Siegfried by François Girard at the COC

Stefan Vinke as Siegfried and Jacqueline Woodley as the Forest Bird in the COC production of Siegfried directed by François Girard. Photo by Michael Cooper.

In the hands of the COC orchestra and its conductor Johannes Debus, the Siegfried score positively danced, and as luck would have it, the spare 2006 production by François Girard did not stand in the way. Acts I and II, “A cave in the rocks in the forest” and “Deep in the forest” respectively, never get as literal as to show any actual trees—in both acts, the view is dominated by the magnificent swirly construction containing buildings, human figures, objects, fragments of objects, light bulbs and wires. It’s an elaborate thing that I could never tire of looking at (the set and the costumes are by Michael Levine). Just about every key character is dressed in a simple all-white getup–a wise choice in an opera in which the division among the ‘races’ of the Nibelungs, the Giants and the Gods are inordinately being fussed about and reiterated. In other words, the Nibelung Mime, the Giant/Dragon Fafner and Wotan disguised as the Wanderer are all made of the same ‘stuff’ (visually). In the Siegfried libretto itself, the tripartite setup is already being frayed in so many ways, which of course will culminate in the final Ring opera. So Girard and Levine’s decision to remove any traces of racializing, even remotely associative, among the characters, is the right one.

But something interesting happens to the set from Act III on. Well: it disappears. There’s a whole lot of darkness when the Wanderer meets Erda and for the final encounter between him and Siegfried and Siegfried and the waking Brunnhilde the fire is enacted by a group of supernumeraries lighted red who are then extinguished, as it were, and slowly leave. Perhaps Gerard was aware that Wagner had composed Acts I and II first, then turned his attention to Tristan and Die Meistersinger, after which he went back to Act III of Siegfried? This difference is present in the musical material, and in Gerard’s staging visually too—but while the music ups the thickness, and the recitative is replaced by the composed-through arioso, the opposite is happening on stage, which becomes bare. The final exchange between Siegfried and Brunnhilde takes place on a brightly lit spot surrounded by darkness, which exhausted my eyes to the point of tears. Why this solution? No clue. It’s one thing to decide not to give Brunnhilde the breastplate, the helmet and Grane when she wakes up; it’s quite another not to have anything on stage but the two protagonists in a glaring white circle.

By that point, fortunately, you will have taken a lot of pleasure from the production anyway. There is some playfulness with the returning motives in Siegfried, and even the least attentive listener will be able to spot the materials they’ve heard before and connect them with earlier contexts in the Ring (the Giants’ drum-and-brass, for example, and the barely disguised Valkyries motive are impossible to miss). There is fun to be had with the solos from within the orchestra, and some of the smallest roles above the pit are so compelling they overshadow whatever else is happening around them (like the Woodbird, by the delightful Jacqueline Woodley, and Erda—Meredith Arwady–whose lower notes, I swear to you, came from somewhere deep underground and shook the FSC).

We usually feel obliged to praise the title role tenor for simply making it through the four hour singing ordeal, and I won’t be an exception to the rule. I felt there was some strain in that endless final dialogue with Brunnhilde, but I’m not sure there is a Siegfried who can be consistently 100 percent from the beginning till the end—not until the robots start singing halden rep at any rate. Stefan Vinke was an appropriately physical and forceful Siegfried, physique of a hockey player in fact, and often unsympathetic (the shaved head helped with that, but thank gott there was no blonde wig in sight). The colour of the voice, however, is on the light, youthful side, surprisingly reminiscent of Michael Schade’s.

The singer who impressed me the most in this stellar lineup was Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Mime. It’s perhaps easier for the shorter roles to impress with consistency and polish? WAS’s Mime was a delight from start to finish. The singer played him as a comic character just this side of caricature, and while Gerard could have easily reduced some of the twitching, shaking and limping, WAS’s considerable acting talent came through loud and clear all the same. Not to mention his flawless, beautifully coloured tenor voice, which also came through loud and clear. His exchanges with Siegfried and the Wanderer were so natural, and the pit-stage balance maintained so well by Johannes Debus, that I felt I was watching a piece of well-paced spoken theatre for a good part of Acts I and II.

Christine Goerke, of course, did not disappoint, neither vocally nor sartorially, but the final scene with Siegfried was rather anticlimactic. Part of the reason was the prolonged white glare, but the other part was that Gerard here expunged just about any trace of eroticism and went for a stand-and-deliver approach. If there was chemistry and urgency, it passed me by.

Fafner (Phillip Ens, off stage) and, in a special case of luxury casting, Christopher Purves’ Alberich, were excellent in their respective modest corners of the drama. Alan Held was given an anonymous and slow-moving Wotan as the Wanderer, in all-white too and a long grey wig. He boomed, he fretted, and there was no end to the depth of his resignation, but he also perfectly blended with the rest of the vivarium, a ghostly figure already meeting the twilight.

Continues through February 14

Stefan Vinke as Siegfried and Alan Held as The Wanderer in the Canadian Opera Company production of Siegfried, 2016. Photo: Chris Hutcheson
Stefan Vinke as Siegfried and Alan Held as The Wanderer in the Canadian Opera Company production of Siegfried, 2016. Photo: Chris Hutcheson

Putting play back in to the play: Germinal at the World Stage 2016

Germinal2Theatre as a playdate? Yes, s’il vous plait. The World Stage 2016 opened last night with Germinal, a delightfully wacky French play (quite literally) by Halory Goerger and Antoine Defoort, with four actors on stage, a handful of props, the English subtitles incorporated into the lighting and that’s pretty much it. But the game played was serious and fun in equal measure: among its goals were the invention of–the reasons for–language, the efficacy and the limits of communication, how expression happens (its phonation, transmission), the emergence of the written text, the basics of analytical thinking, the need for and the topsy-turvy-ness of categorization, the effect of music on words and people uttering them, the effect of images, the being-together, the making of a collective, the creation of the concepts of time and space, infinity and an ending.

