La Scena Musicale

Monday, January 11, 2010

This Week in Toronto (Jan. 11 - 17)

Photo: Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca burns up the stage in a new Metropolitan Opera production of Bizet's Carmen, coming to your nearest participating Met in HD Cineplex on Saturday Jan. 16 at 1 pm. (photo courtesy of Metropolitan Opera)

Now that we are into the second full week of the new year, the winter concert season is in full swing. Since Mozart's 250 anniversary celebration in 2006, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra has turned January into more or less a "Mozart Month". Last year we had concert performances of Die Zauberfloete. This year's offerings, billed as Mozart@254, are a little more modest in scale but hopefully just as enjoyable. On January 13 and 14 at 8 pm at Roy Thomson Hall, and January 17 at 3 pm at the George Weston Recital Hall in North York, Peter Oundjian conducts a mixed program consisting of Symphony No. 25, a horn concerto with soloist horn player Neil Deland, the famous concert aria Ch'io mi scordi di te....Non temer, amato bene with soprano Shannon Mercer, and the even more famous Piano Concerto No. 21, which for years was called the "Elvira Madigan" because the gorgeous slow movement was used in the soundtrack of a 1967 Swedish film by that name. Interestingly there is absolutely no mention of the film in the TSO promotional material, so I guess with the passage of time, this little bit of trivia is forgotten. The pianist is Jonathan Biss. At the intermission on January 13 and 14, audience members will get an opportunity to hear the performers speak about the program. On Jan. 14 at 7:15 pm, broadcaster Rick Phillips will give a pre-concert talk in the lobby. On Saturday Jan. 16 at 7:30pm, the National Arts Centre Orchestra visits Roy Thomson Hall. Pinchas Zukerman does double-duty as conductor and violin soloist in Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 "Turkish". Also on the program is Clarinet Concerto in A Major (second movement) with soloist Kimball Sykes. The beloved Canadian baritone Russell Braun sings Songs for an Acrobat, a cycle of love songs by Linda Bouchard. This is a "Casual Concert", with no intermission and a chance to mingle with the performers after the show in the lobby with live music.

On January 14 at 8 pm at the St. Lawrence Centre, Music Toronto presents a joint recital featuring cellist Rachel Mercer and pianist Minsoo Sohn. Mercer plays on 1696 Stradivarius cello on loan to her from the instrument bank of the Canada Council. Korean pianist Sohn is the first Laureate of the 2006 Honens International Piano Competition in Calgary. On the program are cello sonatas by Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and Schostakovich. Tickets are a real bargain at $15!

On Tuesday in Walter Hall at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto, soprano Leslie Ann Bradley gives a noon hour recital. Those of you who followed the Montreal International Vocal Competition may remember her in the semi-finals three years ago. She is the recipient of the Charlotte and James Norcop Song Prize at the Faculty. No information on the program is available - I went to the U of T Faculty of Music website and found no details whatsoever, not even the name of the singer!

On Sunday, Jan. 17 at 2 pm in Mazzoleni Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music on 273 Bloor Street, cellist Bryan Epperson, principal cello of the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, together with pianist Dianne Werner, give a recital of Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, and Panufnik. It is a good opportunity to hear the excellent Epperson out of the pit and on the main stage.

And as the photo at the top of my post makes clear, this Saturday is another must-see event from the Met in HD series - a new production of Bizet's Carmen starring Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca and French tenor Roberto Alagna. Originally the Carmen was supposed to be Angela Gheorghiu, but she bowed out because she didn't want to sing opposite her estranged husband Alagna now that they are divorcing. I don't miss her one bit - I'd much rather hear a genuine mezzo in this role any day. However, if you are a Gheorghiu fan, she is scheduled to sing two performances later in the run, opposite German tenor sensation Jonas Kaufmann. This is worth attending for Kaufmann's Don Jose alone. Micaela is Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli and Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien is Escamillo. Canada's own Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducts. Preliminary reports from opening night praised Garanca and Nezet-Seguin, with a mixed response for Alagna. Frittoli and Kwiecien were both tepidly received. But I am sure everyone will give his/her all for the telecast. Not to be missed!

