La Scena Musicale

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Review: Massenet's Cendrillon at Koerner Hall

(top) Meghan Lindsay (Cendrillon) and Michael Ciufo (Prince Charming)
(bottom) Joelle Tan (Fairy Godmother)
Photos by Nicola Betts

One of the pleasures of springtime in Toronto is the opera production from the Glenn Gould School of the Royal Conservatory of Music. This year, it is particularly momentous because for the first time, it is taking place in the spanking new Koerner Hall. Opened since last September, this venue boasts excellent sight lines and superb acoustics. Having heard a number of concerts there already, most recently the Canadian Chopin Competition Winners' Concert, I was eager to hear (and see) an opera production. This year, the GGS Opera is Jules Massenet's Cendrillon. To most opera buffs, when they think of Cinderella, it is usually Rossini's La Cenerentola, with Cendrillon a distant second, a real shame as there's some beautiful music in the Massenet score. Depending on the production, it can be either rollickingly funny or whimsical and touching. It's not performed very often, but quite remarkably, it is being done by both GGS-RCM as well as Opera de Montreal within a couple of months this spring! The last time I saw this piece was a screamingly funny Paris Opera production by Laurent Pelly. It was one of the more memorable nights in the theatre in recent years.

GGS operas are sung by advanced students earmarked for professional careers, and each year there are new voices to discover. Last year's Cosi, for example, featured two excellent sisters - Inga Fillipova-Williams as Fiordiligi and Wallis Giunta as Dorabella. I attended today's show expecting some fine singing and I was not disappointed. The principal roles are all double-cast. Today's performance was the "first cast" with a bunch of fresh, appealing voices. Top vocal honours today went to soprano Meghan Lindsay as Cendrillon, a role usually sung by a mezzo. She has lovely stage presence and sang with silvery tone, with an exquisite mezza voce. Partnering her was tenor Michael Ciufo. Darkly handsome and singing with bright sound, excellent French and ingratiating tone save for a few tight top notes, Ciufo was a fine Prince Charming, a role sometimes also taken by a mezzo. The big Act 3 duet between Lindsay and Ciufo was the highlight of the opera. As Madame de la Haltiere, Ramona Carmelly had the right comic flair and rich tone. Baritone Maciej Bujnowicz looked a bit too young to be the father, but he was an unusually sympathetic Pandolfe. Also noteworthy was the crystalline, soubrette tones of Joelle Tan as the Fairy Godmother - this fairy had no magic wand but held a crystal globe in her palm! The supporting roles were all cast from strength.

The production benefited from the more spacious staging area of Koerner Hall, compared to the old Mazzoleni Hall. The simple but stylish sets by Brent Krysa worked very well in this space - it's amazing what an archway, a few screens, a settee, and a fireplace mantel can do! The presence of balconies allowed the Fairy to deliver her ethereal lines in Act 3 from high above - an effective moment. The costumes are sumptuous, particularly when you consider this is a student production. However, a few wigs would have been nice to match the period costumes, particularly for Madame Haltiere. I must say I was expecting some belly laughs along the lines of the Laurent Pelly production I saw. But it didn't happen - director Graham Cozzubbo underplayed the comic moments and emphasized the more wistful and sad elements of the story. The lighting by Robert Thomson was particularly well executed, helping the story telling greatly. The orchestra under the expert direction of conductor Uri Mayer sounded really wonderful, even if a little too loud during climactic moments. There were even surtitles, although placed a bit too high and the text too small for the audience. All in all, a most enjoyable show. The last performance takes place on March 25

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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Fresh Spin on Bach Has it All

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

It was big-band swinging and hip-hop belly-dancing Bach, the very J.S. like you’ve never heard.

In a program titled Bach Re-Invented, the New York-based Absolute Ensemble made its Canadian debut at Toronto’s Koerner Hall Thursday night. Led by conductor Kristjan Järvi, the 18-piece electro-acoustic ensemble gave Bach’s keyboard inventions a contemporary makeover that is anything and everything goes. Jazz, funk, classical, rock, hip-hop, Latin, Middle Eastern, and whatever else you can identify, it was all there, with funky stage lighting to boot.

