Salieri’s Falstaff: first time in Canada

To most people Antonio Salieri is unknown except as the older composer associated with Mozart in Amadeus, perhaps best captured in this little clip from Milos Forman’s 1983 film.

Of course the way that story is told is a cruel misrepresentation (from a play after all). But it is true to say that Salieri’s operas are mostly unknown, so much so that today I saw my first one, namely Falstaff in a semi-staged version here in Toronto, thanks to Voicebox Opera in Concert (hm interesting that their initials –VOIC—come close to spelling “voice”. I suspect they know that).

voicebox-2015_01I came because this was an important opportunity to hear something new. But I enjoyed it far more than I expected. On the heels of seeing the opening of Marriage of Figaro at the COC on Thursday, I can’t help asking a few key questions about why Salieri’s operas have been forgotten:

  • Was it a change of fashion or is the music as mediocre as you might believe from watching Forman’s film or Shaffer’s play?
  • Or were other factors at work such as new competing styles (thinking especially of Rossini)
  • What about the input of the singers (whose preferences can be the ultimate deal breaker)?

Pick your favourite bullet as it’s not something easily settled, and surely requires a more thorough investigation (or a few dissertations), beginning with someone giving Salieri a proper production: which I believe he deserves on the basis of what we saw and heard today (are you listening Marshall Pynkoski@ Opera Atelier?). Full marks to director Guillermo Silva-Marin for his semi-staging that surely gives us more than enough to get lost in this funny story.

The third bullet might be a huge intangible, given that it’s a moving target, hard to calibrate even if people sang exactly at they did back in 1800, when Salieri might have still been part of the repertoire mix and certainly within the living memory of many alive at that time. I heard some numbers that sounded quite difficult, but perhaps might require a different approach, closer to comic (buffa) singing rather than the honest forthright singing we encountered today; or in other words, a comedian going for laughs might have a bit more fun and not worry that he can’t hit all the high notes.

I want to properly acknowledge the heroics, especially

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Colin Ainsworth as Renaud in the recent Armide (with Peggy Kriha Dye as Armide; photo: Bruce Zinger) in his more usual guise as the hero

  • Colin Ainsworth, singing a bit against type as Ford. I wonder if the part is written to sound a bit more like (referencing the first examples that come to mind, namely Wagner’s Siegfried even if this is not to be mistaken for Wagner) Mime the dwarf rather than Siegfried himself, less Tamino and more Monostatos (better example?). But wow Ainsworth made fabulous sounds, including lots of powerful notes on top apt for a helden, wonderfully accurate in this pitch (something i can’t say for everyone in this show), and possessed of a quirky second voice he trucked out for his disguise as Mr Brook.
  • Dion Mazerolle’s Falstaff was truer to buffa, full of wonderful moments of comedy, and quite charming. His fat knight is a likeable rogue, the voice as well-rounded as the curves of his (padded) stomach. I think the opera is much more congenial when we can like the character even at his most villainous.
  • Justin Welsh’s Mr. Slender has me asking: “Justin where have you been”? I remember now how much I loved this voice in the Against the Grain boheme but maybe I just haven’t noticed the other things he’s doing. Once again, Welsh’s mellow voice and suave line created the prettiest sound in the whole production (as he was then).
  • Allison Angelo as Mrs Ford also brought a pair of voices along, one pretty and one silly, making the most of her opportunities.
  • Perhaps most impressive of all was Larry Beckwith in his role as conductor of Aradia Ensemble and the VOIC chorus. If you’re a dead composer and you need an advocate hire Beckwith! He won this case hands down (well actually hands UP: as that’s how he conducts).

I’m full of gratitude for what VOIC Artistic Director Guillermo brought before us today. With luck we’ll hear more of Salieri someday.

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Tafelmusik record Beethoven’s Ninth

Tonight’s Koerner Hall concert was recorded, one of a series. But it seemed like a pair of concerts.

