Category Archives: opera

Falling into the arts. It’s that time again.

Not only does the fall bring TIFF, cooler weather, and reading under a cozy throw, but our opera and orchestra subscriptions begin. Although I’d been to the Peter Grimes rehearsal a week ago, last evening was the first of our opera series with the opening of Puccini’s La Boheme.

Latin Quarter scene from La Boheme. COC.

It was a new production by director John Caird and was a feast for the eyes as well as the ears. As he writes in his notes, not all that much happens in the opera, but the juxtaposition of some bald humour and intense sorrow was intoxicating.

There are two casts for this opera, and we heard Italian soprano Grazia Doronzio as Mimi and Canadian Joyce El-Khoury as Musetta, both making their COC debuts. Both captured the essence of their characters, Mimi suffering and stumbling, Musetta flirting and vivacious.

The music is familiar and, apart from some issues with sound balance between the orchestra and the voices and (possibly) a couple of late entries, luscious.

We’ll also be at the opening of Peter Grimes on Saturday which promises to be quite different: music by Britten, a tragic story with little respite, and a more avant-garde design.  It was a scheduling fluke that ended us up attending two opening nights, and you don’t always get the best performances, but it’s also nice to see it all come together but still be (a little) on the edge of your seat, knowing that the singers and musicians have been working towards just this moment.


On a side note, it was a crazy day yesterday in terms of logistics of getting to dinner to meet my date and then to the Four Seasons Centre. It required me to change my clothes away from home and I didn’t make the best choice of footwear. I stumbled on the steps down to the subway, shocking some poor 14-year-old boy who put out his hands to help me. Luckily, by some stroke of genius, I had thrown a pair of emergency flats into my bag: you know those little shoes you can buy at the drugstore to get you home from an event when your feet hurt from your high-heeled shoes and (maybe) you’ve had too much to drink. I took off my too-lose wedge sandals and switched into those babies in the subway station and I was good to go! Popped the sandals back on when I got to the opera, and then back in to flats to head home. The sandals are going into my giveaway bag as they now have negative energy and I will be too nervous to wear them ever again. The flats will find a permanent place in my bag.

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Ciao, sweeties!

Culture blast

I love Toronto. I know, we’re the centre of the universe blah, blah, blah.

But really, these past couple of days have reminded me about the wonderful benefits of being in a large, culture-filled city, particularly in my current retired-with-grown-kids state.

The Canadian Opera Company

As a supporter of the Canadian Opera Company, I was blessed with a pass for 2 tickets to see Tuesday’s working rehearsal of Britten’s Peter Grimes. It stars great Canadian tenor Ben Heppner in the namesake role. The brother of a friend is also in it (Roger Honeywell as Bob Boles), plus a friend from choir (and voice teacher for Michael) is in the chorus (Paula Wickberg). I invited my brother to join me.

Unlike other rehearsals I’ve been to, this was early on in the process so there was lots of stopping and starting, which was great. We saw Music Director Johannes Debus put the orchestra through it’s paces, as well as tightening up timing and articulation of the chorus and the onstage drummer. We also saw some staging worked through so that, for example, Swallow could see the conductor to get his vocal cue while tumbling over and under a table (and the Nieces.) The rehearsal was also a great way to hear some of the music repeated a few times as it is new to me. I will now be able to recognize some of the the themes when we attend. We only saw Acts 2 and part of Act 3, but I’m excited to see the whole work in performance on October 5.

Last night, Zouheir and I attended a Star Talk at the Toronto Reference Library that featured an interview by Richard Ouzounian with Ben Heppner. It was a lovely surprise to see my three aunts there as well. Heppner comes across as a real family man who has managed in latter years to limit his performance schedule to 50 days per year. He said that his critics thought that this would spell the demise of his career, but he found that, the law of supply and demand came in to play here and he is in more demand (and better paid) than ever. A video of this interview should be up here within the next few days.

The COC has an excellent online listening guide and study guide for this opera. I will definitely be browsing through the latter before we see the performance.

