Fierabras in concert

Voicebox /Opera in Concert offered a highlight in a splendid week of music theatre in Toronto, reminding us of why they are such a crucial part of the mix in this city with their concert performance of Schubert’s Fierabras today.  Hook Up from Tapestry at Passe Muraille  was a brand-new musical, and then the Wagner done by the Toronto Symphony  gave us some amazing voices with the playing from the TSO. But this was a chance to hear a genuine rarity, done with wonderful care & some tremendous singing.

Like Beethoven, Franz Schubert was a transitional composer from the classical to the romantic, known for several different types of music. While Schubert wrote many more operas (the number could be as high as 20) than Beethoven (who composed but one), none of Schubert’s are ever staged, unlike Fidelio, Beethoven’s single operatic masterpiece. I’m very grateful to Guillermo Silva-Marin, OiC’s Artistic Director for programming this gem, full of beautiful music that we’ll probably never hear again.

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Conductor Kevin Mallon

Kevin Mallon conducted the ten players of Aradia in his arrangement of the work, adding a movement from the Schubert Octet as overture. I’m clear as to why Schubert’s operas aren’t performed: at least if they’re like this one, thanks to what we heard today. I don’t think I can possibly calibrate the importance of Mallon’s input except to say that he made the entire thing possible.

It’s very challenging music, especially for the men. If we hadn’t been in the welcoming acoustic of the Jane Mallett Theatre (which seats fewer than 500), and if Mallon hadn’t orchestrated for such a small ensemble, it would have been brutal in a bigger theatre with a big orchestra. And it gets worse…(!) Even as it was, I had the distinct impression that Schubert’s idea of opera if very different from that of any other composer. The men are often above the passagio (the transition zone of the vocal registers), or in other words at times it’s very tough. There is a huge amount of choral writing in this opera, so in addition to a number of extraordinarily difficult roles for the men –already the likely deal-breaker for a company considering the work—the men’s choral writing is relentlessly difficult. The women’s chorus have a fair bit to do as well, but not as murderous. Robert Cooper, the OiC Chorus’s Director did a masterful job preparing them. Did I mention that the plot is very complex? I heard more than a few in attendance joking about the challenges of following the story. So in other words, there are several good reasons why one never hears this Schubert opera even though the music is stunningly beautiful.

I’m not sure who had the toughest role, only that I was staring in disbelief more than once. Lance Wiliford –the co-artistic director of Canadian-Art Song Project and therefore a singer we’d expect to be comfortable with Schubert’s song rep—gave a textbook demonstration of perfect technique, handling a considerable number of high notes with apparent ease. Matthew Dalen with a heavier sound than Wiliford’s also soared impressively in the title role.

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Tenor Lawrence (Lance) Wiliford (photo: Aldeburgh Music, UK)

In this story conflating tales of romantic love and wars of conquest, the testosterone on the stage was unmistakeable.  Much of the baritone writing resembled what Beethoven created for the tyrant Pizarro, which is to say quick macho declamation that wasn’t terribly pretty to hear nor very believable dramatically. Evan Korbut, Alex Dobson & Justin Welsh all had their masculine moments, although by the end some lines were so melodramatic as to give the audience the giggles. The two contrasting female leads were both wonderfully well-sung. Where Amy Moodie’s sound had the lightness and deft accuracy of a coloratura role –but without the coloratura—Jocelyn Fralick had a more dramatic sound, as well as one of the few staged moments in the opera, when she’s required to pass out on the stage (done quite believably).

The funny thing that occurred to me watching all these people in formal attire was how much more believable that made it than had it been costumed. Silly and tangled as the plot was, imagining it sung with knights in armour made me wonder how it would have looked in the time (although the opera never made it to the stage during the composer’s short life). The tuxedoes served to reconcile the extremes of plot –warfare & romance—in a curiously believable middle ground. At times I thought we were watching a director’s theatre approach to the opera, presented with the musical numbers sung in German but with English dialogue.
(a thought I’ve added the next morning: in other words, imagine that instead of clothing that distinguishes between the two warring sides, as separate colour schemes or even costuming to suggest different cultures, you have everyone dressed identically:  arguably reflecting the theme of the story. that we’re all the same after all).
I’m very grateful for their spectacular efforts today.

Voicebox / Opera in Concert are back for Kurt Weill’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny March 30th & 31st.

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