ROH returns to Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in December. Here’s the schedule:
Saturday, December 3, 12:00 PM Norma (directed by La Fura dels Baus’ Alex Olle) with Sonya Yoncheva in the title role. It’s the one in which Druids are replaced by a ferocious, women-ordaining Catholic sect. Sonia Ganassi is Adalgisa, Joseph Calleja Pollione. Antonio Pappano conducts. More info.
Saturday, December 10, 11:00 AM Cosi fan tutte by German director Jan Phillip Gloger, conducted by Semyon Bychkov. With Angela Brower (Dorabella), Corinne Winters (Fiordiligi), Daniel Behle (Ferrando), Alessio Arduini (Guiglielmo). More info.
Friday, December 30, 11:30 AMLes Contes d’Hoffmann by John Schlesinger. Vittorio Grigòlo in the title role, Thomas Hampson doing the four villains, Christine Rice as Giulietta, Sonya Yoncheva is Antonia, Sofia Fomina is Olympia, Kate Lindsey is Nicklausse. Evelino Pidò conducts. More.
Tickets for the general public are $16 (members $12 and down).
The 1937-45 Sino-Japanese war, the Asian leg of the Second World War, remains under-historicised in the west. Its most brutal event, the invasion of the then-capital of the Nationalist China, Nanking, by the imperial Japanese army, remains under-acknowledged in the east too, playwright Diana Tso tells me, and for a host of conflicting reasons. Japanese historiography still downplays the atrocities—estimated by other historians to be between 200,000 and 300,000 Nanking residents killed and tens of thousands of women raped. A great number of the surviving “comfort women” and their families prefer not to talk about their lives in conditions of sexual slavery due to the stigma. But books do exist, and are coming out with increasing frequency, and Tso used them for initial research for her latest play with music (a contemporary masque, in many ways), Comfort, opening tomorrow with Red Snow Collective at Aki Studio in Regent Park.
Tso had read Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking, the collection Chinese Comfort Women, and a book of testimonies by Japanese soldiers and their victims collected by a Japanese journalist, but it was her travels to Korea and China over the last ten years, for research and inspiration and activism, that shaped more directly her play. In 2009 she met some of the survivors in China and Korea. “They have created ‘houses of sharing’ in Korea where some of the grandmothers live together, paint, try to build a community and heal,” says Tso. “To this day, every Wednesday they stand in front of the Japanese embassy and ask for recognition of the crime and an apology.”
During the Japanese occupation of the city, about 20 remaining westerners, banking on their foreign power citizenships and employing not a small amount of chutzpah, marked off a Nanking Safety Zone with Red Cross flags and proclaimed it a no-atrocity area. It worked. In one of those perverse twists that history excels at, a German businessman who also happened to be a confirmed Nazi rescued thousands of Chinese and is now acknowledged as one of the most reliable witnesses of Japanese brutality in Nanking. During her last visit to Nanjing, Tso met a widow of a man who had stayed in the ‘international zone’ and asked her to share the story of how they met. It was that encounter that planted the seed of the play as a love story amid historical unrest.
But nothing is straightforward: there’s a play within a play, and frequent incursions into mythology. “In my play, we follow a fisherman and a merchant’s daughter. Both are in love with the opera called Butterfly Lovers – an actual Chinese opera piece in which a knowledge-hungry girl is not allowed to go to school because of her gender. The woman in my play suffers similar fate; her upper-class merchant’s family has promised her hand in marriage. So, it’s 1937 in Shanghai. Two people fall in love. The war breaks out, she escapes her family home and the arranged marriage and is eager to help in the Chinese war effort, but is immediately captured. He, meanwhile, embarks on a search for her.”
Music is composed by Constantine Caravassilis and is there for dramaturgical accents, for atmosphere, for scene enrichment. Comfort is not a sung-through, through-composed opera, but an eclectic dramatic creation with music. The small band consists of erhu, percussion, accordion and piano. “I first worked with musicians exploring the text and the movement, while the composer worked on the score and proposed music – and this mix resulted in new text and new scenes.” Tso’s monologue for the Moon about devastation of humanity came out of just such a collaborative alchemy. “It would not have happened if I was working in isolation at home on a pre-music text. It was music that made me see things.” It’s only after that stage of collaboration that they (the director is William Yong) added straight theatre actors to the mix. In the final show, there are 3 musicians, one professional dancer, one opera singer (soprano Vania Chan) and 7 actors, one of whom specializes in acrobatics. “If you put a group of different creators in the room, you want to use what each of them has as their forte.”
It will come as no surprise that Tso has the Jacques Lecoq School on her CV. “In other schools you’re trained as one thing only–an actor–with very specific skills; there, people of different skills come together, some are dancers, some directors, some actors. You’re exploring all those simultaneously, being a director, a writer, an actor, working as an ensemble to create something new. Instead of waiting for your agent to invite you to acting auditions, you create your own work.”
Since I didn’t grow up in the Anglo tradition, the name Healey Willan was completely unknown to me before this concert. I’m told anybody who’s ever attended a protestant church service in Toronto–or sung in one–would know of Willan, but they will know him primarily as a composer of music to accompany church functions, and likely think of him as part of the stuffy hardcore British line of the (pre-)Canadian music in Toronto. The Canadian Art Song Project people thought that that judgment is unfair, and opened up and sifted through the vault of Willan’s little performed art songs. And they found some gems that absolutely withstand the test of time.
