Opera coming out of the pandemic

We weren’t permitted to go to live theatre.

Performers have struggled with the loss of income, companies evaluating their business models as they contemplate the future. It remains to be seen just what impacts will be felt upon opera, the art form known to be the most expensive of all. COVID19 has been a catalyst for change in every arena, so why not in the realm of opera too. Although some might claim that the changes were inevitable, I believe the drama of the past 18 months will change the way we experience theatre.

Unable to offer performances inside its building, the Metropolitan Opera offered free streaming, that comes to an end this week after more than a year of free operas, as seen in their announcement:
“After 70 weeks, 112 different operas, and more than 21.2 million views from 152 countries, our series of free Nightly Opera Streams reaches its grand finale. Enjoy one last week of exceptional performances, specially chosen by viewers.”

They picked the following operas:
Monday, July 19 Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro
Tuesday, July 20 Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci
Wednesday, July 21 Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles
Thursday, July 22 Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann
Friday, July 23 Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment
Saturday, July 24 Verdi’s Il Trovatore
Sunday, July 25 Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera

San Francisco Opera offer free streaming each weekend. Theirs is a bit different from the Met, in that you have to register as a member to get access. After Berlioz’s Les Troyens this past weekend (July 17–18), upcoming operas are Strauss’ Elektra July 24–25 and Verdi’s Luisa Miller July 31–August 1. I don’t know if it ends there or if there are more for August…

Which brings us to the Canadian Opera Company. If you’ve been watching the monthly Check-in with Perryn, a regular series with the COC’s new general director Perryn Leech, you will have heard him say that while there are question-marks about how the COC will return, their fall season will be virtual. While we don’t know precisely who (the singers) or what,(the operas) the COC now have new toys to play with, thanks to government grants to fund the “Digital Infrastructure Enhancements Project at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

So move over Met. Get ready San Francisco Opera. Your neighbours to the north are getting into the act. Although it’s not yet clear exactly what we will be seeing & hearing, Episode 5 of Check-in with Perryn promised a big announcement on August 16th to give us a better idea what to expect.

Episode 5 also included a lovely picture of George, Perryn’s dog.

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Cakes and champagne

She’s not an energizer bunny, but she is still going. My mother has passed her 100th birthday.

She received a letter from Queen Elizabeth, congratulating Katherine on the milestone. Let that be an incentive to you, that you might live to see your own letter from the Queen, congratulating you on your longevity.

The Queen was born April 21st 1926, so she is only 95 at this time.

My nephew Peter Bodrogi cleverly suggested returning the favour, that when the Queen turns 100 my mom should send a birthday card to her. She agrees, so if my mom is still here she will do it. I’m happy to help.

But first she has to survive the rigors of all the people wanting to congratulate her. On her birthday naturally she was toasted with champagne while we all ate birthday cake. The Wednesday before, she was feted by her grandchild Zoe (via smartphone) and Zoe’s mom, hoisting more glasses of bubbly. And there have been additional visits & toasts, lots of bubbles and songs in several languages, including English.

A few days ago (this past week, but after the birthday) I took my mom to a dental hygiene appointment.

With the teeth cleaned & pronounced healthy, what does one do, if not go buy something sweet to keep the dentist in business? And so, afterwards I was instructed to visit Ararat International Fine Foods, a delicatessen across the street from her dentist. My mom wanted me to pick up marzipan as thank you gifts for us, her kids.

When I got there, I mentioned to the proprietors that my mom was in the car outside, a regular customer who had turned 100 last week.

When they went to look in my car, they took her a coffee + a birthday gift.

I remember them when they were younger, when I was younger.

I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t know their names. But they’re a lovely family run business that I recall from my childhood in the neighbourhood, on Avenue Road north of Lawrence Ave.

The Mozartkugeln are the gift from Ararat’s kind owners. There’s a bar of marzipan covered in chocolate for each of the kids (aka my siblings) above left.

And next week I have an anniversary of my own that I’m planning to celebrate with her, because it happens to be a day when I’m taking her lunch.

I’ll bring something sweet and something bubbly.

My mom on her 100th (photo: Constance Adorno Barcza)
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Savitri

Gustav Holst’s one act chamber opera Savitri is available from Against the Grain theatre (aka “AtG”) as an online film. They offer it free of charge from their website, while inviting you to make an optional contribution to the company.

