What does this Requiem do? Ivany meets Mozart

The calendar reminds us of the relationship of our society and religion.  This week is one of those times of year when people may make their only annual visit to a church or synagogue, while those who are regular attendees or church musicians are expected (or required) to show up more than usual.

While religion is just a shadow of its formerly influential self (setting aside the states ruled by fundamentalists), it has left vestiges scattered through our lives, in the oaths we swear in court, the promises we make when we get married, and the ways we say goodbye to loved ones who have passed away.

Director Joel Ivany

Director Joel Ivany

Today, in the middle of Holy Week I was present for an experiment, a semi-staged version of Mozart’s Requiem directed by Joel Ivany, at Canadian Stage’s Rehearsal Room.  I feel lucky and privileged to have been present to see something Ivany called a workshop presentation of Mozart’s Requiem that he’ll be doing with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra next January.  Next year’s Requiem will employ an orchestra of sixty players or so, with a chorus of forty singers or so inside Roy Thomson Hall.  For the workshop, however, Ivany employed eight soloists –that is, the usual complement of four vocal soloists (soprano Ambur Braid, alto Rihab Chaieb, tenor Chris Enns and bass Aaron Durand), plus another four to sing the respective sections of the chorus (soprano Meher Pavri, alto Danielle MacMillan, tenor Joshua Wales and bass James Michael Baldwin) —with a single pianist (Jenna Douglas) all conducted by Robert Cooper.

Unlike your usual Requiem, where singers are formally attired, stiffly standing with scores in black folders, this was an exploration of something different, befitting Ivany’s description of a “workshop presentation”.  As with the Against the Grain Messiah presented in December 2013, the singers moved and inter-acted, having memorized their music.  While that occasion included a choreographic component as well, that might seem inappropriate here, considering the subject; I suppose I’m contrasting the celebratory aspect of Messiah with the fundamentally mournful character of a Requiem.

The question I posed in the headline is a fundamentally dramaturgical one.  Recognizing that performance is a process for performers and for the auditor, how does it work and what is the effect, or in other words “what does this Requiem do”?

The experiment can be understood in several contexts.

  • One can look at Mozart’s original and ask fundamentally what that work does, even before one decides on an approach. Does it mourn, does it celebrate, and how does one reconcile the prayerful with the performative aspect: the fact that soloists seem to be addressing God, at times in prayer even as the singing unavoidably shows off their abilities.  Does one choose to embrace the virtuoso element (an approach that is very much out of fashion for the past half century or so), or seek to subsume that element in a pure portrayal of the textual / prayer element (as this workshop indeed seemed to prefer to do)?
  • What does the Latin text supply, whether we come to it as existing before Mozart or if we attempt to bring it into our own much more secular time? How do we reconcile ourselves to the questions of mortality & mourning, and what part do they have in our lives? Will it be a specialized ritual set off from our normal life –and that’s what we get when we dress in black, and assume specialized language & posture—or somehow normalized?  How much mourning can we even handle?
  • What does it imply that the singers are dressed informally, in fact very much the way I was dressed having come from a normal Wednesday? At one time church was a place every bit as formal of dress as the concert hall, and still a place where I am uncomfortable attending without dressing nicely.  Is this a deconstruction –of Requiem and of the rituals of mourning—or simply a more normal way of embracing death and its emblems, without stiffness and possibly with more emotional authenticity?
  • The work is in several movements, segmented as per the text (eg the Offertory, Sanctus or Agnus Dei), yet there appear to be portrayals and interactions, emotions expressed that may or may not arise from the text. There were some very emotional moments for cast that seemed to continue straight through from one segment to the next, even though the music comes to a full stop, the text implying a new thought.  The movements & inter-actions appear to be motivated by the preparation that Ivany gave his cast, exploring the themes of a Requiem, of loss & mortality.

I found that with the Against the Grain Messiah my momentary resistance melted in the presence of a compelling musical performance, in the pleasure of a whole new way of seeing a familiar work.  Similar feelings & thoughts were with me this time, even though we were in the presence of something darker, and still wonderfully dynamic and unfinished.  There are clearly unexplored possibilities that Ivany likely will explore in future interpretations / incarnations.  I don’t pretend to understand it –what it’s doing, what it aims to do, what it means–but then again I’m a bit overpowered by the intensity of it, and I say that in the spirit of having my senses filled to overflowing.