Also in culture this week: Ai Weiwei at the AGO. Next post.

English: The Scallop The Scallop statue at Ald...
English: The Scallop The Scallop statue at Aldeburgh Suffolk. Dedicated to Benjamin Britten, who used to walk along the beach in the afternoons. Created from stainless steel by Suffolk-based artist Maggi Hambling, it stands four metres high, and was unveiled in November 2003. The piece is made up of two interlocking scallop shells, each broken, the upright shell being pierced with the words: “I hear those voices that will not be drowned”, which are taken from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Review: The Giacomo Variations

(c) Natalie Bauer for The Giacomo Variations
(c) Natalie Bauer for The Giacomo Variations

I was really looking forward to this event, in Toronto for four performances this weekend. It is subtitled “a chamber opera play” and stars John Malkovich and a small cast of european singers/actors. The music is Mozart, a selection of arias and other songs pulled from his opera repertoire, and the singers are accompanied by the Orchester Vienna Akademie, directed by Martin Haselböck.

The good: the concept. Casanova looks back over his life and philosophizes on various topics while remembering his conquests. Incorporating the music of Mozart, with minor changes to the ensembles and arias (and some of the text) to suit the story had thrilling possibilities. The innovative sets, three giant hooped dresses which can roll around on stage, serve as backdrops, convenient spaces for costume changes and props, were interesting.

The bad: I would have left at intermission if I didn’t feel that it could only get better. Except it didn’t.

My main issues:

  1. There is no story arc, or at least it didn’t play out as I hoped it was imagined to. We never really care about any of the characters, except perhaps a maid who escapes rape because Casanova cannot perform. In trying to combine opera and theatre, the writer seemed to have forgotten that in both those arts, story is rather important.
  2. The music was mediocre. Some of the voices were nice, but the Elgin Theatre is not a place to hear opera. Malkovich was micced, but he didn’t sing much. (And when he did, one wished he wasn’t miked.) Volume was very uneven with some arias virtually inaudible in parts. The orchestra was uninspiring. Apparently they use period instruments which perhaps explains the rather lengthy time it took them to tune at the beginning of each act. At a couple of points (I think), four members of the orchestra stood to take the chorus parts and were virtually inaudible, although micced. There were many times when the singers and orchestra were out of sync, making it seem like a rehearsal rather than a show that has run in Prague, New York, and Montreal prior to its run in Toronto. Frankly, it hurts to think the production paid to fly this orchestra across the ocean to North America, which has a wealth of musical talent from which to draw.
  3. The set looked like it had been designed for travel. The rear screen at the back of the stage was not used for anything other than a blue light that didn’t change throughout the production. Our (expensive) seats were at the edge of the hall, just behind the cross-wise aisle, and a good part of stage right was blocked by speakers and what appeared to be a monitor.
  4. The lead actress had a significant Russian accent and a tight, smiley face with very narrow emotional range. Malkovich used his usual rather flat delivery which didn’t bother me as much as it did my date. His forays into singing during a couple of the ensemble pieces, and a single solo near the end had me imagining of a cross between William Shatner and Sting.
  5. The subtitles were atrociously produced. No excuse here. They were just bad. Mistranslated. Timing out. No titles for extended periods of time. Bleh.

I wanted to like it. My date came back from a business trip expressly to attend. But it just didn’t cut it. As we left the theatre, we reflected on the riches Toronto has to offer in the music, opera, and theatre scene and that, if nothing else, this production reminded us gently that sometimes the grass is greenest right in your own back yard.