Before intermission we watched the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, led by their founding director Ivars Taurins. This is a choir he built, piece by piece and work by work, so it seemed apt that we were watching them sing a cappella. Their performance was acutely perfect. Can I say that? We listened to three unaccompanied pieces, beginning with Abendlied, a very gentle work by Rheinberger, the world premiere of Jeffrey Ryan’s Valediction, and finally Brahms’s Warum ist das Licht gegeben. Ryan’s work, based on a poem by Norma West Linder, closes with the line “World without, whirled without end”, (which by the way does not have a period, though it does end) the voices conjuring up a genuine sense of whirling motion without the aid of any accompaniment. And then we heard a virtuoso display in the Brahms, especially by the women, unified whether soft or loud, but absolutely perfect.

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

 

After intermission? It seemed to be a different sort of concert altogether (and why not after all), as we heard Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, played by Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra led by Bruno Weil, employing that same Chamber Choir for the fourth movement.

Weil is definitely looking older, indeed he moves at times as though he’s in pain, which is hard to watch after so many wonderful years leading the orchestra. But no matter what he looked like the orchestra responded. In general his tempi are quicker than what you’d expect if you listen to a modern orchestra.  The fast movements are irresistible, the climaxes bowl you over.

I can’t help putting that in context with last night. Tonight we heard a work that has long ago entered public consciousness, that turns up in films, TV commercials and even our church service (there’s a hymn called “joyful joyful we adore you”(or thee) based on the same melody as the Ode to Joy), tunes I know so well I could practically sing the whole thing.

I’m not alone.  The guy in front of me was nodding his head in a kind of frenzied ecstasy, depending on what sort of music was playing (for the scherzo his head moved fast, as it did in the last movement while in the third movement he moved his head more slowly). Last night hearing something I’d never heard before (Christos Hatzis’s score for the ballet Going Home Star) I had no real expectation.  One has no way to anticipate what would come next if you’ve never heard the piece before, whereas tonight we can’t help having expectations that verge on stipulations. In the last movement, I hope to hear a clear strong bass voice in the solo to begin, a fast tempo in the big tenor solo, that leads to a clear high note from the tenor, or later when the soprano gets her high note, I hope it’s gentle rather than loud (the way some singers scream it). And there are a whole series of things I hope to hear from the orchestra in each movement. And they delivered on some of my wishlist, while disappointing in other parts of that list.  The chorus were once again near-perfect in their execution.

Maybe I was extra-conscious of this because Tafelmusik are recording their performances this week. Everyone was encouraged to cough between movements but to keep quiet when the orchestra was playing. Maybe I was put into this mental frame of mind after listening to a first-half of the concert sung with absolute perfection.

Before I continue let me offer some context. Back in the 1980s I became serious about getting recordings by ensembles playing what’s often known as “original instruments”, which is to say, strings with catgut rather than metal, wooden rather than metal woodwinds, valveless horns, and so on. These instruments are much harder to play in tune, which might be why you normally encounter Beethoven played on modern instruments, 100% in tune and without any fluffs from any of the wind players. But there’s a trade-off. The sweetness of the sound, the gentle tone of a period band employing historically informed practices, the softer volume and slightly lower tuning all add up to something that has become the core of my listening. I believe we unconsciously suspend judgment in the presence of this sort of playing, as one mustn’t come with the same standards one brings to performances by those playing modern instruments with their perfect execution. I have at least one friend who adamantly refuses to listen to a historically informed band.

Tonight I experienced a disconnect, because the two halves of the concert do not seem to share the same basic principles. The first half with its choral perfection surely isn’t what would have been heard back in the day.  But wait, one of the pieces is from 2015, so why should that work sound like one from 1824? Of course there’s a natural disconnect. Perhaps i am over-thinking, but hearing such clarity in the first half did not work as a set-up for music I really love.  Even so it was a very enjoyable concert, clearly one enjoyed by the rapturous audience.  I’ll be interested to hear the recording they create from the performances made this week.

