Review: Opera Superstar Anna Netrebko Dazzles in Canadian Debut

The lights dim. The crowd is silent, in anticipation. Finally – the reigning queen of opera has come to Canada.

Anna Netrebko performed to an adoring sold-out audience at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre on Tuesday evening. Netrebko was joined by husband and Azerbaijani tenor, Yusif Eyvazov and renowned Russian baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Led by Maestro Jader Bignamini, the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra brilliantly accompanied the “Trio Magnifico” through Verdi, Puccini, Tchaikovsky and more. Presented by Show One Productions, the evening was a remarkable presentation of some of opera’s greatest hits, sung by three of opera’s brightest stars.

Netrebko’s rise to fame is a real-life Cinderella story. Recognized while working as a janitor at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, conductor Valery Gergiev began mentoring the young soprano, propelling her to stardom. In 2002, Netrebko seduced American audiences, making her Metropolitan Opera debut in Prokofiev’s War and Peace. With the initiation of the Met’s Live in HD series, the soprano was in the right place (at the right time) to achieve widespread fame. Netrebko has performed in every season of the series, for the past eleven years – her performances reached new audiences, and inspired a new generation of singers (I happen to be one of them).

The COC Orchestra set the mood for the evening with a touching “Sinfonia” from Verdi’s La Forza del destino. Hvorostovsky sang first. It was an emotional experience watching him perform, surrounded by his family in the front row. Hvorostovsky announced in 2015 that he was battling a brain tumour and would be subsequently withdrawing from live performances, citing the physical difficulties in performing fully-staged operas. Hvorostovsky seemed slightly unbalanced during the concert, walking with a slight limp and singing with a voice that has noticeably changed. Still – it was an incredible opportunity to hear one of opera’s living legends, perhaps the world’s greatest baritone – in person. The audience, extremely moved by his performance, demanded an encore at the end of the night.

The diva did not disappoint. Netrebko was dazzling, commanding the entire stage – much to the dismay of the lighting operator. She was most impressive while singing in her native tongue, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin still fresh in her voice from a recent turn as Tatyana at the Met. Her singing had depth as it carried effortlessly – showcasing the multitude of colours in her celebrated voice. Netrebko is a phenomenal artist, one that reels you in with every note that escapes her lips. Her commitment to emotional communication while performing technically complex music is one of the reasons she is such a highly-regarded star.

The surprise of the evening was the immensely talented, Yusif Eyvazov. His voice was satisfyingly piercing – soaring over the orchestra with incredible power. Eyvazov exceeded every expectation I had walking into the concert. His “E lucevan le stelle” was met with thunderous applause, perhaps the most enthusiastic applause of the evening. We can forgive the poor diction in the Lehar duet (“Tu che m’hai preso il cuor”), as it was magical to witness the musical chemistry of the husband and wife duo.

It was an incredible evening for opera in Toronto. Svetlana Dvoretsky, executive producer of Show One Productions, stated at the beginning of the evening that she hopes that they (Netrebko and Eyvazov) will love Canada as much as we do. Based on the warm Canadian welcome, I have a feeling they’ll be returning soon.


Netrebko and Eyvazov will perform on April 30, 2017 at the Jack Singer Concert Hall in Calgary, AB. If there are still tickets, you’ll want to purchase them now. Visit for more information.

(If you’re new to opera and have no idea where to start, Anna Netrebko is the perfect introduction. I recommend the 2005 Salzburg Festival production of Verdi’s La Traviata.)

Photo Credit: Vladimir Kevorkov, courtesy of Show One Productions

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Review: The Canadian Opera Company’s LOUIS RIEL – A Step in the Right Direction

Colonization is a controversial part of our heritage, and is central to the Canadian Opera Company’s (COC) new production of Harry Somers’ LOUIS RIEL. The production has sparked discourse on the use of Indigenous songs in opera, the portrayal of Indigenous men and women on stage and First Nations song protocol in general. In an effort to present a more contemporary perspective, Director Peter Hinton has collaborated with members of the Indigenous community, integrating a group of performers as a physical chorus, known as the Land Assembly. The result is a more inclusive and respectful revival of the opera, opening with a land acknowledgement by Cole Alvis, a theatre artist of Métis, Irish and English descent.

The plot focuses on Louis Riel’s mission to protect and preserve the Métis peoples rights to their land and culture. While attempting to expand the Dominion of Canada into North-Western Territory, eastern troops (under the control of Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald) are met by a resistance movement, led by Riel. Riel rallies his people, forming a provisional government which gives him negotiating power in the terms for Manitoba’s Confederation. In true opera fashion, the plot features allusions of madness, prophetic visions, exile and murder.

The idea of “one side against the other” is a central theme in the production. This is highlighted in Michael Gianfrancesco’s minimalist set design, which features elevated levels, allowing for a chorus of spectators and participants at any given time. The costumes by Gillian Gallow use colour provocatively to the same effect, contrasting bright reds against neutrals. Gallow creates conflict through the use of both modern and historical costumes, a reminder of how relevant these issues still are today.

