La Scena Musicale

Thursday, November 5, 2009


Breaking News!

The COC announced this afternoon that Ben Heppner will give a special concert to all ticket holders of the COC Diamond Anniversary Gala, at a yet to be determined date.

Read the press release.

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Monday, November 2, 2009

This Week in Toronto (November 2 - 8)

Opera Atelier Iphigenie en Tauride
Kresimir Spicer (Orestes) ready to sacrifice himself to save his friend Pylades (Thomas MacCleay), with Iphigenie (Peggy Kriha Dye) looking on. Photo: Bruce Zinger

The Canadian Opera Company's fall season draws to a close this week. It will be your last chance to catch the two excellent COC offerings. Tomorrow (Tuesday Nov. 3, 7:30 pm) is the last of fifteen performances of Madama Butterfly. There are still two more performances of Stravinsky's The Nightingale and Other Short Fables, on Nov. 4 and 5 at 7:30 pm. The Stravinsky shows are sold out but check the box office for returns. All shows are at the Four Seasons Centre.

Opera Atelier just opened its fall season with a revival of Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride. I attended opening night last Saturday, and it was wonderfully sung and played by the excellent Tafelmusik Orchestra under Andrew Parrott. This is the typical OA style of historically informed, super-traditional productions. This show was last seen in 2003. It has lost none of its appeal. OA has assembled a strong cast headed by soprano Peggy Kriha Dye, who has become a Toronto audience favourite. Also returning is Croatian tenor Kresimir Spicer in the baritone role of Orestes, in an unusual bit of casting. He was an excellent Idomeneo two seasons ago. His burly voice is best described as a "baritenor", so the lower tessitura of Orestes does not pose any difficulty for him. As Pylade, OA presents a voice new to Toronto audiences - Montreal tenor Thomas Macleay whose lighter timbre made a perfect foil to that of Spicer's. Performances on Nov. 3, 4, 6, and 7, 7:30 pm at the Elgin Theatre.

Also of interest is the North American premiere of And The Rat Laughed, an opera sung in Hebrew, composed by Ella Milch-Sheriff with libretto by novelist Nava Semel, whose parents were Holocaust survivors. It is presented by Opera York, in partnership with the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocause Education Centre and the United Jewish Appeal Federation of Greater Toronto. The cast includes Canadian baritone Andrew Tees and mezzo Adriana Albu. The conductor is Geoff Butler. You can read more about this production at There will be three performances (Nov. 5 and 7 at 8pm and Nov 8 at 2 pm) at the acoustically excellent Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts, designed by Jack Diamond who also designed the much bigger Four Seasons Centre, home of the Canadian Opera Company.

A last piece of opera-related event is a free, noon-hour concert given by soprano Simone Osborne. A new member of the COC Ensemble Studio, the BC soprano Osborne has the distinction of having won the 2008 Metropolitan Opera Auditions. She is the complete package, combining a lovely lyric soprano voice with abundant musicality and strong stage presence. This concert is a sneak preview of her upcoming New York concert, as a result of her recent win at the Marilyn Horne Foundation Vocal Competition. On the program is works by Rodrigo, Liszt, Strauss, and a new work by Iman Habibi. Click on this link to download her recital program: The concert is at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre of the Four Seasons Centre. Remember to show up at least 30 minutes earlier to get a seat.

Toronto Symphony Orchestra Conductor Laureate Andrew Davis leads a concert of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto with star Canadian pianist Andre Laplante. The program also includes the ever-popular Also sprach Zarathustra. Two performances (Nov. 4 and 5, 8 pm) at the Roy Thomson Hall.

Finally, a piece of sad news. The COC Diamond Anniversary Gala to take place at the Four Seasons Centre on Saturday Nov. 7 with Canadian tenor Ben Heppner, so looked forward to by opera lovers - me included - has received a big blow. It was announced late Saturday afternoon that Heppner has cancelled, due to a lingering infection he suffered with singing Tristan at Covent Garden in October. I am afraid Toronto audiences have had very bad luck when it comes to Heppner. Two of his recitals in Toronto the last ten years were aborted mid-concert, while other shows like the Millennium Gala found him in poor form. This was meant to be his triumphant return to the company, where he last sang in 1996, as Canio in Pagliacci - not counting a very brief appearance in the FSC opening concerts in June 2006. Alas this is not to be. Replacing him will be tenor Ramon Vargas and baritone Russell Braun, with more artists to be named very soon.

NOTE: Later Monday afternoon, I received news that internationally renowned heldentenor John Treleaven has been added onto the Gala Concert roster. He will sing arias from Die Meistersinger, Tannhauser and Goetterdammerung. The previously announced tenor Ramon Vargas will sing arias from La damnation de Faust and Romeo et Juliette.Canadian baritone Russell Braun will sing Wolfram's aria from Tannhauser, and Mercutio's aria from Romeo et Juliette. This arrangement has the benefit of as little disruption to the original programming as possible, since preparation by the conductor and orchestra had already started some time ago based on Heppner's original program.

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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Knowlton Festival 2009: Rising Stars and Heroic Strauss

By Paul E. Robinson

Knowlton was awash with tourists and classical music-lovers this weekend. The tourists are a familiar sight in these parts, drawn by the beauty of the location, the antique stores and boutiques selling lavender products and a tempting variety of other country fare. The music-lovers, however, are a relatively new phenomenon, attracted by the Knowlton Festival. On the basis of what I have heard so far I don’t think they would be disappointed.

At its Saturday evening concert in the Chapiteau (photo above: bar area) the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) under Kent Nagano offered another lyrical and transparent Brahms performance – this time the Fourth Symphony – and earlier in the day there was some fine singing to be heard in two different locations.

