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Opera in review: (Canada, United States and International).

CANADA

CALGARY

In the past several years, Calgary Opera productions have exhibited a consistently high level of performance. With the departure of long-time general manager David Speers to Arizona Opera, the company is now in the hands of Bob McFee, and the first opera to be fully mounted by the new regime--Verdi's Il Trovatore--struck a pothole in the previously smooth operatic road. Unlike recent productions, the principal singers were all young, clearly inexperienced Americans, the Canadian element essentially limited to stage director Bill Glassco and conductor Tyrone Paterson, now with Opera Lyra Ottawa. Glassco, a well-known and respected figure in Canadian theatre, was unable to come up with anything more than the most tired dramatic cliches for his venture into opera. The work was, in effect, presented as a costumed concert with gloomy backdrops. None of this was helped by the set, a single, all-purpose affair that had to do duty as the ramparts of a medieval castle, a prison, a nunnery and a Spanish gypsy camp.

The dramatic emphasis fell squarely on the director and the performers, who came up empty-handed. While all the principal singers had respectable voices, only Sharon Graham (Azucena) demonstrated the vocal cultivation and technique to infuse her role with the necessary pathos and drama. The three other principals seemed to be cut from the same vocal cloth. They sang solidly and loudly, with proper breath support and a good, hard palate ring, and they produced their top notes without obvious strangulation. At this stage in their careers, however, none of the three is vocally far advanced beyond the bare minimum needed to sing an opera. The strongest was tenor Frank Porretta III, who demonstrated the heft to get through his notoriously difficult "Di quella pira." Soprano Lily Zhang (Leonora) has a fundamentally attractive voice, but she is not yet able to convincingly deliver the goods. Musically, she failed to infuse her arias with convincing emotion; dramatically, she was a virtual cipher. Baritone Yalun Zhang was the strongest of the group dramatically, but was also frequently wide of the notes. Aside from Graham, the best singer was Taras Kulish (Ferrando), who displayed a vibrant, high-quality voice and comfort on stage.

Paterson led the orchestra in a competent, if rather inexpressive, account of the score. However, although the production was was not a success, it did show the new management has the courage to try different paths in its approach to opera. --Kenneth DeLong

EDMONTON

Edmonton Opera's season-opener, La Traviata, offered a sublime portrait of Violetta by Montreal soprano Lyne Fortin. She filled the bill in every way, giving the richest performance Edmonton has yet seen from her. Her acting was superb, nuanced and passionate. Her singing was not quite flawless, but beautiful and full of character nevertheless.

The main images of this new production by Peter Dean Beck were handsome and evocative, but artistic director Michael Cavanagh's concept--seeing the opera through the aged Alfredo's eyes--was unsuccessful. An old man sat at stage right, watching some of the proceedings or occasionally entering the action to gaze at young Alfredo (Gabriel Gonzalez), who looked back in bewilderment. The result was merely confusion.

Gonzalez was an appealing Alfredo, less than thrilling in his key vocal moments, but appropriately enthusiastic, youthful and callow, and with a sweet, attractive voice. Theodore Baerg (Germont Pere) sang with warmth and lovely tone, but he aimlessly moved about the stage while singing, which proved distracting.

The chorus, under Peter Dala's tutelage, sang well, but Cavanagh gave them too much fussy business, especially in the opening scene. And the lack of dancing gypsies and matadors in the party scene was embarrassing. Christopher Larkin led the Edmonton Symphony in a fluid, well-played performance.

Edmonton's December debut of Humperdinck's Hansel und Gretel was a great success. Valdine Anderson (Gretel) and Kimberly Barber (Hansel) were excellent, acting with simple honesty under David Gately's direction. Anderson's top notes soared sweetly and effortlessly, and Barber's lovely, vibrant mezzo was delightful. Jean Stilwell doubled as the mother and witch, and sang with eloquence and panache. Her witch was vivid and highly amusing. John Avery's father was splendidly sung, with beautiful, distinctive colors, while Karen Rees sang the Sandman's Straussian aria with lush tones and was effectively perky as the Dew Fairy.

The Edmonton Symphony, under Paterson, played expertly, and the production, borrowed from Orlando Opera, was handsome. Harry Frehner's lighting was particularly imaginative. --John Charles

MONTREAL

Of all Mozart's mature operas, Cosi fan Tutte is the least suited to a big stage. It nevertheless managed to fill Salle Wilfrid Pelletier with its complexities on Sept. 16 in the opening of L'Opera de Montreal's six-performance run. This was a lyrical, spacious conception in which burlesque never obscured the higher objective of passing comment on the human condition.

Leading the solid cast was soprano Lyne Fortin as Fiordiligi, who created a low-voltage sensation with "Per Pieta." The tenderness was subtle, the vocalism restrained, yet the effect was purest verismo. Mezzo Daniele LeBlanc was also fine as Dorabella. While their twin costumes and wigs sometimes made the sisters difficult to distinguish at a distance, they managed to assert their personalities in Act II with warm voices and realistic acting. American tenor David Miller (Ferrando) also brought a touch of more-than-comic electricity to the fury he felt on learning he had been betrayed. His redoubled assault on the virtue of Fiordiligi was as fascinating as it was repellent. Baritone Alexander Dobson (Guglielmo) was a comparably fluent actor, while Don Alfonso was portrayed with understated malice and wit by bass-baritone Daniel Lichti. Soprano Karen Driscoll applied a vivacious style (if unsteady rhythm) to the character of Despina.

