Scappucci’s show: a Better Barber

The Canadian Opera Company have revived their production of Rossini’s Barber of Seville.  We saw it in 2015, a creation of the Spanish theatre troupe Els Comediants led by the team of director Joan Font & set/costume designer Joan Guillén.

I found that it’s better this time in two ways, ultimately coming down to one person.

First of all, everything was funnier.  I was laughing my head off throughout, listening to an audience giggling with me.  Why? It may sound simplistic bringing it all back to one person.

Last time while I did have some laughs, I found it political. Perhaps the whole thing seems so innocent for 2020, what with impeachments, forest fires & threats of war. But maybe it’s simply that the skill-sets of this group are different.  Last time I was impressed by the direction & design in a show that seemed to overshadow its singers.

This time? a stunning array of talent in the lead roles, all sensitive to the stylistic requirements of the piece.

Santiago Ballerini is not just a wonderful singer, interpolating more high-notes (at least 3 high Cs, the last especially impressive) into the role of Almaviva than any tenor I’ve ever heard.  He’s funny, with a gift for comedy even while singing beautifully.

Emily D’Angelo is every bit his equal for her comic chops but bringing a genuine weight to the role, serious when she had to be.  Yes she sings it wonderfully well, a star in the making. She makes us care about Rosina.

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Santiago Ballerini as Almaviva accompanying Emily D’Angelo as Rosina in the COC Barber of Seville (photo: Michael Cooper)

Vito Priante is the most impressive Barber I’ve ever heard, speaking as someone reared on Robert Merrill and playing this score over for my own brother in the role.  While his acting was not up to the brilliance of the other two his voice is the most remarkable baritone you’re ever likely to hear in this role, soaring up to his high “As” effortlessly, a light lyrical sound: but still a baritone, still a voice with weight.

For Bartolo we have Renato Girolami giving a clinic to teach you the genuine buffo style.

Put them all together and it’s breath-taking, quick as lightning.  And that’s where the other person comes in.

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Conductor Speranza Scappucci

Speranza Scappucci conducted some of the fastest tempi I’ve ever heard in this opera, especially in the finales & big ensembles.  The wheels almost came off in the Act I finale, so hair-raising as to border on the unintelligible, but totally wild & crazy.  Mind-boggling. Powerful. And yes very funny.  Her reading of the overture drew the biggest ovation I think I’ve ever heard for a COC overture: because it was so original.  In the final passages she kept the pedal to the floor, a pace that never let up.   In the ensembles where the singers stop seeming like individual people and begin to resemble a big automated machine –there are a few of these—Scappucci was especially relentless. Did the singers swear at her behind her back?  Shake their fists like the ballet dancers in Bye Bye Birdie (recalling that they are forced to dance at hyper-speed)?  We may never know.

And yet in the arias & duets there was a stylistic give & take, fluidity, flexibility, a stylish reading even while making the performance fly by.  Scappucci achieved a miracle of cohesion & pace, raising the comic stakes in that most old-fashioned of methods: through the music. The COC Orchestra sounded wonderful throughout.

This Barber is better than last time.  While it’s a team effort it’s especially the work of the brilliant conductor.  There are seven more performances, the last on February 7th .  I hope (pun intended) to see it again.  See and hear it if you can.

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Kent Monkman: Miss Chief Eagle Testickle’s big New York Adventure

Early in the musical documentary film The Last Waltz we see Ronnie Hawkins coming out onto the stage of the Winterland Ballroom. The music begins to play. Hawkins may be a musical legend but he is nervous, about to sing a song. You don’t want to blow it when you know you’ve got the largest audience of your entire career.

As he starts he calls out “big time, boys, big time!”

While Kent Monkman may have had similar apprehensions as he prepared to step out on the biggest stage of his career in front of his biggest audience there’s no evidence of fear or nerves. We’re witnessing a very self-assured and masterful debut on the world stage.

As Zoe and I came into the Metropolitan Museum yesterday I knew we’d see the paintings in the corridor even before getting tickets & entering the museum, the two big pieces so prominent right now as to be almost parts of the skyline.

Maybe I sound like I’m exaggerating?

The Met installation consists of two paintings of identical size. A pair of paintings, each 22 feet by 11 feet. Or 6.7 meters by 3.35 meters function on an epic scale that dwarfs most rooms and the viewers. For matters of history & cultural mythology?

As I have previously observed when speaking of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, his/her canvases, or the body parts portrayed therein: size matters.

His ongoing artistic project is meant to redress a colossal imbalance as he has previously observed, in the program to his 2017 show “Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience”:

“I could not think of any history paintings that conveyed or authorized Indigenous experience into the canon of art history. Where were the paintings from the nineteenth century that recounted, with passion and empathy, the dispossession, starvation, incarceration and genocide of Indigenous people here on Turtle Island?”

