La Scena Musicale

Friday, 26 October 2012

Harlem Duet at the Segal Centre

By Rebecca Clark 

Harlem Duet, by Canadian Djanet Sears, is a witty, compelling and provocative play that explores the complex and often uncomfortable issues of race, identity, jealousy, and the expression thereof in terms of dichotomies – or, if you will, duets. And it’s the kind of uncomfortable that makes you smarter.

A “non-chronological prequel” to Shakespeare’s Othello, Harlem Duet tells the modern-day story of Billie, whose dreams of life with her partner in Harlem’s “sea of black faces” are shattered when Othello abandons her for the younger and whiter Mona. Racial issues are as contentious as personal injuries as the ex-couple divide their possessions and argue opposing ways of expressing their identities. The couples’ earlier days are expressed in flashbacks through a historical lens, as idealistic slaves in the 1860s planning to run away to a life together, and as a jaded couple struggling with broken dreams in the Vaudeville era. Though supported by her sassy landlady Magi and wise sister-in-law Amah, and finally her estranged father, Billie becomes unbalanced and consumed by the desire for revenge.

Local talent Lucinda Davis delivers a spectacular knockout performance in the demanding role of Billie, and supporting actresses Neema Bickersteth and Liana Montoro provide warmth and levity. At the Segal Centre until November 11, Harlem Duet is not to be missed.

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Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Aleksandra Kurzak Sings Chopin Songs

Tomorrow (Oct. 17) marks the passing of the great Polish composer Frederic Chopin in 1849. He was of course known as a great composer for the piano, but his many songs with piano accompaniment are exquisite and allow the listener a glimpse into the soul of the Polish people.  To remember Chopin, here are three songs sung by Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak, one of the loveliest of soprano voices  in front of the public today. Her timbre is very reminiscent of a young Teresa Zylis-Gara, a great Polish soprano of the previous generation.

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Sunday, 14 October 2012

This Week in Toronto (Oct. 15 - 21)

Russian violinist Maxim Vengerov returns to Toronto Symphony Orchestra 
(Photo: Simon Fowler)

A highly anticipated event this week is the return of the great Russian violinist Maxim Venerov to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, this time playing the ever-popular Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Vengerov has been devoting more of his energies to conducting than playing the solo violin in the last few years, partly as a result of an injury he sustained.  So it's great to have him back healthy and as a soloist. In addition to the Tchaikovsky, Venergov will play the violin and conduct Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. Shalom Bard, the young conductor recently appointed the RBC Resident Conductor of the TSO is making his debut with this concert. Saturday Oct. 20 8 pm, with a pre-concert chat in the north Lobby with Rick Philips at 7:15 pm. Also in town this week is the brilliant young pianist Lise de la Salle, for Ravel's virtuosic Piano Concerto in G Major. It's paired with Sibelius Symphony No. 2, under the baton of guest conductor Douglas Boyd. Two performances at the Roy Thomson Hall -  Wed. Oct. 17 at 8 pm and Thurs. Oct. 18 at 2 pm.  

Opera Atelier, Canada's baroque opera company, is venturing into unknown territory this fall. It's production of Weber's Der Freischutz represents the Company's first foray into the German Romantic repertoire.  This work has received a few concert performances over the years, including one featuring Canadian tenor Paul Frey way back in the 90's, but to my knowledge this is the first full staging.  Croatian tenor Kresimir Spicer returns as Max, and rising soprano Meghan Lindsay sings Agathe.  Carla Huhtanen is her companion Aanchen.  Another OA regular, baritone Vasil Garvanliev, is Kaspar. David Fallis leads the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra in six performances at the Elgin Theatre Oct. 27 - Nov. 3 

The two productions of the Canadian Opera Company fall season continue this week, with Die Fledermaus on Oct. 17 and 20. The role of Adele is shared by two excellent sopranos in the Ensemble, Ambur Braid and Mireille Asselin.  Asselin is singing on Oct. 17 and Braid on Oct. 20. The rest of the excellent cast remains unchanged. Johannes Debus leads the COC Orchestra and Chorus. If Verdi is more your cup of tea, be sure to catch performances of Il Trovatore starring the fabulous Leonora of soprano Elza van den Heever and tenor Ramon Vargas on Oct. 19 and 21.  All performances at Four Seasons Centre with start time of 7:30 except for the Sunday matinee which begins at 2 pm. Four of the former COC Ensemble Studio singers currently in town to sing (or cover) the two productions are giving a noon-hour concert at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre on Tuesday, Oct. 16.  Soprano Ileana Montalbetti, baritones Peter Barrett and James Westman, and bass Robert Gleadow will sing arias and duets, as well as reminisce about their times in the Ensemble.  This event is not to be missed, and be sure to show up early to get a seat.