Duets between the sisters flowed sweetly and the ensemble pacing was sure. Conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin was confident enough in his Orchestre Metropolitain to adopt gentle tempos and let Mozart's tone-painting emerge. Director Bernard Uzan brought some good ideas to the action, including the final scene, in which the lovers must choose partners anew. Sets by the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle were a joy to behold, particularly as illuminated by Guy Simard. Colors were rich, and the vistas of the Bay of Naples (with Vesuvius smouldering in the background) created a wider context for this most interior of comedies. --Arthur Kaptainis

QUEBEC CITY

L'Opera de Quebec's new season opened with Norma, which was last presented in Quebec in 1983. American soprano Brenda Harris, singing the title role for the first time, succeeded admirably in her task. Her ample voice was agile in the coloratura passages, her acting was nuanced and her whole performance was founded on a sound knowledge of both the music and text. At her side, Philip Webb (Pollione) contributed a strong voice and believable acting, while Quebecoise mezzo-soprano Daniele LeBlanc (Adalgisa) revealed a larger, more dramatic voice than in her previous roles. Brazilian bass Luiz-Ottavio Faria (Oroveso), tenor Hugues Saint-Gelais (Flavio) and mezzo Renee Lapointe (Clotida) were all excellent.

Brian Deedrick's direction was intelligent, and the costumes and scenery were equally in good taste. Conductor Bernard Labadie admirably supported the singers. --Renee Maheu

TORONTO

The Canadian Opera Company remounted Puccini's La Fanciulla del West in the Hal Prince production, which has been around for almost a quarter-century and is showing its age. Eugene Lee's cramped, fussy, murky settings, dimly lit by Benjamin Pearcy, provided an inhospitable context for Puccini and David Belasco's mixture of sentiment and melodrama in a primitive, naive western California setting. Vincent Liotta, redirecting from Prince's Broadway-corny ideas, could come up with nothing fresh or credible, and the audience was often forced into a position of tittering condescension.

One has to believe in this work rather more to release its odd and special beauties. This is what conductor Richard Buckley was clearly able to do, relishing the unusual orchestral colors, the unaccustomed musical turns and the powerful heart of Puccini's score. The COC orchestra again played superbly, the all-male chorus sang with stirring and touching feeling, and a cast of company artists--notably John Kriter, Cornelis Opthof, Andrew Tees and Roger Honeywell--offered nuanced and telling vignettes.

The central triangle was less persuasively presented. Elena Filipova was a poor choice for a believable Minnie; the tiny Bulgarian soprano produced clotted, squally, lustreless singing and crude, jerky acting. She seemed to make no connections with either of the leading men, Michael Sylvester's Dick Johnson, visually implausible but sung with Italianate fervor (and strain only at the very top) and John Fanning's dark, brooding, powerfully voiced Jack Rance. This Fanciulla never set the pulse racing, which, with Puccini, is missing the target, big-time. --Urjo Kareda

Pity the historians of generations past who consigned the operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully to library shelves. Along came William Christie and Les Arts Florissantes to demonstrate the theatrical viability of Atys and now, after what is believed to have been a two-century slumber, Perse (1682) has triumphantly returned to the stage, thanks to the inventive ministrations of Opera Atelier. The company's first $1-million production, Perse packed the Elgin Theatre for five performances in late October and early November, dazzling audiences with Dora Rust-D'Eye's sumptuous period costumes, Gerald Gauci's columned palaces and a score so surprisingly varied as to acquit Lully on the traditional charge of stiff formality.

By importing a Lully specialist, French conductor Herv Niquet, Opera Atelier put the music in invigorating hands. Both the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra (augmented by theorbo players from Niquet's own Concert Spirituel) and Chamber Choir responded eagerly to his lively tempi, and the soloists sounded no less engaged.

OA co-director Jeannette Zingg may have introduced some out-of-period steps to her choreography, and fellow OA director Marshall Pynkoski may have pushed the comedy directorially over the stylized top at times--notably in the camped-up scene in which Perseus (Perse) decapitates the snake-locked Medusa--but seldom has a Baroque opera been so vividly energized on a Canadian stage.

Among the 13 principal singers, Rufus Muller and Nathalie Paulin made a stylish Perse and Andromde, Mark Stone and Laura Pudwell were well-matched monarchs of Ethiopia, Monica Whicher (Mrope) and Alain Coulombe (Phine) were comparably paired rival lovers and Michael Chioldi was a properly flamboyant Medusa.

As a score, Perse knits together short airs and recitatives into a fluent musical continuum as it tells a typical Baroque tale of amatory trials and conflicts. Another Atys? Better yet: a masterpiece. --William Littler

Opera in Concert offered a rare opportunity last December to hear Rossini's La Gazza Ladra, albeit without the sparkling support of a Rossini orchestra. The 1817 opera semi-seria, with its stock mix of comedy and drama, rustic setting and silly plot, is well known for its overture, but the rest has withstood the test of time only fitfully. Which is a pity, because the work includes some splendid vocal writing that's a joy to hear when it's performed with as much skill and verve as OinC's artists brought to the performance.

