Addio Butterfly

I saw the “A” cast of the Canadian Opera Company’s Madama Butterfly tonight. There are two singers undertaking Mrs Butterfly (or she might tell you “Mrs Pinkerton” if you were to ask her) in the cast, a pair of BF Pinkertons and a pair of Sharplesses as well. In three weeks since October 10th a dozen shows (including tomorrow’s) will have gone off, six from each cast. Tonight’s will be followed by the last showing from the Kaduce / Secco / Dahl trio tomorrow. Falstaff and Opera Atelier’s Alcina also close Saturday November 1st, ending a spectacular few weeks.

In the lobby we talked about the topic everyone’s talking about, Jian Ghomeshi and “consent”. Ugly stories fascinate and bemuse us, which is not so different from Alcina (a fantasy of women holding men against their will) or Butterfly (a story of a very young woman giving consent, believing the lies of an older man from far away). The recipe could be “pour nasty story into heart, add music and stir”: stir the heart that is.

The chemistry in that “A” cast, comprised of slightly more famous singers, is somewhat different than in the other cast whom I reviewed back on Oct 11th.
Patricia Racette is a very strong Butterfly, with clear ideas of all the important parts of this huge difficult role. She is decisive in her big arias and moves brilliantly with the orchestra at all the climactic moments.  For a sucker like me, it’s time to turn on the waterworks, and i’m grateful.

Dwayne Croft is everything I want to see in Sharpless. He’s strong in the lower register but soars effortlessly when necessary. Where Pinkerton is the ugly American, Croft embodies all the decency of middle-America, a face that’s so wonderfully reactive I was watching him as much as I was watching Butterfly. He was an avatar of goodness counter-balancing a story of evil, both with his smooth baritone and his tormented body-language.

Elizabeth DeShong was again fabulous to listen to and to watch as Suzuki, and as the only principal required to sing all twelve performances, was the rock both of the Butterflies leaned on, which couldn’t have been easy considering some of the divergences between the two stars. I suppose it helps that she loves what she’s doing. Both DeShong & Croft wore their hearts shamelessly on their sleeves, which is not a bad thing in such a heart-wrenching work.

I’m going to say something controversial now.  We’ve all been staring at a picture of singers from an earlier run of Brian Macdonald’s production, a fabulous photo that’s been central to publicity for the COC for this production.  It’s a reminder to me.

Madama Butterfly, Canadian Opera Company October 2009 with Adina Nitescu and David Pomeroy (photo: Michael Cooper)

I saw David Pomeroy sing Pinkerton a few years ago and he was good. I saw Andrea Carè Oct 11th and he was fairly good too, although I think Pomeroy was better. But tonight? While there might be a virus to blame, I was struck by a couple of truths.
1) Some tenor roles are a perfect fit for the special personality of the tenor. Canio in Pagliacci, The Duke in Rigoletto, Don José in Carmen, and especially our friend Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton are jerks, people who are very hard to like, people who put me in mind –again—of the whole Ghomeshi discussion. (and for someone like me who’s a nice guy, makes me wonder: if I were more of a prick would my life have turned out differently? Nice guys really do seem to finish last). And so one can get away with a lot. If the tenor stands there, self-absorbed, unwilling to act, and sings a few high notes, he’s forgiven. It may be a pathetic waste of space, a drain of the energy of the production, but so what? He’s a tenor (and I can say this because I too am such a self-absorbed monster), and so we don’t expect much humanity.
2) This is the really controversial thought, partly inspired by thoughts I had at the Talisker Players concert Tuesday, listening to Virginia Hatfield. The COC uses the Ensemble studio as a training ground and I suppose that’s not a bad thing. But then singers are more or less shown the door. If Pomeroy –a Canadian—can sing the role well, why are we suffering a mediocre non-Canadian tonight? There seems to be a curious phenomenon at the COC right now. The Canadians who are being cast are amazing, and I mean seriously astonishingly amazing. Gerald Finley, Russell Braun, Adrienne Pieczonka, Jane Archibald, Michael Schade, and (in his two awesome appearances before retirement) Ben Heppner aren’t just competent. These performances we’ve seen in Toronto (Archibald’s Zerbinetta and Semele, Pieczonka’s Ariadne & Emilia, Finley’s Falstaff, Braun’s ongoing parade of lyrical loveliness, Heppner’s Tristan & Peter Grimes, Schade’s Tito) are arguably the best in the world right now. Some of the Americans are magnificent (Kaduce, Croft, Racette), but by and large there are Canadians available who should be getting experience singing roles that often go to mediocre imports. If the imports are as wonderful as Kaduce or Croft or Racette? Great. Let’s set aside the brilliant singers who obviously earn their place. I’m talking about many of the other parts. Given the choice between a mediocre Canadian and a mediocre foreigner, I think there’s an obligation to cast a Canadian, whether or not that person is from the Ensemble Studio or not.  Maybe i’m overdue saying this, because Alexander Neef is doing a better job in this regard than Mansouri or Bradshaw, two Artistic Directors who regularly brought in mediocre foreigners.  Maybe i’ve been emboldened by what i am seeing, such as the amazing all-Canadian Falstaff that closes Saturday, or the gradual raising of the bar of virtuosity across town at Opera Atelier, in a mostly Canadian cast conducted, directed & choreographed by Canadians.

