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 Winter Season – A Tale of Two Visions (Mozart’s Così fan tutte and Verdi’s A Masked Ball)

This is the age of the auteur opera director. With the endlessly 13-14-E-01-MC-D-1372repeating standard repertoire a fact of opera life, companies are now searching for productions that give a fresh take on the classics. New opera, of course, is always going to be fresh.

Thus, directors and their visions are what drive opera productions these days. The COC’s winter season provides a textbook case of what works and what doesn’t.

Canadian director Atom Egoyan has done a superb job in finding a fascinating entree into Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Since the heart of the opera is an experiment – Can women be faithful to their lovers? – why not set the opera in an actual modern day science lab with Don Alfonso as the teacher. The chorus is on stage for most of the opera as the Don’s eager beaver students, following the main action carrying their clipboards for note-taking. Debra Hanson’s school uniforms are delightful. In keeping with the educational motif, fencing outfits are substituted for soldiers’ uniforms.

The metaphor that anchors Egoyan’s vision is the butterfly which clearly represents freedom. The science lab, however, is festooned with giant pins to pierce the butterflies and render them into specimens. Hanson’s fabulous set includes gorgeous hanging butterflies to keep the concept in front of our eyes. The question before us is: just how much freedom is allotted to lovers, or should they be pinned by their obligations?

Egoyan also makes prominent use of the famous painting by Frida Kahlo – Two Fridas – that shows both the heartbreak and the warm glow of love. Egoyan and Hanson have also added whimsy. When the fiancés are sailing away, students provide a slow parade of ships balanced on their heads – a sop to 18th century fashion. There is also a podium whenever a character has a great pronouncement to make.

The chorus of students also helps out in the direction of the solo singers. They hold them down, they hold them up, they help them dress, they manage props – all in an effort to make the experiment work – all, as it were, in the cause of science. The entire opera is filled with delicious visual details that support the science experiment.

In the final analysis, this is a production that works, because everything hangs together. Opera companies around the world should be lining up to showcase this very clever and beautifully conceived Così fan tutte.

Every time I attend a Johannes Debus performance, my admiration grows. The conductor 13-14-E-01-MC-D-0164finds nuances in every crook and cranny of the score. His tempi are always perfect, even though his slow times present challenges of breath control to the singers. His judicious pauses are downright risky, but also exciting. In short, he gives the listener complete satisfaction. As for his players, the obbligato work was superb. The use of the pianoforte for the recitatives added to the richness of the sound.

The performance i attended featured the COC Ensemble singers which provided an embarrassment of riches, giving us eight lovers instead of four.

The first act Fiordiligi, soprano Aviva Fortunata, has a big, soaring voice of infinite spinto coloratura possibilities. Is there a Lucia, or even a Brunhilde in her far future? She absolutely nailed her big aria Come Scoglio. In contrast, the second act’s Sasha Djihanian is much more of a true lyric soprano who can pull her nuanced voice back into sotto voce with ease. Her coloratura is not the most facile, but the musky quality of her voice emits an exotic sound.

Mezzo-soprano Charlotte Burrage, the Act 1 Dorabella, is blessed with a seductive lyric voice of great clarity of tone, overlying hearty expression. Act 2’s Danielle MacMillan has a bright sound and beautiful legato phrasing with spinto qualities that speak to heavier roles in the future. It is a surprisingly big voice at this early stage of a career.

The Ferrandos were two quite different tenors. Act 1’s Andrew Haji has an expressive voice as smooth as silk, replete with Italianate sob. It is a beautiful light sound blessed with an even legato flow. Act 2’s Owen McCausland displayed some breathiness in his high notes, but he took great risks in pulling his voice back. It is a strong lyric sound that commands the ear and speaks of a deeper and darker future.

The Guglielmo of baritone Cameron McPhail (Act 1) sported a romantic sound that kept 13-14-E-01-MC-D-1077growing stronger throughout the act. It is, at the moment, a light lyric baritone, pleasing in tone. Baritone Clarence Frazer (Act 2) is definitely on his way to the Verdi/Puccini repertoire. He has a powerful, robust voice with a gruffness of expression so identified with that fach. He does, however, have to make sure that what is gruff does not turn woofy and obscure pitch.

The Don Alfonso (bass-baritone Gordon Bintner) and Despina (soprano Claire de Sévigné) were a constant in both acts. Bintner is, of course, too young for the role, but he has a complete mastery and ease of stagecraft. His, like many low voices early in their career, is a sound in progress. It is even, pleasant, and expressive, but in want of the well-developed heartiness to come. His career should be stellar. Sévigné is a coloratura soprano with bite. Her voice may have the quick mercury of her fach, but nonetheless, it produces a sound that is much more than feather light, and therefore, more interesting.