The performance today in this little space with an audience of roughly sixty was very special, with possibilities for intimate communication that can’t happen in the bigger space with the larger forces, although the trade-off of the chamber approach is in sacrificing the possibilities for the wallop of big climaxes from a full orchestra & chorus.  I can’t help wondering how it will work with the TSO, a forty-member chorus, conducted by Bernard Labadie and in Roy Thomson Hall, which seats roughly 2,000.

That will be yet another experiment.

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Louise in Concert

Concert performances of opera can be a wonderful alternative considering the expense of fully staged productions. Works that would otherwise rarely see the light of day –such as Rossini’s William Tell (hard to sing) or Benjamin’s Written on Skin (recently  composed) —are more likely to be produced in this slightly reduced way. The format usually represents a trade-off, as some aspects of the ideal version are compromised. Without set, costumes or much in the way of spectacle, the focus shifts to the musical side of the equation. For those who are leery of directorial interventions it’s a good thing, allowing one to be certain that the singing will be foregrounded.

The Toronto company Opera In Concert have been offering rarities for over 40 years. Last year for example, they produced Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, Verdi’s Stiffelio and Britten’s Gloriana. This afternoon I heard their production of Charpentier’s Louise.  Although the cast is one of the biggest ever seen in an Opera in Concert show, with roughly twenty different solo parts (there’s one reason it’s a rarity), at its core the plot is a kind of love triangle, between Louise’s overprotective father and her lover Julien. The scenes involving the four key characters (Father, Mother, Louise and Julien) were the most successful, but that’s not surprising. Concert performances may have an ambitious artist or two as their raison d‘être, whether in a singer trying out a role or perhaps even taking their first tentative steps with a new vocal type. With an opera such as Louise it’s an especially precious opportunity, given that

  • a singer learning a role usually hopes that the effort in preparing the role is rewarded with future chances to sing the role; that can’t happen if the role is a rarity such as Louise
  • because it’s a single performance chances are the singers can really give their all, because they don’t have to save themselves the way they do in a longer run
  • and of course, there’s the rarity (the opera) itself

Peter Tiefenbach made an excellent case for Charpentier’s score from his piano. Any Opera in Concert music-director is conflicted between his support of the singers & his need to make his own musical statement. Tiefenbach’s playing was beautiful throughout, keeping a good pace throughout in a reading that was very tight, especially in the crowd scenes.

Soprano Leslie Ann Bradley (photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco )

Soprano Leslie Ann Bradley (photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco )

Unlikely as it may be, I hope Leslie Ann Bradley gets a chance to play the part of Louise again. It’s a role that’s usually a vehicle for a star such as Renée Fleming, given that a production would be built around a diva who could fill seats.  Yet the way Fleming sings the big aria “depuis le jour” on her CD –not so different from the way Maria Callas sings it—suggests that this opera is ruined by being handed to stars, particularly considering that Louise is supposed to be young, her aria a celebration of the first days of a first love. When Fleming sings “je suis heureuse” it’s precious and phony, given that the moment calls for a sense of sensual abandon. Bradley? She sang the aria at a quicker pace than Fleming, reflecting both passion and youth. Her diction throughout –not just in the aria but at every moment—was crisp and clear. Her command of the role was so secure that one could simply get lost in her performance, the most accomplished singing I’ve heard at an Opera in Concert performance in a very long time.

Dion Mazerolle and Michèle Bogdanowicz were Louise’s Father and Mother. We watch the characters change over the course of the opera, the Father becoming more unhappy, objecting to his daughter’s new love, while the Mother in some respects seems to moderate, becoming the mediator between Father and daughter. Bogdanowicz sounded great, in a very understated reading, while Mazerolle showed off his wonderful top notes in his dramatic scenes after the interval. Julien was assumed by Keith Klassen, the third person announced in a role after two other tenors worked on it. It seems to be a very challenging role and seems to lie quite high, so I’m grateful to Klassen for giving us a demonstration of Charpentier’s writing; we couldn’t expect the same exquisite chemistry with Klassen as between the other three, considering how recently he undertook the role.

