2016: A year in reading

img_20160310_0959032Best of 2016 book reading, dear readers. Forgive me for not including the publisher info or year of publication–I’m trying not to spend this entire day blogging.

J.M. Coetzee and Arabella Kurts: The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy. (Coetzee is no surprise on these lists, I know, but waittaminute this was the year in which I stumbled upon a Coetzee book that I ended up abandoning: Diary of a Bad Year. It’s still around, on one of the Limbo desks, but not sure where it’ll go from there.)

Eric Chevillard: Juste ciel. A little too cute for its own good, and with a surprisingly Hollywoodian ending, but sufficiently smart and imaginative–a witty contemporary riff on Plato’s vision of the other world–to make this list.

img_20160128_1150471Jean Guerreschi: Seins. A book of short pieces that ficto-recall the narrator’s most overwhelming encounters with female breasts. This and the Chevillard I picked up from Jeremy’s last year’s Year in Reading so merci, ami. Another one from that list that I read, Maylis de Kerangal’s planetary successful Mend the Living (translated and published in Canada by Talon Books) I’m leaving out. Fantastic concept–why don’t people put medicine and the issues around organ transplant more in fiction, boggles the mind–but each sentence of the novel so overwritten to be beautiful that it alienates the reader.

A mini Jean-Philippe Toussaint binge: Television (hysterical), Self-Portrait Abroad and The Truth About Marie all amazed. I’ve also read his Bathroom and due to its ever so slightly iffy sexual politics, I’m leaving it out (the sole prominent female character serves as a sounding board for the male narrator’s increasing existential dread and madness).

Rick Moody’s Hotels of North America: a solitary, alienated American life narrated through dark-funny reviews of North American hotels and motels. Also, the second excellent novel I’ve read almost in a row (first being The Truth About Marie) in which the straight narrator writes lovingly about sexual encounters with women while they’re on their periods. Bravo, Team Hetero Men.

img_20160327_1133301Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Cafe. Superb light touch to this substantial overview of the chief existentialist and phenomenologist philosophers, their work and lives as lovers and citizens all. Probably the only place this year in the entire world of English-language writing for general public where you can find a fair trial given to Heidegger’s philosophy, and a good intro to it. Husserl, Jaspers and Merleau-Ponty are all well-introduced, and their lives are narrated novelistically. Most of the space is of course taken up by Beauvoir and Sartre, but nobody is left short-changed. A joyous polyphony that renders a group of thinkers beautifully, and treats both life and philosophy as part of the same fabric: life and oeuvre together are the oeuvre.

Heidi Julavitz: The Folded Clock: A Diary. The diary entries of the writing (teaching, residence-ing, travelling) life of an East Coast woman who is also raising a family and happens to be married to another writer, Ben Marcus.

Jonathan Lynn: The Patriotic Traitor: A Play. The creator of Yes, Minister and much else excellent fictionalizes here the young General de Gaulle and the much older Maréchal Pétain, a World War One hero turning into a World War Two traitor. I borrowed this thin but intense volume from soprano Ambur Braid, who’s seen the play in London (and knows Lynn!).

Elizabeth McCracken’s memoir on the death of her first baby just before it was to be born, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. She is as sharp and moving as usual, but this is no fiction, and matters around the politics and sociology of giving birth are tackled. The loss of child happened in France, a country which for them, as one of their France-loving friends sadly states, “is now forever spoiled”–and so is, though McCracken insists both only coincidentally, the midwife-centric birth planning.

Cees Nooteboom, The Following Story. Probably my favourite book this year amid some impossibly tough competition. A classics professor goes to bed in his Amsterdam apartment, wakes up twenty years earlier in Lisbon, in bed with a married woman he loves. There’s lots of Ovid and Greek and Roman mythology weaved into the day-to-day concerns and struggles. This section near the end, from which I took this paragraph, has to be the best non-religious literary rendering of what happens after death I’ve ever found.

ceesnOK, let me rush through the remaining recommendations, as this is getting too long. Though there’s no commentary around them, they’re still as good as the upper side of the post:

Jack Robinson: by the same author

Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin

Claire-Louise Bennett: Pond

Adam Haslett: Imagine Me Gone

Douglas Glover: Elle (CANLIT finally)

Eimear McBride: The Lesser Bohemians

Marina Abramovic’s memoir

Kathrine Marçal: Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner

James Baldwin: The Fire Next Time

Jeff Connaughton: The Payoff: Why the Wall Street Always Wins

Jamaica Kincaid: At the Bottom of the River

Select chapters from George Packer’s The Unwinding and Charlotte Gray’s The Promise of Canada. Worth sampling; your call if you stay for the entire thing.

What was your reading year like, reader?

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Oh yeah: my own book came out too this year

2016: A year in performing arts

Best spoken theatre

Best theatre was nontraditional: Germinal at World Stage 2016, Les Liaisons Dangereuses at NT Live in cinemas, Independent Aunties’ Gertrude and Alice at Buddies in Bad Times, Joel Pommerat’s Ça Ira (1), La fin de Louis in Amsterdam at Holland Festival in June.