Pianist Paul Lewis makes his Toronto debut on October 18

On the piano front, a very important event is the appearance of the wonderful British pianist Paul Lewis on October 18 in recital under the auspices of Women's Musical Club of Toronto. He is currently on a North American tour, with additional dates in Alice Tully Hall in New York, Portland Oregon and Vancouver. Lewis will play three Schubert Sonatas. Any pianophile should not miss this recital. Performance at Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building of the University of Toronto.

The University of Toronto Faculty of Music (Opera Division) is presenting a free concert of opera scenes, Songs of Love and War, on Oct. 18 1 pm at the Music Room of Hart House. On the program are scene from the baroque repertoire conducted by Kevin Mallon and staged by Tim Albery.

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Friday, 12 October 2012

COC Ensemble Studio Fledermaus Excerpts a Delight

Final Bow (l. to r. ) Cameron McPhail, Jenna Douglas, Timothy Cheung, Sasha Djihanian, Owen McCausland, Christopher Enns, Ileana Montalbetti, Ambur Braid, Rihab Chaieb (photographer: Karen Reeves)

Madcap Moments: Highlights from Die Fledermaus 

by Joseph So

Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Thursday October 11 noon

Christopher Enns (Eisenstein)
Cameron McPhail (Dr. Falke / Frank)
Ileana Montalbetti (Rosalinda)
Owen McCausland (Dr. Blind / Alfred)
Rihab Chaieb (Orlofsky)
Ambur Braid (Adele)
Sasha Djihanian (Ida)
Jenna Douglas / Timothy Cheung (pianists)

"Komm mit mir zum Souper" (Eisenstein / Falke)
"Nein, mit solchen Advokaten (Eisenstein / Rosalinda / Dr. Blind)
"Ich lade gern mir Gaste ein" (Orlofsky)
"So muss allein ich bleiben" (Adele / Rosalinda / Einstein)
"Spiel' ich die Unschuld vom Lande" (Adele / Frank / Ida)
"Klange der Heimat" (Rosalinda)
"Ich stehe voll Zagen" (Rosalinda / Alfred / Eisenstein)
"Im Feuerstrom der Reben" (Company)

Of all the Viennese operettas, Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus, together with Die lustige Witwe, are the two most performed on this side of the Atlantic. Given that the Strauss was last seen at the COC a long twenty-one years ago, it's high time for a revival. The new production currently running at the Four Seasons Centre has great singing, backed by a terrific sounding orchestra and chorus all under the helm of COC Music Director Johannes Debus.  Many of the young Ensemble Studio artists are covering the principal roles, so unless someone gets sick, we normally won't get to hear them during the run. (That is with the exception of sopranos Ambur Braid and Mireille Asselin, who are sharing the starring role of the saucy maid Adele)  So it's great to have this noon hour Highlights concert at the Amphitheatre, with these young singers showing what they can do. 
It's amazing how much music can fit into an hour!  Without dialogue, the artists performed eight numbers, some of them extended scenes. With the exception of the Csardas and Adele's "Spiel' ich die Unschuld vom Lande" in Act Three, all the selections were ensemble pieces.  
Christopher Enns (Eisenstein) and Ileana Montalbetti (Rosalinda) Photo: Karen Reeves

It was apparent right from the start that everyone was extremely well prepared and well rehearsed musically and dramatically. Collectively they gave a totally polished performance, one that would not be out of place on the mainstage. This was tenor Christopher Enns' first appearance this season since he was ill and didn't participate in the Introduction to the Ensemble concert a few weeks ago. Instead of the originally assignment of Alfred, Enns is covering Eisenstein during the run. He sang his three ensemble pieces with nice tone and a real flair for comedy. Baritone Cameron McPhail, who made a strong impression last time out with Valentin's "Avant de quitter ces lieux," was a terrific Dr. Falke, his powerful high baritone sounding great in that space. The opening phrases of "Bruderlein, Schwesterlein" ensemble from Act Two was sung with mellow tone and nice expression. McPhail is definitely a singer to watch.  Dressed for the trouser role complete with cigarette and ash tray, mezzo Rihab Chaieb was an excellent Orlofsky, commanding the stage with authority.  Arguably Strauss was at his least inspired with the yodeling, throw-away melody in "Chacon a son gout" - it's hard to make those rapidly attacked high A-flats at the top of the mezzo range without sounding shrieky. But if one considers Strauss was actually mocking Orlofsky here, then it makes a lot of sense. Chaieb sang the ungrateful aria beautifully. 

