Ambur Braid sings Verdi

Believe it or not, there’s a summer concert series at Casa Loma May 31-August 30. It’s called Symphony in the Gardens and this year it opens with Ambur Braid singing a program of Puccini, Gershwin and Verdi (Violetta’s entire “Che strano…Sempre libera” and Leonora’s “Tacea la notte placida”, rumour has it.).  I wanted to hear Ambur in Verdi since CASP’s The Living Spectacles, so this is exciting.

Concerts are every Tuesday, and the program is general populist fare with a few gems and curiosities. Single tickets are around $30, judging by the cost of the passes and include admission to Casa Loma, I expect. I’ve never been, so I may decide to play tourist in my own town on May 31.

(Click photo to magnify)
CasaLomaConcertSeries

Filthy Brides, or: AtG gets Cozy

I managed to see A Little Too Cozy, the Against the Grain Theatre adaptation of Così fan tutte, on its closing night this weekend. This isn’t a comprehensive review by any means, but a few thoughts on the production that was extensively covered by multiple other media.

The basic idea behind Joel Ivany’s update works well: Fiordiligi/Felicity and Dorabella/Dora have made it to the last round of a reality TV show in which eligible singletons interact with each other via text, email and phone only. Before meeting in person their chosen bachelors, Guiglielmo/Elmo and Fernando, the women have one last test to pass: two ‘new candidates’ (actually Elmo and Fernando, switching girls, tempting fate) trying to seduce them with “A bird you laid your eyes on is better than the one hiding in the bush” shtick. Hosting the show—while sporting cheesy suits–is the devious presenter Donald L. Fonzo (Cairan Ryan), in cahoots with the show’s “talent relations coordinator” Despina (Caitlin Wood).

When the set is an actual TV studio on 10th floor of the CBC building, the feeling of unreality that one gets with the unfolding of Cosi is perfectly founded. You may ask yourself why the women would go through the absurd setup of this TV show to get engaged, but why do people go to reality TV shows in the first place? It’s more to do with becoming famous for 15 minutes than achieving whatever the official end goal of the show is, winning the race, or getting the bachelor. Ivany made the women, particularly Dora, publicity hounds. In a tech-positive affront on the fourth wall, the AtG encouraged the audience in the studio to tweet (suggested hashatags get repeated and flashed on screens) and take photos. As far as I know, this invitation to engage on social media during the performance is a precedent in Toronto, and a very positive one.

And still, Cozy did not manage to eliminate the boring bits of Cosi and this opera, like Mozart/Da Ponte’s, has snooze minutes. TV studio acoustics aren’t very good for unamplified singing and the trademark intimacy of the AtG’s productions was lost this time. A lot of the text for me was lost too, and the lustre of the score in this quartet-with-piano reduction. It was the largest, most warehouse-like space they’ve ever had a show in. Since it was the last show, there was probably some exhaustion to blame, but tenor Aaron Sheppard had very little volume all night, and even the charismatic and hilarious mezzo Rihab Chaieb occasionally produced impure, airy sound. While Clarence Frazer was both funny and sang well and was on all the time, Shantelle Przybylo’s continuous squinting distracted from her sweet and capable singing.

Ivany divided the libretto into segments that happen on camera and those that happen backstage, which is a brilliant touch. His Così libretto, like his Figaro was, is sharply zeitgeist-y and populist. What’s new is that it’s (and this is a compliment) filthy—much filthier than either Figaro or Uncle John was. I don’t know if Ivany knows of Ali Wong’s comedy yet, but her stage persona and Cozy brides-to-be have a lot in common.

 

Dean Burry does a Schoenberg on Romanticism

Talisker Players’ latest recital-with-reading program Cross’d By The Stars looks at the doomed lovers in vocal repertoire and classical literature. Krisztina Szabó started the concert with an immediately enthralling Dido’s Lament. Laura Jones at the cello within the continuo opened with a long, beautifully vibrated line reminding us that this music can be equally stunning on modern instruments (there was a harpsichord in the continuo, but the rest of the strings, as far as I can tell, were modern).

The same instrumental ensemble remained on stage for the ever forgettable “Che farò senza Euridice”, the most incongruously cheerful lament in the history of Western music, here sung by baritone Aaron Durand. That was mercifully short, followed by the evening’s central piece.