All this enacted by the four individuals of whom we only know that they have curious and irreverent minds and are agnostically open to just about anything being possible. And the part about their being individuals is important: “I’m calling on behalf of a group of individuals” says Halory to the phone operator while he’s trying to order an upgraded knowledge package about mid-play, and at that point he states what’s obvious from very early on, that each will only belong to a group as autonomous individuals. They are most definitely not a tribe, not a nationality, not a race, class, gender, enterprise, church, family, or even a band (when they get to sing, they sing in harmony idiosyncratically). All those common overarching goals, we intuit, come later. The autonomous individual (the “equal access to the voicing panels”) precedes all of that – philosophically, if not exactly historically.

They are also in a state that is pre- or maybe post sexual difference and gender: three of them are male actors, one is female, but however hard you may try sleuthing for signs of gender, neither is marked by gendered behaviour (the lone woman is decidedly not the least physically goofy or least likely to take the lead, for example, or the most patient or caring one). There are no complications of love, coupling or parenting—again, we are in a sort of primeval human togetherness, and the mind roams free of those emotional constraints and loyalties.

As I’m sure you’ve inferred by now, the foundational intuitions of the project are some of the core values of the Enlightenment—the autonomous individual, equal value of all human beings, the primeval benevolence and cooperation, the ‘social contract’. Which is not to say that the play is a blind paean to the rational mind: far from it. The gang plays up before our eyes much of the arbitrariness the thought processes. Logic itself is stripped bare, its fragile core exposed to light. The working of the philosophical dualism is established early enough—stuff that does “toc toc” when a tapped against (various solid objects and persons) are put into one category, and stuff that doesn’t (ideas, emotions, the joy-of-being-together), but complications ensue as soon as Ondine tries the toc toc test on the curtain. The curtain does “frr frr”, and an argument breaks out if that is to be classified as a type of “toc toc” or a whole different thing? Persons, too, do “toc toc OUCH”, does that mean they a subcategory of “toc toc” or what? The lines get drawn and redrawn and the initial almost Cartesian dualism that they started with falls apart. There is not an iota of didacticism in the entire play, however: all this is delivered through a wide-eyed silliness, free rambling physicality and a kind of Socratic ignorance.

So while resting firmly on the ideals of the Lumières, Germinal is not a simplistic praise of the human capacity for knowledge or cooperation. It shows the value and the fragility of both. It rather says: yes, we haven’t got a clue if what our minds do is knowledge and if the humanity can ever be a community (a word that, luckily, and this being a French play, unsurprisingly, is not uttered once). So all the more reason to keep on trying both.

The actors of Germinal are: Arnaud Boulogne, Ondine Cloez, Denis Robert, Halory Goerger and Mathilde Maillard (recorded voice). Germinal returns January 21 (with an after-show Q&A), 22 and 23 at Harbourfront Centre’s Fleck Dance Theatre. Practicalities 

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Both photos are by Bea Borgers

COC16/17 announced

Keri-Lynn-WilsonThe Hurrahs:

The podium sausage fest spell broooooo-ken! Keri-Lynn Wilson will conduct the Tosca revival. The production is underwhelming, Ramón Vargas is an unusual choice for Cavaradossi, but on the upside, Adrianne Pieczonka returns in the role, and KLW makes her COC debut. I hear she is one of the best Puccini conductors around, male or female. Can’t wait.

Bernard Labadie’s COC conducting debut in Mozart’s The Magic Flute (albeit in the YA-tailored Diane Paulus production).

The Dutch-Aix-COC co-pro Ariodante by Richard Jones is a-coming this side of the Atlantic.

The phenomenal Varduhi Abrahamyan will role-debut Polinesso in the same opera and make her Canadian debut.

Die Goerke returns for Götterdämmerung

Sondra Radvanovsky and Isabel Leonard will sing together “Mira, o Norma” and be a hot pair in the SFO-Liceu-LOC-COC Norma by Kevin Newbury that incorporates, we are told, elements of sci-fi.

Harry SomersRiel in a spanking new production by Peter Hinton. I am not too familiar with Hinton’s work, but I liked what he said in the video (too bad he wasn’t on stage to talk about the production–I suppose it’s still too early?). To the effect that the production won’t be of the “preserved in aspic” kind but will directly engage with the state of Canadian polity, AD 2017. I can’t wait for this one. Allyson McHardy is in it, Russell Braun takes the title role. Note: for a crash course on Riel, you could do worse than Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography. A few random panels from it:

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ChesterBrownStrip2

The Okay, That’s Enough of That:

Nationalist rhetoric. It’s getting a bit much. Who still needs to be appeased? Who needs to be convinced? Certain journalists who raised the same question about “the lack of Canadian content at the COC” over and over at press conferences? (Meaning, only and always, the composers–as if, say, a Mozart or a Verdi put together by cast and creative that are 95 percent Canadian isn’t a Canadian piece in every conceivable way.) Certain clueless musicians who did the same through the social media? It looks like the pearl-clutching nationalists finally shut up and found other things to pearl-clutch about, a couple of seasons ago. So, can the brags like “the cast in such-and-such a production is entirely Canadian”(!?) be dropped? Can I come out of the closet and say that I don’t care what ethnicity or citizenship papers my opera artists have?

The One Big Nooooooooooo:

Alice Coote takes the title role in Ariodante. She has a considerable chunk of ardent fans, and she’s done some really interesting programs (the trouser role-themed program with Ali Smith in the UK, for example), but all I see and hear in Alice Coote is effort…effort, strain, discomfort, with singing, acting, and even being in a body. It’ll be tough without Sarah Connolly in this role. (Or Allyson McHardy, whom I dream-cast the other day. Naughty, naughty COC clues.)