Currently at the COC covering Rosalinda, ensemble Studio alumna Ileana Montalbetti has the right vocal weight and timbre for this role. She is a dramatically scintillating Rosalinda and sang well, her big, bright soprano making a statement in the ensembles.  In the Csardas, she let rip a knock 'em dead high C sharp at the end, though in the rest of the aria, one would have preferred a little less steeliness. Ambur Braid, whose Adele was extremely well received on opening night, repeated it with lazer-beam high notes and scenery-chewing melodrama.  Given that the tenor antics in Acts One and Three were omitted, Owen McCausland (Alfred) didn't get a lot to do, but he managed to seize the few moments in the spotlight, singing with firm, ringing tone. The same can be said for soprano Sasha Djihanian (Ida) who had even less opportunity to shine.  I do recall her impressive Act One aria from Manon in the last concert, and I am sure there'll be plenty of opportunities for us to hear her in the future. Jenna Douglas and Timothy Cheung, the two Ensemble Studio coach/pianists were called upon to speak as well as play, and they did it all with consummate skill and aplomb. All in all an enjoyable concert, and I look forward to many more to come.  

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Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Ramon Vargas and Ludovic Tezier Sing Duet from Verdi's Don Carlos

Giuseppe Verdi (October 10 1813 - January 27 1901)

Tomorrow marks the great Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi's birthday 199 years ago. Given that the 2012-13 opera season falls into his bicentennial year, opera houses around the world are staging his works.  The Canadian Opera Company is putting on Il Trovatore this fall, starring Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas in his first-ever Manrico. Here is Vargas singing another one of his 13 Verdi roles, Don Carlos. This video clip is taken from a 2007 live concert from Baden-Baden.  The Rodrigo is French baritone Ludovic Tezier.

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This Week in Toronto (Oct. 8 - 14)

COC Ensemble Studio 2012 Edition: (l. to r.) Jenna Douglas, Timothy Cheung, Sasha Djihanian, Cameron McPhail, Ambur Braid, Rihab Chaieb, Mireille Asselin, Owen McCausland, Neil Craighead, Claire de Sevigny  (Absent: Christopher Enns) (Photo: Chris Hutcheson)

With the Canadian Opera Company  fall season in full swing this week. audiences get a chance to not just hear the stars in leading roles, but also the excellent COC Ensemble Studio members singing their hearts out in supporting roles - and in the case of sopranos Ambur Braid and Mireille Asselin, in the starring role of the saucy maid Adele in Die Fledermaus.  I attended opening night and can attest that Braid wowed the audience and received huge applause after her "Laughing Song" and at the final curtain. It underscores the enormous talents in the 2012 COC Ensemble Studio.  Every one of these artists can step onto the mainstage and do a terrific job.  They all have cover roles in the current two productions, and on Thursday, we'll get to see what they can do! Six of the nine current Ensemble singers - plus alumna Ileana Montalbetti as Rosalinda, will participate in excerpts from Die Fledermaus,  Tenor Christopher Enns, who didn't sing in the earlier introduction to the Ensemble concert due to illness, will be Eisenstein. I can't speak more highly about this year's Ensemble, and this is a really worthwhile concert to attend for a sampling of the voices of tomorrow. Here is a link to the program -  Be sure to line up an hour ahead for a seat at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. For those of you yet to see Il Trovatore and Die Fledermaus, I can honestly say both shows are fabulous, featuring great singing, fantastic orchestra and chorus. Two performances of  Il Trovatore on Oct. 10 and 13, and Die Fledermaus on Oct. 12 and 14 this week.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is presenting two programs this week at Roy Thomson Hall.  TSO principal pops conductor Steven Reineke returns to conduct Some Enchanted Evening: The Music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, with selection from The Sound of Music, The King and I, Oklahoma, Carousel, and South Pacific. Joining him will be soprano Ashley Brown, tenor Aaron Lazar, baritone Jonathan Estabrooks, the Orpheus Choir of Toronto and the U of T MacMillan Singers.  Three shows - Tues Oct. 9 and Wed. Oct. 10 at 8 pm, plus a matinee on Wed. at 2 pm at Roy Thomson Hall.  On Saturday Oct. 13 at 7:30 pm and Sunday Oct. 14 at 3 pm, the TSO presents Whirlwind of Music, a mixed program of chestnuts by Mendelssohn, Vivaldi, Rossini, Mozart, and Beethoven. Joshua Weilerstein leads the TS forces, with soloists Joaquin Valdepenas (clarinet), Yao Guang Zhai (clarinet) and Michael Sweeney (bassoon).