Okay end of tirade. I hope people will not complain about Brian Macdonald’s production. It’s really quite good so long as the stage is peopled by adequate talent, as it has been for the past three weeks. Both casts are very good, although one moved me more.

And anchoring it all was a stunning reading from Patrick Lange leading the COC orchestra.

Halloween night is the last time they’ll put on that particular set of costumes for awhile at least.

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COC: back to BAM in March 2015

COC MAKES RETURN VISIT THIS SPRING TO PRESTIGIOUS
BROOKLYN ACADEMY OF MUSIC WITH SEMELE

Toronto – The Canadian Opera Company is proud to be invited to present the U.S. premiere of Zhang Huan’s theatrically transcendent production of Handel’s Semele at the world-renowned Brooklyn Academy of Music in March 2015. The COC’s presentation of Semele at BAM is directed by Zhang with distinguished British conductor and Baroque opera expert Christopher Moulds leading the critically acclaimed COC Orchestra and COC Chorus.

Semele is scheduled at the Howard Gilman Opera House (30 Lafayette Ave., Brooklyn, NY) for four performances only – March 4, 6, 8 and 10, 2015.
“We’re very proud to be invited to bring this production of Semele to BAM. It represented new territory for the company on multiple levels: the opera had never before been performed by the COC, and the production itself asked us to push the artistic boundaries of the art form and show its infinite possibilities,” says COC General Director Alexander Neef. “It’s an honour to be asked to present this work on the global stage that BAM
represents, especially when it comes so soon after our last visit in 2011 with our production of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables.”

The COC’s 2015 tour to BAM marks the opera company’s third visit to the illustrious multi-arts centre that, for more than 150 years, has been a home for adventurous artists, audiences and ideas – engaging both global and local communities. The COC’s prior invitations to BAM were also to perform two equally ground-breaking productions:
in 2011 with The Nightingale and Other Short Fables and, in 1993, with a double bill of Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung, both directed by Canadian visionary Robert Lepage.
This production of Semele offers up a provocatively playful staging directed by famed Chinese visual and performance artist Zhang Huan. His daring East-meets-West production blends the Greek myth of Semele with the contemporary true story of an ill-fated Chinese love triangle – all set within the walls of an actual 450-year-old
Ming Dynasty temple, which weighs 17 tons and is transformed into an altar, a palace, a crematory, and heaven.  With appearances by debaucherous Buddhist monks, a giant inflatable puppet and an overtly aroused donkey, Zhang layers cultural taboos and ribald humour with classical compositions, creating a bold and contemporary fable.
The story, of what is Handel’s most sensuous opera, focuses on Semele, a princess and mistress of the god Jupiter, who wishes her lover to grant her immortality. Semele’s ambition and vanity, however, ultimately lead to her undoing.
Internationally renowned Canadian singer Jane Archibald reprises the role of Semele, which she sang with the COC in 2012, for this production’s U.S. premiere. Both abroad and at home, Archibald has dazzled audiences and critics alike with her vocal dexterity and dramatic presence. Her 2012 performance was met with overwhelming
praise. The Globe and Mail described her as “possibly the best coloratura soprano of her generation” and the Toronto Star proclaimed “Jane Archibald is alone worth the price of a ticket. She is spectacular in the title role.”
Archibald leads an esteemed cast of new and familiar faces to the COC. Canadian tenor Colin Ainsworth is the god Jupiter, and Welsh contralto Hilary Summers makes her COC debut portraying both Jupiter’s jealous wife, Juno, and Ino, Semele’s sister. Canadian soprano Katherine Whyte returns to reprise the role of Juno’s messenger,
Iris. American bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen portrays Semele’s father, Cadmus, and the god of sleep, Somnus. American countertenor Lawrence Zazzo is Semele’s jilted suitor, Athamas.

