From the Desk of Artistic Director Jonathan Pell, Vancouver and Toronto

by Jonathan Pell

Last week I was in Vancouver for the annual conference of Opera America, the service organization for opera companies throughout North America.

The event consists of several days of meetings, seminars and presentations and is held in a different city every year.  Last year we were in Philadelphia, and previous conferences were in Boston and Los Angeles.

A highlight of the conference is always an opera production given by the host company, and this year there were performances of Tan Dun’s TEA: A MIRROR OF SOUL.  I had seen the piece once before in Santa Fe about six years ago, and was once again struck by the extraordinary “sound world” created by the composer to evoke an eerie, mysterious world.

There are three percussionists on stage throughout the opera who “play” bowls of water and banners of rice paper that create subtle yet mesmerizing musical effects.

It was inventively staged in what appeared to be an authentic fusion of Chinese and Japanese theatrical conventions.

This weekend I am in Toronto for three productions at the Canadian Opera Company: SALOME, DIALOGUES OF THE CARMELITES and LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR.

The SALOME was a revival of a renowned production by Canadian film maker Atom Egoyan, first seen in Toronto in 1996.

I was disappointed in it, and perhaps if I had seen it back then I would have felt differently.  In some ways it was still imaginative and innovative, but the seventeen years since it was created have seen the advent of more sophisticated uses of projection technology.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment was the projection of “home movies” of “Salome” as a little girl being sexually abused during what should have been the “Dance of the Seven Veils.” This robbed the audience of experiencing what is half of any soprano’s interpretation of the title role.

Physically and vocally, Erika Sunnegardh as Salome ably conveyed a convincingly petulant adolescent girl, and while not a particularly plush instrument, ably cut through the massive orchestra in the musical climaxes.

The rest of the cast was capable, but no one really stood out as particularly memorable.

The production of CARMELITES, on the other hand, was filled with outstanding singing and strong characterizations.  The production, staged by Robert Carsen, was premiered in Amsterdam in 1997, but unlike the SALOME, really stands the test of time.  Carsen’s directing was masterful, and every character brilliantly realized.

The completely bare stage (the set is nothing more than a three sided box with massive walls that occasionally rise six feet on either side to allow 150 supers to fill the stage as an ominous presence representing the peasants and the impending revolution) has a few pieces of furniture carried on to suggest the various locales, but it is the superb lighting of Jean Kalman that really let’s you know where you are.

The cast was remarkably solid throughout, with veteran mezzo-soprano Judith Forst perhaps giving the most compelling performance as the old prioress, Madame de Croissy.  Judi has appeared often with the Dallas Opera (her debut was as Dorabella in COSI FAN TUTTE in 1984, and she last appeared with us as Herodias in SALOME a few years ago) but she still commands the stage every moment she is on it.

She gave a truly great performance.

Also outstanding was Irina Mishura as Mere Marie, who sang Amneris with The Dallas Opera in 1997, as well as Fricka in DIE WALKUERE a few years later.

There were so many other wonderful performances in this production but I cannot mention them all.   I have to single out two other excellent portrayals, however, Adrianne Pieczonka as Madame Lidoine and Frederic Antoun as the Chevalier.

The opera was beautifully conducted by Canadian Opera’s music director, Johannes Debus (who had also conducted the SALOME the night before.)

A really rewarding night in the theatre.

Yesterday afternoon I had the opportunity of hearing the singers of the Canadian Opera’s Young Artists Program.

Of the eight who were able to sing for me (one of them had to cancel because he wasn’t feeling well) two of them really stood out--a soprano and a mezzo-soprano, both of whom had interesting and distinctive timbres, and who really communicated something special.

This afternoon at 4:30 (an odd time for a Saturday performance, but the most popular subscription series in Toronto because people seem to like the idea of getting out of the performance early enough to go to dinner) I will see David Alden’s controversial staging of LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR, originally created for London’s English National Opera, and which stars Anna Christy and Stephen Costello and will be conducted by Stephen Lord.

I’ll let you know what I think about it tomorrow.

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