Soundstreams is in its 30th season this year, and given the milestone, its opening show is more festive than ever. It features works by R. Murray Schafer, Steve Reich and Arvo Part. Before and after the performance as well as during the intermission, there will be young artists showing their stuff in the lobby! The proceedings begin at 7 pm with a pre-concert chat with Omar Daniel and his new work for voice and live interactive electronics in the lobby. Thursday October 11 8 pm at Koerner Hall

The University of Toronto Faculty of Music is presenting Femme Fatale: The Operettas of Jacques Offenbach on Sunday Oct. 14 at 2:30 pm. This is an "Opera Tea" in which you get an afternoon of opera and tea on the theatre stage!  I attended one some years ago and it was great fun. It takes place at the MacMillan Theatre in the Edward John Building, University of Toronto. The singers are all young artists at the U of T Opera Division.

Later in the evening, the Esprit Orchestra is presenting The Tuning of the World, an evening of contemporary music performing the works of R. Murray Schafer, John Rea, Alexina Louie, Iannis Xenakis, and Colin McPhee. It also features chanting group from R. Murray Schafer's wilderness project And Wolf Shall Inherit the Moon.  Sunday Oct. 14 8 pm at Koerner Hall.

The Off-Centre Music Salon, now in its 18th season, is presenting its Annual Schubertiad on Sunday Oct. 14 2 pm at the Glenn Gould Studio. Pianist Boris Zarankin plays Schubert's final piano Sonata in B flat major. Soprano Allison Angelo and tenor Lawrence Wiliford sing Schubert lieder.

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Johannes Debus Renews Contract as COC Music Director


Toronto  Canadian Opera Company General Director Alexander Neef is pleased to announce that Music Director Johannes Debus has signed a new contract with the COC that extends his tenure as Music Director through the 2016/2017 season.  Debus joined the COC at the start of the 2009/2010 season with a contract that would have him with the company through 2012/2013.

“I am extremely pleased that Johannes has agreed to an extension of his contract as Music Director.  He brings such energy, talent and leadership to our company,” says COC General Director Alexander Neef.  “His musicianship is faultless.  There is no limit to the possibilities he can help us explore and the artistic heights we can reach within the environment that he has created with the orchestra and chorus.  We are lucky to have him and even luckier that he has decided to stay on for several more years.”

“I was incredibly honoured to be offered the position of Music Director in 2009 and I’m delighted that the extension of my contract will allow me to stay on with the COC for another four seasons,” says Music Director Johannes Debus.  “This is a company bursting at the seams with people committed to the operatic art form and always striving to achieve the very best that is possible to produce.” 

“The COC Orchestra is for me a unique ensemble.  They are very generous artists of exceptional skill who allow conductors to be better than we might think we are. These extraordinary players combine incredible musicianship with an enormous willingness to express and explore the music beyond what we all know and are accustomed to.  For them, as it is for me, it is about serving the art of the music,” says Debus.  On the subject of the COC Chorus, he adds, “From the first moment that I was introduced to the COC Chorus in the fall of 2008 when I conducted War and Peace, I was very impressed.  This group of singers is filled with amazing voices and great musicianship and artistry.  They bring an incredible enthusiasm and commitment to their craft.”

As Music Director, Debus is the leader of the COC Orchestra, responsible for conducting several operas per season, as well as overseeing the orchestra; including participating in auditions and filling open orchestra positions.  Debus also works closely with the COC Chorus and the Ensemble Studio, and, as an integral member of the artistic administrative team, he shares responsibility for repertoire and casting decisions. 

Last season, Debus took on the role of curating a mini-festival of four concerts featuring members of the COC Orchestra, in various combinations, offered as part of the COC’s Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.  Last season’s mini-festival proved very popular.  The COC Orchestra returns for a second season to the Free Concerts Series, and gives their first of five concerts on October 25, 2012.