Tafelmusik orchestra & choir return to Koerner Hall Sunday Feb 7th for another performance of unaccompanied choral works followed by the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven, with the orchestra returning in late February to perform Mozart back at Trinity St Paul’s.

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Alexander Neef’s Pre-performance speech from February 4th

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen, I am Alexander Neef, the General Director of the Canadian Opera Company.

Don’t worry, all our performers are fine.

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COC Music Director Johannes Debus and COC General Director Alexander Neef. (Photo: bohuang.ca)

But I do want to take a moment to speak to you before we start tonight’s performance.

Over the last few months we have witnessed terrorist attacks all over the world, in Paris, but also in Beirut, Bamako, San Bernardino, Istanbul, Jakarta, Burkina Faso and Nigeria.

The common theme of these attacks seems to be a deliberate attempt to undermine the values that form the base of our western societies, most importantly freedom of speech and expression. The terrorists chose to attack places that belong to the entertainment sector, stadiums, concert halls, bars, restaurants and hotels.

At the same time our country Canada, has decided to welcome 25,000 refugees from Syria, one of the countries most affected by terrorism and civil war.

At the Canadian Opera Company, we feel it is important to not only reflect on the impact of the attacks, but also to honour our Canadian values of freedom, respect for cultural differences, and a commitment to social justice.

Tonight marks the beginning of an initiative that will provide access to COC dress rehearsals and performances to refugees and newcomers to Canada.

I would like to recognize our partners Lifeline Syria, the Institute of Canadian Citizenship (represented tonight by the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson and John Ralston Saul) and the Canada Council for the Arts (represented by its CEO Simon Brault).

I would also like to acknowledge two other special guests: Han Dong, MPP for Trinity-Spadina on behalf of the Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport and Councillor Norm Kelly from the City of Toronto.

Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro is uniquely suited to this purpose. It is deeply influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment. It is a piece about personal rights and the freedom of speech.

But it deals with those matters in the form of a comedy. As you will see, almost the entire second half of the opera is dedicated to a celebration, a double wedding and the party that follows.

Tonight, we want to invite you to celebrate with us the freedom we have to create and enjoy the arts and the privilege to live in a country like Canada.

I will leave you with a quote by the great American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein: “This is our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

Before we begin the performance I would like to ask you to stand for the national anthem.”

 

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RWB Going Home Star: the language of truth and reconciliation

I witnessed something extraordinary and beautiful. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet created a full-length work titled Going Home Star: Truth and Reconciliation, one of the most ambitious pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen, a ballet so remarkable that it could be understood to be part of the broader mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (or “TRC”) itself.

The TRC  website tells you that

The TRC is a component of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.

Its mandate is to inform all Canadians about what happened in Indian Residential Schools (IRS). The Commission will document the truth of survivors, families, communities and anyone personally affected by the IRS experience… The TRC hopes to guide and inspire Aboriginal peoples and Canadians in a process of reconciliation and renewed relationships that are based on mutual understanding and respect.

We might understand TRC the same way as for example Black History Month or Holocaust Memorial Day, namely a “process of reconciliation and renewed relationships that are based on mutual understanding and respect”. Art that furthers that process, both as a guide to the Aboriginal peoples and for other Canadians surely works to promote the mission of the TRC.

RWB Company Dancers in Going Home Star - Truth and Reconciliation - photo by Samanta Katz

Royal Winnipeg Ballet Company Dancers (kneeling foreground, l-r: Liang Xing, Sophia Lee; standing l-r: Yosuke Mino, Dmitri Dovgoselets, Alanna McAdie)  in Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation (photo by Samanta Katz)

Royal Winnipeg Ballet Artistic Director André Lewis commissioned the work, as he explained, after being approached by Elder Mary Richard (Ah Kha Ko cheesh), to whom the work is dedicated. This is a ballet that is part of a broad consultation, a multi-cultural work that bridges the gaps between cultures. Ballet is an art-form of our dominant European culture, and so we experience this work at the intersection of peoples, languages and art-forms. We began with a drum chant that seemed to consecrate the space, and also heard from an elder who spoke a prayer in one of the native tongues. While the main characters are both European and Aboriginal, the conversation is still mostly on the turf of the Europeans, being a ballet. This work speaks eloquently to people like me, who may have a vague idea of the Residential Schools, but until now did not have a concrete mental image of these events. This is like Schindler’s List or Amistad in telling a story of a race’s oppression.

