Ariodante by Richard Jones

Jane Archibald (seated L), Alice Coote (seated R), the puppeteers and the COC Chorus in Ariodante, 2016. Photo: Michael Cooper
Jane Archibald (seated L), Alice Coote (seated R), Johannes Weisser (standing next to Coote), the puppeteers and the COC Chorus in Ariodante, 2016. Photo: Michael Cooper

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.

Varduhi Abrahamyan  and Ambur Braid (behind). Photo by Michael Cooper.
Varduhi Abrahamyan and Ambur Braid (behind). Photo by Michael Cooper.

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.

Jane Archibald as Ginevra (on bed) with Alice Coote as Ariodante and Johannes Weisser as the King of Scotland (in front row). Photo: Michael Cooper
Jane Archibald as Ginevra (on bed) with Alice Coote as Ariodante and Johannes Weisser as the King of Scotland (in front row). Photo: Michael Cooper
Varduhi Abrahamyan (in background), Jane Archibald and Ambur Braid. Photo by Michael Cooper
Varduhi Abrahamyan (in background), Jane Archibald and Ambur Braid. Photo by Michael Cooper

Holland Festival: Brilliant and Unfussy

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.


A view from the Dutch National Opera
A view from the Dutch National Opera

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 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.

Lydia Perović

for Opera Canada

Joel Pommerat & compagnie, post-Revolution curtain call
Joel Pommerat & compagnie, post-Revolution curtain call
From inside the Amsterdam Museum reconstruction of the first dyke-owned bar in Amsterdam

Overture Opera Guides: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

MeistersingerCoverENO’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 Die Meistersinger, 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.

Katharina Wagner’s production can be watched on Medici TV and is available on DVD. A review and another review.


Viewing alert: Nathalie Stutzmann & Emőke Baráth sing Handel

…to each other. In a mashup of duos and arias from various Handel operas, titled Il Duello Amoroso.

The streaming starts here at 3pm EST. In the unlikely case that it’s geoblocked (concerts usually aren’t), you know what to do (Hola, Tunnel Bear, HideMyAss or similar geomasking programs).

EDITED: Replay will be available starting August 31.


Herheim’s Hoffmann, or sexual difference in three costumes


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.

Die Entführung, the McVicar take

Every now and again David McVicar does a faithful-to-the-libretto read that works like a charm. His Carmen and Le Nozze di Figaro were like that; Giulio Cesare was more interventionist but it too showed this welcome attitude of unfussiness and laissez-faire.  We can now add the 2015 Glyndebourne Die Entführung aus dem Serail to this small but precious list of productions where what he and designer Vicki Mortimer describe as “radical realism” lets the piece do its thing and lets the viewer make up her own mind.

Which is not to say that this Entführung will not come across as somewhat old-fashioned and a mile too beautiful. It will, especially if you watch it after an interventionist version such as Mouawad’s. On the other hand, you will also feel less preached to and less in need of instruction. (Though I respect its willingness to expose the long avoided dark underside of this opera, I have no idea what I’d make of the notorious Bieito version. At this point I suspect he’s using violence and sex to “sell an opera” just like Hollywood does to sell a movie.) Mouawad’s gives a lot to chew on and is very aware and in tune with our time, while McVicar’s could have been funded by the Met circa 1950s.

Forgive me, reader: I am inconsistent; I cared for this production and didn’t. I cared for it more than I didn’t. Yes, I think that’s accurate. More than not.

The pros:

There are hints on what life on Pasha Selim’s court and in his harem might be like throughout the production, but it’s only in the final scene after the Europeans leave that it all comes back to life for the viewer too: his three wives (three of his wives?) uncover their faces, and he takes a favourite kid out of the gaggle of his cute children for a cuddle. In his Figaro, McVicar made the lives of servants much more present and vivid, and here the life on Pasha’s court comes out more clearly than in a lot of productions. I think it’s important to show Pasha’s other women, and this production does (while Mouawad’s shows an implausibly monogamous and Konstanze-focused Selim).

The second repudiation scene that leads Konstanze to sing “Martern aller Arten” in the libretto happens in a garden, but McVicar raises the tension and the stakes by putting it in Pasha’s bedroom. Pasha (Franck Saurel) is a total beefcake to whom moreover consent matters and Konstanze is clearly tempted–mixed with angry and frightened. Her state may explain some of the extremeness of vocal writing, says Mortimer in the DVD interview. (Yes; I always wondered why this aria was so bizarre, almost comical with its sudden extreme lines.) While Mouawad’s Pasha is kind of meek, McVicar in this scene keeps you guessing whether Pasha is about to crack and resort to force after all.

There was a good period orchestra (the OAE, under Robin “The Curls” Ticciati) in the pit.

