Don Giovanni isn’t dragged down to Hell.
Such was the title of yesterday’s performance by the UoT Opera ‘s performance in the RBA. Now personally I don’t subscribe to the notion of the 19th century (ugh!) as a “golden age” of anything but yesterday suggested that the UoT program, if not quite in golden age territory is going through a bit of a purple patch. This was, I think, the best student performance overall that I have heard in the last two or three years.