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Canadian Opera Company’s 60th Anniversary Gala

The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
11/07/2009 -  
Hector Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture – Selections from La Damnation de Faust
Charles Gounod: Selections from Roméo et Juliette
Richard Wagner: Selections from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Tannhäuser & Die Götterdämmerung

Ramón Vargas, John Treleaven (tenors), Russell Braun (baritone)
Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, Johannes Debus (Conductor)

R. Braun, R. Vargas & J. Debus(© Michael Cooper)

To celebrate its diamond anniversary the Canadian Opera Company decided to hold a gala with a focus on one star singer, a Canadian who paid his dues in small roles as the company nurtured his early career, but who has been largely out of the company’s reach once his career went international. So: three cheers for Ben Heppner. BUT: news came that he had to bow out of his Covent Garden run of Tristan und Isolde in mid-October, then withdrew from a gala concert in Washington, DC. Thus just a week before its concert, the COC had to replace the star, with the following results.

The concert also marked the first appearance of Johannes Debus in his position of Music Director of the company. His previous appearance as conductor of the smash success War and Peace in 2008 resulted in his almost immediate hiring (and a quick end to what was intended to be a lengthy process to find a replacement for Richard Bradshaw, whose sudden death in 2007 caused an understandable crisis.)

The program got off to a lively start with an animated performance of Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture. Then the first vocal number, by Ramón Vargas in his local debut: “Ah Lève-toi, soleil” from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette; it was expertly sung, winning over the audience right from the start. Then the first of the Damnation de Faust numbers, the “Menuet des Feux Follets” - deftly done. Then the second Roméo et Juliette number, “Mab, la reine des mensonges”, delivered by Russell Braun with marvelous shaping and taste (marvelous voice as well).

The program then returned to the Berlioz work, first with the “Hungarian March”. This performance was far too polite - it simply failed to ignite in the final accelerated phrases. Then Mr. Vargas again, with “Nature immense” (one of the numbers Mr. Heppner had been slated to sing.) It is a subtle showpiece; it demands not pinging high notes but sustained power and control. It came off really well.

We were then treated to two encores, the first with Mr. Vargas singing “Pourquoi me réveiller” from Massenet’s Werther. If the musical line was sacrificed to vocal effect it was a good trade-off and it brought down the house.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when a tenor and baritone are on stage together at a gala concert “Au fond du temple saint” from Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles must be sung, and thus it came to pass. Very nicely done (isn’t it always?) and a rousing end to the first half, which certainly earned Ramón Vargas a theatre-full of new admirers and Russell Braun a further cementing of his already high stature.

The second half was devoted to Wagner, beginning with the Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, then heldentenor John Treleaven with Walther’s “Prize Song”. Ideally this aria should be sung in a joyous and carefree manner but here the singer had to struggle to remain on pitch. The applause for this was restrained. (These Meistersinger chunks remind me that the company’s only production of the work was back in 1985.)

The program then moved on to excerpts from Tannhäuser (a work that has never been staged anywhere in Canada). Mr. Braun gave a rapt performance of “O du mein holder Abendstern”, incidentally sparking a happy memory of his father’s performance of the role of Wolfram in the Solti recording of 1971. Mr. Treleaven then redeemed himself with a well-modulated “Rome Narration”.

We then heard three excerpts from Götterdämmerung: “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey”, followed by “Siegfried’s Death” (Mr. Treleaven again - and again well-voiced) and the “Funeral March”. These brought back happy memories of the company’s triumphant Ring in 2006, the return of which is on the company’s To Do List.

The orchestra (in prime form throughout the concert, by the way) then performed its encore, the Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin (a reminder that the company’s only production of that work was way back in 1983). It would be great if these Wagner excerpts were a hint of things to come. (Actually there is more Wagner in store as Maestro Debus conducts Der Fliegende Holländer in April.)

In spite of the orchestra being on the stage, orchestral/vocal balances were fine. The acoustic panels at stage rear and sides, first used in the recent production of Stravinsky’s The Nightingale, obviously work well. Another benefit: burying the orchestra pit makes room for three more rows of paying customers.

It would have been nice if a way had been found to use the company’s fine chorus in the gala, although one can sympathize with efforts to avoid creating a sprawly monster concert (which can also be fun). Overall, however, it was a very enjoyable concert.

And in the end the gala ticket holders will be getting two performances for the price of one: Ben Heppner will be making amends with a recital at the Four Seasons Centre at a date to be announced.

The Canadian Opera Company has had its ups and downs through its 60-year history (just like any opera company) and currently has a lot to celebrate. Its fundraising fell short last season (a universal affliction, needless to say) but the company still broke even by using a reserve fund built up from previous seasons’ surpluses. The new opera house, now in its fourth season, has been a romping success. Orchestra and chorus are in fine shape, and the Ensemble Studio continues to nurture promising young talent. Johannes Debus appears to be a real find. The subscriber base is solid and attendance has averaged 99% of capacity. It would be great if it managed to corral more of the top Canadian singers with international careers, many of whom make Toronto their home. Its young General Director, Alexander Neef, is a superb communicator and it will be interesting to see what he presents for 2010-11, the first season for which he is responsible.

Michael Johnson



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