La Scena Musicale

Friday, 14 May 2010

Strong COC cast shines in new Idomeneo

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

The best thing about Mozart's Idomeneo is that the action moves swiftly between the singers on stage and the orchestra in the pit. Add a bunch of naked Trojan prisoners and a dominating giant-donut Neptune on stage, the opera becomes irresistibly eye-catching.

That was the case for the Canadian Opera Company's new production of Idomeneo on May 12.

On stage under the direction of French director Francois de Carpentries, the stunning, contemporary set created by German designer Siegfried Mayer made a lasting impression as soon as the curtain went up. It's minimalistic but not bare; bold but not out of touch.

In the pit with British conductor Harry Bicket, the COC orchestra stirred up a mayhem in spite of frequent stops and starts in the score. The music, while not as glorious as the composer's later operas like Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi, and Magic Flute, is a diamond in the rough that only gets better each time you confront it.

The rest is a largely Canadian cast that is one of the strongest the COC has assembled this season. Isabel Bayrakdarian, one of Canada's hottest sopranos, sang the role of Trojan princess Ilia. Bayrakdarian is a moving singer who doesn't sacrifice good phrasings and articulations for cheap drama. There are three words that can best describe her singing overall: beautiful, beautiful, and beautiful.

Hungarian-Canadian mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó as Idamante, son of Idomeneo, was stately and passionate. She owned the role with confidence and refined techniques, all the while making it sound and look easy in this difficult pants role.

American soprano Tamara Wilson has a voice that can stop the traffic and she pretty much stole the show whenever possible as Elettra, the Greek princess who wants Idamante for herself and is jealous of Ilia for having scored his affection without trying. Her final aria in Act 3 was all the rage and wildly schizophrenic - an absolute highlight of the entire performance.

Making his COC debut is American tenor Paul Groves, who is one hell of a castaway Idomeneo struggling to spare his son from Neptune. With emotion, precision, and lots of talent, Groves gave himself to the role. His voice - powerful and clearly unforgettable - carried him above the orchestra like the mighty Neptune donut ring that overlooks the set.

Irish-Canadian tenor Michael Colvin as Arbace, Idomeneo's adviser, delivered a solid and outstanding performance, as did tenor Adam Luther of Newfoundland in the role of high priest of Neptune. The nicely choreographed COC chorus was mesmerizing to watch and even more so to listen to.

Idomeneo continues at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on May 15, 18, 21, 25, 27, and 29. A special COC Ensemble Studio performance of the same production takes place on May 19.

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COC brings out the best in Maria Stuarda

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

Donizetti's 43rd opera, the fictional historical tragedy Maria Stuarda, doesn't exactly have all the right ingredients for an all-time favourite. Its plot drags, its music awkwardly cheerful in character, and its male lead a spineless hero who is hardly a match for one queen never mind two.

So it was a delight to see the Canadian Opera Company take on this relatively dull work on May 10 and be smitten with the Shakespearean, Elizabethan production that was created for the Dallas Opera by director Stephen Lawless and set designer Benoit Dugardyn.

The gloves came off at one point and an Elizabethan-style cat fight took place between Elisabetta, Queen of England, and Maria Stuarda, Queen of Scotland. The audience held their breaths while emotion ran high and the two queens stared down each other. There was drama, tension, and some superb singing.

Bulgarian soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska has a killer coloratura that is virtuosic to say the least. She is one mean Elisabetta, but vulnerable as hell in Act 3, when she mulls over Maria's death warrant, that you almost felt sorry for her.

Maria, sung by Italian soprano Serena Farnocchia, is an utmost gentle creature, except when she calls Elisabetta an "obscene whore" and other toxic things in Act 2, where most of the action happens. Farnocchia gave a heartfelt performance with her well-endowed vocal goods - rich, dark, and at times deadly.

American tenor Eric Cutler, who is making his COC debut as Roberto, has a bell-like voice that rings beautifully and romantically in the hall. While there's not much you can do in a weak role that neither elicits hate nor love, there was a certain urgency in Cutler's delivery of laments and pleas. He didn't appear to know what to do with a sword though (maybe that's part of his characterization for Roberto, in which case, fitting) and his boat-like white shoes were a constant eyesore.

Thanks to baritone Weston Hurt (Lord Guglielmo Cecil), bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi (Giorgio Talbot), and COC's own Ensemble Studio soprano Ileana Montalbetti (Anna Kennedy) in their supporting roles, the stagnant moments in this opera were worth paying attention to.

The COC orchestra, led by Australian conductor Antony Walker, stayed faithful to the score. But perhaps they shouldn't have.