Namely, Dean Burry’s musical dramatization of Alfred Noyes’s poem “The Highwayman.” It was prefaced by a reading (Stewart Arnott) from Wuthering Heights, and the two texts definitely have things in common. Noyes’ is an early twentieth-century poem but decidedly retro already then—neo-Gothic Romantic in its themes (night is wild, nature a danger and doomed lovers, a highway robber and an innkeeper’s daughter, can only be together in death) and anti-modernist in its narrative drive, rhyme and structure (AABCCB). Burry however fortunately looked elsewhere in the same early 20thC period for musical influence and found it in Schoenberg’s 1912 Pierrot Lunaire: the instrumental make-up of the chamber orchestra last night was the same, comprising violin, cello, flute, piccolo, clarinet, bass clarinet, piano plus a mezzo soprano.

It’s an exciting piece that not only honours but kind of alchemizes the onomatopoeia and the viscerality of the original poem. It’s also a piece that should be seen and heard under more favourable conditions—while the mezzo part was extremely expressive, to a lot of us seated in the middle Szabó was invisible due to the presence of a conductor. Too, it was too dark to read the very long text and there were no surtitles, so unless you knew the poem by heart, you were bound to miss stuff out.

Further, it’s a piece that calls for some sort of staging, perhaps video projections, some imaginative lighting at least. Can some of the Toronto’s indie companies do us all a favour and take up this challenge?

I left at the intermission, reader. I was seriously under the weather but also did not want to mix the experience of The Highwayman with musical theatre that was coming up, the three songs from West Side Story (“Maria, Maria, Mariaaaa”). Would have been good to hear the chamber arrangement of Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, especially “Zwei blauen Augen”—baritone-, not mezzo-sung, alas–at the far end of the program, but it wasn’t meant to be last night.

And the concert couldn’t have gotten any better than the Burry/Szabó extravaganza. Now let’s hear it again, Toronto.

MY Opera does The Rape of Lucretia

Christina Campsall as Lucretia, Nicholas Borg as Tarquinius, Victoria Marshall as Bianca and Anne-Marie MacIntosh as Lucia. Photo by William Ford Photography.
Christina Campsall as Lucretia, Nicholas Borg as Tarquinius, Victoria Marshall as Bianca and Anne-Marie MacIntosh as Lucia. Photo by William Ford Photography.

Lots of good singing and musicianship last night in MY Opera’s The Rape of Lucretia, and Britten’s music (piano: Natasha Fransblow), the best thing about this opera, contains vast painterly visuals and subtlest love of detail. The music in Lucretia’s home, the women’s collective work and the light of a new day in particular, have rich cinematic quality. The ensembles are tremendous: whenever Britten has two or more people singing at the same time, a thrilling discord is heard. The oft returning, initially playful chord becomes the “is that all” motif that adds meaning wherever it appears.

Christina Campsall’s Lucretia felt right in just about every way. She was apprehensive and troubled from the get go, dignified in angst and (later) devastation and just a dash of glamorous throughout. Hers is a pretty mezzo that you wouldn’t exactly call either light or dark in timbre, doing both as needed. It’ll be interesting to see where she goes next (she’s sung Ruggiero and Offenbach’s Hélène at the GGS of Opera in recent years). Jonelle Sills (Female Chorus) and Daevyd Pepper (Male Chorus) were very good too, if very different characters dramatically. While Sills sang hers sincerely, Pepper’s showed hints of being calculating and self-interested. Hints only, however; much more could have been done to redefine the Choruses dramatically, especially because that was the initial promise.

Victoria Marshall (Bianca) and Anne-Marie MacIntosh (Lucia) were flawless in their scenes / miniatures. At various points during the show I found myself wondering ‘Yes, but what I really want to know is what those two are doing right now.’ Among the men, Jacob Feldman (impossibly boyish looking, but vocally convincing) and Evan Korbut as Collatinus and Junius respectively left a stronger impression than Nicholas Borg as Tarquinius. With Borg, there was some apparent straining in higher notes, and acting occasionally came close to caricaturing without any real menace stemming from the character, but he did well and held his own in the most difficult of scenes, the preliminaries to the rape. There was proper tension between the two characters, and the singers really made most of the awkward setup.

Director Anna Theodosakis placed the opera in a mid-twentieth century country—time when Britten worked on the piece. The MYO says it’s Italy nearing liberation, but the production is nowhere near that specific. You would expect in that case an Italy closer to the Italian neo-realist cinema? No, the setting could more plausibly be any other country that experienced occupation or heightened military presence roughly around that time, Hungary under Soviets, Berlin under Soviets, Yugoslavia under Germans or Italians, Greeks under the colonels, Spain under Franco, and on and on. And this broader applicability is a compliment to it, actually. While the production did not have a built set, the costumes and the direction did the story-telling, and very competently.