But it’s not a film, it’s a ballet, and I believe that choice of medium was a wise one. I recall a conversation with Elliot Hayes in the 1980s that still informs my thinking decades later. At the time I was cautioned that my operatic project contained “big ideas”, spoken in a tone to suggest that I’d infested my text with something bad, because of course such things are unwieldy, powerful and almost impossible to control. But I think this is a fork in the road that might be key to deciding the ideal medium.  Why bother with music if your words already give you what you want?  If you want something factual and concrete you make a documentary or a play in a realist / naturalist dramaturgy. If you’re dealing with universals, however, you get specific at your peril. Opera and dance are more amenable to symbolic matters, rather than finely honed topics. Ideas don’t get any bigger than this –the matter for the TRC—and therefore this story (as created by ​Joseph Boyden) was ideal for ballet. You get rid of most of the words –which have the unfortunate tendency to pin down the meaning in specifics and superfluities—and stick to a few key archetypes, namely the characters standing in for humanity. The music furnishes a template for us to react to the story, a plot designed to take us on a journey.

And so the conversations that are prelude to Going Home Star—that is, the collaborative discussions that lead to the creation of the ballet—are a wonderful miscrocosm of the TRC itself. Finding a common language, for example in movement vocabularies, in story-lines, and in music and sound, are themselves journeys very much like the TRC itself, a negotiation between European and Aboriginal, old and new, concrete and abstract.
I was particularly impressed by the work of composer Christos Hatzis in creating the score, a massive composition that energizes the dance. Sometimes we’re listening to pattern music that’s rhythmic, even jazzy, at other times, assembled from samples of noise. Sometimes we hear replicated music.

One passage resembles a wacky version of Opera Atelier’s baroque ballet, as we hear Hatzis parody the music of Jean-Baptiste Lully, the court composer of Louis XIV, as a group of dancers in ornate clothes with miniature naval vessels as hats, mince around, then begin to scratch as we’re told that they needed aboriginal help coping with black flies. And in short order the metaphor is re-used, as we hear that the clergymen have become like ticks infesting the aboriginals.

In another passage Hatzis samples the best-known theme from Swan Lake, the falling third of that phrase repeated, and gradually dropping in pitch a bit like the Doppler effect of an ambulance siren as it passes. The score is full of such moments, as small samples of train-sounds, human breathing or even something resembling a snore gets inserted into a musical phrase. The intersection of styles of music and movement was aggressively inter-cultural, as though people of different backgrounds were meeting face to face, while trying to reconcile their differences: those very same differences that are the basis of the TRC itself.

In one scene – a flashback to life in the Residential Schools—we see two young people with a clergyman. As we’re in the realm of dance, he might not move like a real clergyman, because he’s so fluid in his movements that he might be a ninja, practically flying around the stage. But I am reminded of an operatic equivalent, namely the scariest person in Nixon in China: the elaborate coloratura of Madame Mao. Just as her vocal fireworks are terrifyingly agile, so too with our ninja-clergyman. For awhile, the two kids are enjoying their lives –as youth will—even though the clergyman regularly peers in through a hole in the wall that is comical with scary overtones. When he eventually catches them in the act of smoking, it leads to a virtuoso flogging and abuse.

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A photo from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission website

There’s so much more to it, as I am barely scraping the surface. Going Home Star is as utopian as the TRC itself, pointing to a redemptive outcome. The work is cathartic, including a moment when one of the residential schools is shown burning. The release of tension is as much in the music as the action, but also more simply an enactment of historical oppression that is then answered, pointing to liberation. This a work that needs to be seen again, that should be undertaken by other ballet companies, with a score that deserves to be played and/or recorded. I recognize that this may not be the way things work, given that the piece is so solidly identified with RWB. But other companies should take on this wonderfully Canadian – aboriginal work.

