Thursday, May 17, 2012


Gun-Bri Barkmin, Michael Kőnig and Alan Held in A Florentine Tragedy. Photo: Michael Cooper
Reviewed by James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company is rounding off its 2011-2012 season with en eclectic selection of two one-acters, (A Florentine Tragedy and Gianni Schicchi) and Handel’s Semele.

If you have never seen Alexander Zemlinsky’s A Florentine Tragedy, don’t go into catatonic hysteria. This production marks the Canadian premiere of the opera which was first seen in Stuttgart in 1917. Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi was last produced by the COC in 1996 and is more familiar fare.

The productions boast star-power in conductor Sir Andrew Davis and in Director Catherine Malfitano. Davis is a local hero as the former conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Malfitano, who built a considerable reputation as a soprano in her youth, is sharpening her skills as a director.

A Florentine Tragedy is an interesting work based on a play by Oscar Wilde. The merchant Simone (Alan Held) finds his beautiful wife Bianca (Gun-Brit Barkmin) at his home with Prince Guido (Michael Kőnig) in circumstances that may indicate marital infidelity. Now if Simone were a real Italian, his only choices in the circumstances would have been to shoot the lover or shoot the lover and his wife. Instead, this being an opera by an Austrian of interesting descent, Simone turns the whole thing into an opportunity for a commercial transaction. It may be that the market for infidelity by Italians in one-act operas has been cornered by Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci and if you are expecting passion and heart-wrenching scenes, you are in the wrong place.

The opera and the production are dominated by Simone in the hands of American bass-baritone Held. He has a big, well-shaped voice and with his shaved head projects some power and menace. Zemlinsky provides scant scope for vocal pyrotechnics by the lover Guido and Bianca. They sing mostly in recitative mode and there is not much opportunity to display their ardour and vocal prowess. Credit to Barkmin for looking sexy in a slinky dress and a question mark about what the hell she is doing with Guido. As such, the performance belongs to Held.

Set Designer Wilson Chin has decided that the prosperous Simone lives in the corner of a palatial room with falling plaster and bad furniture. The lighting designed by David Martin Jacques is dubious at best. Characters go in and out of the dark and the stage is never fully lit. Is Simone unable to pay his electricity bill?

Malfitano’s directing is competent subject to poor choices in lighting and set design. She does not take full advantage of the stage but some of the problem is with the opera as well.

With Gianni Schicchi we are on familiar ground: a large greedy family gathers around the deathbed of a relative and they all want to make sure they get their share of his estate. They quickly find out that in his will he leaves everything to a monastery. Bring in the scheming but lower class Mr. Schicchi and see if can fix things.

Alan Held leads the large and boisterous cast in the main role. He is a delightful crook who can take the place of a dying man and change a will. Superb acting and singing. Everyone has heard “O mio babbino caro.” It is sung by Schicchi’s daughter Lauretta who saves the day by convincing her father to go ahead, let us say, with the necessary amendments to the will. Soprano Simone Osborne delivered a very good performance and as the young lover and singer of the best-known aria of the opera she was received vey enthusiastically by the audience.

Tenor René Barbera is Lauretta’s lover and he shows vocal and physical agility. The cousins and nephews and assorted relatives that make up the large cast generate considerable energy and humour.

I do have issues with the set. Malfitano sets the opera in present day Florence and that is fair enough. Set Designer Wilson Chin thinks that the dying Donati lives in room where the stairwell is protected by make-shift boards and his furniture is piled up ready for the dumpster. This man is wealthy; show it.

Near the end of the opera we are treated to a panoramic view of Florence on a sunlit day. Give it to us from the beginning. It is a beautiful sight.

Malfitano again fails to make use of the stage and is hampered by the set. When the relative as re reading the will they are on top of each other in the corner around a small table. More fluidity is needed.

Both operas are worth seeing for different reasons but there are some avoidable errors that would have raised the productions to a much better night at the opera.

A Florentine Tragedy by Alexander Zemlinsky and Gianni Schicchi by Giacomo Puccini opened on April 26 and will be performed eight times until May 25, 2012 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671.

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