But as far as Lucretia and I are concerned, we are done. I’ve given this work hours and hours of fair trial, and will give no more. This was a gentle, confident production, but the libretto stays bad, irreparable. A woman is treated like garbage, then kills herself because she is too ashamed. Angels sing of Christ’s tears, praise her purity. Curtain. For good.

 Daevyd Pepper as Male Chorus and Jonelle Sills as Female Chorus. Photo by William Ford Photography.
Daevyd Pepper as Male Chorus and Jonelle Sills as Female Chorus. Photo by William Ford Photography.

I can get behind Maometto II

Luca Pisaroni & the COC Chorus in Maometto II. Photo by Gary Beechy.
A Scene from Maometto II. Photo by Gary Beechy.

It’s been a long while since I left a production in a similar kind of WTF state. Maybe the Chinese Semele at the COC was the last time.

Which is to say that as far as Maometto II is concerned, I liked it?

There’s much to enjoy straightforwardly in this David Alden production of little known dramatic Rossini Maometto II, but there’s much more which you’ll find yourself enjoying because it’s out of place, weird, obviously doesn’t make any sense, or belongs very consciously to a retro theatrical language.

But let’s get out of the way a few things that could not be enjoyed at all on the opening night. There were chorus & pit coordination issues (the chorus, usually the male one, was behind the beat on more than one occasion), and choral homogeneity issues (female chorus sounded like a group of individuals unwilling to blend). The lead soprano’s voice (Leah Crocetto), while perfectly fine and apt rest of the time in its coloratura journeys, would occasionally have passages, especially if the text is on the open Italian E vowel, of unlovely shrill. When you put a hyperactive crowd—some among them armed with spears and doing their anti-choreography–on a narrow tilted stage with large holes, audience members will wait anxiously for the accident to happen instead of following the performance.

And now on to the pleasantly inscrutable, and even the unequivocally pleasant.

Here’s what, technically, happens in the libretto. Maometto the character is based on Mehmed II the Conqueror, the fifteenth-century Ottoman warrior who took Constantinople, put paid to Byzantium and pushed well into the Western Europe. As nineteenth-century Italian opera is wont to do, the historical episode of the war with Venice is reimagined as a melodrama that involves Mehmed II, the ruler of a Venetian outpost Erisso, his daughter Anna and her long-suffering suitor Calbo. As the Ottoman siege starts, it transpires that Anna had somehow managed to have an affair with Maometto himself in disguise way before his troops conquered the city. (Don’t ask me how.) She makes Maometto release her father and suitor from captivity and spends next part of the opera with Maometto conflicted over loyalties. In the event, she betrays him, which results in Venetian reconquest. In the final scene with Maometto, she takes her own life.

The Ottomans were still in the Balkans at the time the opera was created, so I’m not sure what particular events around 1820 nudged Rossini and librettist Cesare della Valle in this direction. The overeager seekers of noxious Orientalism in everything would likely classify it as an Orientalist opera—there are clarinet solos too, hey—but the piece has as much to say about geopolitics, history and religious strife as Rossini’s Guglielmo Tell or the glorious Tancredi, so: nothing at all.

It’s the director’s task to decide whether to tap into or ignore (completely wimp out of?) this hotbed of topics in a contemporary reading, and David Alden found an intelligent and honourable balance. I’m guessing his thinking was, to completely ignore the East vs. West undercurrent would be to miss the point entirely and to bet too much on it (either by critiquing it or embracing it) would be silly: it’s an obscure Italian bel canto opera from 1820.

There are many brilliant scenes in this staging that never quire coheres and perhaps even shouldn’t. At the opening of Act 2,  the female chorus is lined up but we only see their niqab-veiled faces. They are observing Anna and a veiled dancer who gradually takes off her clothes to zero reaction from the impermeable Anna—some deconstructed elements of belly dance found their way to choreography (consistently imaginative, signed by David Laera). Maometto’s warriors wear ninja-like costumes, but they are not camp and not unserious: there is a front of stage throat slitting in one scene, and hints of a very different, unHollywood type of warrior recently seen on certain videos in the news. And whether Alden’s seen this particular political manipulation of Ottoman imagery I don’t know, but it was present in the costume of one of the silent characters on stage as well as Maometto’s.