Han Feng, sought-after for her fashion as well as costume and exhibition designs, plays with Zhang’s concept to create a fusion of Chinese theatre and European Baroque in the costumes enhanced by the magical lighting design originally conceived by Wolfgang Göbbel, and recreated by Willem Laarman.

Christopher Moulds makes his COC debut conducting Handel’s Baroque masterpiece. An experienced and versatile conductor, Moulds is considered an expert in classical and Baroque operas and appears with the premier houses and orchestras of Europe.
This production of Semele had its North American premiere with the COC in spring 2012. It was the first opportunity for audiences to experience Zhang’s production outside Brussels, Belgium, where it premiered in 2009, and Beijing, where in 2010 it was China’s first major staging of a Baroque opera.
TICKET INFORMATION
Single tickets for Semele and BAM’s 2015 Winter/Spring season engagements go on sale December 8, 2014 (December 1, 2014 for Friends of BAM). To purchase tickets online visit BAM.org or contact BAM Ticket Services at 718-636-4100.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
The tour of Semele is made possible, in part, by the Ontario Arts Council.
The COC’s Semele is a co-production of Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels and KT Wong Foundation.

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Talisker Players: Songs of Travel

My own song of travel is not a purposeful one, but a bit of a spontaneous adventure. I hope I can be forgiven for meandering around this theme of wanderings.

As of 6:00 p.m. I thought I was going to a CD launch in the suburbs. I had just been to a play rehearsal, a passionate display of talent from the students, emerging into the traffic chaos that is Toronto in 2014. While this can be a good thing –such as trips to and from the downtown sufficiently long to permit me to hear the entire Diabelli Variations in Stewart Goodyear’s new recording—it’s a daunting prospect if you’re getting onto the Don Valley late in rush-hour. And trips are never quite so enjoyable when you’re fighting a migraine (dogging my every move for the past 24+ hours, whether I go north south east or west). No I didn’t want to go to the launch, nor did I really want to drive home.

I was flummoxed because I just wanted to curl up in a ball.

And then I remembered that Talisker Players’ first concert was also happening tonight, just a few short blocks away from my office. The venue is such a friendly place, at Trinity St. Paul’s Centre, that  I thought I’d be fine: and indeed my headache was gone, at least until I ventured outside afterwards. If I don’t sound sympathetic or cranky in what I write I beg your indulgence, because of the throbbing in my forehead.

Lo and behold, the program is called “Songs of Travel”, a series of songs & meditations upon the theme. Talisker Players have a kind of formula that I have surely disrespected in previous reviews. They combine songs around a theme with poetry and/or prose spoken by a skilled actor or orator, whose speaking serves as connective tissue for the musical offerings. For the actor serving up this cartilage it must be challenging enough, knowing that you’re competing with –for example tonight—Virginia Hatfield & Geoffrey Sirett, without the additional insult of someone like me, who has barely acknowledged their contribution in past concerts. Today I was especially aware that I wasn’t really listening, because I was relying upon the music as a kind of creative aspirin. Derek Boyes was the actor/reader, who hopefully didn’t notice the guy way in the back row, who wasn’t being especially attentive as we started (..but at least I kept quiet).

I’m very fond of Talisker’s multi-disciplinary approach, peeling distinct layers off of their topic. Tonight was no exception. Among the glories of the program was the observation –not remarked upon by the programmers but manifest in the notes—that roughly half of the composers on the bill were women. That’s already a trip, no?