The Yeah That’s A Good Idea

Instead of presenting an Ensemble Studio production, this year the young talent will be showcased in a concert of as yet to be determined scenes from operas alongside the full COC orchestra.

But there’s much of COC15/16 left to go. More on that soon.

 

A year in books

Paris, 18th arr
Paris, 18th arr

It’s been a good year in books. This time around I tried to read more recent works, by the living writers, and a bit more in French. Here are the books that stand out (the mehs and the good-enoughs I’m leaving out), in order of appearance:

January

Elizabeth McCracken, Thunderstruck and Other Stories (a remarkable feat: stories of loss, death, lack and failure written in sentences packed with wit and verve)

Oscar Wilde, The Decay in Lying: An Observation (the olden goldie on life imitating art–rather than the other way round–is available online in its entirety)

February

Christine Angot, La Petite Foule (moving through a crowd of characters–perhaps types?–living in today’s Paris. Some are given chapter-length space and a ‘story’, others a Lydia Davis-esque sketch. Fun and good gossip.)

March

Jim Crace, Being Dead. (Unique. A novel that starts with the death of the two protagonists.)

April

Lydia Goehr,  The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works (a classic for a reason)

Susan Lanser, The Sexuality of History (will become a classic. Interview with Dr L. here)

Elena Ferrante, The Lost Daughter (still my favourite Ferrante. I’ve read 1 and 2 of the Neapolitan Series, and had enough of it for now)

May

Mathias Enard, Zone (something of a modern mercenary, a man working for the darkest recess of the French secret service recollecting his life and the last twenty years of wars in Europe, Middle East and Northern Africa while on a slow train ride to Rome)

E.M. Forster, Howards End (finally read it. Now think about it almost daily. Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.)

June

Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts (What is the post-biological family? How to love? How to mother? A memoir)

J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello (Told in the form of essays and conference presentations by a world renown (fictitious) writer Elizabeth Costello, who recurs in Coetzee’s novels–in the more straightforwardly narrative Slow Man for ex, one of my favourites from last year. Unlike anything else.)

July

Virginie Despentes, Mordre au travers (Short stories. Brutal, in the best possible way.)

August

Virginie Despentes, Vernon Subutex I (This is Despentes doing the full-blown social novel for the very first time, and how. It’s set in Paris’s ‘creative classes’ circles, covering the powerful and the margins and the ecosystem in between. A joy.)

September

Keith Ridgway, Animals (Extraordinary. No description can do it justice. A line from it has been my Twitter bio for most of this year.)

Lidia Yuknavitch, The Small Backs of Children (Believe the hype. The last chapter in particular locks it as a work of dark, dark brilliance.)

October

Virginie Despentes, Vernon Subutex II (In the second volume, the ragtag precariat seems to be forming itself as a group connected by a growing solidarity? Could this be a French Indignados novel? We will tune in for Vol III.)

Laurent Binet,  La septième function du language. (Well, I liked this one so much that I had to interview the author and tell the Angloworld about it. Here’s our conversation.)

November

Hugo Wilcken, Reflection (Another one that defies categorization. Loving somebody, even if they’re not part of your life any longer, also means counting on their gaze upon your life. What if that central person dies? And your life starts dissolving without the reliance on that remote gaze? A gorgeous, devastating work under the guise of a noir thriller set in 1940s NYC.)

Miranda July, The First Bad Man (Seriously, get this one. If I start describing it, I’ll spoil its many wild turns.  Exploring what it means to love and what it means to mother in the age of neoliberalism, unfettered personal choice, and the ongoing redefinition of gender.)

Misha Glouberman, Sheila Heti, The Chairs are Where the People Go. (This is a delight: full of wit, sensibleness and Torontoniana.)

December

Zadie Smith, N-W (finally read it. Did not regret it.)

Rachel Cusk, Outline (we dip into the consciousness of a handful of characters who cross paths during a summer writing course in Athens. Like in VW’s The Waves, they’re not distinguished by degrees of intelligence–it’s one of those consciousness-is-one novels–but by experience and the account each gives of her/himself. While the speakers are articulate about their many failures and self-deceptions, the writer too is candid on the deception that is narration and the failure that is the novel-writing.)

Patricia Highsmith, Carol (Mrs. Robichek, a side character. The East-European old lady who works in the hell that is that department store full-time, not seasonally like the narrator. Mrs. Robichek, who has always been poor, and will always be poor. Who invites the narrator over for a meagre dinner after work. Mrs Robichek–not Carol and not Terese–is what’s been haunting me.)

May 2016 be good to the readers, dear reader.

Carl Maria von Weber – Der Freischütz from Semperoper Dresden

“We had a war once against the animals, which we called hunting, though in fact war and hunting are the same thing”, is a sentence in J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello but might as easily be the précis of Axel Köhler’s 2015 Dresden production of Weber’s Der Freischütz (Unitel Classica / C Major DVD). Although Köhler and the costume designer Katharina Weissenborn visually distinguish the hunting society and show its own folklore as somewhat autonomous, there is no doubt that the men who shoot guns for entertainment and the women who cheer them on are a colourful outpost of a military structure that, it is hinted, is in a permanent state of war. The booklet suggests that the production is set in “the aftermath of a war”, and the set indeed shows a drab town in ruins (set designer Arne Walther). However, there are various places in the production that signal a permanent militaristic hierarchy, and violence as a constant undercurrent.