Best opera

Stefan Herheim’s The Queen of Spades in Amsterdam.

A very non-grand Traviata sung and spoken gorgeously by non-operatic singer-actors at Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris in October.

François Girard’s Siegfried at the COC. (But see opera on DVD for the verdict on his Parsifal.)

Scottish-Welsh-Tapestry Opera presented The Devil Inside.

The David Alden’s Maometto was irreverent and fun (and tangentially caused a bizarre media storm in which the most conservative of Canada’s opera critics ended up getting a global platform for his pearl-clutching). While most people praised the singing, I was more into the production. I don’t include it here as one of the best opera performances ever seen, but rather as a major operatic event of the year for various non-operatic reasons. Kudos to David Alden for daring to put a little bit of an Islamic culture on stage without kid gloves and fear.

I’ll add Damiano Michieletto’s Samson et Dalila at Opera de Bastille in Paris in October for these things primarily: the brilliant coup de théâtre ending, the sexy as hell Anita Rachvelishvili as Dalila. Also, for the opera house itself. Bastille gets a lot of flak, and unjustly: it’s a very pleasant space inside and outside the hall.

Best concert or recital

This all-Beethoven on period instruments concert in Paris with Viktoria Mullova and Sarah Alice Ott as soloists. First visit to Paris’s new Philharmonie, so that was exciting. The hall is fantastic. The outside spaces, where people mingle in between and after performances, not so much: they’re narrow and like an after-thought to the hall.

As a Stranger, by the Collectif Toronto. I didn’t write about this all-female take on the Winterreise back then, but it was tremendous.

Lineage, the vocal + chamber orchestra program on 19th-20th-21st century musical lineage.

Dean Burry goes Schoenberg on Romanticism with Talisker Players.

Scenes of the Mediterranean: Stéphane Denève conducts TSO in Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture, Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No. 5 “Egyptian” – Jean-Yves Thibaudet at the piano, Ibert: Escales (Ports of Call) and Respighi: Pines of Rome

TSO and Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto (soloist discovery of the year for me) in Nielsen’s Violin Concerto. The program also had Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé (conductor Juanjo Mena, with Toronto Mendelssohn Choir) and Granados’ Intermezzo from Goyescas. 

The entire New Creations Festival 2016: first night of the Fragile Absolute, and subsequent nights. The TSO removes the concert web page as soon as the concert’s over, so I had to search through my emails for concert reminders and save them as JPGs.

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There was also a TSO concert with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique on the program, with Barbara Hannigan singing Dutilleux, that I attended in January, but I can’t remember much about it (it kinda pales) – so let’s include it as “it sounded so great on paper, but then IRL…”

Best opera: streaming, cinema & DVD

The Royal Opera House Boris Godunov, a Richard Jones production, at Bloor Hot Docs cinema. It was an unexpected joy.

Katie Mitchell’s Lucia di Lammermoor (same cinema): excellent with no reservations.

Katie Mitchell’s Pelléas et Mélisande from Aix-en-Provence: ground-breaking. Historians of operatic theatre will look on this production as a milestone, I have no doubts. I have saved an ungeoblocked URL with English subtitles here — do watch it the soonest, because Arte won’t keep it online forever.

I finally watched Girard’s Met-COC Parsifal on DVD and am sorry to report that I was disappointed. Too literal, too Christian-propaganda-y, especially the final act, which was an endless bro-ness renewed, Kundry humiliated agony. So the COC can keep postponing that production for as long as it wants, as far as I’m concerned.

Dance (of which I’ve seen very little this year)

Crystal Pite’s Betroffenheit at Canadian Stage; Toronto Dance Theatre’s Marienbad which wordlessly explored the dynamics of intimacy between two men.

Another good thing about 2016: meeting opera Twitter friends in real life.

Now let me see if I can do a quick post on the 2016 in reading.

Zing-Along Messiah mit Herr Handel at Massey Hall: Instructions for Use

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Tafelmusik with conductor Ivars Taurins (as Handel) and the audience in a sing-along Messiah at Massey Hall. Photo credit Gary Beechey.

I am happy to report that I finally experienced my first Tafelmusik Sing-Along Messiah in which the audience too sings the choruses (grazie, Luisa!). The 30-year-old event has a cult status and is sold out every year; there were people there who have been coming every year for 10, 20, 30 years. (Conductor Ivars Taurins, he under the Handel costume and wig, asked for the show of hands last night for each of the decades.)  The full libretto can be downloaded beforehand or picked up at the Massey Hall. The soloists that Tafelmusik brings for the Messiah series each December–all concerts of that series but one are performed traditionally, without audience participation, and in a smaller hall–tend to be international HIP stars, and always a good mix of familiar and new-to-Toronto singers.

Since it’s a big, potentially unwieldy, practically pop concert, you should know what to expect from the Sing-Along (or Zing-Along, as Taurins/Haendel called it), and come prepared.

