Books and coffee

I’m having a little book do this evening, come on out if you’re in town.

Thursday, June 30 at 7:00 pm
Full of Beans Coffee House and Roastery
1348 Dundas Street West, Toronto
647.347.4161
Join us on Thursday, June 30th at the Full of Beans Coffee House and Roastery in Toronto for the launch of Lydia Perović’s All That Sang.
Lydia Perović will be talking about her new book with musician and radio host
Kathleen Kajioka, followed by a brief reading. Their conversation will consider such questions as: Can women be muses to other women? Why is orchestral conducting chiefly gendered male? And how do different kinds of writing approach music?

How the book came about.

The Globe & Mail review. The Montreal Review of Books review. The Winnipeg Review review.  The Barcza Blog review.

I’ll be the woman. I’ll be all the women.

The Dutch National Opera’s new production of Tchaikovsky’s Pique dame by Stefan Herheim proves that the right director can turn a meh opera into a great work of art. Musically a conventional garden-variety nineteenth century work with a sprinkling of melodramatic accents of storm, otherworldly sightings, unrequited love arias and pastiche, in Herheim’s hands becomes a moving meditation on the closet, artistic creation and sublimation, and loneliness.

The letter of the libretto has it that the gambling-addicted, impecunious Hermann falls in love with an aristocratic friend’s fiancée Liza, but after winning her over realizes his priorities are elsewhere: trading his soul for the fail-proof card combination from Liza’s grandmother, the aged Countess. She had herself paid for it in dearly but willingly as a young gambling addict. Hermann gets it eventually from the dead woman’s ghost—the actual Countess having died in horror when he tried to pry the numbers out of her. There are a handful of male characters who always appear together, among whom Liza’s original fiancé, Yeletsky—a one-aria role, all in all. They reconvene for the final scene at the gambling house (Liza’s also dead at this point, having thrown herself in the Winter Canal) and Yeletsky challenges him to a duel. Before Hermann completes his winnings with the third card, the Countess appears as his actual ‘final card’, Queen of Spades, after which he too dies.

Herheim’s Dame starts in Tchaikovsky’s living room, variations of which are the set for the opera. First scene is a silent one. Stage right, the composer is performing fellatio on an indifferent man (both are completely clothed) who’s agreed to it in exchange for money. The man recoils at the composer’s shy attempt to kiss his hand, and leaves laughing in his face. It’s at this point that Tchaikovsky sits at the piano and starts composing the opera Pique dame which we are about to watch as it’s being composed. The hateful man who doesn’t acknowledge his existence is transposed into Hermann (sung by Misha Didyk), the character who destroys lives and is incapable of love. Is he perhaps akin to the figure of the masculine, emotionally inscrutable Top that appears in a number of cultural creations by gay men (Patrice Chéreau’s Ceux qui m’aiment prendrons le train, and Xavier Dolan’s Tom à la ferme are just two examples)? The composer himself is present in most scenes, sometimes conducting the chorus, other times “playing” at the piano what the orchestra of a future performance—our own—is playing full-on. He also appears as an actual character, if not very frequently: as a gentle, self-effacing Yeletsky (sung by Vladimir Stoyanov).

There’s no consensus on how Tchaikovsky died, but some have argued that he intentionally drank the cholera-contaminated water so he would avoid an ignominious public outing. Herheim made the contaminated glass of water a recurring symbol in the opera: the menacing male chorus members keep carrying the glasses around and offering them to the composer at the drop of a hat; Liza dies awash in it; the Countess too drinks her own glass. There is a lot of public shaming and laughing at the composer—Hermann is a figure of fun by the other men of the pack, but he commands some degree of respect: it’s the composer who’s despised. In the scene of the Empress’ entrance, he bows and kisses her hand, and the Empress takes off her clothes to reveal Hermann in drag, to the delight of the jeering crowds.

While Ken Russell’s Music Lovers imagines a Tchaikovsky  horrified by women and women’s bodies, Herheim’s Tchaikovsky is clearly more at ease with women than with anybody in the pack. He is present in the sweet scene with Liza (Svetlana Aksenova) and her best friend Polina (Anna Goryachova) while they sing to each other. Polina is reinvented as a trouser role and the two women are amourous friends and each other’s favourites. That, and another scene with Tchaikovsky observing/creating/enjoying two women, are two gentlest, least emotionally problematic scenes that even have something idyllic about them. The second scene is the Daphnis & Chloe play-within-a-play (glorious Goryachova returning as Daphnis, with Pelageya Kurennaya) supposed to be happening at a ball, but here starts in the intimacy of Tchaikovsky’s room and only later turns into a performance of the naturalness of heterosexuality for the crowd at the ball. Musically the piece is a pastiche of Mozart’s Pappageno and Pappagena, and there are many other nods to the Rococo and Mozart in the opera which Herheim honours.