The cons, there are a few:

The Blonde-Osmin scene of comic marital strife in the kitchen amid cakelets and girly knitwear is a cop-out. Even though well sung and acted (Mari Eriksmoen’s Blonde and Tobias Kehrer’s Osmin, separately and together, have a whole lot of zest), it rings untrue. The idea was to show a captured woman who manages to avoid rape by wit and stubborn independence. It doesn’t work like that. You may tell me that that’s exactly what the Bretzner-Stephanie libretto commands, but is it ever specified in the libretto whether Blonde is Osmin’s slave in every possible way, or just in some? Or maybe the libretto does depict two Ottoman protagonists who, despite any other possible flaws, would never force themselves on a woman, even if they’ve kindnapped her off a foreign ship? Mouawad has, I think, solved this knot of issues better with Blonde’s pregnancy, but both directors create a likeable Osmin. Would it be more historically accurate to depict him as a brute, is averting the gaze a cop-out?

Pedrillo (Brenden Gunnell)’s life in the harem is highly estheticized, and much is made of the fact that the Pasha tolerates him because of his gardening skill. I get it, Singspiel is supposed to be comic at times, but the comic escape scene with the long ladder, windows opening and closing, Pedrillo’s tantrums in shouted whispers is just tiresome. (Mouawad opted for a non-comic escape, wisely.)

Belmonte (prettily sung by Edvaras Montvidas) in both productions and maybe every possible production is a windbag who stops the proceedings to sing a self-important aria. Sally Matthews’ Konstanze was a composite of lush frocks and stylized movements to the degree that comes dangerously close to Opera Atelier’s.

The Entführung production though still very much worth seeing on DVD/BluRay issued by Glyndebourne and making up your own mind about.

Franck Saurel and Sally Matthews. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith.

Jamie Barton in recital

Jamie Barton with Bradley Moore at Koerner Hall. Photo credit James M. Ireland.
Jamie Barton with Bradley Moore at Koerner Hall. Photo credit James M. Ireland.

The cutest baby-Wagnerian around, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton made her Toronto recital debut at the Koerner Hall last night with Bradley Moore at the piano.

The program was diverse, but the format was kept traditional, with no witty intros or personal stories in between the sets of songs, which would have enriched and enlivened the event. She did finally speak–and kick off her shoes–before the last, American set, and showed talent for gab. More words next time, JB!

She mightily impressed in Dvořák’s Cigánské melodie. Moving through its divergent moods with great dramatic wisdom and excellent diction, Barton was very much at home in the Czech song cycle. She took good care of each word; the way she inhabited the word pláčem in the sombre fourth song effectively created a mini-scene of its own.

The three songs by Chausson too went well. The main issue with a large impressive voice like Barton’s in recital is to rein it in, not let it rip (too soon, too often, ever, maybe?). I wondered if an opulent voice would not maybe blow away some of the gossamer-ier sides of French mélodies, but turns out I didn’t need to: “Hébé” and “Le colibri” in particular were a delight as Barton gave her high floating pianissimi (yes they exist!) a good workout. We usually hear lighter voices in this rep, but hearing Barton and, say, Marie-Nicole Lemieux in mélodies is a whole different re-read. Pourquoi pas.

The Schubert set was a wee bit humdrum, possibly hindered by an under-ambitious choice of songs. Does anybody ever get excited by “The King of Thule” or “Shepherd’s Lament”? I’d loved to have heard Barton in some Lieder that mean the world to her personally, and the reasons why. Maybe something from Winterreise? Der Erlkönig? Ständchen? But no luck. OK, there was “Gretchen am Spinnrade” but the piano wheel didn’t spin for it with much propulsion, alas.

The final Jesus-y set wasn’t my thing (James Ivey-arranged “His Eye is on the Sparrow” and “Ride on King Jesus”) though “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (arr. H.T. Burleigh) can never fail. The encores were a Sibelius and a Princesse de Bouillon aria from Adriana Lecouvreur.

Now can we please hear Barton in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde? Sooner rather than later? She’s back to Toronto in the fall for Mahler 3 with TSO in the meantime.

The COC-Lyon Die Entführung aus dem Serail coming to Toronto


Lyon Opera and the COC are co-funding a new production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail with rewritten dialogues by Lebanese-Canadian-French playwright Wajdi Mouawad, who also directs. We may get to see it in Toronto next year, or the year after, but meanwhile the production opened in Lyon this July and can be watched online here, provided you download Tunnel Bear and set it on French browsing (the Culturebox video is geoblocked, but worth the trouble).

Mouawad’s is a retrospective telling of the opera, and opens with straight dialogue at the party that celebrates Konstanze (Jane Archibald) and Blonde (Joanna Wydorska)’s return from captivity. The garbs are operatic eighteenth-century, wigs and breeches, and Belmonte the Vater invites the guest to celebrate the big rescue as well as the superior values of the Enlightenment against barbarity. He unveils the high striker game he had prepared for them, and he uses its French name: la Tête de Turc. Guests take turns at the mallet wacking the top of the turban, but Konstanze and Blonde refuse, which leads to a marital skirmish with Belmonte and Pedrillo. After they agree to re-tell how each experienced the rescue mission, the overture starts.