Somewhere in the program I read what the title means: that the North Star leads the way home, although i don’t think there’s any way to communicate that in a ballet. The synopsis in the program is useful reading before the show to enable one to understand the specifics of the story, even though –as with most ballets– one doesn’t need to know the specifics to follow along, to be swept away.

Going Home Star will be presented again Saturday night at the Sony Centre, as part of a national tour.

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COC Figaro: memories of Don JianGhomeshi

The media have brutalized us the past few weeks. It’s not enough to be watching Dumb and Dumber, aka the GOP’s epic displays of bigotry. And if they aren’t reporting on the cop who emptied his gun into a deranged addict, or the truck sale gone wrong, we’re hearing about a series of bad dates with a former CBC host.

Does no mean no?

The nature of consent in a first date has been on my mind, listening to these accounts of women who are now coming forward with complaints, after being silent for awhile. Such were my thoughts as I watched the opening tonight of the Canadian Opera Company’s new Marriage of Figaro, a production containing more sexuality & violence than I expected.

While some productions of Figaro are light romps, and others such as Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production for the Met emphasized the class war underlying the power struggle between the Count and his servant Figaro, Claus Guth’s production of Mozart’s comedy –brought to the COC in 2016 after a sensational reception in Europe –is more than anything a study in the intersection between sexuality & violence. In the second number we usually hear Figaro eagerly speak of how convenient it is to have a room right beside his master, where the Count can ring for his servant, and Susanna replies, admonishing Figaro, that in fact this gives the Count the ability to send Figaro far away so he can have his way with her. Usually this is a theoretical discussion, not something including a show and tell. In this production we see the Count briefly drag Susanna into a room right in the middle of that number, then releasing her just in time for her to explain why it might not be quite so wonderful to have a room beside the Count & Countess. We are not dealing with hypotheticals but seeing them enacted, and this happens again and again in this show, as Cherubino, Susanna, the Count, the Countess, Barbarina each in turn grab our attention by being libidinous.

Or should i say bawdy?

But it’s darkly powerful, very sexy at times, and with an edge such as no production of Figaro I’ve ever seen, amd as current as the headlines in today’s newspaper.

Last year the COC brought us Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni, a study in an obsolete personality, outgrown by modern humanity who no longer needs the Don Juan type. But nobody told the Count, who is struggling with the same neurosis, amplified by a noble’s sense of entitlement. Ian Henderson coined the cute phrase “Don JianGhomeshi” that seems apt for our love-hate relationship with the eternal libertine seducer.

Perhaps one reason I’m thinking of this as a sequel to the Tcherniakov is that we’re blessed with a few of the same brilliant principals once more. Russell Braun’s Don is back, in a more romantic form, as the Count who eventually does reconcile with his Countess. Jane Archibald is now Susanna (last year’s Donna Anna), while Sasha Djihanian (last year’s Zerlina) is now Barbarina.

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Pianist and Conductor Jordan de Souza (Brent Calis Photography)

One thing I looked for in the program that I sought in vain concerned the pianist for the recitatives. I believe that when Johannes Debus took his bow at the end, the person he raised first in the orchestra was Jordan de Souza (or that’s who it appeared to be at the piano….i could be wrong), the man who happens to be conducting two performances later in February, and coincidentally playing the piano for Tapestry Songbook VI this Friday & Saturday nights. He gave us some of the most stylishly embellished segues & cadences to these recitatives I’ve ever heard, a constant delight throughout.

In fact I understand (from an enquiry after the show) that de Souza was an emergency replacement for Michael Shannon, who was injured and unable to play, perhaps explaining the look of gratitude on Debus’ face as he acknowledged de Souza’s contribution.  Anyone seeing the next few performances will get to hear de Souza until Shannon’s good to go.

