La Scena Musicale

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Szymanowski's Opera "King Roger" Reconsidered



Classical Travels
This Week in Spain

King Roger was a real person who reigned in Sicily circa 1130 and whose court was widely recognized for its high level of intellectual knowledge and discourse. Szymanowski's opera King Roger (1926)was inspired by the composer's travels in the Mediterranean region - more specifically, Sicily, where he became fascinated by the unique interplay of the cultures of ancient Greece and the Arab world.

I first came to know King Roger through recordings. It was only recently that I finally saw a live performance - at the venerable Gran Theatre del Liceu in Barcelona, Spain.

One of the main themes in King Roger is borrowed from Euripedes drama "The Bacchae", in which another ruler - King Pentheus - is torn to pieces by followers of the god Dionysus. In the course of writing King Roger - Szymanowski eventually wrote most of the text as well as the music - the work became a series of three tableaus representing encounters between King Roger and Dionysus.

In the first production of King Roger (Warsaw, Poland), of which there is a photograph of the Act One setting in the fine programme booklet for the Liceu Opera production, great care was taken by the set designer to bring to life the historical context of the opera; hence, the audience saw a real church with the figure of Christ looming large at its centre in Act One; a real palace in Act Two; and the ruins of a Greek theatre in Act Three. All of these settings and more are called for in the composer's detailed stage directions.

Abstract Approach Brings Apollo/Dionysus Conflict to Life
For Barcelona's Gran Theatre del Liceu production, British director David Pountney chose to present King Roger in a more abstract way. One set design served for all three acts of the opera: a series of risers upon which most of the action took place. Costumes were non-historical. The men wore black robes or suits. King Roger's wife Roxana wore a red dress of vaguely twentieth century style.

Although this 'abstract' new production, directed by David Pountney and conducted by Josef Pons, was far from faithful to Szymanowski's stated intentions, it nevertheless dealt with the opera's religious, philosophical and psychological elements in thought-provoking ways. The voices and orchestra were first-rate. The production was sung in Spanish with Catalan surtitles.

Pountney's purpose, as clearly stated in the Liceu Opera programme book, was to focus attention on the 'essence' of the opera, which he takes to be Roger's internal struggle between intellect and emotion, or between the Apollonian and the Dionysian elements of human nature. By extrapolation, this is a struggle shared by all mankind and so need not be limited by time and place.

Pountney's production not only explores the ideas and emotions of Szymanowski's characters, but attempts to illuminate the subtext of the composer's lyrics; for example, in his first appearance, the Shepherd/Dionysus character immediately arouses the interest of King Roger's wife, Roxana. Roger himself is at once repelled and fascinated by the pagan and blasphemous message transmitted by this charismatic stranger. He orders the Shepherd's arrest and then, almost immediately, rescinds the order.

In Pountney's production, there is a moment of extraordinary power when Roger approaches the Shepherd from behind and encircles him with his arms as if to take him into custody. In that very moment the 'capture' becomes a depiction of homosexual carnality. Roger has succumbed to desires he didn't even know he had and is henceforth more conflicted than ever about this man.

Throughout the opera, King Roger is shadowed by his advisor Edrisi, an 'Arabian sage'. Edrisi is the philosophical counterweight to Roger's wife Roxana. She is all about intuition and passion, while Edrisi is a man of reason and, in a way, Roger's conscience or higher self. Ultimately, Dionysus prevails and leads his followers, including Roxana to experience the ultimate rites of his sect. In the opera, Roger and Edrisi experience them too and return, almost destroyed by the experience. They stagger onstage, covered in blood, and Edrisi, the voice of reason and Roger's conscience, is near death.

Are we to think then that Dionysus has won in the end?
Not so fast! As the sun rises behind him, King Roger turns, and offers himself up to it - an affirmation of the ultimate power of Apollo and reason. He has been tempted by the mysteries of Dionysus, he has been changed by the experience - they are after all a celebration of a vital part of human nature - and he has emerged a stronger and wiser man.

It must be stressed that while the opera begins with an affirmation of Christian worship, Christian faith is not really the central issue. At the end of the opera, King Roger clearly does not reaffirm his faith in Christ and Christian values, but rather in the older and more fundamental Apollonian ideal. For another example of how these themes have been explored in profound ways by another twentieth century composer, I suggest readers view Benjamin Britten's opera Death in Venice.

