A Toronto Trilogy

Dazzling vocalism ensured constant musical delight in the company’s
Semele, an oratorio-turned-opera that has been getting wider play on
world stages as more and more singers appear who can actually meet the
score’s interpretive demands.

Jane Archibald as Semele (foreground) and William Burden as Jupiter (background) in Semele

Jane Archibald surely has few (any?) equals in the title role, her plush
silvery soprano filling the house with a vibrant presence. Hers is one of the
most assured techniques in the business, and she tossed of the coloratura of
“Myself I shall adore” with utter confidence and great tonal beauty. The
jaw-dropping accuracy and breath-taking rapidity of the (almost non-stop)
melismas did not seem intended to be heard merely by mortal ears. But Ms.
Archibald was much more that flash and dazzle. Her sonorous, limpid treatment
of Handel’s legato phrases was no less impressive.

Moreover, as an actress, Jane is a total natural, her movement fluid and
spontaneous, her gestures motivated and meaningful, her interaction with fellow
characters committed and collegial. The fact that she flawlessly intoned her
first famous aria while being flown like an angel figure, descending from the
flies and hovering twenty feet above the stage, is nothing short of
miraculously concentrated artistry. A lovely physical presence married to
first-tier artistry, Jane Archibald can likely write her operatic future as she

Allyson McHardy was also a potent force with which Semele has to reckon, in
her dual roles of Ino and Juno. Her pliable, plummy mezzo was not only cleanly
and evenly produced, but Ms. McHardy was able to damn’ near match the
heroine’s vocal pyrotechnics, as evidenced by a riveting, hair-raising
account of “Hence, hence, Iris, hence away.” If Allyson had brought any
more blazingly accurate intensity to this aria, I am not sure my heart could
have stood it!

The reliable, chameleon-like William Burden turned in yet another memorable,
finely tuned, beautifully judged performance as Jupiter. This fine tenor is so
effortlessly terrific in such a wide variety of roles and genres, that it could
be easy to take him for granted. As usual, he does not disappoint, treating us
to superbly controlled, meaningfully phrased Handel that is invested with
emotional import, freely produced tone, and meticulous diction. His hushed,
languid Where’er you walk was alone worth the priced of admission. And
William-the-Handsome certainly has the physique du rÙle to
impersonate any super hero he wants.

The role of Athamas is assumed by highly skilled counter-tenor Anthony Roth
Costanzo, who impresses me even more every time I hear him. His easy projection
and skillful florid singing were knitted to a forward-placed tone of
considerable power and color. Mr. Costanzo has a special gift for blending
descents to lower notes into a potent, almost baritonal timbre that pays good
interpretive dividends. Steven Humes was quite winning in the dual assigment as
Cadmus and Somnus. His orotund bass had a decent bite to the sound, and he
showed off some powerful excursions into a sustained deep register that
suggested penetrating pedal tones on a pipe organ. Impressive.

Rinaldo Alessandrini showed a sure hand leading the period instrument group
in the pit and the players responded with secure, supportive playing which ably
partnered the singers. I have heard more color, personality, and dramatic fire
from other well-established early music groups, but nonetheless, this band was
clean, and responsive. The choral singing under Sandra Horst was a marvel of
style and tonal beauty.

2012-04-07-coc-hoffmann-1119-edit.pngKeri Alkema as Giulietta and John Relyea as Dapertutto in The Tales of Hoffmann

In press releases, director Zhang Huan remarked to the effect that he had
never directed an opera. The quick and dirty reaction would be: “He still
hasn’t.” But that would be to deny many beautiful visual elements of the
production, the scenery of which he also designed. Or rather, re-assembled. For
the basic environment was an actual Chinese temple, that the artist purchased,
shipped, and put back together on the stage at the Fours Seasons Center. A
mini-documentary (grainy black and white with subtitles) of the acquisition
process is projected during the overture, unfortunately thereby relegating the
score to Muzak. But it must be reported that when the curtain rose to reveal
the actual temple filling the stage, the audience burst into applause (as much
for effort as for artistry). But it did not really wear well as the show went

For Mr. Huan, there was evidently some spiritual impetus, some mystic force
that this structure was meant to conjure. For me, the set could have been built
out of Canadian lumber and styrofoam, and the whole lovingly painted with fine
detail and texture, and COC would have been spared a whole lot of bother. Lest
that seem irreverent of me, Zhang himself had little trouble disrespecting
Handel’s creation as he pursued extra-musical distractions that were
shoe-horned into this Buddhism-inspired interpretation. A colorful, randy
donkey (two dancers) wears out its visual welcome in the first scene. Did
Athanas really have to stroke the ass’s ass at the end of his impeccably sung
aria? And then the damn’ animal re-appears later during choral revelry
sporting a huge, latex erection, intent on impaling some-one/thing with it.