The funniest performers in the show had relatively small parts. Djihanian stole every scene in which she appeared with a voice that I heard as Susanna in Ottawa last year, certainly luxury casting for the COC. Robert Pomakov was delightfully deadpan, hysterically funny in scenes where one doesn’t usually expect to be laughing at Bartolo, such as the duet between Marcellina and Susanna, where he became an animated prop for the women to duel over. Doug MacNaughton made Antonio into a wonderful oddball of a gardener.

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Johannes Debus (Photo – Michael Cooper)

While I don’t believe Guth’s concepts –including a winged cherub character and assorted dead birds—do any violence to the story, there were moments when he had the good sense to stay out of the way. And so Erin Wall’s portrayal of the Countess is untrammeled by bird or cherub, both her arias representing highlights. I liked Emily Fons’ vocal characterization of Cherubino as much as I was captivated by her effortless movement vocabulary suggesting an adolescent male. Josef Wagner was a solid Figaro.

Debus with the COC orchestra plus de Souza at the piano carried us along in another thoroughly prepared performance, irresistible because it’s true to Mozart. Those two –Debus & de Souza– are the real stars.

The COC’s new Marriage of Figaro continues at the Four Seasons Centre until February 27th.

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TSO in 2016/17

If each season announcement by a major Toronto company is a demonstration of core values, the Toronto Symphony were in perhaps the most challenging position, having declared their intention to be the most innovative & inclusive orchestra in the world’s most inclusive city. But having set the bar so high they did not disappoint.

Before a note was played or a word uttered we were already in a new place, sitting onstage at Roy Thomson Hall facing out into the auditorium. How cool to be sitting there looking at Peter Oundjian at a podium, even if he wasn’t conducting us but simply announcing the season highlights.

This will be a very exciting year to be in Toronto, as everyone (the COC, and Tafelmusik, and Opera Atelier) commemorates our Sesquicentennial in different ways. In January 2017 CANADA MOSAIC pays tribute to some of the Canadian composers who made our country proud during the mid-to-late 20th century including works by Ridout, Mercure, Coulthard, and Weinzweig.  Even more exciting is the prospect of a series of commissions to be made in collaboration with other Canadian orchestras, but the details are still largely TBA.

The concert presentation of films in partnership with TIFF continues.  

There will be four offerings:

  • Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Ratatouille (a delightful animated film),
  • The Fellowship of the Ring (first film in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy),
  • an anthology of excerpts highlighting the collaboration between composer Danny Elfman and Director Tim Burton.
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Mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta

The Decades Project continues, taking us to the roaring 20s in the fall of 2016 (Gershwin, Rachmaninoff, Kodaly, Mihaud, Walton, Ravel) including a pair of works showcasing talent in the orchestra namely Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending” with Jonathan Crow, violin and Walton’s Viola Concerto with Teng Li, viola. We’ll go on to our exploration off the 1930s to begin 2017, with a series of big projects, namely Belshazzar’s Feast to be led by Sir Andrew Davis, Carmina Burana, and a return by Joel Ivany –who directed the Mozart Requiem so recently—for a semi-staged Seven Deadly Sins with Wallis Giunta (appearing this Friday & Saturday with Tapestry by the way).

Soprano Renée Fleming returns to sing with the TSO on opening night.

The New Creations Festival features seven world premieres, curated by Owen Pallett and including throat-singer Tanya Tagaq and the famous Kronos Quartet.

We heard a great deal about the TSO’s ambitions to be a central part of this city, hoping to someday welcome students from all schools in all parts of Toronto, a beautiful goal that depends on funding.

For all the new & challenging programming, the most exciting thing I heard was that for the next Mozart Festival aka Mozart @261, we would be hearing the Toronto Symphony playing at Koerner Hall led once more by Bernard Labadie. This orchestra is better than people realize from what we hear at Roy Thomson Hall, as I discovered in Florida last month. They will sound heavenly in Koerner. Among the artists appearing with the orchestra in that festival will be young pianist Leonid Nediak in his TSO debut. Nediak came forward to play the Rachmaninoff prelude in G minor for us, a fabulous performance that moved us to applause and clearly left Oundjian so moved he was barely able to talk afterwards, just as he had been fully appreciative of earlier performances of his TSO colleagues. The chemistry is quite beautiful to watch between Melanson, Oundjian and the young players of the TSO, as though their biggest fans were their CEO & their music director.