But Alden takes a distance from too direct topicality in other ways, and when the bridge door goes down from the wall in Act 2, theatre smoke pours out and the massive black horses start sliding down just so Luca Pisaroni could climb up behind them and conclude the scene from there… we are back in the land of artificiality, mediation, nods to old skool set machinery and, well, fun.

My favourite thing about Rossini, apart from the heroic pants roles, are his trios, quartets, & quintets. Maometto II is all about the trios, many of the key scenes set up in this way. And while you could separate the work into numbers if you insisted, conductor Harry Bicket does the right thing and does not leave a split second for the applause after each. Recits are also sufficiently dramatic and substantial. The Maometto & Anna duo in Act 2 is some seriously sexy business. Credits to Luca Pisaroni and Crocetto (and Alden) for making the attraction and repulsion and the violence of that exchange come alive.

Pisaroni himself does not have get a showstopping traditional arias, but is a towering star presence throughout, producing some handsome and powerful bass coloratura. Elizabeth deShong as Calbo did have some spectacular solos, thank Rossini, and tenor Bruce Sledge as Erisso left nothing to be desired. The only principal I wasn’t seduced by was, as I mentioned, Crocetto, but every performance is different and things may change on other nights of the run.

In conclusion, I’m glad I discovered Maometto II. It’s certainly worthier of revival than any number of other bel canto works being reintroduced these days like the Tudor Trilogy, or Rossini’s own ubiquitous Cenerentola. Alden approached it in the right way (if sometimes to chaotic or static results). Thumbs up.

Bruce Sledge as Paolo Erisso, Leah Crocetto as Anna and Elizabeth DeShong as Calbo in the COC’s production of Maometto II, 2016. Photo: Michael Cooper

Show Me the Drama: Carmen at the COC

Clémentine Margaine as Carmen and David Pomeroy as Don José. Photo: Michael Cooper
Clémentine Margaine as Carmen and David Pomeroy as Don José. Photo: Michael Cooper

A surprisingly undramatic, almost concert version Carmen opened at the COC last week (through May 15, alternating cast). I couldn’t find the name of the original director anywhere in the program, but Joel Ivany as the revival director perhaps did his darnedest before realizing that he couldn’t resuscitate this clunker and let the principals do a lot of their own concert-style blocking? Too much of the time they sang to the audience rather than to each other, even in scenes that desperately call for naturalism.

When in Act 4 Don Escamillo, after the cheers and fanfares, starts with “Si tu m’aimes, Carmen”, he is saying this to us, not her, standing next to him. The poor old Act 1 suffered from this a lot. There’s a wrought iron fence with gate across the stage—entrance to the barracks–that limits the action to the strip in front of it. There’s no cigarette factory for the factory girls. The setup doesn’t show soldiers gawking at them: the girls walk out from the wings, park in front of the gate and sing to the audience. We never see the fight between Carmen and Manuela: when they’re dragged out to the stage by the solders, it’s all over.

Soldiers themselves are not a menacing presence (in some productions they are enforcers of a militarized society) but a bunch of fellas hanging neutrally about, enjoying the sunshine. Carmen being customarily groped by Zuniga—not a thug here, but a handsome silver fox (Alaine Coulombe)–really doesn’t seem like a big deal, though okay, there are hints that the two have a history. When the children’s chorus come out, instead of jostling, being unruly, imitating soldiers, they—you guessed it—sing to the audience while doing some cutesy marching.

Another surprising choice: the curtain stays down for the overture and the orchestral interludes at beginning of acts. I can’t remember last time I saw this, it seems like directors are generally phasing it out.

When the singers do sing to each other, the drama properly picks up and you find yourself enjoying the opera. This tends to happen in Act 2 at Lillas Pastia and in the very last act, at the bull fighting spectacle. The “Les tringles des sistres tintaient” could really have used some professional dancers or choreography. Ivany decides to poke fun at Don Escamillo upon his entrance by making the crowd go just a little too wild, and it works great. Act 4 is especially well resolved, and the picadors, l’Espada, the toreador etc. coming through the audience is a good idea.

Clementine Margaine as Carmen is a fine discovery. She is one of those mezzos who do a lot of Carmens around the world (like Rinat Shaham, for ex), but there’s nothing routine or generic about her Carmen. Properly dark, warm, large-ish voice and a very credible dramatic approach. David Pomeroy as Don Jose was exactly right: a tense brooder who would still be living with his mother, were it not for whatever he had to escape his hometown for and find shelter in the military. His smooth and bright tenor was a good timbre partner to the dark mezzo. They were a very credible couple.