Opera in Concert return in November with Borodin’s Prince Igor.

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Slattery & La Nef bring “Dowland in Dublin” to Toronto

The concept was discovered almost by accident. At a Christmas Party a few years ago, members of La Nef attempted to play the music of John Dowland as though he were Irish. It turns out that there’s evidence that Dowland may have been an Irishman, and that the experiment could have been the authentic sound of the composer.

click for information about the CD

That’s the basis for the 2012 CD “Dowland in Dublin”, a series of songs.  Some are instrumentals, some are sung by Michael Slattery in collaboration with La Nef, arrangements by Seán Dagher, Sylvain Bergeron and Slattery. I was thrilled when I heard that the Toronto Consort were bringing “Dowland in Dublin” –meaning La Nef & Slattery in concert –to Toronto: tonight at the Trinity St Paul’s Centre.

The numbers alternate between instrumentals and vocals, between syncopated dance tunes and more introspective songs such as “His Golden Locks”, a meditation upon our mortality where Slatter accompanies himself on a shruti box (an Indian instrument that by a curious coincidence makes sounds resembling a bagpipe, and therefore seems apt).

The song (which you can see and hear Slattery perform in this video, but minus La Nef) concludes with these lines:

Beauty, strength, youth are flowers but fading seen;
Duty, faith, love are roots and ever green.

Lovely as the CD is, the live performance is a huge thrill, as we can see them improvise, and we recognize that the music will be a bit different when they offer this concert on Saturday night. Sylvain Bergeron’s lute playing is sometimes whisper soft, sometimes a bigger sound, but always seeming to emerge as fresh as the expressions on Bergeron’s face. Seán Dagher on the cittern underpins everything, both with the steady throb of his playing, or with the stomp of his feet, his strumming attack resembling the percussion section. Alex Kehler plays violin –in a characteristic early-music style minus the vibrato—often lending a wonderfully celtic sound to the melodies, as does Amanda Keesmaat from her cello. And Grégoire Jeay on flute or recorder had the ability to put a smile on every face in the hall, especially in the triptych of Kemp’s Jig /Mistress Winter’s Jump / My Lady Hunsdon’s Puffe.

I’ve never heard anyone make this music sound so fresh, so alive. At one moment –during “Say Love if Ever Thou Didst Find”—I swear I thought I was listening to Led Zeppelin, given that we were in exactly the same key (a minor) as “Stairway to Heaven” with similar sonorities in play, while Jeay played his recorder alongside Bergeron’s Lute.   That back and forth between A minor and D roughly 45 seconds in reminds me of Zeppelin.  Now that may sound odd to mention, but although we were in Toronto’s temple of early music –the home to both Tafelmusik & the Toronto Consort, complete with a welcome introduction at the beginning from David Fallis–the concert’s mood was altogether different.  We could have been in a pub given the absence of pretentiousness in the music-making.  Accomplished as the players were, this was a very relaxed affair.

The majority of the songs concern love. Slattery is in the moment throughout, La Nef seeming to invest each song with the impression of having invented their response on the spot, played perfectly but always seeming freshly conceived, with an electricity in the eye contact between each of them. The live performance is better than the CD, different every time.

We would have closed with “Now, O Now I Needs Must Part”—did Dowland ever use it to close his gigs I wonder?—were it not for their generous response to our applause, namely the encore “Come Again”. Slattery opens slow & soft in the first verse alone with his shruti box, joined by the ensemble for faster subsequent verses. It’s a microcosm of the concert, from the soft beginning to Bergeron’s concluding strum on his lute.

Slattery & La Nef are on to their next project which hopefully will bear fruit soon. In the meantime there’s another chance to hear “Dowland in Dublin” Saturday night here in Toronto.  I suppose i am a bit hesitant because i’ve written so much already about Slattery & La Nef, but i have to say that this was a wonderful concert, that the playing is hypnotic, beautiful, and the singing as lovely as anything i’ve ever heard.