+ Avoid the gallery like the plague. I arrived 30 min before start time and the parterre and the mezzanine were already full so we were directed to the galleries. The seats are wooden there, without any upholstery, and with no leg room. I am not exaggerating: those with sensitive knees should think twice. There’s no room for the jacket behind your back, no room for a bag, let alone a backpack. In the course of the concert you are asked to rise and sit down multiple times. You will know your four neighbours N-S-E-W very closely by the end of it. How do you avoid the gallery? Come earlier, but if you come too early, there will be a long queue to join in the cold. There’s got to be a time when you arrive just as the queue starts being let in? Toronto practices long queues during Tiff, so treat this is a Tiff-size event. Come early.

+ OK so you ended up in  the gallery. If you spot any free seats in the mezzanine during the first half, you can at least move down and take ’em during intermission. It’s general seating, so you’re more than welcome to. Mezzanine and parterre seats are actually decent. This is what I did.

+ It’s a family-friendly event, so there will be children. Toddlers and babies too. Some of them will sit on their parent’s lap and be shown how to follow the score, maybe for the first time in their wee lives. So: don’t be a grump. [It takes one to know one.] These are future classical music audiences and performers. It’s all good. And they tend to be really well-behaved.

+ What I didn’t know was how ethnically diverse the Sing-Along audience is becoming. Lots of Asian families, multi-racial couples, black Canadians, together with the usual hardcore WASP contingent. It wasn’t entirely as diverse as Toronto Islands of a weekend, but it’s definitely  getting there.

+ The Sing-Along is not primarily a music experience, necessarily. Let me explain what I mean. If you like the choruses of The Messiah, you may feel shortchanged, because what you will hear around you will not be particularly pleasant. You won’t be able to hear the choir on stage at all, and depending on what section you’re in, your experience of the choruses may range from OK (the Altos area) to ugh (the Mixed section, where I spent the first half). There will be a lot of smudged coloratura, missed notes and creative tempo-keeping around you. This was particularly the case in the Mixed voices area, with two very loud elderly sopranos behind me, a quiet alto to the left, a guy who sang I’ve no idea what voice part to the right. When I moved to the last row of the Mezzanine Altos, it was like being within a gentle wave of alto base that included me (when I could find it, tonally) or left me alone, whichever I preferred in any given moment.

+ Oh yes: find an edge seat, a top row seat. That way, if you don’t want to get up for every chorus, you won’t attract attention. There were a few of us scattered who sang while remaining seated. It wasn’t unusual.

+ There may be people around you who will quietly “join” the soloist while s/he’s singing. This behaviour is deserving of a glare. Again, I heard it in the Mixed area from two of the sopranos, and there was some arm chair conducting from the guy to the right, but down among the altos, nothing of the sort. While the opposite does happen occasionally, your enjoyment of the soloists will for the most part be undisturbed. Amanda Forsythe’s laser-sharp coloratura stunned everybody into silence last night. (There’s an added task for the soloists here: stun the unruly audience into shutting up.) Tenor Colin Balzer (“Ev’ry valley” kicked the entire engine into motion) and baritone Tyler Duncan (whose “Trumpet will sound” closed it with a glorious clarity of tone) were just as good, and Krisztina Szabó got to shine in “O Thou that tellest” with the chorus/audience coming in at the end.

+ In conclusion, I think my next Messiah will be of the traditional sort. I like my choruses cleanly sung. (You should have heard what dog’s breakfast we all made of “Amen”. Or rather you shoudn’t.) But the Zing-Along has its own culture, its own following and–judging by the diverse multigenerational audience–a very bright future. And there’s room for both forms of concerts, and for some new forms to boot. Could a baroque concert in which the audience are allowed to dance be far behind? I see your sing-along, and I raise you dance, Tafelvolk.

Lineage: German Romantics with Berg, Schoenberg, Webern and Rihm

recitalIt rarely happens that a recital series strikes excellence in programming from the word go, but the group of musicians that include soprano Adanya Dunn, clarinetist Brad Cherwin, Alice Hwang at the piano and visiting musicians–last night those were violinist Madlen Horsch Breckbill and bassoonist Kevin Harris–are doing just that. The group doesn’t even call itself an ensemble and the series itself doesn’t have a name, which is sort of refreshing to stumble across among their branding-over-conscious generational cohort.

Last night was the second recital in this unofficial series. Lineage was programmed as an extended family gathering between the old, (Schubert and Mendelssohn), the twentieth-century middle (Webern, Schoenberg and Berg), and the living (Wolfgang Rihm). There is succinct one-paragraph artistic statement in the program, which is just the right amount of text, and we were handed the original Lieder with side translations, some by Dunn, others credited. (Extra points for crediting the translators. Not a practice often observed.)

Mendelssohn’s piano pieces “Lieder ohne worte” (1841) opened each of the thematic sections of the recital. A Rihm Lied would then follow — “Hochroth” from Das Roth cycle (1990) first, an atmospherically grim song that belies the optimistic tenor of the text by a Goethe-generation poet, Karoline von Günderrode. It was a pleasant contrast, and Dunn sang expressively. What followed was Berg’s Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano Op. 5 (1913), three in three different kinds of slow tempo and one in quick, in which Cherwin gets to have some fun.