In the course of the program we were presented with more than two voices: because the widely divergent rep pushed the singers to use different sounds. And so while there were two singers present, we heard at least four voices (as I shall explain in due course).

Le Sommeil d’Ulisse is one of a series of Cantates françoises from composer & librettist Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Ulisse being one of the greatest voyagers of all time.

Soprano Virginia Hatfield

Virginia Hatfield was indeed the reason I wandered to this concert instead of the other one. Hers is a flexible instrument of great accuracy, one I’ve heard as a soprano soloist in Messiah, as Marzelline (Fidelio) and long ago at U of T in the title role of Alcina (an interpretation that compares favourably with the professional voices I heard at Opera Atelier just this week). As we approach the next COC event to choose members in their Ensemble Studio, I can’t help mourning the voices who wander away. Hatfield is a former Ensemble Studio voice who would be welcome in almost any production. And from the first note, Hatfield didn’t disappoint, her warm tone easily filling the space, her smile reaching the back of this church where I sat like Quasimodo, curled around my pain.

I started to feel a lot better, seduced by this lovely composition that I’d never encountered before.

The next item was also from a female composer, namely excerpts from Vally Weigl’s “Songs of Love and Leaving”, sung by Geoffrey Sirett. This congenial set –also settling me into the warm space—was lovely. I stopped scowling and opened my eyes.

The following piece on the program was one that had my back up for a bit, a brave bit of programming that for me was one of the highlights of the night, once I got over being a resistant old fart about it. Hm, maybe I should let you read what I say as you may think I am still being a resistant old fart.

Here we are again, encountering Canadian culture. It’s different somehow lately. Has Canada crossed an important threshold of self-worth? Lately I see less and less of the apologetics that used to be our primal response. I saw the Colville show presented between shows of, first Bacon & Moore, then Michaelangelo & Rodin. I’m sure Colville’s own eyes would bug out, observing what heady company he’s in. And I made a comparable observation at Esprit Orchestra’s concert, juxtaposing Adès & Ives with Paul Frehner and Chris Paul Harman.

It’s the same with the Canadians on this program, who were my favourites: Lightfoot, Mitchell, Tyson and Applebaum.

First came a trio of popular songs. In case you didn’t recognize those surnames, I’m speaking of Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and Ian & Sylvia Tyson, whose songs were arranged by Talisker cellist Laura Jones for two voices, oboe and string trio.

The songs? “Early Morning Rain”, “Blue Motel Room” and “Four Strong Winds”, the latter song giving the cycle its name. Of the three, I felt the Joni Mitchell song in the middle, the jazziest of the three, fared best at Jones’ hands, although it also served as a wonderful showcase for a completely different kind of singing from Hatfield. The singing in the other two was splendid –Sirrett & Hatfield—but less is more in this sort of thing. I found the accompaniments too busy, getting in the way of what we really want to hear, especially in the closing song: the singing voices (but it’s a matter of taste; you might like them!).  Both Sirrett & Hatfield were using totally different sounds in these songs.

After intermission we were in a completely different place thanks to Louis Applebaum. It’s funny, I met him on a train once long ago. There he was near me on the train to Stratford, with a score in his lap. I smiled at him, and because I recognized the famous face, asked the obvious question. “You’re Louis Applebaum” and he smiled. I apologized for bothering him but he said he wasn’t really busy and we chatted for awhile. I am remembering this other story of travel from a million years ago –in the 1980s—in appreciation of what I heard tonight. His score “Algoma Central” is totally wacky, in a good way. The piece has wordplay that reminds me of nothing so much as The Bald Soprano, Ionesco’s playful piece from the 1950s, except that it’s built out of Canadian place names. With that charming text, we’re then immersed in the sound world Applebaum creates with a harp & flute teasing out the sounds from the soprano, who at times echoes in the space as though in a train station. I wonder if the piece has ever sounded so beautiful. I felt it received a fair hearing, and respectful treatment even if in some respects it’s like a big game that Applebaum is playing with us.

Our travels concluded with Sirett and Ralph Vaughan Williams, namely the “Songs of Travel”. I think for many in the audience this was the highlight of the evening (and is the piece giving the name to our concert program after all), even if I had stronger loyalties to the journeys undertaken on Canadian soil.