Maria Stuarda continues at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on May 22, 26, 28, and 30.

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Monday, 10 May 2010

This Week in Toronto (May 10 - 16)

Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian as Ilia in COC's Idomeneo
(Photo: Michael Cooper)

The vocal scene this week continues with all three COC productions appearing on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre. I have now seen all three, and can truthfully report that they are all hits. Yesterday I attended the opening of Idomeneo. One of my most memorable evenings at the opera was a production of this Mozart opera at the O'Keefe Centre back in 1987, with sets and costumes designed by Michael Levine. To me, that show marked a sea change of production values at the COC, from very traditional and representational sets to a much more modern, fluid and interpretive approach. The cast of Siegfried Jerusalem, Delores Ziegler, Carol Vaness, and particularly Ruth Ann Swenson as an absolutely exquisite Ilia, remains etched in memory. I am happy to say this new production matches that early attempt and in many ways exceeds it. It also features a great cast headed by American tenor Paul Groves in the title role. Known as a French and Mozart tenor, Groves sang with lovely timbre and acted with conviction. Former COC Ensemble member Krisztina Szabo returns as a very fine Idamante. This role is long and arduous, particularly so in this production as an extra piece, the concert aria "Non temer, amato bene" is added, which Szabo sang beautifully. What a surprise all of a sudden to hear the violin solo introduction to this aria, seemingly out of nowhere! Another former Ensemble member, soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, with her beautiful lyric soprano and dramatic acuity, was an ideal Ilia. American soprano Tamara Wilson who sang Amelia in Simon Boccanegra last season returns as the fiery Elettra. To my ears, her voice is much more suited to Elettra than the placid Amelia. Her "D'Oreste, d'Ajace" brought down the house. Yet another former Ensemble member tenor Michael Colvin sang the supporting role of Arbace, a role he sang in the last revival of this opera in 2000. It was good that a typical cut to the score was restored in Act Three to allow Colvin an extended aria, "Se cola ne fati e scritto", which he sang very well. Colvin will sing the title role in a single special performance on May 19 that features present and former COC Ensemble members. The supporting roles were all well taken, particularly tenor Adam Luther as the High Priest. Conductor Harry Bicket, a celebrated Baroque conductor, led the COC forces with uncommon lyricism. The work is through-composed and with Bicket at the helm, it was one continuous lyrical outpouring. The orchestra pit was raised for this show and the sound coming from the pit was thrilling. If I were to quibble, there were elements about the stage direction that I would take issue with, but then with modern re-imaginings of this piece, it is to be expected that not everyone will be pleased. From a visual standpoint, the production is very beautiful - lovely colours and wonderful lighting changes. I am not sure why Arbace is blind - it seems to go against his singing "all I see is death and destruction..." Also why both the first part of Ilia's arias that opened Acts 1 and 3 were sung with the scrim down? Also, I was surprised and a little disappointed that Groves did not sing the more florid, Munich version of "Fuor del mar" - given he has such good technique and flexibility. I spoke to COC General Director Alexander Neef at intermission, and he explained that Groves came to this engagement after having just sung a heavy role and didn't have sufficient time to readjust his voice, which is certainly a reasonable explanation. With all the restored (and added) music, the show was about three hours fifteen minutes, but with such a beautiful performance, it seemed almost short! You can catch the second and third performances of Idomeneo on Wednesday 7:30 pm and Saturday, also on 7:30 pm. Maria Stuarda can be heard this evening and Thursday at 7:30 pm at the Four Seasons Centre. As I mentioned here last week, both Serena Farnocchia and Alexandrina Pendatchanska blew me away. This show is well worth attending. And if Wagner is more your thing, be sure to catch The Flying Dutchman at 7:30 pm on Tuesday and Friday. On Thursday at noon, in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre of the Four Seasons Centre, there will be a concert of Highlights from Idomeneo sung by members of the COC Ensemble Studio. These singers will be participating in the special performance on May 19, so this is a preview - not to be missed! Be sure to go 45 minutes early to ensure a seat.

By a quirk of scheduling, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is in hiatus this week. But there are plenty of other companies presenting a myriad of concerts this week. The Toronto Philharmonia is presenting Czech pianist Boris Krajny in Chopin Piano Concerto No. 2 on Thursday May 13 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts in North York. Kerry Stratton conducts. Also on the program is something called Fifth Day Suite by Hardy and Riley, a piece new to me. I went to the Philharmonia website and discovered that it is a Canadian premiere. The George Weston Recital Hall is one of my favourite venues, so it is nice to have a reason to go there again. For ticket information, go to

On Saturday May 15 at 8 pm at the Glenn Gould Studio, the Aradia Ensemble under Kevin Mallon is presenting Thunderbird, a program of traditional Native songs and bird-inspired Baroque pieces. It stars First Nations mezzo Marion Newman, who had such a success in Giiwedin. Go to for more information about the concert and tickets.

