La Scena Musicale

Friday, 30 September 2011

COC Rigoletto Combines Superb Singing with Idiosyncratic Staging

Bottom: COC Rigoletto (seated center: Dimitri Pittas, Mireille Asselin; right standing: Quinn Kelsey) Photo: Michael Cooper

Top: Ekaterina Sadovnikova, Quinn Kelsey (Photo: Michael Cooper)

by Joseph K. So

Verdi: Rigoletto

Quinn Kelsey (Rigoletto)
Ekaterina Sadovnikova (Gilda)
Dimitri Pittas (Duke)
Phillip Ens (Sparafucile)
Kendall Gladen (Maddalena)
Robert Pomakov (Monterone)
Megan Latham (Giovanna)

Johannes Debus, conductor
COC Orchestra and Chorus

September 29, 2011 7:30 p.m.

The COC fall season continued last evening with the premiere of its second production, Verdi's Rigoletto at the Four Seasons Centre. It is a "new" co-production between the COC and ENO, although this Christopher Alden-Michael Levine Rigoletto actually had its genesis in the 2000 Lyric Opera of Chicago. At the time, it generated a great deal of controversy from the media and angry responses from the more conservative patrons at LOC. It is telling that Chicago abandoned this Regie-driven production when Rigoletto was revived in 2006, replaced by a much more traditional take on the Verdi warhorse. Given that the COC has increasingly moved toward the Regieoper aesthetic, would this production be more favorably received in Toronto? Like everyone else, I was curious.

Contrary to the austere and abstract approach of Carsen's Iphigenie currently (and his Orfeo last spring) with their timeless quality, this Rigoletto has an opulent period set designed by Michael Levine. It appears to have been time-shifted from the Italian Renaissance to late Victorian period. The unit set depicts what Christopher Alden describes as "the gaming room" - a sort of men's club for the privileged, a space that symbolizes "power, control, and domination," one that corrupts the male participants in a society that subjugates women. Alden, in the Director's Notes, suggests that Rigoletto is unable to separate his public life (as a participant in the power game) and his private life (as a loving father to Gilda). Thus the major theme in his concept is male dominance and chauvinism, a fair enough observation of European society in the historic past. But would this overriding concept be sufficient to sustain an opera with a complex story and plenty of action?

As the curtain rises, Rigoletto is sleeping on a comfy armchair while the opera proceeds on stage with him immobile downstage on the right. This bit of staging suggests that the action on stage is but a dream of Rigoletto. The unit set hugs the three sides, making the staging area the biggest I've seen of any production at the FSC. This is problematic as a lot of scenes that require intimacy are awkwardly staged, given that there is no rotating platform. Hampered by this immovable unit set, unresolved actions as required by the story are simply avoided by someone drawing a black curtain across the width of the stage. In short, this production cries out for eye-popping stagecraft rather than something as low-tech and lame as a black curtain. More importantly, I find this production to be quite a distortion of the libretto, rendering it at times illogical and incoherent. There are just too many silly directorial touches. The Duke clutching a cushion to his crotch while singing his aria elicited laughs of derision from the audience. Same thing for making Giovanna more than the routine comprimaria. I agree that a warhorse like Rigoletto can do with some "freshening up" but any concept production is supposed to illuminate the music and the text, and to give us fresh insights into the story. There are moments when the text does not match the action on stage. So I have to say Alden's concept have not achieved these goals. At least compared to Carsen's Orfeo and Iphigenie, this Rigoletto doesn't work nearly as well.

If there are reservations in terms of the production, there aren't any when it comes to the musical side of things. On opening night, top vocal honours went to the magnificent Rigoletto of Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey. What a voice! He has beauty of tone, ample dramatic intensity, volume without resorting to pushing, youthful timbre, and most of all , his is an authentic Verdi baritone, a rare breed. His Rigoletto recalls none other than a young Louis Quilico. A big guy, he's quite free with his body. Unlike many heavyset opera singers, Kelsey is not afraid to throw himself around the stage, fall down etc. I hope he will come back to the COC - voices like that don't grow on trees. Also making a big impression was Russian soprano Ekaterina Sadovnikova, who fully encompassed the role of Gilda vocally and dramatically, singing with lovely high pianissimos, and no traces of the pronounced vibrato and metallic timbre that are common in Slavic voices. Her 'Caro nome' was particularly lovely. As the Duke, American tenor Dimitri Pittas sang with ringing tone and Italianate timbre. If one were to nitpick, he skipped a couple of high options. But it was an exciting performance and he was well applauded. Canadian bass Phillip Ens was evil incarnate as Sparafucile, a role he must have sung a hundred times. American mezzo Kendall Gladen was a suitably sultry, Carmen-like Maddalena, despite some hollow low notes. Bass Robert Pomakov as Monterone is luxury casting, showing once again he is a fine character singer with an unusually fine voice. COC Music Director Johannes Debus defied typecasting as a German opera specialist by bringing idiomatic style, verve and excitement to the Italian repertoire. The men's chorus under Sandra Horst was its usual excellent self. No, this isn't a Rigoletto for the ages, and I wouldn't want this to be anyone's first exposure to this work. Fans of concept productions will find this intriguing, but personally I prefer something that allows the audience some freedom of interpretation.

