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TORONTO.

One of the measures of the Canadian Opera Company's growth over the past 30 years is the difference between its two productions of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, the first mounted in Toronto's O'Keefe (now Sony) Centre in September 1979, the second in the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts last Apr./May.

The 1979 production paired Louis Quilico in the title role with his son, Gino, also a baritone, singing Paolo. Although a substantial accomplishment, it represented a level of production and performance regularly surpassed by the company since moving into a real opera house and greatly surpassed by the debuting Ian Judge's remount of his Royal Opera, Covent Garden production this season. A stylized yet basically traditional and rather handsome production, with sets by John Gunter and costumes by Deirdre Clancy, it emerged as the season highlight, dominated by the towering figure of Italy's Paolo Gavanelli in the title role, like Quilico a real Verdi baritone with rich resources of tone and a commanding stage presence.

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The Paolo this time was American baritone Daniel Sutin, who joined Tamara Wilson (Amelia), Mikhail Agafonov (Gabriele), Phillip Ens (Fiesco), Alain Coulombe (Pietro), Michael Barrett (a captain) and Erin Fisher (Amelia's maidservant) to produce a consistently strong vocal team, supported by typically excellent work from Sandra Horst's Canadian Opera Chorus.

As expertly as Nicola Resigno presided in the pit in 1979, it was a much mproved ensemble functioning in sonically superior conditions that greeted debuting Italian conductor Marco Guidarini this time. Using the 1881 revised version of the score, he revealed an idiomatic feel for Verdi rhythms, drawing responsive playing from the orchestra throughout.

By comparison with Simon Boccanegra, the COC's April-May staging of Puccini's La boheme marked a regression to competent routine. Last seen in 2005, this Skalicki-designed Boheme (sets by Wolfram, costumes by his wife, Amrei) has been around since the Mansouri years. Though serviceable and nicely lit by Stephen Ross, it looks tired now. Maer Gronsdal Powell added a few fresh directorial touches, but she did not succeed in lifting the evening above a business-as-usual level.

It didn't help that her Musetta, Anna Leese, made a vocally and dramatically stronger impression than her Mimi, FrederiqueVezina, effectively turning the Act II Waltz Song into aria number one. And although both David Pomeroy (Rodolfo) and Peter Barrett (Marcello) possessed bright, thrusting voices, neither sang with much subtlety. Robert Gledow (Colline), Peter McGillivray (Schaunard) and Thomas Goerz (Benoit and Alcindoro) also contributed to the cast.

Julian Kovatchev, Musical Director of the Sofia Philharmonic, led a leisurely, expressive and sometimes indulgently stretched reading of the familiar score, and the orchestra played well for him.

The orchestra faced a special challenge accompanying the company's first presentation of Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream in May, a score notable for transparency and refinement and thus wisely held in reserve until the company's move to the Four Seasons Centre.

A co-production with Houston Grand Opera, with sets and costumes by Dale Ferguson and lighting by Damien Cooper, it turned out to be a staging sensitive to the character of the music, with the soft, slithering strings of the opening measures cleverly mirrored in the mysteriously woodsy stage picture. With the support of an especially sympathetic pit acoustic, Anne Manson had her players on their proverbial toes, producing Britten's delicately weighted tones with a high level of precision, while supporting a cast liberally populated by vulnerable, high-pitched voices from the Canadian Children's Opera Company.

No one lightly embarks upon this opera without employing a first-rate countertenor in the role of Oberon, and in his mainstage debut with the company, American Lawrence Zazzo filled the bill, opposite the lovely Tytania of Laura Claycomb, with the quartet of lovers effectively sung by Adam Luther (Lysander), Elizabeth DeShong (Hermia), Wolfgang Holzmeier (Demitrius) and Giselle Allen (Hermia).