Talisker Players and their Songs of Travel will be back Wednesday October 29th at the Trinity St. Paul’s Centre.

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10 Questions for Rachel Andrist

Canadian pianist Rachel Andrist studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music with Ann Epperson and Warren Jones. In 1997, she moved to Europe and joined the music staff of the Theatre Royale de la Monnaie in Brussels, Belgium. Since then she has been a regular guest at the Salzburg Festival, the Salzburg Easter Festival, and the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, and has also been on the staff of the Glyndebourne Festival, De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam, English National Opera, and Scottish Opera.

Andrist has worked extensively with conductors Sir Simon Rattle, Antonio Pappano, Ivor Bolton, Rene Jacobs, Valery Gergiev, Philippe Jordan, and Kazushi Ono. Since 2008 she has been the head coach for the Young Singers Project at the Salzburg Festival, the head of Musical Projects at the Royal Danish Opera Academy, and a guest at the Chicago Opera Theater. In the fall of 2010, Andrist returned to Canada to join the music staff at the Canadian Opera Company.

In November 2014 she begins the second season of Recitals at Rosedale.

I ask Andrist ten questions: five about herself and five more about her professional life as a collaborative pianist & leading Recitals at Rosedale.

Pianist Rachel Andrist

1) Are you more like your father or your mother?

This was difficult to answer so I polled my two wonderful sisters and my amazing brother. They decided I was the best and the worst of both of them.

2) What is the best thing or worst thing about being a collaborative pianist?

There are so many different facets to what I do and there are many good things and many difficult things at the same time. In any given day, I might play a staging rehearsal, a working session (audition) for Alexander Neef, I might coach either ensemble or mainstage singers, plus ( and very important ) do my own practicing. There are always things to translate or programmes to put together and I am also a voice coach at the Glenn Gould School. So, one of the things that I find challenging is changing my “hats” several times a day.

The best thing about my job for me, is when a singer says “I could not have done this without you”.

3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?

To be honest, I listen mostly to Fado and jazz. I also love country music….big fan of the Dixie Chicks. I consider “Takin the long way around” my theme song!

My Father was a jazz drummer and I inherited a lot of his love for Oscar Peterson, whom I did get to hear live once in Bruxelles, and most especially, Bill Evans.

4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

Well, I would like to have the skills of Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, but if that’s not possible, I wish I could dance really well. And play pool!

5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favorite thing to do?

