La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Bravissimo! 2014 Lives Up to its Name (Review)

Bravissimo! 2014 Lives Up to its Name (Review)

Joseph So

Natalia Ushakova, soprano
Viktoria Vizin, mezzo
Andreas Schager, tenor
Brett Polegato, baritone
Opera Canada Symphony & Chorus / Francesco Lanzillotta, conductor
Surprise Guest: Roger Honeywell, tenor
MC: Rick Phillips
December 31st 7 pm Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto

Overture to Don Giovanni
Champagne Aria / Don Giovanni / Polegato
Smanie implacabili /Cosi fan tutte / Vizin
Vesti la giubba / Pagliacci / Schager
Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor / Ushakova & Chorus
Anvil Chorus / Il Trovatore / Chorus
Drinking Song / Hamlet / Polegato & chorus
Che gelida manina / La boheme / Schager
Si, mi chiamano Mimi / La boheme / Ushakova
O soave fanciulla / La boheme / Ushakova & Schager


Bacchanale / Samson et Dalila
E strano - sempre libera / La traviata / Ushakova
Nessun dorma / Turandot / Schager
Chorus of Cigarette Girls / Carmen / Chorus
Habanera / Carmen / Vizin & Chorus
Flower Song / Carmen / Honeywell
Toreador Song / Carmen / Polegato & Chorus
Les tringles des sistres tintaient / Carmen / Vizin
Triumphal March / Aida / Chorus

Barcarolle / Hoffmann / Ushakova & Vizin
Au fond du temple saint / Pearl Fishers / Honeywell & Polegato
Libiamo, libiamo / La traviata / Honeywell / Ushakova + cast
Auld lang syne

(l. to r.) Rick Phillips, Roger Honeywell, Natalia Ushakova, Francesco Lanzillotta, Viktoria Vizin, Andreas Schager, Brett Polegato (Photo: Joseph So)

Now that Christmas 2014 is history, the music scene is coming alive again. Two of the highlights are the New Year's Eve Opera Gala Bravissimo! and the New Year's Day Salute to Vienna, both presented by Attila Glatz Concert Productions.  For opera fans, Bravissimo! is a good opportunity to hear voices that Toronto audiences don't usually get to hear. The soloists this year are Russian soprano Natalia Ushakova, Hungarian mezzo Viktoria Vizin, German tenor Andreas Schager, and Canadian baritone Brett Polegato.  Before last evening I was only familiar with Polegato, who has made an enviable career both at home and abroad. I also recalled fondly the voice of mezzo Viktoria Vizin, who was a fine Marchesa Melibea at the COC's Viaggio a Reims a dozen years ago. The other two singers I had not heard live before. Schager is that rare breed, a heldentenor - and a Daniel Barenboim protege - singing the heaviest repertoires of Wagner and Strauss, while Ushakova is a dramatic coloratura who sings a wide-ranging repertoire from the stratospheric Queen of the Night to the spinto soprano role of Amelia in Un ballo in maschera. Incidentally, Schager made international headlines in April 2013 when he stepped in to sing Act One of Siegfried at the Berlin Staatsoper replacing the regularly scheduled Siegfried, Canadian tenor Lance Ryan, who couldn't get from Vienna to Berlin in time for an unusually early curtain of 4 pm!  The conductor of Bravissimo was Italian maestro Francesco Lanzillotta.  

(l. to r.) Natalia Ushakova, Francesco Lanzillotta, Viktoria Vizin (Photo: Joseph So)

Roy Thomson Hall, while not sold out, was very full. A quick glance of the program showed plenty of warhorses - the concert is billed as "Opera's Greatest Hits" after all! Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti, Bizet, Leoncavallo - nothing too adventurous or too unfamiliar. Canadian baritone Brett Polegato started off with a nicely sung Champagne Aria from Don Giovanni.  At two minutes one of the shortest of arias, and the audience was slow to applaud, as if to say, "Huh?  That's it?"  It was followed by mezzo Viktoria Vizin's gleaming account of Dorabella's aria from Cosi.  Mozart is usually the "starter" in these shows, and let's face it, it just doesn't raise the temperature like the "blood and guts" of verismo.  That was supplied by heldentenor Andreas Schager's Vesti la giubba from Pagliacci. He has a powerful voice with surprisingly bright tone, not often the case with dramatic tenors in Wagner. He also has an impressive top, which explains why he's sought after as Siegfried, Florestan, and Bacchus. He took Canio's aria extremely slowly, the slowest I've ever heard it. This was also true in Nessun dorma from Turandot in the second half. Taking a piece so slowly requires a great deal of breath reserve, and it also gives the singing a rather stentorian, sluggish feel. For his efforts, he earned the first genuine ovation of the evening. Things heated up some more with Russian Ushakova's abridged Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor. Hers is a powerful dramatic coloratura capable of a big E-flat, and when it's coupled with a beautiful face and figure, it's no wonder the audience took to her immediately. The first fortissimo high E, and she was interrupted in mid-aria by vociferous applause.  Yes, enthusiasm is great, but I so wish the audience would wait until the aria is finished... 

