Every January, the spirit of Toronto opera fans gets a lift from the dreary ice and snow, with the announcement of the Canadian Opera Company’s program for the following season. As a long-time observer of all things COC, I remember very well when it was just a modest event at the company headquarters on Front Street, presided by the late General Director Richard Bradshaw, with only the media and a few loyal opera patrons in attendance.
My, how times have changed! It’s now a glitzy affair to which all subscribers, the media, and COC patrons are invited. It takes place at the Four Seasons Centre, starting with a brief reception, followed by the announcement proper, with opera stars saying a few words on the pre-recorded video, followed by a short program of performances with full orchestra. The idea is to generate serious buzz among opera lovers and to entice people to renew their subscriptions. There’s even a chance to win it for free, if one renews on the spot. There’s an additional enticement this year — all renewals (Jan. 12) will be entered into a draw for a trip to Barbados.
For opera die-hards, it’s always fun to guess what operas are going to be on next year’s program. My track record over the years isn’t great, and this year is dismal — I got exactly one out of six! It’ll be a very appealing season — a Verdi warhorse (Rigoletto), a COC premiere (Arabella), the obligatory Mozart (Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail), a double-dose of Donizetti (L’Elisir d’more and Anna Bolena), and an important revival (The Nightingale and Other Short Fables). Given the COC season is made up of only six operas, something has to give. No Wagner — not a surprise since we’ve just had three-quarters of the Ring Cycle. More surprising is no Puccini, a staple at any opera house, no French opera, nor any Baroque.
Top on my list is the COC premiere of Arabella — as a Strauss fan, I’m overjoyed. I saw this very production in Santa Fe six years ago, starring Canadian soprano Erin Wall. She reprises it here, which opens the season (Oct. 5 – 28). Singing Mandryka is Tomasz Konieczny whom I’ve also seen in this role. Zdenka is another Canadian soprano and frequent guest artist, Jane Archibald. COC veteran baritone John Fanning, who was Wotan in Das Rheingold and Jack Rance in Fanciulla, returns as Waldner. German conductor Patrick Lange leads the COC Orchestra.
It’s paired with Donizetti’s delightful L’Elisir d’amore (Oct. 11 – Nov. 4) starring three terrific young Canadians. Andrew Haji has the perfect voice for Nemorino. His fabulous “Una furtiva lagrima” at the ‘Hertogenbosch competition in Holland three years ago helped aced his Triple Crown win of Grand Prize, Critic’s Prize and Audience Prize. BC soprano Simone Osborne returns as Adina, a perfect role for her sparkling personality. The outstanding baritone Gordon Bintner, who is making a name for himself in Europe and who just happens to be the husband of Osborne, returns as the swaggering Belcore. Canadian conductor Yves Abel makes his belated COC debut.
The winter season opens with the Verdi warhorse Rigoletto (Jan. 20 – Feb. 23) with three returning artists — Roland Wood (who was extremely impressive in Un ballo in maschera a few seasons ago) in the title role, Anna Christy (our last dulcet-toned Lucia), and Stephen Costello (our last Edgardo and an absolutely terrific Romeo last summer in Santa Fe). Stephen Lord, who conducted Norma last fall, is back at the helm.
Paired with the Verdi is Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio in a new COC production directed by Lebanese-Canadian Wajdi Mouawad (Feb. 7 – 24). This opera was last staged by the COC 38 years ago! The staging of this opera is problematic, given the characters are really 18th-century Western European’s distorted conception of the “Ethnographic Other.” It’ll be very interesting to discover Mr. Mouawad’s take on this piece. Jane Archibald sings the challenging role of Konstanze, partnered by Swiss tenor Mauro Peter as Belmonte. I recall being really impressed by his Schubert CD that came out last year. I look forward to his “Ich baue ganz,” my desert island tenor aria! And it’s great to have former COC Ensemble member and Zurich Opera fest artist Claire de Sevigne back as Blondchen. COC Music Director Johannes Debus conducts.
The spring season beings a revival of the strikingly beautiful — and highly original — Robert Lepage production of Stravinsky’s The Nightingale and Other Short Fables (Apr. 13 – May 19). This is an amazing show, first seen in 2009. Instead of Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko in the title role, this time it will be sung by Jane Archibald, who is the COC Artist-in-Residence this year and starring in three productions. The role of Death was sung by German contralto Maria Radner, who, in an eerie coincidence, died in the crash of a Germanwings plane two years ago. She will be replaced by American contralto Meredith Arwardy, last seen as Erda in Siegfried. COC Music Director Johannes Debus is at the helm.
The final opera of the season is Anna Bolena (Apr. 28 – May 26) in a co-production with Dallas Opera by Stephen Lawless. It stars the resplendent bel canto voice of soprano Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role. I remember Joan Sutherland’s Anna Bolena at the COC in 1984 like it was yesterday. You can’t find a better successor to Dame Joan in this opera than our own Sondra Radvanovsky. We Torontonians have the great good fortune of her living near our city. As COC General Director said at the opening night reception of Norma, now that Sondra Radvanovsky is a Canadian citizen and a resident of GTA, we want her to consider the COC her home theatre and we want her back every season! Eric Owens is Enrico, and Keri Alkema sings Giovanna Seymour. Tenor Bruce Sledge, who wowed us in Maometto II last season, returns as Percy. Canadian mezzo Allyson McHardy is Smeton. Corrado Rovaris, who conducted Roberto Devereux here three years ago, returns in this Bel Canto gem.
There you have it — six great operas, with stellar casting, three new productions/three revivals, and interesting stage directors. I say, bring it on!