I am a serious fan of three different sports teams, which right now shall remain nameless because none of them are based in Toronto:) So I can spend lots of time yelling at the TV. I swim several times a week and often get my best ideas for recitals and repertoire in the “medium” lane. I have loved books and have had my head buried in them since I was very young.

~~~~~~~

Five more about your roles as a collaborative pianist and as Artistic Director of Recitals at Rosedale

1) Recitals at Rosedale is dedicated to art song, employing some of the greatest singers in the country. Please talk about your objectives and what direction you would you like to go with the series .

Ileana Montalbetti (photo: Bo Huang)

Ileana Montalbetti (photo: Bo Huang)

Recitals at Rosedale was originally the idea of Samuel Tam, who was the music director at Rosedale Presbyterian Church at the time. He had organized a concert for Ileana Montalbetti and I to air some repertoire for a competition she was doing and we “borrowed” the church and invited people. One thing led to another, the church came into the project and now we are in our second season.

Last year, we explored themes that were a tribute to the church…..the Seven Virtues and Deadly Sins and we put together programmes of art song tied together by quotes. My personal favorite was the Love…Actually concert where we took the audience on a journey through the stages of grief. There is so much amazing song repertoire in this world and I love the fact that most opera singers are dying to sing this repertoire. So in the long term, of course we want the series to continue and we will keep programming emotional journeys for people to come along with us.

2) Please talk about your November 9th programme “A Walk on the Dark Side: Myths, Legends and Fairy Tales.”

Allyson Mchardy

Mezzo-soprano Allyson Mchardy

The November 9th programme came from a germ idea after Allyson McHardy and I worked together last year on the Virtues programme. She is such a treasure to collaborate with and at some point in a rehearsal, we looked at each other and said, “we have to do the Zemlinsky songs”. So this programme of fairy tales and myths and folklore was built around those pieces. I played them ages ago in Bruxelles on a programme of songs and words by Maurice Maeterlinck and was fortunate to have had Jose Van Dam for a coach and have always wanted to do them again.

Leslie Ann Bradley (photo:  Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)

Leslie Ann Bradley (photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)

I found some wonderful Szymanowski songs for Leslie Ann Bradley and Geoff Sirett is also featured in a mixed group of songs. We chose three settings of the famous Heine Lorelei ( Liszt, Clara Schumann and Gershwin) and we also have a group based on songs about the Moon. The wonderful pianist Robert Kortgaard is joining me and we are going to tie the groups together with movements of the Ravel Mother Goose Suite.

3) You are one of the busiest artists in town, between your work as collaborative pianist with the Canadian Opera Company, and as Artistic Director of Recitals at Rosedale, now in its second season. At the piano you make it look easy. Between the playing, the programming & the promotion, what’s the most enjoyable part of your work?

Well, everything is, as long as the balance is right. But I guess that can be said about life in general. One of my mentors ages ago said to me that it was important to be able to know when art was art and when it was business. I don’t consider myself a promoter at all but I guess the work I do for the series sort of makes me one, but I hesitate to use that word because I don’t think that part of things suits me.

4) You’re mentoring the very best young talents in this country. If you could talk to the singers who are younger, what would you say, what advice would you have that might make the difference in their development?

Well, at the risk of sounding terribly simplistic, learn to sing. Really learn to sing and when you do then a lot of things will be taken care of. Like what voice type am I and what should I sing and all that stuff that young singers seem so concerned about these days.

Stephen Lord (Photo: Christian Steiner)

Stephen Lord (Photo: Christian Steiner)

Stephen Lord and Sir Thomas Allen were over for brunch at my flat last winter and we were talking about this same thing…..that everyone wants the “diet pill” now and everything needs to be fast tracked. Singing is something that takes a long time to learn to do and its also very important to keep developing and keep studying and keep being open to new things because your body changes at times in your life and you need to rebalance your voice. The best singers I know work like crazy and they coach and they keep getting better. You need to want to sing healthily and well until you are seventy!! And of course there are the other things……if you don’t LOVE words, learn to love them! Read poetry, learn languages, read history. For example, if you are singing any of the arias from Don Carlos and you don’t know anything about the political situation at the time, you are not doing yourself any favours. There is knowledge out there that is so easy to get and so accessible now…..remember when you had to go to the library to find anything out? Be CURIOUS!!

5) Is there a teacher or influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?

Stuart Hamilton

I was so lucky…..I worked for Tony Pappano for five years and learned so much about singers and singing, Tony’s dad was a voice teacher and he spent his life playing lessons. I was also fortunate to work a lot with conductors like Simon Rattle, Ivor Bolton, Rene Jacobs….amazing musicians and inspiring people. I would consider Martin Isepp my mentor for art song and of course here in Toronto, I play all of my recital music for Stuart Hamilton, who is always pushing me to do better. For all these people and many others I am very grateful.

~~~~~~~~

RECITAL: A Walk on the Dark Side: Myths, Legends and Fairy Tales
NOVEMBER 9 at 14:30 at Rosedale Presbyterian Church
After an inaugural season that transported audiences from The Seven Virtues to The Seven Deadly Sins, artistic director Rachel Andrist with artistic advisor Monica Whicher are thrilled to invite you to the 2014/15 season. Beginning November 9th with “A Walk on the Dark Side: Myths, Legends and Fairy Tales”, Recitals at Rosedale presents soprano Leslie Ann Bradley, mezzo soprano Allyson McHardy and baritone Geoff Sirett with collaborative pianists Robert Kortgaard and Rachel Andrist.

The programme features works by Mahler, Debussy, Symanowski, Weil, Gershwin and more.

click for further information about the upcoming recital

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Stewart Goodyear: Diabelli Variations

While Stewart Goodyear might be the greatest pianist in the world today, as a Canadian he lives under the radar as Canadians so often do. Not only does each country have their favourite son or daughter, but Canadians are a reticent bunch, slow to show the kind of pride Americans routinely demonstrate in support of their own artists.