And if I may digress for a moment to remind you of the obvious, “Miss Chief Eagle Testickle” plays on two key words, namely “mischief” and “egotistical” with a little tickle for good measure. And if you see anything else in there? good for you.

Monkman is a post-modern artist, making inter-textual references to cultural images & icons to populate his paintings. We already saw this in his Shame & Prejudice show, both in a painting and later plates sending up the famous Canadian painting of Robert Harris’s painting “The Fathers of Confederation”.

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Canadians will recognize Robert Harris’s painting “The Fathers of Confederation”, parodied here.

Or in Death of the Virgin, with a respectful nod & a wink to Caravaggio.

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Kent Monkman Death of The Virgin (After Caravagio) 2016. Acrylic on canvas. 183 X 130cm.

For the big project in NY Monkman / Miss Chief have given us a pair of paintings, mistikôkosiwak (Wooden Boat People), namely Welcoming the Newcomers and Resurgence of the People.

I may be wrong to put them into a kind of historical order but that was the fortunate sequence I encountered them in, coming into the museum. I think of the “welcoming” painting coming first, and creating the circumstances –the cultural and physical genocide of the Indigenous Peoples as well as the madness of the ongoing colonial enterprise—that would necessitate the redemption implicit in the “resurgence”.

The “welcoming” painting is a kind of rescue drama, not far from the Thanksgiving myth that is so well—known, travelers coming ashore hungry and needing shelter from the stormy sea that has overturned or destroyed their vessels. There is turmoil, some in the background crying for help as we see people cling to the hull while a shark circles. We see a black man still in his chains struggling to come ashore, perhaps to show that slavery too was one of the things the colonial adventurers brought with them to their so-called “new world”.

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

The gentle parody at one side has Hiawatha who appears to be sitting in contemplation in the “welcoming” painting.

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Augustus Saint-Gaudens (American, 1848–1907). Hiawatha, 1871–72, carved 1874. Marble, 60 x 34 1/2 x 37 1/4 in. (152.4 x 87.6 x 94.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Diane, Daniel, and Mathew Wolf, in memory of Catherine Hoover Voorsanger, 2001 (2001.641)

The second painting would seem to be the Indigenous response, the Resurgence of the People being a bold declaration of defiance, resilience in the face of genocide.

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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

Monkman echoes Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, an iconic portrayal of American heroism reframed and reinvented in “Resurgence” . Miss Chief takes Washington’s place, as the boat bravely pulls away from a rocky island of male militarism complete with a white-power flashing goon in the background.

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Emanuel Leutze (American, 1816–1868). Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851. Oil on canvas, 149 x 255 in. (378.5 x 647.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of John Stewart Kennedy, 1897 (97.34).

My first impression online under-estimated the impact of these works, partly because online is a poor substitute for the impact of big paintings in person, partly because I didn’t really understand what Monkman was doing & saying in these works. For an audience that has no awareness of the indigenous genocide—indeed when there is disbelief and even objections to the use of the word as we saw in the recent investigation into missing & murdered Indigenous women—one has to proceed with caution.

Monkman has his biggest audience. How would you proceed if you had the chance to preach an important message to people who don’t even know they need to hear a message, people without any awareness or readiness to listen?

And so Monkman had to proceed with caution. If his message were too radical? He might be ignored if he even had the chance to be heard.

This is at one of the most fascinating aspects to the mistikôkosiwak installation. The politics behind the scenes intrigue me even as I’m unlikely to ever know the background. Was Monkman given stipulations, guidelines? The fact that he was invited at all blows me away. I’m impressed by their wisdom & good taste, a bold choice.

The fact that he has managed such a dignified yet activist statement in a conventional context is miraculous.  So yes the paintings look really cool online but see if you can see them in person. They’re that much more powerful, watching hundreds of people look up in awe and wonder.

#MetGreatHall #MetKentMonkman

Posted in Art, Architecture & Design, Personal ruminations & essays, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

To New York with Gershwin

Sometimes I have a fear of flying. I usually love the takeoff & normally sit by the window but when there’s turbulence I like to distract myself.

cambridge_gershwinOn a trip to New York what better subject could one find than George Gershwin? And happily I saw that the EJB Library had just acquired the Cambridge Companion to Gershwin (2019), edited by Anna Harwell Celenza.

It made for a romantic interlude in the sky on my flight.

If you know this series you’d be familiar with their usual template:

  1. Historical context
  2. The music
  3. Influence & reception

So there I was reading about old New York, both as a way to frame the life of Gershwin and as a kind of travel book. It might seem odd to come at a city via its noise history: that is until you recognize its relevance to a composer’s sonic world, as an influence.

