Toronto
4 min

Theatre gem

Tom Diamond's razzle dazzle

VICARIOUS LIVING. Director Tom Diamond works at the drama of opera until it sparkles. Credit: Mark Bartkiw

It’s the fantasy of any imaginative opera director: A major opera company approaches you with carte blanche; an offer to do a brand new show, no recycled sets, costumes or concepts.



They hand you a contract and a budget, and you suddenly find yourself in rehearsal with gifted musicians and an experienced creative team, all of whom are waiting with baited breath to inhabit your own singular artistic vision.



Sound dramatic? Well, this is grand opera, and Tom Diamond is a grand director , more than up to the challenge. He directs the Canadian Opera Company’s season opener, the unusual double bill of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Puccini’s Il Tabarro.



Last summer Diamond was preparing the dramaturgy for an opera that the COC Ensemble Studio artists will perform later this season. “So I go down [to the outdoor Harbourfront concert] to see them perform,” says Diamond. “The concert begins. I’m expecting these young Ensemble artists to come out, but the first person who walks out on stage is Russian mezzo, Alina Gurina [who plays Santuzza in Cavalleria].



“Now, at Harbourfront the boats are going by and the kids are talking and there’s a hubbub all around you. But Gurina comes out and she sings. And the world stopped. It was like nothing else. You just focussed on her. And I thought to myself, ‘My God, this is how people must have felt when they saw Maria Callas.’



“The next day I e-mailed [COC conductor and general director] Richard Bradshaw and I said, ‘Thank you, it was so great to see the Ensemble artists, they’re so talented. But that Gurina – my God! I know you’ve booked her for something, I don’t care what it is, I’ll direct it!’



“Two days later I got the offer for the double bill.”



The freshness and strength of this double bill are due in part to its cast and in part to its unusual pairing. “It’s always Cav’n’Pag,” yawns Diamond, referring the nicknames for Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and its customary partner by the same composer, I Pagliacci. “Everybody who’s ever gone to the Met has seen the Zeffirelli Cav’n’Pag there.”



Bradshaw’s choice then, to pair Cavalleria Rusticana with Il Tabarro (extracted from Puccini’s three-part work Il Trittico) presented Diamond with a special and irresistible challenge.



He was less familiar with the Puccini. “I went and got a recording of Tabarro. As I listened to it, I got more and more excited by it, because it’s a little masterpiece, like a Hitchcock Presents. There’s an element of a Guignol sort of thriller you know, like something terrible is going to happen.”



Diamond admits that he was slow to identify his own operatic leanings. Despite a strong background in classical piano, Diamond’s primary directing experience was rooted firmly in the theatre. It never really occurred to the former acting teacher that he might pursue a career in opera until he was offered the Barber Of Seville for the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.



The production was a great success; Diamond was hooked.

And while he prefers the creative freedom of working on new operas, like last year’s hit production of Iron Road, or rarely seen older works, like Cavalli’s Giasone, Diamond’s intense focus on the script always unearths new perspectives on each opera. And his dynamic staging – avoiding the old “park and bark” approach – translates his insights to the audience. He puts on a great show.



Diamond began dissecting Il Tabarro and Cavalleria in much the same fashion as he had Rossini’s Barber. “Absolutely, I’m a script analysis guy,” he says. But he carefully asserts: “The music leads the way. When I prepare for new pieces, what I do is lock the door of my apartment, turn off my phone and I listen to those scores a hundred thousand times. I let it all move in on me. And I start to imagine those worlds.”



For the double bill, those worlds are dark, the first chronicling a wife’s infidelity and her lover’s eventual murder, and the other examining the obsession of a woman wronged.



“There were a couple of notions I wanted to take into account. First, these two operas have not been seen in Toronto forever, so the audience that’s going to opera these days mostly does not know these works.



“My thinking was, ‘Why should I come in with a high concept, when people just want to come and see what these pieces are?’ Second, these operas are verismo pieces [opera jargon meaning realism], but to me it’s operatic realism, not really kitchen sink realism. In that way, although the Tabarro barge is very realistic [Il Tabarro traditionally takes place on a boat], the world around it is not so real in terms of set and the execution on stage.



“Another part of the big picture for me is that I was asked to do a double bill that would play in repertoire with the famous Robert Lepage double bill [Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung, see sidebar]. I mean, Robert Lepage is a world icon of theatre. I didn’t want people to come and think I was trying to compete with the signature Lepage double bill, which I love. It’s brilliant, magnificent. Those productions have toured the world and won prizes and put Canadian opera on the map in many ways. I didn’t want to compete with that.



“So as I also found my way into it, I wanted to come up with a single, simple set. In terms of choosing a designer, I needed someone who could evoke these worlds without having to put a lot of scenery on stage. That could only mean Polish-Canadian designer Teresa Przybylski [pronounced ‘sha-BILL-ski’], who designed the COC’s 1997 The Emperor Of Atlantis. Her sets are so beautiful, so simple. They could make you cry. Her way of seeing the world moves me.



Diamond and Przybylski grappled with the issue of establishing two convincing dramas in the same onstage world. “I wanted to look at characters and situations, not at scenery.”



“For me Tabarro is really the story of a woman who is desperate to get out of a relationship, and Cavalleria is the story of a woman who is desperate to get into one. Pretty much everybody we meet in these operas is in a desperate state. These people sing their passions: because their needs are so huge, it’s life and death. That’s the big pull for me. All of the music is exciting. Especially the duets in Cav.



“Within that, I think, is the real reason this art exists. It’s to help us escape from the realities of everyday life. Maybe we lose ourselves for a moment in someone else’s sorrow. Maybe we’re enlightened about the human experience, sort of like a mirror held up to our own selves, our own lives. Opera is a place for us to see people who cry their passions out in a way at times that we can’t for ourselves, so we can live vicariously through those people.”



IL TABARRO/CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA.

$38-$135. Various times.

Thu, Sep 20, 23, 26, 29, Oct 2 & 5.

Hummingbird Centre.

1 Front St E.

(416) 872-2262.