And hey, did you ever think Handel and Sumo wrestlers were a ‘match’? I
can report the sound of naked chubby flesh slapping together was not an
enhancement to the score. (In this version, “it ain’t over ‘til the fat
man wrestles.”) The insertion of an Asian unaccompanied song, a nasal tenor
solo regaling us with meanderings and wailings (perhaps well-sung by Asian folk
song standards?) again completely took us out of the musical style. And this
after cutting Semele’s “The Morning Lark!” Oh, and the last joyous chorus
was also MIA. Yes, that’s right. The show ended as it began, with a peasant
woman sweeping the floor with a twig broom as the persistent sound of rainfall
slowly faded and the curtain slowly fell. Sorry, but I have to ask: where was
the Music Director during all this? As compensation, a recording of the final
chorus was piped into the lobby as we left the theatre. All of this had as much
to do with Semele as well, the price of tea in China. Contrary to the
advertisements, this piece is not Zhang Huan’s Semele. To have
allowed it to be so did Handel an enormous disservice.

To be fair, some effects landed. Having Somnus atop the roof as a giant doll
that inflates as he awakes, with a mini-Somnus singing for, and in front of the
blow-up was good fun. I guess the sinuous parading dragon suited the chaotic
moment in which it was interpolated. Best of all, having Jupiter lovingly bathe
Semele’s feet while he intoned “Where e’er…” was a stunning visual
depiction, a brief oasis of truth in the theatrical muddle. At least the
stellar cast was placed, often down stage to be heard to maximum advantage. Han
Feng designed gorgeous costumes, eye-catching and character specific, a
quirky-but-worky blend of traditional Asian, Baroque, and modern accents that
were endlessly appealing (Juno’s wig seemed a paean to Marge Simpson).
Wolfgang Goebbel’s lighting design (recreated by Willem Laarman) was by turns
haunting and vibrant. There may be a case to be made for the parallels between
ancient Chinese deities and those that people Semele, but this production has
not yet found a cogent realization.

On the other hand, the next night’s The Tales of Hoffmann was
arguably my favorite staging to date of this enigmatic masterpiece, which seems
to have as many different performing editions as there are different
productions. The total success of this mounting started with the remarkably
assured performance from young American tenor Russell Thomas in the title role.
Mr. Thomas has an uncommonly attractive, unforced instrument that is evenly
produced from top to bottom. The tone is meaty enough to be (just) on the brink
of verismo success, but never pushed past its limit. Its thrilling clarion
punch in the upper reaches is complemented by his total skill at seamlessly
scaling back a held high note from forte to piano, with no loss in presence or

Too, Russell displays considerable skill at investing words and phrases with
appropriate emotional content and nuance to not only propel the story, but also
to limn Hoffmann’s mercurial nature. This is already a major talent. If he
continues to grow at a measured pace, exercises good judgment in repertoire,
and keeps the voice flowing as beautifully free as in its current estate,
Russell Brown could become that elusive new superstar tenor (read: Verdi and
Puccini) the world has been waiting for.

Hard to believe that home boy John Relyea was making his Canadian Opera
Company debut with the four villains. Already a long established, acclaimed
singer at all of the world’s major houses, Mr. Relyea confirmed the reason
for his stature with an assured performance of power and polish. There is
virtually nothing in these four diabolical characters that eludes him. His
rolling bass is handsome, dark, and pointed, with such a well-focussed
projection that it could probably be heard in Niagara Falls. For a sound this
big and imposing, Mr. Relyea displayed considerable flexibility, and he
certainly knows how to make each phrase count. When a phrase or two ventured
into the extreme upper register, he got through it with moxie and a bit of
covering, but this is a pro who knows how to engage an audience with exuberant
vocalism. (I did wonder how he might fare with the suave demands of
“Scintille, diamant,” cut from this edition.)

2012-04-07-coc-hoffmann-630.pngErin Wall as Antonia

The women were also ideally cast, starting with audience favorite Andriana
Chuchman as Olympia. The petite soprano, lithe of figure and lovely to behold,
spun out a glittering filigree of ornamentation, staccati and arpeggiated
figures. Her physical embodiment of the emotionally vacant automaton
communicated volumes and was admirably consistent. Her lean, fluty timbre was
well projected and securely produced, but a little attention to tuning might be
suggested in the extended outline of several of the broken chords. Nonetheless
the audience was giddy with delight at Ms. Chuchman’s solid work.