From the start, Laura Whalen, a recent graduate of the University of Toronto's Opera School, was in beautiful voice as the hapless heroine, Ninetta, and displayed a confident technique that made seemingly easy work of the sometimes treacherous twists and turns in Rossini's lighter music. When the mood turned more serious, she was equally affecting in her lyricism. Tenor Eric Shaw, firm in voice if a little constricted in sound at times, was a good match as Giannetto. Together, these accomplished young singers made their early Act II duet the highlight of the performance. Singing the other principal roles, bass-baritone Peteris Freimanis and mezzo Barbara Sadegur effectively etched the characters of Giannetto's parents; baritone Ross Darlington was appropriately oily and stentorian with his Stan Laurel impersonation in the role of Gottardo, the mayor; baritone Kevin Armstrong was a little light in sound for Fernando (Ninetta's equally hapless father) but sang confidently; and mezzo Michele Bogdanowicz brought the right youthful touch to the trouser role of Pippo.

Smaller parts were taken by members of the fine chorus, which, under the direction of Robert Cooper, always brings great musical flair to OinC's performances. Overall musical direction was in the hands of Raisa Nakhmanovich, who did much to overcome the shortcomings of not having an orchestra in the color of her seemingly tireless piano accompaniment. Special mention must be made of chorus manager Halyna Dytyniak, who gave full-throated bel canto style to her offstage rendering of the title role. -- Wayne Gooding

Toronto Operetta Theatre's offering at the beginning of this year was Franz Lehar's Die Lustige Witwe. As usual, artistic director Guillermo Silva-Marin added au courant references to such topics as the Florida ballot, Jurassic Park and Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman. Silva-Marin also functioned as stage director-cum-choreographer, and made every attempt to keep things at a lively pace, although his dance skills are limited. Conductor Derek Bate did a sensitive job in the pit.

Vocally, the cast was strong, but as always, there were diction problems. The women were the worst offenders. Soprano Barbara Hannigan as the widow looked and sounded gorgeous, but her words were garbled. Soprano Elizabeth Beeler (Valencienne) is another beauty, although she can sound a bit reedy in her upper register. Fred Love (Danilo) stole the show. Although he is not a money-note tenor and avoided disaster by taking the low road, he dominated the stage with his forceful singing and strong, romantic characterization. Tenor Craig Ashton's Camille showed a singer whose pinched voice has clearly seen better days. Among the secondary characters, baritone Gregory Cross and tenor Ian Simpson were strong as Baron Zeta and Njegus respectively. --Paula Citron

Toronto-area music-lovers were treated to two recitals featuring soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian As part of the CBC's OnStage series, she first gave an all-Spanish recital on December 8 at the Glenn Gould Studio, weaving her magic with a program of essentially familiar pieces, including the justly famous Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5 for soprano and eight celli by Villa-Lobos. Producer Neil Crory had engaged composers Chris Paul Harman and Peter Tiefenbach to provide new cello accompaniments for several of the pieces by Granados and Rodrigo, as well as a traditional melody, the exquisite "Cant dell Ocells" ("Song of the Birds"). This repertoire demands beauty of tone and dramatic flair, both of which Bayrakdarian supplied in abundance. Through her rich, intoxicating sound, keen musical instinct and the use of subtle gestures, she perfectly captured the mood of each song. The ensemble of eight cellists, led by Bryan Epperson, provided splendid support, as well as playing of the first order in the instrumental pieces.

On Nov. 30, Bayrakdarian performed an all-Mozart concert. The evening included the world premiere of a realization and expansion of Mozart's incomplete sketch for Susanna's recitative and aria, "Giunse il memento alfine ... Non tardar amato bene," in Act IV of Le Nozze di Figaro, made possible thanks to generosity of Peter E. Sandor, who commissioned Canadian composer Derek Holman to work on the piece. Surprisingly, the evening also marked the debut of Jeanne Lamon, who was conducting a full-size orchestra--the Royal Conservatory Orchestra--for the first time. Holman's work was totally unobtrusive, so seamless that one could not tell where Mozart left off. As a comparison and contrast, the program also featured the traditional aria, "Deh vieni non tardar," which Bayrakdarian impressed with her customary refulgent tone and charming stage presence. --Joseph So

Arraymusic presented a concert workshop of Robert W. Stevenson's new opera, nostalgia, at the du Maurier Theatre Centre, directed by Ryan Wagner. Stevenson, an acclaimed clarinetist and one of Toronto's leading contemporary musicians/composers, based his opera on letters his father wrote home during World War II. Stevenson also wrote the libretto, which juxtaposes these letters--optimistic about a better world after the horrors of war--with the blighted, alcoholic life that greeted this romantic, pro-union dreamer upon his return.

Unfortunately, the libretto did not delve deeply enough into characterization, and presented a two-dimensional look at working-class life. While Stevenson's rambling, declamatory style provided little vocal accents, his clever orchestral score, using a cornet with strings, was vivid. Henry Kucharzyk led the Arraymusic Ensemble with tremendous sensitivity.

There were five characters: Steve's wife, Iris (soprano Shari Saunders), three sons (bass Joel Katz and tenors Martin Houtman and Eric Shaw) and best friend (baritone Michael Donovan); because we only hear about Steve, the letter-writer, the work is missing direct conflict, which weakens its impact. And Saunders, in a pivotal role, was woefully miscast. Her voice was colorless and her diction deplorable. The men, however, were all excellent singing interpreters, each attempting to inject life into Stevenson's listless words. --Paula Citron

The CBC's Mahler in Miniature, brainchild of innovative producer Neil Crory, provided Toronto audiences with a fascinating exposure to rarely performed chamber and small-orchestra versions of works usually performed with larger forces. Three fall concerts provided an ideal complement to the CBC's important series of Mahler documentaries, A Tale of Two Mahlers.