A Lied ohne worte from Op. 102 opened the second section, followed by Rihm’s “Blaupause” from “The End of Handwriting” cycle by Heiner Müller. That the subsequent Anton Webern Quartet Op. 22 (1930) was in the middle of the recital attests once more to the excellent programming instincts of the group. More musicians on stage than at any other point that evening, and the piece itself a witty and an extremely eventful conversation between the violin, clarinet, piano and bassoon (subbing for tenor saxophone). A brief “Gebet an Pierrot” (1912) from Schoenberg’s much heftier Pierrot Lunaire cycle followed, in the piano-soprano version. Dunn was immediately dramatic and gave a good idea of the mood of the entire piece. It was again a brief sample that left me wanting to hear more from where that came from.

Schubert’s “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen” (1828) was the crowd pleaser of the night (to me it felt a wee too long), a Lied that could equally be a pocket opera or at least a scena, scored for soprano, piano and clarinet.  It’s structured into the light, melodic first part, the sad part, the the uplifting finale. That kind of a traditionally beautiful Romantic piece absolutely has a place in a mixed recital of this kind, and its colours were welcome.

For the epilogue, Rihm and Mendelssohn switched places, and for good reason. The chosen Linz Fragmente by Rihm was rather monotone, but the final Lied without words by Mendelssohn (Op. 67, No. 4) was while cheerful and melodic also hinting at some of the chaos and intensity that the oncoming musical decades will embrace.

So: a superbly planned recital, with a rich banquet of textures and colours, most of which we rarely get to sample here in Toronto. I’ve been re-listening to the entire program on the Naxos Online Library, piece by piece, all morning. Next time these people throw a recital, run don’t walk.

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Jamie Barton, she who wanders

cover-imageIt’s a joy to discover that Jamie Barton is one of those precious singers who can handle Mahler, although if I were to judge based on the lavish force of her voice, her extroverted bubbly-ness and love of camp, I’d have had doubts. Luckily, her first Lieder recording (with Brian Zeger at the piano) more than convinces that she can do inwardness, sombre colours, subtlety and even, often enough, holding back. About half of the disc is Mahler: the five Rückert-Lieder and three stand-alone songs plucked from other cycles. The Rückert doesn’t leave anything to be desired. “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” is all in the smooth feline legato lines, beautifully sustained and withheld by Barton (and thanks to the translation by Richard Stokes, which replaces “linden” with “lime”, even the text becomes er more fragrant than usual). “Um Mitternacht” is lesson on how to progressively darken a song and how to deliver its atmospheric moodiness and anger at the empty, godless sky. “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” accomplishes to be melancholy without being hopeless; Barton explains in her liner notes that for her the song is not about saying goodbye to the world, but saying goodbye to its harshness and pull and finding a place of calm, and you can sense this in the interpretation. She also goes softly-softly with this one, no excessive statements, and dials it to plaintive whisper by the final verses. “Ich leb’ allein in meinem Himmel, / In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied” is conveyed as a shared intimacy, whispered into one’s ear.

“Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen Wald” (from Mahler’s Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit, Book 2) continues, deliciously, in the same vein. It sounds very light and high and utterly girly.  “Scheiden und Meiden” is a riot; Barton mostly leaves behind the dainty vocality for this one and goes for the full blast, but why not, the song works this way too.

Unsurprisingly—we saw it in her recital at Koerner Hall—Barton is very much at home in Dvořák’s “Gypsy Songs” cycle. The folk-ish, dancey numbers are sung with great ease, but she is at her beautifulest in the introspective and bittersweet songs, “Má píseň zas mi láskou zní” (My song resounds with love), “A les je tichý kolem kol” (All around me the forest is quiet) and especially “Když mne stará matka zpívat, zpívat učívala” (When my old mother taught me singing), which is fevastating.

The Sibelius section that concludes the CD is more of a mixed bag. There’s a thing that a critic said about Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s Rückert-Lieder recording once: “[she] sings here with a monochrome severity”, and that’s a constantly lurking default for the voices of this kind that have great capacity and ripeness. The take-no-prisoners approach works well in “Svarta rosor” because it’s an ink black, terrifying song. The contemplative “Marssnön” just about pulls it through and stays this side of too loud, but the rest of Sibelius on the disc tends to go for too forte and too monochrome. It could also be that by the end of the disc the ear got satiated and is perhaps pining for something unfamiliar to happen? But the Sibelius finale is the only semi-sour note in the recording with plenty of other riches by an artist who will be developing in all kinds of interesting directions in the years ahead.

More ROH at HotDocs Cinema

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Sonya Yoncheva as Norma

ROH returns to Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in December. Here’s the schedule:

Saturday, December 3, 12:00 PM Norma (directed by La Fura dels Baus’ Alex Olle) with Sonya Yoncheva in the title role. It’s the one in which Druids are replaced by a ferocious, women-ordaining Catholic sect.  Sonia Ganassi is Adalgisa, Joseph Calleja Pollione. Antonio Pappano conducts. More info.

