More season announcements

suzieleblancToronto Masque Theatre has announced the line up for the 2013/14 season.  There are three main stage productions.  First up is Patrick Garland’s now classic play Brief Lives, based on John Aubrey with song and music from 17th century London. Second is a revival of Tears of a Clown, under a new title, Arlecchino Allegro. Finally, there is a reinterpreted classic from the world canon teamed up with a contemporary interpretation in the Myth of Europa.  Details for the shows are as follows:

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Best of 2011

Herewith a personal take on the best things that came my way operatically in 2011.

Live performances

It was a pretty good year for live opera in Toronto. I’m certainly not going to complain about two Robert Carsen productions in the same calendar year. Good though the Gluck was though top honours in the fully staged opera in a real theatre go to the COC’s Ariadne auf Naxos. Neil Armfield’s production was fairly conventional but the music making was superb. Adrienne Pieczonka, Jane Archibald and Alice Coote headlined with strong support from Richard Margison and a whole bunch of past and present Studio Ensemble members. The orchestral playing too was absolutely first class and Sir Andrew Davis conducting looked like he was enjoying it as much as the audience. Later in the year I think we had a bit of “a star is born moment”. Christopher Alden’s Rigoletto was challenging enough that I wanted to see it a second time so took the chance to get a cheap ticket for the B cast. Thus I got to see the extraordinary chemistry between two very fine young singers; David Lomeli and Simone Osborne. Go see them if you get a chance. Actually, nothing at the COC seriously disappointed in 2011 (well maybe the The Magic Flute had a bit of a 200th performance of my career feel to it.) It looks like we are moving at last into an era when Toronto gets consistently high class singers and conductors in decent or better productions. It’s a shame there are only seven productions per year.

As for smaller venues, highlights included Against the Grain’s funky La Boheme in the highly outlandish setting of the Tranzac Club and Queen of Puddings’ world premiere of Ana Sokolov’s Svadba – Wedding; an hour long piece for six unaccompanied female voices. There were also any number of excellent free lunchtime concerts in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre.

DVD

The surprise highlight of the year for me was the restored print of the 1961 Rosenkavalier from Salzburg. Everything about it is surprising and wonderful and undermines a great deal of received wisdom about opera in that era. Other personal discoveries were the Salzburg King Arthur (who knew Germans could be funny?) and Calixto Bieito’s truly disturbing Wozzeck starring Franz Hawlata at his very considerable best.

Personal epiphany

I started the year thinking I didn’t really like John Adams much. I had hated the Met broadcast of Doctor Atomic and while I liked some of the non-operatic stuff rather more I wasn’t a fan. After watching Nixon in China twice in 24 hours (COC on the Friday night followed by the Met broadcast on the Saturday) and attending a lunchtime concert of arias introduced by the composer and sung by Peter McGillivray and Betty Wayne Allison I was converted. I even went back and watched the Amsterdam production of Doctor Atomic on DVD. I still think Doctor Atomic has its weaknesses but Nixon in China is pretty much a masterpiece.

On-line stuff

I started this blog as a way of keeping up writing analytically while I wasn’t working. It’s helped keep me sane. Through this and Twitter and other on-line stuff I’ve met some really cool people in 2011; some in meatspace including Lydia of Definitely the Opera, Cicely Carver from COC, couturier Rosemary Uhmetsu and up and coming soprano Simone Osborne. On-line folks who have helped this year along are really too numerous to mention individually but thanks anyway!

Other stuff that happened

I met Lawrence Brownlee and Leonardo Vordoni in the cinema at a MetHD broadcast! I discovered that baritone Brett Polegato (one of the funniest people in opera) has a little grey cat called Lady Jane Grey just like my little grey monster.

Lynch, Lomeli and Osborne rock Rigoletto

Last night was the second performance of the COC’s new Rigoletto and the first featuring the alternate leading role trio of Lester Lynch (Rigoletto), David Lomeli (Duke of Mantua) and Simone Osborne (Gilda). The rest of the cast was as on opening night.