In the first (Oct. 2) concert, "Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg," Nathan Berg offered a fine "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen." His rich bass-baritone effectively encompassed the painful drama of "Ich habe ein gluehend Messer" as well as finer, inward moments of the cycle. Throughout, Berg sang with excellent diction and discreet use of head voice. This was an impressive reading from a talented young artist whose interpretation is sure to deepen over the years.

In the effective Schoenberg/Rainer Riehn setting of Das Lied Von der Erde, Richard Margison dazzled with ringing high notes worthy of a young Siegfried. For the sensuous outpourings of the opening "Trinklied" and "Von der Jugend," he provided a stream of bright, focused sound. This was great singing, and a perfect complement to Catherine Robbin's plangent melancholy in "Der Einsame in Herbst" and the famous "Abschied." The chamber orchestra, conducted by Mario Bernardi, and studio setting were ideal for Robbin's smaller-scaled but richly detailed first performance of these great songs. Only the third song, "Von der Schonheit," overwhelmed her. But her closing song was the highlight of a truly great evening.

In spite of Raffi Armenian's fine conducting, the second (Oct 16) concert, "Mahler and Des Knaben Wunderhorn," was initially disappointing. Philip West's arrangements (originally for his wife) seemed somewhat lacklustre compared to Schoenberg's. Lyric soprano Edith Wiens projected "Rheinlegendchen" and "Lob des hohen Verstandnis" with warmth and commitment, but her voice lacked dynamic range. She was at her best in the fourth movement of Symphony No. 4--the North American premiere of Erwin Stein's persuasive chamber arrangement. Here she projected a ravishing, innocent's vision of Paradise, devoid of sentimentality. The chamber orchestra (members of the COC orchestra, several of them principals) played superbly throughout, especially violinist/concertmaster Marie Berard.

The third and final (Nov 9) concert, "G.M. and the Liederabend mit Orchester," presented a reconstruction of an actual Jan. 29, 1905, concert mounted for Schoenberg's Collective of Creative Composers. Michael Schade's elegant, lyric tenor seemed out of sorts with the low-lying passages of the Knaben Wunderhorn songs, though he sang with infectious good humor and charm. He seemed more comfortable with the high tessitura of his eloquent "Ich atmet einen Lindenduft."

Russell Braun's poetic, already mature account of Kindertotenlieder was a revelation, and his command of interpretive subtleties was impressive. He projected the gloomy sunrise of the opening song with a slightly covered, cloudy tone, moving his listeners directly into the heart of Mahler's dark meditation on mortality. He lightened his voice for expansive, lyrical moments, and his final "In diesem Wetter" projected Ruckert's text with authority.

Brett Polegato's stylish contributions were also impressive. His now larger and darker operatic voice seemed most suited to large-scale, dramatic songs like "Der Tambourg'sell/The Drummer Boy." His committed, thrilling account of "Um Mitternacht" brought the concert to a fitting close. The singers were admirably encouraged and supported throughout the evening by conductor Richard Bradshaw, who revealed himself an exacting and insightful Mahlerian. --Paul Baker

VANCOUVER

Vancouver Opera opened in October with a creditable Lucia di Lammermoor. Elizabeth Futral in the title role fully lived up to high advance expectations. She presented her own highly personal blend of an attractive stage presence, intense dramatic involvement and a strong lyric soprano with coloratura ease and, just as importantly, a fine range of expressive coloring. Baritone Zheng Zhou (Enrico) was dramatically incisive while singing with an appropriately forceful impact, and Gary Relyea's Raimondo created another success in his gallery of benign bass characters. Further strength was added to the cast with Grace Chan's Alisa and Kurt Lehmann's outlandishly overcostumed Arturo. More debatable was the Edgardo of tenor John Fowler, communicated with fervor, if also patchy tone. Conductor Steven White's unfussy, direct view of the score was another positive factor, as was Leslie Uyeda's chorus. Robert O'Hern's sets, created for Florida Opera, were a solid backdrop for the staging of Pamela Berlin, who managed to make the suspension in time during the Sextet look less silly than usual

The ensuing offering, The Rake's Progress, a co-production with Edmonton Opera, seemed to deliberately distance itself from the famous David Hockney-designed production seen for some 25 years. Ken MacDonald's bold sets were contemporary in feeling and largely dark, with no attempt to evoke the ironic Eden of Trulove's estate. They were striking in MacDonald's characteristically imaginative manner, but never quite came together as a whole. Robert Shannon's eclectic costumes had Anne in a striking, red cocktail dress and shoes, and Tom in 18th-century gentleman's attire, while director Michael Cavanagh's production was most memorable for the white-faced, black-garbed mimes who glided around as if they were demonic servants of Nick Shadow or dark alter egos of Tom himself.