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Michael Slattery’s voices

I’ve been listening to Dowland in Dublin, Michael Slattery’s collaboration with La Nef, for a few years now.  I was lucky that someone brought it to my attention.  Since that time it’s been a regular feature on the CD player in my car.

While playing it for a friend the other day, there was a wonderful moment of recognition.

I had been trying to put my finger on the quality in Slattery’s voice, as he sings ”Come Again”.    

Come again! sweet love doth now invite
Thy graces that refrain
To do me due delight,
To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die,
With thee again in sweetest sympathy.

The youtube clip–unlike the CD– is a live performance, please note. Slattery makes lovely sounds, using his voice in the usual ways throughout.

But Slattery sounds different on the CD Dowland in Dublin.  At first listen it might sound like a bad thing..!? It’s unconventional and daring.  I was observing that as Slattery sang the phrase “to die” he sounds totally vulnerable, reminding us of the two meanings of the word “die”: both mortality and consummation.  He sounds as though he is dying in every sense, abandoning himself to the note not like an opera singer but sounding for all the world, like a boy, like a vulnerable human, unmanned by his orgasmic passion.  It’s wonderfully expressive.

Vocal pedagogue Carol Baggott-Forte

In fact the sound –the one on the recording that is– is falsetto.  My friend pointed this out, invoking our mutual vocal authority, Carol Baggott-Forte.   When you’re learning with Carol she uses the techniques of Cornelius Reid, who wrote –among other books—The Free Voice.  There’s a falsetto sound you’re encouraged to make, isolating one of the two registers.  It’s not a sophisticated sound, oh no. In fact it’s a sound unlike that of professional singers, a very strange sound for a singer.  This is not the sound in the youtube clip –where he’s singing full voice, in a live performance—but on the CD, we get a different sound.   Slattery has the nerve to use this odd sound, a wonderfully brave & expressive approach at the perfect time.

Slattery is a very skilful performer, employing several different sounds, combining his registers cleverly.  I’m looking forward to hearing him live for the first time Friday at the first of two concerts by Slattery & La Nef with the Toronto Consort at Trinity St Paul’s Centre.

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Escher & Farmer at National Gallery

Gallery attractions are sometimes from a permanent collection, sometimes brought in from elsewhere.  When you visit the National Gallery in Ottawa next month you’ll be able to see the Alex Colville show that was seen in Toronto at the AGO last year.

But currently the attractions I found most impressive at the National Gallery actually come from their permanent collection.  They own such a large number of pieces by MC Escher—the third largest collection of his work in the world—that they were able to assemble a big show from among those pieces. Escher is the draw right now, being a famous artist with a big sign on the outside of the gallery. As your typical baby-boomer, I believe I’ve been staring at Escher for most of my life. It’s a thrill to see so many images that I’d once owned as reproductions on my wall in the dim & distant past. His craftsmanship is impressive, his eye frighteningly astute.

One of the odd correlations that likely doesn’t mean anything was to walk into a room with the following:

  • A brief essay on the wall talking about the influence on Escher of a visit to the Alhambra Palace, where the Islamic tiles were organized in repeating geometric patterns. The word that came to mind was “arabesque” even if this wasn’t precisely what we saw.
  • But then we saw “Sky and Water I”, which indeed suggests arabesques.
  • And then we come to a picture called “The Drowned Cathedral”.  If you look closely you see that the bells in the cathedral are moving.
M.C. Escher: The Drowned Cathedral, January 1929 woodcut on laid japan paper, 79.2 x 48.3 cm;  image: 72 x 41.6 cm Gift of George Escher, Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, 1985 National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa M.C. Escher’s “The Drowned Cathedral” © 2014 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands. All rights reserved. www.mcescher.com

M.C. Escher: The Drowned Cathedral, January 1929
woodcut on laid japan paper, 79.2 x 48.3 cm;
image: 72 x 41.6 cm
Gift of George Escher, Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, 1985
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
M.C. Escher’s “The Drowned Cathedral”
© 2014 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands. All rights reserved. http://www.mcescher.com

I might be the only person making this correlation: that Claude Debussy not only wrote a pair of pieces titled “Arabesque” (#1 and #2 that is), but spoke of the arabesque patterns in musical scores of others (for instance JS Bach). And of course he would then write a piece of music called “The Drowned Cathedral”, aka “Le Cathedral Engloutie”.  Presumably Escher and Debussy were familiar with the same legend.