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Met in HD: Puccini's La Rondine

Angela Gheorghiu as Magda in Metropolitan Opera's La Rondine

La Rondine, the "wall flower" among Puccini's operas, has barely a tenuous hold on the fringes of standard repertoire and for good reason. Others may disagree, but to my ears, this piece marks a low ebb in the composer's creative genius. Yes, it does have its moments, particularly the showpiece "Che il bel sogno di Doretta" and the splendid concertato in the Second Act, two genuinely inspired moments. But the rest of the piece does not really represent Puccini at his best, despite an occasional perfumy melody here and there. Also problematic is the rather thin, sugary plot where there is little action, particularly in Act One. The story bears some resemblance to La traviata except less developed, with elements of Strauss's Die Fledermaus thrown in for good measure. Frankly it pales in comparison to those two, far more successful operas. True, Puccini intended to write an operetta in the great Viennese tradition, complete with opulent setting, frothy melodies - but minus the spoken dialogue. In the end, the composer reverted back to the more conventional operatic form. There is even an alternate ending (to the one performed currently at the Met) where Magda dies. But either way, the end result does not measure up to some of Puccini's greatest creations, whether as an opera or operetta. It is no wonder that it has been absent from the Met stage since the 1930s.

The raison d'etre for the current production is Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu. Much like the Met Thais for American prima donna Renee Fleming, a production of Rondine can be successful as a diva vehicle. Gheorghiu has a particular affinity for this opera, having recorded it a decade ago and has previously sung it on stage. The Met spared no expenses in mounting a super-lavish production by Nicolas Joel to showcase the soprano. The decor is fin-de-siecle Art Nouveau, suitably French, with lovely imitations of Tiffany glass panels mixed in with splashes of early Deco. Some of the decor reminds me so much of the Franz von Stuck house (now a museum) in Munich I visited last summer! Some may criticize the Joel production for its rather cold aesthetics but overall it's really pleasing to the eye. The period costumes are uniformly gorgeous, the ones worn by Gheorghiu are particularly lovely, although the summer dress in Act Two with its uneven hemlines aren't terribly authentic.

As to the musical side of things - Peter Gelb went in front of the curtain to announce that Ms. Gheorghiu had a bad cold but didn't want to disappoint her fans so she consented to sing. Her first phrases were low, sounding uncomfortable in the chest voice. There wasn't much time before she had to sing the big aria, and it was clear that she wasn't sufficiently warmed up for "Che il bel sogno". With the big screen HD in Sheppard Grande, one could clearly see her working hard to get the saliva going to lubricate her throat for the aria. Other than a couple of pushed notes and a lack of high pianissimo singing, she did well under the circumstances. Her acting as Magda was endearing but not overdone, unlike Fleming's excessive posturing as Thais. Roberto Alagna was in acceptable voice, a little dry in spots and his forte top notes typically went sharp, but he was clearly enjoying himself as Ruggero, savouring the chance of singing with his wife. The two exhibited a dramatic and physical freedom with each other in art that is only possible (and probable) when such freedom extends to their personal lives as well. At one point, Alagna spontaneously kissed Gheorghiu's bosom - I ask you, when was the last time you see that happen between two singers onstage?!

The second couple were well taken by Marius Brenciu (Prunier) and Lisette Oropesa, suitably as - Lisette! The 2001 Cardiff winner Brenciu has a slender voice which he uses with taste and style, refraining from pushing it beyond its limits. Oropesa, who made her Met debut as Susanna in fall 2007 replacing a very pregnant Isabel Bayrakdarian, was a delicious Lisette, acting up a storm and her soubrette tailor-made for the part of the maid. The only superannuated singer onstage was Samuel Ramey as Rambaldo. His once impressive bass isn't what it used to be, and he wobbled his way through. But given the character of Rambaldo, this kind of imperfect vocalism actually adds to the role, and Ramey did well. Marco Armiliato deserves credit for treating the lightweight score with the respect of a work many times its status.

I saw it at my theatre of choice, the Sheppard Grande in North York. The facility was late opening this time. Given that the mostly elderly opera audience has a tendency to be early, the queue waiting to get in was extremely long by noon, and I heard quite a lot of grumbling. I spoke with Greg Buller, the theatre manager, who explained that he was short-staffed that day and for safety reasons he couldn't open the facilities any earlier. The transmission in Cinema #3 was perfect except for a few seconds worth of silence at the beginning of Act Three. The cinemas were as usual well maintained and spotless, no sticky floors anywhere that I was able to find. The service at the coffee-sandwich concessions continued to be on the slow side. Given that there are usually four or even five staff members behind the counter, service should be a lot more brisk. The washrooms had attendants stationed outside to take care of any special needs should they arose - a nice touch. The next show is the encore presentation of Damnation of Faust next Saturday, and the next new presentation is Orfeo ed Euridice on January 24.

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Saturday, June 7, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: June 7 (Alagna)

1963 - Roberto Alagna, Clichy-sous-Bois, France; opera tenor

Wiki entry
Voce di tenore

Roberto Alagna sings "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée" from Bizet's Carmen (recorded at the Chorégies d'Orange, 2004)

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