Lots of people –millions and millions—lived in NY before and after. It might be trite to be thinking of traffic noise as somehow important: except that Gershwin was one of the first classical composers to bring the urban soundscape into his music.

Ellen Noonan’s essay “Hearing Gershwin’s New York” unpacks the different layers of the experience.

Apartment living is a key influence.

Regardless of social class, it was the very nature of apartment building life to hear your neighbors. Windows, thin walls and floors, shared hallways, airshafts – all provided all provided avenues for the sounds of others to infiltrate domestic space.

Yet I saw a tweet this morning from Lydia Perovic @LyyPerr

“I’m recovering from flu, cmon. One day I had her upstairs, in apt next door 4 young women screaming exuberantly re whatever young people scream about for hrs (“ughhhhaaaghhhhh I’m turning 32” for ex) and fire trucks on Bloor E. I thought: is this not hell. It’s hell. Sartre knew.”

Such is urban apartment life and it’s nothing new. Noonan quotes Duke Ellington explaining the context for his composition Harlem Air Shaft:

You get the full essence of Harlem in an air shaft. You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear people making love. You hear intimate gossip floating down. You hear the radio. An airshaft is one great big loudspeaker. (18)

As Zoe and I were walking across the Williamsburg Bridge yesterday I was reminded of the book, listening to vehicles & people.

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R-42 no. 4709 leads a J train across the Williamsburg Bridge in July 2008. (Photo: John Barnes)

You can feel the structure vibrate with so much traffic, so much life. It may have changed its timbre but the intensity is much the same as a century ago.

“Outdoors, human and mechanical sources – shouting peddlers, recorded music, delivery wagons, trolleys, elevated trains, construction equipment, automobiles – combined to banish tranquility from the streets where George Gershwin grew to adulthood…Isaac Goldberg (Gershwin’s first biographer, and the only one to write his life story while he was still alive) for example, identified urban sounds as “the rhythms that sound not only from his first hits but from his most ambitious orchestral compositions,” ambient urban noise such as:

The clatter of rollers over asphalt… the din of the elevated overhead… the madness of the traffic below… the cracked tones of the hurdy- gurdy… The blare of the automatic orchestra as the merry-go-round traced its dizzy circles through Coney Island’s penny paradises… The plaintive wail of the street singer across the obbligato of a scraping fiddle…these were the earliest rhythms to which young George awoke. (19)

Loud as it may be in 2020 I suspect it was louder in Gershwin’s youth.

The essay by Susan Neimoyer on “Gershwin’s Musical Education” couldn’t be more timely as we come to the Met’s High Definition broadcast of Porgy and Bess on February 1st.

And so begin the problems in our reception of the composer.

From the time of its creation George Gershwin’s concert music was viewed with skepticism by classically trained musicians. His signature mixture of popular and art music elements –taboo among his contemporaries unless “folk” elements were significantly modified—was seen as evidence of a lack of taste, skill and originality.

Neimoyer quotes Virgil Thomson’s 1935 review of Porgy and Bess:

“I do not wish to indicate that it is in any way reprehensible of [Gershwin] not to be a serious composer. I only want to define something that we have all been wondering about for some years. It was always certain that he was a gifted composer… I think, however, that it is clear by now that Gershwin hasn’t learned his business. At least he hasn’t learned the business of being a serious composer, which one has always gathered to be the business he wanted to learn.” (29)

There’s a whole lot more for me to read, in my spare time on my trip and especially when I’m flying home later this week (whether the air is turbulent or not).  There are essays about his music theatre, his music for piano & orchestra, two essays about Porgy and Bess, one concerning his music for film, plus the essays on his influence & reception, fifteen in all.

Gershwin is lurking in the back of my head when I think about the interface between popular & art music, influences & echoes. Playing the Slavonic Dances (the first set of 8, in two-handed versions) & Liszt’s Valses Oubliées, since re-listening to Scott Walker’s music late last year I’m reframing virtuosity as something more genuinely exploratory. If we get away from the competitive model of the pianist skillset it can simply be a playful exploration especially when linked to folk elements, teasing out new shapes & combinations of sounds. Gershwin comes later responding to some of the same dynamics & influences. Serious and popular meet in so many musical styles even as the academic world sometimes struggles to catch up to the admiring crowd, slowed by the complex politics of popularity.

Fortunately the listeners don’t have that problem.  We are drawn to beauty without academic prejudice or jealousy.

Meanwhile? I must keep reading.

Posted in Books & Literature, Music and musicology, Opera, Popular music & culture, Reviews, University life | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nukeface or “what are you looking at”?

I’m in New York to see Nukeface, at the Bodega Gallery in New York.

More accurately I’m in New York because it’s a chance to see Zoe Barcza, my daughter.

It’s exciting to get to see her and to see her art in a gallery.  These vagabond shoes are longing to stray… so of course I came to NY. Nukeface = paintings by Zoe, a show that has just opened, running until March 8th.

