All Time Coloratura

Carmen Review Roundup

Posted in COC by cToronto on January 31, 2010

I won’t be seeing the COC’s Carmen until Friday the 5th. To make sure I go in with as many preconceived ideas about it as possible, here are some reviews:

Toronto Star:

Rinat Shaham is cheerful for someone who has just been thrown into an operatic fire – the Canadian Opera Company’s current Carmen, which runs to Feb. 27.

Then again, fire is what the New Yorker is all about. The dusky timbred mezzo soprano is a popular choice for the title role of a hot-blooded gypsy temptress because she is the whole package.

Big, flexible voice? Check. Sultry looks? Yup. Flashing brown eyes? Got it. She can even dance.

These are substantial gifts for a Toronto production that is musically strong, but visually tepid.

JAM!:

To be certain, mezzo soprano Rinat Shaham sounds the part and even looks it as well — so much so that a few of Francois St-Aubin’s full-speed-ahead-and-watch-those-torpedoes costumes could most definitely be considered lily gilding.

But what director Justin Way fails to grasp in this wooden and too-often self-conscious staging is that, in much the same way as water never has to try to be wet, Carmen as written never has to try to be sexy. And in insisting Shaham wrap and writhe herself around poles and straddle chairs to seduce tenor Byan Hymel’s lugubrious Don Jose and bass baritone Paul Gay’s wooden Escamillo, is a little like using an atom bomb to kill a mosquito.

The Globe and Mail:

Israeli mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham was a stunning Carmen – to see, to hear, to experience dramatically. New Orleans tenor Bryan Hymel turned in a passionate and thrillingly sung Don José. Canadian soprano Jessica Muirhead was a persuasive and touching Micaela. The three, beautifully abetted by the COC orchestra under Scottish conductor Rory Macdonald and the COC chorus trained by Sandra Horst, provided a stirring central musico-dramatic core, which sustained us through this astonishing, beautiful and still-upsetting work.

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COC’s Alexander Neef Interviewed in Opera News

Posted in COC by cToronto on January 25, 2010

Here’s an interesting Opera News interview with the COC’s General Director, Alexander Neef. The article takes particular note of his youth, suggesting it might help him attract younger audiences to opera (was he the one responsible for choosing the hipper-than-thou Drake Hotel to host the Opera 101 night a few weeks ago?).

Of particular interest is his praise for the openness of Toronto opera audiences:

What’s really interesting about the public here — and this is something I like a lot — is that people are very open to things that they didn’t know before, and they give you a chance to convince them that it’s actually good to do it. They just come in, sit down and build an opinion. They’re not opinionated before they come in. It gives us a lot of freedom in programming. Last season, our ’08–09 season, consisted of War and Peace, Don Giovanni, Fidelio, Rusalka, Bohème, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Simon Boccanegra. Apart from War and Peace, which was everybody’s favorite, we got the most feedback for Rusalka and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Those were the productions and pieces that everybody really got excited about. I thought that was really interesting.

It might be possible to read those first few sentences as slightly condescending – Toronto audiences don’t care what you put in front of them; just put it on the program and they’ll always listen politely. But it’s true that in Toronto, the seats fill up just as quickly for War and Peace as they do for La Boheme. When I was a regular attendee at Edmonton Opera, they would sometimes make an effort to mount less well-known, more challenging works, like The Rake’s Progress,  the Lapage Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung, and the homegrown Filumena. There would be plenty of empty seats in the theatre those nights, and a small exodus at intermission. Occasionally there would even be an angry letter to the newspaper accusing EO of abandoning its base.

It’s great that the COC is willing to not only include operas like War & Peace in its programming, but put its full weight and resources behind them. The three operas he mentions were indeed the most memorable for me that year.

How I Got Into Opera

Posted in Thoughts on Opera by cToronto on January 25, 2010

If you count Gilbert & Sullivan (and here, I will) the first opera I attended was the Rossland Light Opera’s Pirates of Penzance. I was around seven years old, and a fledgling pianist who greatly enjoyed my Classical Kids tapes. Evidently my mother decided I was capable of sitting quietly for up to an hour, and off we went. She gave me a few pointers on the plot (including explaining the often/orphan joke) and a large bag of candy, and at the end of the evening my initiation as an opera-goer was complete. A few days later we ran into the actor who played Frederic at the post office, and I recognized him and was amazed. My mother told me that if I liked to sing, one day I could join a singing group just like that.