Saturday, December 10, 11:00 AM Cosi fan tutte by German director Jan Phillip Gloger, conducted by Semyon Bychkov. With Angela Brower (Dorabella), Corinne Winters (Fiordiligi), Daniel Behle (Ferrando), Alessio Arduini (Guiglielmo). More info.

Friday, December 30, 11:30 AM Les Contes d’Hoffmann by John Schlesinger. Vittorio Grigòlo in the title role, Thomas Hampson doing the four villains, Christine Rice as Giulietta, Sonya Yoncheva is Antonia, Sofia Fomina is Olympia, Kate Lindsey is Nicklausse. Evelino Pidò conducts. More.

Tickets for the general public are $16 (members $12 and down).

East and west meet before the hardness of history: a conversation with Diana Tso

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Jen Hum Phoebe Hu, Vania Chan, and Vicki Kim in Comfort. Photo by Dahlia Katz

The 1937-45 Sino-Japanese war, the Asian leg of the Second World War, remains under-historicised in the west. Its most brutal event, the invasion of the then-capital of the Nationalist China, Nanking, by the imperial Japanese army, remains under-acknowledged in the east too, playwright Diana Tso tells me, and for a host of conflicting reasons. Japanese historiography still downplays the atrocities—estimated by other historians to be between 200,000 and 300,000 Nanking residents killed and tens of thousands of women raped. A great number of the surviving “comfort women” and their families prefer not to talk about their lives in conditions of sexual slavery due to the stigma. But books do exist, and are coming out with increasing frequency, and Tso used them for initial research for her latest play with music (a contemporary masque, in many ways), Comfort, opening tomorrow with Red Snow Collective at Aki Studio in Regent Park.

Tso had read Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking, the collection Chinese Comfort Women, and a book of testimonies by Japanese soldiers and their victims collected by a Japanese journalist, but it was her travels to Korea and China over the last ten years, for research and inspiration and activism, that shaped more directly her play. In 2009 she met some of the survivors in China and Korea. “They have created ‘houses of sharing’ in Korea where some of the grandmothers live together, paint, try to build a community and heal,” says Tso. “To this day, every Wednesday they stand in front of the Japanese embassy and ask for recognition of the crime and an apology.”

During the Japanese occupation of the city, about 20 remaining westerners, banking on their foreign power citizenships and employing not a small amount of chutzpah, marked off a Nanking Safety Zone with Red Cross flags and proclaimed it a no-atrocity area. It worked. In one of those perverse twists that history excels at, a German businessman who also happened to be a confirmed Nazi rescued thousands of Chinese and is now acknowledged as one of the most reliable witnesses  of Japanese brutality in Nanking. During her last visit to Nanjing, Tso met a widow of a man who had stayed in the ‘international zone’ and asked her to share the story of how they met. It was that encounter that planted the seed of the play as a love story amid historical unrest.

But nothing is straightforward: there’s a play within a play, and frequent incursions into mythology. “In my play, we follow a fisherman and a merchant’s daughter. Both are in love with the opera called Butterfly Lovers – an actual Chinese opera piece in which a knowledge-hungry girl is not allowed to go to school because of her gender. The woman in my play suffers similar fate; her upper-class merchant’s family has promised her hand in marriage. So, it’s 1937 in Shanghai. Two people fall in love. The war breaks out, she escapes her family home and the arranged marriage and is eager to help in the Chinese war effort, but is immediately captured. He, meanwhile, embarks on a search for her.”

Music is composed by Constantine Caravassilis and is there for dramaturgical accents, for atmosphere, for scene enrichment. Comfort is not a sung-through, through-composed opera, but an eclectic dramatic creation with music. The small band consists of erhu, percussion, accordion and piano. “I first worked with musicians exploring the text and the movement, while the composer worked on the score and proposed music – and this mix resulted in new text and new scenes.” Tso’s monologue for the Moon about devastation of humanity came out of just such a collaborative alchemy. “It would not have happened if I was working in isolation at home on a pre-music text. It was music that made me see things.” It’s only after that stage of collaboration that they (the director is William Yong) added straight theatre actors to the mix. In the  final show, there are 3 musicians, one professional dancer, one opera singer (soprano Vania Chan) and 7 actors, one of whom specializes in acrobatics. “If you put a group of different creators in the room, you want to use what each of them has as their forte.”

It will come as no surprise that Tso has the Jacques Lecoq School on her CV. “In other schools you’re trained as one thing only–an actor–with very specific skills; there, people of different skills come together, some are dancers, some directors, some actors. You’re exploring all those simultaneously, being a director, a writer, an actor, working as an ensemble to create something new. Instead of waiting for your agent to invite you to acting auditions, you create your own work.”