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Zoe Barcza: Bring the Ruckus, 2019 Acrylic, vinyl paint and collage on linen 59.1 x 86.6 in (150 x 220 cm)

I’m very proud of what I see her doing, as I struggle to say something that sounds even a little objective. But I’ve never seen anybody do what she does. A big part of what I’m feeling might be normal parental disorientation in the presence of change & growth. I feel that I’m watching society change before my eyes, doing things I never expected to see. Sometimes I struggle with that sense of getting older, surrounded by smarter cuter younger people, hoping to keep up with them as I feel my competence slipping. I take comfort when I see something new and brilliant, especially from young artists.

We went to see a film yesterday that’s full of disturbing images & violence, a much cleaner version of the angst & horror I saw Saturday in the Met Wozzeck. Uncut Gems stars Adam Sandler, Judd Hirsch plus a bunch of actors I don’t know in an unrelenting and driven 2 hours 15 minutes, a throbbing score from Daniel Lopatin. I’m seeing connections between the art, the film, and our troubled & troubling world, that offers occasional glimpses of transcendent beauty to the schmucks down in the trenches (that might sound like Wozzeck especially in its WW I updating). I’m not sure that the truth will set you free, but lying and cheating is no way to live. Recent events are such that nowadays I can be uplifted even by getting a glimpse of a moral compass and some sense of right & wrong, whether or not the good actually get rewarded.

Empowerment and agency aren’t always possible. Let’s just put that out there. The world can be a difficult place. The paintings in Nukeface and the way they made me feel is so different from what I saw coming from Peter Mattei on Saturday, the paintings like a series of rocks thrown into the waters not just to disrupt the calm surface but to grab some dignity and power at a time when that seems to be slipping away.

As a group there’s a great deal of nudity, exposed female bodies, vulnerability, and yet it’s right there in your face on each large canvas. I’m trying to unpack what’s going on, sometimes something playful and witty on the surface of something darker.

I’ll start with the pair of complementary paintings in the rear space of the gallery, Linda And Tentacles #1 and #2. The title is mechanically accurate as though the fact of the nude and tentacles could happily co-exist, a blithe little paradox that resembles life.

But it’s a subtle conflict as we notice upon further review that we’re in a kind of dream-space. The sweet expression on the face is unexpected with such an exposed & vulnerable female form. It’s disjointed because of the angularity of the composition, a body floating or falling, perhaps flying as in a vision or nightmare. There is a kind of defiance in the assertion of joy in this image, with silhouetted flowers. The proportions play with our perceptions, the head a bit foreshortened, but no, it’s disproportionately large, making the female nude somewhat childlike by implication.

The cognitive dissonance between the joyful beauty on the one hand and the implicit exploitation of exposure & possible violation on the other suggests questions for me, the complicit male viewer, making me unpack the sexual politics of my time and my self. Is the body exploited, used by the gaze, and can the form take back its power? I feel that’s at least part of what’s going on here. If “Linda” could speak, she might laugh at my confusion, as tangled as tentacles obscuring and grabbing.

I started with those two even though they were the last of the paintings, a stiller resting place after the front part of the gallery, where things are even more fraught and dramatic.

How Alcohol Makes Me Feel reminds me of something Frida Kahlo might have painted, the body having become an elaborate site for drama, as though the body is the set on which an epic opera or an installation were to be enacted. And so it is, come to think of it. Since Kahlo we see the body vital or broken, empowered or crushed. I suppose all nudes since her time are almost footnotes to Kahlo the way any philosophy has been seen as footnotes to Plato.

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Zoe Barcza: How Alcohol Makes Me Feel, 2019 Acrylic, vinyl paint and collage on linen 59.1 x 86.6 in (150 x 220 cm)

But I see echoes in the way Zoe has things growing out of these bodies, infections or eruptions like hallucinatory effects.

There are similar eruptions & growths in Bring the Ruckus (shown above). I’m trying to calibrate the eruption of a Venus fly-trap: erupting out of a woman’s ass.

I can’t stop staring into those eyes, trying to appreciate what’s going on inside that head. This is not a helpless exploited female, even if the body is a problematic site and the male gaze is fraught in a world of porn & exploitation.

The headline is really what I think she says to me, arguably what any woman might be asking.

The Broken Column

Frida Kahlo: The Broken Column

Zoe could have made these more real (as Kahlo did), and then really would have freaked me out completely. I talked to her about this. The things bursting out of the bodies are overlaid very artificially in order to disrupt the surface almost as Brechtian devices, calling attention to themselves as fakery rather than being perfect. If it were too real we’d be into a realm of such powerful magic as to possibly get too dark too scary too unbearable. And that might take us back to Wozzeck and Marie, helpless and defeated.

