Opera Review – The Glenn Gould School Opera/The Magic Flute by W.A. Mozart

Photo: Nicola Betts

There are student performances, and then there are student performances. At the Glenn Gould School, the students are mostly in their twenties and are on a career track. One expects both the singers and the orchestra to be at near professional level, and musically, the performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute did not disappoint. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

One of the main impacts of these professional training program performances is to introduce the young artists to watch, and the most accomplished singer of the night was baritone Noah Grove (Papageno). His is a light voice, with a seductive vibrato and masterful phrasing. Warm, mellow and intuitively musical, Grove’s sound cocoons the ear. His singing appears effortless. He is also a delightful actor who eats up the stage, and his ability to play with words turns lyrics into conversation. Time, one hopes, will add heft to the lightness.

From the very first note, bass Gabriel Sanchez Ortega (Sarastro) caught the listener off guard. His sound is huge, and my first reaction was that he could not possibly be a student. In fact, he is a GGS alumnus. Mozart wrote Sarastro’s role with notes in his toes. Even career basses have difficulty getting down that low, but Ortega pulled off a few minor miracles. Strong, robust, commanding, his voice galvanizes attention throughout his entire register. At this point in time, Ortega just sings, meaning, his expressive qualities are limited, but once he gets his acting chops into high gear, what a package he will have to offer. The first reaction to his booming, rolling sound is astonishment.

Tenor Zachary Rioux (Tamino) is all over the map. At present, high is equated with loud, and his modulation is very uneven. But, and this is a very important but, there is something about his voice that is absolutely compelling. With a hint of an Italian sob, and an old-fashioned sensibility coating his sound, Rioux is like those tenors of old who did loud and soft, and nothing else. While he sometimes seems to be reaching for the high notes, he does have strength at the top and ease in the middle, but he has to connect to the words more. Forceful would be a good way of describing his voice. There is definitely passion there, and while his sound will never be beautiful, it is on track to be exciting.

Nofar Yacobi (Queen of the Night) pulled off her two notoriously difficult arias with just a couple of glitches. She is a coloratura soprano who is definitely not a chirper. She has bite to her sound, which will make for interesting developments down the road. Her coloratura is precise and clean. Because there is an edge to her voice, Yacobi does not produce pretty trills, but the potential for something goosebump-making is there, which is far more valuable.

Photo: Nicola Betts

The jury is still out on soprano Kateryna Khartova (Pamina). On the plus side, her phrasing is lovely. She understands the connection between words and music, and makes sense of lyrics. In fact, she was one of the best in doing so in the performance. She can also capture mood, and is blessed with a strong top. The downside is that her voice lacks definition. Lyric sopranos are the most common garden-variety female singers, and they need a special quality to rise above their fellows. Khartova has all the elements, but is missing the total package that rivets the ear. Her output needs a spine to tie everything together. I just couldn’t get a handle on her voice.

Marta Woolner as 1st Lady attracted attention. Although the Ladies (Woolner, Mélissa Danis and Georgia Burashko) sang very prettily together, Woolner’s voice reached out beyond the trio. She has a big sound in the making – Verdi, even Wagner? You could hear lushness and luxuriance. For me, Woolner had the most potential of any singer on stage. As for the other Ladies, they certainly had attractive voices, and I hope to hear them again in individual roles.

Even-voiced tenor Christopher Miller gave a good account of himself as Monostatos, although he could have used a bit more power of expression, the three bratty Spirits (sopranos Diana Agasian, Victoria Del Mastro Vicente and Anna Wojcik) sounded suitably childlike, and while soprano Katelyn Bird (Papagena) had trouble being heard above the orchestra, she had lots of energy. Tenor Michael Dodge and baritone Benjamin Loyst did multiple duties as priests, armed guards and slaves, along with tenor Stefan Vidovic as a fellow slave. The cast as a whole served as the chorus and did a fine job as an ensemble.

The 42-member Royal Conservatory Orchestra was certainly impressive under Maestro Nathan Brock. In fact, Brock seems to like speed, and the orchestra literally romped through the overture faster than a speeding bullet. The maestro did slow down where necessary, particularly for moments of wonder or melancholy on the part of Tamino or Pamina, but for me, the most glorious aspect of the music was the majestic way Brock captured the ceremonial choruses. They were blood-stirring moments.

