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The Globe and Mail

Premieres and new productions mark COC's 2011-2012 season

A job-application exercise has become the core of the Canadian Opera Company's 2011-2012 season, which will include four company premieres and three new productions.

The new schedule, which general director Alexander Neef outlined at the Four Seasons Centre on Wednesday, includes the Canadian premieres of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's 2000 opera L'Amour de Loin (Love From Afar) with a French-language libretto by Lebanese novelist Amin Maalouf; and of Austrian composer Alexander Zemlinsky's 1917 opera A Florentine Tragedy, which will appear on a double bill with Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, directed by the American soprano and stage director Catherine Malfitano and conducted by Sir Andrew Davis.

Neef also said that five of the season's seven operas were part of a mock season he prepared when he applied three years ago for the top creative job at the company. The search committee asked each applicant to come up with a list of productions for 2011-2012.

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The season opens on Sept. 22 with the company premiere of Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride, with American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in the title role and Canadian baritone Russell Braun as Oreste, in a production directed by Canadian director Robert Carsen. Both the Gluck and the Saariaho projects have been open secrets (as previously reported in The Globe) for at least a year.

The schedule ends in May 2012 with the COC premiere of Handel's Semele, with Canadian soprano Jane Archibald in the title role, in a Chinese-themed production designed and directed by sculptor Zhang Huan.

The year also features a title-role appearance by Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka in Puccini's Tosca, in a Paul Curran production last seen at the Four Seasons in 2008; a new production of Verdi's Rigoletto, with designs by Canadian Michael Levine and direction by company veteran Christopher Alden; and Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, with American tenor Russell Thomas in the title role, Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea making his first COC appearance as the multiple villains in the piece, and Canadian soprano Erin Wall returning as Antonia, two months after her company debut in L'Amour de loin.

Five of the operas will be co-productions, several of which have already been seen elsewhere. Neef abruptly added Handel to the schedule after seeing a performance of Zhang Huan's Ming-dynasty version of Semele in Brussels in September 2009, displacing another opera that was already pencilled into the COC's season.

"When you do a co-production, it's not only to save money," Neef said, adding that with the right choice of partners, the COC can pursue its own artistic goals and amortize its productions more quickly than if it were to build them alone. The double-bill, which combines two operas written in the same year with the same setting (an Italian merchant's house) is the only show the COC will put together on its own.

COC music director Johannes Debus will conduct the operas by Saariaho and Verdi. The young Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, a colleague of Neef's from his days at the Paris Opera, will conduct the season-opening Gluck performances, seven months after his COC debut in John Adams's Nixon In China, which opens in February.

Neef said he was proud to present leading Canadian talents at the Four Seasons, and had specifically asked Pieczonka to perform in Tosca so as to let the COC's audience hear the Toronto-based star in a role relatively new to her "before she has done it everywhere else."

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The COC has no plans, however, for main stage productions of any operas written in this country for at least several more years, he said, though a couple of commissions are being discussed. The German-born general director seemed somewhat exasperated by the suggestion that the Canadian Opera Company might want to make it a priority to perform some Canadian opera.

"I find it very odd, actually, to have that discussion," he said. "In France, I never had this discussion, about 'why don't you do operas of French composers?' Because we would do them if we believed in their value. I think that's what it needs to be about."

The COC also unveiled a new logo, a stocky symmetrical fusion of the company's initials that looks rather like the Chanel logo undergoing cell division.

Also new for next year are weekday rush subscriptions, which for $308 will offer a guaranteed seat in the Four Seasons's top-most balcony, with the possibility of a better seat if one is available on the day of the performance.

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