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article imageThe Canadian Opera Company: Something old, plenty new Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Jan 18, 2014 in Entertainment
Toronto - The Canadian Opera Company announced its 2014-2015 season in a splashy evening event at the Four Seasons Center Wednesday night in Toronto.
With video and live performances, it was a marked difference from the more formal announcements of the past, signaling a newer, fresher, more welcoming and possibly more experimental direction for a company that relishes integrating the old and the new.
By moving away from the more staid, traditional formats of seasons past, the company hopes to avoid the trappings of producing dying art for a dying audience, infusing the art with a more fresh approach, and the company with more diverse voices, literally and figuratively.
With a crowd of close to one thousand spread between the orchestra and upper ring levels, the presentation mixed video and live onstage interview and performances, while CBC host Brent Banbury kept things at a clipped pace, keeping questions with General Director Alexander Neef and Music Director Johannes Debus brief and concise.
“We're seen as a company that helps enable great art,” said Neef. The impetus behind such "enabling" doesn't just arise from audiences, some of whom are keen on seeing the form grow from its traditionally starchy boundaries, but from artists too, who want to stretch themselves and the repertory they're familiar – sometimes over-familiar – with.
“It's important we entice (artists) to come here,” Neef explained, adding that the company has to keep things interesting for its erstwhile Music Director. “We want him to stay here.”
COC Music Director Johannes Debus and COC General Director Alexander Neef in R. Fraser Elliott Hall ...
COC Music Director Johannes Debus and COC General Director Alexander Neef in R. Fraser Elliott Hall at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 2013.
The season will feature six productions, all owned or co-owned by the COC. That means a reduction in performances from 58 to 56. As The Globe and Mail's Robert Harris rightly observed, "Each of the COC’s six announced shows will be anchored by a Canadian production, a Canadian director or a Canadian star, often all three. In sort of a “greatest hits” spirit, three of the company’s 2014-15 operas will be revivals of famed COC productions from the past." This means the company hopes to attract curious new audiences while cultivating its relationship with long-term subscribers through a combination of new, inventive stagings and favorite old chestnuts, while keeping the howls that it "isn't a Canadian enough company" at bay.
The new season kicks off October 3rd with Verdi's Falstaff, directed by the renowned Robert Carsen, and currently onstage at the Metropolitan Opera. Set in 1950s England, the production marks Carsen’s fourth show in five years with the company and will feature Grammy and Juno Award-winning Canadian baritone Gerald Finley in the title role. The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Teatro alla Scala; Metropolitan Opera, Netherlands Opera, and the Canadian Opera Company all had a hand in its production.
“We could never do a production of that scale on our own,” Neef stated plainly.
Debus, who will be conducting the opera for the first time in his career, added that “the music is so precise and sparkling,” while noting the challenges of interpreting it with depth and maturity. “You need Rossini-like precision,” he explained, “but with the emotional values of Verdi, and Beethovian rigidity.”
Audiences will be treated to an updated vision of Mozart's Don Giovanni, with a daring, contemporary interpretation from acclaimed Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov. Neef confessed he's seen this particular Giovanni three times, and, in a rare show of public emotion, breathlessly described Tcherniakov's 2006 production of Eugene Onegin (done originally for the Bolshoi) as “one of the great opera experiences of my life!”
Russell Braun as Don Giovanni from 2013 Teatro Real Madrid production.
Russell Braun as Don Giovanni from 2013 Teatro Real Madrid production.
Javier del Real
Named Best Director last year at London’s inaugural International Opera Awards, Tcherniakov is making his directing debut at the Metropolitan Opera next month, with a highly anticipated production of Borodin's Prince Igor. Canadian baritone Russell Braun, who worked with Tcherniakov at the Teatro Real Madrid in 2013, said that in order for audiences to appreciate this non-traditional vision of the Mozart work, “it's crucial to understand Don Giovanni is a middle-aged man.”
Far lighter, but no less experimental in terms of its production spirit, is Rossini's popular The Barber of Seville, to be presented by Spanish theatre troupe Els Comediants. “It's like Miro's Spain,” Neef commented of the vision of the Comediants, “with primary colors and geometric shapes.”
A co-production between the COC, and Houston Grand Opera, France's Opéra National de Bordeaux and Opera Australia, the Spanish troupe last worked with the Canadian company for the family-oriented La Cenerentola in 2011.
A scene from 2012 Opéra National de Bordeaux production.
A scene from 2012 Opéra National de Bordeaux production.
Guillaume Bonnaud
“It was time we produced something family-friendly (again),” commented Neef, and indeed, the opera's inclusion feels like the COC's attempt at marketing a family-oriented cultural experience, as well as showcase the vocal powerhouse of baritone (and COC Ensemble graduate) Robert Gleadow (singing in Cosi Fan Tutte this season), an exciting singer and charismatic stage presence.
The return of Madame Butterfly next season marks its sixth iteration at the COC since it premiered in 1990; last staged by the company five years ago, it's a popular work that attracts hoards of both new and old opera lovers alike. Acclaimed American soprano Patricia Racette will sing the role of Cio-Cio San, one she'll share with fellow American Kelly Kaduce. Both have garnered raves for their respective portrayals of a role traditionally laden with awkward racial and gender stereotypes.
Bluebeard's Castle / Erwartung, the Bartok/Schoenberg double-bill, returns, a remount of its Robert LePage staging from twenty years ago, one that's enjoyed numerous international productions since its premiere. Debus quoted Hungarian composer (and Bartok contemporary) Zoltan Kodaly in describing Bluebeard as “the eruption of a volcano in fifty minutes,” adding that “Schoenberg, together with Beethoven, changed the musical language radically.” Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea will sing the title role. It's a pity neither he nor LePage were present at Wednesday night's launch to offer commentary, particularly since this will be the first time the opera will be produced on the Four Seasons' stage.
Clifton Forbis as Siegmund in the Canadian Opera Company s 2006 production of Die Walküre.
Clifton Forbis as Siegmund in the Canadian Opera Company's 2006 production of Die Walküre.
Gary Beechey
Like Bartok and Schoenberg, Wagner has his diehard fans, and Toronto audiences will be treated to the latter in the 2014-2015 season, with the epic Die Walküre, featuring American soprano Christine Goerke as the heroic Brunhilde and Danish baritone Johan Reuter as Wotan. The production was first mounted by the company in 2004 and then again in 2006 to celebrate the opening of the Four Seasons Centre.
Egoyan, who called Wagner "an amazing dramatist," emphasized the personal nature of the epic work. “It's the greatest work of the nineteenth century,” Egoyan said of the Ring Cycle, “and it's really very intimate.”
Producing Wagner is “a big undertaking,” commented Neef, ever the master of smiling subtlety, before quietly adding that Goerke is “in the books” for both Siegfried and Gotterdamerung. After her astonishing performance recently in Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten for the Met, it is no small accomplishment on the COC's part to be nabbing such a operatic force. This, like all six choices for the 2014-2015 season, give a strong signal that the COC is ready to be perceived as a big player in the operatic world.
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