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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

 Toronto, November 2015

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

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

Tap:Ex Metallurgy with FKD UP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

l’homme et le ciel: an email exchange

From the press release:
[Adam Scime-composed new chamber opera] l’homme et le ciel has been carefully adapted from an ancient text called The Shephard of Hermas. The opera follows a series of inescapable visions, resulting from what Hermas believes to be merely innocent thoughts. These visions reveal to Hermas the undeniable truth concerning his sexual impulses. l’homme et le ciel … will be performed by some of the most exciting singers in Toronto, including Alex Dobson (baritone) playing Hermas, Larissa Koniuk (soprano) playing Rhoda and Adanya Dunn (soprano) playing The Messenger.

After I’d received the press release, I wrote to Amanda Smith, FAWN’s Artistic Director:

Many thanks, I’ll give it all a read.
One very quick and honest question though: why such a text? What would be its appeal to somebody who’s a woman, a feminist and very secular (like me, and I presume, yourself), who’s certain she’s heard enough from the culture about men’s spiritual journeys?
I’m surprised how often contemporary composers choose ancient or classical texts for their works. The other month, I got an invite to a contemporary Canadian opera about Isis and Osiris. (Not to mention the recent Pyramus and Thisbe, really wonderful and new musically but textually a bit of a road well travelled.)
Very open to persuasion otherwise, but the libretto doesn’t grab at first sight.
All the best,
On the same day, Amanda emailed me back. From her response:
Hi Lydia,
I completely understand your stance and initially shared it when the libretto concept was presented to me. As an agnostic, I decided to be open to it, since there need not be one way to read a text. Upon reading the libretto and sitting with it, it became undeniable to me that this is not a story about a man and his spiritual struggle, but instead about any person’s journey toward self-awareness and self-acceptance. This can be a very troubling task for anyone but especially for someone who has dedicated his or her life to a specific religious teaching.
Sexuality is a highly policed concept, especially within religious confines. As someone raised Catholic, I can certainly speak to the restrictions and guilt placed on my peers and I due to the moralization of sexuality. That said, although our protagonist is navigating himself within his faith, this [opera] is one that most of us can relate to. There are very few people in this world whose self-concept is completely unaffected by social factors. When we disrupt these self-concepts, we have to go through a process of self-discovery all over again – sometimes this is a reluctant process and other times quite thoughtful. In l’homme et le ciel, we watch Hermas’ battling self-denial… Although the [original] parable tells a story of inevitable sin, we will be telling a story of inevitable humanity.

I hope this helps to clarify the production for you. Our goal is truly to make sure the production can speak to all people, regardless of gender or beliefs.
Best regards,
This sounds much better, right? It’s hard to describe concisely a musical work. Sometimes the description won’t do it justice. Thanks go to Amanda for being open to conversation. Here’s a clip with a bit of Scime’s music:
L’homme et le ciel premieres at the Music Gallery on December 3:

Turner and Music at the AGO

Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842) by Joseph Mallord William Turner

J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free, occupying the second floor of the AGO till January 31, is an exhibition of Turner’s later works. It’s Turner at his least ‘realist’ and most experimental, pushing the boundaries of the form this way and that. What’s really new at the AGO, however, is the musical soirees programmed alongside and presented each Friday to the audience that happens to be in the gallery during the AGO Friday Nights extended hours. The music is meant to relate to the exhibition in some way–it’s up to the programmer to establish the connection. One of those pieces is always to be a work especially commissioned for the occasion.

Tapestry’s Artistic Director Michael Mori is the first music programmer of the November series. He chose an interesting mix of literally and indirectly Turner-related pieces, first half of which is piano only (Adam Sherkin) and second more of a Liederabend (with mezzo Marion Newman). The commissioned works concluded the concert, the atmospheric “Shade and Darkness” and “Light and Colour” composed by Adam Sherkin and inspired by some of the Turner paintings exhibited.

In Part I, Sherkin played Liszt’s “Orage” (1848) and “La lugubre gondola I” (1882), Beethoven’s Bagatelle Op. 126 (1824), a piano quickie by John Adams, “China Gates” (1978), and Sherkin’s own “The Fire Maker” (2013). The acoustics of the Walker Court dispersed the sound and did not entirely do justice to the evident drive and focus of Sherkin’s playing. People are also bound to mill about, clink glasses and drop programs, but the informality and the extraneous sounds soon enough became a legit part of the experience. As the available chairs quickly filled up, people sat on the stairs, and the un-concert-like seating arrangements abetted an intimate atmosphere.

The sound got much better once the mezzo started singing: Marion Newman rocked the place with her powerful voice and cabaret cheekiness. After Schubert’s sedate “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (1814), the gear switched to flirtatious with Carmen’s “Habanera” (1875) and settled down on poignant with Dido’s Lament. The bright and pretty “Where Corals Lie” from Elgar’s Sea Pictures concluded the historical part of the concert, while Sherkin’s commission concluded the evening.

The program repeats November 20 and 27, 7:30, Walker Court at the AGO. Definitely worth experiencing after a proper visit with Mr. Turner upstairs.

CASP, gasp!

CASP started its concert series auspiciously last night at the Extension Room, with the pieces by three living composers (two Canadian and one American) and a mini-lieder cycle by Strauss. The common (broad) theme was women in extreme situations.

“The Living Spectacle” (2015) by Erik Ross, the three-song cycle based on Baudelaire’s poems (tr. Roy Campbell), was performed by soprano Ambur Braid and Steven Philcox at the piano. The songs vary in tone and evoke different moods. “The Death of Lovers” is a vast and bright piece that beautifully straddles sadness and serenity, never for a moment giving up one for the other. The soundscape of “The Evil Monk” is a more familiar Goth-ish territory, lower on the stave and with more dramatic accents, while “The Death of Artists” has an irresistible piano undercurrent similar to Michael Nyman’s Piano score. We all knew that Ambur Braid had splendid highs, but what perhaps we don’t get to hear as often is how attractive and meaty her lower register is. The songs showed what a fabulous chiaroscuro voice she is. Somebody cast her in some Verdi, stat.