The pre-concert talk given by the composer Dean Burry, with occasional footnotes from a singer’s perspective by Lawrence Wiliford, helped situate the man in the history of music and the history of Canada. British (Empire) music at the turn of the twentieth century lagged behind the European Continent in experiment and innovation, and still very much looked back to the nineteenth century. Most frequently performed composers were of Elgar’s ilk, and this musical culture spilled over to the ex-colonies. Willan moved to Toronto in 1913, became a big fish in a small pond and continued to compose in the late Romantic tradition.
But within that idiom, he created some mesmerizing art songs. There are composers who function as brilliant systemathizers of the established and popular musical idioms of the recent past–Reynaldo Hahn, for instance–and Willan himself would probably belong to that group. Some his early songs, which opened the recital last night, would not stand out if found in a Schubert or a Rachmaninov song book. Others expand on the French mélodies vocabulary: those selected last night (“Eve”, “Dreams” and “Dawn”, all from 1912, sung by soprano Martha Guth, mezzo Allyson McHardy and baritone Peter Barrett, with Helen Becqué at the piano) remained unpublished during his lifetime, hélas. As did, said Lawrence Wiliford at the pre-talk, the most experimental songs in his portfolio: Willan’s playing with the form and potential new languages remained hidden in his unpublished works.
There were a number of folk songs in the program last night, and some are clearly better left aside as artifacts from the past: the jolly England “Drake’s Drum” and his take on the Scottish folksong don’t really add much to the conversation. Dean Burry was right, though: “Lake Isle of Innisfree” sounds spacious and new. Willan’s effort with Canadian francophone folk is also interesting: “Rossignol du vert bocage” and “Laquelle marierons-nous”, sung by McHardy with Becqué at the piano, were not in any way predictable.
The concert finished with the 1914-1920 set “War and Innocence” and the only trio of the evening, “A Song of Canada” (1930) which, as ‘patriotic songs’ go, was almost pleasant.
All in all, I’m glad for this discovery. My understanding is that some chosen items of the Willan songbook may end up being recorded on a future CASP CD. For that and other updates on CASP ongoing research, revival and commissioning projects, head here.
The first time I heard Varduhi Abrahamyan sing was back in 2013 in Paris, at the Salle Pleyel, in a Johanespassion with Concerto Koeln conducted by Laurence Equilbey. It was easy to spot a singular voice: hers is a plush velvety yet nimble coloratura voice that makes you sit up and pay attention. That St. John Passion remains a favourite (thanks to the good person who captured and uploaded much of the France Musique-streamed audio recording onto YouTube), including of course Abrahamyan’s Es ist vollbracht.
The French mezzo of Armenian origin has a busy cross-European career and is covering quite the range of historic repertoire: there aren’t many singers whose repertoire spans Monteverdi to Verdi. It was a treat to discover last year that she would be appearing as Polinesso in the Richard Jones-directed Ariodante at the COC this season, which marks her Canadian, Toronto and COC debut. While researching for this article, I discovered that she would be coming back to the COC, in a production of Onegin in 2018. (The Carsen, possibly?)
We talked in French (with short trips into Italian and English) in her change room at the Four Seasons Centre this past Friday afternoon. She told me she hasn’t seen much of the city yet, but that the three-day window opening before the final performance will finally allow her to see some of it at leisure.
How do you make this Richard Jones Polinesso living and breathing and credible?
At first I was taken aback by his level of villainy. To this degree, really? Then later I realized it would be impossible to do the character in any other way. You really have to take him on, go inside his skin, for him to work as a character for the audience. I’ll go as far as the role demands. And with this one I’m having fun. He’s changing all the time to hide his true self. He’s very proper, an angel practically, while wearing his cassock—and opposite when he takes it off. So the singer needs to interpret that. And you can’t do it half-heartedly. Much of the plotline depends on Polinesso being the way he is. He’s scheming all the time. I try to imagine and convey what it must be like to live a double life in that way.
He gets some good music, though.
Polinesso’s arias… well, to tell you the truth, there’s not much cantabile to enjoy in there. His music matches his character.
The first one is kinda nice, “Coperta la frode”.
Yeah, it’s OK. Not bellissima, nobody will be moved to tears. It corresponds to the character.
The last one, “Se l’inganno sortisce felice” has some mad coloratura. And you have to sing it all while jumping up and down on Ginevra’s bed.
It isn’t easy, but I am having fun with it now. With this Polinesso there’s a lot of personality to work with. I have to say I prefer roles that come with an interesting character, rather than those that are sort of in the same tone from beginning to end—even if they may be “positive” characters.
Was this a role debut?
No. I have a long history with the role. The very first time I’ve sung Handel on stage was a Polinesso in Geneva, at the Grand Théâtre de Genève. My agent called me to audition in Switzerland—in about 2005?—and that was the first one I was cast in. The COC one will be the last. It’s good to leave the role behind while you’re still having fun with it.
When you have to say no to a role, for what reason is it usually?
I first look at whether the role suits my voice, and whether it’s a character that I’d like to work on. I love theatre and the theatrical side of opera, and it’s important to put equal emphasis on both the musical and the theatrical side. I also like roles that allow me to evaluate and expand the repertoire. Gradually, though: qui va piano, va sano, va lontano.