The plot goes like this: the ever reliable marksman Max is suffering an unlucky streak. As fate will have it, this problem appears just before he is to win his bride Agathe—the Prince’s daughter—in a traditional trial shoot-out in which, to become Prince’s son-in-law, he must excel. An emissary from the Satan is hanging out in the same village, and he suggests they meet at the notorious part of the wood called the Wolf’s Glen and together forge some special bullets that never miss. Max eventually follows him there. The day of the trial before the Prince, Max aims at a dove but the bullet downs 1) Agathe, who yells “But Max, I am that dove”, the connection the libretto established via Agathe’s dream of premonition a couple of scenes before, 2) Kaspar, the evil emissary. Agathe, turns out, only fainted, while, in a confirmation of Devil’s untrustworthiness even to his own emissaries, Kaspar’s wound is deadly. But wait, we are nowhere near the end. Max admits to the Prince the little business around the Wolf’s Glen, and the Prince indignantly refuses to give Agathe’s hand. Deus ex machina descends to correct his judgment and approves the union of the two fallible humans who deserve our compassion. He also abolishes the tradition of the trial shootouts. The villagers rejoice. Curtain.

Don’t ask me how any of this makes any fucking sense: it doesn’t. Or rather—since the work keeps being staged and is here to stay—it is up to the director to make sense of it. Many cop out and do a quasi-literal staging. The one production of DF that I’ve seen was by Opera Atelier and thinking about it now makes me cringe in embarrassment as it was all about beautiful costumes, beautiful bodies and beautiful music. Luckily, Köhler’s a serious engagement with the work while also extremely respectful of the original libretto. (The way somebody like, say, Bieito, would not be. He would likely not keep the huntsmen, but conceive them as paramilitary troopers, ignoring the gajillion references to hunting and marksmanship uttered by the characters on stage.)

In the first two acts, the huntsmen are kind of visibly their own society, clad in green and grey reminiscent of military fatigues but they are also of the village. When the Prince arrives, however, he is a distinct higher ranking figure dressed in double-breasted long coat and knee-high boots, as the heads of secret police tend to be represented on film. With such a figure around, the villagers’ words “he will make Max the Grand Master of the Chase” mean a very different thing. “Sir, I am unworthy of your mercy”, something Max says after his confession, and Prince’s response “Hell must be kept separate from Heaven” and “Agathe is too pure for him” too have a whole new meaning. When the chorus of villagers sings the Huntsmen Song for the Prince, the little boys of the village re-enact hunting, while the girls play the hunted-down stags, the adults proudly watching on. The work comes together and slides into coherence.

And while the first two acts read fairly recognizable, and uneventful, it’s in the Act II finale at the Wolf’s Glen that the war breaks onto the stage full blast—as this society’s past, its unacknowledged present and as we’ll see in the final act, its future. It’s a scene masterfully directed as a build-up of suspense: the forging of the seven bullets is in the sky behind Kaspar and Max being played out, with some amazing use of projections and lighting (by Fabio Antoci), as the gradations of warfare, starting with the relatively low-tech hangings to the weapons of mass destruction and aerial fire bombing.

How does Köhler solve the Deus ex machina? Let’s say, honourably. When He appears, He appears as a warrior: long-haired, muddied, perhaps just out of battle. The Prince defers and bows, as he’s obviously before somebody higher up in the same hierarchy he belongs to. Is he a wink in the direction of the mythical hero figures like Hercules or Samson or Siegfried? Possibly. At any rate, He is not outside war, He is very much of it. And while the villages sing the final triumphant song, He rudely demands Agathe’s wedding wreath (she rushes to hand it to him) while we notice the Prince up the staircase, training little boys to shoot. The final sound heard in the production is by a gun shot by a boy aiming at a bird, at Prince’s urging.

Staatskapelle Dresden is in the pit, under Christian Thielemann, and Weber’s music sounds lavish and maturely (not early) Romantic and very cinematic on modern instruments. While I love Weber’s “Kampf und Sieg” on period instruments, his best-known opera sounds much more dramatic with a modern orchestra. The spoken dialogue was slightly adapted (by Werner Hintze), and the transitions between music and speech seem natural. Unlike in Wagner, there are duos, trios and choruses, and it’s quite interesting listening to those in a German opera. Weber segregated the sexes musically too, with women getting the lyrical and occasionally comedic material, while men get the gravity, good and bad. (He musically divides the good and the bad, says the booklet, the diminished cords, including tritones, and the “wan and dark sonorities” going to the reps of the underworld.)

The singers were uniformly solid, the male leads perhaps having a slight edge. Michael König in the title role stays musically mellifluous while dramatically highly wrought and conflicted. Georg Zeppenfeld is sinister and weaselly as the wiry, leather-clad Kaspar, while his baritone voice is even and chocolaty. Adrian Eröd as Ottokar the Prince was equally tone perfect. Agathe (Sara Jakubiak) and Ännchen (Christina Landshamer) were fine but could have had more personality. I know the libretto doesn’t really give them a whole lot of that—one is solemn, the other one light, and that’s sort of it. Much of what they do is waiting.

The limping maid is a great dramatic device, and I’m glad the silent but important role is credited in the booklet: Anna Katharina Schumann.

Video direction by Tiziano Mancini is unobtrusive, with occasionally some unexpected camera positioning from the side of the stage thrown in to keep things interesting.

A Unitel Classica Production with Semperoper Dresden, 2015. 

End of year highlights: performing arts

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George Benjamin, Gary Kulesha, Barbara Hannigan at Roy Thomson Hall, New Creations Festival, 2015

Best Hybrid Concert Performances, Hands Down

The 21C’s Cinq à sept concert that included Jordan Nobles’ π and Saariaho’s Grammar of Dreams. (RCM, 21C Festival, May, Toronto)

Against the Grain’s Death and Desire, the Messiaen & Schubert mashup. (Neubacher Shor Contemporary Gallery, June, Toronto)

CASP’s Living Spectacle concert (The Extension Room, November, Toronto)

Best Concerts

Barbara Hannigan, George Benjamin, Peter Oundjian and the TSO in “Let Me Tell You” by Hans Abrahamsen, etc. (New Creations Festival, RTH, February, Toronto). The TSO in Dutilleux’s Métaboles (same festival)–probably my TSO highlight of the year: they were positively levitating. The TSO again with George Benjamin conducting Written on Skin (still the same festival). This very scenic opera hampered by the lack of staging, but managed to impress.

