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The Canadian Opera Company followed its superb production of The Handmaid's Tale with a truly awful staging of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, sabotaged by sets by Christine Jones, which almost turned 18th-century Scotland into a land of corrugated icebergs, depriving director James Robinson of advantageous playing areas.

Although more effective musically than dramatically, it had, in Russian soprano Marina Mescheriakova, a protagonist less able to exploit the coloratura potential of the principal role than one might have wished. Opposite her, the fine lyric tenor of Japan's debuting Yasu Nakajima (Edgardo) and the even finer lyric baritone of Russell Braun (Enrico) seemed much better cast, along with the Turkish bass of Burak Bilgili (Raimondo). Supporting players included John Kriter's Normanno, Joni Henson's Alisa and Luc Robert's Arturo.

Maurizio Barbacini conducted idiomatically, if permissibly, with most of the standard cuts restored. Overall, it turned out to be a Lucia best experienced with eyes closed.--William Littler

The Canadian Opera Company's now-traditional, season-presaging series of concerts by the lake celebrated a number of anniversaries this year. It was the 25th anniversary of the COC's first appearance at Toronto's harbourfront, though the venue then was a tent rather than the open-air Harbourfront Centre. It was the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble, most of whose members have performed in the concerts over the years. It was, finally, the 10th year that the concerts, and the associated opera camp for kids, has been sponsored by Altamira Investment Services.

It has become a hugely popular series, presenting both ensemble members and some of the headliners of upcoming productions. Thus, at the first of three concerts, soprano Marina Mescheriakova opened the vocal lineup with an affecting account of "Io son l'umile ancella" from Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur and closed it with a fiery, clearly articulated performance of "Ernani, involami" from Verdi's Ernani. In between, baritone Russell Braun made a hair-raising entry from the audience for "Largo al factotum" from Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia and also gave us a taste of a role he's learning for San Diego Opera with Wolfram's ode to the evening star from Wagner's Tannhauser. Burgit Bilgili impressed again for the power, clarity and richness of his bass in arias by Gounod and Rossini, while soprano Frederique Vezina sang Gounod's "Repentir" languidly and beautifully.

At the first concert, the COC Ensemble was well represented by soprano Joni Henson, tenor Luc Robert, baritones Peter Barrett and Peter McGillivray and bass Robert Gleadow. I would expect that the names of these very talented singers will appear frequently in these pages as their careers progress. As usual, COC General Director Richard Bradshaw provided lively and dramatic support with the scaled-down COC Orchestra, whose leader, Marie Berard, also played an exquisitely felt "Meditation" from Massenet's Thais. Less usual, Bradshaw was part of the vocal lineup this year, assaying Lennon and McCartney's "When I'm 64" as part of his running commentary between numbers. As a vocalist, Bradshaw is fearless in his delivery, perhaps tending to rely too much on sprechgesang, though showing remarkable technique in his ability to shift seamlessly through many unrelated keys, often from bar to bar. Whether he should quit his day job for the lyric stage is, however, debatable.--Wayne Gooding

The Spanish zarzuela El Gato Montes was one of Opera in Concert's most powerful performances in recent memory. Manuel Penella wrote both the libretto and score for the work, which premiered in Valencia in 1916. Penella was clearly influenced by verismo. El Gato Montes has virtually no spoken dialogue and is basically a series of through-composed conversations leading to a tragic conclusion.

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Music director Jose Hernandez is a tenor, vocal coach and pianist of note, and all three of these considerable skills were used to best effect in crafting El Gato Montes into such a stirring performance. Hernandez pulled out all the dramatic stops and fashioned his cast into actors, and his piano accompaniment was filled with expressive nuance. And Robert Cooper's OinC chorus covered itself in glory performing Penella's complicated choral passages.

The story revolves around the divided loyalties of Solea (American soprano Arlene Alvarado), a young girl who is betrothed to the matador, Rafael (tenor Keith Klassen), but who still harbors feelings of love for Juanillo, a bandit and the wildcat of the title (baritone Sean Watson). Secondary characters include a gypsy fortune-teller (mezzo-soprano Margaret Maye), Frasquita, Rafael's mother (mezzo-soprano Liliana Piazza), the jolly priest, Father Anton (bass-baritone Gerrit Theule), and Hormigon, Rafael's picador (baritone Trevor Bowes). The plaintive song of a child shepherd (Tristan Paul Hernandez) figures into the mix as a symbol of death.

Alvarado is a stunning discovery with a soaring, goose-bump-inducing top and warm, woody lower registers. Klassen is sounding like a young Alfredo Kraus, albeit a bit of a pinched one. When he totally frees his beautiful voice, gorgeous, honey-covered tones pour out. The vibrant and robust sound of Watson perhaps indicates Verdi and Puccini somewhere in his future as his plush voice deepens and darkens. The experienced Polish-born Maye has rich, easy, plummy tones and deserves a bigger career in her adopted country. The rest of the talented cast came out of the OinC Chorus, and all show enormous promise.--Paula Citron

A curious thing happened to Royal Opera Canada. The company, formerly Opera Mississauga, gave no performances of its season opener, Verdi's La traviata, at Mississauga's Living Arts Centre. Rather, it gave only the scheduled Toronto Centre for the Arts shows--this from a company renamed last year as Royal Opera Canada with a mandate to mount productions in both locales.

La traviata was, alas, a quintessential example of ROC's productions: fairly well sung and played, and abysmally directed, this time by Italian Maurizio Di Mattia. The acting component was so had as to leave the listener emotionally bereft. The set from Philadelphia and costumes from Montreal were insipid and uninteresting. At least with conductor and ROC artistic director Dwight Bennett on board, the orchestra was quite reliable, except for a few bowing problems. In fact, the only passion in this performance came from the pit, and the only consistent thing one can say about ROC is that Bennett knows his music well, and his strength lies in understanding dramatic possibilities.

The singers, imported from Italian provincial houses, at least could sing, but were total sticks as actors and chained to the conductor--another factor in the emotional disengagement. Fernanda Costa (Violetta) displayed a clear, sharp voice that she could cleverly manipulate for color, while Orfeo Zanetti (Alfredo) had a strong, if throaty, tenor. Alfio Grasso (Giorgio Germont) sported a mature baritone with a woofy top and a vibrato throughout that masked his musicality. Among the Canadian secondary cast, mezzo-soprano Marcia Whitehead (Flora) showed promise, as did tenor Vanya Abrahams (Gastone). Bass Marcel Beaulieu did a sympathetic turn as Dr. Grenvil, while chorusmaster Annick Santschi breathed musical life into the ROC chorus.--Paula Citron
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Title Annotation:CANADA
Author:Littler, William; Gooding, Wayne; Citron, Paula
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Dec 15, 2004
Words:1154
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Next Article:II barbiere di Siviglia: Gregory Dahl (Figaro) in the Saskatoon Opera production.


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