For AtG, who embody the idea that small is beautiful, Savitri is ideal, employing a chamber ensemble instead of a full orchestra, with a modest length of roughly a half-hour, (plus extra content for the film), its cast of three principals with a wordless chorus.

On their website, the company says:
Against the Grain Theatre is an award-winning Canadian opera collective that presents classical music in innovative ways and in unusual venues.

They began with la boheme presented in a bar, later an outdoor Pelléas et Mélisande¸ and A Little Too Cozy set in a TV studio. Their adaptations are fascinating, culminating in their recent film Messiah/Complex. Savitri too is a film given that live performance is not yet permitted in the Toronto area, filmed entirely outside.

AtG say that they want to attract a diverse audience, making Savitri a perfect choice in setting an episode of the Mahabharata. I saw the work before sung by Caucasian performers but AtG give us persons of colour.

Directed by Miriam Khalil plus Associate Director Simran Claire, Savitri stars
Meher Pavri in the title role, Vartan Gabrielian as Yama, God of Death, and Andrew Haji as Satyavān, Savitri’s beloved.

Meher Pavri plays Savitri

This is a beautiful little film, telling a lovely story. At times I couldn’t quite discern the words when Pavri or Gabrielian were singing, but the story is easy enough to follow. If you need it, these Hyperion liner notes give you the libretto of the short work.

As with Messiah / Complex it doesn’t matter whether a singer is lip synched with the singing. If we hear the words and see the personage, we imagine that perhaps the words are in their head, perhaps just in our own head. Either way, it works quite well, especially in an opera concerned with the world of illusion or Maya. Beautiful images accompany beautiful sounds & stirring ideas.

It’s comforting to hear a wordless chorus from Holst, who would later use the same device for the planet Neptune at the conclusion of his great orchestral suite The Planets, again with metaphysical implications.

We have an elaborate credit sequence at the end that might be my favorite part of the film, reminding me of the quirky way Wes Anderson ends his films, giving us additional perspectives on the project and the participants. I don’t know about you, but I love this sort of thing.

The opera is available online until Sunday July 11th here, and I recommend it.

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Nixon in China, 2021

The Metropolitan Opera feed of free streaming performances celebrate American composers the week of July 4th Independence Day.

I was especially excited to get another look at John Adams’s Nixon in China, that we saw both via a production by the Canadian Opera Company and another production seen in the Metropolitan Opera series of High Definition broadcasts back in 2011. Although I recall being blown away by both, I’m surprised that I haven’t heard of anyone producing Adams’s opera since that time. The Met presented two videos of Adams operas this week (Nixon as well as Dr Atomic). A quick look at operabase.com suggests that other American composers (Glass, Previn, Weill, Muhly, Floyd, Menotti, Heggie) are doing better in the years since. I recall the fuss over John Corigliano’s The Ghost of Versailles when it appeared around 1980 with its clever references to other operas, but that work doesn’t seem to be on the radar these days. And while Thomas Hampson, host of the broadcast, lauded Nixon (the creation by composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman) as the “most important opera of the last quarter century” (a view I share), opera companies seem to have forgotten it when programming their seasons.

John Adams, Janis Kelly & Russell Braun during the curtain call

What a powerful video this is. Much of the time we’re in close-ups that never compromise a performer, a brilliant starring cast of Russell Braun as Chou En-Lai, James Maddalena as Richard Nixon, Janis Kelly as Pat Nixon, Richard Paul Fink as Henry Kissinger, Robert Brubaker as Mao and Kathleen Kim as Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao Tse-tung). When we watch the overpowering drama of Madame Mao’s da capo aria that ends Act II (an excerpt from the production, available on youtube), much of the drama is in horrified reactions from Kelly & Maddalena (the Nixons), the robotic chorus and the dancers, especially soloists Haruno Yamazaki and Kanji Segawa.

Has anyone written anything as powerful or relevant since? I’ve watched the complete opera twice, have watched this shattering excerpt at least 7 times in the past few days, usually ending up in tears, sometimes sobbing,,, Be warned it’s powerful. I was prompted by Facebook, who reminded me of a status I posted in July 2011, an ironic phrase we hear early in the aria:
“When I appear the people hang…
When I appear the people hang upon my words.”