Russell Braun is a tour de force in his fervent portrayal of the title role. His vocal endurance is remarkable; his musicality, masterful. Opera singers often have a reputation for being excellent singers, but poor actors – Braun proves that this is not the case. His Louis Riel begins as impulsive and frenetic in Act I (at one point he throws himself onto the ground near a roaring fire) but evolves into a dynamic and charismatic leader. Riel’s aria near the end of Act III was (for me) the highlight of the entire opera.

Simone Osborne stands out in her portrayal of Marguerite Riel. Though brief, her enchanting performance provides a much needed break in an opera dominated by male voices. Opening the third act, Osborne’s voice carries beautifully, with perfect control through the long, legato lines required by the score. It’s a shame that Somers didn’t give her more to sing.

If you’ve never been to an opera, LOUIS RIEL may not be where you want to start. The combination of tonal and atonal music can take some patience to appreciate (Puccini’s, Tosca opens next week and would be better suited for opera newbies). However, LOUIS RIEL is an important opportunity to reflect on our country’s complicated history. Hinton’s production is sensitive in its representation of indigeneity, but also serves as a reminder that we still have a long way to go.


You still have five chances to see LOUIS RIEL, running until May 13, 2017 at The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St. W, Toronto, ON. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit

Photo credit: Sophie I’anson

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Review: Shakespeare’s Reflection on Humanity is Powerfully Human in Why Not Theatre’s PRINCE HAMLET

A gender-bending, English and American Sign Language (ASL) bilingual production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet may sound ambitious – but it plays as compellingly human. Maybe you’re not familiar with the story. Maybe you’ve seen it a hundred times. Regardless, Why Not Theatre’s PRINCE HAMLET will defy your expectations. Ravi Jain has adapted Shakespeare’s most famous play in a way that is relevant and, as the title suggests, focuses more intimately on its protagonist’s struggle to understand human nature.

PRINCE HAMLET shares the tragedy from Horatio’s perspective. We begin at the end, with Horatio’s, “So shall you hear of carnal, bloody and unnatural acts,” establishing the production’s integration of signing. Jain’s skillful adaption mesmerizes, as the plot is reorganized – monologues artfully manipulated to feature interjected scenes of earlier action. Horatio narrates, moving within the story as it unfolds.

The incorporation of signing is striking. A recent Broadway production of Spring Awakening received rave reviews for its use of ASL; Jain takes this a step further. PRINCE HAMLET features a deaf performer not because the script calls for a deaf character, but because Dawn Jani Birley is sensational, and plays a Horatio who just happens to be deaf. The signing weaves brilliantly throughout Jain’s production, forcing the audience to search for meaning in the unfamiliar – a theme which is central to Hamlet.

The play’s themes are explored further in the all-encompassing, effortless unity of set (Lorenzo Savoini) and lighting design (Andre du Toit). Du Toit showcases light’s versatile abilities to restrict and expand space. Savoini’s set incorporates dirt scattered in piles across the stage, which, in my opinion, symbolizes the characters’ unique tragic flaws. Ophelia is exempt from this symbolism, instead, using the dirt to throw judgement (in the form of flower metaphors) at each character’s liability. This imagery is powerful, especially in the final scene when each character comes to rest on their respective heap.

Christine Horne plays an earnest, intelligent Hamlet. Gender becomes inconsequential in her portrayal of the pensive prince. Horne’s Hamlet is hopeful in his plans for revenge, and devastated in his uncertainty. Her piercing eyes swell with tears, veins pulsing in her neck as her Hamlet strains to understand his mortality. Horne’s Hamlet is truly of our generation – down to the amusing use of millennial vocal fry.

The entire cast is exceptional. Jeff Ho portrays a tender Ophelia; delicate in her madness. Her singing in Act 4, is withdrawn and haunting. Maria Vacratsis as Polonius is stoic and quite funny. Hannah Miller and Miriam Fernandes are inventive and refreshing as they take on multiple characters. As Laertes, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah’s initial cheery disposition transitions into rampant retribution. Karen Robinson and Rick Roberts have excellent chemistry as Queen Gertrude and King Claudius. They succeed in normalizing their incestuous union – the attraction between them is convincing.

Jain’s adaption shatters convention, without trying too hard. The incorporation of ASL challenges our perception of communication and makes us vulnerable to silence, which he proves, can rival speech in its ability to evoke emotion. He’s created an unconstrained world where gender, ability and cultural background are immaterial. In a society of growing division, Jain’s PRINCE HAMLET offers an honest and inclusive reflection of humanity.


PRINCE HAMLET runs through April 29, 2017 at The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. W, Toronto, ON. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit

Photo Credit: Bronwen Sharp

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