Maybe it’s just a fluke, a coincidence of no real significance. But there are books written about Debussy and design. Roy Howat’s Debussy in Proportion presents the hypothesis that Debussy’s music is organized on the page according to strict principles of proportionality: not unlike what Escher did.

The page of the score is beautiful, no? Compositions can look good on the page, but perhaps none more so than Debussy’s.

I have no revelations to add, only that it is interesting to see that coincidence, between the arabesque perfection of Escher & Debussy, AND that they both created works celebrating the legend of the drowned cathedral.  Debussy was a symbolist, and maybe Escher too responded to symbolist influences, considering the philosophical implications of his works (a whole other matter worthy of detailed investigation). Escher being the later artist (Debussy dying in 1917, Escher in 1972) maybe it’s as simple as a matter of influence. Perhaps the artist was influenced by the composer..?  But more likely, they were a pair of artists influenced by a cultural current.

Famous as Escher may be, I was surprised to find something unexpected and powerful lurking around a corner in the gallery. You walk into the room where Geoffrey Farmer’s 2012 work “Leaves of Grass” is assembled, and you will be amazed. I was reminded of the first couple of times I saw that sequence in Gone With the Wind when Scarlett goes looking for the doctor at the Atlanta train station, and the camera pulls out upon an immense scene of casualties lying, waiting for someone.
No I don’t mean that Farmer’s piece is tragic or sad. But –as in the film—you don’t immediately understand the scale of what you’re looking at. Hugeness is sometimes incomprehensible.

As it began to dawn on me that I was looking at something immense, I struggled to quantify it. We’re looking at a two sided installation of many photos mounted on bamboo. The notes on the wall say over 16,000 photos from over 900 magazines. I quickly paced a small part of the floor –as the piece sits on a table that’s in regular segments—and concluded that the piece sits on a table that has 31 segments, each roughly four feet in length. So in other words we’re in the presence of a piece of art that’s 120 feet long, on two sides of this large assembly. The picture included can only suggest some of that process, where we are confronted with so many images and such a sense of immensity.  The best way to really grasp this –including the disorienting struggle that likely begins your orientation to the work– is to experience it in person.  More than any art work I’ve seen recently it requires the human experience of the piece, as this cumulative effect can’t be understood in any virtual reproduction such as a book.

Geoffrey Farmer: Leaves of Grass, 2012 installation view, 2014-2015 at the National Gallery of Canada Courtesy of the artist, Catriona Jeffries Gallery, Vancouver and Casey Kaplan, New York Photo © NGC

Geoffrey Farmer: Leaves of Grass, 2012
installation view, 2014-2015 at the National Gallery of Canada
Courtesy of the artist, Catriona Jeffries Gallery,
Vancouver and Casey Kaplan, New York
Photo © NGC

You walk along this two-sided wall, picking out images that are recognizable alongside those that are not. We’re told it’s an assembly of the period between 1935 and 1985 in chronological order. At the bottom, the images are smaller, while at the top, they’re bigger. We’re looking at people and objects. There are a great many cameras on display, typewriters, cars, and other products, presumably from the ads in the magazine. We see the iconic people of that time –movie-stars and singers and politicians—and the products sold to pay for the magazines. There’s so much there, that one can’t possibly grasp it all in one visit. It’s epic, truly massive in the same way as that scene in Gone With the Wind, but much more ambiguous and variegated.

Purchased by the gallery, “Leaves of Grass” is part of the permanent collection and hopefully will stay on display. I will revisit the piece next time I am there.  I urge you to check it out too.

And in passing, i couldn’t help noticing how much the National Gallery’s architecture is itself like a reminder of Escher–almost a meditation upon geometric design– making the building a wonderfully suggestive home for his work.

