Canadian Opera Company.
In the tide role, Michael Shade made an admirable Tito, notwithstanding having to prance around the stage in purple pajamas with a rug-like security blanket--opposite the Sesto of Isabel Leonard (indisposed on my night and replaced by the lovely, fast-rising Wallis Giunta), the properly passionate passionate Vitellia of Keri Alkema and the similarly well cast Annio, Publio and Servilia of Sasha Djihanian, Robert Gleadow and Mireille Asselin.
Indeed, both the first cast and the Ensemble Studio cast (the latter headed by Christopher Enns's Tito in Act I and soprano Melanie Diener. The achievement of both singers was made all the more obvious in contrast with the capable but vocally challenged Tristan and Isolde of the alternate cast, headed by the German tenor Michael Baba and the Brunnhilde-like American soprano Margaret Jane Wray, with Franz-Josef Selig an outstanding King Marke in both casts, Davida Karanas a serviceable Brmgane and Alan Held an able Kurwenal.
Owen McCausland's in Act II, with Rihab Chaieb Is Sesto, Claire de Sevigne as Servilia, Sasha Djihanian as Annio and Neil Craighead as Publio), served the music well under the debuting young Israeli conductor Daniel Cohen.
But opera goers take their eyes as well as their ears to the theatre and it is surely no directorial gift to them to sacrifice the visual character of a work on the alter of contemporization.
In addition to praiseworthy work in raising musical standards at the COC over the past few seasons, General Director Alexander Neef has exposed Toronto audiences to a fashionable trend in European opera productions, away from literalism to a freeing of the creative imaginations of directors and designers. This season's Peter Sellars recreation of his 2005 Paris Opera production of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde provided a case in point.
The production eschewed scenery in favor of backing the singers with a large projection screen, centered over a darkened stage, to accommodate a flow of moving images by the brilliant video artist BillViola. The images featured a pair of minimally clad lovers as well as many beautiful natural scenes. The problem was that by juxtaposing largely static stage performers (Sellars' direction was nothing if not minimal) with constantly moving screen images, the production effectively drew the audience's eyes toward the latter, threatening to reduce Wagner's music to the role of a film score.
More's the pity because the music was so well served in this production, with COC Music Director Johannes Debus conducting Wagner's score for the first time, yet already exhibiting a superb grasp of tempi and phrasing that kept the music moving in the most natural manner.
Special attention naturally focused on Ben Heppner's Tristan, marking as it did the return of Canada's greatest tenor to the COC's main stage in opera after a shocking 17-year absence. He was in commanding voice and musical authority, opposite the comparably full-voiced Isolde of German