Joel Ivany first made his name as artistic director of Against the Grain Theatre, a company devoted to the creative presentation of opera, which is why this Magic Flute was a disappointment. Admittedly, director Ivany had obstacles. Koerner Hall has no wings, and the soloists had to be his chorus. Anna Treusch had designed an arresting series of freestanding blue and white Masonic banners that people could hide behind, and there were a couple of white benches for sitting, but basically, Ivany never solved the problem of when people were soloists and when they were chorus. There was a mishmash of singers populating the stage at anytime. Ivany also did some peculiar innovations. When Papagano is singing about wanting a girl of his own, he is surrounded by the Queen, the Ladies and Pamina as seductive sirens. Ivany also had the Queen appear silently from time to time as Sarastro’s nemesis, but this was not clearly defined. Ivany is also listed at lighting designer, and in his attempt to mask the chorus, the stage was too dark. In short, the opera was either being over-directed or under-directed, when what was needed for a difficult stage was plain and simple. Ivany should be commended for neatly collapsing the roles of Speaker, Priests, Armoured Men and Slaves into just three singers.

Ming Wong did what she could with costumes on a small budget, but there was no tie-in between the outfits, with each one being its own scattered entity. Treusch’s props ranged from lame (the serpent), to peculiar (bird’s eggs representing the Papageno children). John Gzowski did a great job with the ear-splitting thunder and lightning in the sound design.

Photo: Nicola Betts

The Glenn Gould School Opera, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, conducted by Nathan Brock, directed by Joel Ivany, Koerner Hall, Mar. 20 and 22, 2019.

Opera Review – Canadian Opera Company/Bizet’s Carmen

15-16-05-MC-D-0661Brilliant conducting by Italian maestro Paolo Carignani, coupled with the sensational singing of French mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine as Carmen, and the passionate delivery of Canadian tenor David Pomeroy as Don José, make the COC’s production of Bizet’s warhorse worth the price of admission.

All, however, is not perfect.

Bizet’s Carmen can be a two-edged sword. Yes, the richly expressive music certainly tells you all you have to know about the story and the characters, but on the other hand, weak staging can scuttle the whole enterprise by not presenting a stage picture that equals the power of the score. For the same reason, Carmen is not an opera that can be saved by great singing and conducting alone. In other words, many Carmen productions turn out to be duds precisely because Bizet’s score is flawless.

Happily, the news about the current COC revival is mostly good, and in some cases, even great. What begins with an under-directed first act, and a ho-hum second act, becomes a stirring third act and a downright thrilling finale. I have a theory about this. The first two acts focus on Carmen, the last two on Don José. We all know that Carmen is a fiery seductive gypsy who is as tough as nails. The action writes itself. Her character never changes. It’s hard to be creative when the inevitability of the role is laid out like a road map.

On the other hand, Don José is like a loose cannon. His all-consuming jealousy creates excitement. Compared to Carmen’s certainty of conduct, Don José is a musical rogue replete with almost frightening mood swings. Thus, while Don José’s character can feed a stage director, Carmen’s character is limiting, almost stifling in terms of something new.

I also believe that the real love story is between Carmen and Escamillo. She feels a duty towards Don José because he went to prison for allowing her to escape. She even says as much in the libretto. The bond tying them together is gypsy honour, not real love, and by the beginning of the third act, Carmen is already tired of him. Great fodder for the tenor playing Don José to sink his teeth into, while Carmen sails serenely on.

15-16-05-MC-D-0511Giving young Canadian director Joel Ivany the task of staging Carmen is a smart idea. His whole background with his own company, Against the Grain Theatre, is one of breath-taking innovation. Nevertheless, even Ivany can’t rise out of the Carmen quagmire. First, he has inherited another director’s vision (updated to 1940s Cuba) with a set that confines the first act action to the lip of the stage. Fully two thirds of the stage, supposedly police headquarters, is not used. Secondly, he has fallen into the conventional trap of letting Carmen be sexy and Micaëla be bland. He misses obvious directorial clues like Manuelita’s cut face, courtesy of Carmen’s knife. Where’s the blood?

Ivany, who has proved in the past to be a very good purveyor of character, is saddled by clichés. There is no real communication between Don José and Micaëla. We never are able to trace the where and the how of Don José’s being drawn into Carmen’s snare. Suddenly, he just is, all of which makes the first act very unsatisfactory. Also there is no logic as to who carries stools on and off the stage, cigarette girls and passers-by both. When I’m noticing the movement of stools, there is a problem with the visuals. Mercifully, the second act with the lively scene at Lillas Pastia’s reprobate inn is marginally better, but everyone seems sleepwalking until Escamillo arrives.

It is in the third and fourth acts that Ivany finds his mojo. He pinpoints Don José’s troubled psyche and abject humiliation which are the cornerstone of the acts. We feel the pain (although Jason Hand’s lighting is so dark, we can scarcely see Carmen and her two friends reading their fortunetelling cards). And then, finally, a true Ivany innovation happens. The crowd waiting to go into the bullfight is gathered at the front of the stage. The hawkers come down the orchestra aisles first, followed by the cuadrilla (the bullfight parade) that includes chulos, banderilleros, matadors and picadors – building up to a frenzy, as the crowd waits for the adored torero Escamillo to appear with the now elegant Carmen at his side.