In 1987 when composer Adams and librettist Goodman collaborated with Director Peter Sellars to create the work, Nixon was largely a discredited former president, not forgotten but remembered for his corruption & his ignominious departure. We get a believably human portrait, that still seemed accurate in 2011 when this performance was made, and hasn’t been negated since.

What’s especially intriguing as of 2021 are changes in our understanding of China. Where we seemed to be in a place resembling friendship if not détente in 2011, as of 2021 America & China have been bristling at one another since the presidency of Donald Trump. The opening lines of the chorus gave me the shivers:
“The people are the heroes now
Behemoth pulls the peasants’ plow”.

In 1987, Adams & Goodman were creating a work of art that occasionally touches upon historical fact. Did the Chinese people (if we could imagine them all singing together in English) ever believe such things, or is this a Marxist / Maoist fantasy? The scene you see on video above –where the Nixons watch Madame Mao admonish dancers, spurring a group with Maoist dogma from the “little red book” of quotations from Chairman Mao—is not real, nothing like this would have been permitted to happen. It’s like allegory, showing us the encounter of the Nixons with Madame Mao, complete with the final posture of confrontation between Madame Mao and a resolute Chou En-Lai.

Goodman’s libretto is full of brilliant little gems. When in the second scene Nixon speaks of wanting to “bring our armies home”, Mao replies “our armies do not go abroad.” In this scene Nixon the pragmatist American encounters a philosopher in Mao, accompanied by a trio of women echoing his words as though they were oracular epigrams.

In the last scene of the opera, Mao says the following:
“ We recoil from victory and all its works.
What do you think of that Karl Marx? Speak up!”

The very last lines of the opera are given to the principal we saw first, namely Chou En-Lai, sung by Russell Braun, a wonderfully lyrical ending after the conflict & bombast you saw above at the conclusion of Act II.

“I am old & cannot sleep forever like the young
No hope that death will be a novelty
but endless wakefulness when I
put down my work and go to bed.
How much of what we did was good?
Everything seems to move beyond our remedy.
Come, heal this wound
At this hour nothing can be done
Just before dawn the birds begin
the warblers who prefer the dark
the cage-birds answering
To work! Outside this room the chill of grace
lies heavy on the morning grass.”

The opera ends in this gentle poetic speculation.

I found an intimate performance from Russell Braun singing this same music in 2020, accompanied by Carolyn Maule at the piano.

I wish the COC would revive the work.

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Voicebox Adriana Lecouvreur

What is the point posting a review when the run is over? My motto is borrowed from the Hippocratic Oath, namely “above all do no harm,” if that tells you anything.

Some of the voices sounded better than others, some singers were a pleasant & unexpected surprise.

But even so I want to ask Voicebox aka Opera In Concert to remember their name & their origins.

“Opera in concert” for me entails getting a bunch of people to do the show in formal attire, either with a piano or (if we’re lucky) with an orchestra. There’s a great deal to recommend this, even if we lose some, perhaps most of the theatre. By concentrating on the music, we can realize ideal performances, at least the best of those voices.

I watched Adriana Lecouvreur filmed by Ryan Harper for Voicebox’s online presentation. You’ve seen me rave about my love for his tenor voice, and alas alack, he was the best thing about this show. Alas because uh oh he was not singing, only filming.

We’re watching a very inconsistent group of performers working in a broad array of dramatic styles. Some are completely believable in close-up, while others seem to think they’re on a huge stage.

I think the singers, the opera, the composer, would all have been better served by a performance in tuxes & dresses, standing & delivering from music stands, rather than attempting & failing utterly to create the necessary illusion.

It’s funny, I was teased with references to Bajazet (the Racine play) and Roxanne (the temptress in his play), in the opera. I remember seeing a student production of Bajazet more than 25 years ago. How ironic that what I saw captured so elegantly by Harper’s camera work also resembled a student production. There is ambition here, to be sure, but I wish they had been more modest in simply offering the opera in concert. It doesn’t work for me in this version.

The pandemic is coming to its end, hopefully live theatre will be back before too long. Whenever it returns, I hope Voicebox – Opera in Concert remember their mandate.

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As my mom approaches 100

I must explain the reason for my previous post telling my mom’s stories yesterday: because she was born in 1921.

In other words, she’s approaching her one-hundredth birthday.

Kati (left) is my mom, with her older sister Eva

She has had five children although one of them died very young. If that weren’t sufficiently traumatic she is also a widow. My father died in 1960, the second huge loss in the immediate family within the decade.