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Thursday, 29 September 2011

Inaugural COC Orchestra Chamber Series Honours Richard Bradshaw

COC Orchestra Chamber Group playing Mozart's Quintet for Clarinet and Strings K581 (l. to r.) Marie Berard, Sandra Baron, Francis Kefford, Bryan Epperson, James Shields (Photo: Tracy Kay)

by Joseph K. So

Tribute to Richard Bradshaw

Debussy: Syrinx (Douglas Stewart, flute)
Puccini: Crisantemi (Marie Berard, violin; Sandra Baron, violin; Francis Kefford, viola; Bryan Epperson, cello)
Mozart: Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, K. 581 (James Shields, clarinet; Marie Berard, violin; Sandra Baron, violin; Francis Kefford, viola; Bryan Epperson, cello)

Introductions by Johannes Debus, COC Music Director and Scott Irvine, Tuba

Sept. 27, 2011 noon

Among the many legacies of the late COC General Director Richard Bradshaw is the excellent orchestra which he was instrumental in shaping over the many years of his tenure. Hidden in the pit, we often take these marvelous musicians for granted. When Bradshaw was alive, he made a point of having orchestral concerts - often with singers though not always - that give these terrific musicians who normally toiled away down in the nether regions an opportunity to shine on stage. The tradition of putting on these enjoyable concerts at George Weston Hall or Glenn Gould Studio is unfortunately a thing of the past, but it doesn't have to be! Hopefully this new COC Orchestra Chamber Series will signal a return - however modest - to showcasing our talented orchestra. The current COC Music Director Johannes Debus was on hand to introduce the concert, followed by Scott Irvine, principal Tuba, who reminisced touchingly about Bradshaw, and announced the beginning of the new Chamber Series.

The program began with a Debussy solo piece, Syrinx, played by Principal Flute Douglas Stewart. (Irvine told the audience that Pelleas et Melisande was Richard's favourite opera) Playing from a landing on the stairs, the sound magically filled the airy space. This was followed by Puccini's Crisentemi, with its theme the composer later recycled for an intermezzo in Manon Lescaut. I heard this piece played last season by a reduced Toronto Symphony Orchestra. That was lovely but hearing it as a quartet is a totally different experience, the poignancy of the work greatly enhanced in an intimate arrangement.

The centerpiece of the concert was the Mozart Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, K.581. One of the most melodically inspired piece Mozart ever composed, the musicians played it divinely, allowing the inherent elegance and nobility of the work to shine through. I must single out the terrific clarinet of James Shields, the new Principal Clarinet of the Orchestra. Listening to the magnificent first movement with its awe-inspiring melodies, to my surprise I had a lump in my throat, thinking to myself - surely this is music of the angels! With only three pieces, the concert was unfortunately a little short, as there was no encore. It's totally understandable since the Orchestra was extremely busy with Iphigenie and Rigoletto running simultaneously. Let's hope this auspicious beginning is the first of many chamber concerts to come.

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Monday, 26 September 2011

This Week in Toronto (Sept. 26 - Oct. 2)

Late COC General Director Richard Bradshaw (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Can it really have been four years already? To be exact - four years, one month and eleven days, since the unexpected passing of former Canadian Opera Company General Director Richard Bradshaw on August 15, 2007? Toronto opera lovers will be forever indebted to him for his vision and faith in our fair city. While others failed, he persevered and was instrumental in the building of our first purpose-built opera house, the Four Seasons Centre. Tomorrow (Tuesday Sept. 27), there will be a Tribute to Richard Bradshaw, taking place appropriately at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at the Four Seasons Centre. His successor Johannes Debus, Music Director of the COC, will lead a program of chamber pieces beloved by Bradshaw, performed by members of the COC Orchestra. While poignant, this will be a celebration of his life and work. Be sure to get there at least an hour early for a seat.

The second production of the COC fall season, the Verdi warhorse Rigoletto, opens on Thursday Sept. 29 7:30 p.m. for a total of twelve performances. All the principals are double-cast, with Russian soprano Ekaterina Sadovnikova making her COC debut as Gilda. She has previously sung the role at Covent Garden to great reviews. It's a very interesting and big voice with a brilliant top and a solid middle and lower registers. Here is a clip of Sadovnikova singing part of the Lucia Mad Scene from La Fenice - Another clip features her Caro nome - These videos are filmed from the audience and the conditions far from ideal, but you still get a sense of how striking her voice is. Alternating with her is Canadian soprano Simone Osborne in her first Gilda. Dimitri Pittas and David Lomeli alternate as the Duke. Quinn Kelsey and Lester Lynch share duties as Rigoletto. COC Music Director Johannes Debus conducts. Performances this week on Sept. 29, 30, and Oct. 2. Meanwhile, Iphigenia in Tauris continues on Sept. 28 and Oct. 1. I saw opening night and it was a truly memorable performance, with great singing, imaginative stage direction, and incisive conducting.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is in full swing this week, with three concerts featuring the great Emanuel Ax playing Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1. It's paired with Brahms' Symphony No. 1 conducted by Peter Oundjian. Very interesting is the appearance of the new TSO Concertmaster Jonathan Crow as soloist in Beethoven's Romance No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra. Some of you may have heard him briefly at the Toronto Summer Music Festival; now is the first opportunity to hear him in depth. Performances on Sept. 29, Oct. 1 and 2.

The Royal Conservatory of Music is presenting a free concert at Koerner Hall on Friday Sept. 30 starring piano wunderkind Jan Lisiecki playing Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2. The program also includes Wagner's Overture to Flying Dutchman and Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Uri Mayer conducts. I understand that all free tickets have been given away, alas! However do try for returns... you never know!

Opera in Concert usually presents, as the name says, operas in concert format, mostly with piano and about once a year with orchestra. It is breaking with tradition this season by presenting L'accordeonist's Latin Heat. This group stars mezzo Kimberly Barber, pianist Peter Tiefenbach, l'accordionista Mary-Lou Vetere, and percussionist Carol Baumann. They are all superbly trained classical musicians who are doing something different. I attended their CD launch in May 2010 and can attest to the fact that they are wonderful. Sunday 2:30 p.m. at the Jane Mallett Theatre.