After that comes a large gap. I loved Broadway musicals but wasn’t very interested in opera – the vocal style seemed heavy and strange, and it put me off. I was still playing the piano, and I saw the odd ballet and stage play, but no opera.

Eventually, around the time I got to grade 10 (we had moved to Edmonton by then), I reached the level in my piano playing where the Royal Conservatory of Music required me to study music history. The introductory course covered the Romantic era, and La Traviata, Carmen and Die Walkure were on the syllabus. Something went “click” in my head, and I put away my Broadway CDs. I studied the course material like a maniac and started spending all my money on symphony tickets.

The music course hadn’t told me enough about opera. I convinced my mother to buy me a copy of Opera for Dummies, figuring it would be the quickest way to get up to speed. Though co-written by a computer professional, it contained useful information about the major operas and composers, vocal types, the importance of Maria Callas, and so on. Before long I had the book and accompanying CD committed to memory.

The first “real” opera I saw was Il Barbiere di Siviglia, at Edmonton Opera. By this time I was pretty far gone. I took opera box sets out of the public library three or four at a time and listened with libretto in hand. Opera went round and round in my head all day. I spent a car trip with my parents listening to Act II from Tosca over and over on my discman. After a few underage drinks, I was pretty likely to start singing opera in the middle of my friends’ parties. My favourite singer back then was Ruggero Raimondi. I followed the conversation (but rarely posted) on rec.music.opera, and began to believe my knowledge was hopelessly inadequate, and that because I didn’t live in New York I’d never get caught up.

My obsession continued unabated most of the way through high school and university. Edmonton Opera’s four (then, when the recession hit, three) operas a year I supplemented with video performances from the library. I started taking singing lessons, and spent a good part of the lesson just talking about opera with my teacher.

At some point a few years ago, I ran out of steam. Perhaps that’s how it goes with most teenage obsessions. I moved to Toronto and had the opportunity to go to the opera more frequently, and then I spent a year in NYC and had a chance to see live some of the performers whose recordings I’d been listening to for years. But even though I attend the opera more frequently now than I did as an Edmonton neophyte, much of the fervor has gone. Now, I rarely sing opera in the shower or listening to it while cooking dinner.

I’m not quite sure what happened, and whatever it was, I think it’s a bit of a shame. This blog is, in part, an effort to get some of that excitement back. Because when I see something amazing like the Lapage Bluebeard’s Castle or Karita Matilla’s Jenufa, I’m reminded that it’s all still there.

P.S. In honor of that first night at the “opera”:

Some Reasons Why I Shouldn’t Blog About Opera

Posted in Thoughts on Opera by cToronto on January 21, 2010

I started an opera blog, yes, but will it be an adequate one? Rather than enumerate to myself the various things making me unqualified to write about opera and discourage myself from blogging, I thought I’d preemptively list them here and go ahead with it anyway.

1. I don’t live in a major opera center

The Canadian Opera Company is actually pretty good, with seven operas next season and high-quality productions. But I seldom have a chance to see the singers featured in Opera News.

2. I’m not obsessive about singers

In arguments about the superiority of various vocal techniques, or about which diva’s Tosca was the greatest, or which young up-and-comer is about to ruin his voice, I’m generally underpowered. I have some regret about this, but not much. Because of reason one above, I don’t often see A-list stars in performance, and I’m a lot more interested in opera-as-musical-literature (does that mean something?) anyway.

3. Some operas bore me

Most of the Bel Canto repertoire (Lucia, Norma, etc.) leaves me cold. I find Simon Boccanegra an ordeal. Same with the majority of opera seria — although Opera Atelier’s revelatory productions have been slowly changing my mind.

4. I am beginning to lose interest in genre purity

Back when Charlotte Church and Andrea Bocelli were popular and I was a teenager anxious to prove my cultural credentials, I was ready to condemn “popera” wholeheartedly. These days, I would still privately roll my eyes a bit if someone referred to Paul Potts as an “opera singer”, but don’t really see the point in guarding the gates so vigorously. A few arias sung on Oprah won’t do irreparable harm to the form. Aside from there being no need to alienate entry-level opera fans, it’s one of the least interesting things to talk about and at worst you wind up coming off like this guy. Also – Sweeney Todd on opera stages? Bring it on.

