Inventing theOpera House: Theatre Architecture in Renaissance and Baroque Italy by Eugene J. Johnson is a scholarly but readable account of the prehistory and early history of the form we know today as an “opera house”. It’s fair to say that the road to the horseshoe shaped auditorium with ground floor seating and tiers of boxes looking over an orchestra pit to a deep stage was far from straightforward, perhaps even tortuous, and Professor Johnson lays out that journey in some detail.
Johnson begins around 1480 in the ducal courts of Northern Italy. At this point no purpose built theatre had existed since classical antiquity. Despite that, princes competed in the magnificence of the “spectacles” they put on for events such as dynastic marriages (partly driven by the fact that many of the houses; Medici for example, were trying to obscure their rather recent origins by leveraging their great wealth into marriages with more distinguished lineages). It was also, of course, a period of revived interest in all things Greek and Roman, including the theatre, and there was prestige in putting on a Roman, or Roman derived, comedy for example. But how to stage it? The theatres of antiquity had been open air structures built on a semi circular plan but 15th century Italian architecture was rectilinear and the preferred time of year for festivities, winter, precluded an open air setting.
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.
The current Tapestry Briefs show presents work from the 2016 LibLab. It’s all new and, inevitably, very mixed. It started very strongly with a scene, The Call of the Light (Imam Habibi/Bobby Theodore) based on the 1984 attack on the Quebec National Assembly. The combination of an assault rifle carrying camo clad Alex Dobson , the rest of the cast (Jacquie Woodley, Keith Klassen, Erica Iris) writhing on the floor and dissonant extended piano from Michael Shannon was genuinely disturbing. Having a gun pointed straight at you from a few feet away doesn’t happen often at the opera.
Yesterday’s free concert in the RBA featured mezzo Marion Newman with pianist Adam Sherkin and violinist Kathleen Kajioka in a programme of contemporary Canadian works (all the composers were in the room!) mostly connected in some way with Canada’s First Nations and Inuit peoples. First up was Ian Cusson’s setting of E. Pauline Johnson‘s A Cry from an Indian Wife. It’s a long, highly emotional but not, I think, especially well crafted, text about an Indian woman sending her husband off to war (the language reflects the usage of its day) and the words are not easy to set or sing. Cusson’s setting is appropriately intense with a blistering piano part and a tough vocal line. It’s deeply affecting but hardly comfortable especially when sung in a manner that clearly (and rightly) privileged text and emotion over beauty of sound.
Most people in the Toronto opera world know Dean Burry principally as a composer of operas for children. He’s written several and a couple have been mainstays of COC school tours. It’s perhaps understandable then if his music is seen as approachable and maybe, even (sotto voce), a little unsophisticated. Last night, a recital of Dean’s works in Victoria College Chapel; part of his DMA program at UoT, provided a chance to hear a number of works in a much broader range of styles.
The concert kicked off with Tussah Heera playing InPerfections for solo piano. It’s a fully serial piece with the tone rows based on the DNA sequences of various hereditary diseases. It’s quite striking and way more than a just a theory exercise. The same could be said for Three Caprices for solo violin played by Dean’s partner Julia McFarlane. These used a range of extended violin techniques to good effect.
So we now know who will be singing at Centre Stage, the COC’s gala competition for aspiring young singers with both cash prizes and places in the Ensemble Studio up for grabs. There are, I think, only two that I’m at all familiar with; soprano Eliza Johnson who was a finalist last year and baritone Zachary Read who was a rather good Sid in UoT Opera’s Albert Herring a couple of years ago. The other six are mezzo-sopranos Emily D’Angelo, Lauren Eberwein, Marjorie Maltais and Pascale Spinney, soprano Samantha Pickett and baritone Bruno Roy. Wow! Four mezzos so the mezzo mafia will likely be ecstatic. No tenors but with four already in the Ensemble Studio that’s probably a good thing. Centre Stage is on November 3rd at 5.30pm at the Four Seasons Centre with a cocktails (well wine mostly) and rather good snacks before the competition itself. Tickets are $100 from the COC box office or coc.ca.
Last night saw the second annual Centre Stage at the COC. It’s described as the “Ensemble Studio competition gala”, which is pretty much what it has become. It’s a dressy occasion and busier this year than last. Bussing in the claque from the University of Toronto upped both the noise level and the “beautiful young people” content. The competition itself is fairly conventional in that all the singers get to sing two arias of their choice. What’s a little different is that the accompaniment is the full COC Orchestra and as well as the jury prizes there’s an audience choice award facilitated by some neat electronics. Then of course there’s always the issue of a place in next year’s Ensemble Studio.
Ensemble Studio Competition finalists and winners with Centre Stage host Ben Heppner