The epic Sonatathon adventure of the past few years—a one-day reading of all 32 Beethoven Sonatas in Toronto as the “Marathon”, repeated in a few other cities—has been a natural outgrowth of the pianist’s deep love for this romantic composer.

Marquis Recordings captured studio versions of all 32, making them available in a set that does justice to this wonderful body of work. They’re the best such set I know of.

Goodyear is a curious synthesis of the thoughtful precision of a Barenboim, and the passion of a Schnabel, playing several of the sonatas faster than anyone has ever heard them: note perfectly. One might expect a trade-off between accuracy –which might call for a slower tempo—and speed –which might compromise that accuracy. But no.

Goodyear manages to be both fast & accurate.

His Appassionata last movement + coda is the fastest I’ve ever heard yet wonderfully precise.

His Hammerklavier an even greater extreme, considering how slowly some take the four huge movements of that sonata.  I daresay he brought a unique intelligibility to the finale with his breath-takingly fast tempo, as if we’re up in a jet, seeing the huge landscape for the first time, that was previously hidden by the slowness of our traverse (via other pianists).

Click for Marquis website to purchase

And now he’s taken on Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, a late work that’s a perfect complement to the set. Indeed, I’ve joked earlier that Beethoven’s C Major sonatas are like one extended meditation (from Op 2 #3, the Waldstein in the middle of the book and sonata #32); with these variations Beethoven again takes up his fascination with C Major.
Goodyear has something else to offer, though, which you would have noticed if you’d picked up any of the sonatas or the complete set: namely, he writes astonishingly well. His liner notes are wonderfully eloquent. I am reminded of Anton Kuerti, a Canadian of another generation, whose notes were wonderful reading.

The essay accompanying the Diabelli’s is similarly brilliant. But that’s not why you should get the recording. Goodyear comes at the variations with a bit more care than I thought I noticed in the sonatas, possibly because –as he claims—they’re a recent discovery for him and not the lifelong obsession that we see in the sonatas. In a few places I sense care, a prepared attack, rather than the breakneck impulsiveness we sometimes encounter in the sonatas. But that’s perhaps apt for these pieces. I felt –having listened to the recording twice today (the highlights of my day, and a perfect set of bookends) –that each one is like a jewel. There’s an implicit set of rules or procedures for each variation, and so Goodyear is totally self-consistent in each one. The notes are clear, distinct and untrammelled by excessive emotion. Many are playful. Some are fearlessly powerful. The last one, which I’ve heard turned into something sentimental is emotional without losing its own sense of proportion.

Goodyear’s recording of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations is now available from Marquis Recordings.

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Happy Halloween, Frankenstein’s Boy!

The song during the pre-show was a tip-off I suppose. While the title says the show is about a boy, this song says otherwise.

And there it is, right on the poster.

click for tickets & info

Eldritch Theatre’s newest is Frankenstein’s Boy, a classic tale mixing the grostesque & the beautiful, employing some familiar tropes & romantic gestures.

When I say “classic” I’m also referencing existing texts, known storylines and even familiar turns of phrase, very much as the title might suggest, and certainly along the lines of the picture.

Eric Woolfe, playwright, puppet maker, actor & classicist

Eric Woolfe is the writer, grabbing chunks of known horror texts from romantic literature, theatre and film across a couple of centuries.That Woolfe has sewed them together as though it were a quilt is only appropriate, although come to think of it there’s another more grotesque kind of sewing invoked, using pieces of human bodies rather than fabric.

Did I make you shiver? Did I?

Woolfe is respectful of the integrity of the bodies he’s plundering, whether we’re speaking of captured flesh or text.  It’s not a neat & tidy split between Kimwun Perehinec’s beauty and Woolfe’s grotesquerie.  Both of them take their turns trundling down the thoroughfare of terror.  Both look good with red all over their hands.  Depending on how suggestible you are, it’s a matter for giggling or gagging.

Kimwun Perehinec and Eric Woolfe

Kimwun Perehinec and Eric Woolfe (photo: Dawn Weaver)

Frankenstein’s Boy puts Woolfe and Perehinec onstage at the Red Sandcastle Theatre, a deliciously intimate space seating perhaps fifty or fewer initiates as though at a seance on Queen St East.