Debus made his debut with the COC in the fall of 2008 conducting the company’s critically-acclaimed production of War and Peace, and began his appointment as the COC’s Music Director in the 2009/2010 season.  Since then, he has conducted the COC’s Diamond Anniversary Celebration in 2009 and the company’s productions of The Flying DutchmanAidaThe Magic Flute,RigolettoLove from Afar and The Tales of Hoffmann, as well as The Nightingale at Other Short Fables at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Born in 1974 in Speyer, Germany, Debus has established a reputation for himself in many of the great opera houses and festivals of Europe.  As the former resident conductor for the Frankfurt Opera, where he also worked as pianist, coach and assistant conductor for over 10 years, Debus gained an impressive conducting repertoire ranging from Mozart to Berg, and Rossini to Strauss, as well as many 20th- and 21st- century works.  In August 2012 he made his Cleveland Orchestra debut with A Night at the Opera at the Blossom Festival.  Debus made his Tanglewood Festival debut in 2010 conducting The Abduction from the Seraglio with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and subsequently appeared at Symphony Hall, again with the BSO.  He recently conducted Elektraand The Rake’s Progress at Staatsoper unter den Linden in Berlin.  Debus has also appeared at the Spoleto Festival, Bayerische Staatsoper, Festival d’opéra de Québec and the Merola Opera Program at San Francisco Opera.

Johannes Debus’s new contract extends his tenure with the Canadian Opera Company through to the end of June 30, 2017.  The COC’s 2012/2013 season marks Debus’s fourth as Music Director.

About the Canadian Opera Company
Based in Toronto, the Canadian Opera Company is the largest producer of opera in Canada and one of the largest in North America.  The COC enjoys a loyal audience support-base and one of the highest attendance and subscription rates in North America.  Under its leadership team of General Director Alexander Neef and Music Director Johannes Debus, the COC is increasingly capturing the opera world’s attention.  The COC maintains its international reputation for artistic excellence and creative innovation by creating new productions within its diverse repertoire, collaborating with leading opera companies and festivals, and attracting the world’s foremost Canadian and international artists.  The COC performs in its own opera house, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, hailed internationally as one of the finest in the world.  Designed by Diamond Schmitt Architects, the Four Seasons Centre opened in 2006, and is also the performance venue for The National Ballet of Canada.  For more information on the COC, visit its award-winning website,

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Sunday, 7 October 2012

COC Presents a Provocatively Original Die Fledermaus

COC  Die Fledermaus (l. to r.) Ambur Braid, Peter Barrett, James Westman, Laura Tucker (photo: Chris Hutcheson)

Johann Strauss II : Die Fledermaus
Canadian Opera Company, Four Seasons Centre
October 4, 2012

Michael Schade (Eisenstein)
Tamara Wilson (Rosalinda)
Ambur Braid (Adele)
David Pomeroy (Alfred)
Peter Barrett (Dr. Falke)
Laura Tucker (Prince Orlofsky)
James Westman (Frank)
David Cangelosi (Dr. Blind)
Claire de Sevigne (Ida)
Jan Pohl (Frosch)

Johannes Debus, conductor
Christopher Alden, director
Allen Moyer, set designer
Constance Hoffman, costume designer

by Joseph So

On Thursday evening, the ever-frothy Johann Strauss chestnut Die Fledermaus returned to the Canadian Opera Company after a long absence. Last seen in 1991 in an English translation near the end of the Brian Dickie era, it was an entirely traditional and also entirely forgettable production. Given that it is the 15th most popular opera in the the world, with a total of 285 performances worldwide the last six seasons according to statistics maintained by Operabase, it's high time for a revival. 

Unlike the generic treatment 21 years ago, this time around The Bat has received a complete makeover in the hands of stage director Christopher Alden.  Mr. Alden is no stranger to the COC, given his cutting edge productions of Rigoletto and Die fliegende Hollander for the Company. As with anything directed by him, this Fledermaus is provocative and edgy, challenging the notion that the good old Viennese operetta, like a good Kaffee, is best served mit Schlag - oh, and don't spare the sugar.  Snooping around the underbelly of the Viennese bourgeoisie, Alden's vision is unquestionably dark. But unlike the gratuitous - and much unloved - Hans Neuenfels production for Salzburg some years ago, Alden' concept expands the boundaries of the story through a nifty time-shifting to Vienna in the 1920's, the era of Freud and Psychoanalysis, and the rise of National Socialism. Dreams, nightmares, hypnosis and subconscious sexuality figure prominently - the long overture is turned into an erotic yet nightmarish dream by Rosalinda. Dr. Falke, transformed into a Dracula-like character complete with bat wings, hovers around controlling her at every turn. Adele the maid becomes a rather sinister figure, under the erotic control of Falke. The set design by Allen Moyer is handsome, uncluttered, yet strangely unsettling.  Act One is dominated by Rosalinda's bed and an oppressive wall paper pattern, Act Two by a staircase to nowhere, and Act Three by the grim-looking prison wall. Presiding throughout the opera is the gigantic pocket watch, suspended from the top of the stage. Given the psychological underpinnings of  this production, the sparseness works well, the downside of having Rosalinda sing her Csardas to an empty stage notwithstanding.    