From that point on, Belmonte and Pedrillo (baby-faced tenors Cyrille Dubois and Michael Laurenz) are the only characters who remain in their eighteenth-century costumes, now looking over-elaborate and silly. The guests are cleared away, sets turn grey and very basic (it’s not a costly production, I dare say), Konstanze is sat down and Belmonte meets Osmin for the first time (again). Osmin is not picking figs but fiddling with origami figures—stay for the explanation why further down—when Belmonte demands to know of Selim Pasha lives there.

“That’s how they treated me,” Belmonte concludes the scene of the rough exchange with Osmin, but Konstanze demurs: “That’s how you describe it”. Before Osmin sings the torture aria for Pedrillo, it’s revealed through the added dialogue that he despises the man because he’s a philanderer (“For you, love is a joke; for me, it gives meaning to life”). David Steffens’s Osmin could charm the breeches off anybody and turns out to be, when not dealing with Pedrillo, a decent, even-tempered bro. As the opera progresses, Mouawad’s Pedrillo becomes something of a figure that illustrates that the west has gone too far in the direction of mistaking choice and profligacy for freedom. Belmonte is an adventurer whose privileged background protects him from any real danger. Neither man is burdened by principles which he’s willing to defend with his own life (a quality that, conversely, makes Don Giovanni a noble figure).

Konstanze, yes—and says as much to Selim on two occasions in the original libretto. Her first scene with the Pasha (Peter Lohmeyer, calm and compelling) maintains most of the original dialogue, but as she sings “Ach ich liebte” while Belmonte looks on from his chair in the corner, we’re not entirely sure if she means it. The long dialogue between Konstanze and Selim presents them both as reasonable individuals at an impasse: the only thing he won’t do is let her go, the only thing she won’t do is deny she is kept against her will and grant consent. He weakly threatens to marry her against her will, and she asks for more time “to forget the pain”. “It’s been two years,” is his reply, and she demands one more night. Morgen it’ll be, then.

Konstanze then to Belmonte: “et malgre la cruauté de ses paroles, je le savais bon!” Belmonte is not pleased as she continues to defend him.

Jane Archibald, Peter Lohmeyer and the Lyon Opera chorus

Blonde opens the second act with a newly minted monologue. Approximation: Why is it that I always fall for the men-children. Who moreover can’t stop complaining. Pedrillo is hovering, and Osmin enters the room for a bath. She continues to address both men: “You or him, here or there, you’re equally bad”. Osmin, now in the tub, invites her to scrub his back. She premises her “Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln” aria with “I tell you Pedrillo, as I told Osmin”. In the old libretto she threatens to gouge his eyes out and they genuinely fight, while here we are witnessing a teasing exchange. “Tenderness? Pretty words? But we are in Turkey. I am the master and you are my slave. I order, you obey,” replies Osmin from the tub and from the old libretto. “Hahaha it’s same in Europe”, yells Pedrillo from his chair and the new libretto. To “I am born a woman and defy anybody, here or there [this recurs a lot], who wants to coerce me”, Osmin answers “She is crazy” and Pedrillo “Hysterical”. She helps Osmin get dressed, and the banter ends with Osmin flirting with “You want me to be your puppet, like your jackass Petrillo” (Pedrillo next to them objects). “You are beginning to understand,” she replies, and they kiss.

To Pedrillo’s protestations, Blonde says: “I loved him because he aspired to greatness. What do you aspire to? Nothing. You child.”
Pedrillo: “Do you want me to lock you up?”
Osmin: “Do you want me to give you freedom to do whatever you like?”
Blonde: “Learn one from another. If you don’t, you’re both bound to be wrong”
[weak point of the libretto – the moral equivalence. On which later]

Osmin gets mad: “You still love him!”
Pedrillo: “Do you regret your Turk?”
Blonde: “My heart belongs to me!”

During the Osmin-Blonde duet, the two laugh and hug. The “O Engländer! seyd ihr nicht Thoren” is obviously a teasing session. He lowers on his knees and sings to her tummy, which is how we learn that Blonde is pregnant. He takes out the fiddly origami toy from the box—the one he made in Act 1—which was, it’s now clear, planned for a baby. They part ways gently.

Konstanze’s quarters. Long new dialogue given to Blonde and Konstanze, in which Blonde is shown as an optimistic, strong-willed creature and Konstanze as the hopeless of the two. Konstanze gets the extremely acute line “As somebody who was born into comfort and indifference, I am bound to feel fragile before difficulty”. Blonde reminds her that she’s familiar with exile and changing languages and countries; Konstanze: “We are too protected… I want to be you.” Blonde: “We used to be mistress and servant; now two women, shoulder to shoulder.”

