Love’s Dark Shore

How apt that in the week of Valentine’s Day, between performances of Tristan und Isolde, a paean to love, that the Canadian Opera  Company should present a concert program titled “Love’s Dark Shore” in the Richard Bradshaw Auditorium.  We heard Franz-Josef Selig accompanied by the COC’s Rachel Andrist at the piano in a program of songs by Franz Schubert & Richard Strauss.

Chamber music is sometimes a refuge from opera.  It can be a place where audiences go for direct communication, something subtler than the virtuoso display that is sometimes at the heart of opera.

And it’s a place where singers also go, a well-spring of truth, a crucible for pure ideas to be generated without any costumes, sets or orchestra to conceal the naked soul of the singer.  In the harsh glare of the mutually intimate stare between the artist and the audience, there is no room for fakery or tricks.

Selig has nothing to prove as far as his instrument is concerned.  The COC production was largely sold out because of the drama surrounding Ben Heppner, both as the most impressive current Tristan in the world, but also as a singer who has had his difficulties; and so I kept getting asked online “will he cancel?” “Can he do it”….and now thank goodness it appears yes he’s back.  Whew…

Selig in the meantime was a rock upon whom the COC could lean, a dependable artist with a fabulous timbre, remarkable technique and the commitment to match.

On this occasion, I had a chance to see just how impressive Selig’s technique really is.  He sounds like a baritone much of the time, without the growly lower register one sometimes associates with German basses (thinking of Crass, Greindl or Frick).  This voice is so big and powerful that—if we were to think of the members of the band Spinal Tap, choosing his setting on the volume control—it’s as though he regularly dialled his voice down to 1 out of 10, a super-smooth pianissimo.  But even at that delicate volume there was never dryness or lack of warmth, the legato was breath-taking, and the colour was like cognac or honey.

The RBA is a remarkable place to hear a concert, as one looks out at the world through glass on three sides, as though we –artists & the audience—were suspended in a cube above Toronto’s traffic.  At one magical moment in Schubert’s Prometheus, Selig extended his hand to mime the effect he was singing (very much like this picture, but with a piano rather than another singer).

Franz-Josef Selig with Ryan McKinny from the COC's Tristan und Isolde (Photo: Chris Hutcheson)

Franz-Josef Selig with Ryan McKinny from the COC’s Tristan und Isolde (Photo: Chris Hutcheson)

In the translation, we’re nearing the song’s climax as the singer –Prometheus—defies Zeus, says “Here I sit, shaping men in my image.”  By a curious coincidence, my eye picked up the stream of traffic on University Avenue as though just beyond the titan’s reach.  We were all there on this mountain in awe.  The space is a rarefied place, as though we were in Valhalla, feasting with the gods.  Pick your favourite religion (Greek or Nordic) as to which metaphor you prefer.

While I heard some very impressive notes, both low ones and high ones, this wasn’t to be confused with virtuoso display.  Selig’s sincerity is blessed indeed, direct and unaffected.  I feel very fortunate to have heard him sing today.

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