The cast was led by Benjamin Butterfield, singing beautifully if just a trifle short of full dramatic impact, and David Okerlund, a tower of vocal strength and equally imposing physically. Jackalyn Short sang prettily as Anne, Marcel van Neer accomplished something of a tour de force in the roles of Mother Goose, Sellem and the Keeper of the Madhouse, while Terry Hodges was properly dignified as Trulove. Victoria Livengood's Baba the Turk was delightfully over the top, immense of personality and vocal resources. The orchestra under Andreas Mitisek played well.

Handel's oratorio, The Choice of Hercules, was completely winning in two fully staged performances by the Modern Baroque Opera. The company's director, Kate Hutchinson, chose the contemporary setting of a charity ball and art auction for her imaginative and well-executed staging. The art literally came to life when a young Hercules detached himself from the guests to contemplate two larger-than-life paintings that dominated the stage. One offered a voluptuous Pleasure in a customarily involved and sensual performance by Jennie Such, as well her delightfully sybaritic attendant, Colin Balzer; the other featured the ever-effective Phoebe MacRae in the typical blue of the Madonna. Countertenor Matthew Best (Hercules) sang impressively, with clarity and pointed dramatic inflection, while enacting the dilemma of choosing between Pleasure and Virtue (he eventually chooses the latter). Thomas Hassmann's simple and appropriate set enhanced the drama, and the Pacific Baroque Orchestra was in fine form under music director Marc Destrube.

The Modern Baroque Opera effectively strayed from its usual territory with the premiere of a children's opera, The Child, The Book and The Broomstick, by Canadian librettist Mark Morris and Welsh composer Mervyn Burtch. Running just under an hour and a half, it deployed some 30 school children, as well as professional singers Shana White (the Fairy Godmother), Lindsay Sterk (the Teacher) and Colin Balzer (the Chicken Farmer), in a magical tale of children discovering their own strengths to face the new year. Directed by Kate Hutchinson, it was a highly effective production, with several interesting solo roles for the children and highly participatory involvement for the chorus, all supported by the small music ensemble directed by Marguerite Witvoet. --Reviews from Vancouver by Floyd St. Clair

WINNIPEG

Manitoba Opera's first season of the new millennium opened with sold-out performances of a satisfying production of Verdi's Aida. Among the principals were three Americans making their Manitoba debuts. Elizabeth Hynes, in the title role, although somewhat stodgy theatrically, used her superb and powerful voice to great effect, never allowing Aida to be overwhelmed in the opera's sometimes massive soundscapes. Tenor Michael Hayes (Ramades) provided an excellent and consistent level of support, for her and the rest of the cast, while mezzo Sharon Graham (Amneris) fully deserved the standing ovations she received. Her portrayal of the most complicated character in the work and her extraordinary vocal mastery exceeded the highest standards. Canadian Allan Monk (Amonasro) won the second warmest ovations of the evening for a heartfelt and consummately professional performance.

The high level of local talent and vocal training was clearly demonstrated by all four secondary characters: David Watson (Ramfis), Mel Braun (the Egyptian king), Victor Pankratz (the messenger) and Charlene Pauls (the Egyptian priestess). The large chorus was well prepared by the company's assistant music director and chorusmaster, Tadeusz Biernacki.

The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra sounded especially bright and lively under the baton of Daniel Lipton, and the opera's crowd of supernumeraries was handled efficiently and quite attractively by director Renaud Doucet. A former dancer from Montreal, Doucet also made good use of the lovely ensemble of graduates of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School. --John Becker

UNITED STATES

CHICAGO

The chief question about Lyric Opera of Chicago's current season is whether a steady diet of their new-concept productions is healthy for subscribers. However, musical execution by orchestra, chorus and soloists, practically all of whom were faultlessly cast, remained highly commendable.

Lyric's production of The Great Gatsby was imported from the Metropolitan Opera, following its world premiere in New York last season. The cast was entirely new except for Jerry Hadley in the title role, who sounded in better form than he did at the Met. The other principals--were Alicia Berneche, Patricia Risley, Jennifer Dudley and Canadian Russell Braun--were all commendable. Yet there is a constant pall over John Harbison's scores conducted by David Stahl. Mark Lamos's staging had the downstage area crowded with dancers and supers, their organized chaos cannily choreographed by Robert La Fosse, but that left the chorus crowded upstage and barely audible. At any rate, Gatsby has had its second chance, and to little effect.

Christopher Alden's staging of a new production of Rigoletto was ridiculous in the extreme, thoroughly deserving the boos which the entire audience bestowed at the premiere. The chorus was almost always on stage, constantly distracting with extraneous motions, and minor characters such as Gilda's nurse, Countess Ceprano, even the Page were in evidence far more than necessary. However, the setting of a Victorian men's club, as designed by Canadian Michael Levine, was a beautiful affair that served for all acts.

Alexandru Agache's interpretation of the title role was powerful, though at the premiere, he sounded a bit hoarse at times. Andrea Rost sang a pure-voiced Gilda. There were two fine tenors--Ramon Vargas and Roberto Aronica--for the Duke, and the largeness of Andrea Silvestrelli's bass as Sparafucile won success with the audience. Fabio Luisi's conducting was completely expert. Brisk though his tempos were, the principals seemed to have no trouble in keeping accord. --Richard Covello

LOS ANGELES

Until now, Los Angeles Opera's eagerness to tap Hollywood talent has yielded less-than-stellar results. But all that changed with British film director John Schlesinger, whose production of Peter Grimes turned out to be not only a runaway success for the company but proof that a movie man who knows his way around opera can produce startling revelations. Nowhere was that clearer than in the ensemble values he helped to focus and amplify, within Luciana Arrighi's rough-hewn, somewhat clumsy, but serviceable sets. His excellent cast thus found a rare depth of emotional connection to one another's characters, making for supple, moment-to-moment interactions.

