It’s November. October was Gerald Finley month in Toronto, as his Falstaff jumped up on the table that was our collective experience (and for the final scene of the opera). Don’t let the headline (“Finley on the shelf”) scare you, Finley is not ill or indisposed.
To be honest I have no idea what his health might be, a week after he finished his run as Sir John at the Four Seasons Centre with the Canadian Opera Company. But wherever he may be, whatever his health or disposition, GF actually is on the shelf, or at least my shelf: because he’s made a lot of recordings, and sits comfortably in a lot of CD and DVD collections.
Let me speak briefly of what’s on my shelf, a fascinating assortment showing remarkable range. This may be a tiny sample of what he can sing, but it’s startlingly representative.
Finley may have undertaken earlier composers than Handel, but this is the earliest on my shelf. The language is the clearest of any of the Messiahs I have. When I listen to his “Thus saith the Lord”, I don’t hear the usual bass-baritone, trying to persuade us by means of the thickness of his sound or pure volume. That might be the virtuoso approach. No, Finley accomplishes it through the conviction of his delivery. And really sounds like God. That’s not done by volume but a sound that signifies authority, getting inside the implications of the text.
What must God sound like? You should listen to Finley to find out.
Thus said the Lord the Lord of Hosts:
Yet once a little while and I will
shake the heavens and the earth,
the sea and the dry land.
And I will shake all nations,
and the desire of all nations shall come.
You don’t sound like God by overwhelming us with pompousness or loudness. It’s with calm self-assurance, the certainty that you can do what you say. It’s uncanny, especially because it makes every other version I’ve heard previously sound artificial and false.
Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin
I bought the DVD that stars Gerald Finley in anticipation of the 2012 COC production of the opera that starred Russell Braun. Last month I saw the opera starring both men. It’s funny to reflect on the gentle vocal sounds each can make, considering how few opportunities we were given to hear their warm round sound. I had the feeling listening and watching that one reason the opera seemed to be spreading from opera company to opera company like a rumour, was that lovely voice. Finley has the warm round sound of a lieder singer while singing opera. Any lyrical phrase sounds better when sung by this sort of voice, a singer who finds music where others might not find it. If a composer is a product or a proposition being sold, Finley is the broker, the salesman, the advocate you want pushing your product or proposition.
Sometimes, as in the COC Falstaff¸ Finley is peerless, impossible to ignore as he stands onstage. But sometimes, as in the Paris Opera production of Strauss’s Capriccio you’re watching him emerge from a crowd of great talents. As with Falstaff it’s also a Robert Carsen production, delightfully simple.
Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg
One of the things I was pondering in anticipation of Falstaff was how Finley might portray age. Sir John Falstaff is old. Yet I wondered what we would get. Finley doesn’t seem old to me. Is it because we’re living in an era when “60 is the new 40”, when nobody seems old anymore..? And so I went hunting for Finley’s portrayal of Hans Sachs, someone else who is supposedly old, or at least old-er. Have a look at Finley’s Sachs and you’ll see why I had to immediately buy the DVD. It’s like no Hans Sachs I’ve ever seen, three dimensional, compassionate, and human in ways that Sachs should be human. He finds elements that are in the character that I’ve never seen before. The voice is again pretty, full, but not overwhelming. As with the Handel, we’re free of mere virtuosity, because the skill is all channeled to a portrayal, to genuine truth.
But look at his energy, in this, the longest of all the operas.
Every year I find a reason to circle back to Viktor Ullmann’s Emperor of Atlantis, and to listen to Finley’s wonderful performance of music that is both old (at least in its adaptation of familiar melodies) and new (from the 1940s that is). This year I feel especially connected to Ullmann and the forbidden music of the early 20th Century, as I prepare von Horvath’s Tales from the Vienna Woods at Ryerson University. I must get Michael Haas’s book Forbidden Music again, as I seek to calibrate Johann Strauss with Viktor Ullmann.
But isn’t it amazing that Finley can sing just about anything old or new.