La Scena Musicale

Saturday, April 11, 2009

This Week in Toronto (Apr. 11 - 17)

Paolo Gavanelli in the title role of COC's Simon Boccanegra (Photo: Michael Cooper)
The big news this week is the start of the COC spring season, which kicks off with the first revival of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra in 30 years. In the title role is Italian baritone Paolo Gavanelli, who has sung in many of the great opera houses in the world, including the Met, Covent Garden, Vienna, La Scala, Paris Opera, Munich, and Naples. We are very fortunate to have a singer of his stature in Toronto, and I am very glad to see John Terauds' article on him in the Star the other day. There is just not enough arts coverage in print media these days, so it was good to see this article. Boccanegra is one of his signature roles, the other being Rigoletto. The Amelia is American soprano Tamara Wilson. Billed as a "Verdi soprano", I look forward to hearing her for the first time. The winner of several awards, Wilson was a finalist in the 2004 Met Auditions, as well as a winner of the George London Award. Russian tenor Mikhail Agafonov returns as Gabriele, Canadian bass Phillip Ens is Fiesco; and Marco Guidarini conducts. Performances take place at the Four Seasons Centre on April 11 and 14, at 7:30 pm.
At the Toronto Symphony, Russian pianist Yefim Bronfman returns to Toronto to play Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2, conducted by Peter Oundjian. Also on the program are Peer Gynt Suite and Nielsen's Symphony No. 5 (April 15 and 16 at Roy Thomson Hall) On April 17th 8 pm, the reigning American prima donna Renee Fleming returns to Roy Thomson Hall as part of its International Vocal Series, in a program of songs by Handel, Dutilleux, Messiaen, John Kander and Richard Strauss, with Hartmut Hoell at the piano.
If you are still looking for a sacred concert for Easter, do give the Empire Theatres a try. They are showing Handel's Messiah in HD on Saturday April 11 1 pm, featuring the choir from King's College, Cambridge. This performance was taped live on April 5, transmitted live into cinemas across Europe and to select locations in the US. We are getting it on a delayed basis this weekend. In Toronto, the performance will be shown at Empress Walk (5095 Yonge Street in North York) and at Square One (100 City Centre Drive in Mississauga).

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Sensational Singapore: the Remarkable Creation of Stamford Raffles and Lee Kuan Yew

By Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

Our cruise liner, the Diamond Princess, arrived in Singapore this morning in a light rain. She docked at a container terminal and at about 10:00 am passengers were bused to a shopping centre opposite the Hyatt Hotel on Scott Road near Orchard Road.

Orchard Road is the heart of upscale shopping in Singapore. From this intersection on into downtown, stores, malls, and restaurants abound. Marita and I, together with her brother and sister-in-law, explored the shops for several hours, after which we took a short taxi ride to the Intercontinental Hotel downtown for an excellent buffet lunch comprised mostly of regional cuisine.

The light rain had by now turned into a heavy shower, but we stayed dry shopping nearby in the Bugis Mall which connects to the hotel. The Bugis, by the way, were one of the first native peoples of the Malay Peninsula.

Raffles Hotel: Singapore’s Colonial Beginnings
Finally, the rain let up and we were able to walk the few blocks to Raffles (right). Singapore has progressed beyond its colonial past, but has the confidence to celebrate it in the form of dozens of meticulously restored buildings such as this magnificent hotel.

Raffles was built in 1899 and quickly became a favorite haunt of well-heeled locals and visiting celebrities. It was thoroughly renovated in 1991 and the sweeping staircases, shaded verandas and tall swaying palms look as grand and elegant as they did in the nineteenth century.

Sir Stamford Raffles, an official of the British East India Company, essentially created Singapore in 1819, confident that the crossroads location and the wonderful harbor would be ideal for a trading centre.

When Raffles (right) arrived, Singapore was the diverse, cantankerous ethnic mix it is today, but he took steps to ensure that the persistent animosities were kept under control. He divided the city-state into sectors for each ethnic group - British, Indian, Chinese and so on. By and large this division is reflected in the layout of Singapore today. Some of the finest shopping can be found in 'Little India' or on Arab Road with the appropriate peoples and products.

We ran out of time to enjoy a full English tea at Raffles, but we did get to knock back a few "Singapore Slings," a cocktail invented by bartenders in the famous Raffles Long Bar where the likes of Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward and Paul Theroux had staved off the tropical heat before us. Packed with tourists, the bar’s classic atmosphere continues to seduce, with its slow- turning fans, shuttered windows, and rich chocolate paneling.

From the time of Sir Stamford Raffles, into the mid-twentieth century, Singapore was a British Crown Colony. Self-government within the Federation of Malaysia came only in 1955, followed by complete independence in 1965.

Independence, Lee Kuan Yew and Government that Works
Since independence, under the firm but wise leadership of Lee Kuan Yew (right), the country has advanced to the forefront of nations enjoying peace and prosperity. Singapore, though small – only 267 square miles and about 5 million people – is extraordinarily well-governed and a kind of paradise for those fortunate enough to live there.

Lee Kuan Yew (1923-) is not a modest man, but then he does not have much to be modest about. The high standard of living enjoyed by nearly everyone in the country is a largely result of the policies that he promulgated.

The government of Singapore is officially defined as a “parliamentary republic.” While the freedom to make money is almost unlimited, the freedom to be critical of the government is severely restricted. Newspapers, magazines, cable television and the internet are all carefully scrutinized and censored by the government.

The government’s approach is not unlike that employed by China today, but without any ideological underpinnings.

Singapore realizes that it lives in a dangerous world and cannot afford unlimited freedom of speech. The result has been imprisonment or fines for those who choose to challenge the system, but an admirable quality of life for those who do not.