(l. to r.) Viktoria Vizin, Andreas Schager, Brett Polegato (Photo: Joseph So)

Concluding the first half was three pieces from La boheme. (The fourth piece, the quartet from Act 4 was cut) I must say I was not expecting a heroic tenor to take a stab at Che gelida manina, but Schager not only sang it, he sang it well, and in the original key up to a ringing high C.  Ushakova was less successful with Si, mi chiamano Mimi. Her voice is like an inverse pyramid, big up top and almost inaudible in the lowest reaches. There wasn't much mezza voce, and she went sharp several times in the upper middle. Also one would have liked a bit more legato and the use of portamento in Puccini.  That said, it was uncommon and undeniably exciting to have two big voices in this music, especially O soave fanciulla at the end. 

(l. to r.) Roger Honeywell, Brett Polegato, Andreas Schager (Photo: Joseph So)

At the beginning of the second half, MC Rick Phillips announced the surprise addition of Canadian tenor Roger Honeywell. He sang the Flower Song from Carmen, originally assigned to Schager, with a nice combination of head voice and ringing forte. Perhaps due to insufficient rehearsal, there seemed to be some disagreement with tempo which appeared to be uncomfortably slow for Honeywell.  Later, the tenor joined forces with baritone Brett Polegato in a mellifluously sung Pearl Fishers Duet, which also had a few tentative moments.  Polegato did his best singing of the evening in an excellent Toreador's Song, with plenty of swagger and bite.  Vizin was also at her best as a vocally and dramatically riveting Carmen. Ushakova sang Violetta's big scena in Act 1 La traviata with great high notes, although one would have liked more chiaroscuro. The formal part of the evening ended with the Triumphal March from Aida with the forty-member chorus doing yeoman service. There were three encores - the aforementioned Pearl Fishers Duet, and the Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffmann with Ushakova (Giulietta) and Vizin (Nicklausse). Through it all, conductor Francesco Lanzillotta in his Toronto debut led the pickup orchestra with a firm hand. No New Year's Eve concert was complete without Libiamo, libiamo from La traviata, and of course, a rousing rendition of Auld lang Syne with the audience joining in.  

Soprano Natalia Ushakova tosses her bouquet to the audience (Photo: Joseph So)

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Monday, 29 December 2014

Toronto Operetta Theatre's Mikado a Rousing Holiday Romp

Toronto Operetta Theatre's Mikado a lively Holiday Romp

Joseph So

Gilbert and Sullivan:  The Mikado
Nanki-Poo - Adrian Kramer
Yum-Yum - Lucia Cesaroni
Pooh-Bah - David Ludwig
Ko-Ko - Joseph Angelo
Pish-Tush - Gregory Finney
Katisha - Mia Lennox
Mikado - Giles Tomkins
Pitti-Sing - Brittany King
Peep-Bo - Daria Bukhman

Derek Bate, conductor
Guillermo Silva-Marin, stage director
Jane Mallett Theatre, 8 pm, December 27, 2014.