Later, Konstanze and Selim argue. She asks him again to let her go. “Do you think your world is better than mine?” he asks. “No, but it’s my world.” She goes on to tell him that There as here, men sing of eternal beauty of women, but that here as well as there nothing is more difficult for a woman than to have freedom. “Our world differs from yours in language, religion, philosophy… in everything except in the idea that woman needs to be subjugated. Worship her and subject her. … the only thing different is your chosen way of subjugation.”

“I won’t let you go, Konstanze.”

“Then kill me.” And we’re back to old libretto. Aria ”Martern aller Arten” is sung with other women and girls of the harem gathered behind her.

Next scene is set in a mosque, during prayer – women separated from men, Blonde among the women, uncovered. Pedrillo informs her of the escape plan. She appears happy.

The Osmin and Pedrillo wine-drinking proceeds in the usual way, and the escape quartet follows. The moments of doubt for the men—whether the women had remained ‘faithful’ all this time away—are already in the old libretto, but after the women get mad and couples reconciled, Mouawad adds all-important coda to this scene: Konstanze goes on the offensive with “So you were going to save us only if we had been faithful? What if we hadn’t been? You would have gone away without us?” During this conversation, Blonde tells Pedrillo “I didn’t know if I loved him or hated him… I was lost, like you… He loved me unwaveringly”.

“And you, Konstanze?” Belmonte wants to know.

(bitterly) “If you want to know if I slept with the Pasha, then know that your honour is intact…”—and she goes on to defend Selim as a great noble man.

Belmonte: “I feel I lost you the moment I found you!”

Cyrille Dubois (Belmonte), David Steffens (Osmin), Jane Archibald (Konstanze), Joanna Wydorska (Blonde), the chorus and the extras of Opera de Lyon

The rest proceeds according to the libretto. Osmin catches them all, and during his next supposedly angry aria, the ghost / phantom/ hallucination of his daughter, now five years old, walks about wearing a nightgown. She can’t sleep. He sings about “Harems-Mäuse”—perhaps promising to fight the monsters that frighten her?—and then sobs.

When he meets Selim, he pleads that he spare Blonde: “If you condemn Blonde, you condemn two lives, and the one she’s carrying in her is innocent…”

What used to be the prison-harem from which the boys rescued the women—the elegant, claustrophobic globe-shaped cage—is now the prison for the recaptured quartet of protagonists. There’s the prison singing sequence and then the Selim clemenza scene. As they each come out of the prison one by one, the captives sing “Never will I forget your benevolence; For ever shall I sing your praises” which is exactly what they don’t do when they return home, if you remember the party from the beginning of the opera.

While the music is upbeat, the women aren’t: the opera ends with a barrier falling down between the principals and ‘them’, the people of the east. It comes down together with the chandeliers, and we’re back where we started.

Some thoughts:

  • When the new dialogues work well, they work gloriously well. There are also points where they don’t work as well (see below). Too, there are points where they’re awfully didactic. (“The hardest thing is to recognize that they aren’t as barbarian as we are wont to describe them”, Pedrillo says to Belmonte in Act 1. You paying attention, opera-goer? This is an important point!)
  • In an attempt to avoid cultural offense via western chauvinism, Mouawad puts the equation sign between two patriarchal societies a little too easily. Or maybe he really believes what the poignant words he’s given to Konstanze and Blonde say (here and there, both places)? Either way. There are degrees of oppression. To insist that everywhere is equally bad for women is an indefensible position. “You only differ in the method you choose to subjugate women” says Konstanze to Selim, but the devil, unsurprisingly, is in the details of that method. There’s misogyny and misogyny; there’s cultural misogyny and then there are very physically violent expressions of misogyny. There’s the photographic gaze and the Bechtel Test and the feminist shortcomings of an opera and then there’s sexual trafficking and stoning and death by gunman or policeman or abject poverty. Women’s bad luck is unevenly distributed across the globe (country, city).
  • Mouawad’s is, actually, a very gentle and light Entführung, the real darkness of sexual slavery eliminated completely. Blonde genuinely gives consent to Osmin; Konstanze doesn’t and her choice is respected by Selim. It could easily be a thought experiment or a treatise from the Enlightenment era, where individuals meet as rational minds to resolve the distribution of mutual obligations and individual rights. The violence is largely abstracted out. Although Mouawad’s production aims to put into question the glorification of Enlightenment values, it ends up being an oblique—and welcome–tribute to them.

More on the production here, including the Mouawad libretto in German and French. The old libretto, in German and English, here. All photos: Stofleth / Opera de Lyon.

Archibald, Dubois, Laurenz, Wydorska

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
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