Physical and Vocal Demands of Production Well Met
While a discussion of ideas is necessary to any appreciation of Szymanowski's King Roger, it would not be a work worth reviving, were the music not extraordinary. The opera opens with old-fashioned choral music to suggest the atmosphere and tradition of Christian church music. It then goes on to more chromatic music, obviously influenced by the likes of Debussy, Ravel and Scriabin, with elements of Middle Eastern music as well. A similar blend of sources can be found in parts of Strauss' Salome.

The main characters in Pountney's King Roger are called upon to convey a vast range of ideas and emotions through their voices and through a demanding series of physical movements and so must be consummate singing actors. At the Gran Teatro del Liceu, with eight performances of the opera being given over a period of about two weeks, two casts are required.

In the production I saw, the role of King Roger was sung by the fine American baritone Scott Hendricks. I was interested to read in the programme that he has also done Death in Venice at the Liceu. Hendricks was matched every step of the way by the excellent German tenor Will Hartmann (Shepherd/Dionysus), making an auspicious debut at the Liceu. Hartmann faced the additional challenge of being required to don a woman's dress at one point in the opera, and later, of having his entire body painted in gold. The role of Roxana, in this production, was taken by the celebrated German soprano Anne Schwanewilms.

The busy chorus was wonderful. Maestro Josep Pons, associate principal conductor of the Liceu and also director of the Orquesta Nacional de España, gave us a sensitive and compelling reading of King Roger.

Painting with Light and Color Transforms Simple Set
I have described director David Pountney's approach to King Roger as 'abstract', and reported that the single set used was little more than a series of risers. There was, however, considerably more to the 'visual' side of this production than that series of risers, thanks to the wonderfully creative imaginations of set designer Raimund Bauer and lighting designer Fabrice Kebour, who was making his debut at the Liceu.

Bauer's risers had openings through which characters appeared and disappeared and the steps seemed to move as if characters themselves. The lighting introduced colours and patterns that played upon the risers, closely relating to the flow of the music and the drama. The result was substantial music drama in which all the elements worked together based on a common understanding of the text and the music.

King Roger will never be a popular opera - it has too much intellectual content and too little commercial appeal for that - but it deserves to be performed more often, especially in productions as serious and resourceful as this one.


Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at Amazon.com.

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Thursday, 12 November 2009

The 2009 Parma Verdi Festival

by Giuseppe Pennisi

Maestro Gianandrea Gavazzeni used to say that there is no need for a “Verdi Festival” because almost every day a “Verdi Festival” is being held in more than one of the five continents of the world. As a matter of fact, Parma, the capital of the province where Giuseppe Verdi was born in 1813, has been organizing a top-notch Festival for several decades. It used to take place in early Junethat is, strategically after the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and before the many Summer Opera Festivals (35 in 2009) flooding Italy from late-June to mid-September.

Since 2005, Mauro Meli has been Superintendent of Parma’s Teatro Regio and of the Verdi Festival and he invited Yuri Temirkanov to be the musical director of both organizations. In 2006 a program was undertaken to make Parma “the European music capital” by activating a new auditorium (for symphony and chamber music) and the many precious small theatres in the surrounding towns and even villages (first of all the Teatro Verdi in Busseto, near Le Roncole, the hamlet of only a few homes where Verdi was actually born). International collaborations were developed through co-production and tours. Finally, the Festival was moved from early June to October, Verdi was birth-month. Every day of October in Parma Verdi has a Festival event: a fully staged opera to highlights in concert to screening of films based on Verdi’s work. The whole town has become a part of the Festival, with exhibitions, shows and performances everywhere.

All this activity requires a great deal of financing, and the money had been forthcoming for a few years from the Central and Local Governments, a major State owned company and from local enterprises. But, recently, the economic finance crisis has put a major halt on funding. This year, Meli has had to make do with a much smaller budget, resulting in a lean program (see www.teatroregioparma.org/verdifest/index.htm): only two fully staged operas, the Requiem Mass (considered by many as Verdi’s 27th opera), and concerts and highlights from all the other 25 operas.