Musically this was a really splendid evening. Everybody sang really well. I like Lester Lynch’s idiomatic playing of the title role and he managed to combine a not inappropriate amount of scenery chewing with being thoroughly musical. Lomeli lived up to the “dragged from obscurity by Placido Domingo” hype. I think there is a true Italian tenor emerging here. He nailed his arias with lovely ringing high notes and plenty of swagger. Osborne, on role debut, was lovely. Caro nome was one of the highlights of the evening and ,in general, she sounded very secure across some pretty tough music. The chemistry between the three was pretty good although the production maybe put more emotional distance between Gilda and Rigoletto than is sometimes the case. In any event the voices blended well and seemed well balanced. Among the other roles I was particularly impressed by Kendall Gladden’s Maddalena. She has a really smoky mezzo that created a pleasing contrast with the brighter voices. She’s a pretty fine actor too so it’s easy to see why she gets cast as Carmen! I also liked Philip Ens’ Sparafucile. He was a sinister presence and a genuine bass with a thoroughly solid lower register. All in all, the casting managed to combine very good individual singers into an ensemble that had a really good balance of tone/timbre. The orchestra and chorus were at their usual high standard and Johannes Debus kept things together very nicely and didn’t distract from the singing and I do think this is very much a singers opera.

The production and design (Christopher Alden and Michael Levine) was very decorative. All the action plays out in a lavishly panelled and furnished “gaming room” looking something like the smoking room at one of the better London clubs in the mid/late 19th century. It does duty for the duke’s court, Rigoletto’s home and Sparafucile’s inn. In a sense this creates a kind of unity; all of these spaces are misogynistic theatres of corrupt power and delusion. On the other hand it requires the audience to suspend disbelief more often and more willingly than usual. It’s an odd kind of secret that can be sung mezzoforte in front of the people it’s supposed to be secret from! The male dominated Victorian aesthetic seems to produce a kind of emotional coolness too. We never quite get enough emotional charge in the Gilda/Rigoletto dynamic to fully feel his loss (i.e. I didn’t cry at the end). The final scene though is splendidly and very effectively done.(*)

So summing up, I enjoyed the show.  Musically it is first rate.  The production was interesting but I don’t think the concept was quite able to carry the piece emotionally.  It’s not a disaster and there’s nothing to shock the traditionalist.  Maybe if I had seen Rigoletto a million times before I’d be more positive.  Go see the show and judge for yourself!

The production runs until October 22nd and there is a choice of the cast we saw or Quinn Kelsey, Dmitri Pittas and Ekaterina Sadovnikova as Rigoletto, the duke and Gilda.

(*)Spoiler follows… Continue reading

Opera 101 – Rigoletto

The second Opera 101 of the season took place at the Duke of Westminster last night. The panel were tenor David Lomeli, director Christopher Alden and designer Michael Levine. Once again the event was moderated by Brent Bambury. Alden kicked off with describing his overall concept for the production which he sees as being about how people balance their public and private lives in a world of constraining and essentially corrupt power structures. We got a fair amount about the history of the production which originated with a version in Chicago that got very mixed reviews. Michael Levine also talked about his view that people today see differently from people in Verdi’s time (the argument turns on the relationship between painting and stage aesthetics) and therefore he designs to meet our visual perceptive expectations. Inevitably at this point we got into the perpetual Opera 101 debate about it being all about the singing and can we have our traditional productions back please. It actually was almost a caricature of that debate with Alden saying that if he didn’t get booed he hadn’t done his job. Sometimes I almost (almost!) sympathise with the traditionalists. It’s obvious that the aesthetic Powers That Be really despise them. I suppose I do too really.

Gears changed a bit when emphasis turned to David Lomeli and his discovery as an “unknown” by Placido Domingo. Articulate as Lomeli was (far more articulate than Alden or Levine), it didn’t ring quite true. I think there are genuine discoveries of kids who knew nothing about opera growing up but I’m not sure that can be true for someone whose grandmother sang with Di Stefano and spent seven years as a professional singer at the opera in Mexico City. He was interesting and funny on how he reacts as a singer to different production concepts. As always, I think this boils down to a singer takes what they are given until/unless they become a superstar and then they get to pick and choose. He did do a neat demonstration of how an operatic tenor treats high notes versus how a mariachi singer does. He nearly blew the lid off the pub in the process.

I got to ask Christopher and Michael if there were more obscure or neglected works (rather than reinventing war horses) that they would like to bring to the stage. I was surprised but heartened that they both wanted to do new, contemporary work. Alden said there were a couple of younger American composers he was interested in but wouldn’t name names.