Among the rustics, Robert Pomakov rightly stood out as Bottom, joined by Thomas Goerz (Quince), Michael Uloth (Snug), Alexander Hajek (Starveling), Lawrence Wiliford (Flint) and Michael Barrett (Snout). Robert Gledow and Kelley O'Connor appeared as the patrician Theseus and Hyppolita and Jamaal Grant as a nimble Puck. A magical night was had by all.-William Littler

Closing its 24th season, Toronto Operetta Theatre's production of Iolanthe (seen Apr. 19) was filled with fun and projected with considerable finesse. The high spirits, catchy melodies, mockery of imperial institutions and rapid-fire ditties that made the 19th-century creators famous were all present in this collective achievement, for which a strong vocal team had been recruited. Sullivan's melodious music is constructed with wit and an ear for earlier classical composers, and thus the score--here played by a lively, 10-piece orchestra--requires crisp direction, and got it from conductor Robert Cooper.

The unfolding mini-dramas also require acting smarts, and on stage this was TOT General Director Guillermo Silva-Marin's charge (he was also responsible for the effective lighting design). It's all very well to be able to handle contemporary English words, but the cast has to act and move rather than just stand and sing. This they mostly did, with some nifty choreography a bonus.

The best voices belonged to baritone Andrew Tees as the rigid Coldstream Guardsman eyed by the Queen of the Fairies and mezzo Wendy Hatala Foley, who was in comfortable, majestic voice throughout. Also heard to advantage was baritone David Ludwig as the pompous, law-obsessed Chancellor trying in vain to suppress his amorous intentions and the bouncy, experienced and always reliable soprano Elizabeth DeGrazia (Phyllis), whose vocal range and expressiveness suited her role. Her duet with tenor Cory O'Brien's fervent Strephon, "If we're weak enough to marry," was one of many highlights. Mezzo Mia Harris (Iolanthe) had delicate low tones, but clearly showed her credentials as an operatic voice of consequence. Her "My lord, a suppliant at your feet" was lovely.

Amidst all the dazzling wordplay, riotous rhythms, satire and silliness, the fairy and courtly singers were on the plus side of the musical ledger, with bass-baritone Lawrence Cotton really relishing his part as Lord Moutararat. The Act I finale, "When darkly looms the day," as well as the show's Act II conclusion, "Soon as we may, off and away," were ensemble efforts of considerable appeal among the many pleasures of this engaging comedy.-Geoff Chapman

Tapestry New Opera's production of The Shadow, by composer Omar Daniel and librettist Alex Poch-Goldin, made a darkly humorous and dramatically arresting entry at its world premiere May 22.

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The setting is old Barcelona, where there's a tradition of hiring elegantly and expensively dressed collection agents to shadow debtors and publically humiliate them until debts are repaid. In Poch-Goldin's tightly crafted libretto--a deliciously deft operatic debut for the actor-writer--a postman, Raoul, borrows heavily to woo Allegra. It's not actually the humble Raoul who does the wooing, but the supposedly rich Hernando, an alter ego created by the postman, who has set out to answer some fatally revealing questions: "Who would I be with her heart tied to mine? How would it feel if I changed my life?" When things go comically awry on the financial front, Raoul/Hernando can't shake the debtor's Shadow. Even after a couple of murders to set matters right--a hapless waiter in a restaurant where the bill can't be paid and an attempt to throttle the Shadow--Raoul loses Allegra and is left sitting helpless, face to face with the Shadow that will never go away.

We're in absurdist territory in this opera, a world of dark impulses and imaginings, where private inner worlds break through public masks. Shakespeare's Fal-staff lightly refers to the inner world as "our Saturday selves," but Jung talks of "a shadow side ... of a positively demonic dynamism." The opera impressively exemplifies the same dualism; playfulness and farce animate The Shadow's external storyline, but the comic evocation of the dark side leaves you with the disquieting sense that you're in a room full of dirty little secrets--and wondering whether you've let any of your own slip out.

Director Tom Diamond's nuanced and witty direction played on the Everyman aspect of the piece by using the auditorium aisles as part of the stage, fully engaging the audience in the already intimate Berkeley Street Theatre. He also encouraged the singers to make lots of direct, almost knowing, eye contact with the audience. Camellia Koo's simple but highly functional backdrop, an arched wall with an impressionistic cityscape carved out along the top, allowed full use of the stage's small revolve, so scenes could be set with just a few props to suggest the shifting locations indoors and out. The backdrop and floor had a crazy paving pattern, which, with Robert Thomson's carefully cued lighting design, heightened the sense that all was unfolding in a psychological rather than a physical space.