Son of conductor Neeme Järvi and brother to Paavo Järvi, Kristjan, who was married to Canadian violinist Leila Josefowicz, co-founded Absolute with composer Charles Coleman in 1993. The group, comprised entirely of multitalented virtuosic players, has established itself as one of the most fascinating new music groups to watch.

Aside from Coleman’s Innovation J.S., loosely based on Bach’s 
Two-Part Inventions No. 5and No. 8, all of the works in this program were composed by current ensemble members.

Guitarist/rapper Gene Pritsker’s piano concerto 
Reinventions, featuring pianist Simone Dinnerstein, was a standout. Despite being a bit fragmented as a whole, the contrapuntal composition was Bach-laden and Pritsker’s turntable scratching on a Mac Book and hip-hop dancing were something Bach the inventor would have found interesting.

Pianist Matt Herskowitz’s piano concerto 
Undertow featured the composer himself on piano. Based on Bach’s Three-Part Invention No. 9 in F Minor, the piece built up a wave of energy that is both lyrical and neurotic.

Cellist Mike Block’s beautiful 
Raga on a Theme by Bach was a relatively laid-back excursion in comparison. It was followed by saxophonist Daniel Schnyder’s wailing and choppy concerto grosso, toopART Reinventions, which saw Dinnerstein return to the piano bench.

Overall, there were some dazzling and robust solo playing, especially from clarinetist Michiyo Suzuki, violinist Adam Taubic, trumpeter Wayne du Maine, trombonist Mike Seltzer, bassist Mat Fieldes, and drummer/percussionist Damien Bassman.

Dinnerstein, also making her Canadian debut, has been an unstoppable rising star ever since her debut recital at Carnegie Hall and recording of the 
Goldberg Variations. She displayed flawless techniques throughout and produced an unusually crisp sound from the keyboard. Her phrasings were concise, imaginative, and boundless.

Mervon Mehta, executive director of the Royal Conservatory of Music, announced before the concert that he is in talks with Dinnerstein to have her back for a 
Goldberg recital.

That day can’t come soon enough.

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

This Week in Toronto (November 23 - 29)

Photo: An early portrait of the soprano Elizabeth Soderstrom in 1957

I begin this week's post with a piece of sad news for opera fans. The beloved Swedish soprano Elizabeth Soderstrom passed away from complications of a stroke at the age of 82. She made her debut in 1947, singing mainly light lyric and soubrette roles - she was a marvelous Susanna in her early days. She sang at the Met in the early 60's, but later restricted her appearances closer to her home in Sweden to raise a family. She reappeared on the international scene in the 1970's until her retirement in the late 1980's. A frequent visitor to Toronto, I have many fond memories of her performing here - a concert Tatiana that also featured Nicolai Gedda as Lensky in Massey Hall; Hanna Glawari for the COC; several Rachmaninoff songs recitals. But my most memorable experience of her was as the Marschallin, opposite the Octavian of Frederica von Stade and the Sophie of Kathleen Battle with the Met on tour in Cleveland. She remains my favourite Marschallin to this day. I also remember a late-career Nozze di Figaro Contessa at the Met around 1987. By that time she was past her best vocally but remained a supreme artist.

Now to happier news. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents Shostakovich's monumental Symphony No. 5 on Nov. 25 at a rather odd time of 6:30 pm at Roy Thomson Hall. Stephane Deneve leads the TSO forces. On Nov. 26 2 pm, 28 at 8 pm and 29 at 3 pm, the great Canadian violinist James Ehnes plays the Prokofiev violin concerto No. 2, in addition to the Shostakovich symphony and the Prokofiev Suite to Love For Three Oranges, with Deneve on the podium.

The Aradia Ensemble under Irish conductor kevin Mallon presents a interesting concert to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the death of Haydn, on Nov. 27, 8 pm at the Glenn Gould Studio. On the program is Mallon's reconstruction of mass fragment Missa Sunt Bona Mixta Malis. It is billed as a world premiere. The centerpiece is Haydn's Lord Nelson Mass, with a quartet of soloists led by soprano Charlotte Corwin.

