Pollyanna’s Picks for 2013

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.

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7 Responses to Pollyanna’s Picks for 2013

  1. My understanding is that Topher will still be based in Toronto and spend as much time here as his Calgary commitments allow. After all Caitlin is here…

    Ambur’s Vitellia was the best thing I’ve seen her do bar, maybe, Adele. She was every bit as good, perhaps better, than Kerri Alkema. I do agree with you that Clemenza was one of the highlights of the season. You rightly praise Isabel Leonard and Michael Schade. I would put in a word for Robert Gleadow too. His characterisation of Publio is the first one I’ve seen that makes the man anything other than a dull foil for Tito.

    I winder if we will see Heppner again. He’s so hit and miss. He was fabulous on the opening night of Tristan but the night I saw him in Grimes he barely made it through.

    • barczablog says:

      I hope my remark about Maestro Mokrzewski didn’t sound too negative. While his life may continue to revolve around Toronto, I think i read that one of the AtG projects (Pelleas?) has a different MD. Ave atque vale truly means “farewell” in every sense, so i wish him well, recognizing that great artists have to move beyond their home city. We’ll be fortunate anytime we see him of course, and i was simply acknowledging his departure. I was also going to put Ambur Braid (now that she’s not in the ensemble) into that list, but –HELLO– when i looked more closely i saw she’s been a huge part of the past year, particularly with Opera Atelier, so indeed, why say “bye bye Ms Braid?”.

      I love Mr Gleadow, perhaps you’re right, i should have mentioned him, but i also omitted other talented members of that cast. I simply wanted to nod to the ones who were truly outstanding. I am especially eager to see what Schade can do, an artist we may be taking for granted, and a singer at his prime.

      And yes i share your concerns about Mr Heppner. The reason i called him comeback of the year was in recognition of challenges surmounted. I wish him well even if we may already have seen his brilliant return (Tristan) and victory lap (Grimes).

      Above all, i hope to convey my gratitude. And John, thanks for reading. I’m sure i’ll see you again in the trenches.

  2. Wishing you a wonderful 2014 and thank you for the link and hope your power remains restored 🙂

    • barczablog says:

      Hi Sue, thanks for your continuous light shining out, so positive always. Have an awesome, inspiring and enjoyable 2014..!

      …and YES i am humbled by how little i can do without electricity.

  3. Maureen Russell says:

    Thrilled that you mentioned Loose Tea’s production of CARMEN. Definitely evocative and “in your face”. \i look forward to seeing what they do on 2014.

  4. Pingback: The Best of the Best-Ofs | Schmopera

  5. Stuart Hamilton. says:

    Thanks for letting me know about your nice comments on my book ! Best wishes, Stuart.

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