Charlotte Burrage was very prim as Mercedes (more filth needed, please! Is this Jane Austen or Bizet’s Seville?), while Sasha Djihanian as Frasquita really went for it. The raunch, the daring, the dancing, the voice: everything was there. Zachary Nelson’s vocal and dramatic gamuts, on the other hand, were MIA last night, his Escamillo remaining one-note.

All in all, Paolo Carignani’s take on the score was perfectly serviceable, give or take a number. The quintet (the three women and their two smuggler pals) at Lillas Pastia was much much too fast, and the Act 3 felt like everything went slow-mo, with Micaela’s aria (oh right, she’s still around) and the chorus and the extras that don’t have any room to move and can only stand still on the steps of that derelict church. The spoken dialogue throughout proceeds at a good pace, though. Fortunately, the Carmen we get to see is the original version with spoken dialogue, not the sung-recits weirdness that is still occasionally done.

Carmen remains a brilliant theatrical piece, efficiently structured, populated by psychologically sophisticated characters, and some productions manage to show how exciting it can be. In this recycle-revival, we get to see that only occasionally.

(left to right) Charlotte Burrage as Mercédès, Clémentine Margaine as Carmen and Sasha Djihanian as Frasquita. Photo: Michael Cooper
l-r Charlotte Burrage as Mercédès, Clémentine Margaine as Carmen and Sasha Djihanian as Frasquita. (The crowd in the back taking seats to watch the corrida.) Photo: Michael Cooper

Ave atque vale, Lucretia

Lucretia-BannerThere are barely any operatic works that I’d consider unstageable or irredeemably irrelevant. But last year, after seeing the Glyndebourne streaming of The Rape of Lucretia in the oddly respectful, libretto-at-face-value staging by Fiona Shaw, I realized that TROL would from then on be one such work for me. And not because of the detailed scene of rape, or the fact that the male leads use women’s bodies as currency in intra-military and political competition with impunity, or that the division of women into the whores and the chaste gets all of the airtime, or that the victim of rape takes upon herself the ‘spoiled goods’ stigma and kills herself out of shame and guilt.

No, not because of that. An intelligent staging could rework the bits of this ghastly puzzle into something that subverts its surface meaning instead of amplifying it.

It’s because of its ending, in fact: after Lucretia’s death, the chorus wonder among themselves whether the suffering and pain is all there is, and reassure us that no, that Christ the Saviour will come soon and be crucified and with His wounds redeem the wounds of the suffering humanity, including the poor Lucretia. Just you wait: she will not have suffered and died in vain.

What.the.actual.fuck.

Last time I got that angry after a show had to be after a Lars von Trier film—could be Breaking the Waves, could be the one with Nicole Kidman, could be any random misogynist crap that his funders and film critics encourage him to produce. One of his favourite tropes is Woman as the Sacrificial Lamb: an innocent, good woman being excruciatingly annihilated by a group/community, and this event, there are hints, works as an exorcism and brings catharsis for said community (or bro).

And von Trier is not alone: this trope is widespread in culture, its cinematic and operatic corners in particular, but everywhere else too.

TROL itself is so cavalier, so I-don’t-give-a-shit patriarchal, so unlayered dramatically, containing such simpleminded theology that would horrify or make laugh even a deeply religious Christian who indeed does believe that the Son of God had come to earth, died to redeem our sins and will return to abolish death and pain and reward the victims of injustice. (Any Christians reading this: I know you’re more sophisticated than this opera suggests. This is an insult to you, too.)

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that not one but two of the indie opera companies in Toronto would be doing TROL within a short time span. Of all the chamber-size operas around, it’s this one that got chosen—twice. Against the Grain will be co-producing it with various other organizations later this year, but MY Opera, a smart upstart run by the young & talented women who program lesser known rep gems and (equally important) pay the performers, surprised me much more.

The MYO press release also hinted that the director Anna Theodosakis would take considerable liberties with the work and set it in a very different historical period, with not a toga in sight. Company’s press materials also make obvious a sharply attuned awareness of the today widely and hotly debated issues around assault, consent, and artistic representation of same.

So I got curious: to see that a local small company has a more sophisticated approach to TROL than the kinda ideologically naïve one that Fiona Shaw and Glyndebourne took last summer was heartening. But when I emailed company’s General Manager Stephanie Applin, to ask if Theodosakis and the Artistic Director Kate Applin can meet me for tea and conversation, I warned them about my anti-TROL judgment.