Years ago Singapore became famous for arresting those who dared to spit on the streets or to deposit used chewing gum in public places, and for its severe punishment of drug offenders. Today’s Singapore has less crime and less poverty than almost any other country in the world. It is also recognized by many as one of the world’s cleanest countries.

Lee Kuan Yew stepped down as Prime Minister in 1990, but he continues to exert enormous authority in Singapore’s affairs as ‘Minister Mentor,’ with his son Lee Hsien Loong as Prime Minister.

Notes on Urban Planning, Architecture, Music and Arts in Singapore
For such a small territory with so much development, Singapore strikes the visitor as being remarkably well-planned – clean, green and lush with parks, gardens and grand buildings, both new and beautifully restored.

Cultural activities in Singapore are thriving. The Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO), under music director (since 1997) Lan Shui (right), is an excellent ensemble with dozens of recordings to its credit, including, for example, the complete symphonies and concertos of Tcherepnin.

The SSO performs in a 1600 seat hall, in the striking, controversial architectural complex called Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay – facing Marina Bay downtown (photo by Hidetaka Mori, above). The rounded and prickly shape of the Esplanade has prompted wags to nickname it the 'Durian' after the eponymous foul-smelling tropical fruit that it resembles. Acoustician for the project was the late Russell Johnson - one of the best in the business.

Singapore is also, apparently, a nation of voracious readers. The huge Borders bookstore on Orchard Road is well-stocked and well-patronized. Among the current best-sellers on prominent display are the two massive volumes of Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs (The Singapore Story (1999); From Third World to First: the Singapore Story (2000). Not quite the whole story, but important documents from a living legend.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at

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Monday, April 6, 2009

A Sparkling Cosi fan tutte from RCM's Glenn Gould School

Inga Filippova-Williams (Fiordiligi) and Wallis Giunta (Dorabella) in Royal Conservatory of Music's Cosi fan tutte

Photo: Nicola Betts

April is opera month in Southern Ontario, with a veritable treasure trove of productions from mainline companies like the COC, Opera Atelier, and Opera Hamilton. But we mustn't forget the venerable Glenn Gould School of the Royal Conservatory of Music, whose shows are invariably enjoyable and give us a chance to discover voices of the future. This is particularly true this spring as I attended the opening night of a semi-staged Cosi fan tutte on Thursday April 2. It was so good that I went back a second time yesterday afternoon. As this production of Cosi clearly demonstrates, there is a wealth of vocal talent in Canada. Rarely has Cosi been as genuinely funny as this one. At the risk of sounding ageist, I have to say the roles in this opera are best taken on by singing actors at the bloom of youth, when it comes to dramatic verisimilitude. In this production, there are eleven soloists altogether, all double-cast except for Don Alfonso. The six soloists in the first cast that I saw are certainly up to the task - I think all of them are young artists in the Glenn Gould School Artist Diploma program. They are well schooled, throughly prepared and expertly directed by Jennifer Parr.

Heading the cast was soprano Inga Filippova-Williams as Fiordiligi. She was a finalist in the Julian Gayarre Singing Competition last September. Her beautiful and flexible full lyric voice, even from top to bottom, is tailor made for this most exacting of Mozart heroines. On both April 2 and 5, she sang a fiery "Come scoglio" with excellent floritura and huge high Cs. She was also able to scale down her big voice for the even longer, fiendishly difficult "Per pieta", touchingly sung and only a little short on a truly solid trill and totally clean scale work. She also used her expressive face to comic effect. Filippova-Williams was well matched by the Dorabella of Wallis Giunta, who has been given several high profile assignments including the title role of Dean Burry's Pandora's Locker at the RCM. Blessed with glamorous looks, a gleaming high mezzo and good dramatic instincts, Giunta's Dorabella was an unalloyed pleasure. Soprano Taylor Strande was a bright-voiced, spunky Despina, her soubrette a nice complement to the two ladies.

The men in this production are also on a high level. Montreal native and McGill graduate lyric baritone Matthew Cassils was an engaging Guglielmo, singing with firm, attractive tone. Ferrando, his partner in crime, was sung by tenor Adam Bishop with a sweet lyric sound, ideal in the lighter Mozart roles. His "Un aura amorosa" was well sung, even if his top notes were produced with some pressure. He also acted very well - arguably the funniest guy onstage! Bass-baritone David English brought equally vivid sense of drama to his role of Don Alfonso, using his imposing height to advantage. I'd be remiss if I don't mention the excellent stage direction of Jennifer Parr. Given the small size of the stage already occupied by the orchestra (there is no pit), space is at a premium. Parr shows impressive creativity in using the minimal space onstage as efficiently as possible - it is amazing what one can do with two modest-sized benches! She also uses the aisles and doors in the auditorium for entries and exits for the chorus and principals. On both April 4 and 5, the performance was anchored by the marvelous conducting of Mario Bernardi, once again showing to all that at the grand age of 78, he is still a fabulous Mozartian. He was very supportive of the singers and covered for them when there was an occasional slip-up. The youthful orchestral musicians played their hearts out, and the performance as a whole, while not note-perfect, was of a very high level indeed.

There is one last performance tomorrow (Tuesday April 7th at 1 pm) with the second cast which I have not heard but is reported to be fine. The location is Mazzoleni Hall, Royal Conservatory of Music, 273 Bloor Street West in downtown Toronto. Remember - due to limited seats, it would be wise to get there at least 45 minutes early to secure a voucher.

(l. to r.) Matthew Cassils (Guglielmo), Wallis Giunta (Dorabella), Inga Filippova-Williams (Fiordiligi), and Adam Bishop (Ferrando)

Photo: Nicola Betts

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