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ClassicsOnline Home » HIGHLIGHTS OF THE MILLENIUM OPERA GALA
On Friday, December 31, 1999 at 7:00 p.m., Toronto, Ontario
was home to one of the most historic events in Canadian music history: Roy Thomson
Hall’s Millennium Opera Gala. Although headlined by Canada’s own ‘three
tenors’ - Ben Heppner, Richard Margison and Michael Schade - the impressive
list of participants did not end there. Included on the roster were sopranos
Tracy Dahl, Frances Ginzer and Adrianne Pieczonka; mezzo sopranos Catherine
Robbin and Jean Stilwell; and baritones Russell Braun, Brett Polegato, and Gino
Quilico. In addition to these current international stars, the next generation
was also represented by four exceptionally gifted young singers: sopranos Isabel
Bayrakdarian and Measha Brüggergosman; baritone James Westman; and the 18-year-old
bass Robert Pomakov. The Millennium Opera Gala was produced by Wende Cartwright,
Director of Programming for Roy Thomson Hall. “Never before have we had so much
Canadian talent on the world stage,” she stated in an interview before the event.
“At the moment, our opera stars are among the most sought-after on the international
music scene. Over two years ago, inspired by their extraordinary talent, I set
out to create a gala concert that would honour these artists. So I am truly
delighted that we are bringing so many of them home to celebrate this special
moment in our history.” “Milestones are to be celebrated,” Charles Cutts, President
and CEO of The Corporation of Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall continued, “and
the evening of the new millennium seemed like a perfect occasion to pay tribute
– not only to our outstanding Canadian singers – but also to our two resident
companies, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.”
Two years in the making, the gala continues the Corporation’s century-long tradition
of bringing the community the best in live entertainment. The two-and-a-half
hour concert – conducted by Richard Bradshaw and Mario Bernardi - was broadcast
live to the nation on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s RADIO TWO network
on the concert programme IN PERFORMANCE. The critical and public response to
both the concert and the broadcast was unprecedented. The reviews that followed
the glittering Millennium Opera Gala were equally glowing. Brian Hunt,
writing in the National Post, enthused, “Let’s say straight away, that Roy Thomson
Hall’s Millennium Opera Gala was a joyous occasion and a cumulative series
of musical thrills. All praise to the team - headed by producer Wende Cartwright
- who spent two years putting the event together. …It was a glorious evening.
I had tears in my eyes more than once…”
In the Globe and Mail, Urjo Kareda wrote, “The term
‘gala,’ devalued lately by so much promiscuous and inappropriate use, regained
its currency at Roy Thomson Hall on New Year’s Eve with a staggeringly celebratory
Millennium Opera Gala, featuring more than a dozen international opera
stars - all of whom were Canadian.”
Toronto Star music critic, William Littler, was equally
impressed. “Was there ever another time in our history,” he wrote, “when so
many international-calibre Canadian operatic voices could have been assembled
on one stage? Was there ever another occasion when so many of them - a total
of 15 - actually turned up to sing together?”
The Millennium Opera Gala was programmed by CBC Radio
Music Producer, Neil Crory.
PROGRAMME NOTES by Neil Crory
MIGNON: “Oui, pour ce soir…Je suis Titania…”
Although based upon Goethe’s German novel Wilhelm Meisters
Lehrjahre, Thomas’ three-act opéra-comique (1866) is quintessentially
Gallic in flavour. The story centres on a love triangle involving the young
student Wilhelm Meister, the gypsy girl Mignon, and the actress Philine.
In Act II, set in a castle park, Philine enters, surrounded by adoring
fans. She has just finished a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s
Dream in which she appeared as Titania. Flush with excitement and elated
by her success, the coquette sings this brilliant polonaise: “I am Titania…”
LAKMÉ: “Viens, Mallika…dôme épais où le blanc jasmin…”
Delibes’ exotic opera (1883) - based upon Pierre Loti’s Le
mariage de Loti - is set in India at the time of British colonial rule.