My father & mother were in Budapest for the Second World War, and for the arrival of the liberating army of Soviets: who would prove to be just as bad as the Nazis.

The house-wife with her limited grasp of English was forced to learn the language when my father passed away, leaving her with four children between the ages of 4 and 13. In time she would reinvent herself at University of Toronto’s College of Education (and with help from kids with better fluency in English, who proof-read essays). Her life in the teaching profession would last over 20 years, driving to the north-west part of Toronto whether it was sunny, rainy or snowy.

After retirement there was lots more life, indeed she’s had more than a third of her life since she turned 65. There was the year when my own daughter Zoe was in kindergarten in Jesse Ketchum School, which at that time was half a day. Although both of Zoe’s parents (in other words, me & Zoe’s mother Karin) had to work, thank goodness my mom & my brother Peter were able to pick her up from Jesse Ketchum, bringing her to my mom’s where she was fed & educated further.

There were years of line dancing, and exercise classes to keep her body fit. She regularly walked & swam, helping her to look young for her age.

My mom has been a voracious reader, going through the canon of great English novels, often surprising me (the English major – grad student) with her perfect recall of plotlines and character names.

She introduced me to the works of George Faludy, the great Hungarian poet who for a time lived here in Toronto, in a kind of exile.

Speaking of which, she showed me books about the Europeans who came to Hollywood. There was Anthony Heilbut’s Exiled in Paradise (1983) as well as John Russell Taylor’s Strangers in Paradise (1983). They came out the same year which might explain how they could have such similar titles. But the books changed my understanding of Canada, of my mother, and by implication of my own identity.

She used to receive Magyar Hirek, a newspaper from Hungary, and would tell me stories of Hungary in the time before & after the arrival of the Communists. She believes she was one of the very last people to leave before the door was slammed shut, bringing baby Katherine in her arms to join my father in Stockholm in 1948 or ‘49.

She was independent & still licensed to drive her own car until 2019. Even now her mind is as sharp as ever. She can still recite poetry, still writes the occasional verse of her own, as I’ve shared a few times in this blog.

Last week I drove her to get her second COVID shot at the Hangar in Downsview, with my brother taking her inside. I’m hoping that the pandemic is finally going to subside as more & more get their vaccinations. I had my second earlier this week.

I took this picture while waiting for my mom to get her second shot at The Hangar, up in Downsview. As I said on social media: “no it’s not mine”.

She was a sweet young girl in Budapest long ago, living through wars & occupations, migrating once alone with a baby daughter to Sweden, again across the ocean to Canada, not knowing the language in either instance. But both times she would learn. She endured a house-fire (when they lived in Toronto), car accidents, the death of her child, death of her husband, a second marriage that led to divorce, learning new languages and reinventing herself in a career after having been a housewife in suburbia. She now sends email & watches old songs in Hungarian on YouTube. Currently her favorite song is “Dust in the wind”; it seems to get played every day.

More recently she’s coming back from breaking her wrist in 2020, and is a breast cancer survivor. Her humour & positive outlook are contagious. That’s the context for sharing things like her “new” lyrics for “la donna e mobile” (shared yesterday, written back in the 1940s when Budapest was being bombarded).

As aszonj ing alatt ——– The lady, under her shirt,
Fogott egy bogarott —— grabbed a beetle
Hoszu es feketet ———- long & black
Csipte a feneket ———– it bit her on the butt

I’m already practicing it.

I hope everyone loves their mom and wants to tell their stories. But I wanted to add this background info for the tales I told earlier this week. I’m so grateful she’s still here, still totally lucid.

In her 100th year
Posted in Books & Literature, My mother, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, University life | 6 Comments

Tales from my Mom

After lunch my mom sometimes tells me tales from her youth. It’s good practice to see if I can understand her Hungarian, and it’s a privilege, a glimpse of another world.

ONE)
There was a teacher who thought my mom’s rosy cheeks were the result of rouge.

She described her disgust at the teacher licking her handkerchief, trying to wipe off the genuine colour that was on her face.

She doesn’t remember the name of the teacher.

Bakats Teri Elemi Iskola 1935. The building is still there in Budapest.

TWO)
My mother & her friends were in a park in Budapest.

A man in the park accosted them. He said she must be one who sent her letter to him..(?)