The RCM's Glenn Gould School is presenting an English-language version of Bohuslav Martinu's rarely performed comic opera, Comedy on the Bridge. This opera, staged at the RCM for the first time, is part of an all-Martinu program commemorating the 50th anniversary of the composer's death. The opera represents the first
conducting assignment for Uri Mayer since he was appointed as Director of The Glenn Gould School Orchestral Programme and Resident Conductor. Also on the program is Anagnoson & Kinton, who will perform Martinu's
Three Czech Dances for Two Pianos. It takes place on Wednesday, November 25, 2009, 12:00 pm and > Thursday, November 26, 2009 at 8:00 pm, at the venerable Mazzoleni Hall of the RCM.

The National Ballet of Canada follows an ultra-traditional Sleeping Beauty with a cutting-edge contemporary mixed program, Nov. 25 - 29 at the Four Seasons Centre. On the program is choreographer Aszure Barton's world premiere, Watch Her. This is paired with George Ballanchine's scintillating The Four Temperaments, set to a score by Paul Hindemith.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

This Week in Toronto (Sept. 21 - 27)

The fall music season swings into action this week, now that the Toronto International Film Festival is over and our main concert venues are once again free. For voice fans, a major event is the start of the Canadian Opera Company season, with Puccini's warhorse, Madama Butterfly, at the Four Seasons Centre beginning Saturday, Sept. 26 7:30 pm. This revival of the serviceable if slightly frayed Brian Macdonald production will receive an unprecedented run of fifteen performances. The principal roles are double cast - Butterfly (sopranos Adina Nitescu and Yannick-Muriel Noah), Pinkerton (tenors David Pomeroy and Bryan Hymel), Sharpless (baritones James Westman and Brett Polegato), Suzuki (mezzos Allyson McHardy and Anita Krause). With the exception of Romanian Nitescu, it is an all-Canadian cast. Westman is particularly well known as Sharpless, having sung it many times, including the COC about ten years ago. Tenor David Pomeroy is rapidly becoming a COC mainstay. Coached by retired Canadian tenor Ermanno Mauro, Pomeroy sings with a pleasing, Italianate timbre. The conducting duties are shared by Carlo Montanaro and Derek Bate.

A second major event is the opening of the new Koerner Hall of the Royal Conservatory of Music. The opening concert takes place on Friday Sept. 25 at 8:30 pm, with Jean-Philippe Tremblay conducting the Royal Conservatory Orchestra. It features Beethoven's Choral Fantasy and a video tribute to RCM graduate Glenn Gould on the anniversary of his birthday. On the program are pianist Anton Kuerti, Toronto Mendelssohn choir, soprano Erin Wall, mezzo Wallis Giunta, tenor Richard Margison, and bass Robert Pomakov. The tariff at $100 to $250 is not exactly cheap, with the less expensive seats all sold out at this point. But this is a special occasion and well worth attending. A more affordable alternative ($35 to $125) is the concert the next evening, with Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White. For me, a must-see concert is the great Frederica von Stade in a Farewell Tour Concert on Saturday, Oct. 10. This will be our last chance to hear this great mezzo.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra launches its new season on Thursday Sept. 24, with violinist Joshua Bell playing Brahms Violin Concerto in D Major. Peter Oundjian conducts this and the Brahms Symphony No. 2. Also on the program is Canadian composer John Estacio's Frenergy. The program is repeated on Saturday Sept. 26 at Roy Thomson Hall.

On Thursday morning, the Canada Council for the Arts Instrument Bank Competition will announce its results in a press conference at the Glenn Gould Studio. Fourteen winners will get the use of 13 instruments plus a cello bow valued at a total of more than $26 million USD. This program is designed to aid promising young Canadian musicians in their careers by making available to them world-class instruments for performance. I will attend the press conference and will have more to report. In the evening at 8 pm, there will be a free concert given by the winners at the Glenn Gould Studio. Seating is limited so be sure to arrive early.

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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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