Verdi is OK at this juncture?
Yes, I sing it already. I’ll be in a Fastaff in Paris soon, I’ve sung in Nabucco already… Rather, when I have to refuse a role, it’s because I think I can do it justice, say, in a few years’ time. Every role I take, I want to perform at the absolute top level. I don’t want to do things at an adequate level, I want to be among the best.
And you’ve already worked with some of the most important directors today. You were part of the already cult Alcina by Christof Loy in Zurich. Cecilia Bartoli, Malena Ernmann and Varduhi Abrahamyan in a love triangle: it doesn’t get better than that.
I love that production so much and I love working with Christof Loy.
There won’t be a DVD?
No, but we’re doing a revival in Zurich this coming December and January, and after that we’ll do it at Covent Garden, and at Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, same production and much of the same cast, with Cecilia Bartoli returning. We all really enjoyed that one.
You also sang Dalila in a Fura dels Baus production in Valencia?
That was with the wonderful Gregory Kunde as Samson. It was a modern production; a revival from Rome, I think, with a few little changes. I like Samson et Dalila as an opera and it was a pleasure to meet with Gregory again. First time we sang together was in La Donna del Lago at Theater an der Wien, which was directed by Christof Loy, in 2011.
You were Malcolm?
Yes, and just before I came to Toronto, I sang Malcolm in Pesaro. Great production by Damiano Michieletto, with a great conductor Michele Mariotti, and an amazing cast. There will be a DVD release. It was an unforgettable experience. I like Malcolm a lot. I’ll sing the role again at the Marseille Opera in 2018—I hope it’s OK to say this since you mentioned my COC return already–right after the Onegin at the COC. It’s back-to-back all the time. We close Ariodante on November 4; my flight back is November 5, I arrive November 6, unpack, and two days later, on November 8, I pack again and go to Palermo to sing Carmen. [laughs] It’s an interesting life.
Where is home?
In France, in Marseille – for about sixteen years now. France opened its doors to me, it believed in me. First contract for any opera house that I signed was for Opéra de Paris, for a Maddalena in Rigoletto. I was born and grew up in Armenia but moved to France in 2000, and I love it a lot too. Armenia and France, for me that’s like one’s the mother, the other one’s the father. Both are in my heart. I try to make it back to Armenia once a year at least.
You were also Goffredo in Robert Carsen’s Rinaldo at Glyndebourne, in the production set at a boarding school?
We spent about two months in Glyndebourne, back in 2010. That was my first collaboration with Carsen. I really like his openness. His ideas for characters are malleable enough to include the personality of the singer – singer’s own contribution. There’s the character, and then there’s the singer taking it on, and in some productions I guess you can adopt the given character because you are required to, and that’s where the conversation ends, but the acting then comes across as automatic. The audience will notice. The audience notices everything, the smallest movements, the look in the eyes, everything. We are naked on stage. And I will always be me and the character at the same time. And Carsen is a director who knows how to connect the two.
What about Bob Wilson’s L’Incoronazione, then? That must have been a whole different school of thought.
Ha, well yes. When it comes to movement, you don’t get to choose your own. We had something like the “I am sad” posture and the “I am happy” posture [she demonstrates] and it ends there. Nobody is to touch anybody else. Every cast member is placed at a very specific spot, we all share the same limited number of gestures, and the lighting is extremely important. When you look at the production from the audience and as a whole, it works; I had great feedback from the audience, but for us, there isn’t a whole lot we can do on stage. We express our inner lives through the look in our eyes – and through the music and the text, of course. Since it was Monteverdi, the text was very important, and it all came together. Not sure if it would in every other opera; I can’t imagine a Carmen by Bob Wilson, for example. But with Monteverdi, with the text and the eyes, it was like Стихотворение: sung poetry.
You sang Ottone?
Yes. Again, a man.
Do pants roles give more freedom to the singer?
Not quite, but I enjoy each one of them a lot. In Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini directed by Terry Gilliam I sang Ascanio (Rome/Amsterdam/ENO co-production). Now that production was nothing short of a film. And I was pretty masculine in it too.
Musical writing for that role is fabulous. The duos, his character, I love everything about it. I’ve done it a few times and will do it again, in Pesaro, again with Maestro Mariotti in a couple of years.
You also sang Adalgisa?
Yes, with Mariella Devia. When I found out that she would sing Norma, there was some serious fangirling happening on my part.
And then there’s the Bieito Carmen waiting for you early next year in Paris.
Yes! I saw the photos from the production, and am very excited about it. It’s a favourite, Carmen. Rich in character, a strong woman who knows how to love, who’s not afraid of anybody and is ready to risk everything to be true to her heart. She needs somebody next to her who will match her strength, but… in opera as in real life, men don’t particularly like strong women. I don’t know if you’ll agree?
Good grief, yes, absolutely. In all areas of life, as we can see these days.
I sang Carmen at the Bolshoi, and in Toulon, and also in Hamburg, last year. I have a lot of Carmens in the future.
And your foray into contemporary opera was Akhmatova composed by Bruno Mantovani?
