La Scena Musicale

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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