Edmonton Opera Blog

Glimmerglass operas impress

Wednesday, September 5. 2012

Back to the performances. The Music Man (1957) – book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson. For those of you who know me, you will know that I am not a big fan of musicals (you can call me a snob, that’s OK!) but if musicals are to be done, then the level at which Glimmerglass Festival produced The Music Man was certainly the right way to go about it. No mics, trained voices, great direction, a well-done production. It was such a pleasure to see and hear great baritone Dwayne Croft in the role of Prof. Harold Hill having a comeback after 20 years to the same company where he had his opera debut in 1975 (in the chorus). So many members of the Young Artists Program together with the festival chorus singing, dancing, having fun. As Elizabeth Futral who played the lead female role of Marian Paroo rightly pointed out, “The basic lessons of The Music Man still ring true . . . people still pine away for good partners, communities still long to be engaged in activities that make them energized and there are redeeming qualities in all of us if we’ll just take enough time to look for them!” So, I had a fun evening in spite of myself! And at the end, the production crew was packing this production to go to Muscat, Oman. How wonderful is that?

Now a day later, I am writing this as I came back to my little, modest inn from one of the most powerful and emotional experiences in the opera world that I have known for a long time. I still feel shaken after seeing Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars. This musical tragedy (you could call it also “singspiel”) is definitely a masterpiece of musical application to dramatic narrative (quoting Virgil Thomson). This was Weill’s last stage work; it premiered in 1949 and survived him on Broadway by just three months — he died of a heart attack at the age of 50. In 1948, Weill’s collaborator Maxwell Anderson asked permission from the South African novelist Alan Paton to set the novel Cry, the Beloved Country to music. Weill always carried within him and often admitted to such deep awareness of the suffering of the underprivileged, the prosecuted, the oppressed and he definitely managed to address in this opera racial issues, injustice and tension but chose a distant land as opposed to his newly adopted home. This production was co-produced with the South African Cape Town Opera and I can’t even start imagining what it must have felt like being there and seeing it in South Africa. Tazewell Thompson’s directing stayed away from overly sentimental and kept the production in all of its elements a gut-wrenching experience, navigating us with utmost sensitivity and intelligence through the issues of almost biblical proportions — family, faith, redemption. Eric Owens in the role of Stephen Kumalo was absolutely phenomenal; he brought the audience to tears at the end of Act 1 with the song that gave the work its title which he sung with such raw existentialist despair “God who’s gone away . . . .” By the end of the performance in the last scene Eric himself was sobbing and so were the rest of us. The power of music, theatre, great artists, excellent production all as one with the audience that lets itself be taken on this journey. Another notable performance was by Sean Panikkar in the role of The Leader — he has a really nice, warm tenor voice that I wish to hear again.

For an opera house that doesn’t have AC and by the end of the first act can get rather warm, it has a very “cool” design — the outside side walls are on these huge sliders, so as the intermission starts, the walls get opened on two long sides, making the house nice and cool. I thought I would mention it for our house architect Clayton!

My last opera at Glimmerglass Festival was Aida — also the performance that closed this year’s festival. Aida was very, very successfully directed by Francesca Zambello (who is also the artistic and general director of Glimmerglass Festival). I have always admired her, but even more so after seeing her Ring Cycle a couple of years ago. It’s hard imagining Verdi’s grand opera Aida as chamber opera but it is full of very intimate scenes that easily get lost when you stage it on the grand stages of the world. It was really interesting seeing it from that perspective and also in the context of the Arab Spring, keeping it relevant to today’s Middle Eastern political situation. Machine guns, praying mats; military uniforms mixed with female and royalty costumes inspired by ancient Egypt. The conductor Nader Abbassi (who is the head of the Cairo Opera) gave the score such intimate reading and led the cast with secure, musical perfection. It was a predominantly young cast, filled with rising American stars — in the title role Michelle Johnson; Noah Stewart was very good as Radamès and is certainly someone to watch; Daveda Karanas was fantastic as Amneris, and Philip Gay as very young King. Eric Owens recovered from the afternoon’s performance of Lost in the Stars and was a wonderful Amonasro. Certainly a production that must have challenged some members of the audience who want the elephants and all of the trappings of the Triumphal March, but only a handful left the theatre at the one intermission. A thought-provoking production for sure that keeps the opera relevant in today’s world as much as it was when first premiered in Cairo.