This review focuses on the three major events: the Requiem Mass and the fully staged productions of I Due Foscari and Nabucco. The Requiem opened the at the Cathedral. It is well known that Verdi was an atheist as many Italian Risorgimento intellectuals were; their atheism stemmed largely from their opposition to the Papal Kingdom as well as from the goal of having Rome as the capital of a united Italy, not of a Pope’s State. Verdi’s letters reveal that he was a tormented atheist with many doubts about the meaning of existence and the after-life. The Requiem Mass can be considered a melodrama-style search for these deep philosophical answers. Its central part (Dies Irae) is a long operatic act with the tender Lacrimosa, a meditation on human fragility, as a conclusion. Not even the final Libera me solves these doubts. The orchestra was conducted by Lorin Maazel, who had to fly into Parma to replace a suddenly sick Yuri Temirkanov. Even though Maazel had no time for a proper rehearsal, the orchestra and the chorus (under Martino Faggiani’s direction) gave the proper dramatic colour to the score and provided the required support to the soloists. Francesco Meli has thickened his voice in the last few years, but kept a very clear timbre and a pure emission; he might become a Carlo Bergonzi of the future. Daniela Barcellona is a true force of nature; she did balance her powerful voice with an excellent fraseggio and displayed a great skill to ascend to high tonalities with ease and to descend to grave tonalities with the same ease. Alexaneder Vinogradov is a good, but not memorable, Russian bass. Svetla Vassileva seemed not quite apt for the role: in the last few years she has taken roles not fully in line with her specific vocal endowment, with evident effects now. Her volume is small and she has difficulties with the low notes and pushes excessively with the acute. Being next to Barcellona did not help as it exposed her limits.

Much beloved by Verdi’s fans, Leo Nucci (now almost 68 years old) played the protagonist of both I Due Foscari and Nabucco. The latter is a widely performed opera whereas I Due Foscari has the record of being the shortest and one of the least staged Verdi melodrama. It was revived in 1968 in a Rome Teatro dell’Opera production that travelled as far as the Metropolitan Opera in New York. It is a dark opera, based on an even darker poem by Byron, that deals with power intrigues in 15th Century Venice. Jacopo is unfairly condemned to permanent exile by the Council of Ten, the highest governing body in Venice; in spite of Lucrezia’s efforts and pleas, his father cannot overturn the decision; Jacopo commits suicide and Francesco is ousted by his rivals. There are only three characters of dramatic and vocal relevance: the old doge, Francesco Foscari (Leo Nucci), his son Jacopo (Roberto De Biaso) and his daughter-in-law Lucrezia Contarini (Tatiana Serjan). There is almost no actionbut a lot of difficult singingon the stage because nearly the entire plot develops behind the scene.


Joseph Francioni Lee (stage direction) and William Orlandi (stage set) provide an intelligent solution: the three acts are performed with only a short intermission and there is as much action as the libretto provides. The stage direction and the sets are traditional but effective. Nucci and Serjan overrode the rest of the cast in tremendously difficult roles requiring considerable vocal agility and strong volume. De Biaso was good but at the end of the performance appeared clearly tired. Fine, but not exceptional, was Donato Renzetti’s baton.

Only a few words on Nabucco. The Daniele Abbado production is nearly 10 years old and was seen last year in Reggio Emilia (only 50 miles from Parma). It is a late 20th Century blockbuster with Jews in modern attire and the Babylonians in Hollywood-style costumes. Leo Nucci’s receives the lion’s share of the applause, closely followed by Dmitra Theodossiou; they are experienced professionals and know all the tricks to please the audience, even emphasizing certain moments of Verdi’s score. The young Michele Mariotti conducts with a swift allure. This production of Nabucco will be staged in Modena in February 2010 and in Japan next Summer.


THE PLAY BILL
Messa da Requiem

Soprano SVETLA VASSILEVA
Mezzo DANIELA BARCELLONA
Tenor FRANCESCO MELI
Bass ALEXANDER VINOGRADOV

Conductor LORIN MAAZEL
Chorus Mastero MARTINO FAGGIANI
I due Foscari
Francesco Foscari LEO NUCCI,
Jacopo Foscari ROBERTO DE BIASIO
Lucrezia Contarini TATIANA SERJAN
Jacopo Loredano ROBERTO TAGLIAVINI
Barbarigo GREGORY BONFATTI
Pisana MARCELLA POLIDORI
Fante MAURO BUFFOLI
Servant pf the Doge ALESSANDRO BIANCHINI