The action focuses upon the plight of a young Hindu priestess, Lakmé, who is
torn between her love for her father, religion and country and that for the
handsome English officer, Gérald. In this gentle, atmospheric duet from Act
I, Lakmé and her servant, Mallika, go to the sacred stream over which “a dense
dome of jasmine and roses clings together.” There they collect blue lotus blossoms
to offer the god Ganesh.
LES PÊCHEURS DE PERLES: “Au fond du temple saint…”
The Pearl Fishers (1863) was the work which launched
the 24-year-old Bizet’s career. Perhaps inspired by the success of Spontini’s
La Vestale and Bellini’s Norma, the librettists, Carré and Cormon,
fashioned a similar story in which a priestess is torn between love and duty.
In this Act I duet, the two Ceylonese pearl fishers, Nadir and Zurga, meet and
they recall the night when they first saw Leïla - a Brahmin priestess whose
perfect beauty not only captured their hearts but also drove them apart out
of jealousy. Reunited, the two men promise “to remain friends for life.”
HAMLET: “O vin dissipe la tristesse…” (Drinking Song)
Although Thomas’ five-act opera (1868) closely follows the
outlines of Shakespeare’s well-known play about the Danish prince who avenges
his father’s murder, there are a few changes which must have shocked critics
of the day - including a ‘happy ending’ in which Hamlet survives and is hailed
as the new king! In Act II, Hamlet sings this brilliant aria after greeting
a group of strolling actors hired to perform The Murder of Gonzalez.
Although technically a “drinking song”, the aria also reveals a darker side
beneath the veneer of wild abandon.
LA PÉRICHOLE: “Ah! Quel dîner…” (Griserie Ariette)
Offenbach composed roughly 100 works for the stage, but this
spirited opéra bouffe (1868) - based upon Mérimée’s comedy, Le carrosse
du Saint-Sacrement - is one of the most charming. Set in Lima, Peru, it
tells the story of the impoverished streetsinger, La Périchole, who catches
the eye of a local Viceroy. Totally smitten the Viceroy offers her a position
as lady-in-waiting at the palace. Although fully aware of the implications,
she accepts. In this delightful aria, she has just returned from a grand dinner
at the palace and admits that “I drank so much that I’m a little bit drunk!”
LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR: “Chi mi frena in tal momento?…” (Sextet)
Donizetti’s opera (1835) is based upon Sir Walter Scott’s novel
The Bride of Lammermoor. Set in Scotland towards the end of the 17th-century,
the opera tells the tragic story of Lucia, who - forced into an unwanted marriage
- descends into madness. In the final scene of Act II, the wedding guests are
gathered. Tricked into believing that Edgardo - her real love - has abandoned
her, the distraught Lucia signs the fatal marriage contract. At this moment
Edgardo bursts in and confusion erupts and, in this famous sextet, the six principals
give vent to their various emotions.
LA TRAVIATA: “Di Provenza il mar…”
Verdi’s 1853 opera La Traviata (or The Fallen Woman)
inspired by Alexander Dumas’ play La Dame aux camélias - deals with the
courtesan Violetta Valéry and her love for Alfredo Germont. Act II, Alfredo’s
father, Giorgio Germont, appears and confronts Violetta. Fearful of scandal
he pleads with her to leave his son for the sake of his family’s honour.
When Alfredo returns to find Violetta gone, he is devastated. Germont then sings
this moving aria, reminding Alfredo of their home in Provence: “There alone
can peace shine on you again.”
AÏDA: “Se quel guerrier io fossi!…Celeste Aïda…”
Verdi’s exotic grand opera was premiered at the Cairo Opera
House in 1871. Set in ancient Egypt during the time of the Pharaohs, it tells
the story of the Egyptian soldier Radamès who is in love with the slave girl
Aïda. In this scene from Act I, Radamès is hopeful that he will be chosen to
lead the Egyptian army against the marauding Ethiopians so that he can, once
victorious, return and ask that Aïda be his. “Heavenly Aïda. You are queen of
my thoughts. You are the splendour of my life. I would like to build a throne
for you next to the sun.”
TOSCA: “Vissi d’arte…”
Puccini’s opera, based upon Sardou’s drama La Tosca,
was premiered in Rome in 1900. In Act II, the painter Mario Cavaradossi has
been imprisoned for treason by the sadistic chief of police, Baron Scarpia.
