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A good start

Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
11/01/2006 -  and 3, 5 November 2006
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Cosi fan Tutte
Joni Henson (Fiordiligi), Kristina Szabo (Dorabella), Shannon Mercer (Despina), Michael Colvin (Ferrando), Russell Braun (Guglielmo), Wolfgang Holzmair (Don Alfonso)
Daniel Dooner (Director), Jorge Jara (Set and Costume Designer), Stephen Ross (Lighting Designer)
Richard Bradshaw (Conductor), Sandra Horst (Chorus Master)
Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and Chorus

For this first regular-season production in its new opera house, the Canadian Opera Company chose to revive a production from 1991/92, originally designed for a theatre with a smaller stage than it now enjoys. Such an intimately-scaled opera does not need a stage of epic size and Jorge Jara's colourful set broadly indicates a Neapolitan seaside location, with a distant view of Vesuvius that erupts at climactic moments in the action. The cheerful scenery support's director Daniel Dooner's traditional approach of encouraging broad "over-acting" as the two women mourn their departed fiancés and then resist and/or succumb to the wooing of the pseudo-Albanians.

One reason for choosing Cosi was to feature Canadian singers in five of the six roles. Joni Henson is a recent alumna of the COC's Ensemble Studio and is rapidly proving herself in high-profile roles. She held her own as Gutrune in the strong cast of Götterdämmerung in September and now she shines as Fiordiligi. If her first act showpiece, Come Scoglio, didn't quite plumb the full required depths, her second act Per Pietà ben mio most certainly did. Guglielmo was Russell Braun's second major role with the COC back in 1992; he made a wonderful impression then and remains ideal in the part today. Michael Colvin (another alumnus of the Ensemble Studio, as are Kristina Szabo and Shannon Mercer) seems to concentrate in keeping up a steady (and very attractive) tone in Un aura amarosa at the expense of expressiveness, and some phrases were clipped. He redeemed himself, however, in Act II with an expressive Tradito, schernito. Szabo as a high-strung Dorabella has wonderful presence that complements her strong voice, and Mercer is a sparkly performer well-suited for Despina.

Wolfgang Holzmaier (Don Alfonso) made a surprise company debut in this seventh performance of the run. (The role was being shared by two basses, Enzo Capuana and Federico Sacchi, who in turn were replacements for Pavlo Hunka whose September health problems prompted his withdrawal.) His rather dry and light voice is really that of a baryton-martin (as demonstrated by his success in the role of Pelléas), and he resorted to shouting a few keys words. My preference in this role is for a voice lower than the Guglielmo's, and one with some degree of Mediterranean juice in it.

The overall pacing of the work had its leisurely moments, and the evening went beyond the 3 hours and five minutes stated in the program. But why, in Mozart, should briskness be all? Richard Bradshaw's conducting is breezy when it ought to be and thoughtfully slow at the right moments. The reduced orchestra (48 players) played well and the 16-member chorus sounded a bit thin while off-stage (Act I beginning) but just fine when in the pit (later in Act I) or on stage for the "marriage" scene in Act II. The overall impression was of a well-rehearsed integrated ensemble. If the staging has a drawback it is the failure to deal adequately with the perfunctory denouement as the two couples pair up (happily?) in their original configuration. Wouldn't it be wonderful if a researcher were to stumble across a long-lost scene that da Ponte and Mozart had created to help us over this problem!

A note on the audience: as this is the first subscription production in the new theatre (why the cumbersome "centre for the performing arts" has replaced "theatre" is a mystery), many in the audience were experiencing the hall for the first time. Overheard at intermission: "I can see faces now!" and "Did these singers always sound this good?" The program even includes a caution: "Please be aware that any noise made in the auditorium can be heard by the rest of the audience." The Toronto public is discovering the brave new world of real acoustics - and for some it is actually unsettling. All nine performances were sold out weeks before opening night (keeping in mind that the company sets 120 seats aside for day-of-performance sale). The novelty of the new theatre is certainly attracting an audience. This Cosi is a good start to the stage excitement required to keep them coming back for more.

Michael Johnson



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