Among a very fine ensemble of singers, pride of place must go to baritone Peter McGillivray as Raoul/Hernando. His central role bears the biggest burden, and he negotiated the difficult and taxing score with great musical skill and all the dramatic chops to create a strong, pivotal character. Countertenor Scott Belluz, resplendent in a long, pleated topcoat and dark glasses, threw himself with evident relish into the diabolical title role, for which composer Daniel made full use of a high singing voice and lower speaking voice to create the Shadow's other-worldly presence. Soprano Carla Huhtanen created a winsomely lovelorn Allegra, a powerful and eloquent presence in an otherwise all-male ensemble, while the not-inconsiderable supporting roles of the moneylender and the waiter (a kind of Faulty Towers Manuel in musical overdrive) were vividly handled by, respectively, baritone Theodore Baerg and tenor Keith Klassen. This is first and foremost an ensemble piece, and it's for the excellence of this that the singers and the seven-piece orchestral ensemble conducted by Tapestry Managing Artistic Director Wayne Strongman deserve the greatest kudos. Daniel's score is a difficult one, notable for its its dense texture with economical means, the exploration of color in every instrument and the care taken with musical detail. When Raoul first sings, for example, the line goes oddly so far out of McGillivray's baritone range that he had to resort to falsetto. The reason why only becomes musically clear later, when we first hear the speaking and singing range of Raoul's Shadow. That may seem a bit too academically well wrought--Daniel is Associate Professor in the Department of Music Research and Composition at the University of Western Ontario--but in fact Daniel and Poch-Goldin have fashioned a splendidly theatrical piece, one of the strongest developed by Tapestry.--Wayne Gooding

As the opening of the third annual Luminato Festival, Soundstreams premiered R. Murray Schafer's The Children's Crusade. Based on an episode in 1212 in France, the story tells of a young boy, Stephen, who becomes the Holy Child, "the lamb of God." He believes his mission is to lead a crusade to the Holy Land, where his followers will join Muslim and Jewish children and reject war in favor of love and peace. From a worldly point of view, the crusade ended in disaster. The children either drowned in the Mediterranean Sea or starved to death or were sold into slavery. However, from a spiritual stance, the crusade represents a triumph, since the children are taken into heaven.

Schafer's score is an eclectic mix of diverse styles: Western and Near Eastern idioms and a combination of medieval and modern instruments. As Stephen, Jacob Abrahamse acquitted himself very well (Jun. 6) in a long and taxing role (the performance ran for 90 minutes without intermission). Ariana, the Muslim girl, was played by Maryem Tollar, while David Houle danced the role of David, a Jewish boy. Sonya Gosse and Scott Belluz handled their inconsequential parts as the Old Hag and Damien as best they could. Vocally, the standout performance came from Wallis Giunta in her all-too-brief solo as the King's Mistress. Her lustrous voice cut through the dusty atmosphere and less-than-friendly acoustic of the derelict factory where the show was staged. Most of the speaking parts--the Magus, the King, Moloch (the brothel owner) and William Porcus (governor of Marseilles)--received a bravura performance by Diego Metamoros.

Both performers and production staff achieved their own miracles in overcoming adversities during rehearsals, of which rain damage was probably the least. Yet the show did go on, although 24 hours late.

From the audience's viewpoint, things were also literally challenging. For the first hour, we moved from station to station on our own pilgrimage. This had the effect of presenting a different angle on each scene, but with the disadvantage that one had to strain to glimpse the action through a forest of heads and shoulders.

