Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Abominable Showman, January 29, 2012

Where the COC goes to play
(Photo: Tim Griffith, courtesy COC)
Tale of Two Cities
L’Opera de Montreal’s premiere of Il Trovatore the same day Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company premiered Tosca highlighted some striking differences – and similarities – between Canada’s two leading opera companies
by Richard Burnett
(Photo courtesy Place des Arts)
I’ve been writing about opera and interviewing opera stars for about a decade now, though I still don’t consider myself an opera expert by any stretch of the imagination. So I learnt a lot by attending two operas last week, the opening performance of the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Puccini’s masterpiece Tosca at Toronto’s gorgeous Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, and L’Opera de Montreal’s solid production of Verdi’s classic Il Trovatore at the venerable Salle Wilfred-Pelletier in Montreal.
The reviews for both productions are in and both fared well.

Both premieres were on the same day (January 21), so I attended the second performance of L’OdeM’s Il Trovatore a couple days later (January 24). The reviews for both productions are in and both fared well. Montreal’s own Arthur Kaptainis wrote in The National Post, “The Canadian Opera Company mounted Puccini’s potboiler mostly according to the playbook and sent the crowd home happy.”  The Toronto Star gave it three out of four stars, noting about the Torontonian soprano playing the title role, “Adrianne Pieczonka’s Tosca [is] the best thing in COC’s production of [the] Puccini classic.” (Incidentally, Pieczonka made her professional debut with the COC in 1988 and this homecoming performance was much-anticipated.)
 The Charlebois Post’s own Axel Van Chee mostly enjoyed Tosca, pointing out, “Pieczonka has delicious low and exhilarating high ranges that sometimes get the better of her.” I found Pieczonka to be a little shrieky but enjoyed American baritone Mark Delavan as the evil Scarpia (my opera companion – my mom Liliane – has seen Tosca performed live several times over the years and thought Delavan’s Scarpia was the best she’s ever seen). The crowd clearly enjoyed Delavan, who happily encouraged the lusty boos when he took his final bow.
Over in Montreal, audiences packed Salle-Wilfred-Pelletier to see Il Trovatore (nothing sells out a house quite like one of the old Italian standards, which audiences still demand to see). The Gazette fell in love with Korean tenor Dongwon Shin in the title role of Manrico. “His is the most exciting local tenor performance since Salvatore Licitra’s 2004 recital,” critic Wah Keung Chan wrote.
Now that’s very high praise – I also saw Licitra in Montreal in 2004 when he was poised to become the successor to Pavarotti whom, incidentally, I was also privileged to see perform live in Montreal a couple of years earlier, in February 2002. Sadly, Licitra passed away last September 5 after sustaining severe head and chest injuries when he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage when he crashed his motor scooter into a wall in Donnalucata, Sicily. He was just 43.
In my own Il Trovatore review for The Charlebois Post I pointed out the obvious: Even amateur opera fans will recognize many of the songs in Il Trovatore because it has been known as the opera with hits since its debut in 1853. L’OdeM hired an ensemble of four top-notch leads – Canadian baritone Gregory Dahl as the Count di Luna, Italian mezzo Laura Brioli as Azucena, Korean tenor Dongwin Shin as Manrico (I thought his golden voice really warmed up in the second half), and Japanese soprano Hiromi Omura (read my Charlebois Post interview with Omura by clicking here) – and they sent Montreal audiences home very happy.
Still, while the music and vocals were top-notch, I didn’t care much for the pedantic staging and minimalist – even rudimentary – sets recycled from L’OdeM’s 1998 production.
And this is what L’OdeM and the COC have in common: They are perpetually strapped for cash. 
Who knows, Montrealers may have to wait another 15 years before L’OdeM presents Il Trovatore again – unless you head down the 401 to Toronto to see the COC launch its 2012-2013 63rd season with its own production of  Il Trovatore. (Purely as an aside, Tosca – which continues at the COC until February 25 – was also the first opera L’OdeM ever presented, back in 1980.)
What L’OdeM and the COC do not have in common are the acoustics and sightlines of their respective halls. Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts is the new home for both the COC and the National Ballet of Canada; its horseshoe-shaped R. Fraser Elliot Hall was built with superior acoustics as its first priority. Each of the theatre’s 2,071 seats were computer-tested for optimal sightlines to ensure an unobstructed view for every member of the audience. To be honest, I thought the hall was much smaller than it is. In fact, I thought it was half the size of Montreal’s 2,990-seat Salle Wilfred-Pelletier which – lets face it – doesn’t have the best acoustics. 
But Salle Wilfred-Pelletier has a different kind of grace – and a grander lobby – dating as it does back to 1963, a bridge between the glorious theatres built before WWII and the current generation of often soulless state-of-the-art halls like Toronto’s R. Fraser Elliot Hall (inaugurated in 2006) and the OSM’s La Maison symphonique de Montréal (inaugurated in September 2011).
Without being elitist, I also found the Toronto audience to be sharper dressers – I’ve always enjoyed dressing up to go to the opera – and I was deeply annoyed and frustrated at the nonstop coughing and sneezing by the Montreal audience during Il Trovatore. Mind you, it was mild with no snow on the ground in Toronto, and Montreal ranks as one of the coldest and snowiest winter cities on the planet. 
But, damn it, if you’re sick stay home.
L’OdeM wind down their solid 2011-2012 season with their production of Gounod’s Faust, from May 19-26. Meanwhile, the COC still have another whopping four productions after Tosca ends its run on Feb 25: Love From Afar (Feb. 2-22, 2012), The Tales of Hoffmann (April 10 to May 14), A Florentine Tragedy / Gianni Schicchi (April 26 to May 25) and Semele (May 9 – 26).
I love going to the opera. I once deliriously attended an opera in 2007 at Vienna’s famed State Opera House (or Staatsoper) which was built by gay architect couple Eduard van der Null and August Sicard von Sicardsburg in 1868. The Staatsoper presents a different opera pretty much every single night of the week year-round and – with its elegant dress code (informal is permitted in standing room) – delivers a night of romance. 
The Canadian Opera Company and L’Opera de Montreal may not have the budgets to present opera year-round, but they do offer their audiences a little romance in a world that sure could use some more.


Final note: My hearty congratulations to Montreal actor Antonio Bavaro, nominated for for’s 2011 My Theatre Awards for Best Performance in a Reading for his work in Puelo Deir’s Holy Tranity at the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival. 
You can read my Three Dollar Bill interview with Bavaro about his other 2011 critically-acclaimed performance, in Hedwig & The Angry Inch at the Montreal Fringe Festival, by clicking here
You can also read my Charlebois Post interview with Puelo Deir about Holy Tranity by clicking here. 
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