They weren’t deterred: Anna and the Applin sisters were game to being challenged and talked to me about the concept and their reasons for doing the work for about an hour. I left in a better mood than the one I came in—which however is not to say that I’m converted to the work. This desperate piece is in capable hands, is what I can say: if anybody can do anything meaningful with it, it’s people like these three women who have thought through every political aspect of putting it on stage and are boldly ploughing though it for reinterpretation and salvage.

In Theodosakis’ regie, Lucretia takes place in Italy at the end of the Second World War. This chimes neatly with the libretto, as the original setting is the (un)rule of the kings before Rome became Rome, i.e. Roman Republic and later the Empire. With Theodosakis we’re still in Rome, but it’s a Rome at the twilight of a regime of a different kind. The militaristic rule is floundering, Italy clearly losing the war, and an internal Italian strife shaping up between the old monarchic regime tainted by its fascist ties, and the new forces of republicanism.

And while Tarquinius and Collatinus, Lucretia’s husband, are in the same army, their political loyalties are beginning to diverge.

So the rape does not exactly happen as an instrument of war—something that I expected we’d see, since the setting is the latter part of WW2. Rather, it’s a tool in the emerging civil conflict–perhaps even a retaliation?

While Tarquinius of the libretto, a vile Etruscan who bullied his way to the (Roman) top carries marks of the racially other, Theodosakis eliminated that complication: her Tarquinius is an insider through and through.

The male chorus and the female chorus are the greatest challenge in this opera. Theodosakis, wisely, puts the pious commenters smack in the middle of the drama. I won’t spoil everything ahead of the premiere, but I can say that they are a couple of functionaries with very specific allegiances and an agenda. The final words that usually irk me so much are uttered with political goals in mind—as something of a calculated manipulation by the means of Catholic vernacular in order to mobilize the populace.

As for the long scene of the assault, the MY Opera ladies tell me that it was important to them to avoid two pitfalls: one, of being gratuitous and voyeuristic, and the opposite one, of softening the scene and making the crime appear more bearable.

Will the production achieve the goals? The approach is certainly well-informed and thought-through. But can they accomplish the miracle of opening up to interpretation the work’s ossified core? We’ll all be able to see April 29 to May 1. Toi, toi, toi, gals.

In the banner photo: Christina Campsall (Lucretia).

CD Review: Rheinmädchen / Ensemble Pygmalion / dir. Raphael Pichon

 

Rheinmädchen contains what every good recording should: a diverse selection of pieces under one broad thematic umbrella, some bold transcriptions and rearrangements, the little known next to the better known, smart and imaginative conducting & performers, the sound capture that does justice to the material, and, well—the acknowledgment that women exist. (You’d be surprised—or maybe not–by how many works and how much programming in any artistic discipline to this day, 2016, do the last task perfunctorily.)

Ensemble Pygmalion is one of a good number of France’s period ensembles, which are now, counting from Les Arts Flo, three generations strong.  Its founder and conductor Raphael Pichon (YOB: 1984) is one of those non-dogmatic HIP conductors interested in Bach as much as contemporary music, in Mozart as much as the Romantic chamber choir rep. And while a lot of us who respect the HIP school of thought and its instrumental colours place its outer limes somewhere in between the early Romantics and the ripe ol’ Romantics (cause nobody wants Wagner and Mahler on period instruments), Pichon here productively blurred that distinction and very much got away with it. Schumann, Schubert, Brahms and Wagner here come together aesthetically unified as one Romantic brotherhood. Aside the all-female chamber choir, the instrumental forces begin and end with four natural horns, one harp and two double basses.

It’s easy to find in Brahms’ toolbox the gossamer and the chamber-music intimate—he wrote a lot for the chamber choir—but toning Wagner down to the chamber-music level must have been a more challenging task. There’s the horn solo from Siegrfried in the first half of the program, and the funeral march for Siegfried from Götterdämmerung rearranged for four horns (arr. James Wilcox) in the second. The CD opens with “Auf dem Grunde des Rheines”  from Das Rheingold, where 24 spatialized female voices stand in for the Wagnerian orchestra, together with seven aforementioned actual instruments (transcriber not credited). The Rhinemaidens return near the end, but it’ll be the Rhinemaidens of Götterdämmerung, in the transcription by Vincent Manac’h for the female choir, 2 horns and a harp.

