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.

La Cenerentola

Last night we saw Rossini’s La Cenerentola at the Four Seasons Centre. It’s not my favourite opera by a long shot and reviews had been pretty mixed so expectations weren’t particularly high. Those expectations were, however, exceeded.

Cenerentola is a version of the Cinderella story and was cobbled together in a hurry for its first performance. It has all the emotional depth of a Disney Princess movie but it does have some reasonable comedy and some very singable music. The director, Joan Font, and designer, Joan Guillén, have taken the work at face value, created sets and costumes that look like something out of a children’s colouring book and upped the comedy, most notably by the introduction of six (non-singing) mice who provide a sort of physical commentary on the action while doubling as handy prop movers. The colour palette is very bright and reinforced by the lighting plot.

Photo gallery

Critics have criticised this approach as lacking emotional depth and character development but, really, is there any to be found in this piece? I rather doubt it. Within the parameters that have been set the blocking and physical acting is remarkably good. There are a couple of places where characters seem to stranded uncomfortably far upstage for too long leading to some audibility problems but nothing grave. The ugly sisters (Rihab Chaieb and Ileana Montalbetti) camped it up better than I might have expected and veteran comedians like Brett Polegato and Donato di Stefano had a field day.

The singing was fine, sometimes very fine. Lawrence Brownlee as Don Ramiro and Elizabeth DeShong in the title role were quite excellent. Both sang beautifully and accurately as befits bel canto. Larry tossed off high notes with ease and Elizabeth’s coloratura was most assured. All the others were well up to their roles. The all male chorus was as good as ever. Anne Larlee accompanied the recitatives on the fortepiano and was her usual sympathetic self. Leonardo Vordoni in the pit took some sections perhaps more slowly than some others but at least that provided a bit of light and shade. There’s enough “breathless Rossini” in this score to sink a battleship.

So, all in all, an enjoyable production of a work that I think is rather over-rated. I don’t care whether I ever see Cenerentola again but I’m glad I went last night.

Should you go see it? Well tickets for the last three shows go as low as $20 (use discount code “RBA”) but the same is true for Ariadne auf Naxos which is also currently in repertoire and is a much more interesting opera. The Ariadne cast is stellar and Sir Andrew Davies is conducting. Hell, for $20 per show you can see both.

Today it’s off to the cinema to see the Met’s Die Walküre followed by sabotabby’s birthday bash at Vegan Valhalla.

Le Comte Ory

Rossini’s Le Comte Ory is a very silly opera about the wicked count and his equally randy page scheming to get into the pants of the virtuous, more or less, Countess Adele while all the local men, including the countess’ brother are off at the crusades. To this end in Act 1 the count appears disguised as a hermit and in Act 2 as a nun. Add to the silliness a fiendishly difficult set of vocal parts and you have a sort of bel canto comedy extreme. To up the ante, today’s Comte, Juan-Diego Florez had been up all night waiting for his wife to pop a pup which she did 35 minutes before curtain.

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