An intriguing re-write involves Frank, the Prison Warden.  This minor role has been transformed into a newly liberated cross-dresser and a source of much merriment. It proves to be a star turn for Canadian baritone James Westman, a notable Sharpless, Germont and di Luna, all ultra-serious roles. His Frank shows an unexpected comic flair and it underscores the adage - slightly revised - that "there are no small roles, just small singers." The most significant departure in Alden's vision is in Act Three. With the firing of the pistols by the police, the arrest of all the party-goers and lining them up against the wall, the mood turns from frivolity to something much more somber and sinister, despite the antics of Frank, Alfred and company.  Given the dark undercurrents, many in the audience on opening night didn't quite know if they should laugh at some of the rather heavy-handed humor. Frosch's militaristic break-dancing routine, or Frank kissing him on the mouth drew mostly gasps or quiet giggles around me. The "blame it on the champagne" ending seems forced under the circumstances.  Hats off to Alden for coming up with a highly original vision, but there's no getting around the fact that comedy and fascism makes strange bedfellows.

If there are divided opinions about the production, musically opening night was a triumph. The voices were wonderful, led by the Rosalinda of Tamara Wilson who displayed a beautiful soprano with excellent coloratura and a secure top, all the way up to a C sharp in the Csardas. She was Amelia and Elettra previously for the COC, but Rosalinda is her best work yet.  She moved extremely well onstage and was fully up to the physical demands of the staging, including finishing the Csardas all the while climbing the steep staircase to the top. Michael Schade, a seasoned Alfred, sang his first Eisenstein, and it turned out to be a great role for his voice and his personality. David Pomeroy has just the right touch of tenorial pomposity to be a likable Alfred - and he seemed to enjoy showing off his voice in snippets from La traviata, Madama Butterly, even Fidelio!  As Adele, COC Ensemble Studio soprano Ambur Braid sang well and exuded star power. Her maid isn't a particularly lovable creature but it goes with the concept well.  The makeup department did such an amazing job on Peter Barrett (Dr. Falke) that he was all but unrecognizable if it weren't for his beautiful baritone. Kudos to Barrett for his high-wire act, something that would have struck fear in the hearts of every acrophobe.  

Ambur Braid (Adele) making her grand entrance in Act Two (Photo: Michael Cooper)

The big surprise was James Westman, returning to the COC as Frank, an essentially comprimario role. With the extensive re-write, Westman has turned this character to a starring role. Mezzo Laura Tucker, last heard at the COC eight years ago as one of the Valkyries in Die Walkure, made a welcome return as Orlofsky. Character tenor David Cangelosi also returned to the COC, this time as Dr. Blind, and Jan Pohl was a weirdly fascinating Frosch.  COC Music Director Johannes Debus is the right man for the job. Right from the opening bars of the very long overture, he conducted with energy and incisiveness, elegant in his phrasing, with every rubato in place but without schmaltzy sentimentality.  As usual, the COC chorus was marvelous, and they likely enjoyed wearing the fantastic costumes. Unlike 21 years ago, everything is in German this time, including extensive dialogues which everyone executed with aplomb and perfect diction, thanks to the good work of language coach Adi Braun.  Perhaps this production would not be the best choice for the Fledermaus newbies. However, for those old hands in this warhose, the directorial twist makes it so interesting that even Prince Orlofsky wouldn't have been bored.

Act Three (l. to r.) Tamara Wilson, Michael Schade, David Pomeroy (Photo: Chris Hutcheson)

Die Fledermaus opened October 4 with 10 more performances from Oct. 9 to Nov. 3 at the Four Seasons Centre, Toronto.

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Monday, 1 October 2012

This Week in Toronto (Oct. 1 - 7)

Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter (Photo: Harald Hoffmann/DG)

German pianist Anne-Sophie Mutter, always a favourite of Toronto audiences, returns this week for two performances of the Bach Violin Concerto No. 2 BWV 1042 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Francis. Mutter is also playing In tempus praesens, a piece composed for her by Sofia Gubaidulina. Rounding out the program is Beethoven's Symphony No. 5.  Oct. 3 and 4 8 pm. at Roy Thomson Hall.