Yes, that was the world premiere of the work at the Opera Bastille. And it’s impressive – and different when the composer is around and in the same room as you. There was lots to learn. Lots of changes of tempi… The work was well received. There should be a recording somewhere, at least the audio.
More contemporary music on the agenda?
Not in the near future. I like music that lets me interpret, add nuances. I love music that lets me play with colours. But in contemporary music that’s not often the case. Everything is planned and everything must be followed precisely. Perhaps a singer should make that choice early on, to focus on contemporary music and specialize there, or to dedicate herself to the historic repertoire.
Everybody should do what they do best. I like to set the bar for my singing and acting as high as possible, and bring something new with my interpretation. It’s the same with conductors and stage directors. We’re always trying to inch the bar higher. I am working on myself as a singer all the time, it’s a job that never ends.
Just about everything can be made better by two women singing in thirds “Mira, o Norma”, including a cold October day and a timid production of Bellini’s Norma. Elza van den Heever as Norma and Isabel Leonard as Adalgisa singing “Mira” is worth the proverbial price of admission, and last night made obvious Kevin Newbury’s vision for the Bellini piece: creating space for the canto and the voices. Not more, not less. It’s not a particularly ambitious directorial vision but there’s focus there and the resulting production is a calm, pleasing, slow-burn of a show.
The libretto is taken more or less literally but distilled into the essentials, with design simplified, made geometric and stylish, potential Monty-Pythonesque edges smoothed off (no centurion garb for Pollione, thankfully). For much of the show, the set is vast and empty, with drama taking place in twos and threes: the chorus is large, but crowd scenes remain few. Most of the time we are within a temple or fortress with high walls and a door opening up into the forest, a sacred place too that changes colour and lighting depending on where we are in the drama. Scenes are distinctly un-busy and nothing will distract from the voices. The sheltering set is sheltering for the same reason.
The women were great together–with the tenor too–each of the voices drawing the best out of the other one. Individually, especially in recits, neither Leonard nor Heever has a particularly memorable timbre or heart-breaking beauty and smoothness of tone. Each however exercises the ability of the instrument to the maximum, withholding nothing, and each possesses impressive technical mastery. Heever’s “Casta diva” had control, trill, coloratura, messa di voce, while keeping it all at an intimate p to mf level.
Russell Thomas was a total star. Let me get my superficiality out of the way first: did he lose weight, gain muscle, take acting lessons, since last time I checked? He was a complete singing-actor as Pollione, dramatically nimble and vocally… vocally, positively Pavarotti. Not everything was perfect (the outer reaches of the top could have been reached with a bit more ease at certain points) but by golly, you know a star when it smacks you in your operatic jadedness. His voice is so elegant and even throughout the register and so consistently compelling that notions of a perpetuum mobile engine come to mind. One patented by Pavarotti, to boot.
The pit under Stephen Lord gave a competent reading of the score, but didn’t go out of its way to seduce us with subtle accents or daring innovation. Mostly it got out of the way of the voices, just like the production itself.
Norma continues at the Canadian Opera Company Oct 28 and Nov 5. Tickets & more.
Richard Jones’s Ariodante (COC/DNO/Aix/LOC) is a very good production of a very feeble opera. It pains me to say this about a Handel opera that contains two of the best mezzo arias of all time, and a dazzling soprano-mezzo duo at the end, but I think I understand now why it’s rarely staged today and likelier to be heard in concert. As much as it is salvageable as a theatrical work, however, Jones and the COC revival director Benjamin Davis pulled it off.
The story is relatively simple for a baroque opera: the marriage between the King’s daughter Ginevra and a favourite knight is called off after the groom-to-be Ariodante and his brother Lurcanio see somebody who looks like Ginevra letting another knight into her chamber. The princess is ostracized and jailed for being unchaste (!) (the fallen woman is a rare figure in the eighteenth century opera; it becomes standard by the latter half of the nineteenth), but her lady-in-waiting Dalinda admits it was her who let the intruder into the chamber. The knight who plotted the scheme is punished, and the bride and the groom reunite.
The characterization is practically non-existent; the King a little too quickly throws his beloved daughter to jail, then upon denouement forgives everybody every misdoing. Ariodante, though the primo uomo, is the character with least amount of agency who disappears and is presumed dead just as the intrigue heats up. His brother Lurcanio journeys from expressing his love for Dalinda to a slut-shaming rage towards Ginevra to the point that he will fight anybody who defends her innocence, only to like her back when her innocence is proven. Polinesso is a bundle of evil impulses—an inconsistent bundle, it turns out, since he’s the one willing to fight for “Ginevra’s honour” when Lurcanio comes sword-waving.
With such a text on hand, it must be tempting for the director to do a fantastical, camped up version in which the design team goes wild. Jones & comp. decided precisely the opposite, and found a very specific environment in which such a story may credibly happen: a remote small-town finishing and sheep-farming community (in the worst sense of the term), a few decades back from the present time. The Scottish setting lives on in kilts and tartan, but only if you want it to; this may equally take place in Cape Breton (who here has seen New Waterford Girl?), or Ireland, the Balkans, Kyrgyzstan, India, or wherever else female virginity was or remains a matter of social concern. The set is permanent and immobile: a prominent local figure’s home with two public rooms and last one private, his daughter’s. The doors and walls dividing the three spaces are, wisely, invisible except for the locks and handles—the many comings and goings between the rooms would have otherwise turned everything into a farce. This is Richard Jones, so the take on the opera is not exactly realist and naturalist—it’s rather realist-ish, with some signature Jonesian whimsy thrown in—but its greatest success is giving the people that inhabit the story credible emotional lives and drawing out the melancholy, on occasion even tragedy, from something that seems to be offering itself as a silly story. The pastoral dances in finales are replaced by puppetry scenes, with dolls of Ariodante and Ginevra manipulated by the villagers as the real Ariodante and Ginevra look on.
