This morning I attended the annual Canadian Opera Company press conference announcing plans for the upcoming season. Thanks to modern technology, the event is now webcast and undoubtedly some of the more tech-savvy opera fans watched it in the comfort of their own computer chairs. For those who missed it, it's been archived for on-demand viewing at
Not surprisingly, the 2011-12 season turned out to be a combination of warhorses and the unfamiliar. A total of seven productions, with Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride opening the fall season starring big-name American mezzo Susan Graham in the title role. Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser, who has gone on to an international career since his tenure as a member of the Ensemble Studio, returns after many years as Pylades. His buddy, Orestes, is local favourite- frequent guest baritone Russell Braun. Spaniard Pablo Heras-Casado, currently in town rehearsing Nixon in China, conducts. This is paired with Verdi's ever-popular Rigoletto, conducted by COC music director Johannes Debus. American Quinn Kelsey and Lester Lynch shares the role of Rigoletto; and Gilda is shared by Russian soprano Ekaterina Sadovnikova and Canadian rising star Simone Osborne. Dimitri Pittas, who was the student of famed pedagogues Bill and Dixie Neill at McGill, is Duke of Mantua. I heard Pittas several times in Santa Fe, and he has a truly exceptional tenor. He shares the role with Mexican tenor David Lomeli, winner of the Placido Domingo Operalia in 2006.
The winter season begins with a revival of the COC production of Tosca, last seen locally in 2008. Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, who has sung the role previously in San Francisco and Los Angeles, is Tosca. Partnering her will be Carlo Ventre as Cavaradossi, sharing the role with the exciting young Brazilian tenor Thiago Arancam. Those who witness the latter's Operalia success at Quebec City two years ago will look forward to the chance to see him. Soprano Julie Makerov, last seen as Senta, returns as the alternate Tosca. Italian conductor Paolo Carignani, a frequent guest at the Met and Frankfurt, makes his COC debut. The other show in the winter season is Kaija Saariaho's Love From Afar, originally titled L'amour de loin. Russell Braun sings Jaufre Rudel, a role created by the great Canadian baritone Gerald Finley. Seen eight years ago at Santa Fe with Finley, Dawn Upshaw and Monica Groop, I found the piece musically strong but the production visually and aesthetically icy. I'm glad we'll be getting the highly regarded ENO and Vlaamse Opera production. Soprano Erin Wall is Clemence and Krisztina Szabo the Pilgrim.
The spring season starts with The Tales of Hoffmann. The most significant company debut here will be bass John Relyea as the Three Villains. The son of Canadian bass Gary Relyea, John Relyea is considered a basso cantante of the highest order. The three heroines will be Andriana Chuchman (Olympia), Erin Wall (Antonia), and Keri Alkema (Giulietta). (Who assumes the non-singing role of Stella is anyone's guess) The excellent mezzo Lauren Segal is Nicklausse. Debus conducts his third and final production of the season. Perhaps the most intriguing offering is the double-bill of A Florentine Tragedy by Alexander Zemlinsky and Gianni Schicchi - a most unusual pairing! American bass Alan Held makes a long awaited COC debut as Simone and Schicchi. Sir Andrew Davis conducts, and retired American soprano Catherine Malfitano directs. The season's final production is Handel's Semele, starring Canadian coloratura and former Ensemble Studio member Jane Archibald in the title role. The COC pushes the artistic envelope by engaging Chinese sculptor/performance artist Zhang Huan as director. He will incorporate a strong Chinese element onto Semele - an extremely bold move that has received kudos elsewhere.
There you have it - an intriguing and eclectic season to be sure. In a seven-opera season, there will be major omissions. For me, a season without Wagner and Strauss leaves a void, but the opportunity to see A Florentine Tragedy is at least partial compensation. One does get rather tired of warhorses like Rigoletto or Tosca, but with the wonderful Adrianne Pieczonka returning as the Roman diva, I'm not complaining. In any case, we all know it's the warhorses that are paying the bills so we can have more adventurous programming like A Florentine Tragedy and Saariaho's L'amour de loin. These are two of the most important contemporary works - although calling Zemlinsky 'contemporary' is stretching it - but these are acquired tastes. Supporters of 'Made in Canada' creations won't be happy with the lack of Canadian works. For me, my priority would be to stage some of the great pieces in the standard repertoire that have never been done in Canada - Tannhauser, Parsifal and Die Frau ohne Schatten come readily to mind...and maybe followed by Schreker's Die Gezeichneten, or Henze's Boulevard Solitude. Hey, I can dream, can't I?