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COC announces plans for eclectic 2017-18 Toronto season

Canadian Opera Company director Alexander Neef is photographed at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts July 19, 2012 in Toronto.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

The Canadian Opera Company announced Thursday an eclectic, wide-ranging offering for its 2017-18 Toronto season, the ninth for General Director Alexander Neef, and one that features a unique arrangement between the COC and famed Canadian soprano Jane Archibald. Archibald will be featured in three of the COC's six productions for the season, an unprecedented and intriguing use of a single performer for the company.

The COC's 2017-18 productions have one foot firmly rooted in the 19th century, with two operas by Donizetti – L'elisir d'amore and Anna Bolena – along with a revival of Verdi's Rigoletto. But the 20th century is also well-represented, with Richard Strauss's 1933 opera Arabella – a COC premiere – and a revival of Robert Lepage's Stravinsky extravaganza, The Nightingale and Other Short Fables. Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio, in a controversial new production directed by Wajdi Mouawad, fills out the bill. Archibald will appear in Abduction, as well as in Arabella and Nightingale.

The season will be a big one for other Canadian sopranos at the COC. The divine Sondra Radvanovsky (American-born, but increasingly turning into one of us – she became a Canadian citizen last year) will be back in April, 2018, with the second of her Donizetti "three queens," Anna Bolena. We heard the first, Elizabeth I, in 2014 when the COC presented Roberto Devereux, before Radvanovsky presented all three (including Maria Stuarda) in one season at the Met in 2015. Soprano Erin Wall will also return to the COC (she was last heard as the Countess in Figaro) to perform the title role in Arabella, Strauss's odd, late opera, set in the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the 1890s, but written as Germany teetered on a precipice in the 1930s. As well, Simone Osborne will perform as Adina in Donizetti's beloved comedy L'elisir, along with other former members of the COC's Ensemble Studio company.

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But perhaps the most interesting performance development in 2017-18 will be the presence of Archibald as "artist-in-residence" for the season. Archibald was stunning just last fall as Ginevra in the COC's acclaimed production of Ariodante. And not only will Archibald be featured in three productions, but two of them will have her singing roles she's never sung before. She'll sing Zdenka in Arabella, her first role debut, and the Nightingale in The Nightingale and Other Short Fables, her second. As well, she'll reprise one of the roles she's known for internationally, Konstanze in Mozart's Abduction. Archibald will also be part of the concert series presented in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at the Four Seasons Centre, and be available all year to mentor younger singers in the COC's Ensemble Studio program.

"The presence of an artist-in-residence is not something you can completely plan," says Neef. "But we had these three operas in the works that suited Jane's artistry perfectly. She's a world-famous Konstanze, so that was a clear beginning. Then we just kept going. Generally, you worry if you bring back an artist twice in a season. So I was hesitant at first. But then I said, 'Why not?' And away we went." Typical of Neef's tenure at the COC, Archibald's's artist-in-residency is a perfect example of the calculated risks – ever more risky in these days of tight budgets and audience fragmentation – that have made him one of the most successful opera managers in North America, if not the world.

Of the six productions in 2017-18, Arabella will be a premiere for the company, and the Stravinsky and Rigoletto will be revivals of previous COC productions (the Lepage Stravinsky being especially noteworthy). The Mouawad Abduction is a co-production with Opéra de Lyon, and at its French premiere last year caused quite a stir with its partially rewritten text and modernized references to the cultural wars between the Muslim and Western world, which lay at the heart of the Mozart 1782 original. L'elisir d'amore and Anna Bolena are new productions for the COC.

Alexander Neef might be talking about his entire philosophy as director of the COC when he describes the artistic ideas he hopes will start to spark when Jane Archibald begins her residency next fall. "The relationship with Jane and us hopefully will be a two-way street. We'll inspire each other to put pieces on stage we feel strongly about – and that make a strong statement to our audiences."

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