The Montreal cultural scene is in full bloom and at it's height is Opera de Montreal's season opening with Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky. Low key, when fall arrives, and opera season starts, it's like I come back to life. D'you feel me? I've got some great performances (and some new projects!) lined up this season, but kicking things off with Onegin was just ideal.
If you remember (koodos), I saw Tchaikovsky's opera not even a year ago at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. I had prepared for that performance a cheat-sheet - check it out! - so I'll be short on the opera description and dive right into the wonderful performance I saw last Saturday.
It's all very bad timing
There's really only opera that can quite succeed in poorly timed stories that lead to some upright drama and heartbreak. #letsbehonest Eugene Onegin is essentially Pride and Prejudice without the happy ending; here's why.
After Tatyana (Nicole Car) meets Onegin (Etienne Dupuis), she writes to him declaring her love. When he receives her letter, he lectures her on being too upfront with her feelings. He then goes on to seduce her sister Olga (Carolyn Sproule), who's engaged to his best friend Lensky (Owen McCausland). Lensky is insulted (duh!) and challenges Onegin to a duel. Too proud to admit his fault, Onegin kills Lensky and instantly regrets it. Plot twist! A few years later, Onegin meets Tatyana again except now she's moved up in society and married Prince Gremin (Denis Sedov). Now he realizes that he made a mistake years ago, and admits his love for her. She tells him she loves him too but that she'll never break her vows.
This production combines strong cast (mainly Canadian) and beautiful 19th century set designs over Tchaikovsky's emotionally loaded music. Probably in the top five operas I have seen in Montreal, it was hard to only choose a few highlights.
Nicole Car and Etienne Dupuis - Real life vs Opera life
Needless to say that Montreal went completely crazy over the opera couple of the hour! Yep, in the odd event that you didn't know yet, Canadian baritone Etienne Dupuis and Australian soprano Nicole Car are married in real life. They both interpreted the lead roles of the opera magnificently, each bringing their personal touches to the characters.
Nicole's attention to detail, down to her shy nods, makes you empathize so much with what Tatyana is going through. It's like reliving your first love all over again, but from a 3000-seat concert hall. The famous letter scene in Act 1 was a rollercoaster of emotions, from excitement to dread, and pouring love to regret. There was some resemblance to My Fair Lady I could have danced all night that gave me some serious feels.
How amazing is it that the Opera de Montreal could welcome a star like Nicole? Pretty amazing, it's pretty amazing. I am so thrilled to have finally seen her perform live and I very much looking forward to the other opera singers that will soon make their debut in Wilfred-Pelletier Hall of Place des Arts. â
As for Etienne, I think the last time I saw him perform was in The Barber of Seville back in 2014. In just a few years, his voice and stage presence have matured and grown so much leading him to perform in some of the greatest opera houses worldwide. It's incredible to see the evolution singers go through their career! And even if it seems like just a small thing, I cannot not tip my hat to Etienne for falling to the ground in the duel! Makes you go 'Wait, what?' Just a nice simple element of surprise that shows just how much each production and performance is different.
If you loved them as much as I did, or you missed these performances (gasps!), you will be relieved to know that the power couple will be back in Montreal this December to perform with the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal alonside Marie-Nicole Lemieux.
Owen McCausland as Lensky
Kuda, kuda, Lensky's aria in Act 2 is so well known and tenor Owen McCauslanddid not disappoint. Alone on stage, he truly connected with the audience as Lensky recalls his life and love for Olga, dialoguing with the clarinet. For the tenor who did the world premiere last year of Chaakapesh, The Trickster's Quest with the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal last season, this opera marks Owen's debut with the Opera de Montreal.
Spencer Britten as Triquet
All hail Monsieur Triquet! Serving a perfect French pronounciation in an otherwise completely Russian opera, tenor Spencer Britten had this charismatic stage presence and assurance in this role. A current member of the Atelier lyrique de l'Opera de Montreal, he's career already includes impressive highlights including recent performances with the Orchestre de l'Agora and at the Glimmerglass Festival. He's also killing it on the gram so make sure to check that out.