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Frida Kahlo: Henry Ford Hospital

Indeed, that’s more like what Kahlo showed us, her body like a broken thing on an assembly line, infertile and unable to conceive. But these bodies are alive and empowered, undaunted by the questions and provocations implied in those secondary phenomena.

I’m reminded of certain groups who manage to find a positive affirming outlook. The art of the Third World, the performances of Indigenous artists reconnecting with their culture and language, and especially the creations of women. There is nothing so beautiful as that feeling we experience watching artists finding an answer to oppression, finding a way to say “yes.” Their answer can be our answer.

Meanwhile I was thinking of the song “New York New York”, that I heard so recently. At the New Years celebration we hear that line “if you can make it here, you’ll make it anywhere”, a place where the best art & music & theatre still can be found. These vagabond shoes are longing to stray…

I’m a proud dad.

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Met HD Wozzeck

They say it’s a co-production, this new Wozzeck that was broadcast in High Definition this past weekend from the Metropolitan Opera:

A co-production of the Metropolitan Opera;
Salzburg Festival; the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto; and Opera Australia.

The co-pro of Parsifal is coming next season, a production we’ve seen in HD.  When will Toronto audiences see our own Wozzeck?  This one won’t be nearly so expensive when the COC mounts it so perhaps we won’t have to wait too long.  While we could go with expensive imports (for example we’ve seen two of the Met’s cast Elsa van den Heever & Christian Van Horn in Toronto before), yet there are Canadians who can sing these roles.

Indeed after seeing the high-def broadcast I think they’d do a better job.

That’s another way of saying that while this production is visually impressive, and a triumph for Yannick Nézet-Séguin & his Met orchestra, I have some misgivings about the choices made by the performers on stage: which would suggest that a Canadian cast can do this at least as well if not better.

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Peter Mattei in Wozzeck at the Met. (Photo: Paola Kudacki/Met Opera)

Yes I’m starting the lobbying early. Why not?

There are at least two big caveats I need to throw out there before I begin:

  • The High Def viewpoint isn’t the same as in the house. The view from up close is so unforgiving as to be  like an acid test.  (as I shall explain in a moment)
  • I don’t know whether what we saw comes from the performers or the director, although ultimately it’s a moot point either way. But as with #1 keep this in mind as a possible footnote to what I’m about to say about the interpretations.

I’ll aim for the executive summary up front, and then pursue the nerdy stuff later.

Wozzeck is not Amfortas.  Obvious? Perhaps, but someone should tell Peter Mattei. The personage of Wozzeck would seem to pose the question: can such a passive figure even be understood as a hero?  He has very limited agency, following orders, cowering, or speaking as though he’s mad almost from the beginning.  He is a kind of lab rat in the experiments of the Doctor that might contribute to his mental problems, he’s cuckolded by his partner Marie, and mocked publicly for it.  The close-up camera does Mattei no favours, capturing all his angst, so much pain right in your face.  Perhaps in the huge Metropolitan Opera House it works just fine?  If Wozzeck knew he were mad and wanted to become sane, to be redeemed & to change? all well and good. But that wouldn’t be Wozzeck anymore. I don’t know whether this is Mattei’s doing or the outcome of director William Kentridge’s interpretation.  I understand Wozzeck as much more passive than what we see from Mattei, someone whose personal mantra could be captured in his first line in the first scene, when he says “Jawohl Herr Hauptmann” more than once.  He passively obeys the Doctor & the Captain.  With Mattei so powerful from an explosive beginning he has nowhere to build.  The voice is lovely, the emotions genuine. But perhaps his director should help give the character some shape?

I’d love to see this role played by Russell Braun or some other capable Canadian.  I found that Mattei over-acted, his every gesture and facial contortion caught by the high def cameras.  This is an expressionist opera, where the emotions are all larger than life, exaggerated in the sounds we hear from the orchestra and sometimes in the singing, and so perhaps that seems like an invitation to act up a storm & forget about subtlety or small gestures.

Van den Heever though does much better in close-up, sometimes giving us a blank face in response to the explosions from her partner.  And in every case she was the one I was looking at, the one who was believable, because she didn’t seem to be acting.  Is this a sign of a better alignment between her interpretation, Kentridge’s reading & the text?  But I’ve never seen a Wozzeck where I didn’t like the Marie. The role is unbreakable, so brilliantly written by composer Alban Berg that we can’t help but be moved. Although maybe van den Heever deserves at least some of the credit for being believable both as the Mary Magdelene side of the character and as the mother as well.  On a day when Toronto was enduring huge rains & fears of flood, there was a minor deluge on my face in her solo scenes in the first act & again in that poignant scene that usually opens Act III.