Which takes us to A Masked Ball. Mercifully the music elementsare strong because the production is the quintessence of Eurotrash. In the case of opera, Eurotrash 13-14-04-MC-D-0681encapsulates theatrical visions that add nothing to the music because they are lost in the creators’ own distorted assessment of their own intellectual acumen. Eurotrash holds the audience captive as the creators subjugate the hapless patrons with a confused parade of metaphor and symbolism. The good thing about Eurotash is that sooner or later it will end. (It’s not just Europe that produces artistic crimes. In Canada, I call these infuriating productions Canajunk.)

This particular production was created for Staatsoper Unter den Linden Berlin by the talentless team of co-directors Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito. Their collaborators who executed their vision are set designer Barbara Ehnes and costume designer Anja Rabes. All parities should be put in chains and made to attend Così fan tutte (see above).

There are two versions of A Masked Ball, one that depicts the assassination of the Swedish King Gustav 111 at a masked ball in 1792, and one set in pre-revolution Boston in 1690 where governor Riccardo replaces the king. The shift to the New World was to placate the censors who deemed the king’s murder was too close in time to 1857 when Verdi wrote the opera. Wieler and Morabito have elected to do the Boston version, updating America to around 1960.

The single set is the ballroom of the Arvedson Palace Hotel. (The directors are being cutesy here because Arvedson is the name of the fortuneteller in the Swedish version.) The glaring pink and white tables and chairs look like an ice cream parlour. There are also theatre seats that don’t face the ballroom stage, a bar in the far corner, and a balcony walkway above. What this hotel ballroom has to do with the story is anybody’s guess. In their program notes, the co-directors justify their vision with key words like civil rights, youth culture, the fragility of identity and so on. None of these ideas, however, translate to the stage.

Here is just a short litany of the horrors that Wieler and Morabito have inflicted upon us, all of which denudes the power of Verdi’s magnificent music.

Riccardo and the men of the chorus disguise themselves for the trip to the fortuneteller by rolling up their pant legs, taking off their jackets, and loosening their ties. They just look plain dumb. The fortuneteller Ulrica is inexplicably blind. While the orchestra plays the menacing music that accompanies Amelia gathering the special herb beneath the gallows that will make her stop loving Riccardo, the lights of the chandeliers are blazing. Where’s the scary midnight darkness? As for the two hanging bodies in a ballroom…And let us not forget that vegetation, aka gallows hill, is depicted as trees and branches under glass as the ballroom pillars light up from the inside.

Renato, the close friend who kills Riccardo, conducts his important scenes in his pajamas 13-14-04-MC-D-1453and bathrobe. In fact, at one point, the entire male chorus is in pajamas. The page Oscar has been turned into a brat who shows up at the masked ball in the dead swan dress Icelandic singer Björk wore to the Academy Awards in 2001. Incidentally, there are hardly any masks at the masked ball. All in all, the costumes are a disaster, particularly Amelia’s various pantsuits which make her look dowdy and years older than she is supposed to be.

Wieler and Morabito do have a couple of good ideas. They have given Riccardo a silent Jackie Kennedy clone first lady, and Amelia’s and Renato’s son is manifested by a real little boy. These silent characters are quite effective, weaving in and out of the action, particularly when Renato hands over his son to the conspirators, Tom and Samuel, as surety for his commitment to the murder plot.

The cast, thankfully, is very strong. Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka’s voice might be a little harsh on the high end, but she packs a vocal wallop of passion. Her delivery is downright exciting. American tenor Dimitri Pittas as Riccardo has an ease of high notes. He is very believable as the dandy governor with a carefree manner. More importantly, he does negotiate that big sing that is at the heart of Verdi. Renato is performed by talented British baritone Roland Wood. He can certainly play with his expression, and pump up the volume of his commanding voice when needed.

Ulrica requires a big, throaty sound and Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Manistina was born to play the all important hearty mezzo characters so beloved of Verdi. Her big juicy voice is thrilling. Oscar was originally a trouser role for a coloratura soprano. Canadian singer 13-14-04-MC-D-0786Simone Osborne is totally suited to the role with her sweet sound and feathery delivery.  Italian bass Giovanni Battista Parodi as Tom, and American bass Evan Boyer as Samuel prove to be very effective conspirators. Both are good, clear-throated singers who understand that restraint is a stronger position than melodramatic villainy. Canadian baritone Gregory Dahl shows off his robust sound in the small role of Silvano.

Conductor Stephen Lord has proven once again that he is a great dramatist, pulling out all the tension in Verdi’s music. His mastery of musical accents is superb.

I’m ending with some advice. Should this execrable Masked Ball where nothing makes sense, ever come our way again, just shut your eyes and listen to the music.

Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Canadian Opera Company, (Ensemble Studio Performance, directed by Atom Egoyan, conducted by Johannes Debus), Four Seasons Centre, Feb. 7, 2014.

Verdi’s A Masked Ball, Canadian Opera Company, (directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, conducted by Stephen Lord), Four Seasons Centre, Feb. 2 to 22, 2014.