Cagli's Master Class an Education in Bel Canto Technique
The morning event was held in the charming Old Brick Church in West Brome. Bruno Cagli (photo: right), the president of the distinguished Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, presented a master class in bel canto with some young singers he had brought with him from Italy. In fact, these singers were already pretty accomplished in bel canto and Cagli spent less time teaching them and more time educating the audience of about 200 – a full house in this intimate setting – in the “rules” of bel canto.

Cagli took his captivated audience through the history of singing, with particular emphasis on nineteenth century composers, including Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and Tosti, and some of the most renowned singers from that period. There was also considerable talk about breathing and ‘proper’ voice production. Each of the singers contributed very good performances. One of them, tenor Antonio Poli, sounded like a major talent. All of them will be heard again during the festival in a concert with the Festival Orchestra on Monday night.

Domingo's Rising Stars Take the Stage
Later, I dropped by the Saint Édouard Chapel in Knowlton to hear a recital by winners of Placido Domingo’s Operalia competition.

This concert was announced in the programme as featuring “Winners Operalia 2008” (Québec City). Only Ukrainian soprano Oksana Kramaryeva (photo: above left), who took “The People’s Prize” there, fits that description. The other soloists are fairly recent Operalia winners in other countries. All were well worth hearing and have deservedly advanced beyond the promising ‘student stage’ to become busy professional artists.

If I had to choose a favourite, it would Kramaryeva. She is a genuine Verdi dramatic soprano with presence, richness of tone and considerable dramatic skills. Kramaryeva and her Operalia colleagues will all be featured again during the festival on Friday August 15. Kent Nagano will conduct excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin and Massimilliano Murrali will lead excerpts from Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi.

And From Ben Heppner - An Almost Perfect Set of Strauss Songs
The founders of the Knowlton Festival – Marco Genoni and Kent Nagano – based their new venture on the glories of the Italian bel canto tradition. While the content of the festival has shifted somewhat in the second season, singing in general and bel canto in particular remains a major component; it is, therefore, entirely within the concept of the festival that one of the world’s great heldentenors should be featured in orchestral songs by Richard Strauss.

Canada’s own Ben Heppner is in constant demand at all the top opera houses in the world and it was a coup for the festival to be able bring him here. He chose for his programme a group of six songs by Strauss, including the beloved Zueignung, along with some less popular pieces.

In the opening bars of Cäcilie we heard Heppner’s effortless purity of sound and beauty of phrasing. The darkly imaginative Ruhe meine Seele was also given a fine performance with Nagano taking care over every detail and the members of the OSM playing beautifully. We heard five Strauss songs presented as well as one is likely ever to hear them.

Then came Befreit. Suddenly, Heppner’s voice simply failed him. It was painful to hear and undoubtedly most painful for Heppner himself. One could only reflect on the vagaries of the human voice.

Texts, Translations, Projections?
As a festival grows, it learns from its mistakes and tries to improve things that need improvement. For any festival that makes vocal music the core of its mission, great care must be taken to provide the audience with texts for songs, operatic excerpts and complete operas being performed. This can be accomplished by means of texts and translations in the printed programmes or through the use of modern technology with projections on screens situated around the auditorium. Whatever the means used, it is not only important – some might add ‘respectful’ - to provide audience members a comfortable way into a full appreciation of the music they are hearing.

The Knowlton Festival continues on Sunday with the first of two performances of Bellini’s La Sonnambula starring Sumi Jo with Nagano conducting. More bel canto follows on Monday night, with an all-Handel programme by the period instrument orchestra Les Violin du Roy under Bernard Labadie on Tuesday night.

The concert on Tuesday will include, in addition to a group of opera arias featuring soprano Hélène Guilmette, Handel’s very popular Water Music.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Today's Birthdays in Music: January 14 (Heppner, Schweitzer)

1956 - Ben Heppner, Murrayville, Canada; opera and concert tenor

Biography (Encyclopedia of Music in Canada)

Ben Heppner sings Walter’s Prize Song from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Metropolitan Opera, 2001)

1875 - Albert Schweitzer, Keyserberg, Germany; theologian, musician, philosopher, physician

Albert Schweitzer and Music

Albert Schweitzer plays J.S. Bach’s Chorale Prelude in F minor, BWV 639

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Saturday, March 8, 2008

Canadian tenor John Mac Master replaces Ben Heppner in Met Opening Night Tristan Monday March 10

Breaking News:

It is official - Canadian tenor Ben Heppner is indisposed and he will be replaced on the opening night performance of Tristan und Isolde opposite the Isolde of Deborah Voigt at the Metropolitan Opera by - another Canadian, tenor John Mac Master. Mac Master had previously sung two performances of Canio in I Pagliacci at the Met in 2005, one of which was broadcast on Saturday Afternoon at the Opera. He has also sung Tristan for the Welsh National Opera.

Heppner appears to have caught some sort of viral flu bug, and Mac Master, who was in New York covering the role, stepped in to sing both orchestra rehearsal and the dress rehearsal.

The Opening night performance on Monday March 10th will be broadcast on Sirius Satellite Radio.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Today's Musician Birthday: January 14

Born on January 14:

1902 - Clara Kathleen Rogers, composer

1956 - Ben Heppner, tenor
> Official Website

Canadian tenor Ben Heppner sings "Morgenlich Leuchtend Im Rosigen Schein" (Walther's Prize Song) from Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the gala honoring the retirement of Met General Manager Joseph Volpe, May 20, 2006.

Notify us of other musician birthdays: mikevincent [at]

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