Usually that is. For this production however instead of three acts of five scenes each, we get an uninterrupted flow for fifteen scenes, for a running time around 100 minutes.  That would seem to be a brilliant idea.

The child that we first meet in the scene where Marie sings the lullaby is played by a puppet, a choice reminding me of the child in the Minghella Madama Butterfly.  While this might be one of the most troubling aspects of the production, I found it totally worked for me (waterworks as confirmation): except for the last scene.  I hate to be a spoiler but you will likely see pictures and hear people talk about this.  Again I suspect that this works better in the theatre than in high-def close-up.

Kentridge updates the production to the First World War, a little over 100 years ago.  I was just discussing something comparable last week regarding Robert Carsen’s Rosenkavalier production that has been revived this year, also updated; Carsen’s updating places the action just before The Great War begins.  I’m not sure what the updating accomplishes, as this is already one of the most powerful operas ever written, but it doesn’t harm the work.   Kentridge puts a screen onstage ostentatiously projecting images that sometimes complement the action, sometimes distracting.  During the elegiac summation interlude before the final scene I felt that the images failed to match the eloquence of the music; they need to be reconsidered.

It includes some of the most explicit lines about poverty of any opera in the rep .  Because it’s an expressionist opera it’s over the top, not just a depiction of poverty but characters talking about being poor.  Kentridge’s stage picture is often a messy collage in multiple media, people sharing the stage with puppets and masked figures on the border between human and puppet.  Of course. This is not a pretty story.

I’m hopeful that the COC will announce their plans to stage this production sometime soon.

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Framing the Pollyanna proposition

January is named for that two-headed god who is able to look ahead and back. As I ponder the wreckage of 2019 I wonder if Janus was too busy looking down at his phone and not watching where he was going, a year of surprises, crashes & misadventures. So while I never pretend I’m able to see everything, this year has been especially erratic, between our basement flood and the new rescue animal. I’m even later than last year in my review of the previous year.

While I missed a few performances I feel extraordinarily lucky. Things could have been so much worse.

As I reflect on what it all means I keep coming back to Pollyanna, that avatar of positive thinking. There’s a quote in the book that should be a mantra for critics.

“When you look for the bad,
expecting it,
you will get it”.

And so I prefer not to seek the bad. Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. It’s a pain management strategy, a way to handle reality especially when you live in interesting times. Speaking of rivers, we coped with the flood, thanks to a combination of a good pump (I rushed off to rent it, keeping the water from getting more than a few inches deep), luck and insurance coverage.

And while we spent lots of money on canine ailments she’s still here, often under the piano.

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Pollyanna doesn’t avoid reality. She reframes it, which means selectively looking and sifting and, dare I say it, even curating. So I don’t deny so much as pull back and look at frameworks & contexts. Whether we’re speaking of morals or aesthetics the framework is key. Yes it’s a bit of a tap-dance but the tune is a happy one.

And so I frame the year around key issues that have greater prominence at a time like this one. I saw a gallery who described their mission beautifully in language that could stand for everything I’m demanding going forward.

“The presentation of complicated and interesting ideas,
subversive actions, and socio-political consciousness.”

That doesn’t sound like anything Pollyanna would say, but maybe she’s just too polite to say that out loud. She has her dreams, her ideal world, but in the meantime must be content with the world she is in. Ambition is a good thing, right?

We have a right to demand more.

  • Inclusiveness: gender, race, age, and awareness of such things as the quest for reconciliation with Indigenous populations, varieties of ableness, LGBTQ, and historical interfaces that have been fraught in the past
  • Stewardship: of the environment, of an art itself in thoughtful programming,
  • Canadian talent: their desire to make enough $ to live in our increasingly gentrified city

Who am I to speak of such things? I’m figuring it out as I go. I’m learning.

In the meantime I rely on a few go-to people. They may not always knock the ball out of the park but knowing that their hearts are in the right place means I will always find time for what they’re doing. And more often than not, they are brilliant.