As he is being tortured, his lover - the actress Floria Tosca - is forced to
listen to his painful screams. Scarpia lasciviously suggests to her that Mario’s
fate lies in her own hands: she need only yield to his own advances. As Scarpia
throws her to the floor she cries: “I lived for art. I lived for love. I’ve
never harmed any living soul! Why, O God, why do you repay me thus?”
SEMIRAMIDE: “Bel raggio lusinghier …”
Rossini’s opera (1823), based upon Voltaire’s tragedy Sémiramis,
is set in Babylon around 1200 BC. It tells the story of the ruthless Semiramide
who murders her husband and takes over the throne of Babylon. As Queen, she
falls in love with Arsace, a handsome young army officer. In this splendid coloratura
aria from Act I, Semiramide sings that with Arsace’s return, “every care has
vanished from my heart. A beautiful enchanting ray of hope and content has shone
at last.” It is only later in the opera that she discovers - to her horror -
that Arsace is her own missing son, Ninia.
DON GIOVANNI: “Dalla sua pace…”
Mozart’s dramma giocoso (1787), set in Seville in the 17th-century,
is based upon the age-old legend about that amorous adventurer, Don Juan. In
the opera, Don Giovanni’s attempts to add the name of Donna Anna to his list
of conquests are thwarted when her cries for help are answered by her father.
While in search of the villain, Don Ottavio (Donna Anna’s fiancé), sings this
elegant, expressive aria in which he declares that he lives for her alone. “Her
wishes are the breath of life to me; her grief stabs me to the heart. There’s
no joy for me if she has none.”
DER ROSENKAVALIER: “Marie Theres’!…Hab’ mir’s gelobt…”
Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier (1911), with an inspired libretto
by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, remains one of the operatic masterpieces of the 20th-century.
The action is set in Vienna during the time of Maria Theresa of Austria and
deals with the Marschallin (a married woman) who is having an affair with a
young man named Octavian (a ‘trouser’ role sung by a mezzo). In this extraordinary,
climactic trio, the Marschallin is resigned to the fact that her young lover
has lost his heart to an even younger woman (Sophie) and with calm dignity renounces
her hold on him.
LA WALLY: “Ebben, ne andro lontana…”
Catalani is best known for this single aria from his opera
La Wally (1892) and made famous in the French film Diva. Set in the Tyrol around
1800, the story centres on Wally, whose father has ordered her out of his house
unless she agrees to marry Gellner, the man he has chosen for her. In response
Wally, who is in love with Hagenbach, looks to the mountains and sings, “Well
then, I shall go far away. Up there amid the white snows and the golden clouds.”
The opera ends tragically with the young lovers perishing in an avalanche.
TURANDOT: “In questa reggia…”
In Puccini’s final opera (1926), set in Peking of legendary
times, Princess Turandot agrees to marry only the man who can answer three riddles.
Whoever fails, however, is to be beheaded. In Act I, an unknown prince (Calaf
) has fallen in love with Turandot and strikes the gong heralding his candidacy.
In the next act, Turandot appears and recounts the story of her ancestor, Princess
Lo-u-Ling, whose rape and murder has strengthened her own resolve to be revenged
upon all men who desire her. “No man shall ever possess me! Hatred for him who
killed her lives on in my heart.”
TURANDOT: “Nessun dorma…”
To Turandot’s horror, Calaf is successful in answering all
three of her riddles. In response, he tells her that if she can discover his
name before dawn, she will be freed from her vow of marriage and he will submit
to the executioner’s sword. Turandot then orders that no one is to sleep until
the name of the Unknown Prince is revealed. “No one shall sleep tonight”, Calaf
sings, but “My secret lies hidden within me. No one shall discover my name!
Oh no, I will reveal it only on your lips when daylight shines forth and my
kiss shall break the silence which makes you mine.”