Giles Tomkins as The Mikado (Photo courtesy of Toronto Operetta Theatre)

To celebrate its 30th anniversary season, Toronto Operetta Theatre is presenting for a run of six performances a perennial crowd favourite, Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado. Last performed by TOT in 2008, this G&S warhorse has pride of place in the hearts of many operetta fans. It's often performed by troupes large or small, amateur or professional. The last time I saw this was some years ago in a student production, so it's nice to see a professional presentation by the TOT. The intimate Jane Mallett Theatre was very full on opening night, and the audience was very appreciative. Judging by the enthusiastic reception at the end, everybody had fun. Now that Christmas is over, the music scene is slowly coming back  to life, and this Mikado is one of the very first things on the calendar and well worth seeing. It runs until January 4, including a gala New Year's Eve performance. For details, go to

The team of librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, affectionately known as G&S to their devotees, created many works that have remained staples of the operetta repertoire to this day. Easy, accessible melodies sung in English, fun-filled if improbable scenarios in colourful settings, and a well honed sense of wit are all strengths of G&S. In the case of The Mikado, its madcap silliness and what passes for the exotic Orient (as seen through the lens of late Victorian English society) do seem awfully quaint by 21st century standards. This piece really has little to do with things Japanese and everything to do with a spoof on English society at the time; certainly there's nothing remotely Japanese about the music!  But that doesn't stop the naysayers out there, particularly in the media and in academia, from taking the position that this piece is so hopelessly dated if not downright racist, that it should be permanently shelved. It would be inappropriate to launch into a discussion on the merits of The Mikado in 21st century. Suffice to say that a true understanding and appreciation of a period piece is best seen in proper historical and social contexts.  Composers and librettists are understandably products of their own culture, and their creations reflect the worldview of the larger society of their time. It serves little purpose to take too seriously the trappings of 19th century Eurocentrism and try to gauge it with 21st century sensibilities. A de facto banning of a work would only be untenable and ultimately self-defeating. Wouldn't we also have to shelve Madama Butterfly, Turandot, L'oracolo, or even Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice simply because we don't agree with how the "ethnographic other" is portrayed?  The past can teach us a great deal about the present and help us anticipate the future. There's really no problem with a piece as long as it is staged sensitively, as in the TOT's The Mikado.  

Adrian Kramer (Nanki-Poo) and Lucia Cesaroni (Yum- Yum)

Given the very small stage of Jane Mallett Theatre and the lack of an orchestra pit, staging is by necessity simple - four poles with clusters of umbrellas, a two-step raised platform upstage with a lovely bonsai prominently displayed, plus a few props here and there. The rented costumes from Malabar look beautiful. No projections and simple lighting cues. In any case, this show really isn't so much about sets and costumes as about the quality of the singing and the acting. I am happy to say the ensemble cast was fully up to the task on opening night (Dec. 27).  Top vocal honours went to baritone-turned-tenor Adrian Kramer. A former member of the COC Ensemble Studio, Kramer was noted for his beautiful, compact-sized lyric baritone and vivid stage presence - I recall a very fine Papageno in the Ensemble performance of Magic Flute during his time there. Now a tenor, his sound is rich, ringing, and robust, this last no doubt a remnant of his baritonal past. The upper register really isn't tested in Nanki Poo's music, other than a single high note in the Act 1 duet which he handled well. I look forward to hearing Kramer in a more vocally challenging role. In any case he sang beautifully and his engaging stage persona shone through. His love interest, Yum-Yum, was soprano Lucia Cesaroni, who incidentally is also Kramer's real life partner. She has a pleasant lyric soprano with an unusually dark timbre that's perhaps not ideal for the essentially soubrette role of Yum-Yum, but Cesaroni sang very well and her pert stage presence was a pleasure. Their Act 1 duet, "Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted" was a highlight.

(l. to r.) Domenico Sanfilippo (Pish-Tush), Joseph Angelo (Ko-Ko), David Ludwig (Pooh-Bah)

The rest of the cast was equally strong, with great acting and some good singing. David Ludwig was really impressive as Pooh-Bah, dominating the stage. Together with Gregory Finney (Pish-Tush) and Joseph Angelo (Ko-Ko), the three of them made a great comedic trio.  There were local references in the updated dialogues, done with taste and restraint. Mia Lennox was a very fine Katisha, usually assigned to a low mezzo or contralto. Lennox acted and sang well, without excessive histrionics and she refrained from truck driver chest tones one sometimes encounters in this role.  In the short title role of the Mikado, bass-baritone Giles Tomkins gave an impressive performance and acted up a storm - his Mikado is good natured and without undue exaggeration.  Despite the occasional plodding tempi, the chamber orchestra of 12 musicians under the direction of COC conductor Derek Bate did better than one would have thought possible given its diminutive size. Guillermo Silva Marin, the artistic director of TOT, had just the right balance of slapstick and wit, without vulgarity. All in all, a fun-filled evening in the theatre and a highly welcomed Holiday tonic. 

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