We didn’t join hands however.

Kimwun Perehinec (click for official bio)

I watched a very eager audience lean forward, clearly familiar with Woolfe & his body of work (or should that be “bodies of work”?) for Eldritch Theatre.

Woolfe and co-conspirator Perehinec create a horde of creatures with varying degrees of humanity, a multitude of voices, body-shapes, and impersonations.  At times I wanted to second guess, observing the choices made between scary and silly, the willingness to hold us in suspense or make us laugh. But then again, how real would I want the illusion to be? How genuine the blood and gore? At times Perehinec & Woolfe choose to let us see how they’ve made their magic, making this a safer voyage than what it might be. Even so we’re still sometimes right on the super-sharp knife edge… Coming into the theatre on a Sunday afternoon from this friendly neighbourhood, I’m feeling confident and giggly rather than shivering with fear. This could be a nasty journey if undertaken on a dark night. I wonder if Woolfe & Perehinec will be scarier as they get closer to Halloween?

In the meantime, I commend you to the Eldritch Theatre website, where the biographies demonstrate Woolfe’s darkly comic sensibility. For more of the same visit the Red Sandcastle Theatre, 922 Queen Street East October 23th – November 8th: if you dare.

Eric & accomplice

Eric & accomplice (photo: Dawn Weaver)

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Opera Atelier Alcina

I’ve seen the new Opera Atelier Alcina. It’s been a month of opera-going in Toronto that already stands head and shoulders above any previous month. While occasional productions can be great, we can add this remarkable production of Handel’s opera to a month that already includes Finley’s Falstaff and Kaduce’s Butterfly, a month like no other.

Musically it’s as good as anything heard from a company known for historically informed performance. David Fallis leads Tafelmusik Orchestra and chorus in a probing exploration of a score that’s known in several versions. I confess I wasn’t aware of the ballet component—explained in the program and given free rein onstage—having always understood this opera as a virtuoso showpiece. It’s a full evening’s entertainment even with some cuts (arias missing or presented without their da capo).

In the lead-up to the opening, we’ve been told about the use of video in the production. For an ensemble known for being historically informed, there may have been some anxiety about the use of modern technology. Yet that’s surely not a legitimate concern, not when we’re already in a modern theatre using –for example—modern lighting. Opera Atelier have always been a mix of new & old, not genuinely recreating the old but rather making something new while employing elements of the old such as the movement vocabulary—both in the choreography of dancers and in the body language of singers—as well as period instruments and performance practices.  The dramaturgy that recapitulates so many elements of baroque theatre isn’t harmed by video projections onto sets that are not naturalistic.

The last few seasons have given me another simpler way of understanding Opera Atelier. Never mind “historically informed”. What we’re mostly seeing is Marshall Pynkoski’s direction with, Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg’s choreography. Pynkoski injects something very original. There’s more comedy in the story than I’ve seen in any other reading. The ballet is an important element that’s restored in this production.

And then there’s the male nudity. It’s perfectly explicable in a story of metamorphoses, where discarded lovers of the witches are transformed into animals or rocks, who are then liberated at the conclusion of the opera. It felt really apt, after seeing the Michaelangelo show at the AGO, even if it’s not historically informed; but it was certain to appeal to at least some in the audience, lobby warnings notwithstanding.

A cautionary sign in the lobby of the Elgin Theatre

A cautionary sign in the lobby of the Elgin Theatre

Sorry that I have no pictures of naked men to offer.

Alcina sounds wonderful, thanks to Tafelmusik, Fallis and the best collection of soloists Opera Atelier has ever assembled. Falstaff may be sold out, Butterfly may or may not be your cup of tea, so you must see & hear Alcina if you can. Meghan Lindsay manages an ambiguous reading where the title character is simultaneously scary yet sympathetic, beautiful but also pitiable at times. Mireille Asselin offers us a comical sorceress, wonderfully accurate in her coloratura. Wallis Giunta’s Bradamante ranges from comedy to pathos, while Allyson McHardy’s Ruggiero sounds & looks wonderful. Kresimir Spicer’s Oronte has some of the prettiest singing of the night, and Olivier Laquerre is a dramatic stalwart.

Alcina continues until November 1st at the Elgin Theatre.

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