She replied “that wasn’t me.”

As they were leaving he said “why do you surround yourself with such ugly girls?”

Her friends teased her about that, boxing her shoulder, saying “ohh we’re such ugly girls”..!

THREE)
My mom laughed about how she & her sisters would listen to the radio, to the opera without understanding what the Italian text meant.

They wrote their own libretto

(sung to the tune of “La donna e mobile”)
As aszonj ing alatt ——– The lady, under her shirt,
Fogott egy bogarott —— grabbed a beetle
Hoszu es feketet ———- long & black
Csipte a feneket ———– it bit her on the butt

As my mom is the last survivor I think it’s safe to say she owns the copyright. I’m sorry Pavarotti is no longer available to sing it. Too bad.

FOUR)
At the art gallery there was a young fellow who followed my mom & her friends around. They giggled… They were shy. Who was this guy?

Later he knocks at the door of my mom’s home. He was a film-maker asks my mom’s father for permission to take her away to Italy where he wanted to make her a star. But her father said no.

He left a card with his name in case later she changed her mind. My mom kept the card for a long time, told me she remembers the name “Sordi”.

Today I googled for an Italian film-maker of that name. Could this be the same one?

They were born a year apart. He died awhile ago.

FIVE)
My mother told me she knew a young guy named Laci. Laci and a friend rented a room, while they were in architecture school in their last year.

They were advised of a draft: compulsory military service that would interrupt that last year of school.

My mom’s aunt Irene’s husband (she didn’t mention his name) helped to arrange a one-year deferral of the draft via someone he knew as a regular in the kocsma (pub).

The paperwork from this official also would later help him finish his degree after the war.
But first: the war…!

My mom used to write to Laci regularly. There was a standard postcard, issued by the government, for sending messages to soldiers. My mom wrote to Laci regularly at Laci’s mother’s urging.

Supposedly the letters helped to keep him alive, giving him hope.

My mom kept it up, writing regularly, but never heard even a single word of reply.

In the meantime my mom met Barcza Jozsef, aka my father.

My mom told me that Laci and a friend somehow broke out of the Russian prison camp where they had been doing forced labour.

They had walked home.

Laci came to see my Mom, expecting to marry her. He had been sustained in his years of war & imprisonment, by his memories of her.

But my mom was engaged to Barcza Jozsef. She hadn’t heard a single word of reply in all this time.

I interrupted the story.

“Let’s say you can do magic. If you could do whatever you like, would you wish you could have been with Laci?”

She shook her head. Apparently there was no comparison. She was in love with my dad.

In the end Laci married someone that he said looked like my mom. My mom looked at me, shook her head, and said, “well she was a blonde blue eyed woman”. Maybe she reminded him of my mom even if the resemblance wasn’t very much.

And after the war my mom was invited to dinner with Laci & his wife, on a Saturday night. But her water broke (she was pregnant), went to hospital. Katherine was born on Sunday… Laci & his wife sent a lovely floral arrangement as a gift, then went off to Mexico. Laci had an uncle in Mexico, also an architect (like Laci, who had finished his studies)

That’s the last she heard of him.

My mom in 1938 paddling on the Danube.
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The Mission in 2021

It’s been a month of reflection for Canadians following the discovery of the remains of 215 children buried on the grounds of the Kamloops residential school, another discovery near Brandon residential school, and the possibility of more to come. The role of the church in residential schools is in the foreground.

It’s the beginning of summer, a National Indigenous Peoples Day like no other.

Indigenous Canadians might retort that no, this is the same as usual. It might be different for us, the descendants of immigrant cultures. I’m scrutinizing everything right now, seeing traces of colonist discourses.

I noticed with a shudder that The Mission (1986), Roland Joffé’s award-winning film that I have long admired for its score by Ennio Morricone, isn’t quite as enlightened as I thought. I was first drawn to the film for the fascinating multi-cultural mashup we get from the composer.

The additional syncopation & counter-themes first emerging in the second minute of the trailer seem to signify something native, in contrast to the square churchy music, a utopian mixture of something Christian and seemingly native.

But now I’m looking closer.

This is fiction. We see Jesuit missionaries encounter a remote tribe in South America, building the mission of the film’s title, natives seemingly becoming Christians, then caught in a political conflict with elements in the church leading to a battle, a massacre and martyrdom for the Jesuits & the natives.