Tania Miller conducts the RCM orchestra in Mahler 5 at Koerner Hall. Glorious acoustics; Mahler like I’ve never heard him before. (Koerner Hall, November, Toronto)

Spin Cycle: Afiara String Quartet with DJ Skratch Bastid (C21, Koerner Hall, May, Toronto). This is one instance where the electronica and the analogica really conversed.

Gewandhaus Orc with Ricardo Chailly at Musikverein, October 2015
Gewandhaus Orchestra with Riccardo Chailly at Musikverein, October 2015

Riccardo Chailly conducts Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig in a program of lesser known Strauss works. A Technicolor Dream Strauss. (Musikverein, October, Vienna, Austria)

Laurence Equilbey conducts Insula Orchestra in Mozart’s Concertante Symphony for Violin and Viola, Schubert’s 4th Symphony and a Fanny Mendelssohn overture. Rarely heard pieces done justice, in gorgeous period instruments colours. (Cité de la Musique / Philharmonie II, March, Paris, France)

Paris Philharmonie I & II
Paris Philharmonie I & II

Greatest disappointments in the Concert category

Mozart’s Mass in C Minor with the TSO (RTH, January, Toronto) – chiefly because of the two female soloists who indifferently phoned it in. Never seen a colder soloist than Julie Boulianne in “Laudate Me”; a bit terrifying, actually.

Andrew Davis’ orchestration of the Messiah with the TSO (RTH, December, Toronto). The add-ons add nothing to the sound and sometimes even take away from it. It’s the marimba, the snare drum and the xylophone, but it might as well have been pots and pans, bugles, and a vuvuzela—the latter as logical and organic to the sound as the former. And Toronto has heard it well by now; time for another conductor to do the big Messiah next year in whatever orchestration he/she chooses.

Best Operas

Not a lot of gushing to report here. It’s between Lepage’s Bluebeard, Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni and Alden’s Pyramus, all good productions but neither for various reasons will push through as life-long memorable. But I’m really glad I discovered Barbara Monk Feldman.

The most er unusual performance in an opera

Michael Schade in Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni was in his own production entirely. Gives me a chuckle even now thinking about it.

Best performance in an otherwise er unusual staging

Christine Rice in the ROH Mahagonny (ROH, March, London, UK). I feel obligated to like every attempt to mount a Brecht-Weill joint, so people would continue to do it, but still not sure if I can form an opinion, any opinion, about this one.

Royal Opera House detail (March 2015, Mahagonny)
A Royal Opera House detail (March 2015)

Greatest unexpected disappointment in the Opera category

Matthew Jocelyn’s staging of Philippe Boesmans’ Julie (Canadian Stage, November, Toronto). More fundamentally, Julie the opera itself. The Strindberg play can work as a claustrophobic battle of wills where subtle acting and silences matter, but as an opera? Not for this opera-goer. The dread of class miscegenation and the fear of female desire as sources of drama haven’t aged well into our own time. And opera has treated the master-servant shenanigans—and female desire–through its librettos for a couple of centuries now. I fail to fathom why any composer would want to turn Strindberg’s Miss Julie into a libretto, or why any director would hail such a work as one of the best contemporary operas today (as Matthew Jocelyn did in an interview).

Vienna Staatsoper, Macbeth (October, Vienna, Austria). The set was cement blocks, the costumes mid-twentieth-century dictatorship, Mid-Eastern or East European. Singing was fine, but the production overall showed no signs of life, no circulation, no breathing. How long was I going to stay on that balcony, craning my neck? I left at the intermission.

Inside Vienna Staatsoper, October 2015
Inside Vienna Staatsoper, October 2015

Best Theatre

NTLive’s The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard. I hate to put a screening in this category, but I have to. (Cineplex, April, Toronto)

Juliet Stevenson as Winnie at the Young Vic (March, London, UK). Here’s a good conversation about this production between the director Natalie Abrahami and Juliet Stevenson with the BBC’s Matthew Sweet.

Dario Fo is good news any time, and Soulpepper’s adaptation of Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist was a solid effort. It didn’t entirely work for me—the adaptation text didn’t emerge out of a movement or even a common experience or solidarity, as Fo’s original text did: Toronto theatre-goers are as likely to be Conservative as NDP, and have largely middle-class expectations and tastes. The play also appeared conflicted about what it wanted of us, to participate or be a silent audience; the foray into the audience was more odd than provocative. All that said, a theatre putting its resources into the social difficulty that is Fo should be saluted. (February, Toronto)

The most regretful miss-outs

Robert Lepage’s 887. I became aware of this play one day after it had closed! It’s touring now around the world, maybe it’ll return. Takes the PanAm Games to distribute some serious commissioning money around.

Betroffenheit: there were no tickets to be found. They’re returning to town next February, though.

Lisa Dwan in the three Beckett plays on women in extremis. Months preceding, I was looking forward to this, but that very month I had a death in the family and it all felt a little too close. I decided not to go. I hope to catch this somewhere eventually.

Would have loved to have seen Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at the Shaw, but it’s difficult to get there (train plus bus, and you need to match your itineraries very carefully to the minute while the GO website is working against you achieving that goal), and no ticket under $100. So to watch a leftist play about an Italian working-class family, you have to own a car, have hotel accommodation money and pay the not at all cheap ticket.

What I realized this year

I lost interest in the star-vehicle recitals.

I will miss Rdio. Am now between streaming loyalties—dipping my toes into Spotify and not particularly liking what I’m seeing there.

