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.
There’s something very special about a song recital by a really good singer at the top of his/her game in a space conducive to song. The stars conjoined yesterday to yield a recital by Adrianne Pieczonka with pianist Rachel Andrist in the song friendly acoustic of Mazzoleni Hall, as part of the Mazzoleni Songmasters series.
On the 14th at 1.30pm in Walter Hall Jane Archibald and Liz Upchurch are giving a recital under the auspices of the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto (so this isn’t a free concert). The 15th sees the opening of a run of a “play with music” from Theatre Gargantua called The Wager which will run at Theatre Passe Muraille from the 14th (preview) to the 30th. It promises to be a “bold and irreverent investigation into the strange things that people believe”. It’s written by Michael Spence and directed by Jacquie PA Thomas and the cast includes Teiya Kasahara.
Last night saw the first concert of this year’s Toronto Summer Music Festival. The theme was “Beyond Borders” with most of the works presented; a mixture of piano, violin and vocal, having been influenced by other cultures/places or written in exile.
It’s recently been announced that Canadian soprano and snow shoveler Adrianne Pieczonka OC will join the Conservatory’s Glenn Gould School as its first Vocal Chair in May 2019. While my first thought was that a “vocal chair” sounded like something out of a Terry Pratchett novel, more serious consideration has convinced that this is a very good move indeed. There are a handful, but only a handful, of current Canadian singers who are enjoying as distinguished a career as Adrienne so she knows how the business works at its highest levels. She’s also a very grounded, down to earth, person so besides contributing to developing the vocal and dramatic talents of the GGS students I can’t think of too many people better able to coach/guide students around the snakes and ladders board of an opera career. Smart move Glenn Gould School.
The concluding concert of this year’s International Centre for Performing Artists Singing Stars program for this year took place last night at 96.3FM. For the eleven singers it was the culmination of a day working with Adrianne Pieczonka and a lot of practice and I think that came through on the night. In the various interviews during the show (it was being broadcast live), many of the singers remarked on Adrianne’s advice to be an artist, not just a singer (or something to that effect). Certainly I felt there was less strictly correct singing and more effort to get inside the music and words than one often hears in competitions.
This review first appeared in the print edition of Opera Canada.
Adrianne Pieczonka has released a second disk of Strauss and Wagner pieces, this time with piano accompaniment provided by Brian Zeger. Two sets of Strauss songs sandwich the Wagner Wesendonck-Lieder, the only piece in common with her earlier disk with Ulf Schirmer and the Munich Radio Symphony Orchestra.
Paul Curran’s production of Tosca, seen in 2008 and 2012, opened at the COC yesterday afternoon. It didn’t feel like a routine revival production of a warhorse. In fact it felt much fresher and focussed than last time around. Perhaps Mr. Curran, who is again directing, found some new insights or, more likely, the chemistry between the principals is better this time. The result is a very satisfactory show.
The Christina and Louis Quilico Awards are a singing competition for members of the COC’s Ensemble Studio. This year’s edition took place early yesterday evening in the RBA. Only five members of the Ensemble Studio were competing. Megan Quick and Sam Pickett were not for reasons that I don’t think were announced and Aaron Sheppard was sick. So it was a pretty brief affair. The format as usual was that each contestant offered three arias and got to sing the one of their choice with the judges choosing which of the other two they should sing.
Schubert’s Winterreise is sometimes described as the Everest of lieder singing and, as such, is something of a rite of passage for baritones. It’s much rarer to hear it sung by a soprano but today, on a day when there was more snow in Toronto than one encounters these days on the Hillary step, Adrianne Pieczonka, accompanied by Rachel Andrist, offered it up in the intimate Mazzoleni Hall. It took me two or three songs to get into it. The colours of the soprano voice are so not baritonal that the music sounded unfamiliar and disconcerting. By Der Lindenbaum though I was won over. Here was singing of a limpid beauty few baritones could match and from then on I was revelling in the new perspectives that hearing a soprano sing this music brings. I think it was greatly helped by Adrianne’s approach which definitely favoured bringing out the drama and the emotion of the text rather than wallowing in beautiful tone. That was there when she wanted it but there was much else besides. It was an emotional roller coaster from the (relative) optimism of Die Post through to the devastating last couple of numbers. By the end of Der Leiermann I was a puddle but possibly not quite as damp and deep as the critic sitting next to me (whatever Twitter might report). Rachel’s work at the piano was equally illuminating. This is a show they need to take to a much larger audience.