In between this Wagner, light, pulverized, almost abstract as the a capella Strauss, a whole lot of exciting Schumann and Schubert choral rep is to be found. Much of the poetry (Rückert, Grillparzer, Uhland) is very dark—much of Romantic music is not really romantic at all, more of a tireless reminder that death and dying are always close, even when the text seems to be embarking on the topics of love and nature. Words are dark while music goes bright, intricate, enthralling. The other umbrella topic of the disc—first being the Female Figures of the Romantic Imagination—is canon as a musical form and compositional technique. Just about every included piece uses canon in some form. In Schumann’s heartrending  “Meerfey” (The Mermaid), voice parts weave around as the mermaid in the text combs her hair, but by the final verse it becomes clear that it was the now-lost ship that was bounced around in the winds and waves. Same composer with “In Meeres Mitten” (In the Midst of the Sea) elevates the odd, surreal text into a wrenching expression of helplessness before the march of history. His “Die Capelle”, with its bright soaring soprano lines dancing around the less extravagant, stabilizing alto sisters, is a most cheerful reminder that thou too shalt die, careless youth.

Warning: Schubert’s “Ständchen” (Serenade) is positively addictive. Bernarda Fink sings the solo part and her full-bodied, rich mezzo is an irresistible foil to the lighter and altogether more ghostly choir of voices that echo her entreaties. The text is a multi-layered delight: a collective of the unspecified voices led by the soloist mezzo-soprano come to interrupt a sleeping maiden because they love her too ardently. They consider the pros and cons of the action, then finally agree to “creep away” and let her sleep. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to this thing. Is it Fink’s silky but unfragile, whole-lotta-woman yet forceful voice with just the right amount of vibrato that kills it every time? The super nimble choir that responds as one? Or the text, in which there are women on both sides, the beloved and the lover? Addiction, I tell you.

There’s quite a bit of Brahms too on the disc, but for me he’s the least interesting composer of the lot. He represents with three Volkslieder in canon and concludes the disc with Vier Gesänge op.17 for female voices, 2 horns and a harp. I loved the most surprising item in there, the Volkslied for female voices op.113 No. 13,  “Einförmig ist der Liebe Gram” which cheekily borrows—hey, maybe even parodies–Schubert’s Leiermann melody and turns it into a sophisticated canon while also managing to be funny. The poem by Rückert (after a Farsi text by Hafis) moans that “Love’s grief is monotonous / A Song with only one note / And whenever I heard it / I had to hum it softly”, while Brahms messes with the monotonous melody of the Leierman and un-plies its yarn into multiple constituent parts that tangle and untangle and proves that the Romantics weren’t entirely devoid of humour.

Rheinmädchen is out on harmonia mundi label.

Rheinmädchen CD

Othalie Graham in Opera Canada

I wanted to share my conversation with the Ontario-born, US-based dramatic soprano Othalie Graham that just came out in Winter 2015-16 issue of Opera Canada. Some highlights:

Is operatic career only attainable to the well-off:

The cost of ongoing lessons, coaching, language instruction, travel to auditions, the accompanists, the formalwear, the hotel stays during rehearsals and runs—all require deep pockets as soon the singer leaves school or a young-artist program. “It’s very difficult, but it’s certainly attainable,” says Graham. “I’m not sure how a lot of us do it. You can afford to prepare new roles only if in between the coaching and studying you’re continuing to perform in other engagements.” The number of capable singers coming out of schools is also growing each year and auditions are getting more competitive. Most singers cross borders in search of work, but visa regulations remain inflexible. This Canadian in the U.S. moved from student visa to work visas until she acquired dual citizenship.

Graham confirms that the period after school is the most difficult. “You still don’t have a team in place, you have to do all on your own, and that is the time when a lot of people give up. They see how emotionally and financially difficult it is, and they don’t see a way to make it work for them. But sometimes, it’s the people who don’t give up who end up having a career, even if they’re not as talented as some others.”

On the lovability of Turandot

“I like to keep her young,” she says of her Turandot. “I don’t play her as this screamy, icy princess because you lose something in your voice if you do that. I like to keep her as youthful and beautiful as possible. Which is why I still sing Verdi Requiems, Aidas, things that require pianissimos, which for a big voice is difficult. You can’t hide in that kind of rep.”

There is humanity in Turandot, Graham continues, she is not a mythical figure or a caricature. “When she’s begging her father not to give her away, there are moments where you can float and use pianissimos to show some of her softness and vulnerability. She has to be seductive… even if it’s just underlined. This beauty is the soft underbelly of Turandot.”

Wagner the tender?

Graham is already singing quite a lot of Wagner in concert, and projecting in front of a Wagner orchestra rather than above it on stage presents its own set of challenges. “I just remind myself to sing with my own voice, and again to find the beauty—and Wagner, too, wrote some beautiful, tender things.”