The theme of this year’s festival was “Windows on the World.” In choosing this team, Francesca Zambello wanted to inspire discussion about our world today. In her own words: “The world we create   . . . will be reality, a world in which history can be examined, assumptions can be challenged and our common humanity celebrated.” Well done Francesca! Congratulations on your vision and the world you have created for us! I am looking forward to your next season. And left content with the last words I heard tonight: “Pace, Pace, Pace. . .”

Glimmerglass Festival opens 'windows on the world' with four operas

Thursday, August 30. 2012

Since its founding and very modest beginnings in 1975, Glimmerglass Festival has become a major destination for opera lovers from around the world. As well, it serves as training ground for artists and professionals in the performing arts world. It is based close to Cooperstown, which is apparently famous for its Baseball Hall of Fame (and that I know nothing about and am not even embarrassed to admit it). The festival started with four performances of La Bohème in a local high school and now has over 40 performances of four operas (although it seems that most years one of the four is more in the genre of the musical theatre but done as they say, in the “operatic” manner with no amplification) in a purpose-built theatre on the shore of Otsego Lake. The Alice Busch Opera Theater (914 seats) designed by Hugh Hardy opened in 1987. The interesting fact is that this was the first purpose-built American Hall for opera following the opening of new Metropolitan Opera house in 1966. Glimmerglass has a truly impressive Young Artists Program — this year there are 44 artists from all over the world, and the program has, over the years, launched many careers.

The hardest thing to come by in Cooperstown is reasonably priced — or for that matter any —accommodation. That seems to have been the case for years as visitors continue to struggle to find place to stay. In that respect it reminds me of places like Niagara-on-the-Lake or Stratford festivals in Ontario.

The first production I saw upon arrival was Jean-Baptiste Lully’s brilliant tragedie lirique Armide (1686) co-produced with Opera Atelier from Toronto. I saw it back in 2005 when it was first presented in Toronto with some of the same cast. Armide examines the conflict between the Muslim and Christian worlds during the First Crusade in the 11th century. The work is full of magic, enchantment, love, drama and raw passion — at the end of the opera all we are left with is the destruction of lives, still two worlds apart. The design by Gerard Gauci was inspired by glittering, exquisite illuminations from Persian culture of that same time (11th century). He also collaborated closely with a Persian calligrapher who translated parts of the libretto and wrote these elegant scripts on panels that were part of the set. Even the house curtain became a calligraphic masterpiece. Dora Rust D’Eye designed beautiful costumes that supported so well the story and the concept. Kudos to director Marshall Pynkoski and choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg to continue their inspired, wonderful quest to bring us back the beauty of so many of the rarely performed masterpieces. Their commitment to present these operas as much as possible true to their period of creation is not a simple task. Maestro David Fallis was excellent and led the chorus, the artists of Atelier Ballet and of course the wonderful cast in such a way that the production got standing ovation and numerous curtain calls — I stopped counting after seven! Armide was sung by a young soprano native of Minnesota, Peggy Kriha Dye — the bravos and standing ovations for her brought her to tears! Some notable young Canadian singers in this cast were Mireille Asselin, Meghan Lindsey (both sopranos originally from Ottawa) and the young tenor Aaron Ferguson. All three were this year chosen to be in the Glimmerglass Young Artists Program. Certainly artists to watch and I hope we can bring them to Edmonton one of these days.