Erin Wall proved to be a near ideal Antonia, sporting a ripe middle range
and gleaming top notes. The warm shading in Ms. Wall’s well-schooled soprano
was a match made in heaven for the doomed girl’s characterization, and her
masterful way with shaping extended phrases of arching beauty was revelatory. A
sincere and involved actress, Erin elicited our complete sympathy as she took
Antonia’s melancholy journey. Keri Alkema lavished Giulettia with a dusky,
sonorous mezzo that made a persuasive case for this (to me) least complex
heroine of the piece. Her mellow, surging rendition of the famous Barcarolle
was one the evening’s highlights.

Lauren Segal was exceedingly fine doing double duty as the Muse and
Nicklausse. Ms. Segal always put her gleaming, sturdy instrument to good
artistic purpose, delineating well between the two personages, and investing
both with secure musicality. Steven Cole contributed four incredibly inventive,
appealingly sung comprimario turns as Andres, Cochenille, Frantz, and
Pitichinaccio. In fact, I have never seen anyone do these better, making Mr.
Cole a wonderful ‘discovery.’ The incredible depth of this cast went on to
include a ringing Luther from Valerian Ruminski; a sturdy performance from
Gregory Dahl, effectively doubled as Crespel and SchlÈmil; a well-realized
Spalanzani from Michael Barrett; and high spirited portrayals by two promising,
fresh-voiced young singers Christopher Enns (Nathanael) and Philippe Sly
(Hermann). The Voice of Antonia’s Mother featured young Ileana Montalbetti
whose luxuriant singing brought a radiant sheen to the proceedings.

Johannes Debus elicited luminous results from his orchestra, which gifted us
with playing that was stylistically thrilling and dramatically involved.
Maestro Debus crafted a well integrated musical effect, knitting Offenbach’s
diverse components into an immensely satisfying experience. Director Lee
Blakeley and Set Designer Roni Toren successfully conspired to showcase all
this musical brilliance in a production that was aptly fantastical, starting us
off in Stella’s tilted, cramped and skewed dressing room.

We see the diva (excellently portrayed by Ambur Braid) preparing to go
onstage, as the brooding, imbibing Hoffmann alternatively writes, lurches, and
confronts her in the confined quarters. Soon after her departure, other
characters invade the space entering from hither and yon like a bad dream. By
the time Lindorf crawls out from inside the bed the chimerical nature of the
piece was wonderfully well established.

Subsequent acts take place in a sort of generic, musty, great hall, with
Stella’s portrait omnipresent. The hall gets re-dressed with a demented mix
of ‘normal’ and over-sized set pieces. Within this environment, the
imagination of the interpreters never wanes. For example, a covering is removed
to reveal Olympia in a glass coffin, like Snow White. Once she is assisted out
of it and united with her harp for the aria, a madcap ‘generator’ is rolled
on and the doll is hooked up to electrodes. Every time she ‘winds down’ or
goes amuck, she is shocked back to life with a burst of sparks. For the opening
tavern scene the choristers came exploding through the dressing room and
spilled onto the stage in a high energy visual and musical assault. I quite
liked the large bed-as-boat that informed the Giulietta act. And returning to
the cramped dressing room for the epilogue book-ended the piece marvelously,
with the Muse now appearing on the roof, gazing down through the hole in the
ceiling as Stella, having toyed with idea of pairing with Lindorf, rejects him
and comes back to the dressing room as a final ‘surprise.’

florentine-COC_02.gif(l – r) Gun-Brit Barkmin as Bianca, Michael Kˆnig as Guido Bardi and Alan Held as Simone (background) in A Florentine Tragedy

Only the enormous easy chair, in which Antonia is made to sit, did not ring
true. The sight recalled to me Lily Tomlin’s Edith Ann, Laugh In’s
bratty little girl in the oversize chair. Perhaps I have lived too long, but
that imagery lingered in the back of my mind every time the doomed Antonia
scrambled back onto her perch. Still, considering the immensely satisfying
overall achievements, not least of which was terrific character development and
interaction, I will concede that this was a brilliantly realized vision.

Sharing in this success, Costume Designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel has embraced
the concept and devised enormously appealing attire, at times authentically
period, at others mere flights of fancy. Jenny Cane’s lighting design was
appropriately moody and mysterious, but straight forward when required. Sandra
Horst’s choral direction was again a significant contribution. The Tales
of Hoffmann
was one of those cherishable experiences that not only
immediately entertained and touched me, but also has given me reason for
reflection days after.

