COC: Aida & Death in Venice

Once upon a time, the key to operatic success was understood according to the prestige associated with the famous singers in the cast.  Success required star-power, at least in the viewpoint of the influential impresario Sol Hurok, who changed our understanding of theatrical excellence for decades after.  We describe the great productions we remember from the middle of the 20th Century by citing the stars in the cast, even if the acting or ensemble qualities of those stars were a negligible contribution to the success of the show.

The Canadian Opera Company would bring in singers such as Joan Sutherland, on the premise that this is what audiences want; without recognizable stars you couldn’t build an audience, or so the thinking went.

That was then, but this is now.  The recent offerings by the COC don’t just demonstrate what it takes to be successful in the 21st century, they are certainly a strong indication of the direction that the COC will be taking with their new artistic directorship.  The scores of the two operas being presented –Britten’s Death in Venice, and Verdi’s Aida –couldn’t be more dissimilar, yet once we get to the productions we discover that the COC’s approach is remarkably consistent.  The common thread in the COC’s philosophy might be seen as the 21st century’s answer to Sol Hurok.

If the opera world had not changed, we’d be in big trouble, because there simply aren’t enough legitimate voices to cast operas such as Aida.  In a Sol Hurok style world, we’re running on empty, without very many stars – well-known personalities—and with an even bigger shortage of genuine voices.  And so it’s no wonder that the COC hadn’t staged Aida for a generation (over 20 years), and that many other companies face a similar talent shortfall.

No wonder, then, that opera is no longer being sold on the basis of its stars, when that old selling point simply won’t work (because of a talent shortage), and the new target audience –younger people—lack the experience to recognize the stars.  Instead, the visual aspects of the mise-en-scène (the look and feel) have become the new selling point, a value system much more amenable to marketing and much friendlier to the neophyte.  This leads to one of the recurring complaints of the most conservative among the long-time opera fans, that directors and designers flout the original text.  The most extreme form is the phenomenon known as Regietheater, an approach to mise-en-scène that superimposes an interpretation over top of the original, sometimes with little apparent connection to the text being presented.  This European phenomenon turns up in North America from time to time, often accompanied by a controversy that only serves to fill seats and thereby reinforce the apparent value of this approach.  At its best, as in the Patrice Chereau deconstruction of Wagner’s Ring at the 1976 centennial production at the Bayreuth Festival, one discovers something fresh to reinvigorate a moribund tradition.  At its worst such productions make it very hard to get at the text –either the singing or the dramatic presentation—because of the new text being presented.

This gives us the contexts for assessing both Aida as well as Death and Venice.   The COC cast two different women to play Aida, a role that few women in the world can sing with sufficient authority to be heard over the large orchestra Verdi employs.  One of them was Michelle Capalbo, a young Canadian taking a brave step with this role.  The other was Sondra Radvanovsky, an internationally famous singer who by coincidence has chosen to settle in Ontario.  At one time Radvanovsky would have been such an important draw for the company’s season that she would have been central to the marketing, the design of the production and the public expectation walking into the theatre for Aida.

But that’s not what happened.  The COC split the production roughly in half, giving Radvanovsky the first performances, and Capalbo the final ones.  As a subscriber I had no indication which of the two singers would be cast on my night; when I found out I would be missing out on Radvanovsky I purchased a second ticket to one of her performances as well.  The impression I had, however, was that to most subscribers the casting one way or the other simply was not an issue.  However much I like to take pride in the sophistication of our Toronto audience –who seem very savvy as theatre goers and adept at decoding complex directorial concepts & design schemes—at times I despair that nobody (here or anywhere else for that matter) cares about singers anymore.

The production, designed by Hildegard Bechtler (set) and Jon Morrell (costumes), with direction by Tim Albery, seems to conform to the recent COC template, as seen in their triumphant production of War and Peace, also directed by Albery.  The choice of opera plays directly to the company’s strengths.  Large chunks of the opera require excellent work from the orchestra and the chorus.  A more conventional production—that is, one without a significant design concept overlaid on the Egyptian tale in the original Ghislazoni libretto—can be stodgy, as the action stops for a series of set pieces.  By updating the work to a somewhat modern place, the celebrations of war and conquest in the work are interrogated and even dissected.  There is nothing boring in this production, no moments when you might nod off.