Almost every name in and around Cooperstown is somehow related to the early American writer James Fenimore Cooper, his family, or his books and characters. He saw Otsego Lake as glimmering glass; the name Leatherstocking is everywhere including the local golf and country club; the beautiful art museum (Fenimore Art Museum) has been built on the same property where his stately house once stood ... the list goes on. I spent my Saturday morning at the Fenimore Art Museum with its impressive collection of Native American art. What also impressed me was that there is a good collaborative relationship with the Glimmerglass Festival, as there was an exhibit on Armide with set and costume sketches very prominently displayed at the art museum. They also had a costume that Renée Fleming wore in the Met’s production of Rossini’s Armida in 2010. A very nice touch.

Next week, Sandra continues her recap of Glimmerglass with The Music Man, Lost in the Stars and Aida.

Production facility tour

Tuesday, August 21. 2012

Edmonton Opera's assistant technical director talks about the new production facility, which consolidates three warehouses into one. The first build taking place in the space, "Les Contes d'Hoffmann," is scheduled to begin any day.

Stage on the Lake, summer operas Part 3

Friday, August 17. 2012

Bregenz Opera Festival has become a must go and see for the opera aficionados that above all love the sometimes absolutely outrageous but always creative to the extreme use of the lake as a basis for the elaborate opera sets. Bregenz is a small medieval town on the Austrian part of Lake Constance, a large body of water between Switzerland, Germany and Austria. My daughter thought the coolest way to get to Bregenz from Verona was over some treacherous, tiny alpine mountain pass that would then lead us through Liechtenstein. She really wanted to close the loop of seeing all of the smallest countries in the world, but had me drive the hairpin turns!

The Bregenz Festival produces one new grand opera on the “Stage on the Lake” every two years and has a well-deserved reputation for making the impossible viable, exciting and worth the trip to Bregenz. This was the second year of their production of André Chénier, an opera in four acts by Umberto Giordano set in the times of French Revolution (1789-1795). Director Keith Warner and David Fielding, set designer, took as inspiration the painting The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David from 1793. Many months after the initial concept was approved and developed, the cranes and barges delivered a 60-ton head onto the platform in the lake water. The eyes and mouth opening; cast, chorus, supers and stuntmen running up and down the numerous sets of stairs (apparently over 150 stairs) connecting various stages and platforms — but that was only a part of the stage. There were multiple stages with hundreds of performers that included the aerialists, rock climbers and divers — and numerous cast members, including the tenor in the title role, jumped into the lake at some point. It certainly was a memorable production.

The orchestra of the Bregenz Festival is the Vienna Philharmonic which played beautifully under the baton of Maestro Enrico Calesso (but hidden from the audience other than two large screens simulcasting from their space). The cast was great — Serbian born tenor Zoran Todorovich, living in Germany, was in the title role, and soprano from Uruguay Maria José Siri as Maddalena de Coigny, to mention just the two. The unfortunate reality of the festival is that due to its location, everyone is miked and the sound then mixed which was not always perfect. Still, it was a wonderful experience and I am truly pleased to have been there, even in the rain. The show went on through the rain and the audience, pretty much like our last year’s Opera Al Fresco audience, didn’t move until the end.

Summer opera festivals, part 2

Wednesday, August 8. 2012

I have been going to the summer festival at the Arena di Verona for many years and every time I go, I come to the same conclusion: no other place can beat it. It’s mainly because of the acoustical properties of the ancient Roman amphitheater that is far superior to other summer festival outdoor venues that I have been to. I have to admit that the sheer size of their budget allows for presenting each and every opera with best possible singers, huge choruses, supers and as a spectacle works with the masses there too, both the educated and the novices. The orchestra and chorus are of the highest quality. The cast has, in my experience, always been stellar.

This year was the 90th festival — the festival started in 1913 but had a few interruptions during the war years. 

This year I am seeing three operas in Verona; two last week and I will see one more on my way back to Rome.

