Canadian Opera on the rise

Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company overwhelmed its audience with just such
perfection in the production of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra that opened the company’s spring season in the still-new Four Seasons
Centre for the Performing Arts.

The staging, new at London’s Covent Garden a year ago, was directed by
Ian Judge, who in addition to his credentials as one of today’s top
international directors of opera, looks back on a quarter century with
England’s Royal Shakespeare Company. Although the libretto for
Boccanegra is largely by Francesco Maria Piave, Judge brought the
insights of a major Shakespearean to Verdi’s 1881 revision of the work,
first staged in Venice in 1857.

Judge has a strong sense of dramatic flow of “Boccanegra” and
thus eschewed the divisions into acts and the in-between-curtains that
traditionally interrupt it. With a single intermission after the curse that
ends the Council scene, this was a staging, seen on May 3, that kept the
audience almost breathlessly engaged throughout its three hours.

In the title role Italy’s leading Verdian Paolo Gavanelli headed a
cast without a weak link. Especially for those who saw Dmitri Hvorostovsky in
this role in San Francisco last fall, Gavanelli brought a new depth to the

Minus the Russian’s Hollywood handsomeness, Gavanelli’s
Boccanegra was good generation older than the man played by Hvorstovsky. The
result was a man of greater seriousness and experience, indeed a man Lear-like
in his dignity and suffering. Vocally Gavanelli set the standard for the rest
of the cast. Tamara Wilson, a young American soprano from Houston’s
studio program, played Maria as a woman both intelligent and vulnerable and
handled high notes with power or delicacy — as the moment demanded.

Canada’s Phillip Ens was impressive as Fiesco, and Russian Mikhail
Agafonov was his equal as Adorno. Marco Guidarini, respected as a Verdi
conductor throughout Europe, displayed a fine sense for both music and drama in
his work with the COC’s excellent orchestra. And the chorus, rehearsed by
Sandra Horst, was fully caught up in the drama.

Sets by John Gunter were traditional with touches of modernity in sloping
walls and a titled pillar. Lavishly rich costumes were by Deirdre Clancy. Nigel
Levings was responsible for unusually effective lighting.

Judge brought Shakespearean majesty to the death of Boccanegra, an aspect
clearly in the mind as he indicated in a program note on the opera: “It
has all the qualities of a Shakespeare play. Verdi loved Shakespeare. He wrote
[here] a Shakespeare drama in his own way, and that’s what is
terrific.” This was indeed and in every way a terrific

simon03.jpg.gifTamara Wilson as Maria Boccanegra and Paolo Gavanelli as Simon Boccanegra

All in all, this production, although planned when the late Richard Bradshaw
was still COC CEO, speaks highly of the commitment to continuing excellence by
new general director Alexander Neef and recently appointed music director
Johannes Debus. (Bradshaw had filled both offices.)

Second triumph of the COC spring season was Benjamin Britten’s
Midsummer Nights Dream in a co-production with Houston Grand
Opera, seen on its opening night May 5. For the staging of the 1960 work
designer Dale Ferguson — responsible for both sets and costumes —
created a dreamscape that drew the capacity audience into the world of
enchantment that Britten made of Shakespeare’s drama.

Animation was brought to the diaphanous set in spring-like shades of green
by an immense “sleep sheet” that spanned the stage and descended on
Britten’s characters when they truly slept. Ferguson’s richly
imaginative land — upside-down trees decorated the set — provided
an ideal environment for the ethereal singing that distinguished the

dream05.gifLaura Claycomb as Tytania

As Tytania and Oberon, rulers of the fairy world, Laura Claycomb and
Lawrence Zazzo led the large cast that was superb in both serious and comic
moments. Texan Claycomb, of course, is a leading figure on the international
opera scene, and with her often buoyant chiffon train was a major force in
making this production a transcendent experience.

And Zazzo, confined for the most part to a gondola swinging above the stage,
sang with a voice of unusual resonance that places him a step above the many
countertenors on stage today. Mezzo Kelley O’Connor, famous for her
performances of Peter Lieberson and Oswaldo Golijov, was a beautiful Hippolyta,
perfectly partnered by Robert Gleadow as Theseus.

Adam Luther (Lysander), Elizabeth DeShong (Hermia), Wolfgang Holzmair (Demetrius)
and Giselle Allen (Helena) — excellent all — completed the company
of confused lovers. The rustic troupe responsible for the play-within-the-play
in Dream was delightfully led by Thomas Goerz, while Robert
Pomakov was a touching Bottom. As Flute, the role written for Peter Pears,
Lawrence Wiliford recalled that Britten wrote his bel canto aria as a send-up
of Joan Sutherland, whom he had recently heard as Lucia.

dream03.gif(l – r) Lawrence Zazzo as Oberon, Laura Claycomb as Tytania, Robert Pomakov (lying on ground) as Bottom and Jamaal Grant as Puck

Jamaal Grant played Puck — a speaking role — with the joy of the
prankster that the character is. Of special distinction was the contribution
made to the staging by the well-trained children’s choir.

Director Neil Armfield and conductor Anne Manson worked together to
underscore the need for a proper balance of foolishness and gravity in the
opera — and in life.

Damien Cooper’s sensitive lighting added to the magic of this
exemplary production.

Given the admirable quality of these two productions, it is difficult to
understand that the COC could allow itself the embarrassing mediocrity of the
BohËme that completed the company’s spring season.

The revival of the company’s traditional 2005 staging — sets and
costumes by, respectively, Wolgang Skalicki and Amrei Skalicki — was cast
largely with alumni of the COC Ensemble Studio now singing with Canada’s
regional companies.

boheme06.gifAnna Leese as Musetta, Peter Barrett as Marcello, David Pomeroy as Rodolfo and FrÈdÈrique VÈzina as MimÏ

David Pomeroy (Rodolfo), Peter Barrett (Marcello), Peter McGillivray (Schaunard) and FrÈdÈrique VÈzina (MimÏ) all failed to make emotional contact
with the roles they sang.

Better qualified for her assignment as Musetta was New Zealand’s Anna
Leese, yet she too was painfully over- directed by Maer Gronsdal Powell,
heretofore assistant to numerous directors of COC productions.

On her own here, Powell was at a loss for meaningful ideas that might have
brought a dramatic impact to the staging that ran its course with no sense of
direction. And COC Derek Bate, on the podium on May 4, chose for the final act
a dirge-like tempo that left one wondering whether Mimi was going to live
forever after all.

Hard as it is to imagine a BohËme that leaves an audience dry
eyed, that was the unhappy case here.

The Canadian Opera Company now ranks sixth among opera companies in North
America. Statistics provided by Opera America list the six first in terms of budget: the Met, $252 million, San
Francisco Opera, $70 million, Chicago Lyric Opera, $54.3 million, Los Angeles
Opera, $51 million, and New York City Opera, $42 million. And in number of
performances, the COC with 68 slated for the up-coming season, is third after
the Met with 225 and Chicago with 72.

In the past two seasons — this is the third in Toronto’s Four
Seasons Centre — the COC has played to 99% of capacity houses, which is
the record in North America. In Chicago it has been 93%; at the Met, 90%. In
the same period the COC’s annual subscription rate has been 75%, again a
North American record. In Chicago the average is 68%; at the Met, 32%.

The COC is clearly a company on the rise!

Wes Blomster

image_description=Tamara Wilson as Maria Boccanegra [Photo by Michael Cooper courtesy of Canadian Opera Company]
product_title=Canadian Opera on the rise
product_id=Above: Tamara Wilson as Maria Boccanegra
All photos by Michael Cooper courtesy of Canadian Opera Company