Polinesso commands respect among the villagers because he’s a priest (if also secretly a Lothario in off time), and the communal obsession with female purity is fed by the preaching and the Bible quotes that he regularly serves the villagers. We’ve seen people like this, religious figures who practice the opposite of what they preach, but Jones’ Polinesso maintains much of his cartoonish nature and is the one character in the production without nuance. Varduhi Abrahamyan was very good, regardless. Her four arias were rock solid. “Se l’inganno sortisce felice” and “Dover, giustizia” in particular must be a nightmare with endless low coloraturas, but clearly not for this singer.
The meatiest role of the production is Dalinda, who here is made into a maid who by virtue of her job has uncontested access to all the rooms of the household. Ambur Braid created a complex character, conflicted, manipulated, weak and defiant in turns, a perpetrator who’s also a victim herself. That this was done alongside some tremendous singing, including the insane “Neghittosi or voi che fate?” which she delivers after Polinesso’s motives are unmasked, never ceases to amaze. The earlier, “Se tanto piace al cor”, is a totally different beast: a wide-eyed andante aria on her future happiness with Polinesso. There’s gamut in this role, and Ambur uses every foot of it. Too, when she ornaments, she tends to go up; I don’t think she’s ever been next to a higher note that she didn’t like?
Another singer who more than convinced last night: Jane Archibald. I don’t get to write this often, as to me she usually comes across as a self-contained, even reserved singer, but there was nothing held back in her Ginevra, and she was as technically sharp as usual. Especially heartbreaking: “Il mio crudele martoro”, a long aria-scena taking place after she was falsely accused. The period of her communal ignominy Ginevra spends dressed in a slip, her vulnerability heightened, her body and underwear on display to the prying eyes of the Gemeinschaft.
The less said about Alice Coote in the title role, the better.
I was glad to see Johannes Weisser in a COC debut as the King, and one of my favourite young tenors anywhere, Owen McCausland, in the role of Lurcanio. The King was however underpowered last night and often covered by the orchestra, whereas Lurcanio was opposite, bold in volume while the subtlety of the coloratura suffered.
This was conductor Johannes Debus’s first Handel. He and Christopher Bagan alternate at the harpsichord, while Sylvain Bergerom mans the archlute and the baroque guitar. That’s as far as the period accents go: the rest was all modern instruments, and I wonder if some day he may try introducing some period brass here and there, for variety of colour. It’s not unheard of these days for a modern orchestra tasked with a baroque piece to include some period brassiness. Something to consider.
The tempi in best known arias were decent, nothing unusually fast or slow. Ornamenting was exercised in moderation; not sure if the conductor wrote the ornaments, if the singers improv’d them or if they were written ahead by the singer and the conductor together. Some of them did sound invented on the spot.
I’ll finish with the kudos for the added twist at the end, which is just what a thinking director should do with operas like this. Can a twist ending with Carmen saving herself and stabbing Don Jose be far behind? Here’s hoping.
I went to Amsterdam for the first time in June this year and wrote about the Holland Festival for Opera Canada. The print/digital issue is just about to come out, and this piece will come with different photos, different dek and a better layout.
LETTER FROM AMSTERDAM
Torontonians who dare move around their hometown on a bicycle will find themselves disbelieving the very possibility of Amsterdam, a city specifically planned for two-wheeled transit and adventuring. No corner of the city is out of reach; the lanes now even run through the Rijskmuseum. Amsterdam’s uncompromising bikeability is how I found myself breezily crossing dozens of kilometres in between Holland Festival performances last June. From my rented garret on Haarlemmerweg out west to the magnificent De Dageraad heritage housing in the south (the city has a proud history of employing star architects for low-income housing projects), from the docklands in the north to the National Maritime Museum out east, the city was a work of art as appealing as anything on offer at its long-standing performing-arts festival.
And both are equally accommodating to visitors. The Holland Festival website is available in English in its entirety, and there are English and Dutch subtitles to all live performances (and at Dutch National Opera year-round, too). Every ticket-booth staffer, usher and greeter I encountered spoke English, but then that’s the case for Amsterdam in general, where every facet of the service industries, private or public, proved itself generously Anglophone. Holland Festival tickets will give you access to any of Amsterdam’s public-transport streetcar and bus lines for free, from three hours before to four hours after a performance. There was free Wi-Fi at all the major cultural institutions I visited—the Stadsschouwburg Theatre, Amsterdam Museum, Maritime Museum, the Concertgebouw café, Stedelijk Museum, the patio café on top of the central Bibliotheek, and the Dutch National Opera. Unlike many North American opera houses that have restricted areas for donor receptions and private gatherings and train staff in crowd control, the DNO is one of the most audience laissez-faire opera establishments around. Due to the half-circle layout of the hall, there are practically no bad seats: do not hesitate to book any of the cheaper seats on the Second Balcony, including the higher rows.