  • Joel Ivany: Against the Grain continue to entertain & enlighten. Figaro’s Wedding in December and Vivier’s Kopernikus in April were two of the highlights of the year, and I’m not even including the revivals of la boheme that toured the country: likely as good as they were when I saw them before (I missed the more recent ones). Whether he’s transladapting a well-known work such as Figaro or boheme or showing us something new like the Vivier, he first makes sure it works as a good piece of theatre. I’m eager to see what Ivany will make of Hansel & Gretel with the Canadian Opera Company next month, an opera whose exploration of poverty seems especially timely right now.
  • Crystal Pite whose Revisor in collaboration with Jonathan Young was the single most exciting & thought-provoking show I saw all year.
  • Adam Paolozza: Bad New Days gave us two intriguing shows in 2019, namely Paolozzapedia and more recently Melancholiac: The Music of Scott Walker.
  • Sondra Radvanovsky: there is no more reliable artist in this country right now than this one. Whatever she touches turns to gold. Part of that may be the awareness of Alexander Neef of the COC, wanting to always employ her Midas touch intelligently. The production of Rusalka assembled around her was like a fabulous ring to showcase the diamond. We are so lucky that she has chosen to live here.
  • Tamara Wilson has been consecutively in a pair of shows that are the opposite of what we saw from Sondra, productions I found frustrating as she shone in spite of their darkness.  Que bella voce!
  • Jonathan Crow continues to sparkle at the Toronto Symphony while venturing across town for the Toronto Summer Music Festival, not just as curator but as a performer seeming at times to carry the whole show on his back. And he’s just getting started.
  • David Fallis who is so busy, between bringing the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir to a higher level, whose gentle touch gives Opera Atelier so much integrity, while finding time for Choir 21, the Toronto Consort and guest appearances, makes everything he touches sound better.
  • Andrew Davis is holding the fort conducting the Toronto Symphony while we wait for Gustavo Gimeno to take over in the fall of 2020. The first few glimpses of Gimeno give every indication that he’s worth the wait.
  • Johannes Debus continues to be reliable no matter what he conducts, often the best thing (meaning his leadership of the COC Orchestra) in that production.  And Parsifal is coming soon!

I want to be especially sensitive to the women stepping forward in leadership roles. It’s a great time for the women in opera & music.  And yes, it’s about bloody time. Please note, some of these people are mentioned even though I didn’t actually see what they did last time around because I’ve seen them in past years. There’s Aria Umezawa, back after time spent abroad, as part of Amplified Opera teamed up with Teiya Kasahara. There’s Alaina Viau both of Loose Tea Music Theatre and also Toronto City Opera. The excitement of Musique 3 Femmes bringing so much new creation to life–here and elsewhere– bodes well for the future.

Tafelmusik are led by Elisa Citterio who include creative programming by Alison MacKay. Ah yes Tafelmusik are wonderfully inclusive, even letting a dead composer conduct (thinking of Herr Handel of course).  Now that’s inclusive..!

I will list a few of my favorite moments of 2019, recognizing that my two favorite moments were at home:
• When the flood-waters stopped
• When the dog settled in beside the piano for the first time (later settling underneath, where we have created a den for her)

reflected

Maybe I should provoke more dialogue. The most exciting thing I did all year was shoot my mouth off about Canadians on the stage of the COC in a bit of a rant. I received a number of replies and also some wonderful private messages. Let’s just say “don’t believe everything you hear” and I won’t go any further than that.

But in the spirit of that rant, let me in the quietest and most abstract terms lay out a few key principles along the lines of what that aforementioned gallery said. Remember? They spoke of
“the presentation of complicated and interesting ideas, subversive actions, and socio-political consciousness.”

If you prefer simple ideas you’re probably not reading my blog, a place full of contradictions, run-on sentences and wistful observations. But if you’re here, let me remind you when this matters most:

  • When you decide what to see..(?)
  • When you decide whom to support(?)
  • When you vote (?)

Then you might well ask yourself: what do I want? What matters to me?

Do I care whether my artists of choice make a land acknowledgement, and if it seems sincere?  Some do, some don’t. Does it matter to you?

Do I demand inclusiveness, or will the status quo of white men be enough?

Do I care that the city’s gentrification has made it so expensive to live here that artists are being squeezed out?

Does it matter whether I’m watching Canadian artists performing Canadian work?

You vote with your money. When you decide to go see a show you can pick the one packed with stars from abroad, or you can see something that might help feed someone born in this country.

And so: here is how I recall a few of the notable moments of 2019.  I always prefer ambitious art. While I raved about all sorts of things, I only list the ones here that were really good. I offer this subjective list in order of the intensity of my response.

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Doug Letheren in Revisor (Photo: Michael Slobodian)

  • Revisor – Jonathan Young & Crystal Pite, the single most exciting night of theatre all year
  • Prince Hamlet ran a close second. It would be #1 except this is a revival from an earlier year.

    horatio

    Dawn Jani Birley a signing Horatio (photo: Bronwen Sharp)

  • Rusalka from the COC is the best opera they’ve done in years.

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    Sondra Radvanovsky (centre) as Rusalka (photo: Chris Hutcheson)

  • Kiviuq Returns: An Inuit Epic (did you see it?) directed by Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory
    01
  • The St Matthew Passion, led by Masaaki Suzuki
  • Isaiah Bell—Book of my Shames. Okay it’s more cabaret than opera, but these were the biggest laughs of the year, an impressive solo performance
  • 887: while Robert Lepage may be out of fashion –indeed opera lovers worldwide trash his Ring –this was breath-taking, and the single most impressive solo performance of the year.
    887_2
  • Birds of a Kind–  Wajdi Mouawad’s newest in Stratford
  • …and there are many more I could mention.