Conductor DONATO RENZETTI
Stage direction JOSEPH FRANCONI LEE
Stage sets and costumes WILLIAM ORLANDI
Lighting VALERIO ALFIERI


Nabucco

Nabucodonosor LEO NUCCI, GIOVANNI MEONI (18, 24, 28)
Ismaele BRUNO RIBEIRO
Zaccaria RICCARDO ZANELLATO
Abigaille DIMITRA THEODOSSIOU
Fenena ANNA MARIA CHIURI
Il Gran Sacerdote di Belo ALESSANDRO SPINA
Abdallo MAURO BUFFOLI
Anna CRISTINA GIANNELLI

Conductor MICHELE MARIOTTI
Stage Director DANIELE ABBADO
Stage sets and cistumes LUIGI PEREGO
Lighting VALERIO ALFIERI
Chorus Mastero MARTINO FAGGIANI

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Wednesday, 11 November 2009

À la découverte d’une compositrice méconnue : les œuvres de Francesca Caccini

Par Isabelle Soraru

Le 6 novembre 2009 dernier, dans le cadre de la série Clavecin en concert, on a pu découvrir à la chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours les œuvres d’une compositrice baroque encore mal connue : Francesca Caccini (1587-1640), fille aînée du grand Giulio Caccini. Compositrice, luthiste, chanteuse, elle fut la première femme à composer des opéras. Le roi Henri IV, dit-on, fut charmé par sa voix et Claudio Monteverdi fit son éloge lorsqu’il l’entendit à Florence en 1610. Son écriture vocale, d’une grande beauté, témoigne de sa grande maîtrise de l’art musical et d’une approche parfois audacieuse de l’écriture, influencée par l’Académie florentine dont les recherches musicales visaient à trouver une nouvelle manière d’exprimer les passions, ou affetti.

Ce concert faisait la part belle au chant, alternant canzonettes pleines de légèreté avec des madrigaux et arie, genres plus sérieux, mais on a pu aussi entendre de belles pages de Pellegrini à la guitare baroque et quelques œuvres de Frescobaldi.

L’ensemble musical, composé de trois instrumentistes (Luc Beauséjour au clavecin et à l’orgue positif, Sylvain Bergeron à la guitare baroque et au théorbe, Amanda Keesmat au violoncelle baroque) et de la soprano Shannon Mercier au chant, fait preuve d’une belle homogénéité sonore, tout en délicatesse et en intensité musicale. On retiendra, dans cette interprétation d’une grande qualité, le magnifique aria « Lasciatemi » (« Laissez-moi seule ») aux chromatismes surprenants et poignants d’une grande force dramatique, s’inscrivant dans la tradition des grands lamenti baroques, comme le célèbre Lamento d’Arianna de Monteverdi.

Extraites du Primo libro de Francesca Cacccini, les œuvres présentées donnaient un aperçu de la richesse du recueil de cette compositrice dont les œuvres mériteraient sans nul doute d’être mieux connues tant pour leur qualité musicale que pour la personnalité singulière de leur auteure dans un siècle où les créatrices étaient encore rares.

Ce sera chose faite prochainement, puisque la musique de Francesca Caccini entendue lors de ce concert paraîtra sous l’étiquette Analekta début 2010, avec les mêmes interprètes.

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Monday, 9 November 2009

This Week in Toronto (November 9 - 15)

Soprano Christine Brewer (photo: Dario Acosta)





What a week we just had! A truly bountiful week of vocal delights that included the COC Diamond Anniversary Gala Concert, Opera Atelier's Iphigenie en Tauride, the North American debut of a Hebrew opera called An The Rat Laughed, a recital by soprano Simone Osborne, Andre Laplante and the Emperor Concerto with the Toronto Symphony, and Met in HD Turandot. This is not counting Butterfly and Nightingale, both of which I had already seen.