If it’s contagious I’ve caught the bug… I’m a big fan too.

Here’s an example of Nediak’s amazing playing.  

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COC Siegfried: Love on the rocks in white PJs

Of the four operas in Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle the closest thing to a comedy is Siegfried. Yes we do have a couple of deaths and a couple of would-be rulers of the world thwarted but it’s got a happy ending, literally love on the rocks as Siegfried and Brunnhilde are about to get it on, considering that their last words are “lachender Tod”, or “laughing death”, surely a clumsy euphemism for orgasm.

I am torn. I admire the work done in this production, loving almost every performance and certainly appreciating the contribution of every single person up there, so let’s set aside my concerns until after I’ve properly appreciated what’s right about it.

I was fortunate to be sitting off to the side near the front, which meant I could spend a great deal of the show basking in the pleasure of Johannes Debus’ conducting. The COC orchestra was a force of nature, particularly in the big set-pieces where Wagner turns over the story telling to his brass, string, percussion, woodwinds, and conductor. Debus was very sensitive to his singers, some of whom had much more to offer than others. Anyone coming from out of town to hear the big stars might be confused, that they were hearing a performance as good as what you might hear at one of the world’s major opera houses even though they’re in Toronto.  But the amazing opera house changes everything, helping singers who would be inaudible singing the same role in a bigger house.

Three performances stood out for me tonight in a cast with no weak spots.  Stefan Vinke (Siegfried) sings this role as no one I have ever heard, from his first appearance, singing a high C that is usually omitted. Wow! Vinke sang, rather than barking or shouting (as some do because of the difficulty of the role), his lyrical line getting more beautiful the longer he was singing. Amazingly he was in a better groove in Act III than in Act I, in what is surely the most taxing role in all of opera. I begin to understand the people I see coming back to see it again and again. Vinke is the main treat of this production, singing some of the most difficult lines more clearly than I’ve ever heard them. If that weren’t enough –singing the role better than I’ve ever heard it—he is an attractive presence, and a wonderful actor. Whether in the many comic moments –parodying his guardian, sassing the dragon, trying to play a hand-made reed –badly– the few moments of genuine pathos such as the revelations about his past, or the times we want to see something heroic, he is the most believable, musical, heroic Siegfried I’ve ever seen.

Alongside Vinke we get to see the Mime of Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke. When I recall the first time I saw this production (directed by François Girard, designed by Michael Levine) more than a decade ago in the old theatre, I can’t forget how frustrating it was, that for several minutes I couldn’t distinguish one character from the other, that Mime (supposedly a hunchback dwarf) and Siegfried (supposedly a great hero), both in their white pajamas were hard to distinguish from one another, because they were roughly the same height and sounded alike. This time the contrast is spectacular, both in the physical presentation and the voices. WA-S is one of the best actors I’ve ever seen at the COC, in a vocal interpretation putting me in mind of Gerhard Stolze (on the Solti recording), playing up all the opportunities Wagner puts into the score for vocal comedy. At times I didn’t know where to look, because Vinke and WA-S were both so interesting to watch.

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1211 – (left to right) Jacqueline Woodley as the Forest Bird (background) with Stefan Vinke as Siegfried and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Mime Director François Girard, Set and Costume Designer Michael Levine, (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Fortunately I am going to see it again.

The third extraordinary performance is the big name draw of the production, namely Christine Goerke. Her awakening was electric, both in the marvelous hand gestures, the vocal commitment and the magic between the two left onstage. I did not expect the last scene to be the best scene of the whole opera. There were other great moments though.

Jacqueline Woodley’s Forest Bird was wonderfully accurate, and very musical, while Meredith Arwady’s Erda was extremely powerful, especially some amazing low notes.