But the updating supplies a series of pluses and minuses.  The COC must have saved a lot of money by using a set that seems to employ the same tired office furniture seen in their recent Götterdämmerung.  If one comes to this Aida light-heartedly – that is, with a playful sensibility rather than with an expectation of something that follows the scenario of the opera you know and love—there are some magical moments.  Amneris, the Egyptian Princess who loves Rhadames, the Egyptian commander, is reinvented as a modern big-haired fashionista, using a design vocabulary owing more to Sex in the City and Mad Men than anything to do with ancient Egypt.  I couldn’t help but think that Albery must have found some scenes boring and enjoyed updating the parts of the opera that are the weakest scenes Verdi wrote.

But by making this radical re-write, Albery undermined the parts of Aida that are usually theatrical gold.  Rhadames’ last confrontation with Amneris in a modern space still works, but when we come to the final entombment –something I can only understand in a culture with pyramids and sarcophagi, not uzis and battle fatigues—the modernization becomes particularly weak.  For some reason in the final duet, Albery has Aida and Rhadames drift apart, dying with a 30 foot gap separating the lovers onstage.  And so I wanted to congratulate Albery, for improving the parts of Aida that were never going to carry the work, while undermining the parts that are important.  It’s as if he installed good mirrors and leather interior in a car without an engine.  Does anyone but the family of the ballet dancers in the Act II ballet actually go to Aida for the ballet?  Albery and his design team fixed the parts of the opera nobody really loves, while wrecking the parts people adore.

In fact Aida needs more than a good soprano or two, but requires an excellent ensemble.  Radvanovsky’s presence was conspicuous among a group where no one was even nearly her peer.  Capalbo, in comparison was from the same competent level as the rest of the cast; as a result her performance seemed balanced, and without the distraction of the traditional virtuosic element, whereby the audience appraises and cheers the performances of stars.

Radvanovsky enticed the Rhadames of Rosario La Spina to sung louder than he probably intended.  By Act IV, he was a spent-force, after heroically singing himself out earlier, cracking and fading.  On the night I saw him with Capalbo, on the other hand, he stayed within his usual limits, and as a result never cracked.  At times the voice sounded lovely.  I am trying to imagine whether he would have been more credible in conventional costuming as an Egyptian (even if we would have been treated to B movie postures and clichés) rather than his unconvincing attire as a modern general.  The unfortunate result of the modernization is to invoke a realistic dramaturgy, and implicitly shining a bright light upon absurdities such as a man leading an army who looks as threatening as a tall, chubby bunny.  I found myself wondering if maybe he and not Amneris was the one in the royal family, given his improbable rise to the head of an army.  But his singing was very musical.

Jill Grove’s Amneris was a melodramatic reading from the Dolora Zajick school, namely angry, passionate, very loud, jealous to the point of balling her hands into fists through her duet with Rhadames in Act IV scene one.  But that scene, the true test of any Amneris, was powerfully sung.

I did not come to the theatre with any expectations of Radvanovsky as an actress; she actually made me cry twice with her acting.  The first time was the moment after her father Amonasro has persuaded her she must help him in the fight for Ethiopia, which means the betrayal of her lover Rhadames; there was a moment of recognition, when she shudders and then composes herself for the upcoming fakery.  The second was early in the tomb scene, when she hesitates for a moment before showing herself to Rhadames, distraught at what she faces.  In both cases she took the moment in an unexpected direction with great conviction.  I felt that Radvanovsky didn’t really start to sing in earnest until Act III. At times you hear echoes of the young Callas in her high notes, which have a piercing edge and a laser clear attack; at other times she slides up to the top, in an approach reminding me more of Jon Vickers (perhaps an odd analogy, given that they do not sound alike at all) , a gentle croon that happens to be loud enough to fill the hall, swelling on the note and gradually getting up to pitch. AND like Vickers, she cruises along until the really important singing comes, then throws it into a higher gear, blowing everyone else off the stage.