A city less than half the size of Toronto, Amsterdam easily sustains an opera house with more than twice as many productions a season as the Canadian Opera Company. Yes, there are tourists to count in—estimated at about 17 million a year—but they tend to visit for the museums, the canals and the Red Light District rather than the performing arts. The Holland Festival itself is in June, a month when the tourist onslaught is somewhat lesser than in always-hectic July and August. Created in 1947, the festival is known today for bold programming tipped in favour of the contemporary (commissioning, co-producing and presenting). If a classic is performed, it will be a new take, such as, this year, Haydn’s Die Schöpfung: it was performed by the B’rock Orchestra and Collegium Vocale Ghent conducted by René Jacobs with simultaneous projections by video artist Julian Rosefeldt. The camera moved in complicity with Jacobs’ tempi across vast areas of arid land and abandoned industrial sites, sometimes showing groups of humans walking across the rough hills and plains. Two days later, at the opera house, I saw the Stefan Herheim-directed production of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, a stirring meditation on the closet, artistic creation and sublimation, and loneliness. The composer himself appears as a non-speaking character, on stage in almost every scene—and also as Liza’s quiet and self-effacing fiancé Yeletsky, and Liza and Polina’s personal pianist.
My festival experience began however with a straight theatre piece—if there’s anything at all straight about Joël Pommerat’s innovative contemporary reconstruction of the first stage of the French Revolution, titled Ça ira (1) Fin de Louis. The National Arts Centre’s French-language division is one of the co-producers of this electrifying piece, and the play was in fact performed at the NAC in Ottawa last March, unnoticed by the English-speaking media in Canada. Over the course of four hours and thirty minutes at the Stadsschouwburg theatre, the audience witnessed the creation and became part of the first National Assembly, the Third Estate transforming its powerlessness into the source of legitimacy for the nascent constitutional monarchy. We’re only at the outset of the revolution, of course, so the piece ends as things ever so slightly begin to get out of hand. During the raging debates, the actors and about 15 extras who cheer, heckle and applaud are planted in the audience, stand up for their contributions, discreetly move around the auditorium and dip behind the stage to come back as different characters. Pommerat based everything on historical documents, but the piece unfolds as a great drama of a collective. We witness the way the crowd incrementally forms itself into a political and historical subject, how a special-interest grievance may or may not morph into a public good, and how a feeling of oppression works itself into political consciousness.
Much of the Holland Festival’s theatrical and visual/media arts programming engages with pressing issues on the planet right now: it’s just about impossible to find anything on the program that serves as purely entertaining escapism. Wunderbaum, a Dutch-Flemish actors collective, performed a piece on the future of sexual relations in the digital era. In The Dark Ages, Swiss director Milo Rau brought together a group of actors from Bosnia, Germany and Russia to retell their own experiences of exile, displacement and homelessness as part of the “dark history of Europe’s unification.” In her interactive sound installation, Gardens Speak, Lebanese-British artist Tania El Khoury reconstructs the lives of 10 Syrians who were killed by Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. The festival also cultivates the art of the panel and public conversation. At one such event, Chinese philosopher Tu Weiming talked about Europe from a Chinese perspective. Another panel, which I was lucky to attend, looked at the evolution of listening and the classical-music audience. Among the speakers were Jutta Toelle of Frankfurt’s Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Henkjan Honing, who teaches Musical Cognition at Amsterdam University, and Austrian composer Olga Neuwrith, who talked about using binaural sound and the “spacialization” of music in her own piece at the festival, Le Encantadas o le avventure nel mare delle meraviglie (The Enchanted Isles or Adventures in a Sea of Wonders). It was performed at one of the out-of-the-way festival locations, Westergasfabriek, where the Ensemble Intercontemporaine conducted by Matthias Pintscher was strategically divided into islands, with electronics managed by sound engineers from the Centre Pompidou’s IRCAM in Paris.
Another contemporary piece at the festival, The Transmigration of Morton Feldman, had its world premiere online—and lives on at mortonf.net. The cinematic digital opera with elements of video gaming—levels and perspectives can be chosen at various points—features music by Morton Feldman and Anat Spiegel. In the film, vocal artist Joan La Barbara wanders around Amsterdam pursued by, or so she thinks, a reincarnated Morton Feldman. There’s a significant choose-your-own-adventure aspect to this piece, which the festival co-commissioned with the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, and with this director Sjaron Minailo might have discovered a way to make supposedly difficult and inaccessible contemporary music an exciting pursuit.Just give the audience something to do and a bit of freedom, and it will follow you where it otherwise wouldn’t. The Art of Listening panel also suggested as much, offering examples of live performance where the movement of listeners and their positioning through the performance space made the music a more compelling and individual experience.
This year’s Holland Festival was Artistic Director Ruth Mackenzie’s second: the former General Director of the Manchester International Festival and director of London’s 2012 Cultural Olympiad was appointed in Amsterdam in 2014. Will the already international, in-tune-with-the-times and innovative festival become even more so during her tenure? Will the English-speaking media and culture lovers that travel to Edinburgh, Lucerne, Bayreuth, Munich and Salzburg in Europe’s summer festival season take a turn to the Low Countries? In some respects, hopefully not. It’s better not to have the queues at the venues, ticket prices in three-digits, ticket purchasing as a blood sport, and a fleet of publicists with one’s festival. Those who already appreciate it will surely want their Holland Festival to remain brilliant and unfussy.