LA TRAVIATA: “Libiamo, libiamo ne’lieti calici…” (Brindisi)
The first act of Verdi’s opera (1853) opens during a party
in Paris given by the courtesan Violetta Valéry. Gastone reveals to her that
a certain Alfredo Germont is also present and that the young man has fallen
madly in love with her - although they have not even met. Once introduced, Alfredo
sings this spirited brindisi, or drinking song, in which Violetta and her guests
join in with gusto. “Let us drink from the goblets of joy…Let us drink, for
with wine, love will enjoy yet more passionate kisses….Let us be happy, as the
delight of love is fleeting and rapid.”
NATIONAL ANTHEM: “O Canada! Our home and native land…”
Although “O Canada” - with French lyrics by Sir Adolphe-Basile
Routhier (1839-1920) and music by Calixa Lavallée (1842-1891) - was composed
in 1880, it was not until July 1, 1980 that it was officially proclaimed Canada’s
national anthem. The version on which the official English lyrics are based
was written in 1908 by Mr. Justice Robert Stanley Weir (1856-1926). The stirring
version for chorus and orchestra heard on this recording was arranged by the
distinguished Toronto-born composer, educator, writer and conductor, Godfrey
ISABEL BAYRAKDARIAN, soprano léger
This talented young Armenian-Canadian soprano has won considerable
recognition as the recipient of numerous awards and prizes. Since her professional
operatic debut in 1997 with the Glimmerglass Opera, she has also scored triumphs
in such works as Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia for the Canadian Opera Company;
Handel’s Flavio in Karlsruhe; and William Bolcom’s new opera, View from the
Bridge, for the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
MARIO BERNARDI, conductor
In 1968, Maestro Bernardi became the first artistic director
of the newly formed National Arts Centre Orchestra. After serving in that position
for 13 years, he left Ottawa and was soon appointed artistic director of the
Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, a post he held through the 1992-93 season. Since
1983, he has been Principal Conductor of the CBC Vancouver Orchestra. Mario
Bernardi was born in Kirkland Lake, Ontario.
RICHARD BRADSHAW, conductor
This English-born conductor – who includes Sir Adrian Boult,
Sir Charles Groves and Sir John Pritchard as his musical mentors - is currently
the conductor and general director of the Canadian Opera Company. Prior to moving
to Toronto, Maestro Bradshaw was also a conductor with the San Francisco Opera
from 1977 to 1988. He has also been associated with the Glyndebourne Festival
and the opera companies of Santa Fe and Seattle.
RUSSELL BRAUN, baritone
Russell Braun has become one of Canada’s most endearing artists.
While his sensibility and sensitivity make him ideally suited to the recital
stage, his operatic persona is also warm, generous and increasingly charismatic.
In recent years he has made a considerable splash in Europe, including the Bastille
Opera in Paris and the prestigious Salzburg Festival. Russell is the son of
the distinguished Canadian bass-baritone Victor Braun.
MEASHA BRÜGGERGOSMAN, lyric soprano
At the tender age of 22, this native of Fredericton, New Brunswick
has already created a name for herself. “A genuine discovery, a passionate singer
with a warm, rich natural soprano voice,” extolled William Littler in The Toronto
Star. Although still a student, she has given countless recitals and concerts,
and has starred in James Rolfe’s new chamber opera Beatrice Chancy which has
also been filmed by CBC Television.
TRACY DAHL, coloratura soprano
This sparkling dynamo from Winnipeg, Manitoba, has dazzled
audiences around the world with such demanding coloratura roles as Zerbinetta
in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, Olympia in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann
and Lucia in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. She appears regularly with major
opera companies across Canada and the United States, including the Metropolitan
Opera and San Francisco Opera. FRANCES
GINZER, dramatic soprano
Frances Ginzer, originally from Calgary, Alberta, now lives
in Dusseldorf, Germany. In the months leading up to the Millenium Opera Gala,
she scored a triumph with her first Isolde (in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde)
for the Washington Opera and her first complete Ring Cycle in San Francisco
(singing the demanding role of Brunnhilde). Much in demand internationally,
Ginzer is one of Canada’s first truly ‘dramatic’ sopranos.
BEN HEPPNER, Heldentenor
Born in Murrayville, B.C., this extraordinary artist has been
universally acclaimed for his life-affirming performances and recordings of
many of the heavier French and Italian operatic roles. But it is in the German
repertoire where he scored his greatest tgriumphs: from Beethoven’s Fidelio,
Weber’s Oberon, and Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, to Wagners’ Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger
von Nürnberg and Tristan und Isolde.
