Know Thyself, a lesson from Jane Archibald

Today I sat in a very good seat to hear Jane Archibald sing and she sang very well.  I am a very lucky guy.

She doesn’t need my review to validate her (ha, but then does any artist?). This is a singing actor who’s hit her stride in mid-season, at the top of her game, another Canadian treasure like Virtue & Moir, (to drop the names being spoken with pride over and over today).  I don’t know if the template requires it to be a Canadian as their artist in residence, but Archibald is a great ambassador whether she’s singing in Europe or Toronto.

I think it’s accurate to say we’re past the midpoint of Archibald’s year as the first “artist in residence” for the Canadian Opera Company.   Last autumn she was Zdenka in ArabellaThe Nightingale & Other Short Fables is still to come in the spring season.  She’s nearing the end of the run as Konstanze in Abduction from the Seraglio, with a pair of final performances this week.

I love this take-no-prisoners photo from an earlier incarnation of this co-production. Her Toronto version of the aria she sings at this moment is every bit as intense. While you’d never know it from this photo, she was all smiles today, as indeed we were as well, even if she didn’t sing any Mozart.  For that you have to come see the opera later this week.


Jane Archibald as Konstanze, in the Opéra de Lyon/COC co-production of Abduction from the Seraglio, 2016 copyright ©Stofleth

If I am correct in my understanding that the artist in residence will mentor the young artists of the Ensemble Studio, today’s noon-hour concert was like a clinic, a masterful display of self-knowledge for singers of any age, in partnership with pianist Liz Upchurch and Dominic Desautels, clarinet.

Archibald told us that the program is one she’d be singing again in Halifax:

  • “Sweeter than roses” and “If music be the food of love” by Henry Purcell
  • “Pierrot”, “Regret”, and “Apparition” by Claude Debussy
  • “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen” by Franz Schubert
  • “Ich wollt’ ein Sträusslein binden”, “Säusle, liebe Myrthe!” and “Amor”, by Richard Strauss

It’s a rich hour of singing demanding a great deal of the pianist, and in the Schubert, of the clarinet as well.

We’ve heard Archibald in Toronto in some of these guises.  The German repertoire seems especially congenial, whether we look far back to her COC Zerbinetta in 2011 or to this autumn in Arabella.  The Strauss songs are full of coloratura fireworks that Archibald pops with stunning ease.  When she’s singing this rep it’s as though she’s totally at home, and having a great time. And how wonderful that we get to share in that pleasure.

There’s an old saying that comes to mind, perversely. “Do what you love and the money will follow”. The saying is really about finding a career, but I think it could apply to singing and repertoire.  How often have you seen a concert where the artist seems to be fighting the repertoire, singing an aria or playing a sonata that was perhaps chosen for them or maybe a case of wishful thinking?  There is a real tao of music that comes into play when one really pays attention, both to the comfort / discomfort of your body & your instrument as well as the visible comfort / discomfort of your audience.  Archibald sang music well-suited to her voice, some very difficult material that seemed easy.

While the Schubert is a more conservative exercise than the Strauss songs, we are still in the realm of beautiful sound that emerges organically from the singer. It’s a song with great leaps —not just big intervals such as ascending ninths or descending tenths—but also huge arcing arpeggios, and a delightful call-and-response dialogue with the clarinet.  This relatively early attempt at the romantic sublime leads to a charming affirmation of spring-time, that Archibald joyfully seized in the blush of the warmest day so far in 2018.  But it would be great February programming even if we had to endure snow instead, as the song is all about the dream.

There’s nothing easy in this program, though.  The Debussy songs are especially challenging for the piano, played with wonderful subtlety by Upchurch.  While Archibald barnstorms up and down, dazzling, Upchurch kept it light as quicksilver.  And to begin, the Purcell songs showed us that Archibald was ready, soft but intensely committed from the first note.   As an encore we were given a gently intimate “Du bist die Ruh”.

It was a pleasure observing the body language, as Archibald sang for the most part in two positions.  In her softest moments she’d lean her weight onto her right hand that held fast to the piano, while angling over about 30 degrees from upright, as though the music was singing her rather than the other way around: ecstatic and gentle music-making. And then purposefully she’d stand straight and tall gesturing before her as she  sang coloratura.  Again there’s no sign she ever sings off pitch, her intentions clear in her mind.  She knows where she wants the voice to go: and it goes.

Archibald has two performances left as Konstanze this week, and then in April – May, we get The Nightingale & Other Short Fables.


Soprano Jane Archibald (photo: Kevin Lloyd).

This entry was posted in Music and musicology, Opera, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s