Now we have a week to catch our collective breath. With both opera companies having wrapped up their fall season, there are fewer vocal offerings. However, a very important event this week is Britten's War Requiem with Peter Oundjian conducting the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, with soloists Christine Brewer, Michael Schade and Russell Braun. I have had the great good fortune of hearing Brewer quite a few times in opera as well as concert - as Ariadne, Helen of Troy (Aegyptische Helena), Ellen Orford, Mahler 8, Beethoven 9 etc. Hers is a magnificent dramatic soprano, a voice that is one in a million. There is also a sincerity of expression in her performance that is always moving. I highly recommend attending this War Requiem, given on occasion of Remembrance Day. I am just sorry the soprano soloist does not have a great deal to do. I hope COC's Alexander Neef will be there - Mr. Neef, how about engaging the great Christine Brewer for the COC? Two performances at Roy Thomson Hall (Nov. 11 and 12, 8 pm)

The venerable Canadian Children's Opera Chorus, newly renamed Canadian Children's Opera Company, will give a free concert at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Four Seasons Centre, on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 5:30 - 6:30 pm. Artistic Director Ann Cooper Gay conducts the children in an eclectic, wide-ranging programs of traditional folk songs and seasonal songs, including workds of Gjeilo, Cope, Galuppi, Stevens, and Somers. Also on the program is excerpts of Act 2 La boheme! As usual, if you want a seat, go at least 30 minutes ahead of time.

On Thursday, Nov. 12, 12 - 1 pm, also at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre is a concert given by Queen of Puddings Music Theatre, a small, innovative opera company in town. Artistic directors John Hess and Dairine Ni Mheadra presents a piece by Karin Rehnqvist for two female voices and percussion, with percussionist Ryan Scott and sopranos Shannon Mercer and Carla Huhtanen. It is a piece on a vocal technique called kulning, in Swedish folk music for herding cattle and communicating over long distances. This sounds intriguing! Click on the following to download the program http://coc.ca/ecms.ashx/pdfs/concerts091112.pdf


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Sunday, 8 November 2009

A Memorable Pilgrimage at the Rome Opera



Classical Travels
This Week in Italy

"Nach Roma! (To Rome!)", the pilgrims cry at the end of Act II of Wagner's Tannhäuser as they head off to seek forgiveness from the Pope. Well, they didn't have far to go in a new production being mounted by the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma. In fact, it would have been little more than a half hour's walk across the Tiber to St. Peter's.

It is true that Wagner's opera has a Roman connection, but the work itself deals with universal themes of the endless struggle in human affairs between the sacred and the mundane. As directed by Filippo Crivelli these themes were fairly well explored, and with Daniel Kawka in the pit, Wagner's music was brought to life with unusual insight.

Wagner was in his early thirties when he composed Tannhäuser, one of his first works in which the various aspects of love were explored and the characters at the centre of the drama come to their tragic end in a kind of love death.

In Tannhäuser, the eponymous hero is first seen living under the spell of Venus, the love goddess and as the projections shown during the overture and 'Venusberg' music made clear to us, apparently enjoying it. Life in the Venusberg as depicted here is less a real or imagined place from which Tannhäuser returns later in the opera, and more a metaphor for his life as a young man almost totally devoted to pleasure, especially of the carnal sort with members of the opposite sex. Guilt sets in when he thinks of his beloved Elisabeth and he tries to suppress his lustful ways, but he is having too much fun 'walking on the wild side' and ruins his prospects with the Landgrave Hermann's niece. Hermann gives Tannhäuser an ultimatum; he can forget about marrying Elisabeth unless he makes a pilgrimage to Rome to seek absolution from the Pope.

At the time he composed Tannhäuser in 1845, Wagner was feeling his way toward a new approach to music drama in which the text dictated the flow of the music and the older style of alternating arias, duets and ensembles was left behind. In Tannhäuser there are still a number of set pieces for the leading characters and several spectacular set pieces for soloists, chorus and orchestra together.

The Crivelli Tannhäuser in Rome was basically a traditional production, updated through the use of projections, costumes which seemed casually medieval with touches of modern dress, and stylized sets. The sense of time and place was deliberately understated in order to bring out the universality of the themes and emotions of the story. We see clearly that Tannhäuser is a man with a past coming into conflict with the mores of his society. Like so many star-crossed lovers throughout history, he and Elisabeth are up against forces - civil, familial and religious - which are beyond their control. Through their love they try to overcome these forces, but in the end their love can only triumph in death.

The Rome Opera uses a 'stagione system', meaning that they present one opera at a time and run it almost nightly for several weeks. While this approach eliminates the need for the daily changing of sets in a repertory system and usually ensures a well-rehearsed production, it has some negative aspects too, one being that these nightly repetitions often require two casts, as was the case with this Tannhauser.