Much more effective was the location for the last 30 minutes: a large, rectangular space with seats and adequate standing room. Suddenly, the performance became much more involving. The chorus of waves on the floor mimed the rise and fall of the sea, which refused to part to allow the children safe passage to the Holy Land. The entrance of the trusting children into the sea, only to be dragged down by the hands of the waves, was deeply moving. Even more so was the appearance of the Angel Choir to lead their souls to heaven. Congratulations to director Tim Albery, especially on this highly imaginative conclusion, and to David Fallis, who demonstrated the loneliness of the long-distance conductor, holding the score together through all the various changes of location.-Eric Domville

Opera Atelier revived its production of Monteverdi's final masterpiece, L'incoronazione di Poppea, at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto for six performances in April/May. A modern production of Poppea must be an imaginative reconstruction; Opera Atelier chose the instrumentally rich edition by the British editor Clifford Bartlettwhich Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra played beautifully. The score was heavily cut, presumably in the interest of time (and money) and to move things along, but less music does not always mean more speed and often the performance dragged.

Male soprano Michael Maniaci elegantly sang the role of Nero in the soprano register in which it is written, but the mezzo-soprano role of Ottone was sung by baritone Olivier Laquerre, albeit effectively. Peggy Kriha Dye sang the title role and Joao Fernandes, in his Canadian debut, was Seneca. David Fallis adroitly negotiated the subtle rhythms of the score, but without the command to infuse much conviction into the singing. The only performer who forcefully used language as well as voice to project a mood in this most declamatory of operas was Kimberly Barber in the short but powerful role as the wronged queen, Ottavia.

Director Marshall Pynkoski has moved away from an earlier insistence on highly stylized movement in favor of what might be described as an aesthetic reconstruction of a work. This is often effective if only Pynkoski would not yield to the cheap and sexy. Gerard Gauci's ornately painted sets and Dora Rust D'Eye's costumes are undeniably eye-catching, but they do tend to make all productions look more or less the same.

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Opera Atelier deserves nothing but praise for the forgotten and ignored repertoire it has brought to the stage. But in this Poppea there were signs that repetitiveness could become parody, which would be to everyone's loss. Perhaps it is time to step back and take stock.--Carl Morey

The Canadian Opera Company Studio Ensemble rotated through four days of Cost fan tutte performances at season's end, with the second cast (seen Jun. 17) employing a more experienced sextet of principals, half of them Studio graduates. The result was that Mozart's jaunty opera buffa was a polished, lively affair with a strikingly light sheen.

Cost, once considered risque but now a hugely popular opera, is a long outing for the principals, with heavy demands on solo singing and acting. Notwithstanding the usually sexist translation of its title and the misogynistic nature of the silly plot supposedly testing the faithfulness of fiancees Fiordigli (soprano Laura Albino) and Dorabella (mezzo Lauren Segal), the singers were almost impeccable in projecting their vacillating feelings and in making their acting real and relaxed as opposed to the stiff, forced movement often encountered in more senior musical realms. Give credit here to director Michael Albano, who also extracted hilariously comic interpretations from his charges.

The performance was also helped by the acute orchestral sensitivity shaped by Mozart specialist Martin Isepp, who demonstrated an excellent and well-paced sense of dynamics and contrast that elevated the delightful sounds that course relentlessly through this frothy concoction. Albino was fresh-voiced and agile, with a gorgeous top range and author of a really impressive Act II aria of self-exploration, while Segal's plummier tones were often exquisite, a model of clarity and warmth.

Baritone Justin Welsh (Guglielmo) and tenor Peter Barrett (Ferrando) played the arrogant soldiers so sure of their partners' faithfulness that they fall victim to cynical Don Alfonso (bass-baritone Jon-Paul Decosse), supported in his schemes by Despina (soprano Teiya Kasahara). Welsh has expressive control over his powerful voice, while Barrett has a well-focused approach, although at times he was straining. Decosse displays sharp timing, craft and attention to detail throughout, but could have used more bluster. Kasahara's worldly-wise and fun-loving interpretation was a tuneful delight and she's up for humorous turns while impersonating a doctor and a notary.

