Last year around this time you might have seen “Pollyanna’s Picks for 2012”, a list looking “through the rose-coloured glasses of someone who prefers to avoid negativity.” Had I not been knocked back to the Stone Age by a power failure I would have done this sooner. Forgive my tardiness, but first I had to celebrate Christmas and then reconnect to the internet.
Anniversary commemorations It was an odd year celebrating the bicentennials of Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi, the centennial of Benjamin Britten, and the 50th anniversary of the death of Francis Poulenc. Highlights?
- The Canadian Opera Company found time for a single opera from each of Wagner, Britten & Poulenc this year. Although Verdi was allocated two operas neither of them fell during 2013 itself (Il trovatore in the fall of 2012, and Ballo in maschera coming early in 2014): and so he’s absent from my list. Tristan, Peter Grimes, Dialogues des Carmelites all happened in 2013. The most special event in this group? A toss-up between Tristan and the Carmelites. On the one hand a rejuvenated Ben Heppner, the offbeat video of Bill Viola and especially the COC orchestra under an inspired Johannes Debus made Wagnerian magic. But Robert Carsen’s well-traveled Carmelites starring Adrianne Pieczonka and Isabel Bayrakdarian was every bit as powerful.
- After seeing the high-definition broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s Parsifal I’m eager to see this co-production of the Met, Lyon Opera & yes, the COC finally show up here in Toronto, even if it’s unlikely we’ll get a cast to match the dream team onstage at Lincoln Centre.
In a year of anniversaries Paul Kildea’s book Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century seemed to be the most successful book concerning the four commemorated composers (Poulenc, Verdi, Britten & Wagner): a book I did not fully read and didn’t review. I was most intrigued by two very different books:
- Thomas Adès’ Full of Noises: Conversations with Thomas Service was a book I couldn’t put down, even if the book was happy to return the favour. Howzat? its chief quality was its readiness to put down other composers. Wagner was Adès’ most famous target, famously called “a fungus”. As I observed in one of the pieces I wrote about the book –as I said, I couldn’t put it down—Adès rhetorical stance and dismissive language made for fascinating reading even if I was fighting it most of the way.
- I couldn’t put Stuart Hamilton’s Open Windows down either, but for a very different reason. For starters, the karma is precisely the opposite of Adès, but this is also a fun read, an unavoidable and important book for anyone who cares about Canadian singing & opera. Hm, time to read it again.
Most impressive singer
- Franz-Josef Selig is the male voice that impressed me the most because I had the privilege of hearing two very different performances –his intimate concert “Love’s Dark Shore”, and his portrayal of King Marke in Tristan und Isolde.
- On the female side, I’m not as sure, and so I’ll cite two women. Shall we call it a tie? Wallis Giunta’s concert at Glenn Gould Studio showed several different approaches to singing, after she’d gone completely incognito channelling Michael Cera in her nerdy portrayal of Annio in La Clemenza di Tito. That would be the winner if I hadn’t just been blown away last week by Jacqueline Woodley’s singing and (yes) dancing in the AtG Messiah, to go with her brilliance nine months ago in the 40 short dissonant pieces of Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragments. It’s not as though there weren’t other wonderful female voices, especially Adrianne Pieczonka in Dialogues des Carmelites, Ambur Braid’s Mozartian triptych (a bespectacled Konstanze, a charismatic Queen of the Night plus a Vitellia that I missed), or anything featuring Carla Huhtanen, always versatile, likeable, and amazingly in tune.
I’ve alluded to Richard Bradshaw’s stated aim to produce the best theatre in Toronto. This was not a year when anything onstage at the Four Seasons Centre was anywhere close to that goal.
- Not when one could see big companies produce Lepage’s Needles & Opium (Canadian Stage) or Adam Paolozza’s hysterical The Double (Tarragon).
- Not when smaller, leaner companies were creating magic without benefit of big voices or big expenditures. Small companies? Against the Grain Theatre set the bar very high with two remarkable productions. In the summer their reboot of Mozart as Figaro’s Wedding may have been the best thing seen all year, while their recent Messiah was every bit as original, seeking to blow the cobwebs off the oratorio. But there was also Opera Five’s brave Halloween program of three operas based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe. There was also Loose Tea Music Theatre’s in your face Peter Brook Carmen. I have to also mention the workshop of Savitri & Sam, an opera I’m hoping to see staged, and Tapestry Briefs, a very promising laboratory for future works.
- While I spoke of two COC commemorations, their production impressing me the most was Christopher Alden’s Clemenza di Tito featuring Isabel Leonard & Michael Schade, an interpretation managing to critique and problematize its text while never obscuring the original meanings.
- One of the most stirring nights wasn’t opera but a concert, namely The Minimalist Dream House Project from Toronto Summer Music. The willingness to break free from convention inspired me even if one couldn’t miss the tension in the room between those loving it and the more conservative patrons.
Comeback of the year? That would be Ben Heppner, a man who sang two wonderful portrayals in Toronto during 2013, and who is reborn on radio as congenial and lovable host when he’s not singing.
Ave atque vale (or hail & farewell)
- Topher Mokrwezski is off to Calgary with occasional visits to Toronto if we’re lucky
- New York City Opera, sadly bankrupt
- Nelson Mandela
- Lotfi Mansouri
- Lu Massey
Happy New Year.