No it’s not as extreme as the images in our minds from Canada, best imagined in the paintings of Kent Monkman, of children dragged forcibly from their parents by priests & Mounties.

Detail from Kent Monkman’s The Scream, shared to Twitter by Lenard Monkman. The minister in the foreground reminds me of Jeremy Irons’ Jesuit priest in The Mission.

I had for a long time been content to think of The Mission as good guys vs bad guys, idealistic Jesuits bringing something to the natives, and killed by men with guns. Meanwhile, I should have been questioning more deeply. We don’t ever see that the indigenous populations who encounter the Europeans have their own culture, their own beliefs. The words they speak are not translated for us so they remain remote from us, virtually opaque. For all one can tell of the film, they are merely blank slates ready & willing to adopt the faith of the Jesuits, build a mission, sing Ave Maria in the choir, and then die defending the mission.

Except that’s part of the fictitious creation, masquerading as something genuine. The image we see on the film’s poster and in the film’s trailer (above) —of a missionary tied to a cross & set adrift in a river –is a wonderfully ironic image, but shouldn’t be mistaken for an actual event.

I used to teach a course on film music that would inevitably include some of Morricone’s magical score to The Mission. My main focus was the music and how it worked in the film. I also included Max Steiner’s Gone with the Wind, a film whose inaccurate representation of slavery & the Civil War does not negate the good work of the composer. I now realize I must slot Morricone’s work into a similar place in my mind, the compartment where I reconcile work that might in some sense be tainted.

We’re looking at the world differently in 2021. Not only have we had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, encouraging us to learn from the past, but many brilliant works of art to help us learn. I recall that I was a bit puzzled, that when Royal Winnipeg Ballet presented Going Home Star in 2016, the theatre had personnel on hand to help persons who might be overcome with the emotions raised by the work. I didn’t understand.

I recall feeling dizzy, overwhelmed by Monkman’s Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience show at University College in Toronto in 2017, feeling as though the ground had opened up beneath my feet with the recognition of the scope of the genocide. You can still download the program for the show here. What I experienced surely couldn’t have been more than a fraction of what a survivor of a residential school or or one of their descendants might feel.

Last year I saw two huge works from Kent Monkman at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY in person. Monkman’s imagery, making ironic reference to other art one might see at the Met, feels gentler than what we encounter in the “Shame and Preludice” show.

Kent Monkman (Cree, b. 1965). Resurgence of the People, 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 132 x 264 in. (335.28 x 670.6 cm). Courtesy of the artist

In 2021 Canadians are asking more questions. Perhaps one of these days we will have some answers.

Posted in Art, Architecture & Design, Cinema, video & DVDs, Dance, theatre & musicals, Music and musicology, Personal ruminations & essays, Politics, Spirituality & Religion, University life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Silent Chorus Trope: Peter Hinton and Amélie Niermeyer

I’m trying to wrap my head around something. It first caught my eye in Peter Hinton’s Louis Riel in the 2017 Canadian Opera Company production. Hinton added a chorus of silent witnesses to the action, lending weight to the proceedings, while effectively revising the troubled piece. While Harry Somers’ opera reflects its time, a dialogue between the two contending cultures as he saw it, Hinton adds the vital perspective of the Indigenous populations. Riel was Métis, judged & executed in courts of the colonist populations. Whatever you may think of the verdict, the silent witnesses broaden the scope of the work immeasurably, arguably an act of redemption for a work that otherwise is problematic in its narrow focus.

Members of the Land Assembly in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Louis Riel, 2017 (photo: Michael Cooper)

This past week I experienced something similar with the Staatsoper Hamburg production of Lucia di Lammermoor, directed by Amélie Niermeyer. Where Riel is a text concerning nations & cultures in conflict, Lucia addresses romance and marriage. The addition from Niermeyer is a ballet chorus of protesters, witnesses to rape culture & the ongoing expectations of subservience imposed upon their gender. Lucia usually goes mad, killing her new husband on their wedding night, singing a sad Mad Scene celebrating a kind of picturesque heart-break. Niermeyer and her rebel-Lucia cracks that open.

From program notes: “Inspired by worldwide women’s protests, director Amelie Niermeyer has filmed dancers in the city and invites them into the theatre via video” (photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg)

When I started to write this I could only think of the two examples, wondering to myself: “do two examples constitute a trope?” But then I remembered a few other instances.