All managed to make da Ponte's libretto more serious than it is--all to the good--and combine for thrilling four-, five- and six-part singing. Yet Mozart's delicious wit was never overshadowed by unnecessary gimmicks in this splendid production.--GC

With its delightful production of Henry Purcell's and John Dryden's King Arthur, Toronto Masque Theatre completed its five-year Purcell cycle. Since the company's debut five years ago, it has been interesting to watch TMT under Artistic Director Larry Beckwith find its footing. He has found collaborators, specifically director Derek Boyes, period choreographer Marie-Nathalie Lacoursiere and projection artist Caroline Guibault, to help mount these huge entertainments, albeit in reduced circumstances.

The plot of King Arthur, such as it is, revolves around a Saxon/Briton conflict. TMT fielded a cast of 25 actors, singers and dancers accompanied by a 14-member Baroque ensemble. For the sake of expediency, the company performed all the music and drastically reduced the text. TMT always attracts talent, and the speaking cast contained a who's who of Canadian actors: John Jarvis (Merlin), Darren Keay (Arthur), Caitlin Stewart (Emmeline), Arlene Mazerolle (Mathilda), Jason Gray (Oswald) and Glen Gaston (Osmond). Lacoursiere choreographed for four dancers, including herself. (She also designs the costumes and plays the recorder on occasion.) For this production, there were also six supernumeraries, mostly from Sheridan College, who functioned as Britons and Saxons. The surroundings, such as an enchanted forest, were established by Guibault's stunning and stylized projection art. There isn't enough money for everyone to wear costumes, but there was certainly elaborate medieval apparel, particularly in the extended finale for the dancers.

The production (seen Apr. 23) was musically sound. In Dryden/Purcell masques, there is a clear division between the singers and the actors. A spoken scene is usually followed by songs and dances. The nine singers--Teri Dunn, Anne Grimm and Agnes Zsigovics (sopranos), Daniel Cabena and Peter Mahon (altos), Daniel Auchincloss and Keith Klassen (tenors) and Andrew Mahon (baritone) and Giles Tomkins (bass-baritone)--functioned as the chorus, which was stationed in the orchestra pit. Special mention should be made of Zsigovics, whose shimmering, light, feathery voice is perfect for early music. The others sang with distinction. The charming music ran the gamut from ribald drinking songs to lyrical, bucolic hymns, but, as ever, diction remained a problem.-Paula Citron

Toronto's Opera in Concert ended its season in March with the world premiere of Charles Wilson's 1975 Kamouraska, to a libretto by the composer after Anne Hebert's gothic murder mystery of old Quebec. Wilson revised his score for this presentation, the original coming to light a few years ago when OinC was preparing the same composer's The Summoning of Everyman.

In this concert performance, accompanied by a 14-piece ensemble conducted by Alex Pauk, Kamouraska proved juicy music theatre, with vivid characters (albeit none of them very sympathetic) and a well-wrought, cinematic plotline that maintained tension nicely. From the opening musical gambit on flute and sustained strings, the music proceeds in an angular and fragmentary manner, with lots of glis-sandi and crisp rhythms but few melodic lines. The shifting, seething sounds paint the right psychological picture, however, and one must admire Wilson's ability to pack a powerful musical punch with an economy of resources. Very much music of its time, it reminded me of Richard Rodney Bennett's The Mines of Sulphur, composed about a dozen years earlier.

OinC's young cast made a strong case for the piece, with baritone Alexander Dobson (Dr. George Nelson) and Miriam Khalil (Elizabeth) making a particularly effective pair of murderous lovers. There were good performances, too, from tenor James McLennan (Antoine, Elizabeth's abusive first husband and the murder victim), Jenny Cohen (Aurelie, the maid who resists complicity in the murder plot), Loralie Kirkpatrick (Elizabeth as an older woman), and Gillian Grossman, Mia Harris and Erica Iris Huang as three Aunts who came across vividly as a viciously gossipy Greek chorus. Kudos goes to OinC General Director Guillermo Silva-Marin for bringing a significant Canadian work back to performing life. On the basis of this performance, Kamouraska sounds as if it warrants a fully staged production.--WG
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Date:Sep 22, 2009
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