Saying #Uncle: more on AtG’s latest

I barely scratched the surface in my review of Against the Grain’s #UncleJohn from late Thursday night.  With one prominent exception I barely mentioned anyone.  I am cocooning Saturday because of the cold that burst in on me like a stone guest (although considering Joel Ivany’s adaptation perhaps Peter Schikele’s “Stoned Guest” might be more apt), pounding in my head.  The headline could be me surrendering, even if my laptop is no substitute for a nap.  Maybe later…

So where the first piece was an attempt at something logical and orderly, this is more like the remnants of the wedding reception, glasses still half-filled and unfinished plates to be collected.  I’ll spare you the sound of my blowing my nose, which has been likened to a cross between a Disney character and a foghorn.  Think of Marley’s Ghost played by a duck.

I was struck by a few things reading other reviews, enjoying the agreements and the diversity of responses.  I’ll aim to say what hasn’t been said; otherwise I’d already be napping.

I want to look at –and properly celebrate–what Joel Ivany accomplished. Were there three types of action?

  1. Dialogue (which may have been dry recitative originally, but was re-written into fluid lines)
  2. Accompagnato (corresponding to accompanied recitative that you don’t mess with, such as the grim discovery of the body by Anna & Ottavio)
  3. Arias & ensembles

I suppose opera has always been a hybrid whose grafts are visible, where the shifts of gears from one style to another can be jarring, especially if the singer treats the recit as mere preparation for their big solo, and in so doing kills the dramatic illusion, thwarting anything natural and organic in the process.  I saw less of that than usual on this occasion, but even so I wondered whether Ivany’s respectful treatment of Mozart may not always have been the best pathway.  The flow of the dialogue was so compelling that the music did not always seem like the natural outgrowth it should have been.   I’ve never seen opera do this, showing us opera singers acting so powerfully that the music is almost superfluous.  Each of the principals is so well thought out, so crisply executed that the music is like icing on a cake.  Even so, there are good reasons for recit to sound lame, as it sets up the (hopefully) better segment that follows.  If the recit were too good it would disbalance things.  Perhaps the solution (if anyone else even thinks this is a problem…) would be to trim some of the cleverness that (for me) seems to upstage Mozart when we finally get to the music, making it seem like an anti-climax or a strait-jacket of convention imposed on something fluid and alive.  When it works –as it did in the reinvented Catalogue aria—the setups are golden.  I was rapt for the encounter between the Commander and John (and fascinated that Ivany’s  translation didn’t shy away from the religious overtones of their confrontation), and then not really satisfied by the closing ensemble: an ensemble that I usually find to be an arbitrary tonal shift that may not fit with what came before; but Mozart didn’t make this one easy for anyone.

Ah but then again my head was starting to explode from my cold so maybe I was more sympathetic to a guy popping pills (just like me the past couple of days!) than all those happy peppy people at the end.

I was in too much of a rush Thursday to properly address several contributions. Most glaring was my omission of Zerlina & Masetto, namely Sharleen Joynt and Aaron Durand.  In the worst productions of Don Giovanni that I have disliked, I always still like these two.  Can anyone dispute that Zerlina has the most beautiful music in the opera? (disagree?  “la ci darem”, “batti batti” and  “vedrai carino” would be my choice for the three prettiest tunes in the opera).  Mozart was trying to tell us something about love & marriage, as indeed Joel Ivany was also reinforcing with his beautiful & direct translation.  How could you not melt listening to Joynt asking Durand to marry her while staring up at him as they cuddled in the middle of the stage?

And no i didn’t take a picture; i was a puddle on the floor,  remember?  This one will have to do in its place…

L-RL Sean Clark, Miriam Khalil (sorry that she's facing away,,,) Neil Craighead, Betty Allison, Aaron Durand and Sharleen Joynt, giving Leporello what-for.

L-RL Sean Clark, Miriam Khalil (sorry that she’s facing away,,,) Neil Craighead, Betty Allison, Aaron Durand and Sharleen Joynt, giving Leporello what-for.

I think Ivany is true to what da Ponte & Mozart wanted in three different types of relationship:

  • Ideal matrimony:
    that’s Masetto & Zerlina once they realize it (with UncleJohn’s help actually), and needing very little adjustment in the adaptation
  • Woman pursuing a man:
    Elvira is the most modern of the three women, unsatisfied with the one who has her heart
  • Man pursuing a woman:
    Donna Anna keeps stringing Don Ottavio along, decade after decade (or so it seems); that Anna dumps Ottavio at the end is perfect after what I’ve seen in every other production (sad to say).