Don Giovanni was the first one and the interesting fact was that this was the first time that Verona summer festival presented it. They gave the honour to the almost-90-year-old Franco Zeffirelli, the legend of opera, to both design the set and to direct it. It was an excellent production where Zeffirelli gave it a sense of Mozart’s time in terms of how he handled the production — both the look and the performing style. It worked well in spite of having hundreds on stage, which would have certainly not been the case at the time when the opera was first composed. Great cast with special mention of one of the world’s most celebrated bass-baritones, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, in the title role, well-established opera buffa interpreter Bruno de Simone as Leporello, young Bulgarian bass Deyan Vatchkov as Masetto (although I really wanted to hear him sing a different role!) and a promising young tenor from Albania, Saimir Pirgu, as Don Ottavio. I am now not sure if I am listening this year differently for male roles as we keep wanting more men in our Edmonton Opera chorus, so I am somewhat obsessed with that aspect of our search, but it seems that there is a pool of talented male singers on the summer stages of Europe. I have to add that all the female principals were wonderful to hear too which is especially so for the gorgeous Russian soprano Anna Samuil as Donna Anna. I only heard the French mezzo Geraldine Chauvet live in roles like Adalgisa — I knew she does a great Carmen but didn’t imagine her as Zerlina. I love it when great singers surprise us with what range and rep they can actually do and do it so well. It was especially moving when at the end of the opera, Franco Zeffirelli came onstage in his wheelchair and the entire cast and the wonderful conductor Daniel Oren all went on their knees so as not to be higher than Zeffirelli! I felt truly privileged being there that night.

The following night was Romeo et Juliette under the Verona stars and the heat that evening even after midnight persisted as the temperature never went below 35! Other than Faust, Romeo et Juliette is really the only other Gounod opera performed with any regularity. The production, which has only four performances this year, was designed by Eduardo Sanchi, beautiful costumes were designed by Silvia Aymonino, it was directed by Francesco Micheli and musically well-presented by the conductor Fabio Mastrangelo. The sets, the use of the arena as backdrop, lighting and costumes were a really wonderful, magical modern interpretation of the Shakespearean story. There were a couple of moments when I questioned my own ability to understand some set elements or a directorial decision but I quickly got over it. In title roles, to start with, Polish coloratura soprano Aleksandra Kurzak as Juliette was fantastic. I wished I heard John Osborn doing his European debut just a week earlier, but I have to give credit to Stefano Secco as very good Romeo. All in all — a very satisfactory opera experience.

Sampler of summer opera festivals

Wednesday, August 1. 2012

I made it to Bregenz in Austria late last night. I have a ticket to see Andre Chenier here tonight, but it has been raining. So, not sure if the weather gods will permit this extravagant set on the water of the lake to fascinate me tonight or not. I will keep you posted.

I started my sampler of summer opera festivals in Torre del Lago — a small town on a lake not far from Pisa and also just outside the seaside resort of Viareggio on the Tyrrhenian Sea in northern Italy. It’s a town where Puccini came as a young composer at the beginning of his career and spent 30 years of his life there. When Puccini first discovered the picturesque Torre del Lago, he found the area where he could return to the roots of his inspiration — the light, the sounds and scents of nature that could still inspire powerful and passionate emotions.  He first rented a house but then once the money started coming in from the successes of Manon Lescaut in 1893 and then La Bohème in 1896, he was able to purchase a house of his dreams — an ancient lookout tower. He had it restored and it was there that all of his major works were composed (Tosca, Madama Butterfly, La Fanciulla del West, La Rondine and Il Trittico). Puccini died in 1924 (only one act short of completing Turandot) and was first buried in Milano. His son moved Puccini’s remains to the small private chapel in the Torre del Lago villa in 1926. Visiting the villa (which is still privately owned by the family, similar to the Villa Verdi) brings this great man so close to us, his audience. It’s no wonder that 58 years ago, the Puccini Foundation started the Puccini Festival right outside the Puccini Villa on the shores of his beloved lake.