ENO’s reliably good OOG series released Die Meistersinger guide last year and I finally got a chance to read it. (Thank you, Gary!) I also happen to have watched Herheim’s Salzburg production on DVD just the other day–my first entire DieMeistersinger, and an unusually cozy and gentle one for Herheim, very Dickens and the Grimm Brothers.
The guide contains a useful chapter by Arnold Whittall on musical themes and developments, which comes with the graphic guide with notation, and both connect very logically to the libretto and its translation. There’s also an insightful chapter by Tin Blanning on the “holy German art” business, in which Schiller plays a prominent part and which explains that the Sachs speech that today reads as nationalist was, at the time of its creation and first utterance on stage, aspirational more than anything else (Germany united as a country a couple of years after Die M had its premiere).
And now for some quibbles.
The first essay could have been more exciting, shorter and more focused, and altogether less reverential. The author John Deathridge, tasked with introducing the work and how it was created, leaves no mystification and (Wagner’s own) self-mystification behind. We hear at great length how the plot also works as an allegory about Jesus and John the Baptist, and Jesus and the Apostles. Wagner and his second wife Cosima both wrote that seeing Titian’s painting “Assumption of the Virgin” was what reignited Wagner’s interest in his abandoned Meistersinger, so that statement is taken seriously here too, and a connection via Schopenhauer concocted between the painting and the opera. We hear in excruciating detail about an altarpiece from a Nurenberg church and how it may or may not have influenced Wagner. We hear a lot about the first version of the Meistersinger, which Wagner abandoned before re-embarking on the one we have today, and a lot of psychologyzing around the question of why Wagner changed stuff. There are almost two pages dedicated to the forced analogy between King Marke and Hans Sachs. There are interesting bits–the one on Goethe’s Hans Sachs, for ex–but those flights of critical imagination are buried amid all the deference to the biographical and the biblical.
Moving right on… There are people who argue that there’s always something inherently anti-Semitic in Die Meistersinger because 1) there are documents pointing out that Wagner intended an anti-Semitic resonance in very specific spots in the piece, and 2) of the history of reception of the work before and during World War Two–namely, the Nazis embraced it, as a matter of cultural policy, and used its performances as a unification ritual. Hans Rudolf Vaget’s essay at first looked like it wasn’t going to be one of those. Titled “The Beckmesser Problem”, his chapter is a multi-layered history of ascribing anti-Semitism to (finding anti-Semitism in?) certain parts of the Meistersinger. It also provides context to Wagner’s own manifesto “The Jewishness in Music”, which apparently stemmed from his professional jealousies toward Meyerbeer and the resentment toward one particular critic, Edouard Hanslick. Adorno’s contention that all rejects in Wagner’s operas are caricatures of Jews, and Beckmesser of the Meistersinger especially so, looms large in Vaget’s piece, though he reexamines it, together with a handful of other readings of anti-Semitic tropes, some finding baseless, others less so. He finds hidden in Walther’s Trial scene in Act One a wink to the anti-Semitic tale “The Jew in the Thorn Bush”– in a complicated way that I won’t dare attempt to reproduce here. This for him mars the piece permanently, constitutionally: by the end of the essay, Vaget comes close to the position that there are parts within Die Meistersinger that are inherently suspect and permanently offering an anti-Semitic reading. Because Wagner intended it, and because there have been audiences at a certain point in history–say, 1930s in Germany–who arguably found it and embraced it, it exists in the text itself.
Not only do I not subscribe to this philosophical view of how meaning is created–there’s no ur-meaning outside all contexts, not even dormantly; all of the meaning is in the contexts, and if the contexts die, so die the meanings… Not only do I not subscribe to it philosophically, but I myself am a living proof against it. Namely, if Vaget, Adorno & others did not point out to me that the figure of Beckmesser (or Mime in the Ring) was “meant to make fun of the Jews”, it’d never have occurred to me. Not in a million years, not in the productions I’ve been seeing. Nor was I aware of the wink to the Brothers Grimm tale in the Meistersinger (nor will I look it up now; I’m fine without knowing the basics of the tale “The Jew in the Thorn Bush”, thank you very much). I am not in the minority; we are a massive majority of opera-going folk who would never seek out–why on earth would anybody?–any traces of hidden anti-Semitic caricature any of the Wagner’s characters, or in any other opera’s, for that matter. And yet, we get urged to do so.
The crux of my point being: those writing about an “anti-Semitic Mime” and an “an anti-Semitic Beckmesser” as permanently hiding in the work itself are, perversely, keeping both of those tropes alive. They’re doing that by re-sensitizing the audience (of, say, Toronto, London, or NYC, A.D. 2016) that would otherwise be absolutely deaf to this particular call to prejudice.
