In February each year, the Canadian Opera Company announces its upcoming season. There was a time when it was a modest affair that took place at its headquarters on Front Street, designed mostly for the media and COC core supporters. Now it’s a mega event in the Four Seasons Centre, complete with full orchestra and artists in performance. Subscribers, supporters, and donors are invited to this event, designed to generate maximum buzz.
A fun game for winter-weary Toronto opera fans is to guess the program for the coming season, always a closely guarded secret. That said, this year is a bit of an exception — it was announced months ago that the season opens with Parsifal, the first time staged by the COC. It’s the François Girard production that took the Met by storm a few seasons ago. This will mark General Director Alexander Neef’s last season with the Company.
Neef is slated to head the Paris Opera in the 2021-22 season, and what better way to say farewell to Toronto than with this monumental work? “Monumental” in the sense that it runs close to six hours, requiring an orchestral force in excess of 100, not to mention world class Wagnerian singers. It’s also monumental in cost; the rumoured price tag is in the neighbourhood of $2 million. The COC has been fundraising in earnest for this production since last fall.
The format for this year’s Season Launch — now billed as “Season Reveal” — is a bit different. There are no interviews, no filmed footage of singers, so that’s slightly disappointing. It opened with the Land Acknowledgement by COC General Director Alexander Neef, immediately followed by a special guest, a First Nations Knowledge Keeper, Pauline Shirt, who performed a smudging ceremony on stage. Then it’s presentation of the operas by soprano Simone Osborne, who spoke beautifully. I dare say if she were to want to have a sideline, she can be a brilliant broadcaster!
Osborne also sang “DoDo, mon petit,” an alternate aria composed by COC Composer-in-Residence Ian Cusson, replacing the original aria for Marguerite in Louis Riel. Other performances included mezzo Jamie Groote singing Cherubino’s “Voi che sapete” from Le nozze di Figaro, bass-baritone Joel Allison’s Toreador’s Song “Votre toast” from Carmen, and tenor Matthew Cairns singing Alfredo’s Act 2 aria from La Traviata. Orchestral selections under Johannes Debus included Dance of the Furies from Orfeo, and the Verwandlungsmusik from Act One of Parsifal.
The 2020-21 season includes six productions:
Parsifal (7 performances September 25 for October 18, 2020). The François Girard production, a co-production with the Met and Lyon is a real blockbuster. This is the kind of show that Wagnerites the world over will travel to see. In the last few months, some of us fantasized about the cast, coming up with names like Andreas Schager, Christine Goerke, and Gerald Finley. Well, we couldn’t have been more wrong! But the singers we are getting are equally wonderful. Tenor Christopher Ventris, whom I have heard several times mostly in Santa Fe, is Parsifal. Singing two performance will be Russian tenor Viktor Antipenko, who had a triumph as Siegmund in the Chemnitz Ring last year. It’s great to have bass-baritone Johan Reuter back, after his unforgettable Walkure Wotan here a few seasons back. And I look forward to hearing mezzo Tanja Baumgartner as Kundry. Johannes Debus will be conducting his first Parsifal.
Le nozze di Figaro (8 performances Oct. 20 – Nov. 7, 2020). Austrian bass-baritone Josef Wagner is back to reprise his Figaro. The Susanna is Louise Alder, whose lovely voice I heard on a live stream of the Cardiff Singer of the World a few years ago. It’s great to have South African soprano Johanni van Oostrum as Contessa — I heard her wonderful Elsa in Munich last November, replacing an indisposed Anya Harteros. Lots of great Canadians in this show — Russell Braun (Conte), Emily D’Angelo (Cherubino), Michael Colvin (Basilio), Robert Pomakov (Bartolo), and Doug MacNaughton (Antonio). American mezzo Helene Schneiderman is back to reprise her Marcellina. Santa Fe Opera Music Director Harry Bicket returns to the COC to conduct.
Carmen (9 performances Jan. 23 to Feb. 21, 2021). Last seen only four or five years ago, Joel Ivany inherited this production and is back to direct. American mezzo J’nai Bridges makes her COC debut as Carmen, opposite the tenor sensation Michael Fabiano as Don Jose. Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury, last heard as Liu, is back as Micaela. Adam Palka, a name new to me and a Fest artist at Staatsoper Stuttgart, makes his COC debut as Escamillo. Johannes Debus conducts.
Katya Kabanova (7 performances Feb. 6 – 20, 2021). Janacek used to be a regular offering at the COC during Richard Bradshaw’s time, and it’s good to have it back. I recall vividly seeing Katya at the Elgin Theatre in the early ‘90s, with Stephanie Sundine as Katya. This time it’s the fabulous Polish-American soprano Amanda Majeski, whom I’ve seen several times in Santa Fe, most recently as the Countess in Capriccio — a wonderful singer! Last seen in Zemlinsky’s Florentine Tragedy, tenor Michael König returns as Boris. British soprano Susan Bullock, a former COC Brunnhilde and Klytemnesta, is Kabanicka. Johannes conducts — he’s a busy guy!
La Traviata (9 performances April 17 – May 16, 2021). This is the other blockbuster besides Parsifal, thanks to the two leads. The great Sondra Radvanovsky takes on Violetta, a role she sang nearly twenty years ago in Santa Fe. She’s partnered by Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, who is returning to the COC after 21 years. I remember vividly his splendid Rodolfo in 2000 at the COC, when he was only 21 years old! He went on to become a superstar. Polish baritone and frequent Met singer Artur Rucinski is Germont. American conductor Stephen Lord returns to the COC.
Orfeo ed Euridice (7 performances May 1 to 15, 2021). The Gluck masterpiece is the most popular of all Baroque operas, ranked #44 in terms of popularity based on statistics from 2004-2019 (1,422 performances in 299 productions). And we’ll have a fine cast led by British countertenor Iestyn Davies and fast-rising Canadian/COC Ensemble soprano Anna-Sophie Neher as the two lovers. Former COC Ensemble soprano Mireille Asselin returns as Amor. Baroque specialist Bernard Labadie returns to conduct in the Robert Carsen production.
There you have it, the making of a great season! Details