I stayed in Viareggo as the accommodation there was both cheaper and easier to find. This year’s festival had a novelty in its artistic programming — they added one opera by Verdi (La Traviata) to the usual Puccini opera choices (this year included Tosca, Madama Butterfly and La Bohème).

I saw Tosca first. A very traditional production, effective use of scenic elements to tell the story but not very inspiring as a production. What was great was the cast, as they certainly had some truly excellent singers — Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka as Tosca (some Edmonton Opera staff saw her as Tatiana in LA Opera’s Onegin last fall when she made her North American debut) and Rudy Park (a South Korean tenor who moved to Italy in 2002) as fantastic Mario Cavaradossi. I have heard him in a few roles before and hope that maybe one of these days we can hear him on our stage too.

The second night brought the production of Madama Butterfly. The production itself was lost on me. A very minimalist set that started well with excellent use of lighting on the naked, almost barren stage with the two oversized stones (seemed like the work of Barbara Hepworth). I wish it had stayed that way as bringing in some other geometrical shapes as set pieces later in the opera didn’t really work. The costumes didn’t manage to stay neither as an inspiration nor as a storytelling tool — in most cases — especially in the large chorus scenes they were a distraction and felt like they were inspired by Star Wars. I really felt for Cio Cio San struggling with her costume in Act 2, especially where she stumbled and tripped a number of times. The singers again (just like in Tosca) were worth the trip – Donata D’Annunzio Lombardi was a very strong Cio Cio San – both vocally and dramatically but the one that stood out was Pinkerton sung by the fantastic Venezuelan tenor Aquiles Machado. He was excellent.

So – just when we think that there are not enough tenors in this world, I was fortunate to hear two extraordinary voices in two nights!

Verona coming next…

Commentary: Opera North's "Die Walkure"

Thursday, July 26. 2012

When one mentions Wagner, Leeds, England, does not immediately come to mind. In fact, when one circumscribes the master’s works to The Ring Cycle, or one of its four operas, one thinks about the major opera houses of the world. Such is the magnitude of effort, financial commitment, singing and orchestral excellence required that only the largest houses can afford it and can attract the quality of performers who can take on this monstrosity of a work, or for that matter, any of his later works

My wife and I were travelling in England in June 2012 and had found that Opera North would be producing Die Walküre, the second of Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas, and for most people, the most popular. Not being a major house, could Opera North produce a credible performance?

Opera North came into existence in 1972 out of a recognition that there needed to be a significant opera company outside of London. Initially under the aegis of the English National Opera, Opera North found its independence a few years later, and currently produces nine operas per year with an annual budget of more than £11 million. This is more than twice as large as Edmonton Opera. It performs in Leeds, Birmingham, Gateshead and Salford Quays. This year, Opera North’s calendar calls for Don Giovanni, Faust, Otello, La Clemenza di Tito, La voix humaine and Dido and Aeneas, with more to follow in the summer program. Clearly, this is an adventurous company.

Its current general director is Richard Mantle, who in the early 1990s held the same position with Edmonton Opera. His reign was known for excellent productions, though not always appreciated by the locals. I remember a Julius Caesar by Handel done on a stage full of sand, and Caesar in a business suit and barefoot (because of the sand, you see). Another was Janáček's Jenufa, for which the tenor succumbed to some illness on opening day. At the last minute, Richard flew in a performer from Chicago who arrived five minutes before the performance was to start, sang the part and was put back on a plane to sing the same role the next night in Chicago. The latter company was furious when they heard what their tenor had done; he was supposed to be resting that day, but for us, it was a memorable performance.

Under-appreciated in the colonies, Richard moved back to his native country and has been producing great opera in Leeds and other centres in northern England ever since.

Richard said staging a full production of The Ring Cycle would bankrupt the company, but producing it in concert version, one opera per year, was achievable. We heard nearly 100 musicians perform Die Walküre, this year’s offering. Opera North has its own orchestra of 53 players, and supplemented this with freelance musicians from the region, making a total of 98, a respectable size for a Wagnerian performance. The violins may have sounded a bit thin at times, but the horns were spectacular, filling the hall with that typically bold, and occasionally overpowering, Wagnerian sound.