The Canadian Opera Company opened its new season at the Four Seasons Centre last Saturday with Verdi's Il Trovatore.  This is a real singer's opera and boy, what singing on opening night!  South African soprano Elza van den Heever was vocally stunning as Leonora, and Ramon Vargas had a triumph in his first-ever Manrico. Canadian baritone Russell Braun is singing his first Verdi role, as the villain Conte di Luna; Russian mezzo Elena Manistina, an Operalia winner ten years ago, makes her COC debut as Azucena. Marco Guidarini, who last conducted Simon Boccanegra here, is at the helm. The 10-performance run continues this week on Tuesday Oct. 2 and Friday Oct. 5 7:30 pm at the Four Seasons Centre. The other COC production in the fall season, Johann Strauss' frothy Die Fledermaus, opens on Thursday Oct. 4.  Canadian tenor Michael Schade, a celebrated Alfred, tries his hand as Eisenstein. American soprano Tamara Wilson, last heard locally as Elettra in Idomeneo, returns as Rosalinda. Canadian tenor and former COC Ensemble Studio member David Pomeroy is Alfred, mezzo Laura Tucker sings the trouser role of Orlofsky, and another Ensemble Studio graduate, Peter Barrett, is Dr. Falke. Two current Ensemble sopranos, Ambur Braid and Mireille Asselin, share the role of the saucy maid Adele. Yet another former Ensemble member, James Westman, does a star turn as Frank.  COC Music Director Johannes Debus conducts his first Fledermaus. Christopher Alden is the director - among his previous COC credits was the production of Flying Dutchman, which incidentally is travelling to Opera de Montreal for their upcoming performances next month. With one of the provocative Alden brothers staging the Strauss, you can expect the unexpected when it comes to mis-sen-scene. Early word indicates a production of the gender-bender variety with a surfeit of magnificent costumes.  On the recital front, there are three noon hour recitals this week - a jazz and a piano concerts, plus one featuring future voices from the University of Toronto Opera Division under the direction of Michael Albino. The budding singers will perform arias and duets from operas by Donizetti, Offenbach, Flotow and Britten. This last concert is appropriately called The Shape of Things to Come. To view the program, click  These noon-hour events at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre are popular and free, so be sure to line up an hour ahead to ensure a seat.

Other noteworthy events this week include a concert by the Gryphon Trio at the University of Toronto's Walter Hall on Monday Oct. 1 7:30 pm. It is the Ensemble in Residence at the U of T. They are playing Brahms' Clarinet Trio with James Campbell, and Dvorak's "Dumsky" Piano Trio. The Royal Conservatory Orchestra under the direction of Uri Mayer is playing Brahms' Symphony No. 4, plus Ginestera's Harp Concerto and the Cuban Overture by Gershwin at Koerner Hall on Oct. 5 8 pm. Details at

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Il Trovatore: Verdi Gem Opens COC Season

Verdi's Il Trovatore opens the Canadian Opera Company 2012-13 season (foreground: Ramon Vargas, Elza van den Heever; back: Russell Braun. Photo: Robert Cooper)

Verdi: Il Trovatore
Canadian Opera Company
September 29, 2012 / Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts

Ramon Vargas (Manrico)
Elza van den Heever (Leonora)
Russell Braun (Conte di Luna)
Elena Manistina (Azucena)
Dmitry Belosselskiy (Ferrando)
Rihab Chaieb (Ines)
Edgar Ernesto Ramirez (Ruiz)
Robert Gleadow (Old Gypsy)
Owen McCausland (Messenger)

COC Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Marco Guidarini, conductor
Charles Roubaud, director
Production of Opera de Marseille

By Joseph So

Call it over-the-top, a warhorse, potboiler, and you are not too far off.  There's no official statistics but I venture to say Il Trovatore is probably the most parodied of all operas, from Marx Brothers and Bugs Bunny to Gilbert and Sullivan in The Pirates of Penzance.  Naysayers love to poke pun at the outrageously improbable plot, oom-pah-pah orchestration, stand-and-deliver principals and two-dimensional characters.  Verdi surely deserves a medal for cramming so much plot into two hours of music - a love triangle, mistaken identity, kidnapping, filial piety, revenge, murder, poison, suicide, burning at the stake and beheading, everything but the kitchen sink, as the saying goes! Yet, with fine singers, a great orchestra led by a seasoned conductor, Il Trovatore can be a thrilling evening at the opera. And when it is as good as last evening's performance which marked the opening of the COC's 2012-13 season, it can be downright sensational.