Comfort runs Nov 26 to Dec 10: Info & tickets

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Vania Chan, Phoebe Hu, Vicki Kim (front) and Jen Hum. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Healey Willan and the Art Song: A New CASP project

healey-willanSince I didn’t grow up in the Anglo tradition, the name Healey Willan was completely unknown to me before this concert. I’m told anybody who’s ever attended a protestant church service in Toronto–or sung in one–would know of Willan, but they will know him primarily as a composer of music to accompany church functions, and likely think of him as part of the stuffy hardcore British line of the (pre-)Canadian music in Toronto. The Canadian Art Song Project people thought that that judgment is unfair, and opened up and sifted through the vault of Willan’s little performed art songs. And they found some gems that absolutely withstand the test of time.

The pre-concert talk given by the composer Dean Burry, with occasional footnotes from a singer’s perspective by Lawrence Wiliford, helped situate the man in the history of music and the history of Canada. British (Empire) music at the turn of the twentieth century lagged behind the European Continent in experiment and innovation, and still very much looked back to the nineteenth century. Most frequently performed composers were of Elgar’s ilk, and this musical culture spilled over to the ex-colonies. Willan moved to Toronto in 1913, became a big fish in a small pond and continued to compose in the late Romantic tradition.

But within that idiom, he created some mesmerizing art songs. There are composers who function as brilliant systemathizers of the established and popular musical idioms of the recent past–Reynaldo Hahn, for instance–and Willan himself would probably belong to that group. Some his early songs, which opened the recital last night, would not stand out if found in a Schubert or a Rachmaninov song book. Others expand on the French mélodies vocabulary: those selected last night (“Eve”, “Dreams” and “Dawn”, all from 1912, sung by soprano Martha Guth, mezzo Allyson McHardy and baritone Peter Barrett, with Helen Becqué at the piano) remained unpublished during his lifetime, hélas. As did, said Lawrence Wiliford at the pre-talk, the most experimental songs in his portfolio: Willan’s playing with the form and potential new languages remained hidden in his unpublished works.

There were a number of folk songs in the program last night, and some are clearly better left aside as artifacts  from the past: the jolly England “Drake’s Drum” and his take on the Scottish folksong don’t really add much to the conversation. Dean Burry was right, though: “Lake Isle of Innisfree” sounds spacious and new. Willan’s effort with Canadian francophone folk is also interesting: “Rossignol du vert bocage” and “Laquelle marierons-nous”, sung by McHardy with Becqué at the piano, were not in any way predictable.

The concert finished with the 1914-1920 set “War and Innocence” and the only trio of the evening, “A Song of Canada” (1930) which, as ‘patriotic songs’ go, was almost pleasant.

All in all, I’m glad for this discovery. My understanding is that some chosen items of the Willan songbook may end up being recorded on a future CASP CD. For that and other updates on CASP ongoing research, revival and commissioning projects, head here.

In Conversation: Varduhi Abrahamyan, mezzo-soprano

The first time I heard Varduhi Abrahamyan sing was back in 2013 in Paris, at the Salle Pleyel, in a Johanespassion with Concerto Koeln conducted by Laurence Equilbey. It was easy to spot a singular voice: hers is a plush velvety yet nimble coloratura voice that makes you sit up and pay attention. That St. John Passion remains a favourite (thanks to the good person who captured and uploaded much of the France Musique-streamed audio recording onto YouTube), including of course Abrahamyan’s Es ist vollbracht.

The French mezzo of Armenian origin has a busy cross-European career and is covering quite the range of historic repertoire: there aren’t many singers whose repertoire spans Monteverdi to Verdi. It was a treat to discover last year that she would be appearing as Polinesso in the Richard Jones-directed Ariodante at the COC this season, which marks her Canadian, Toronto and COC debut. While researching for this article, I discovered that she would be coming back to the COC, in a production of Onegin in 2018. (The Carsen, possibly?)

We talked in French (with short trips into Italian and English) in her change room at the Four Seasons Centre this past Friday afternoon. She told me she hasn’t seen much of the city yet, but that the three-day window opening before the final performance will finally allow her to see some of it at leisure.

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How do you make this Richard Jones Polinesso living and breathing and credible?

At first I was taken aback by his level of villainy. To this degree, really? Then later I realized it would be impossible to do the character in any other way. You really have to take him on, go inside his skin, for him to work as a character for the audience. I’ll go as far as the role demands. And with this one I’m having fun. He’s changing all the time to hide his true self. He’s very proper, an angel practically, while wearing his cassock—and opposite when he takes it off. So the singer needs to interpret that. And you can’t do it half-heartedly. Much of the plotline depends on Polinesso being the way he is. He’s scheming all the time. I try to imagine and convey what it must be like to live a double life in that way.

He gets some good music, though.

Polinesso’s arias… well, to tell you the truth, there’s not much cantabile to enjoy in there. His music matches his character.

The first one is kinda nice, “Coperta la frode”.

Yeah, it’s OK. Not bellissima, nobody will be moved to tears. It corresponds to the character.

The last one, “Se l’inganno sortisce felice” has some mad coloratura. And you have to sing it all while jumping up and down on Ginevra’s bed.

It isn’t easy, but I am having fun with it now. With this Polinesso there’s a lot of personality to work with. I have to say I prefer roles that come with an interesting character, rather than those that are sort of in the same tone from beginning to end—even if they may be “positive” characters.

Was this a role debut?