In conclusion I must express my gratitude for diversion, artists working long hours in their lives to distract us from life, to help us forget the craziness swirling around us. Whatever else I do, I must thank everyone who contributed in any way to all the performances, all the creativity poured forth for the lucky listeners, all the teachers & mentors, and all those giving their money to build and support that work.  We are fortunate.

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Lisztomania CD

Lisztomania? It was a Ken Russell film. And the name described an actual phenomenon, crazed admirers of the great pianist Franz Liszt aka Liszt Ferenc back in the 19th Century.

And there’s a CD from Mikolaj Warszynski, capturing a live concert from 2017.

I’m a bit of a Lisztomaniac myself I suppose. So many of my musical experiences are filtered through the lens of Liszt. He was not just a great pianist interpreting his music, but an original, one of a kind, opening doors that others have gone through since. In an interview concerning Melancholiac The music of Scott Walker, Gregory Oh spoke of other composers similar to Walker. Oh spoke of Liszt. I’ve always seen him as one of the most under-rated pathfinders; but I couldn’t reconcile my intuition with a logical rationale. At least until that interview that is.  I’m seeing connections between such disparate persons as George Gershwin and Dvorak, Franz Liszt and Nicole Lizée with the help of Oh’s commentaries on Scott Walker. Listening to Johann Strauss last night—especially his Zigeuner tunes & dances—my mind naturally connected to the Hungarian Rhapsodies and composers who connect to popular and/or folk music.

There’s so much to him, as philanthropist? as a supporter & promoter of other composers? as a theorist & thinker? I don’t think Liszt is appreciated. But excuse the lengthy preamble / digression.

I’ve been listening to the Lisztomania CD for weeks.  Or is it months? I have been thinking about this music, having been so many times through the CD that I have a clear image in my head.   You may recall that I wrote earlier this year about a CD by Warszynski playing mostly romantic piano music, including Liszt & Chopin. That earlier CD had more Chopin (Polonaise op 26 #2, Scherzo #1, Nocturne op 48 #1 and Polonaise op 53), with just the one big Liszt warhorse (the Mephisto Waltz #1).

I still can’t tell whether he has a preference between the two (Liszt? or Chopin?), which might be another way of saying that he does justice to both composers, a highly original & authentic approach to each composer.

This time except for a single tiny Chopin encore (the A minor Mazurka Op 68 #2) tucked in second-last near the end, it’s all Liszt including several big pieces.

  • Il Penseroso, that begins the 2nd of the Années de Pèlerinage
  • Un Sospiro, concert Etude
  • Liebestraum #3
  • Hungarian Rhapsody #10
  • Ballade #2
  • Hungarian Rhapsody #12
  • Petrarchan Sonnet #123 from later in that second of the Années de Pèlerinage

Let me talk for a minute about the different flavours of Liszt that we explore on this CD. We’re not encountering the opera transcriptions or song transcriptions or symphonic transcriptions nor are we hearing the big Sonata.

Warszynski assembles a program for a live concert that we hear on the CD (or so one would assume). This is a particular corner of the Liszt phenomenon we might call “Liszt the romantic poet”. Warszynski assembles, or should I say curates(?) the sequence to flow naturally, from the darkness of the opening Il Penseroso, to the optimism of “Un Sospiro”, to the well-known melody of the love-dream, Liebestraum #3. Those three seem a bit like an opening chapter. The stern and rhythmic decisiveness of Il Penseroso contrast the inspiring flow of the Etude, and more flow of a gentler sort in the Liebestraum.

 

Then we come to the stormy middle of the concert, three huge works that push any pianist at least as far as showing technical ability. I have to wonder, does Warszynski think he has to avoid sounding like a show-off? It’s a problematic aspect of virtuosity, damned if you do, perhaps also damned if you don’t.

But Warszynski doesn’t. That is, he doesn’t seem to play any of these pieces to show off. If anything he’s showing us a subtler Liszt than you might have expected, a genuinely poetic Liszt without the artificiality one would associate with the circus act that is virtuosity for its own sake. That’s not the real Liszt but it’s so hard to get to a level of skill, an ease with the technical requirements to be able to toss the music off, sounding musical rather than showy.  I think it also means that given the choice one aims for the most purely musical effect, dodging the big coups de theatre and the fireworks.

In the last part of the CD we’re into a gentler place, with the quirky Mazurka and the questioning voices of the Petrarchan Sonnet.

In the previous review I wondered about the process, how pianists get known & how they become stars. I continue to wonder. Warszynski deserves to be known.

Click here to find out how you can obtain the CD.

MikolajWarszynski

Pianist Mikolaj Warszynski

 

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