The students of the post graduate program at UoT Opera were on show in the RBA yesterday with a show made up of staged opera excerpts curated and directed by Michael Patrick Albano. It’s right at the beginning of the academic year and these sorts of concerts are a bit of a calibration exercise for those of us who follow the progress of young singers. The starting point this year is decidedly high.
The Canadian Opera Company’s ninth annual Ensemble Studio Competition is being held on October 30, 2019 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. The 2019 finalists are: sopranos Kirsten LeBlanc (Moncton, NB), Midori Marsh (Cleveland, Ohio), and Charlotte Siegel (Toronto, ON); mezzo-soprano Sarah Bissonnette (Boucherville, QC); tenor Marcel d’Entremont (Merigomish, NS); bass-baritone Alex Halliday (St. John’s, NL); and bass Brenden Friesen (Langham, SK).
I don’t think I’m ever going to love Mozart’s La finta giardiniera. It has some pleasing music, though oddly the two principal characters don’t get much of it, but the plot is ridiculous and it really outstays its welcome. That said, Michael Patrick Albano’s production for UoT Opera in the MacMillan Theatre at least makes the complexity clear. We never lose sight of who is who; even if the other characters do, and what logic there is in the plot comes through clearly enough. Albano sets it entirely realistically in 18th century dress with set elements efficiently dropped in from the fly loft or carried around by a small band of liveried servants. There’s a fair bit of “park and bark” but then there’s a lot of prosy explaining going on.
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.
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.