Nothing in fact belies the spirit of Vaget’s essay better than the essay that follows it, Aine Sheil’s piece on the performance history of Die Meistersinger. The denaturalization of the piece started with the abstract sets of Wieland Wagner, but German theatre radically opened up the work and faced the past head-on with the productions by Neuenfels (Stuttgart 1994) and Konwitchny’s (Hamburg 2002). The Neuenfels production opens with Germany in ruins in 1945 and ends with the reunification at the Brandenburg Gate. Konwitchny, in his, stops the proceedings at the exact moment of Hans Sachs’ nationalist tirade and lets the singers discuss why and if this piece should be done at all. It’s Katharina Wagner’s 2007 Bayreuth production that probably goes furthest in its radical redress and innovation–in it, there is an added segment in which the Regie director and his team get pushed in the dumpster and set on fire by the conservative Sachs. While Sachs goes increasingly authoritarian, Beckmesser ends the production as an independent artist forging his own path.
Interestingly, the productions by the houses in the English-speaking lands tend to be more warm, pretty and straightforward, like McVicar’s Glyndebourne production and Herheim’s own, which was a co-production with the Met (never to be seen this side of the Atlantic, turns out). Richard Jones’s 2010 WNO production, reworked and remounted for the ENO in 2015, made more effort: it found a way to honour the centuries of German and Austrian artists and mould-breakers across disciplines without any of the accompanying ethnocentrism, as a group of people ultimately playing for the team Humanity.
The 2015 Bregenz Festival, Johannes Debus-conducted Les Contes d’Hoffmann (DVD Unitel Classica, C-Major) has what Herheim productions tend to have–thoughtful attention to every bar of the score; redefinition of the passive, one-dimension female roles into agents; placement of the composer into the opera itself; engagement with political, philosophical contexts from the time of the creation and the present time. But, there’s a but coming. This has to be one of the least intricate, most straightforwardly structured of Herheim productions, in which he establishes the basic vocabulary early on and remains faithful to it till the end. Which–together with the general dramatic looseness of Hoffmann–makes for a fairly slow-going, pared down, not-quite-thrilling Herheim show.
Though there are moments of Herheimian thrill, absolutely. While Hoffmann (Daniel Johansson) waits and pines for Olympia to be carried out by her um father, the creator of creatures many and varied, the video projection above the set shows Courbet’s 1866 L’Origine du monde painting. But look more attentively, and it’ll show the body assembled as a mannequin or a machine, something Hoffmann doesn’t notice or doesn’t mind. Later in the scene, Olympia’s coloraturas are also a makeout choreography, and he is put in both active and passive sexual positions and quite determinedly bent over and topped by the automaton at the end.
Offenbach himself appears in the trio of supporting characters Andres, Cochenille and Franz and in a familiar Herheimian trope occasionally conducts his own choruses from the stage (perfectly costumed and perfectly jittery Christophe Mortagne). He is introduced at the very start, cello in tow, letter from Stella to Hoffmann in hand, and the baritone villain (Lindorf, Maitre Luther, Copelius, Miracle, Dapertutto–Michael Volle) comes onto the stage as a heckler from the audience, yelling, at the sight of the drag-queen version of Stella, against the “homo stuff, that has nothing to do with Offenbach”.
The operating principle of the production is Let’s complicate the all too easy sexual dichotomy in the libretto (male-female, and echoing it, artist-muse, artist-object of devotion, lover-beloved, gaze-the gazed, generator creator-elusive, ungraspable feminine etc). Herheim does it by dressing all principal characters in three basic costumes, depending on the scene: Hoffmann’s tails masculine ensemble, the femme fatale gown, and the corset and garters outfit. It’s amusing noticing how entire scenes change depending on who wears what: Dr Miracle appears to Antonia in the femme fatale garb, Antonia (Mandy Fredrich) and Olympia (Kerstin Avemo) sing their signature arias corset-clad–but Antonia dies in an oversized femme fatale dress from Dr Miracle, and it isn’t Olympia that is dismembered at the end of Act 1, but the (masculine version) doll of Hoffmann himself, while the actual singer Daniel Johansson appears, when the crowd has cleared out, corseted, badly made up, and very much alone again, stage left.
This proliferation works best with the Muse/Nicklausse/Voix de la tombe character (Rachel Frenkel), who appears as a femme fatale version of Stella, then in Act 1 as one of the Huffmanns of the drinking crowd, keeps the Hoffmann garb for the duration of Act 2 at Spalanzani’s, appears in corset in Act 3 to interrupt Hoffmann’s growing infatuation with Antonia and remind him of Olympia, and is back in the glam gown as one of the three women voicing Giulietta (ah yes, “Giulietta” is the Muse, Olympia and Antonia trio, all dressed in the identical glamour number).
The tripartite costuming is fun and games at certain turning points, but in those long stretches in between, the workaday parts of this opera, it gets ever so slightly unsurprising, dare I say… tedious. The ladygents and gentladies of the chorus are often dressed half-half or cross-dressed and that’s new and interesting until it isn’t. The Busby Berkeley-like staircase set keeps returning, and yes, it’s showbiz, it’s performance, and so are the genders, etc etc.
I hate to be That Guy Who Complains About French Diction, so I won’t, this time. COC’s music director Johannes Debus conducts with precision and flair the Wiener Symphoniker (and was not the only Torontonian in the pit: Jordan de Souza was in Bregenz last summer too as his assistant).
The recording comes in two discs, no bonus materials, with subtitles in French, English, German, Spanish, Korean, Japanese and Chinese. Video director was Felix Breisach.