No. I have a long history with the role. The very first time I’ve sung Handel on stage was a Polinesso in Geneva, at the Grand Théâtre de Genève. My agent called me to audition in Switzerland—in about 2005?—and that was the first one I was cast in. The COC one will be the last. It’s good to leave the role behind while you’re still having fun with it.

When you have to say no to a role, for what reason is it usually?

I first look at whether the role suits my voice, and whether it’s a character that I’d like to work on. I love theatre and the theatrical side of opera, and it’s important to put equal emphasis on both the musical and the theatrical side. I also like roles that allow me to evaluate and expand the repertoire. Gradually, though: qui va piano, va sano, va lontano.

Verdi is OK at this juncture?

Yes, I sing it already. I’ll be in a Fastaff in Paris soon, I’ve sung in Nabucco already… Rather, when I have to refuse a role, it’s because I think I can do it justice, say, in a few years’ time. Every role I take, I want to perform at the absolute top level. I don’t want to do things at an adequate level, I want to be among the best.

And you’ve already worked with some of the most important directors today. You were part of the already cult Alcina by Christof Loy in Zurich. Cecilia Bartoli, Malena Ernmann and Varduhi Abrahamyan in a love triangle: it doesn’t get better than that.

I love that production so much and I love working with Christof Loy.

There won’t be a DVD?

No, but we’re doing a revival in Zurich this coming December and January, and after that we’ll do it at Covent Garden, and at Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, same production and much of the same cast, with Cecilia Bartoli returning. We all really enjoyed that one.

Varduhi Abrahamyan as Bradamante in the Christof Loy-directed Alcina, Zurich 2015. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
Varduhi Abrahamyan as Bradamante in the Zurich Alcina directed by Christof Loy, 2015. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

You also sang Dalila in a Fura dels Baus production in Valencia?

That was with the wonderful Gregory Kunde as Samson. It was a modern production; a revival from Rome, I think, with a few little changes. I like Samson et Dalila as an opera and it was a pleasure to meet with Gregory again. First time we sang together was in La Donna del Lago at Theater an der Wien, which was directed by Christof Loy, in 2011.

You were Malcolm?

Yes, and just before I came to Toronto, I sang Malcolm in Pesaro. Great production by Damiano Michieletto, with a great conductor Michele Mariotti, and an amazing cast. There will be a DVD release. It was an unforgettable experience. I like Malcolm a lot. I’ll sing the role again at the Marseille Opera in 2018—I hope it’s OK to say this since you mentioned my COC return already–right after the Onegin at the COC. It’s back-to-back all the time. We close Ariodante on November 4; my flight back is November 5, I arrive November 6, unpack, and two days later, on November 8, I pack again and go to Palermo to sing Carmen. [laughs] It’s an interesting life.

Where is home?

In France, in Marseille – for about sixteen years now. France opened its doors to me, it believed in me. First contract for any opera house that I signed was for Opéra de Paris, for a Maddalena in Rigoletto. I was born and grew up in Armenia but moved to France in 2000, and I love it a lot too. Armenia and France, for me that’s like one’s the mother, the other one’s the father. Both are in my heart. I try to make it back to Armenia once a year at least.

You were also Goffredo in Robert Carsen’s Rinaldo at Glyndebourne, in the production set at a boarding school?

We spent about two months in Glyndebourne, back in 2010. That was my first collaboration with Carsen. I really like his openness. His ideas for characters are malleable enough to include the personality of the singer – singer’s own contribution. There’s the character, and then there’s the singer taking it on, and in some productions I guess you can adopt the given character because you are required to, and that’s where the conversation ends, but the acting then comes across as automatic. The audience will notice. The audience notices everything, the smallest movements, the look in the eyes, everything. We are naked on stage. And I will always be me and the character at the same time. And Carsen is a director who knows how to connect the two.

What about Bob Wilson’s L’Incoronazione, then? That must have been a whole different school of thought.

Ha, well yes. When it comes to movement, you don’t get to choose your own. We had something like the “I am sad” posture and the “I am happy” posture [she demonstrates] and it ends there. Nobody is to touch anybody else. Every cast member is placed at a very specific spot, we all share the same limited number of gestures, and  the lighting is extremely important. When you look at the production from the audience and as a whole, it works; I had great feedback from the audience, but for us, there isn’t a whole lot we can do on stage. We express our inner lives through the look in our eyes – and through the music and the text, of course. Since it was Monteverdi, the text was very important, and it all came together. Not sure if it would in every other opera; I can’t imagine a Carmen by Bob Wilson, for example. But with Monteverdi, with the text and the eyes, it was like Стихотворение: sung poetry.

You sang Ottone?

Yes. Again, a man.

Do pants roles give more freedom to the singer?

Not quite, but I enjoy each one of them a lot. In Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini directed by Terry Gilliam I sang Ascanio (Rome/Amsterdam/ENO co-production). Now that production was nothing short of a film. And I was pretty masculine in it too.

Varduhi Abrahamyan in Benvenuto Cellini.
Varduhi Abrahamyan as Ascanio in Benvenuto Cellini. Photo: Yasuko Kageyama

And Arsace?