This is the first time we’re seeing the adaptation, which had an earlier life in Banff.  I hope good #UncleJohn has another incarnation, to see what new ideas they might have, to say nothing of the different chemistry created by casting.  AtG seem to be here to stay, a company that’s still small but offering remarkable quality & insight with everything they do.  As usual they’re making theatre that’s informed by musicianship.

Next for AtG?

  • Death & Desire with Colin Ainsworth, Krisztina Szabó and Christopher Mokrzewski in May 2015, in other words Schubert (“Die Schöne Müllerin”) and Messiaen (“Harawi”), presumably in Toronto.
  • A Little Too Cosy, a new adaptation of Cosi fan tutte in July 2015, in collaboration with the Canadian Opera Company and the Banff Centre (who also host the production).

    Cam McPhail deep in thought or perhaps it's just withdrawal.  Give the man a tylenol for goodness sake.

    Cam McPhail deep in thought or perhaps it’s just withdrawal. Give the man a tylenol for goodness sake.

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2 Responses to Saying #Uncle: more on AtG’s latest

  1. Saw the second performance last night and it was very impressive. I’m lucky to have seen #UncleJohn in its first incarnation at Banff this summer and as enjoyable as that presentation was, the show that was put onstage last night was about 10 notches higher on all accounts. First, the venue suited the piece very well and was used with much ingenuity – what better place for the revenge trio to be sung from than the Victorian balustrade that surrounded the upper regions of the room. And where better to find John and his wingman hanging out, muttering over their latest bungle than at the dingy bar in the back corner. It seemed to me a lot of the libretto and spoken dialogue had been tightened up and perhaps altered (beyond the obvious Banff vs Toronto references). Also, it seemed a lot of extra attention had been paid to diction – about 90% of the sung words came across very clearly. As I think Joel Ivany has remarked in recent interviews, the English translapdation has increasingly become one of the key ingredients of AtG’s success – I think audiences are re-discovering the pleasure of hearing opera in the (predominant, opera-going) local tongue. It makes for an immediate connection with the action which is often lacking when you’re forced to read the punch line on a surtitle screen. Key roles (Zerlina, Ottavio and Leporello) had been re-cast for Toronto and Sharleen Joynt, Sean Clark and Neil Craighead excelled both vocally and histrionically. Neil really deserves a lot of credit here I think – consistently hilarious, constantly on the move through the space and singing with a bright, secure tone like I’ve never heard him deliver before – bravo!
    So…the performance was great, the audience totally with the concept and everyone left smiling.
    I get what you’re saying about the spoken dialogue being *so* witty that perhaps it risked upstaging the sung bits, but to me it didn’t feel that jarring. The re-written text for the arias and ensembles was just as strong to my ears, so it felt like a logical continuation of the spoken word. It’s interesting the company decided not to transladapt the actual recits – I can see why – that would have been quite the task, and certainly not as audience-friendly as the spoken solution.
    I’m still curious though to know what kind of audiences are AtG (and for that matter, other Toronto indie opera companies) drawing in? I detected a few tables of perhaps quite young, new operagoers in the crowd (great!) but many faces were people I see at a lot of other more “standard” opera and classical music performances + the expected friends, family, other singers and opera industry types. Absolutely nothing wrong with that as they’re almost certainly the core audience, but I just wonder if the word is getting out enough to the newer audiences one would presume could be quite into this kind of presentation in this kind of venue. I think the word is still out on that one!

    • barczablog says:

      Thanks for the comments Gianmarco. I wouldn’t be surprised if performance #2 was a bit more secure, as i think i detected some nerves opening night. And i think the ages opening night were very much as you report (lots of under-40s in attendance: and funny that i used to consider 30 the dividing line)..

      There’s another factor here, In all honesty maybe the audience (thinking of myself especially) has to learn how to process this, particularly if they’re all messed up in their heads with how the opera usually sounds. I am sure the under 40s or those who have never been to an opera have no qualms and simply love it first time out. You’ve seen this before, Gianmarco, which means you’re already a bit further down the road to knowing how to watch/listen. I try not to come with stipulations in my head, but for better or worse i have a lifetime of experience with the stone(d) guest, a lot to un-learn. I try to be open-minded but maybe i am not always able, at least the first time. I think any style where expectation & anticipation play a part requires a bit of experience to know how to watch/listen. I think especially of comedy, the way SNL gets a new cast and suddenly for a few episodes everyone complains that it stinks: until we figure out the trick and discover that yes Kristin Wiig or Bill Hader are funny; and then gosh-darn they leave the show just as we get used to them and we have to start over with the new group. It also works that way with some new music composers; i recall how it took me awhile to “get” minimalism, and it’s likely true with this style as well.

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