Phillip Langridge, with his powerful singing, made Grimes a raw misfit, especially susceptible to the tender pleadings of Nancy Gustafson (Ellen Orford), who sang with exceptional beauty and nuanced feeling. She became the expressive pivot between the pathetic, isolated Grimes and his young, vulnerable charge, so keyed to victimization--as well as to Balstrode, portrayed nobly by Richard Stillwell, and Suzanna Guzman, a feisty hysteric of a Mrs. Sedley. From the orchestra and richly robust chorus, Richard Armstrong drew a dramatically sharp-edged performance. --Donna Perlmutter

MILWAUKEE

The Florentine Opera opened its season with a rich-looking, powerful-sounding performance of Turandot. In the title role was the fine Canadian dramatic soprano, Frances Ginzer, who overall, may well be the finest Turandot going. She sings the role gloriously, with thrusting high notes and grand, spanning phrases; she communicates the intensity and power of the ice-cold princess to perfection; and she can traverse grand staircases trailing an imperial train with regal grandeur. She also portrayed her character's crucial dramatic change--from chilling, imperious princess to warm, ardent lover--with rare and winning skill. American tenor Tonio Di Paolo sang Calaf very well, showing firm, thrilling high notes and Italianate ring. He partnered Ginzer well, and made his stylish, if not generous, delivery of "Nessun dorma" the high point of the performance.

Soprano Stella Zambalis (Liu) showed a bigger voice and a more forthright style than is often heard in the role. Her handsomely controlled high notes and delicately spun phrases made her two arias lovely lyric moments. Young basso Stephen Morscheck brought a fine, medium-weight voice and excellent acting to Timur. Ping, Pang and Pong--baritone Kelly Anderson, and tenors Scott Ransey and Christopher Pfund respectively--were given more to do than usual in this production. They opened the opera with a brief mime show, and acted throughout as if relating the story for the audience. The trio acted well, but showed only modest musical authority. Yugoslavian stage director Dejan Miladinovic moved the large choral groups well on the complex set, and had detailed action for the various principals. Maestro Joseph Rescigno constantly propelled the action and made much of the score's many dramatic buildups and climaxes.--Ursula Weiss

NEW YORK

In the early part of this season, the Metropolitan Opera revived its sparse but light-filled, 1991 David Hockney production of Mozart's Die Zauberflote. The cast was dominated by two Canadians, both of whom have established their reputations in their respective roles: tenor Michael Schade as a lyric, seductive-voiced Tamino, and baritone Gerald Finley as an endearing Papageno. Finley must surely be the most outstanding Papageno of his generation. Vocally, he is beyond reproach, while his dramatic instincts and comic timing seem unerring. Soprano Mary Dunleavy made an uneven Queen of the Night, while her counterpart--the sonorous-voiced Jan-Hendrik Rootering as Sarastro--seemed somewhat dramatically detached from the proceedings. While American soprano Angela Maria Blasi has been praised internationally for her portrayal of Pamina, her performance on November 15 bordered on the bland. More intriguing, however, was the gifted young German conductor, Sebastian Weigle, who made an auspicious Met debut with these performances.

The Met also unveiled its new production of Verdi's Il Trovatore, the first of two new Verdi productions at the Met this year (Nabucco premieres in March).

For those familiar with the Met's previous production (an unwieldy monstrosity dating from 1987), the announcement of a new Il Trovatore was greeted with sighs of relief. And what better team than that of the distinguished British director, Graham Vick, and his imaginative costume and set designer, Paul Brown, who were responsible for two of the Met's most memorable recent productions: Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk and Schoenberg's Moses und Aaron.

Unfortunately for Vick and Brown, their winning streak ended when the curtain fell on opening night to a chorus of boos. The production, updated to the 19th century, consisted of a series of disconnected stage pictures, some powerful, but others bemusing and bewildering. By the time I saw the production on December 15, some of the staging had already been altered or dropped.

In the title role, 51-year-old American tenor Neil Shicoff seemed vocally ill at ease most of the evening. Only once did he rise to the occasion with a particularly heartfelt account of Manrico's third-act aria, "Ah si, ben mio, coll'essere." Russian soprano Marina Mescheriakova's Leonora was equally uneven. Although baritone Roberto Frontali was a respectable Count de Luna, it was largely left to gutsy American mezzo soprano Dolora Zajick to keep this Titanic afloat. She sang with power and conviction, winning an enormous ovation.

Other highlights of the fall included James Morris's return to the title role of Wagner's Der Fliegende Hollander. Although the 53-year-old American's bass-baritone has lost some of its lustre and security, he remains a galvanizing Dutchman. Valery Gergiev, the Met's principal guest conductor, led a fiery account of the score, while debuting Swedish soprano Nina Stemme triumphed as Senta.