I first saw (and reviewed) this production back in 2005 when Girard & Levine first unveiled it —and so I am inclined to believe that maybe the problem is that the production doesn’t work as well in the Four Seasons Centre (that magical theatre I was speaking of earlier). I don’t think it’s fair to hold that against the director or designer.  Four Seasons Centre puts everyone under a bit of a microscope, giving us stunning close-ups. It helps highlight performances, seeing the strengths and weaknesses of singers & their acting, and the concepts in the production. Where Girard’s idea that seemed to situate everything in the mind of the young Siegfried seemed fresh and powerful in the big theatre, where everything was far away, hard to see, and impossible to hear, in Four Seasons Centre? Up close it doesn’t quite work so well, the bodies in the mental-tree seen from afar become a bit disturbing in closeup, if not creepy after awhile.

In the program note Girard speaks of how abstract Siegfried is, even though he conveniently skips or ignores the most concrete elements, such as the forging of a sword (magically handed to the hero, rather than created in steps, steps that Girard skips), or whittling a reed to make a flute (this time Siegfried finds his flute hanging in a tree).  Even so, I will mention a couple of directorial choices that bother me. One of my favourite parts of the entire Ring is the opening of Act III, Wotan’s last scene of the cycle as he confronts Erda, seeking a way to avoid the unavoidable. It’s music of despair with backbone. So it’s odd to open the act with the Forest Bird leading Siegfried (yes it’s a beautiful effect, but i missed it at the end of Act II, not inserted to begin Act III) while the music screams a heroic “no way out what do I do now” loudly for 5 minutes, and then to let your Wanderer shamble onstage like an afterthought.  Argh i know i sound like i’m getting old, as I was hungry for the post-modern stuff a decade ago.  Post-modernism means never having to say you’re sorry (and making a joke a decade ago gives me permission to repeat myself).

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Stefan Vinke as Siegfried and Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde (Photo: Michael Cooper)

And of course the Wanderer is in this white outfit, just like Erda and everyone else onstage, except for Brunnhilde and Alberich. I get the concept, that there’s all this stuff in the hero’s head.  Alberich has a grey jacket on, because he too is from the outside. Brunnhilde is in a sexy costume, which makes sense. I would think Erda & Wotan should also escape the white PJs, but post-modern also includes the right to change sub-text whenever it suits you.

And let me add another white PJs footnote while I’m on the topic. Brunnhilde wakes up, and looks for the one who has brought her back to life, woken her up with a kiss.
I get that the magic fire is done with all these people in white pajamas. It was better in the O’keefe and stunningly beautiful at that moment when Wanderer steps aside and can’t stop Siegfried any longer. But when Siegfried has crossed through the curtain of fire, why keep these people lingering there like spectators? And so, when Brunnhilde says “Wer ist der Held, der mich erweckt’?” (OR Who woke me up?) she wants to know, not because the stage is this confused mess. Why, François, do you leave 15 white-clad extras onstage, and have Siegfried drift upstage into this mess. And then when she asks her question she might well say (in German) “which one of you people was the one who kissed me awake”?

I mean François, why deconstruct the most romantic moment in the whole opera?  Get them off the stage. Brunnhilde and Siegfried are supposed to be alone.

I should have known that the reason Debus said that the opera points to the last scene was because in this production it’s so good. No wait maybe it’s because there’s too much conceptual clutter everywhere else, too many moments where Girard’s ideas –some good, some not so good—just plain get in the way of the opera. There are moments where the production is clever. I enjoy the dragon. I love the bird.  I love the fire and those extras (including John Allemang, who told us his story recently in the Globe and Mail). But on balance I don’t find the production concept illuminating, not when at least part of the time it’s holding me back rather than adding something. It’s odd to me that this scene that usually seems like an extraneous afterthought—the last one– works best this time. Is it because it’s so good? or simply because it’s the only unobstructed scene,  where two people are allowed to sing without all the conceptual shenanigans?

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