At the end of his Bayreuth Festival production of Götterdämmerung Patrice Chereau has the crowd of bystanders turn to face the audience.

And at the beginning of François Girard’s Parsifal there is pantomime by the silent chorus during the prelude, as the brotherhood of Grail Knights assembles into a circle. The hero is present, observing silently. It’s not as absurd as it sounds considering how gendered the work is, with the sung chorus in the outer acts male, the “chorus” of flower-maidens in the middle act female.

While this video is the whole two hour act I’d direct you to the first fifteen minutes especially .

I am sure there are other examples in opera and also spoken theatre, but these are the ones that come to mind.

What’s especially remarkable about the examples from Hinton & Niermeyer is the political effect, an oppressed group who are usually a forgotten piece of subtext. Yes the Indigenous people were already here long before the story of John A Macdonald and Louis Riel. Yes the women regularly endure such treatment, before and since the time of the original Lucia, modernized in Niermeyer’s treatment.

The silent chorus bears witness, changing the optics and the political balance of the story.

I had an idea. In the world premiere production of Hadrian directed by Peter Hinton for the Canadian Opera Company, I liked the staging, didn’t mind the music, but felt the chorus of Hebrew voices at the end of the opera didn’t work. I’m not sure what was intended, but in some ways it’s the precise opposite to what Hinton achieved with Riel. While his silent chorus lends credibility to what is otherwise the spectacle of a grave miscarriage of justice in Riel’s execution, the chorus in Hadrian show up only at the end. What if the next revision shows us some chorus –perhaps silently—in earlier scenes? Wainwright & librettist Daniel MacIvor might consider giving us glimpses of the subject who turn up so powerfully at the end of that opera. At the very least their earlier appearance would better connect them to Hadrian’s life & story. If they had a few lines to sing, or were mysteriously seen (more apparitions alongside the other ghosts in this opera) it could help prepare the ending. Just my 2 cents worth.

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Hamburg Lucia: go big or go home

OperaVision are making Staatsoper Hamburg’s Lucia di Lammermoor available to you for three months. Here’s how they describe it.

Lucia loves Edgardo, the last heir of her family’s enemy clan. They are in danger, but Lucia refuses to betray her love. A ring falls to the floor, the nightmare begins – the nocturnal sky fills with lightning and thunder, madness and blood reign, there is a corpse, then another and yet another.

Staatsoper Hamburg’s Lucia di Lammermoor turns the city into a stage. Inspired by worldwide women’s protests, director Amelie Niermeyer has filmed dancers in the city and invites them into the theatre via video. They rush to the aid of the main character Lucia, who – like the director – asserts herself as a woman in a man’s world.
Streamed on OperaVision on 11 June 2021 at 19:00 CET and available for 3 months:

CAST Lord Enrico Ashton: Christoph Pohl
Lucia: Venera Gimadieva
Sir Edgardo di Ravenswood: Francesco Demuro
Lord Arturo Bucklaw: Beomjin Kim
Raimondo Bidebent: Alexander Roslavets
Alisa: Katja Pieweck
Normanno: Daniel Kluge
Chorus: Chorus of Staatsoper Hamburg
Orchestra: Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg
Music: Gaetano Donizetti
Conductor: Giampaolo Bisanti
Director: Amélie Niermeyer
Set Designer: Christian Schmidt
Costume Designer: Kirsten Dephoff
Lighting Designer: Bernd Purkrabek
Choreographer: Dustin Klein
Chorus Master: Christian Günther
Dramaturg: Rainer Karlitschek
Video Director: Jan Speckenbach
Photo (thumbnail) by Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

Lucia makes for an interesting study of the whole adaptation question. The work is well-nigh indestructible given that the virtuoso set pieces it’s best known for, the sextet and the Mad Scene, can work either as static display pieces (where the singer shows off), or as moments where the characters seem to be breaking down, emotionally distraught and therefore entitled to an out of tune squawk here or there.

For the Hamburg production directed by Amélie Niermeyer we’re in the realm of Regietheater, “Director’s theatre”, which means that the original work is modified in places, drifting away from the original while aiming at something socially contemporary, relevant. In the surtitles I saw phrases inserted that Donizetti never set to music. That will concern the purists, rather than those seeking to reform opera, a medium closely associated with the authoritarian regimes and the rich. The biggest intervention made by the director (mentioned in the summary above) is the filmed dancers overlaid via video, an electrifying & ironic effect simultaneous to the live singing & movements by chorus & personages.