As for the books of the year… Well, the books deserve their own post.

Memories of Vienna on bicycle, October 2015
Memories of Vienna, October 2015

Have you heard the one about an atheist walking into a Messiah performance

As somebody who doesn’t believe in the Trinitarian God, the resurrection, and the Judgment Day, I’ve sometimes struggled to feel close to or give meaning to the texts of many of my favourite musical works (Mozart’s Mass in C minor and the Requiem, Faure’s Requiem, Bach’s Johannespassion, Rachmaninov’s Vespers, Berlioz’s Requiem, to name just the first few to come to mind). I look up the translations if it’s Latin or German, that’s not an issue, but the theology behind them is. Sometimes I succeed in understanding the words as directly relevant to my life today, sometimes I fail. When I fail, the music comes to the rescue: music is so bizarrely powerful over our emotions that it really doesn’t matter what the text is, music does its own text on you. And I am often one of the millions of unsophisticated listeners that make Adorno toss in his grave in agony, when we should know better. So for example I enjoy the dramatic anger of Mozart’s Dies Irae even though the notion of the omnipotent, omniscient God who will at one point divide the sheep from the goats means nothing to me. I do, there’s no other way to put it, often consume some of my favourite works of art kinda idiotically.

I wonder if the love that we—that I! I should stop using the nebulous we—have for these works is an expression of a nostalgia for faith? For a time and situations when Dies Irae really meant something? Did people who listened to Mozart’s Mass in C minor enjoy it as a theological work primarily? Who can even begin to tell. That’s an even worse kind of listening: escapist, mythologizing of the past, needy.

I wish that present-day conductors (institutions, program writers) doing these works today spoke about this question more. There’s a global audience for the sacred classical music canon today, consisting and potentially consisting of people of all kinds of non-Christian religions beside the atheists and agnostics. What more important is there for a conductor of a sacred work than this, to tell us why we should listen to these words, and therefore this work? Among the conductors that I follow, I’ve noticed Laurence Equilbey broaching the topic now and again, but still extremely rarely. There’s a quote in a magazine interview along the lines of some of these sacred works being about the celebration of creation, of the importance of something existing rather than nothing, of how glorious being alive can be, and I thought, okay, now we’re talking business. (The quote was frustratingly short.) In another radio interview she mentioned a potential collaboration with artist Philippe Quesne on The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross by Haydn and about the work being about something anybody can understand, the thirst for water, the need for air, the survival against all odds, and then too I stopped what I was doing and said, Go on, that’s interesting.

In moments like those I realize how badly I need these kinds of interpretations. We are taken for granted as an audience; we’re expected to keep showing up “because it’s the work X, Y, Z and the work X, Y, Z is important”.

Any of you reading this, have you encountered any other conductors addressing the issue of interpretation in this way?

These thoughts are actually prompted by last night’s performance of Handel’s Messiah (at the Metropolitan United on Church East, with Elmer Iseler Singers and Lydia Adams conducting). Bizarrely, I’ve become something of a Messiah fan, and even more bizarrely, I don’t have any problems finding its texts resonant. The music naturally oils the cogs, nothing new there, but the texts survive scrutiny even if I read them from the page, music-less. The Messiah text is a hodge-podge of snippets from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, a lot of it allegorical. I don’t know if it’s the poeticism of the King James translators or Handel’s genuinely populist music genius, but arias like:

Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight and the rough places plain. (Isaiah XL, 5)

…are a bottomless pit of interpretive pleasure. Yes, ultimately this is indeed about the Judgment Day, but it can also be about the dream of the this-wordly justice, of those who tirelessly work for it and won’t give up the notion? Those distant ideals that seem to be receding but not disappearing, the betterment of the condition of the womankind, the democracy?

Or this much trickier chorus:

And He shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. (Malachi III 3)

What do we do when we ‘offer an offering in righteousness’? Is this about leading by example?

For we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned, ev’ry one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah LIII 6)

You don’t need to believe in The Redeemer to get the depth of how much like sheep we have gone astray, and in what ways. But how are the consequences of our own iniquity transferred to another?

He trusted in God that He would deliver Him, let Him deliver Him, if He delight in Him. (Psalm XXII 8)

And where to even begin with this one: Christianity tangling itself into a knot of polytheism, in order to introduce the attribute of compassion to its god.

I mean, I could go on and on (“Let us break [the bonds of nations] asunder”, anyone?). But there it is. Sacred classical music as pop culture, where you know the lyrics, they mean something, you misremember and abuse them, want to sing and dance when they’re offered to you in much too solemn concerts. I’ll always prefer a whole slew of other sacred pieces to the Messiah—just about any of the named above–but there is some work ahead of us as a generation of classical music listeners and performers toward making them… come closer, put it that way.

You take all of you: John Coulbourn on the challenges and pleasures of art criticism

JCoulbournIt was around the time of Tim Albery’s Aida at the COC that I started reading John Coulbourn. He was the only critic in any of the big media in town who actually got the Albery production and did not cry for the missing pyramids, so I realized I ought to pay attention. At that time, however, John was already approaching his retirement after 35 years of journalism and performing arts criticism. How could I have missed him before? My own anti-Sun prejudice, I suspect; who goes to the Sun for art coverage, I used to think? It turns out, during Coulbourn’s years at the Sun, the paper has been covering the arts at least as much as the other dailies, and in one particular case even more (“TIFF would probably never have gotten off the ground were it not for the Sun’s early boosterism. The other dailies roundly ignored the festival in its early years,” he recalls.)