First and foremost, Il Trovatore is about voices. The COC has assembled a very fine cast, headed by Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas in his first-ever Manrico. A Verdian through and through, Vargas is a celebrated Fenton, Alfredo, Duke, Riccardo, Jacopo, Don Carlos, Gabriel Adorno among others - totaling twelve roles in all. Now he is adding his most dramatic Verdi tenor role yet, the troubadour Manrico. He is joined by South-African soprano Elza van den Heever as Leonora. Russian mezzo Elena Manistina is Azucena and Canadian baritone Russell Braun sings his first Count di Luna.   The sparsely handsome if excessively austere production comes from Opera de Marseille - huge, subtly textured walls with minimal props, so darkly lit that sometimes one has to strain to see who's on stage. Looking on the bright side (pun intended), one is spared the usually ubiquitous gypsy paraphernalia, and the murky lighting makes the mistaken identity in Act One almost believable.  In the obligatory Anvil Chorus in this production, it's all about repairs to the wagon wheels, an interesting concept!  The opera has been time shifted from the 15th century to some indeterminate era, likely late 19th century, based on the barracks in Act One Scene One and the uniform of di Luna. Overall, this production works well, and thankfully it's interpretively neutral - no oil refineries spewing pollution and no rebels carrying machine guns a la Bregenz. What we do get is a pared down, atmospheric production, with little visual distraction and no gimmicky mis-en-scene, allowing the audience to focus on the singing and the music. 

And great singing it was from the principals.  At the risk of being a little irreverent, the opulent soprano of Elza van den Heever reminds me of a luxury sedan, say the Mercedes S550. As a passenger/listener you are cushioned in velvet, the ride is like floating on air. Given its V8 engine, it's big and has plenty of power in reserve, which is unleashed at the right moment, but most of the time it's kept in check.  The top is free and easy, and on this occasion, the soprano threw in several interpolated high Cs in Act 4. The voice is at its best in cantilena, particularly D'amor sull'ali rosee and Tacea la notte placida, both sung with nice legato and lovely high pianissimos, including a piano high C in each aria.  Only in the cabaletta when the voice is made to move is it less convincing, especially in a couple of the runs where she slowed right down - after all luxury sedans aren't supposed to run slalom races!  In all seriousness, Ms. van den Heever's voice is remarkable and let's hope she returns to the Company in the future. 

The other revelation on opening night was Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas. Who would have thought a Nemorino and Duke would be such a wonderful Manrico?  He sang it without the huge volume of a dramatic tenor, but he phrased beautifully and the voice was clear, focused and ringing. Only in the Di quella pira - without the da capo - was the voice a bit swarmed by the loud orchestra, even with the singer going full throttle.  As he said in an interview I had with him three weeks ago, Manrico is essentially a lyric role - after all Verdi composed it for the same tenor who sang Alfredo and the Duke. With time and further working of the role into his voice, Manrico may well be a new calling card for Vargas.  As Azucena, Russian Elena Manistina has a huge, rich, ringing dramatic mezzo, a voice with plenty of squillo. She was impressive in every sense of the word - no wonder she won the 2002 Operalia. Her voice is the genuine article.  

The other piece of big news was Canadian baritone Russell Braun in his first ever Verdi role, as Conte di Luna. Braun sang with his trademark mellifluous tone and musicality, and he acted the villain with conviction.  But it should be said that he is not one would call a "natural" Verdi baritone. His beautiful instrument doesn't have the booming volume and the cutting edge for these big dramatic Verdi roles.  Braun sang with exemplary elegance and expression, but the voice was occasionally under strain, as in the top note at the end of Il balen.  Russian bass Dmitry Belosselskiy was a sonorous Ferrando. The smaller roles were expertly taken, particularly deserving of mention were the Ines of mezzo Rihab Chaieb as a perfect foil for Leonora, and the gorgeous one-liner of Ruiz sung by Mexican-Canadian tenor Edgar Ernesto Ramirez.  The augmented chorus under Sandra Horst outdid itself. Conductor Marco Guidarini led the excellent COC Orchestra in a well paced, incisive reading of the score.  The last two performances will have fast-rising Italian tenor Riccardo Massi singing Manrico. He made his Met debut as Radames and has sung leading roles in Munich, Paris and Berlin. Two fine tenors in town at the same time - what a luxury! Bring on the rest of the season!

Il Trovatore runs from Sept. 29 to Oct. 31 at the Four Seasons Centre in 8 performances.


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