The opera as written in Italian tells a romantic Scottish tale via the bel canto style, which already requires a sizeable suspension of disbelief. At the height of the drama everything freezes for the most famous music of the opera, as six people ruminate upon the situation, frozen by the stylistic convention as they elaborate upon their feelings in that moment. “Chi mi frena in tal momento” does not disguise the absurdity of the convention, putting it front & centre. The fact that our Edgardo must now hold a pistol is particularly absurd, but perhaps no crazier than what opera fans routinely are expected to swallow & believe at such moments.

This is one of the most rewarding Lucias I’ve seen. In a tasteful conservative staging as written: I’d be sitting back waiting for the moments of display, hoping that they’re sung well, with some drama beyond “do they hit the high note”, while trying to stay awake. The Directors Theatre approach may be more exciting, but always leaves me a bit frustrated given that some character or other is left out of the mix for one reason or another, sacrificed on the altar of artistic expediency. For example in the David Alden Lucia seen in Toronto in the past decade the concept mostly worked with the two principals while leaving Lucia’s brother Enrico struggling to make sense of a half-baked concept. With Niermeyer’s feminist reading she almost manages to bring the entire thing into the 21st century. But her concept is problematic as far as Edgardo, Lucia’s lover, and its understanding of romance. While I can totally buy into this idea of Lucia as a modern incarnation of an eternal sacrificial ritual, her lover isn’t just another rapist, indeed in some ways he could be seen as a victim of this culture, his final scene the feminine mirror image to the aggressiveness Lucia shows in her Mad Scene. The pleasures are more mental than visceral, a production appealing to me as scholar while deconstructing or negating the romantic side.

This production is often illuminating. The set exposes multiple spaces where, for example, we see Lucia actually killing Arturo, “offstage” from the others who are singing at that moment.

Set by Christin Schmidt, costumes by Kirsten Dephoff (photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg)

There are moments of pure magic, admittedly observed after my first viewing, when I’m not sure I fully understood the subtexts & the implications. There are young children who appear who might signify Lucia & her brother Enrico, while also suggesting Lucia & her lover Edgardo. The ambiguity of the image is surprisingly attractive. It works, at times very beautiful.

As far as the theatrical side of the equation goes, Venera Gimadieva as Lucia opposite Francesco Demuro as Edgardo make a believable pair of lovers. If you’re one of those more conservative viewers who dislike Regietheater while wishing to close your eyes and listen to the singing, the leads are visually attractive, but in the words of American Idol’s old judge Randy Jackson, they’re both “pitchy”, which is my euphemism to avoid harsh language. Gimadieva is often quite lovely sounding, Demuro has some stirring high notes, but the secondary roles sound better. I was shocked that Beomjin Kim as Arturo (the man who marries Lucia, aka lamb led to the slaughter) was substantially better sounding than Edgardo even though it’s a small role, impeccably sung. Christoph Pohl as Enrico showed off a wonderful baritone, even as he gave us an original take on Lucia’s brother. Alexander Roslavets’s Raimondo had the most beautiful singing of the night. Another way to understand (or rationalize) is simply that the lovers are the heart of the drama, in rebellion against the staid society portrayed so stolidly by the others. Conductor Giampaolo Bisanti gets a fluid & transparent sound from the Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg & the chorus.

“Inspired by worldwide women’s protests, director Amelie Niermeyer has filmed dancers in the city and invites them into the theatre via video” (photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg)

I wonder, though. Could this same concept –where we see the ghostly images of the dancers from the street protest—not have been enormously powerful using costuming & sets placing the action exactly where the score had asked? I think the modern texts inserted by the director would have been that much more jarring coming from a conventionally-attired Lucia. We didn’t need the pistol. But nevermind my misgivings, the production works if you meet it on its own terms, without taking meek halfway measures. Boldness is key.

Niermeyer brings Lucia much closer to the ideal than any I’ve yet seen. This is an ambitious reading daring to re-frame Lucia as an important archetype with whom we must reckon. enlarging the scope of the opera.

See for yourself. We were told it is
“streamed on OperaVision on 11 June 2021 at 19:00 CET and available for 3 months:”

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