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Canadian Opera Company’s new season bolstered by world’s top talents

Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma (San Francisco Opera, 2014).

Cory Weaver

The Canadian Opera Company announced perhaps its most balanced, sturdy season in years Wednesday night at the Four Seasons Centre as the company's plans for 2016-17 were unveiled by general director Alexander Neef. Perhaps its highlight will be a Canadian opera – the Canadian opera for many – a remounting of Harry Somers's Louis Riel, first presented as a centennial project in 1967, now being revived 50 years later for Canada's 150th. An all-Canadian cast, featuring Russell Braun, James Westman, Simone Osborne, Allyson McHardy, Michael Colvin and John Relyea could make this Riel the most highly anticipated event of the season.

Riel appears within a selection of solidly established operatic masterpieces. With the exception of Handel's Ariodante, which the company will present in October, the other operas in 2016-17 are all from the heart of the operatic repertoire – Mozart's The Magic Flute, Bellini's Norma, Wagner's Goetterdaemmerung and Puccini's Tosca. For 2016-17 at least, there will be no Maometto, Don Quichotte or Roberto Devereux. It is a season designed to appeal to the powerful heart of the standard operatic repertoire.

However, if the fare is more contained, the casts, directors and conductors that Neef has assembled for his shows are nothing short of spectacular. Seven years into his tenure, Neef has made the COC a destination for the world's great operatic artists. The list is almost too long to name. Christine Goerke will complete her Brunhilde trifecta in Goetterdaemmerung (her second instalment, in Siegfried, opens next week), making Toronto the first place where she will have sung all three iterations of the role. Sondra Radvanovsky, burnished and brilliant, will share the role of Norma with South African Elza van den Heever. American Isabel Leonard returns to the Four Seasons stage in Norma. Alice Coote, last heard and seen here in Peter Sellars's riveting Hercules, stars in Ariodante, joined by Canadian Jane Archibald. Adrianne Pieczonka and Keri Alkema will be the COC's Toscas.

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And the talent isn't just on stage. Bernard Labadie will make his COC debut conducting The Magic Flute in an interesting cast featuring former members of the COC's own Ensemble program, returning Canadians such as Joshua Hopkins, Phillip Addis and Ambur Braid, and, making her COC debut as the Queen of the Night, American Kathryn Lewek. Keri-Lynn Wilson will be only the third woman to conduct a COC production in the past 15-odd years when she takes the podium for Tosca. Director Peter Hinton will reimagine and restage Riel; Richard Jones will lead Ariodante; Kevin Newbury takes on Tosca.

In a related announcement, the COC revealed that music director Johannes Debus had extended his commitment to the COC through the 2020-21 season, making his tenure coincide with that of general director Neef. In the past eight years, they have transformed opera-going in this city and have extended their own and Toronto's reputation far beyond our borders. Recently, American soprano Renée Fleming told me it was common knowledge in the international operatic world that Neef and Debus were names to watch. If their 2016-17 season has fewer surprises than in years past, and fewer potentially controversial productions, it makes up for it by the continued excellence of the work that emanates consistently from the Four Seasons stage.

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