The principal singers were dressed in formal wear (their own, so the company saved even on costumes). They were excellent, with Brünnhilde especially standing out. Video and still projection behind the orchestra captured the mood of each scene, and occasionally told the backstory, for those not already familiar with this complex tale.

Other than the fact that the Town Hall is an old building with no air conditioning and it was insufferably hot, especially in the third act, it was a wonderful evening.

We were guests of Richard's at this performance (arranged by Sandra Gajic, the Edmonton Opera CEO) and enjoyed telling him about progress in Edmonton, about which both he and his wife seem to retain favourable memories. As well, we enjoyed the wine and subsequent dinner served during the second intermission. This was typically reserved for donors, but since it is the same people at all the operatic events in Leeds (we have the same situation in Edmonton), we were minor celebrities. People were amazed that we would have come such a distance to see an opera. We have travelled farther for opera and will likely continue to do so. Our dinner was in an elegant room with tuxedoed servers. Others, less privileged, were eating out of picnic baskets they had brought for the long intermission.

By the way, this habit of having one short intermission and one long is typically an English and German custom, and perhaps was dreamed up as an accommodation to the Wagnerian scale of operatic evenings. One cannot endure six hours without eating, so the second intermission is usually an hour or more, and people bring their dinner with them to the theatre, or make other more interesting arrangements. At Glyndebourne, they sit on the grass with their food baskets and bottle of wine, and enjoy the outdoors before going back in to see gods and nibelungs kill each other.

This concert format is something that Edmonton Opera should consider for a larger opera. We have never had the more ambitious works of Wagner here, and perhaps this concert version of the second Ring opera is possible.

Cast
Siegmund – Erik Nelson Werner
Sieglinde – Alwyn Mellor
Hunding – Clive Bayley
Wotan – Béla Perencz
Brünnhilde – Annalenna Persson
Fricka – Katarina Karnéus
Conductor – Richard Farnes

Gabe ShelleyGabe Shelley is a management consultant in Edmonton and an opera lover. He and his wife, Connie, travel the world for great opera. He has served on the Edmonton Opera board and continue to support its exciting future. Currently, he is a part of the artistic committee.



Sandra Gajic talks Opera

Monday, May 14. 2012

Courtesy of MKM

Jeffrey Jansen Talks Opera

Thursday, April 19. 2012

Fidelio: The process revealed

Monday, March 12. 2012

A little less than two weeks until we start rehearsals for Fidelio! We left fun and frivolity on the shores of Titipu what seems like only yesterday, and we will venture into a totally different world of where oppression and the joy of overcoming it is realized with Beethoven's glorious music.

The set designed by Bretta Gerecke has begun construction, and the costumes being designed by Deanna Finnman are coming together as you read this. I am always astonished by the creativity of both the scenic designer and the costume designer.  There are so many parameters thrown their way in their journey to realizing a design for a show.

Despite any restrictions, whether it be monetary or timelines, these two individuals always surprise me with their approach to create the world the opera needs to live in.  Always positive, they remind me of improv performers! Never say no!  Saying no only puts up blocks or resists moving forward.  Should an issue arise, they dive in, suggest alternatives and forge on usually coming up with something even better that will support the world the opera needs to live in and help tell the story.

I love working with designers!

Bernie Robitaille Talks Edmonton Opera

Monday, January 30. 2012

Tour of the Opera Warehouse with Technical Director Clayton Rodney

Thursday, January 26. 2012

Take a tour through the Opera Warehouse to see where we store our sets, set pieces, costumes and more!



Hans Forbrich Talks Edmonton Opera

Thursday, December 22. 2011

Stella Varvis Talks Edmonton Opera

Friday, November 25. 2011

Teresa Spinelli Talks Edmonton Opera

Wednesday, November 9. 2011