Musical writing for that role is fabulous. The duos, his character, I love everything about it. I’ve done it a few times and will do it again, in Pesaro, again with Maestro Mariotti in a couple of years.

You also sang Adalgisa?

Yes, with Mariella Devia. When I found out that she would sing Norma, there was some serious fangirling happening on my part.

And then there’s the Bieito Carmen waiting for you early next year in Paris.

Yes! I saw the photos from the production, and am very excited about it. It’s a favourite, Carmen. Rich in character, a strong woman who knows how to love, who’s not afraid of anybody and is ready to risk everything to be true to her heart. She needs somebody next to her who will match her strength, but… in opera as in real life, men don’t particularly like strong women. I don’t know if you’ll agree?

Good grief, yes, absolutely. In all areas of life, as we can see these days.

I sang Carmen at the Bolshoi, and in Toulon, and also in Hamburg, last year. I have a lot of Carmens in the future.

And your foray into contemporary opera was Akhmatova composed by Bruno Mantovani?

Yes, that was the world premiere of the work at the Opera Bastille. And it’s impressive – and different when the composer is around and in the same room as you. There was lots to learn. Lots of changes of tempi… The work was well received. There should be a recording somewhere, at least the audio.

More contemporary music on the agenda?

Not in the near future. I like music that lets me interpret, add nuances. I love music that lets me play with colours. But in contemporary music that’s not often the case. Everything is planned and everything must be followed precisely. Perhaps a singer should make that choice early on, to focus on contemporary music and specialize there, or to dedicate herself to the historic repertoire.

Everybody should do what they do best. I like to set the bar for my singing and acting as high as possible, and bring something new with my interpretation. It’s the same with conductors and stage directors. We’re always trying to inch the bar higher. I am working on myself as a singer all the time, it’s a job that never ends.

You can still catch Ariodante on its closing night on November 4 at the COC.

Top and bottom photos courtesy IMG Artists.

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Norma by Kevin Newbury

(l-r) Elza van den Heever as Norma and Isabel Leonard as Adalgisa in the Canadian Opera Company production of Norma, 2016. Photo: Michael Cooper
(l-r) Elza van den Heever as Norma and Isabel Leonard as Adalgisa in the Canadian Opera Company production of Norma, 2016. Photo: Michael Cooper

Just about everything can be made better by two women singing in thirds “Mira, o Norma”, including a cold October day and a timid production of Bellini’s Norma. Elza van den Heever as Norma and Isabel Leonard as Adalgisa singing “Mira” is worth the proverbial price of admission, and last night made obvious Kevin Newbury’s vision for the Bellini piece: creating space for the canto and the voices. Not more, not less. It’s not a particularly ambitious directorial vision but there’s focus there and the resulting production is a calm, pleasing, slow-burn of a show.

The libretto is taken more or less literally but distilled into the essentials, with design simplified, made geometric and stylish, potential Monty-Pythonesque edges smoothed off (no centurion garb for Pollione, thankfully). For much of the show, the set is vast and empty, with drama taking place in twos and threes: the chorus is large, but crowd scenes remain few. Most of the time we are within a temple or fortress with high walls and a door opening up into the forest, a sacred place too that changes colour and lighting depending on where we are in the drama. Scenes are distinctly un-busy and nothing will distract from the voices. The sheltering set is sheltering for the same reason.

The women were great together–with the tenor too–each of the voices drawing the best out of the other one. Individually, especially in recits, neither Leonard nor Heever has a particularly memorable timbre or heart-breaking beauty and smoothness of tone. Each however exercises the ability of the instrument to the maximum, withholding nothing, and each possesses impressive technical mastery. Heever’s “Casta diva” had control, trill, coloratura, messa di voce, while keeping it all at an intimate p to mf level.

Russell Thomas was a total star. Let me get my superficiality out of the way first: did he lose weight,  gain muscle, take acting lessons, since last time I checked? He was a complete singing-actor as Pollione, dramatically nimble and vocally… vocally, positively Pavarotti. Not everything was perfect (the outer reaches of the top could have been reached with a bit more ease at certain points) but by golly, you know a star when it smacks you in your operatic jadedness. His voice is so elegant and even throughout the register and so consistently compelling that notions of a perpetuum mobile engine come to mind. One patented by Pavarotti, to boot.

The pit under Stephen Lord gave a competent reading of the score, but didn’t go out of its way to seduce us with subtle accents or daring innovation. Mostly it got out of the way of the voices, just like the production itself.

Norma continues at the Canadian Opera Company Oct 28 and Nov 5. Tickets & more.

Russell Thomas as Pollione and Elza van den Heever as Norma in the COC production of Norma, 2016. Photo: Michael Cooper
Russell Thomas as Pollione and Elza van den Heever as Norma in the COC production of Norma, 2016. Photo: Michael Cooper
Elza van den Heever as Norma (COC, 2016). Photo: Michael Cooper
Elza van den Heever as Norma (COC, 2016). Photo: Michael Cooper