Noted soprano Catherine Malfitano has turned her attention to directing in
recent years, and a career’s worth of performing insights `has stood her in
good stead as she tackled the double bill of A Florentine Tragedy and
Gianni Schicchi. I find the former to be a complex work, musically
stimulating, but dramatically flawed. The wife’s flirting and seduction of
her lover which becomes more and more blatant in front of the cuckolded
husband, is hard to bring off convincingly. For her part, Ms. Malfitano seems
to have borrowed a bit of unhinged obsession from Paul Shrader’s The
Comfort of Strangers
. In that art film, an older couple conceal a whole
lotta ‘kink’ as the seem to befriend a younger couple, but are actually
stalking them. In the denouement the older man kills the younger man, which
induces a bizarre sexual gratification to the older pair.

In the opera at hand, there were suggestions of that kind of menace from the
start. Is this a recurring game the married couple plays out? Is it a three
way, waiting to happen? Or is it on face value, a simple affair that goes wrong
with no pre-meditation? Our director has raised these intriguing questions, but
contents herself to stay on the fringes of any committed point of view. The
three singers seemed game enough, but half-hearted gestures seemed stunted and
faux-salacious. A pair that has done the illicit deed certainly should behave
with more physical abandon and seething passion than Gun-Brit Barkmin (Bianca)
andMichael Kˆnig (Guido Bardi) were able to communicate.

Ms. Barkmin has a substantial soprano, and occasionally it soared incisively
over the orchestra. Mr. Kˆnig worked diligently and sang intelligently. But
the two were not able to suggest any sexual chemistry, and their vocal presence
seemed curiously muted. I just had the feeling that Zemlinksy’s writing for
these roles was not an optimum match for their particular vocal gifts. Both
have impressive credits, so I would look forward to hearing them again in roles
that might offer more grateful pairings.

Alan Held, on the other hand, was up to every interpretive demand of the
wronged husband Simone. This seasoned performer commands a plush bass-baritone
of enormous fire power. Mr. Held is not only able to summon up fierce
indignation for the confrontational outbursts, but he is also exceptionally
capable of conveying controlled, simmering menace that is positively
chills-inducing. The evening seems to have been intended to showcase his
substantial gifts. After putting us through the Tragedy wringer, Alan
effortlessly turned on a dime and won our hearts (and funny bones) with as
roguishly enchanting a Schicchi as we could be desire.

florentine-COC_04.gif(l – r) Simone Osborne as Lauretta, RenÈ Barbera as Rinuccio and Alan Held as Gianni Schicchi in Gianni Schicchi

Sharing equal above-the-title(s) star billing, Sir Andrew Davis had a
brilliant night conducting as well, first discovering the wealth of ripe
orchestral detail with a rhapsodic reading of the Zemlinksy. Maestro Davis
proved a sensitive and diligent collaborator with his soloists, surging the
music with abandon whenever possible, but pulling back to provide a comfortable
cushion of an accompaniment on others. And he did something with the Puccini I
did not think possible. He made it seem new again, and together with COC’s
outstanding orchestra, they invested the well-known chestnut with spontaneity,
inevitability, and a real sense of delicious discovery.

Both productions shared some common design elements. Wilson Chin devised a
suitably threatening environment for the tragedy. An upstage wall features a
stage left opening fronted by a silvery bead curtain, and a stage right opening
that serves as a cavernous black hole from which the suspicious husband make
his portentous entrance. A huge photo of the man and wife looms over the
indiscreet trysting. A scattering of art nouveau furniture defines the living
room. A curious (and under used) rusting spiral staircase sits far right,
ascending up into the flies. All of this murky vaguery was an effective
complement to the plot twists and turns. Terese Wadden designed the efficient,
formal costumes, and David Martin Jacques manages the tricky feat of balancing
atmospheric shadowy effects with ample illumination of the performers’ faces.

Then for the comedy, the team makes a wholly successful about face and gives
us a look that is all Italian sunlight, vivaciously colorful costumes, and a
set that includes, among other things, a huge pile of furniture, appliances,
and collectibles that are ready to be parceled out to Buoso’s survivors. Ms.
Malfitano was in full command of the stagecraft here, and created lively
business, logical blocking, and well-defined individual characters. She showed
especial skill at creating unison reactions (such as everyone taking in and
then holding their breath together) that were entertaining without ever wearing
out their welcome. Another favorite bit: at curtain rise all the men are
crowded around the television watching a soccer match, but blocking it from
Buoso’s view. He is very much alive and interested in the game, until the men
react with loud disappointment to the final score, which apparently displeases
Buoso so much that. . .he drops dead. The poor corpse is on a sofa bed, in
which he unceremoniously gets folded up to hide the body!