A couple of weeks ago, JC agreed to meet me at the RCM Espresso Bar for a kaffeeklatsch and some shop talk. My secret agenda was to urge him to start writing an arts blog, the idea that he very sweetly but firmly rejected each time I re-proposed it. It turns out his enjoyment of theatre has become more immersive and more communal now that he doesn’t have to review what he sees. “The way I use to watch a show was in this fairly stiff posture and bent toward the stage. When I recline back on my chair, you could tell I found the lead. I was doing it all unconsciously, my husband Grant first noticed this and told me about it. The hardest part of writing for me was always finding the lead.” Writing for a tabloid meant, for him, “keeping it tight and keeping it bright”. The reviews of any kind of entertainment should be entertaining themselves. Not light—you can be weighty and entertaining, and that’s the challenge of your job, that’s what you’re paid to figure out how to do.

Coulbourn started as a movie critic, but after a couple of years realized that he didn’t want to “be part of even an alternate reality that gets saved by Sylvester Stalone or Arnold Schwarzenegger.” Yes, there are good movies, he concedes, but the percentage of good vs. bad is lower than in any other artistic discipline. He’s obviously kept the cheek and has no qualms classifying entertainment/art in order of greatness. He puts literature on top (“I have travelled the world by the time I was sixteen without ever leaving home”), and close to it the performing arts: theatre, opera, ballet, dance, concerts. Down  the spectrum are good movies and “right at the bottom, television, which is basically furniture”. How refreshing to hear this in an age when the media put so many resources into covering TV shows, both here and the US. We are in the Golden Age of Television Drama, we are repeatedly being told. Netflix and HBO have become words of religious import. “I don’t get why the performing arts aren’t the go-to entertainment of our day,” he says. “I want to be in the world where you can have your heart broken by a great story, or a magnificent aria, or breath-taking pas de deux. You go to a performance because it can change your life. And I think we should always go to the theatre with a bit of that expectation. That’s how theatre should be sold.”

II.

And so our conversation returns to the barriers that keep some demographics away from the theatre, opera and classical music. He spent his writing career at a paper perceived to be ‘blue collar’—and we both wondered how accurate that was and wished there were studies of the readership of each of the Toronto dailies. I suggest that beside the lack of disposable income, there’s the perhaps an even more important psychological barrier that prevents the low earning or the less educated audience from realizing that the so called elite arts are for them as much as for anybody else. And that perhaps the first task of arts journalism is this question of class and the opening of the doors. “I couldn’t agree more,” he says. “I was so lucky, I had one of the finest editors in the world—Kathy Brooks—who transitioned from being my editor to being one of my best friends. She’s now retired, but she was Assistant Entertainment Editor at the Sun, and she loved all of the arts, high and low. The one thing that she hated more than anything was when the writers get too inside baseball. When you appear to be writing only for a certain percentage of people who already understand the issues. And not writing like that can be really difficult. I mean, you sit down to review a great tragedy and how could you not be all inside baseball. But that’s what you get paid for.”

“The other end of it is, you can’t review that great tragedy so that people who’ve studied tragedy would dismiss you. So you’re constantly juggling. And that’s the fun. That’s the tightrope walking.”

Why then, I wonder out loud, is it that the Toronto dailies (not to mention the CBC) have stopped cultivating critics. No media in Canada now lets someone spend all her or his time consuming art, studying the beat, perfecting the craft. Opera and classical criticism are assigned ad hoc to freelancer(s) of choice who are either kept on a meagre contract or are engaged pitch by randomly accepted pitch. Coulbourn seems to be one of the last in the generation of art critics who worked and retired at a media organization that was willing seriously to invest in them. “Arts commentary is a really vital component for any art scene”, he says. There is no art scene without the records of that art scene. “And when the Toronto papers reduce space for art coverage, they’re cutting local, Canadian content. They’re cutting the only thing that distinguishes them from People magazine, TMZ and Perez Hilton.”

III.

What was his approach to reviewing, I wanted to know. I tell him that I don’t review a lot but when I do it’s usually for my blog, where I allow myself wildly idiosyncratic reviews meant to be read by my couple of hundred returning readers and subscribers. In order to avoid lambasting somebody, I skip mentioning them at all. In a big, mainstream media review, none of this is allowed. You’re performing public service, and you simply have to cover all the principals of the cast and the creative. What are his principles of reviewing?

“My saving grace might have been the fact that I learned very early on that you should never write anything that you wouldn’t say to somebody’s face.” In other words, when buttonholed at a party by somebody who disagrees with you, or is the person’s sibling, or is the person himself, you need to be prepared to stand by your argument. “That, and the fact that in what we do, there is no right or wrong.” And there’s no true and untrue, I riff – maybe we should even drop fair and unfair in artistic judgment? “I think we should keep fairness as an ideal,” he demurs. “I can’t think of any critic who’s been consistently fair, but some of the best have always tried to be.”

And what does he do about going negative? “If you absolutely hated somebody’s performance, I’d try to express it in the fewest words possible in the funniest way possible. Do it briefly, and soften the edge with humour.”

Coulbourn is currently mentoring a group of young people interested in becoming art critics: he’s collaborating with the National Ballet and a dance magazine in a program for the emerging dance writers. They’re often told to read everything they can about dance, and to that Coulbourn always adds “Read everything you can”, period. “If you want to review a dance performance, and your only frame of reference is dance…you’re going to miss a lot,” he says.

And you won’t just be taking your knowledge of theatre (opera, or ballet) with you–you will take all of you, and you will use all of you to write the review. Which is excellent but also occasionally gets in the way. He remembers his impassioned reaction after seeing the musical Carousel for the first time. “I’ve reviewed it then and will never ever review it again. It’s got some beautiful music and a most hateful story. The short story on which it’s based is about Billy Bigelow who gets a second chance, comes back to earth, hits his daughter, and goes to hell. Rodgers and Hammerstein thought that wasn’t American, so they did a rewrite or two. In their musical, the daughter says to her mother, ‘Is it possible for someone to hit you and for you not to feel a thing,’ and the mother: ‘Yes, if you love them.’ The logical thing would be to do away with that part if you’re staging the piece today. Because you can hear every wife abuser and child abuser go, “SEE? I told you” after that scene. My dad loved me, but that’s not the point, he damn near killed me on numerous occasions. I was an abused child and I know that even if the person who’s hitting you loves you, it still hurts.”