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Seven Quick Takes Friday

  1. I’ve moved my blog again, this time to WordPress. Blogger was getting increasingly unwieldy and I was having to deal with a lot of spam comments.  Wordpress seems much more elegant and has a better user interface. I’ve spent too much time today setting it up, but I think it will be worth it in the long run. Please consider subscribing, using the link to the right.
  2. Last night was Michael’s final high school music concert. It was long and extremely hot in the packed auditorium. There were eight of us there to support him as he played a tuba concerto written by Johnny MacMillan, a Grade Nine student at the school. As well as the concerto, which he played with the Senior Concert Band, he also performed with the Men’s Chorus, the Mixed Vocal Ensemble, and the Senior Stage Band (bass trombone).  My brother and three aunts came out, and Michael’s first tuba teacher, Rob Teehan, was there which was a real honour. I also had a chance to meet Michael’s flat mate for the next school year in Montreal, who also dropped into town from Burlington to hear him play.
  3. I’m heading out to Ottawa next week to hang with my mother so I spent a lot of time today catching up on paperwork. This weekend I need to wrestle the laundry into order and stock the fridge for the men-folk who will fending for themselves. I would love to get the interior of my car cleaned before the trip, but I’m afraid the wet weather will preclude drying of my cloth upholstery, so that will have to wait.
  4. My new computer arrived earlier this week, a MacBook Air, but haven’t had time to get it out of the box and set up yet. I’m finally switching back to the Mac ecosystem after a number of years on Windows. The rest of my devices are Apple, and given that most of my work is done in the cloud these days, it probably makes sense to integrate. I have always preferred the Mac user-interface and design quality but for a while I needed to use software only available in Windows.
  5. I want to get started on a little article for the newsletter of the  Goddard Association of Europe, of which I am a member. Captain Nichola Goddard was the first Canadian female killed in the line of duty (in Afghanistan) and I just got a copy of her biography (Sunray: The Death and Life of Captain Nichola Goddard by Valerie Fortney).
  6. I’m participating in the Sea Change Program started by Leo Babauta of Zen Habits. I have been reading Leo’s blog for years and have come to really respect him as thoughtful teacher and thinker. More about this next week!
  7. I will also post about my experience of the COC’s Dialogues des Carmélites. It was beautiful and moving and well worth seeing if you’re in Toronto and love the opera.

    Courtesy Canadian Opera Company

Salomé a bit of a let down.

We saw the COC’s production of Strauss’ Salomé last night and were, on the whole, disappointed. The singing was fabulous, and I particularly Alan Held’s Jochanaan (John the Baptist) and Erika Sunnegardh in the role of Salomé. But one expects great voices and orchestral accompaniment from this company.

What didn’t work for me, surprisingly, was the direction. I normally like pretty much anything that comes through the hands of Atom Egoyan, both his films and his plays. This was my first time seeing this opera and I kind of didn’t get it, I guess. There was a mixture of business suits and Roman attire. A very stark set. Projected images that, while interesting, seemed dated. It was all very…eclectic.
Now, it’s not the modernity that did me in. I loved Peter Sellars’ production of Tristan und Isolde earlier in the season. I’m a relatively new opera goer of only a handful of years. Perhaps I’m just starting to find my bearings.
Photos: Canadian Opera Company

Sunday choral report

Circumstances only permitted a half hour rehearsal this morning, but our music went reasonably well.

During the Offertory we sang Josquin’s Ave Maria, presented below by the Tallis Scholars. (My email subscribers may not be getting the embedded video. If you’d like to see it, go to the link to my blog at the end of the email.)

During Communion, we presented Jesu Dulcis Memoria, sung here by the Cambridge Singers.

We were rather short of male singers this morning, with only one bass and two tenors, one of them a substitute for our cantor, but I think we managed to pull it off with our organist singing whichever male part needed him.

I spent a lazy afternoon, finishing up another read-through of Atonementby Ian McEwan in preparation for the screening tomorrow at TIFF, part of the Books on Film series. Playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton will be there for an interview with Eleanor Wachtel after the screening. The novel is so layered with emotion (or lack thereof) that it was perfect for a sunny Sunday afternoon on the porch.

It will be a busy week. Besides the screening, we are seeing two operas at the COC (Tuesday and Wednesday evenings) and then Michael’s final music concert of high school on Thursday,where he will be featured playing a tuba concerto composed by another student at the school.