In contrast to the ensemble values of Aida, Death in Venice is almost a one man show.  I wonder, is Aschenbach the largest role in any opera? He’s onstage virtually the entire opera, singing much of the time, an enormous number of lines.  Anyone who sings the role achieves a tour de force.  Alan Oke sounded a lot like Peter Pears, the tenor voice that the composer Benjamin Britten imagined in the role, which is to say, this production had an undeniable authenticity to its sound.

This is not the story one recalls from the book or the film.  Opera faces an entirely different kind of challenge.  Whereas the silent moments when eyes meet can be full of mysterious portents in film, in opera the composer & librettist must externalize those feelings and tell us all about those secret silences; otherwise the opera would be a ballet, and those mysteries would stay mysterious (as they do in Visconti’s film).

Looking at the strengths of these two productions, both Aida and Death in Venice relied upon the chorus & orchestra, the pillars of the COC.  I found Death in Venice visually impressive, a flamboyant show from beginning to end.  Where the ballet that one expects in Aida was missing due to the modern reading, dance was central to Death in Venice, particularly the last few scenes.

I am still trying to get a fix on where the COC is going.  Visually they appear to be guaranteed to provide arresting images, and a tautly dramatic reading of whatever scores they undertake.  Their chorus not only sing fabulously, but provide a dramatic core for almost anything they might try.  On the musical side, while there’s a steady competence, I can’t tell how much it matters whether the occasional star graces the Four Seasons stage.  A company that promotes itself almost 100% on the basis of its visual appeal doesn’t appear to place a priority on high quality soloists, but then the audience doesn’t seem to notice one way or another.  Right now, particularly while the Four Seasons theatre still has its aura of newness, the audience appears to be ready to gobble up whatever the COC puts on the table.

The next offerings from the COC are Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Adams’ Nixon in China early in 2011.

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5 Responses to COC: Aida & Death in Venice

  1. Arthur Wenk says:

    Opera companies faithfully fully a composer’s musical wishes, with orchestral playing that must be far superior than anything the composer could have heard in his lifetime, and singers gathered from around the world instead of just what a particular city would have to offer. Considered solely as an auditory experience, a modern opera production would delight the composer.
    But commercial values seem to have persuaded opera companies to abandon even a semblance of fidelity to the visual aspects of an opera and, frankly, I feel cheated by this presumptuousness and cavalier dismissal of the element that separated live performance from hearing an opera on a CD. “Aida” without a procession I find a travesty. Verdi operated with an historical theatrical context which opera producers seem to dismiss without a thought. I’m not impressed.

  2. I am not a scholar of the operatic experience but I for one applaud the use by the COC of its set design and lighting to heighten the audience’s experience and appreciation of the symbolic imagery. I also think that in addition to a committment to providing modern settings and thereby increased relevance to the younger theatre goer that it has also insisted on a tighter stage direction and more plausible acting then in days past. It is not a museum but a provider of entertainment. Given the seat sales it seems to be an attractive formula. I do differ with you about the singers. I think the singer’s performance matters greatly. We certainly notice when the lead is outstanding or simply part of the overall production. We saw the Radovansky edition. Both she and Oke did very well. There is a budget and only so much money to go around and unfortunately we cannot get a star for each of 7 operas as the company is losing money even with every seat being sold.

    • barczablog says:

      Clearly the COC has built a loyal audience by taking the road less traveled, a risky path with (for example) three 20th century operas in its current season. I’m glad to hear you insist on the importance of the singing part of the equation, as it’s vitally important to me too. I may be a little hyper-sensitive about it because we’re seeing a new Artistic Director at work the last little while, and so I am looking for confirmation that he makes singing a priority. Cheers.

  3. Pingback: Questions of identity | barczablog

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