15-16-05-MC-D-0340What is so great about this staging is that the audience gets involved, totally engaged in fact, clapping to the music and even cheering with the crowd. Just the simple act of having the procession come through the audience injects such vibrancy and freshness into the mix. The pièce de resistance, however, is having a haggard, beaten Don José following the cuadrilla. When Mercédès and Frasquita warn Carmen that Don José is lurking about, she can look right out into the audience and see him. A stunning coup de théâtre.

The primo star of the evening is Maestro Carignani. This is the best conducted Carmen I have ever experienced. His marvellous detailing of the music is perfection. Even when the stage action is flagging, the music never does. For example, at the beginning of the second act, Carignani starts the music leading into the gypsy dance almost too slowly, but the build is beautiful in its construction, until finally the maestro unleashes a wild, tempestuous storm of music that must leave the singer/dancers breathless. Then there is the dramatic way Carignani brings in Carmen’s ominous death theme in the third act which highlights the way the maestro is able to isolate individual components while never losing sight of the whole. In short, Carignani’s rendering of Bizet’s score – a gift that takes the music apart while keeping it together – is one of the glories of this production.

Margaine has one of those juicy mezzo-soprano voices that commands the ear. Her output is amazingly strong throughout her whole tessitura with glorious notes both high and low. With sheer power, she sings everyone off the stage. Margaine is certainly able to play with nuance, but when she is able to go to full throttle, the mezzo-soprano delivers a knock-out punch. Her acting chops may be a little limited but she gamely puts herself through Carmen’s wiles, although one wishes she had a bit more oomph. (O, to hear Margaine in a bel canto role!)

Pomeroy is outstanding as Don José. While his first act is on the dreary side, he just grows from strength to strength throughout the opera. He is able to inject his robust Italianate tenor voice with unbelievable passion and desperation, and he doesn’t hold back when he reaches for the top. His Don José wears his heart on his sleeve, and by the end of the opera, when he is at his begging, pleading, whining worst, he is absolutely cringe worthy. In this cast, Pomeroy wins the singing/actor award.

Both Canadian soprano Karine Boucher as Micaëla and American baritone Zachary Nelson as Escamillo are a bit of a disappointment. On a good note, Boucher’s voice does not have the simpering soprano sweetness sometimes cast as Micaëla, who really does have a feisty side. Rather, her voice has an attractive smoky quality that speaks of inner fire, but her big third act aria seemed to be strained at the top and laboured everywhere else. Her non-characterization also made for a lacklustre presence. Boucher, however, is still a member of the COC Ensemble Studio, so these are early days. Ivany should have found a way to help her sharpen her character. For his part, Nelson is a terrific actor, but while he displays power at the top of his range, he lacks definition in his lower register. In comparison to the rest of the cast his voice just seems too light for the role. Escamillo needs a hearty baritone, and Nelson is not, in this production at least, a full-bodied meat and potatoes singer.

Smaller roles are deftly performed by current COC Ensemble Studio members. Mezzo-soprano Charlotte Burrage and soprano Sasha Djihanian, as Mercédès and Frasquita respectively, bring lively singing personalities to the stage. Djihanian’s clear voice soars while Burrage’s honey-coated voice soothes. On the male side, baritone Iain MacNeil as Le Dancaîre and tenor Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure as Le Remendado display robust voices in the making. MacNeil in particular, is impressive with his fine even tone and commanding sound. It will be interesting to see where his voice takes him.

Two former COC Ensemble members also grace the stage. As Zuniga, veteran bass Alain Coulombe might be showing some quavering wear and tear, but he can still give a strong performance. Baritone Peter Barrett as Moralès is well-launched in his career, particularly at the Metropolitan Opera. He doesn’t have a lot to do, but what he does sing is big and bold. He’s definitely one to watch. As usual, the COC Chorus does a marvelous job, able to sing beautifully while transforming themselves into whatever is needed, be it police or smugglers, and kudos to chorus master Sandra Horst for that. The youngsters from the Canadian Chlldren’s Opera Company always bring zest to the stage. As for the production itself, the COC has opted for the 1875 Opéra-Comique version with spoken dialogue and not the later sung recits. It makes for a tightly controlled musical journey.

And finally, memo to the audience. Listen to the music in the first act because it is superb. The production comes into its own in the next three acts, and you will be glued to your seat by the end.

Carmen by Georges Bizet, conducted by Paolo Carignani, directed by Joel Ivany, Canadian Opera Company, Four Seasons Centre, Apr. 12 to May 15.