Or even better, read the whole thing here [downloads the PDF file].

Othalie Graham - Turandot - Photo by Reed Hummel
Othalie Graham as Turandot at Nashville Opera. Photo by Reed Hummel

A Condominium in California

Ben McAteer (l) as James and Nicholas Sharratt (r) as Richard in The Devil Inside. Photo by Bill Cooper.
Ben McAteer (l) as James and Nicholas Sharratt (r) as Richard in The Devil Inside. Photo by Bill Cooper.

Never a dull moment in Stuart MacRae’s score and not a word wasted in Louise Welsh’s libretto of the opera The Devil Inside (Scottish Opera and Music Theatre Wales co-production, Tapestry Opera Toronto presenter), a contemporary remake of a Faustian bargain tale by R.L. Stevenson, on tour in Toronto till March 13. I say a remake—it’s actually its own creation, much more sophisticated than the original RLS story “The Bottle Imp” that bizarrely gets a happy ending: MacRae and Welsh’s ending makes clear that there is no escaping one’s actions and bargains. They also introduce addiction into the story, a perfectly logical addendum to a plot revolving around wish fulfillment.

It all begins with a pair of friends (Ben McAteer and Nicholas Sharratt) wandering around the countryside at night in search of shelter and knocking at a mansion door. So far, so Gothic, but as the discussions start whether to take up the offer from the old man (Steven Page) and buy his wish-fulfilling, soul-damning bottle and afterwards, when sufficiently sated, resell it for less, it becomes clear that the chief strength of the opera is not the heebie-jeebies—although it’s got those too—but the deep psychological drama at its core. The two men undergo radical trajectories and the friendship changes and all but wanes, until they inevitably meet one final time for the metaphysical settling of the accounts. The bottle changes hands many times, and once, significantly, out of love, which beautifully complicates the responsibilities and debts among the principals.

Owning the bottle affects the owner’s personality, and we see each of the holders overcome by the contradictory forces of the exuberance of desire and the burden of corruption. The very final scene, where the lovers James and Catherine (Rachel Kelly) try to save each other by taking the other’s bottle and damnation upon themselves, and James’ once-friend Richard desperately wants the bottle back because he craves being in the possession of the imp is a masterful, intense huis clos.

Which was, alas, somewhat marred on the opening night by the loudness of the orchestra (baton: Michael Rafferty). The pit-stage balance was just fine until the final confrontation, and since there were no surtitles, much of the carefully crafted text by Louise Welsh was lost on me. Luckily, printed copies of the libretto were on hand. I fully realized how excellent that scene was only after I’d read the booklet. It’s a matter of balance easily corrected, and I’m sure by the second night they will have figured the space of the Harboufront Centre Theatre out.

MacRae’s sometimes veers into lyrical tonality when the drama requires it, but most of the time works in an action-packed, dazzling atonality and dissonance. The instruments are being pushed to the limits of expressivity, without however any of the music jumping out of the dramatic context and distracting. MacRae’s is responsive, illustrative music, sometimes literal to the words uttered on stage, sometimes contradicting them and being more truthful about the inner states of the characters. He also likes language, and its musicality: I never thought the words “a condominium in California” can be so cheekily musical, for ex. MacRae also steers clear from musical clichés established around the appearance of the supernatural, the ghosts, the evil. There are no lazy choices in this score.

How do you convey luxury with a low budget set? With lighting and repositioning of perspective, turns out, and director Matthew Richardson, designer Samal Blak and lighting designer Ace McCarron manage to convey the mansion and the developer’s penthouse with barely anything but the high ceilings and vast empty spaces of the propertied, and by turning our eyes toward the vistas through the windows of those homes.

The cast were uniformly good: baritone Steven Page compelling as the Old Man and later in the opera as the Vagrant, baritone Ben McAteer as the Everyman-ish James burdened by consciousness on top of the weakness, tenor Nicholas Sharratt as Richard, the blind man of pleasure, from my seat looking very much like Robert Lepage, and the light-timbred mezzo Rachel Kelly as Catherine, who although enters James’ life after he’s relinquished the bottle, turns out is not a stranger to greed of a very particular kind herself.

How did you understand the ending? Let me know in the comments. The Devil Inside continues March 12 and 13. 

Rachel Kelly (Catherine) with  Ben McAteer (James). Photo by Bill Cooper/Scottish Opera.
Rachel Kelly (Catherine) with Ben McAteer (James). Photo by Bill Cooper/Scottish Opera.