The National Gallery designed by Moshe Safdie

The National Gallery designed by Moshe Safdie

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Opera Lyra’s Marriage of Figaro

Kevin Mallon, Interim Artistic Director & Conductor with Opera Lyra

As the climax of their thirtieth season Opera Lyra present Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, beginning with tonight’s opening performance.  This is an opera company that has come back from the brink, bouncing back from financial difficulty with a series of smart productions.  Kevin Mallon is the Interim Artistic Director as well as the conductor.

I had to go to Ottawa to see & hear for myself, hopeful that the company was rising again under Mallon’s clever influence, and yes, enticed by the casting, which was almost 100% Canadian.

I have to quote James Westman from a recent interview:

We have a massive tradition of opera in Canada. It stems from the profound tutelage of the University of Toronto Opera School that was created from talented Italian opera ‘refugees’ after WW2.  Most people do not realize that Canada produces more professional opera singers per capita than any other country in the word. Canadian singers have been representing Canada with excellence for many years.

For example, this afternoon’s Met broadcast of Manon featured three Canadians (Russell Braun, Robert Pomakov and Mireille Asselin).  Our talent goes all over the world, so why not in Ottawa?

As you may have read in some of the other pieces I’ve posted recently in anticipation of my trip to Ottawa (such as interviews with Westman and John Brancy as well as a piece showing photos of the cast), the design concept of the production set Mozart’s opera in the period of Downton Abbey, aka Edwardian England.  And so for instance when Dr Bartolo will usually sing his aria “la vendetta”, including the lines “all Seville knows me, I’m Doctor Bartolo”, in this version that becomes “all England knows me, I’m Doctor Bartolo”.  Or when Cherubino is given a commission by the Count to join his regiment, the uniform is from that time.

I can give you several reasons why you should see it, starting with the simple fact that it’s a good production.  Director Tom Diamond grounds the action in real motivations, making the interactions sometimes very serious and intense, even if there’s lots of fun to be had.  A few moments might illustrate why it’s so special, from a cast that’s strong from top to bottom.

I was caught by surprise watching the moment in a sextet in the third act when Susanna is told that Marcellina is Figaro’s mother, and Bartolo his father.   I’ve seen this so many times I didn’t think I could be surprised, especially in a production that’s ostensibly faithful to the text.  Sasha Djihanian in her role debut as Susanna did something quite different from what one usually sees.  Marcellina (Lynne McMurtry) wants to embrace Susanna as her mother (having just realized the family relationship with Figaro, Susanna’s intended), leading to an exchange that can get quite silly, as Susanna says “sua madre?” (or “his mother”), Bartolo, the Count, Don Curzio and Marcellina reply “sua madre” then she asks Figaro “sua madre?” to which he replies “E quello è mio padre che a te lo dirà.” (or “and this is my father he’ll tell you himself”).  The back and forth is already mechanically challenging, so that it can (and often does) become quite wooden in some productions.  What I saw this time that was so different was that Djihanian sustained the puzzlement for the entire exchange, while the questions shot back and forth, showing much more truthfulness in this exchange than I’ve ever seen, while building simple suspense, making the resolution of the ensemble into a moment of great pathos and vulnerability.

Djihanian, who’s just finished her run as Zerlina in the Tcherniakov Don Giovanni in Toronto, was taking on this role for the first time, with a beautifully expressive face and natural unaffected delivery, completely believable as the figure at the centre of the story.

Her Figaro was John Brancy, a warm baritone whose friendly manner keeps the story light & funny, without too much emphasis on class struggle.  Similarly, James Westman’s Count, while an imposing physical presence (my wife said he reminded her of “Big” from the TV show Sex and the City) with a wonderful voice also chose to emphasize the comical side of the story.  Westman’s reading interpolated a great number of high notes into his da capo verses, apparently drawing on suggestions from authentic sources suggested by conductor Mallon.     His Countess was Nathalie Paulin, who balanced the light-hearted elements of the show with depth in her arias lamenting the passing of love in her relationship.

The other key role in the opera is Wallis Giunta’s Cherubino.  We’d already seen her remarkable trouser performance in La Clemenza di Tito of a few years ago when she channelled Michael Cera.  This was entirely different, sung with great authority & confidence, while played with a physical flamboyance that made her every appearance an occasion for laughs, the one you couldn’t help watching.