With the marvelous Alan Held to anchor the show, the rest of the cast rose
to his level. Simone Osborne was a delectable Lauretta, imbuing her
thrice-famous aria with individualized personality, superior legato, and
melting tone. The ovation for “O mio babbino caro” was prolonged and
well-deserved. RenÈ Barbera as Rinuccio was a perfect match for her, and he
exuded cherubic charm and sang joyously with a radiantly youthful lyric tenor.

The scheming relatives were well-cast, led by Barbara Dever, whose
commanding presence and imposing voice made for a very well drawn Zita.
Gun-Brit Barkmin was the other hold-over from the first show, and she treated
us to a spunky Nella. Donato di Stefano made the most of his every moment as
the ‘eldest’ Simone; Adam Luther was a marvel of comic invention as the
blithering Gherardo; Craig Irvine was a dynamically scheming Betto di Signa;
Peter McGillivray, a befuddled Marco; Rihab Chaieb contributed a glam and sassy
La Ciesca; and Gabriel Gough offered an energetic Gherardino.

By opera’s end when Rinuccio pulls down a cloth that had blocked the
windows, revealing the skyline of Florence in all its glory, we were already
basking in the glow of a perfectly calibrated Gianni Schicchi.

James Sohre


Cadmus/Somnus: Steven Humes; Athamas: Anthony Roth Costanzo; Semele: Jane
Archibald; Ino/Juno: Allyson McHardy; Iris: Katherine Whyte; Jupiter: William
Burden; Conductor: Rinaldo Alessandrini; Director and Set Design: Zhang Huan;
Costume Design: Han Feng; Lighting Design: Wolfgang Goebbel; Lighting Design
Recreation: Willem Laarman; Chorus Master: Sandra Horst

The Tales of Hoffmann

Muse/Nicklausse: Lauren Segal; Lindorf/Coppelius/Dr. Miracle/Dapertutto:
John Relyea; Andres/Cochenille/Frantz/Pitichinaccio: Steven Cole; Luther:
Valerian Ruminski; Nathanael: Christopher Enns; Hermann: Philippe Sly;
Hoffmann: Russell Thomas; Spalanzani: Michael Barrett; Olympia: Andriana
Chuchman; Antonia: Erin Wall; Crespel/SchlÈmil: Gregory Dahl; Voice of
Antonia’s Mother: Ileana Montalbetti; Giulietta: Keri Alkema; Stella: Ambur
Braid; Conductor: Johannes Debus; Director: Lee Blakeley; Set Design: Roni
Toren; Costume Design: Brigitte Reiffenstuel; Lighting Design: Jenny Cane;
Chorus Master: Sandra Horst

A Florentine Tragedy

Simone: Alan Held; Bianca: Gun-Brit Barkmin; Guido Bardi: Michael Kˆnig;
Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis; Director: Catherine Malfitano; Set Design: Wilson
Chin; Costume Design: Terese Wadden; Lighting Design: David Martin Jacques

Gianni Schicchi

Gianni Schicchi: Alan Held; Lauretta: Simone Osborne; Zita: Barbara Dever;
Rinuccio: RenÈ Barbera; Gherardo: Adam Luther; Nella: Gun-Brit Barkmin; Betto
di Signa: Craig Irvine; Simone: Donato DiStefano; Marco: Peter McGillivray; La
Ciesca: Rihab Chaieb; Gherardino: Gabriel Gough; Maestro Spinelloccio: Doug
McNaughton; Ser Amantio di Nicolao: Philippe Sly; Pinellino: Neil Craighead;
Guccio: Valerian Ruminski; Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis; Director: Catherine
Malfitano; Set Design: Wilson Chin; Costume Design: Terese Wadden; Lighting
Design: David Martin Jacques

image_description=Russell Thomas as Hoffmann and Lauren Segal as The Muse/Nicklausse in The Tales of Hoffmann [Photo by Michael Cooper courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company]
product_title=A Toronto Trilogy
product_id=Above: Russell Thomas as Hoffmann and Lauren Segal as The Muse/Nicklausse in The Tales of Hoffmann

Photos by Michael Cooper courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company