The first opera from Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen I ever saw was the last one, Gotterdammerung, at the Canadian Opera Company. When it comes to this epic series, you try not to be picky about seeing it in the sequential order of the story, and get it while you can. Luckily, since last Saturday, the Opera de Montreal is bringing to life the first opera of the cycle, Das Rheingold.
The shortest opera of the cycle
For Gotterdammerung, I arrived about 45 minutes after the performance began. I had missed my 9 am bus from Montreal to Toronto (I seriously thought it left at 9:30 am....) But that opera lasted over 4 hours with the intermissions, so overall, it wasn't the end of the world. Not so much the case for Das Rheingold. This 2.5-hour long opera has NO intermission. Sounds like the end of the world maybe, but in all honesty, it's pretty much the same length as a movie. And rest assured, the first time I glanced at my watch, 90 minutes had already gone by.
Pro tip: I brought a protein bar (unwrapped! wouldn't want to cause a commotion!) and ate it half way through the performance. Plus, I saw a few patrons walk in the concert hall with their drinks.
In almost every industry, women often find themselves at a disadvantage professionally, whether they face less growth opportunities or overall decreased incomes compared to their male equivalents. And although the debate is hot at the moment, especially in the classical music industry, we can only notice a few minor improvements backstage or on stage.
In opera, this discrepancy is not as noticeable on stage. The common gender bending roles aside, a role for a high voice requires a high voice, which is more often than not, performed by a woman. But what if we look to composers, conductors and instrumentalists? The Metropolitan Opera 2018-2019 season showcases absolutely no female composer or conductor, same goes for Opera de Montreal and Houston Grand Opera (who received funding in 2017 from Opera America for their support for female composers!?!). It's not that women artists should be prioritized over men regardless of quality requirements or that we can't appreciate the numerous talented male musicians, past and present; it's simply that still today, we must give more these women more opportunities to create and perform in order to expose their talent and create role models for the next generation.
The 4th Edition of Festival Stella Musica
Night outs in Montreal with a group of friends are what I look forward to during the work week. And come Friday, I was pumped for dinner at a hip downtown restaurant followed by Opera McGill's Lucia di Lammermoor at the historic Monument National. The talent and level of performance of McGill students never cease to amaze me, and I am always looking forward to the next opera. Plus, this Donizetti's opera is one of my all-time favourites, so I was curious to see how Opera McGill would decide to stage it.
Before attending the performance, I strongly suggest watching the mini Youtube series that Opera McGill does for their productions. Filmmaker Anne Kostalas takes us inside the opera with sneak-peaks of the rehearsals and the costume atelier. The students also give their point of views on their characters which is great insight on what to expect from their stage performance.
Three Lucias, one mad scene
''We have three viable Lucias. Gina Hanzlik, Carolyn Beaudoin and Brittany Rae all see her as very different and are bringing great interpretations to the role with subtle changes to fit who their Lucia is.'' said stage manager Russell Wustenberg. Gina Hanzlik was the first to perform the role and gave an incredible performance on Friday night. It is clear that she has put extensive thought into her character; from setting the opera innocently in love to complete powerlessness as she is forced into an arranged marriage, and finally, driven to utter madness. During the famous mad scene, you could have heard a needle drop. The audience was completely transported and gasped for air, awaiting the final moment.
A drink with your opera?
And an evening at the opera would not be complete without a drink! Since Lucia di Lammermoor is set in Scotland - more precisely in the Lowlands - and the opera premiered in Naples, Italy, we suggest pairing your opera evening with either red Italian wine or Scotch (of course). Lacryma Christi de Vesuvio is a Neapolitan type of wine from Campania and it is dry, medium-bodied with firm tannins. Great with tomato sauce, it will pair up nicely with a thin crust Italian pizza. Plus, to add even more drama, the appellation of this wine translates to ''tears of God''.