The Dame libretto was written by Tchaikovsky’s equally gay brother Modest, but Herheim makes a shortcut here for dramatic effect: the composer is the absolute creator of his work, libretto included. He is indeed in many ways all of his characters, but he is closest to and voices most directly the leading women, Liza and the Countess. There is so much love and tenderness towards these two, the darling tomboy Polina as well. And they love him back. Hermann is relatively insignificant in the scene of the Countess’s death: it’s her show, and deeply felt goodbye to the world.

All naturalness is removed from the scene in which Hermann and Liza declare each other’s love. Herheim has them reading their words off the composer-supplied score, as if trying out a staging approach to the roles they’ve just been assigned. Hermann, rightly, loses his centrality in the final scene as well: it’s in fact the composer who dies at the end of the opera as the chorus, hypocritically, sings “Give rest to his turbulent troubled spirit”.

No actual playing cards appear once in the production. The men in the final gambling scene deal in sheets of Tchaikovsky’s score.

Musically, things were less thrilling, but this fact didn’t spoil anything. Legendary Mariss Jansons conducted the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the pit and I expected fireworks, but it could be that this music is incapable of fireworks? It was all rather… adequate. The were minor issues of the odd instance of lateness and of the stage and orchestra coordination. Didyk’s was a barely audible Hermann and lost his centrality to the story in this way too. The Pack were uniformly good, if dramatically fairly insignificant. Aksenova’s Liza and Goryachova’s Polina were complex, multi-dimensional characters—often literally, Polina as Daphnis/Pappageno and Aksenova as an angel of compassion appearing to the composer. Larissa Diadkova’s Countess was decidedly not an ogre, but a thinking, feeling creature succumbing under the weight of the Weltschmerz.

Dame pique will be streamed on Opera Platform on June 21

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Fledermaus at the Bar Opera Five

Die Fledermaus-7
Michael Barrett (Eisenstein), Julie Ludwig (Adele), Rachel Krehm (Rosalinde) surrounded by the chorus.

Opera Five team got it exactly right: this is how you do the central act of Die Fledermaus today, as immersive live entertainment that is not necessarily waltzing and polka, but of its own age, and as naughty as you’re willing to dare. Director Aria Umezawa and the team added to the ball a top notch bourlesque act by Ruby Magnitude and immediately after the aerialist Jamie Holmes (both stunning Rita Hayworth-y redheads), a Justin Bieber lip sync tribute band, and a tremendous queered up and adulted up rendition of “All About That Base” by the MC Pearle Harbour (Justin Miller). Originally a pop song by Meghan Trainor, Pearle’s imporoved lyrics (“Every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top” became “Every inch of you is perfect whether you’re the bottom or the top” for ex) improved the otherwise low-ish queer content of the shindig. Yes, Keith Lam made a unique Dr. Falke in his pink Hello Kitty gear and the men of the chorus all sported exquisite makeup of the Rocky Horror elaborateness, but the relationships among the central characters remained very straight with the removal of the trousered Orlofsky. Here she is Oksana Orlofska (Erin Lawson), a Swarowski Kristall-type heiress with an entourage. The flirting between Orlofsky and Adele is completely removed–also between Orlofsky and anybody else at the party, as Ms Orlofska is quite out of reach. Says Umezawa in her program notes: “I felt it would be strange to have a pants-role, and not explain why our mezzo is dressed as a man (particularly to those members of the audience who are not familiar with operatic conventions)”. Wirklich? I’m sure at least some of the people in that audience would have heard of gay women, no? Or of drag kinging (cf what Pearle does, apply to opposite gender)? People like Marlene Dietrich and Madonna have been known to suit up with a certain degree of success?

But okay. Let’s put that under quibbles, because everything else works perfectly in act II. “Bruderlein und Schwesterlein” is luckily kept, and includes “confetti kisses” with the audience–gently hitting the chosen people with lip-shaped paper creations that exploded confetti. The dances were with the members of the audience too, and though not explicitly encouraged, some of us did join in during the choruses–those in Adele’s laughing song, for example, were absolutely irresistible.

Speaking of singing, all the voices were very much equal to the task, with a couple of people standing out. Julie Ludwig was a consistently accomplished Adele, a crystalline soubrette with effortless coloratura. There’s something about Michael Barrett’s stage presence that always works even when his character doesn’t (the French stereotype jokes around Monsieur Deloup wear thin pretty quickly). He is a real bête de scène, apropos French phrases. The small orchestra conducted by Patrick Hansen did their darndest to convey the razzle dazzle of the original orchestral score.