The cast I heard featured the Italian tenor Mario Leonardi as Tannhäuser. Leonardi did a creditable job, but I would like to have heard the more experienced Stig Anderson in the role. Otto Katzameier made an unusually multi-layered Wolfram, but I was somewhat disappointed to have missed the great lieder singer Matthias Goerne in the role. While the singers in the cast I heard were not household names, they nevertheless all gave fine performances.

As Elisabeth, Danish soprano Tina Kieberg sang beautifully as did Silvia Colombini in the small role of the Shepherd. Christof Fischesser showed his rich baritone to great effect as Hermann. What I admired most about Katzameier as Wolfram was his sensitivity to the text and the way he used it to add depth and nuance to his role. His voice is neither large nor distinctly beautiful but his other qualities more than compensate for this fact.

The musical leadership came from a conductor hitherto unknown to me but a man of great experience, mostly in France. Daniel Kawka had great understanding of the score and had rehearsed the music down to the last detail. The brass was powerful and exciting when required, and I had the sense that every crescendo and fortissimo had been balanced with infinite care.

Kawka had problems with offstage trumpets and onstage chorus in Act Two - they consistently played behind the beat - but as the evening unfolded, ensemble steadily improved. The great ensemble at the end of Act Two was thrilling both for its overall effect and its individual contributions.

I was absolutely delighted with the acoustics in the Teatro dell'Opera. The orchestral sound had weight, color, presence and the singers' voices projected easily into the house.

After nearly a week in Rome, my wife and I had really fallen under the spell of the place. History reaches out and touches you everywhere, from the still vibrant Roman ruins where excavations continue to yield secrets nearly every day.

We visited an exhibition of Roman painting at the Scuderie (stables) of the Quirinale (Presidential Palace). These are works of art most of us scarcely knew existed until many of them were uncovered from the ruins of Pompeii and elsewhere under hundreds of tons of dirt.
We now know that ancient Rome was not an unreal land of white marble and blank surfaces. Color abounded in wall paintings in private and public buildings and on much of the famous statuary too before nature and time washed the paint away.

Mixed in with the Roman ruins today are Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque buildings and the city gradually developed the character it maintains today.

In 1770, Mozart visited Rome and saw the Sistine Chapel and the Trevi Fountain. Less distinguished travelers have been admiring such places ever since. Catholics have been making pilgrimages to the Vatican for centuries; for them, as for Tannhauser, it is a journey about faith and redemption. Poet John Keats made the journey too and died in Rome. Keats, Shelley, Liszt, Wagner and Berlioz drank coffee as we did in the Caffe Greco on Via Condotti just around the corner from our hotel. There are fewer Americans and Canadians in Rome these days - the weak U.S. dollar has everything to do with it - but they'll be back.

In the meantime, Italians and Europeans flock to Rome as they always have. This great city generously provides almost endless reasons for pilgrimages.

Photo by Marita

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COC puts on Glittery Diamond Anniversary Gala

COC Diamond Anniversary Gala Concert (l. to r.)
Tenor Ramon Vargas, baritone Russell Braun, tenor John Treleaven, conductor Johannes Debus











COC Diamond Anniversary Concert
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
November 7, 7 p.m. 2009
Johannes Debus, conductor
Ramon Vargas, tenor
Russell Braun, baritone
John Treleaven, tenor
Canadian Opera Company Orchestra

Berlioz Roman Carnival Overture
Gounod "Ah! Leve-toi, soleil" - Romeo et Juliette (Vargas)
Berlioz Menuet des feux follets - La damnation de Faust
Gounod "Mab, la reine des mensonges" - Romeo et Juliette (Braun)
Berlioz Hungarian March - La damnation de Faust
"Nature immense" - La damnation de Faust (Vargas)
*Massenet "Porquoi me reveiller" - Manon (Vargas)
*Bizet Pearl Fishers Duet - Pearl Fishers (Vargas, Braun)
Intermission
Wagner Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nurnburg
"Preislied" - Die Meistersinger von Nurnburg (Treleaven)
"O du mein holder Abendstern" - Tannhauser (Braun)
Rome Narrative - Tannhauser (Treleaven)
Siegfried's Rhine Journey - Goetterdammerung
"Brunnhilde, heilige Braut!" - Goetterdammerung (Treleaven)
Funeral March - Goetterdammerung