Another return to the Met by another veteran singer, Cheryl Studer, turned out to be a more melancholy affair. The much-loved American soprano, who has not sung at the Met for nine years, has gone through a much-publicized vocal crisis in recent years, and this high-profile performance of the Marschallin in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier may have been ill-advised. Some of the most magical moments in the score were marred by pitch problems. However, soprano Kristine Jepson sang with fervor and intent, although Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz was an unremarkable Sophie. At some performances, Canadian baritone John Fanning replaced (to good effect, I am told) Alan Opie as Faninal. The production was conducted with verve by the buoyant, albeit quirky, Czech conductor Jiri Kout. --Neil Crory

During their fall season, the New York City Opera continued its successful run of Handel operas with a new production of Rinaldo. For the occasion, the NYCO brought together a stellar cast, led by the remarkable American countertenor David Daniels in the title role. Daniels executed his assignment with distinction, and the rest of the cast was equally up to the challenge. American soprano Christine Goerke tore into the role of the sorceress, Armida, with gusto. Canadian countertenor Daniel Taylor (in his NYCO debut) clearly held his own as Goffredo, Almirena's father, as did Russian bass Denis Sedov (Argante). Lisa Saffer, an affecting Almirena, made a great impression throughout the evening. English conductor Harry Bicket led a stylish, well-paced, and spirited performance.

Designed and directed by Francisco Negrin and Anthony Baker, the production was largely a success. The action kept moving and the eye was constantly delighted and amused, but on more than one occasion, the production leaned dangerously--and unnecessarily--toward camp and self parody. --Neil Crory

The New York City Opera presented a streamlined and direct new presentation of Verdi's Rigoletto, with sets by John Conklin and costumes by Tracy Dorman, strongly accented by Robert Wierzel's atmospheric lighting.

Directed by Rhoda Levine, the cast, if not luminous, was adept in its performance. Canadian baritone Gaetan Laperriere conveyed the title role with a pleasantly smooth, sympathetic voice, although a more individually drawn identification with the tragic jester might have created a more powerful characterization. Misha Didyk (the Duke of Mantua) was spirited and confident in his amorous pursuits, singing with a light, at times somewhat strained, tenor.

Christina Bouras portrayed Gilda with a lovely but slight coloratura soprano. Her girlish appearance and interpretation had an innocence to match the fragile quality of her voice. Peter Volpe (Sparafucile), Brian McIntosh (Monterone) and Kirstin Chavez (Maddalena) were impressive among the supporting singers. George Manahan conducted the lively and finely co-ordinated playing of the orchestra.

It is always a pleasure to return to the NYCO's old but still attractive production of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, which marked John Copley's directorial debut in 1977. The discreet elegance of the Almaviva household as conveyed by Carl Toms' sets and costumes creates an endearing intimacy that invites and enfolds the viewer.

George Cordes played a convincing Figaro with a strong, flexible voice, cleverly and with humor dispatching events towards a happy ending. Canadian soprano Kathleen Brett was a sweet, bright-voiced Susanna, of modest and self-effacing charm, in her movements and poses often reminiscent of 18th-century porcelain figures. Cynthia Clayton acted a Countess Almaviva who bore her husband's slights and infidelity with pain but dignity. Excepting moments of unevenness, her soprano sounded lovely and expressive. Jake Gardner, with his smooth baritone and commanding bearing, portrayed the Count true to form, until properly repentant at the end.

Soprano Marguerite Krull was totally convincing as the youthfully spirited, amorous Cherubino, fleet of voice and action. Peter Strummer (Dr. Bartolo) and Kathryn Day (Marcellina) made a delightfully comic pair who, at times seemed to have stepped right out of the commedia dell'arte. Equally good characterizations were added by Joel Sorensen (Don Basilio) and Kevin Burdette (Antonio). The cast's polished ensemble work benefited further from the lively and even orchestra performance conducted by Steven Mosteller. --Ruth Berges

The exotic East, refracted through a 19-thcentury French lens, held sway at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall when L'Opera francais de New York presented a pair of rare and evanescent one-act operas comiques, dating from 1872, in concert. Canadian artistic director Yves Abel led Saint-Saens' La Princesse Jaune and Bizet's Djamileh, smoothly eliciting pseudo-Oriental strains and quasi-Wagnerian motifs from the singers and the New York Symphonic Arts Orchestra players alike.

Both slight but entertaining works concern true love's tribulations but ultimate triumph. In La Princesse Jaune, Kornelis, a Dutch doctor, escapes into a hallucinogenic haze to commune with his Japanese fantasy lover, Ming, but soon realizes it is his own long-suffering Lena whom he actually adores. In Djamileh, Haroun cavalierly casts aside a lover a month, until his devoted slave, Djamileh, slyly substitutes for her successor and succeeds in winning her master's heart.

Gerard Powers rhapsodized about Ming as Kornelis and mused irreverently about freedom and fickleness as Haroun in a bright and promising lyric tenor. Canada's Cheryl Hickman lent a dark, dramatic soprano to Lena's mock vengeance aria and lament about unrequited love, but sounded uneasy in the highest notes of the bouncy finale. It was luxury casting to have mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick on hand to sing Djamileh's mystical dream narrative, her gently pulsating account of the legend of the King of Lahor and her understated plaint for love lost. Only in the grand statements of the impassioned, Tristan und Isolde-influenced love duet did she unleash the fuller power of her instrument. Tenor Adam Klein took the somewhat sinister buffo part of Haroun's tutor, Spendiano. The musical numbers were sung in French, the dialogue delivered in English. Staging was by Hillary Spector. --Bruce-Michael Gelbert

"This is a very beautiful work, I hope!" With that, Jon Vickers launched into Tennyson's narrative, Enoch Arden, with minimal atmospheric piano touches, at the Mannes College of Music last fall. Vickers, 74, has been presenting this piece since June 1998 (at the Montreal Chamber Music Festival), from California and Ravinia to Washington, D.C., and, most recently, London's Wigmore Hall.