Now what of Acts I and III? Did the rest of the opera’s update work, by which I mean was it entertaining? Occasionally. The two-dimensional and artificial set and prop design in Act I worked really well, but there was a lot of hammed up ‘acting’ and making fun of the words and situations rather than making them funny–something of a curse of the Toronto’s indie opera scene. Act III was brilliantly introduced by marking the stage area off with yellow tape at the centre of what used to be the dance floor and returning the unruly audience back to its seats. Eisenstein/Barrett’s Monsieur Deloup, who’s by now overstayed his welcome multiple times over, returns and together with the colossally hung over Officer Frank (Geoffrey Penar) slows down the denouement, but just like in Act 1 some good singing comes to the rescue, from all but particularly Ludwig and Rachel Krehm.

In conclusion, as an adaptation this Fledermaus is a mixed bag, but as an event of its own kind, and as a likely gateway drug for future opera audiences, it’s superb.

Last performance tonight — tickets here.

Die Fledermaus-2
Erin Lawson (Orlofsky), Michael Barrett (Eisenstein/Monsieur deLoup) and in the background, Pearle Harbour (Justin Miller), amid the chorus.

 

Some thoughts on comping

Buy-TicketsI’ve been thinking about the practice of comping the media lately (alternative and mainstream: art blogs are as much the media as the G&M, bound by the same ideals of integrity, relative impartiality etc–what supposedly distinguishes us from marketing).

It’s customary for performing arts organizations to offer complimentary tickets to members of the media–usually a pair, sometimes if it’s a small space just the one. What is expected in turn is a review of some kind, though the media and the writer maintain the right not to write or run one, for whatever reason.  So, roughly: a pair of tickets for some kind of documented response to the performance.

There’s a lot in this practice that I’m not sure about, concerning both sides.

Writers: are we sure a pair of free tickets cannot affect our judgment, esp for shows that we know cost hundreds of dollars to see? Or, conversely, esp for small productions by scrappy, heart-in-the-right-place upstarts trying to make their name? Do you feel bad about having to write a bad review for a show you got to see for free? What if this keeps repeating itself–free tickets, but the shows are still no good? Are you accruing any obligation here?

One thing I’ve learned is that the process of easy-come tickets separates our experience of getting to shows from the experience of the members of the public. As a buying customer of a Toronto new music festival, for example, I got to learn how chaotic and inconvenient the process of getting your ticket and getting into the venue usually gets. Before I started buying tickets for the second-best-known Toronto opera company, I did not know that their lowest cost, prominently advertised ticket price was fiction (the cheapest ticket for their shows is a dozen dollars more).

Meanwhile, in some quarters, the script of what you feel entitled to upon comping is changing. The other month I got an invitation to a show that also came with an offer of writing a preview for that same show. I said I’d consider the idea and would let them know if I want to do one. When the email with actual tickets came in a couple of weeks later, so did the reminder of doing the preview. I don’t usually do a preview and a review of the same show, but this dual suggestion came kind of tied in with the ticket offer.

Another company’s publicity company got into a habit of emailing the comp’d writers first thing in the morning after the show to check when the review is coming out. When it happened to me, I saw this as a nudge and I told them they should stop doing it, and that no other company does it. I don’t think they are going to stop (theirs is a pretty aggressive publicity company), but they did stop inviting me to their shows, looks like it.

At one point I thought, why don’t the big media buy their own tickets? They can afford them. And no obligations are unconsciously accrued between the writer and the artists. What about freelancers (and bloggers), though? Should we be comped, because we usually don’t have large spending budgets (we can claim the tickets as expenses on self-employed tax returns, but that doesn’t help with the current month’s budgeting)? When I buy my own ticket because I want to support a company, more often than not I end up not reviewing the production. It could be only me; I find reviewing a huge responsibility, and something that’s easy to do lazily, so I try not to, which is a lot of work. Which, if given half a chance, I’ll get myself out of.

Should we, when pairs of tickets come easily, privately take it upon ourselves to bring to the show people in our lives who don’t usually go to the opera–should we be introducing new opera goers to the art form? (I’ve been trying to do this for a couple of years.)

I can’t say I have the answers. What I do now for sure is:

  • companies should know that comping is offered with no strings attached
  • writers should be aware that seeing stuff for free, being greeted by a comm person you know well (sometimes even like), getting to your excellent seat with no hassle is a privileged, pampered way to encounter a show. It will inevitably colour your judgment. (Try a long wait in an unruly line at -7C outside RTH for your discounted festival pass one winter, and we’ll compare notes.)
  • we should all keep in mind the that review is just one person’s opinion based on one particular performance and the reviewer’s own history, preferences, circumstance. It’s not a truth-seeking exercise. It’s not a judgment for all times.

Ambur Braid sings Verdi

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

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

(Click photo to magnify)
CasaLomaConcertSeries

Filthy Brides, or: AtG gets Cozy

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dean Burry does a Schoenberg on Romanticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY Opera does The Rape of Lucretia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can get behind Maometto II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Show Me the Drama: Carmen at the COC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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