Encore: Overture to Act 3 of Lohengrin
* Item added to original printed program

When the COC announced last Saturday Oct. 31 that star tenor Ben Heppner was indisposed and would be unable to sing in the Company's Diamond Anniversary Gala on Nov. 7, it was greeted with widespread dismay among Canadian opera fans. What do you do when a seemingly irreplaceable artist cancels? Cancelling the concert was out of the question. The COC managed to line up three leading singers - tenors Ramon Vargas and John Treleaven, and baritone Russell Braun - to fill in for the Canadian tenor. While there were some residual grumbling from Heppner fans about the no-refund policy, it dissipated when the COC announced that the Canadian tenor would be giving a "makeup" recital, with piano at the Four Seasons Centre for all ticket holders to the Diamond Anniversary Gala, at a future date to be announced. This really is a generous gesture from Heppner and the company to its legions of loyal fans. Thus Alexander Neef and the COC deftly managed to turn a potential public relations crisis into a win-win situation for the company and its audience. For the price of a single ticket, opera lovers will now hear two artists making their local debuts (Vargas and Treleaven), plus an opportunity to hear their beloved Ben Heppner later in the season, likely sometime in the spring. This certainly contributed to additional ticket sales in the last few days before the concert. A major consideration in the search for replacements was to retain as much of the original program as possible, simply due to lack of time for rehearsals and making sure the orchestral parts would be available on short notice. Thanks to the presence of Mr. Treleaven, there was minimal disruption to the Wagner half of the program.

The first half of the program was all French. The evening kicked off with the Roman Carnival Overture. With the orchestra liberated from the pit, and newly installed acoustic panels on three sides of the stage, there's a vitality and immediacy of the orchestral sound that was a joy to the ear. Kudos to new COC music director Johanne Debus, who gave an energetic yet lyrical and highly nuanced reading of the many pieces. His attention to detail was exemplary. Frankly, I think COC "hit the jackpot" with his man and he will be an enormous asset to the company in the future. Vargas received a very warm welcome that only intensified after each number. His three arias were delivered with gorgeous, plangent tone, very well focused sound that carried beautifully in the acoustically friendly FSC. Interestingly, two of his pieces were not on the printed program - Des Grieux's aria "Porquoi me reveiller" from Manon, followed by the knock-'em-dead duet (with Braun) from Pearl Fishers. Russell Braun is of course a COC favourite. He sang Mercutio's aria with brio and elan. His warm and mellifluous baritone blended beautifully with Vargas' in the Bizet. Braun reserved his best for Wolfram's Ode to the Evening Star. Taken at a very slow tempo, his was a most poetic and heart-felt delivery that will be etched in memory.

After the intermission, it was an all-Wagner second half. The chief interest was the appearance of British tenor John Treleaven. An internationally renowned Wagnerian, Treleaven just sang the title role in Siegfried for Los Angeles Opera, with Goetterdammerung and a complete cycle to come in 2010. His repertoire is almost identical to Heppner's - all the big Wagner roles, plus Florestan, Grimes, Hermann, Bacchus and Kaiser, etc. This evening, he sang the Preislied with a big well focused sound and secure high notes. I don't ever recall hearing the Rome Narration from Tannhauser in a concert program, as bleeding chunks of Wagner really don't excerpt very well. He sang the long narrative with admirable concentration and dramatic commitment, even if his tone, after some 20 years of singing the heaviest of Wagner roles, isn't quite so fresh any more. The printed portion of the concert ended with an extended excerpt from Goetterdammerung, starting with the death of Siegfried, followed by the Funeral March. I thought back to the two marvelous cycles I saw in September 2006 - it's so wonderful to hear this from the COC Orchestra again! With the superb Johannes Debus at the helm, the orchestra sounded resplendent. Let's hope there will be a revival of the Ring Cycle in Alexander Neef's agenda for the COC. The appreciative audience gave Treleaven a warm reception, followed by group bows from the three singers and the conductor. There was even an encore - an exuberant rendition of the overture to Act 3 Lohengrin. This piece was last mounted by the COC in 1983 with Siegfried Jerusalem. That's a long, 26 years ago - it's high time for a revival! Hey, I can dream, can't I?


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