Retired from singing since 1988, he was spellbinding as ever, using his preacher's voice in a tale of unselfish love that could vie with Fidelio's story, with some Peter Grimes echoes of the sea. Wearing his spectacles and a business suit, he used no microphone to tell of a woman loved by two men who marries one, Enoch, only to have him disappear on an ocean voyage, leaving her in poverty with her children. Enoch's faith sustains him, as it did Vickers and his characters in so many operas. The Vickers speaking voice offered crescendos and pianissimi, legato in lengthy sentences, and paid as much attention to textual details as he ever did on the opera stage.

The piece runs about an hour and a half, and could be daunting with its old-fashioned language, but the audience was swept into the story, waiting to discover if Enoch would return or if his wife would give him up for dead and turn to Philip, the wealthy man who also loves her.

Vickers' presentation perhaps could benefit from some lighting and minimal staging, which may be remedied if a video planned by Video Artists International's Ernest Gilbert becomes a reality. (VAI already has issued a CD of the Montreal performance.) Richard Woitach, a former Metropolitan Opera conductor and longtime Vickers collaborator, played the Richard Strauss score at Mannes. --Jeannie Williams

SAN FRANCISCO

San Francisco Opera's world premiere of Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking attracted a great deal of attention, thanks to its association with the film. New York playwright and opera-lover Terrence McNally shaped Sister Helen Prejean's book into a plausible libretto, notable for its directness and clarity of language but also for a tasteful approach. McNally built suspense upon the parallel sequence of the convict Joseph de Rocher's approaching execution and Sister Helen's dedication to gaining the murderer's ultimate confession. But neither he nor Heggie was able to reveal her triumph as anything more than a sentimental alliance between her eroticized persistence and de Rocher's desperation.

Whatever the weaknesses of libretto or score, Dead Man Walking had a big impact on audiences. This success must be traced in real measure to the deceptively simple yet compelling and immediate staging by Joe Mantello, a young Broadway director who had no prior operatic experience. Working within stylized prison settings designed by Michael Yeargan and stunningly lit by Jennifer Tipton, Mantello shaped a painfully plain realism from singers who were trained in the grand gesture yet were dressed down to Salvation Army polyester by Sam Fleming.

Susan Graham imbued Sister Helen's earnest religiosity with an emotional fervor that allowed the character to pass as authentic. Frederica von Stade seemed to go straight into the tormented being of Joseph's mother--a coarse, laboring-poor, white housewife on the surface and Greek tragic victim inside, while John Packard brought the necessary simplicity, rough-muscled swagger and terror to the almost hopelessly unsympathetic role of Joseph.

Heggie should get some credit for the scenes he wrote for yon Stade, and the vocal line was unfailingly clear, precise in diction and prominent. Even so, in reaching to spirituals, to simulated Elvis, to modern composers from Janacek to Britten, the score yielded nothing that was musically memorable. The orchestration, while beautiful in its many obbligato accompaniments, turned quite opaque in louder passages, and the constant reliance on marcato rhythms grew wearisome, despite the sensitive efforts of conductor Patrick Summers.

Later in the season, Charles Mackerras led a production of Semele centered on the delicious Handel singing of Ruth Ann Swenson. Sets and costumes based on Tiepolo, by Henry Bardon and David Walker, corresponded in their total sensuality. Helping to lead a uniformly excellent cast were John Mark Ainsley (Jupiter) and rising Canadian star John Relyea, in the dual part of the painfully proper King Cadmus and the outrageously comic Somnus. --John Bender

INTERNATIONAL

GERMANY

HAMBURG

The Hamburg Staatsoper's revival (Nov. 19) of Willy Decker's acclaimed 1999 production of Pelleas et Melisande proved a major triumph for Canadian baritone Russell Braun. He exhibited all the qualities necessary for a great Pelleas: the light but expressive timbre of the true bariton-martin; exemplary diction and an ability to project Maeterlink's/Debussy's lovely, oblique text; and strong but supple musicality that combined physical gestures with nuances of the score. Braun was at his most impressive in the tower scene as the agitated Pelleas vainly tried to scale set-designer Wolfgang Gossman's surrealistic tower. His struggle to express his desire for Melisande was great musical drama without a hint of banality.

The rest of the cast was impressive, particularly Gabriele Rossmanith, whose radiant, sensuous Melisande formed a perfect complement to Braun's anguished Pelleas; and American David Pittman-Jenning, whose powerful, rough-hewn Golaud was deeply affecting in the final scenes.

Decker's production stressed the symbolic aspects of the drama. The minimal, mostly white elements of the set were brilliantly articulated against a curving cyclorama of huge, frosted windows. Through these Pelleas gazed longingly at Melisande as she passed, half-concealed in shadow. Magritte-inspired props--a huge apple and fish, oversized leaves scattered about the stark, white palace--all underlined the surreal gestures and Freudian overtones of Decker's excellent directorial concepts. --Paul Baker
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Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Mar 22, 2001
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