If you're feeling for something stronger, try Glenkinchie 12 year old Single Malt Scotch Whisky. Founded in 1825, this distellery is located in the Lowlands, outside of Edinburgh, which incidentally turns out to be not far from the Lammermuir Hills. The nose is light and the palate fruity with no peatiness.
Last year, Opera McGill came up with an Opera B!nge Festival where they presented 7 different operas in 24 hours. I thought at that time, what are they gonna come up with this year? I attended the first dress rehearsal of their first opera of the season, Ariodante by Handel, and it was buzzing with action. Stage director, photographer, orchestra tuning, the second cast sitting in the hall, two singers practicing swordfighting on stage, everyone who participated to this production gathered in one place, ready to bring it. And bring it they did. Check out the 10 reasons you should go see Ariodante presented by Opera McGill this week.
1. It is so not a bark-and-bark party
Park-and-bark is often something you expect (and dread!) from a baroque opera. But as stage director Aria Umezawa explained, Opera McGill comes very close to recreating a professional opera house environment and throughout the rehearsals, the singers you will see on stage have been given the autonomy to be artists and not just singers. They were encouraged to take ownership of the production and of the interpretation of their respective characters while having the support of a complete staff of dedicated professionals.
2. You've received one text message that created intense drama in your life
Ariodante immediately decides that he wants to kill himself after simply hearing the words ''Oh mio signor'' which he believes are sung by his one true love Ginevra to Polinesso. He immeditaly think she's unfaithful and never stops to question if it was actually Ginevra who said those words. This tiny bit, made everything go crayy. So basically this opera seria (serious opera) is more like soap opera. It's like one text or one tweet that's had a major impact either in your life or worse, in society.
3. Bending the Rules.
Men (castratos) used to play women, and today women often play men. Opera actually turns out to be more avant-garde than many give it credit for! Trouser roles for the win, especially when they are performed with such confidence.
4. You Like Chaos.
This opera was composed before the Age of Enlightenment, and Aria questionned that thinking. ''Can you only be governed by rationality and be completely disconnected from your emotions?'' During a coffee break (coffee is vital a few days before opening night), Aria explained that the set is a visual metaphor of Ariodante's life falling apart. As the characters reject their identities, not only do their costumes come off, but the set is also destroyed!
5. You miss your emo teenage self.
This is the first time that Opera McGill sets a Scottish-inspired opera, so the first time for tartans and kilts. The gothic modern looks gives it a young and kind of an edgy and dangerous feel, which is what Aria wishes to put forward in this show.
A upside of having a university production, the singers are active on social media and come up with very original content. When I first saw this hashtag on Instagram, I wasn't sure what it meant. Fighting? Dancing? Did I mention this opera takes place in Scotland? If this doesn't give you a hint...
7. The McGill Baroque Orchestra under the direction of Hank Knox
As I've mentionned above, the singers have been given the opportunity to take ownership of this production, but I feel as though this can also be applied to the musicians in the pit. During the dress rehearsal, I overheard Hank Knox saying to the musicians ''See you on the other side ladies and gentlemen!'' A light and funny way to begin the rehearsal that meant ''We've practiced and practiced, and now it is the time to give it all you got.'' Work hard, but play hard too.
8. If you didn't know by now, Schulich School of Music is one of the top performing arts university in Canada.
Often ranked highest in the Times or Maclean's, the Schulich School of Music has trained a tremendous amount of today's professionnal musicians that we see on the greatest stages worldwide! To name a few, opera singers include Gordon Bintner, Philippe Sly and Rihab Chaieb. This is your chance to see future opera stars!
9. Joyce Didonato says so.
Some day, maybe sooner than we think, the singers you will see on stage in Pollack Hall will be posting pics like Joyce, live from their dressing room in Carnegie Hall!
If you can't make it physically to the hall, know that the performances on November 10 and 11 will be webcast!