The eclectic pairing of a visually ambitious but narratively light 20th century Russian mixed bill directed with theatrical ambition and a rich Italian bel canto full-length narrative with restrained character-focused direction makes for a beautifully balanced spring season for the Canadian Opera Company, a stretch of programming that offers something for everyone no matter why you come to the opera.
The Nightingale and Other Short Fables is full of trademark Robert Lepage spectacle and it’s as visually breathtaking as you’d expect with gorgeous puppets designed by Michael Curry and a water pool (part of Carl Fillion’s deceptively simple but impactful set design) that pairs with Étienne Boucher’s entrancing lighting to stunning effect. I wasn’t wild about the massive doses of cultural appropriation I knew were coming (opera, really, what are we going to do with you?) nor did I find much memorable meaning in the chosen fables but Stravinsky’s challenging score brings welcome diversity of style to the COC’s season, breaking up the prettiness with a complexity of a less pleasant nature made at least fairly pleasant by standout tenor Owen McCausland (who appears memorably in “The Fox” before highlighting the centrepiece story “The Nightingale” as The Fisherman). COC Resident Artist Jane Archibald does a lovely job as the titular songbird though this experiment in residency has, by this point, clarified for me that the guest artist model I used to complain prevented me from really investing in any one performer is actually a gift that infuses each production with new energy. Archibald is lovely and, if one soprano was going to dominate the COC’s season, I’m glad it’s her, but after a year of a single star, I’m ready for some strangers.
In a refreshing twist, a taste of something new actually came in the more traditional piece in the spring season. The night I attended Anna Bolena, the chronological first but technically last in Donizetti’s thrilling Tudor trilogy, superstar soprano Sondra Radvanovsky was ill, replaced presumably with little notice by a young Canadian completely unknown to the prickly Four Seasons Centre crowd who audibly groaned in disappointment at the news of Radvanovsky’s absence. Thrown into a strong cast including the excellent Christian Van Horn as a swaggering Henry, Tracy Cantin’s performance lacked the ease and glimmer that comes with Radvanovsky-esque stature and success. But I didn’t miss those things, not in Anne Boleyn. Playing a ferocious beauty overmatched by her sudden status and powerful detractors but persisting nevertheless, Cantin squared her shoulders and stood her ground and pulled the audience to their feet the second the curtain fell on her epic death (Stephen Lawless’ direction of the Tudor operas has been across-the-board excellent, packed with thematic insight while revealing a light touch and honest interest in the characters’ inner lives, a tragic rarity in opera direction). Her versatile soprano and moving emotional work obviously proved up to the technical demands of the performance but there was something special in her unique understudy energy, arming Cantin just this one time in this one place for this one crowd with exactly the highwire vulnerability and defiant “I’ll show’em” spirit that unlocked and explained Anne Boleyn in a whole new way.
Both productions are on stage now at the Four Seasons Centre.