Did he manage to say any of that in the review, I ask him. “That particular review I think I blew,” he says. “I just said this should never be done. I was so upset. Like I said: you take all of you.”

IV.

Oftentimes the readers who disagreed with his opinion would write letters along the lines of “Mr. Coulbourn obviously didn’t see the same show that we did”. His response to that is always: of course not. “Everybody saw a different show. Theatre happens half way between the stage and the person in the seat. The actors do the broad strokes, you do the shading.”

What about managing praise, how is the critic to control his or her enthusiasms? JC recommends staying away from hyperbole. Anything along the lines of “Best in the world”, “best in the country” or even “best within a very specific category X” is silly and just about always baseless. “One of the worst fights I had at the Sun was when they asked me to do the Top Ten Canadian Plays of all time. To which I said, Fuck you. But how hard can that be, they asked. It’s impossible, I said, I haven’t read, let alone seen all Canadian plays. Oh but the movie critics didn’t give us any grief, they said. Well, that’s their problem. It’s presumptuous to say top ten of anything. If really pressed, I can choose top ten personal favourites. And one of them would be singing ‘O, Canada’ before the National Ballet performance the day after the 1995 referendum, when everybody in the audience really noticed the line ‘God keep our land’ and gasped and sighed collectively. Life is theatre.”

 Toronto, November 2015

I did press JC for a handful of his personal standouts, and this is what he said:

  • Death in Venice at the COC, directed by Yoshi Oida. I was riveted. I’d see that again tomorrow.
  • At Stratford, the rock’n’roll Midsummer Night’s Dream circa 1991-92. Colm Feore sliding down plastic inflatable penises, Lucy Peacock in a bustier, and it was just delightful from start to finish.
  • Robert Lepage’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in London’s West End, set in a mud puddle. Which was completely different, but amazing.
  • The very first musical I ever saw: You Two Stay Here, The Rest Come With Me, in Calgary. I grew up in a village of 36 people smack bang in the middle of Alberta, so I didn’t get to see a lot of professional theatre, and went to see this musical. It was fantastic.
  • The National Ballet’s Nutcracker. I’ve seen it every year, and every year I find something new.
  • Normal Heart by Larry Kramer, the original production. I was living in Calgary at the time, just coming out, and hadn’t heard that much about AIDS. I was visiting NYC and I bought the ticket at the half-price booth. I’d never heard of the play. Well, I was so devastated at the end, sitting in my seat crying, that a couple approached me to ask me if I was alright and took me out for a drink. Never saw them again, but they were a wonderful couple of New Yorkers. I went back to Calgary and told my friends about it, and I think because of that we’re all still alive. I can honestly say that theatre saved my life.

Tap:Ex Metallurgy with FKD UP

Jordan de Souza (front) with Jonah Falco (at the piano in the background) in Tap:Ex A. Photo by Dahlia Katz

There’s a music-making ethos that says that anybody can partake in music and compose by doing it, learn on the job as it were, regardless whether they have any music education. This is the pop, rock, folk, etc sphere—including the very DIY punk. Then there’s the classical music ethos, where music making is a matter of the written-down complex forms (the ‘musical work’), academic or communal training, perfectibility of performance.

The two kinds of ethos were expected to meet and collaborate in Tapestry Opera’s new project, Tap:Ex Metallurgy, but under one condition: each had to work in the other’s idiom. Jonah Falco from the punk band Fucked Up got to create Metallurgy A (to the libretto by the band mate Mike Haliechuk and poet David James Brock), and composer Ivan Barbotin Metallurgy B, with DJB as the librettist. As the FU explain in this video, his part was a collective effort in which conductor Jordan de Souza got the lion share of the work of notating Falco’s remarkable creation. Barbotin, in the second, much shorter work, got to use some of the pop idiom, including the drums and the electric guitar.

It was a good concert—not really an opera, not really two one-acters spliced together, but a concert. Musically, the Falco-de Souza collaboration with a small string orchestra, a piano and an electric guitar was much more interesting, if clearly the less popular one with the audience. There were no tunes, no rock rhythms and the soundscape was atmospheric and dissonant, occasionally lyrical in an austere (non-Rufus Wainwright) way. Krisztina Szabo and David Pomeroy produced some pretty awesome noise at certain junctures. The librettos, although great on the verse level, were as dramatic works bizarrely unambitious, intimate, almost banal – set within the couple in each case, a couple with a dead child in Tap A, and a couple just…er…being a couple over the years? in Tap B. The music was of greater interest in each Tap. Falco used the electronica very sparsely—was that one of the conditions?—while Barbotin used it unabashedly, together with some recognizable rock music quotes.

I expect the goal of the collaboration was to mix the two audiences more than anything—the Fucked Up’s and the Tapestry’s–and judging by the show of hands when Michael Mori asked after the first timers, the opening night did have a real mix of people. I wonder what FU connoisseurs thought about the experiment (they probably don’t analyze performances in this precious way that we in classical music do). Perhaps the project should leave the claustrophobic studio space on the third floor of a Distillery building and travel to a space where FU is likelier to perform. And perhaps it can be allowed to change each time it’s performed, in the spirit of spontaneity of a live band performance. Take the risk-taking further.

Tap:Ex continues Nov 20 (PWYC) and 21 (two performances).

David Pomeroy, Krisztina Szabó and Mike Haliechuk (behind). Photo by Dahlia Katz
David Pomeroy, Krisztina Szabó and Mike Haliechuk (behind). Photo by Dahlia Katz