On the piano front, Chinese Canadian pianist Li Wang is giving a noon hour concert at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre in the Four Seasons Centre. He is the first winner of the Canadian Chopin Competition in 2000. On the program is Albeniz's Iberia Book 3, plus the bravura Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise by Chopin, a piece that I never get tired of hearing. Be sure to get there 45 minutes ahead of time to ensure a seat.


Sunday, 9 May 2010

Howard Dyck Bids Farewell with Memorable Verdi Requiem

Photo: Howard Dyck

"I believe that the arts make us better people. I believe they enable us to transcend our own limitations, encourage us in our weaknesses and failures, and empower us in our pilgrimage in this vast, wondrous and kaleidoscopic adventure called life" - with these profound words that form the opening of his personal credo and clearly coming from the bottom of his heart, conductor Howard Dyck bade farewell to his beloved Grand Philharmonic Choir, where he served as the conductor for the past 38 years. There he was, standing in front of a full house filled with his colleagues, friends, and most importantly, a loyal audience, receiving a well deserved, prolonged standing ovation. It was a storybook finish to a long career.

The event celebrating Dyck's retirement was a performance of his beloved Verdi Requiem. The concert took place at Centre in the Square in Kitchener on Saturday evening. I have heard Dyck conduct this piece a number of times, and it was always wonderful. This time around, a terrific all-Canadian cast was assembled for the occasion, one that included soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, mezzo Marie-Nicole Lemieux, tenor John Mac Master, and bass-baritone Nathan Berg. From the softest, ppp opening, it was immediately clear that this was going to be a performance for the ages. The Grand Philharmonic Choir was in wonderful shape and they sang their hearts out for the maestro. The Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony also gave their all. Dyck brought his many years of experience and wisdom into the proceedings, shaping the score with utmost care, achieving the right balance in a performance full of fire and brimstone, but also pathos and lyricism. Hearing this performance was a musically rewarding as well as a spiritual experience.

The quartet of soloists was as balanced as one would likely find today. American-born Canadian soprano Radvanovsky has a true Verdi soprano voice born to sing this piece. Few singers alive today has her power, brilliance, wide range of dynamics, and sincerity of expression. It was simply the biggest soprano voice I have heard since the heydays of Regine Crespin and Gwyneth Jones, and our Sondra has better high notes than Crespin and a steadier, more beautiful sound than Dame Gwyneth. Radvanovsky's long breath in the long-held B-flat at the end of soprano-mezzo duet of Recordare - similarly in Domine Jesu - was stunning. But best of all was Libera Me. Her singing was incredibly beautiful in the quiet moments, and resplendent in the climaxes, complete with a huge high C sung over the chorus near the end, and the most exquisite pppp B-flat on the word "requiem" I have heard in many, many years. Quebec mezzo Marie-Nicole Lemieux has one of the most opulent contraltos in front of the public today. Despite the high tessitura, she had absolutely no problem with the music, rising to a high A effortlessly in Liber Scriptus. Her one-octave lower vocal line in Agnes Dei showed off her solid lower register, all sung without any pushing. Lemieux used to sing more in Toronto, but her visits are now rare. Let's hope the symphonies and the opera companies will bring her back as soon as possible! The two men - tenor John Mac Master and bass-baritone Nathan Berg - were also very fine. Mac Master replaced Richard Margison who was in Guangzhou, China to open their new opera house. Mac Master sang with plangent, warm tone, giving us an assured Ingemisco. He is of course no stranger to this piece, where his spinto timbre is ideal. I particularly loved the dolcissimo beginning of "Hostias et precis tibi Domine" - a wonderful moment. Nathan Berg is also an old hand in this music. His timbre has grown darker with the years and has the ideal gravitas in the bass solo Confutatis.

After the performance, the entire audience stayed behind for a tribute to Dyck. Luisa D'Amato, chair of the Board of the GPC, spoke most eloquently about Dyck's contribution to the organization, and to the musical life of the Kitchener-Waterloo region over the years. The mention that he is now Conductor Emeritus brought a round of enthusiastic applause. Eric Friesen brought Dyck to the podium where he delivered his beautifully written speech. It was a very touching moment indeed. Afterwards, the audience milled about in the lobby chatting with the soloists, and shook hands with Dyck and his wife Maggie in the receiving line. While we are sad that Howard Dyck has retired from the Choir, we can be sure that he will continue to make beautiful music in the future.

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