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COC’s 2010-2011 Season: Exciting!

Posted in COC by cToronto on January 21, 2010

Back when my home company was four-per-year Edmonton Opera, the formula for their season planning was pretty easy to figure out. It typically consisted of:

  1. Gilbert & Sullivan in alternate years, with Mikado, Pinafore, and Pirates in rotation
  2. One of Puccini’s “big three” (Tosca, Boheme, Butterfly) alternating with popular Verdi or equivalent cash cow (Carmen)
  3. One generally well-liked but slightly less well-known opera (L’Elisir, Hoffmann, any Mozart comedy)
  4. One “challenge” (The Rake’s Progress, Bluebeard’s Castle)

For someone just getting into opera, as I was in the late 90’s, this season setup was actually pretty good – a chance to see the classics that had taught me to love the form, plus a toe in the waters of “difficult” operas. But as I listened to more recordings and attended more performances, I started to get tired of the same-old and yearned for a little more variety. The COC’s new season appears to be a delight – out of seven operas, the only two qualifying for “cash cow” status are Aida and The Magic Flute, and those are borderline cash cows anyway next to this season’s (dull) Butterfly.

So, what’s on the list?

Aida – I’ve seen this only once on stage, at Edmonton Opera in 1999-ish (or maybe twice? I might have gone to both the dress rehearsal and the “regular” performance for this one). The production involved an enormous golden eagle under which the principals cowered. I hope elephants will factor into the COC’s take.

Death in Venice – completely unfamiliar to me. I’m not the biggest Britten fan but will be excited to see this.

The Magic Flute – possibly my very first “favourite opera”, thanks to the Classical Kids cassette tape my mom bought for me as a young’un. I would start singing the Queen of the Night’s aria at various inappropriate moments. Despite this history, I still feel slightly annoyed when I see parents bringing their young children to “real” productions of this opera. There are long stretches with no dragons,  bird catchers, or beautiful sparkly star dresses, and I’m pretty sure my 8-year-old self would have been bored.

Nixon in China – AWESOME YAY

La Cenerentola – meh. I went through a Rossini phase and it’s mostly over now. Still, I’m glad to see a non-Barbiere Rossini pick.

Ariadne auf Naxos – This was the first opera I saw outside of Canada, in Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu. Edita Gruberova was Zerbinetta. It was part of a backpacker-style trip to Spain with two friends. Our seats were in the highest balcony, and we could only see half of the stage. The surtitles were in Catalan and Spanish, and I had only a vague idea of the plot. Still, it remains one of my most fondly-remembered operatic experiences. Having only seen opera in the not-acoustically-rich Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton, I marveled at how the sound at the Liceu seemed to hang suspended in the air. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing this again.

Orfeo ed Euridice – I’m usually bored by baroque opera (except when Opera Atelier is responsible). Still, someone has to do it. And people seem to like Isabel Bayrakdarian.

COC’s Opera 101: No Sexy Tenors

Posted in COC by cToronto on January 15, 2010

Attendees of Tuesday’s Opera 101 event at the Drake Hotel were deprived the sight of Clifton Forbis, slated to sing Otello. Since the concertmaster, Marie Bérard, had made particular note of his attractiveness (the women in the orchestra were definitely paying attention to him, she said) it was a bit of a disappointment not to be able to judge.

Fortunately, we have the internet to help us confirm/deny his sexiness:

Clifton Forbis

Clifton Forbis, slated to play Otello at the COC

Alexander Neef was able to step in to keep the discussion going (look, he has a blog!). There were oblique hints that next season may feature I Puritani.

Although the Opera 101 events are supposedly geared to neophytes, it felt and sounded more like an evening for the fans. The Q&A revealed plenty of opera buffs in the audience. To be honest, I’m not sure what a true “beginners evening” would be like. An explanation of the plot, perhaps, with reassurance about the surtitles? Perhaps a discussion about how Verdi’s music is different from that of other popular opera composers, or why the role of Otello is uniquely demanding.