RICHARD MARGISON, tenor
With the careers of the ubiquitous ‘Three Tenors’ coming to
an end, it seems assured that the Victoria-born tenor Richard Margison will
assume part of their mantle. His effortless and seemingly tireless voice – with
its plangent, clarion top register - makes for a truly visceral operatic experience.
Although he sings a wide variety of repertoire, Margison has proven himself
to be one of the great Verdi tenors of his generation.
ADRIANNE PIECZONKA, soprano lyrico spinto
Adrianne Pieczonka is originally from Burlington, Ontario,
but now makes her home in England. Prior to that she was based for several years
in Vienna, Austria, where she sang lead roles at the State Opera (particularly
in the operas of Mozart, Strauss, Tchaikovsky and Wagner). Today she is in demand
by all of the great houses of the world: from Dresden’s Semper Oper and Munich’s
Bavarian State Opera, to Milan’s La Scala.
BRETT POLEGATO, baritone
Since his European debut in 1995, this versatile young artist
from Niagara Falls, Ontario, has been making quite a name for himself on the
recital, concert and opera stages of the world. Particularly renowned for his
performances of French mélodies and English song, he is also extremely active
as an opera singer, performing everywhere from the Lyric Opera of Chicago and
New York City Opera to the Savonlinna Festival in Finland.
ROBERT POMAKOV, basso cantante
At 18 years of age, bass Robert Pomakov was the youngest singer
to perform on the Millennium Opera Gala. A graduate of St. Michael’s Choir School
in Toronto, he is currently studying voice at the prestigious Curtis Institute
of Music in Philadelphia. His operatic repertoire is already quite extensive
and includes lead roles in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Le nozze di Figaro, Così fan
tutte and Die Entführung aus dem Serail.
GINO QUILICO, baritone
Although he continues to perform in all the great opera houses
of the world (from the Bastille and La Scala to Covent Garden and the Metropolitan
Opera), he still maintains a residence in Montreal. One of the most dashing
baritones around, he has had outstanding successes as Escamillo in Carmen and
Marcello in La Bohème. As with Russell Braun, Gino is the son of an equally
famous father - in this case, baritone Louis Quilico.
CATHERINE ROBBIN, mezzo-soprano
Although her distinguished career has taken her around the
globe, this much-loved mezzo - a favourite of such conductors as John Eliot
Gardiner, Christopher Hogwood and Nicholas McGegan - continues to make Ontario
her home. While her greatest contribution to the musical life of Canada – and
the world - has been as a recitalist and concert singer, she has also enjoyed
considerable success in the operas of Handel, Mozart and Berlioz.
MICHAEL SCHADE, tenore di grazia
Many deem this irrepressible tenor as Canada’s answer to the
legendary German tenor Fritz Wunderlich. His stylish, honey-toned performances
of Mozart, Strauss and Wagner opera - and German Lieder – are unsurpassable.
Although he spends a good deal of time at the Vienna Staatsoper and other international
houses, Schade - and his wife, mezzo Norine Burgess - continue to live, perform
and record in Canada.
JEAN STILWELL, mezzo
This tall, charismatic mezzo – a native Torontonian - has the
rare ability to light up any stage on which she performs. Who can forget her
Carmen? Given the magnetism of her lithesome and seductive femme fatale, it
is not surprising that she has already starred in 16 productions of Bizet’s
opera around the world. In addition to opera and concert work, Ms. Stilwell
has also triumphed with her smoldering performances of the cabaret music.
JAMES WESTMAN, baritone
This talented young Torontonian has sung professionally since
the age of 11, first as a boy soprano and eventually as baritone. In recent
years he has been an Adler Fellow with the San Francisco Opera, appearing with
that company in several main stage productions, including Charpentier’s Louise,
Puccini’s La Bohème and Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. Still under 30 years of
age, he is already one of Canada’s major operatic exports.
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HIGHLIGHTS OF THE MILLENIUM OPERA GALA