09 May 2008

Canada’s Brueggergosman makes the most of Mozart

When Toronto’s Opera Atelier asked her to sing Elettra in Mozart’s Idomeneo Measha Brueggergosman hesitated.

A mere 30, the soprano from “down East” in Canada, had sung little opera and no Mozart on stage. When she saw Elettra on stage in New York, however, she found the role “pretty much bee’s knees.” Elettra is the loser, the woman scorned, in this sub-story of the Trojan War. Brueggergosman liked Elettra’s fire and found her a woman “honest and visceral.” But why be prissy about words?

The Elettra that made Brueggergosman the sensation of the OA Idomeneo on stage in Toronto’s historic Elgin Theatre on April 29 was all guts and thirsting for the blood of those who had jilted her. She’s the fury in the cast, and as portrayed by Brueggergosman she’s a show-stealer. But there’s so much excellence and excitement in an Opera Atelier production that no show staged by the company is easily stolen.

OA, launched modestly in 1986, is an early-music enterprise devoted primarily to Baroque opera — to Monteverdi and his contemporaries. When Mozart composed Idomeneo in 1781, he was looking back, for the work is a return to the opera seria, the early 18th-century genre distinguished by sometimes static da capo arias that stress heroic emotions over the music. Therefore Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Zingg, OA founders and co-artistic directors, decided to stage Idomeneo as French tragédie lyrique or opera-ballet in the style of Lully and Rameau — or as if it were one the French operas with which Gluck set out to reform Paris.

Beyond this gloriously successful melding of epochs, in spirit this production was pure Sturm und Drang, a three-hour angst-ridden outpouring of passions both noble and destructive that left viewers exhausted but with sufficient energy to proclaim the production the finest work of this unusual company thus far. In addition to Brueggergosman — the staging had everything it needed to make this story of man caught up in the machinations of a god great music theater.

Designer Gerard Gauci set the opera behind a scrim that showed a giant tsunami wave; behind it beefy Canadian bass-baritone Curtis Sullivan, an angered Neptune, stirred his stormy seas. Idomeneo, the returning hero trapped into sacrificing his son Idamante, was regal Canadian tenor (amazing the names one finds among Canadians!) Kresimir Spicer, a tenor with the vocal weight of a baritone.

As Idamante, American Michael Maniaci made clear why he wishes to be billed as a male soprano and not as a countertenor, for — heard on recording — one would assume his to be the voice of a female. (In many productions Idamanate, originally for castrato, is sung by a mezzo.) Ilia, Priam’s daughter taken captive at Troy and now the great love of Idamanate, was gently and lovingly sung by Peggy Kriha Dye.

OA enjoys a long and happy alliance with Tafelmusik, the top early-music band in Canada — if not in the hemisphere — that serves as pit band for all company performances. Andrew Parrott, a pioneer in the pre-classical repertory, came from England to conduct.

Unique to OA is the concern for the role that dance played in early opera, and choreographer Zingg enriched the production with her long practical and scholarly experience in the field. For it was not with mere dance “numbers” that she enhanced the theatrical impact of this staging, but in the manner that she made dance an integral part of the action of the drama. A total of 16 dancers, some past and present members of Canada’s National Ballet, were in the ensemble.

Yet the total excellence of this Idomeneo was more than the sum of its many superb parts. Pynkoski and Zingg understand the interdependence of music and dance requisite to a spectacle such as this. Early musicians talk much of “authenticity.” At Opera Atelier it is simply — and unpretentiously — assumed.


The Canadian Opera Company took risks with the staging of Eugene Onegin on stage in its still-new Four Seasons Centre in April. Happily, the risk paid off, for the production, imported from Strasbourg’s Opéra national du Rhin, brought a searing edge to the melancholy of the story that Tchaikovsky drew from Pushkin’s verse novel. And although director Enrico De Feo took no fundamental liberties with the story, he told it in a way that added depth to it — especially to the Onegin-Lensky relationship. Tchaikovsky spoke of his score as a series of “lyric scenes,” tableaux more concerned with character study than with advancing the plot. Thus the usual division into three acts is arbitrary.

It was shrewd of De Feo, following no doubt closely in the footsteps of Strasbourg‘s director Marco Arturo Marelli to opt for a single intermission before the duel, which he brought a new twist to the plot. (Marelli was responsible also for design and lighting.)

But first the duet, which usually ends Act Two. As the two men raised their weapons, Lensky threw himself upon Onegin with a passionate embrace. A shot was heard, and Lensky fell. But how the shot was fired left the capacity audience in the Four Seasons Centre arguing. Did Lensky — in an act of suicide — pull the trigger on Onegin’s weapon or was it all an accident? The majority opted for an accident, which added to the senselessness of the duel.

This scene, staged in falling snow, was the climax of the opera, and — in a major departure from tradition — the party in the Gremins’ home followed without interruption. In traditional stagings years that Onegin spent aimlessly wandering about Europe stand between the duel and this final scene. Here, however, doors opened immediately after the duel, and guests dressed in mourning took their positions with slow steps on stage during the Polonaise. But there was no dance; the exuberant music was became a danse macabre [italics] that set the stage perfectly for the final confrontation between Tatiana and Onegin.

Here both characters were torn, frenzied and almost out of control in their confessions. This made Tatiana’s usually composed resolve tenuous, and Onegin’s frustration as he tore his hair near-hysterical. There were fine touches along the way. Onegin, for example, eyes-dropped on Tatiana as she wrote her confessional letter.

Giselle-Allen.pngGiselle Allen (Tatyana)

The entire opera played in a box tipped at a Caligari-esque angle; it served both as in- and out-of-doors, allowing for scene changes without curtain. Canada’s Brett Polegato was an ideal Onegin — young, aristocratic, suave — with just the right touch of ennui to make him irresistible to the young and innocent Tatiana of Giselle Allen, a beautifully youthful and graceful soprano from North Ireland.

She was a perfect balance — and foil — for Polegato’s Onegin. Allyson McHardy was an Olga more serious than most, while Danil Shtoda was an unfortunately bumptious Lensky. Alexander Kisselev was a moving Gremin. Conductor Derek Bate drew superb plays from the COC orchestra on April 26.

This was a staging that demonstrated how new dimensions can be brought to a familiar work without resorting to the extremes of Regietheater. Back, finally, to that name Brueggergosman. When Measha, born Gosman, married her high-school sweetheart, Swiss exchange student Markus Bruegger, the two decided to join their names as well. Putting “Brueggergosman” in lights might be a challenge, but — metaphorically — it’s already there.

Wes Blomster

Opera Atelier www.operaatelier.com

Canadian Opera Company www.coc.ca/press.html