I saw the “A” cast of the Canadian Opera Company’s Madama Butterfly tonight. There are two singers undertaking Mrs Butterfly (or she might tell you “Mrs Pinkerton” if you were to ask her) in the cast, a pair of BF Pinkertons and a pair of Sharplesses as well. In three weeks since October 10th a dozen shows (including tomorrow’s) will have gone off, six from each cast. Tonight’s will be followed by the last showing from the Kaduce / Secco / Dahl trio tomorrow. Falstaff and Opera Atelier’s Alcina also close Saturday November 1st, ending a spectacular few weeks.
In the lobby we talked about the topic everyone’s talking about, Jian Ghomeshi and “consent”. Ugly stories fascinate and bemuse us, which is not so different from Alcina (a fantasy of women holding men against their will) or Butterfly (a story of a very young woman giving consent, believing the lies of an older man from far away). The recipe could be “pour nasty story into heart, add music and stir”: stir the heart that is.
The chemistry in that “A” cast, comprised of slightly more famous singers, is somewhat different than in the other cast whom I reviewed back on Oct 11th.
Patricia Racette is a very strong Butterfly, with clear ideas of all the important parts of this huge difficult role. She is decisive in her big arias and moves brilliantly with the orchestra at all the climactic moments. For a sucker like me, it’s time to turn on the waterworks, and i’m grateful.
Dwayne Croft is everything I want to see in Sharpless. He’s strong in the lower register but soars effortlessly when necessary. Where Pinkerton is the ugly American, Croft embodies all the decency of middle-America, a face that’s so wonderfully reactive I was watching him as much as I was watching Butterfly. He was an avatar of goodness counter-balancing a story of evil, both with his smooth baritone and his tormented body-language.
Elizabeth DeShong was again fabulous to listen to and to watch as Suzuki, and as the only principal required to sing all twelve performances, was the rock both of the Butterflies leaned on, which couldn’t have been easy considering some of the divergences between the two stars. I suppose it helps that she loves what she’s doing. Both DeShong & Croft wore their hearts shamelessly on their sleeves, which is not a bad thing in such a heart-wrenching work.
I’m going to say something controversial now. We’ve all been staring at a picture of singers from an earlier run of Brian Macdonald’s production, a fabulous photo that’s been central to publicity for the COC for this production. It’s a reminder to me.
I saw David Pomeroy sing Pinkerton a few years ago and he was good. I saw Andrea Carè Oct 11th and he was fairly good too, although I think Pomeroy was better. But tonight? While there might be a virus to blame, I was struck by a couple of truths.
1) Some tenor roles are a perfect fit for the special personality of the tenor. Canio in Pagliacci, The Duke in Rigoletto, Don José in Carmen, and especially our friend Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton are jerks, people who are very hard to like, people who put me in mind –again—of the whole Ghomeshi discussion. (and for someone like me who’s a nice guy, makes me wonder: if I were more of a prick would my life have turned out differently? Nice guys really do seem to finish last). And so one can get away with a lot. If the tenor stands there, self-absorbed, unwilling to act, and sings a few high notes, he’s forgiven. It may be a pathetic waste of space, a drain of the energy of the production, but so what? He’s a tenor (and I can say this because I too am such a self-absorbed monster), and so we don’t expect much humanity.
2) This is the really controversial thought, partly inspired by thoughts I had at the Talisker Players concert Tuesday, listening to Virginia Hatfield. The COC uses the Ensemble studio as a training ground and I suppose that’s not a bad thing. But then singers are more or less shown the door. If Pomeroy –a Canadian—can sing the role well, why are we suffering a mediocre non-Canadian tonight? There seems to be a curious phenomenon at the COC right now. The Canadians who are being cast are amazing, and I mean seriously astonishingly amazing. Gerald Finley, Russell Braun, Adrienne Pieczonka, Jane Archibald, Michael Schade, and (in his two awesome appearances before retirement) Ben Heppner aren’t just competent. These performances we’ve seen in Toronto (Archibald’s Zerbinetta and Semele, Pieczonka’s Ariadne & Emilia, Finley’s Falstaff, Braun’s ongoing parade of lyrical loveliness, Heppner’s Tristan & Peter Grimes, Schade’s Tito) are arguably the best in the world right now. Some of the Americans are magnificent (Kaduce, Croft, Racette), but by and large there are Canadians available who should be getting experience singing roles that often go to mediocre imports. If the imports are as wonderful as Kaduce or Croft or Racette? Great. Let’s set aside the brilliant singers who obviously earn their place. I’m talking about many of the other parts. Given the choice between a mediocre Canadian and a mediocre foreigner, I think there’s an obligation to cast a Canadian, whether or not that person is from the Ensemble Studio or not. Maybe i’m overdue saying this, because Alexander Neef is doing a better job in this regard than Mansouri or Bradshaw, two Artistic Directors who regularly brought in mediocre foreigners. Maybe i’ve been emboldened by what i am seeing, such as the amazing all-Canadian Falstaff that closes Saturday, or the gradual raising of the bar of virtuosity across town at Opera Atelier, in a mostly Canadian cast conducted, directed & choreographed by Canadians.
Okay end of tirade. I hope people will not complain about Brian Macdonald’s production. It’s really quite good so long as the stage is peopled by adequate talent, as it has been for the past three weeks. Both casts are very good, although one moved me more.
And anchoring it all was a stunning reading from Patrick Lange leading the COC orchestra.
Halloween night is the last time they’ll put on that particular set of costumes for awhile at least.