But there were several more excellent portrayals.  Peter McGillivray was his usual talented self, singing perfectly as Bartolo while having several sparkling comic moments. Lynne McMurtry, whom I already mentioned, was a three-dimensional Marcellina, including the rarely performed Act IV aria.  Johane Ansell made more of the small role of Barbarina than anyone I’ve ever seen, including a compelling reading of the aria that opens Act IV.  Aaron Ferguson made the most of his two roles as Basilio and Don Curzio.  And Sean Watson was a surprisingly strong Antonio.

Mallon’s reading was energetic for the most part, bringing the opera home in a very respectable three hours with an intermission, his cast decorating their parts with many attractive interpolations.  The National Arts Centre Orchestra are a wonderful ensemble who sounded superb in this space. Diamond’s Figaro is completely straight-forward and without any directorial overlays, and totally intelligible while avoiding cheap laughs, always grounded in the feelings of the story.

Opera Lyra’s Le nozze di Figaro runs until March 28th.


As a postscript there was a joyful announcement at the post-opening reception that drew a huge scream of joy from all present when it was announced that John Brancy (Figaro) and Wallis Giunta (Cherubino) are now engaged to be married.  Mazel Tov!

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St John Passion: Charles Daniels evangelizing

Everything about the presentation of Bach’s St John Passion by Tafelmusik Baroque Choir & orchestra at Trinity St Paul’s Centre seemed fitting.

You are in a church. The space has been somewhat converted for the use of the offspring of this congregation such as the Toronto Consort (whose artistic director David Fallis is or was a member of the congregation) and Tafelmusik (whose bass player & concert conceptualizer Alison MacKay –Fallis’ partner– also has connections to the church), yet is still very much a church. The colossal pipes confront you as you enter, the hymn numbers still posted. Even when the place is full as it was tonight, it’s never secular.

The approach is meant to take us back to 1749, using a version from late in Bach’s life. In Bach’s time the soloists would also sing the choruses: and so they (soprano Julia Doyle, countertenor Daniel Taylor, tenor Charles Daniels and baritone Peter Harvey) did just that, placed upstage of the tiny orchestra (sixteen players), but just in front of the small chorus (twenty-two voices). Ivars Taurins conducted the choruses with his usual exuberant plastic eloquence, but allowed arias to proceed more or less via the dramatic exchange of glances rather than his intervention.

For something taking two and a half hours, with a brief intermission, it flew by, taut and urgent from beginning to end. For anyone who thinks they know this piece, I urge you to attend if at all possible (continuing until Sunday March 22), as this is not the work I thought I knew. I coached a tenor long ago –indeed he was a COC ensemble member—in the role of the Evangelist, who has a very large part. It’s brand new to me in this account, particularly because of the elegance of Charles Daniels’ subtle reading of that crucial role.

Tenor Charles Daniels (click for the Charles Daniels Society.  I share their enthusiasm!)

Two of his arias are especially challenging. “Ach, mein Sinn” requires a phenomenal command of the words, a delicacy of delivery, flexibility, a willingness to trip lightly over some notes while agonizingly declaiming others. Daniels sang it very lightly, very easily, a work of great drama precisely because he wasn’t over-working the voice or over-dramatizing. I was very much in awe. The second aria was more of the same even if it’s not quite as daunting, namely “Mein Jesu, ach!”, another subtle combination of emotions in one brief little package. Daniels’ performance alone is reason to go see this wonderful work. Don’t mistake me, while the other soloists were also good, their parts combined are roughly as long as the part of the Evangelist. AND Daniels also sang the choruses. Peter Harvey was a warm sounding baritone, particularly as Jesus, while Julia Doyle’s soprano and Daniel Taylor, countertenor, each had wonderful solos.

Tafelmusik chorus & orchestra are among the greatest treasures of this city, especially on the nights when Taurins is conducting: a musician of great commitment & integrity. This is a performance that does not dishonour the church nor the Christian origins of the story by being overly operatic or performative, entirely suitable for your Lenten meditations.

Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, directed by Ivars Taurins (left foreground). Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

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