She also sang Libby Larsen’s to me new and astounding “Try Me, Good King: Last Words of the Wives of Henry VIII” (2000).  Normally, the Tudor-cultural industry and the royal family marriages are low on my list of interests, but Larsen researched and chose the text carefully, and gave each queen music materials to reflect their personal story and historical context. Katherine of Aragon gets a fairly pious song; Boleyn a complex mix of beseeching, anger, resignation; Jane Seymour’s is on the sweet and simple side; Anne of Cleves’s couples its staccato piano and quick rhythm with an almost sarcastic text. Ambur Braid provided tons of useful background info in her funny introduction to how each of the wives hooked up with Henry (“I nerd out… Bear with me”), but mood changed from comedic to dramatic when she started singing. She voiced each queen with unreserved commitment and compassion—it was probably the emotional peak of the evening. Powerful! Larsen’s excellent cycle found an excellent ambassador.

Carla Huhtanen, the ‘black belt’ of contemporary vocal music (was it Brian Current who said it? It’s true) sang the other half of the program. She was tone perfect in Strauss’s Three Ophelia Songs (1918), sincere, conflicted, a genuinely lost womanchild. When she wasn’t singing, the piano (Steven Philcox) echoed her competing feelings.

She had even more to do in the staged and choreographed “Sewing the Earthworm” (2012) by Brian Harman, to the poetry by David James Brock. The piece is about a woman who has been diagnosed with a neurological disease and is noticing the first signs of physical deterioration. She starts off with her frequent activities—gardening and sewing—but they get disturbed, meddled and finally leak into one another, and an earthworm gets conceptually lost among seams and needles. The final segment shows a mind desperately seeking the thread (of meaning) while being lost in the ‘squirming and slithering’ of her remaining incoherent life impulses. Harman employs the prepared piano in some segments, and the soprano is expected to be humming, moaning and screaming alongside the singing. The repetitions, the unexpected beat changes and the pauses are used to great effect. It’s really an exciting piece, here heightened by the presence of a dancer (Jennifer Nichols) who is the woman’s spirit and who is laid to rest and buried in the soil in the final scene.

The Living Spectacle was commissioned by CASP and Peter Deeb in 2014. Sewing the Earthworm was commissioned by CASP in 2010. For more about CASP and its future concerts, head over here.

Clockwise: Huhtanen, Nichols, Braid and Philcox.
Clockwise: Huhtanen, Nichols, Braid and Philcox.

Mezzo qua, mezzo là, mezzo su, mezzo giù

(l-r) Samantha Pickett, Bruno Roy, Lauren Eberwein, Pascale Spinney, Marjorie Maltais, Eliza Johnson, COC MD Johannes Debus, Emily D’Angelo, COC GM Alexander Neef, Ontario Lieutenant-Governor Hon. Elizabeth Dowdeswell. Photo by Michael Cooper.

Centre Stage, the ensemble studio competition, took place this Tuesday at the FSC in two parts: the private audition before the judging panel, and the public part with the full COC orchestra. I could only make the latter part this year–so my thoughts are about the public performances only.

There were four mezzo finalists, exceptionally, this time, alongside two sopranos and two baritones. The excitement was dampened by the fact that two of the mezzos sang Gounod in the public part of the competition. They are all fine voices with a lot of promise. Pascale Spinney’s “Faites-lui mes aveux” was too short and too cute (not to mention too Gounod) to allow me to form any proper judgment. I see she sang Dido’s Lament in the private audition, which would have been a more exciting choice for the big stage. Mezzo Marjorie Maltais also kept the fireworks for the private audition: “Non piu mesta”, the final aria of Cenerentola. On stage, she sang “Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle” from Gounod’s R&J. It’s a sweet aria that has some dramatic variety and allows the singer to show off her French. What was most appealing about Maltais’ performance is that she was visibly free and playful with it. She was also showing nascent signs of that all-important thing in a singer, a style. I’d really like to see what Maltais and Spinney do with proper roles on stage—perhaps next year we can see the contestants in mini-scenes of duos or trios?

The two mezzos who took the first and the second prize sang in Italian: Emily D’Angelo (“Contro un cor” from Il Barbiere) and Lauren Eberwein (“Parto” from La Clemenza). D’Angelo showcased a flawless coloratura, appealing timbre, and loads of charm. Rosina and Cherubino (she sang “Voi che sapete” in the private audition) however are the safest bet for any light mezzo—each aria already comes with a personality that just needs to be honoured and recreated, rather than invented out of one’s own resources. She is undeniably a remarkable singer already: the choice of arias, however, could have been more daring.

Whereas Lauren Eberwein’s choice definitely was: the second place winner sang Sesto’s “Parto, parto” and in audition Komponist’s “Sein wir wieder gut” from Ariadne. She imbued Sesto’s every line with meaning and compassion, there was no hamming, no illogical arm movement (an all-too frequent occurrence in singing competitions). Dramatically, it doesn’t get better and more stage-ready than this. Musically, more colours could have been added: the voice settled early on into the darker, a bit closed, a bit throaty hue. Perhaps more freedom in inflection was the only thing left to work on.

If there was an award for visual presentation, Eberwein would have won it in a blink: she was gorgeous and smartly composed, the look reminiscent of Tilda Swinton, even showing some edge—as much edge as the COC Ensemble Studio competition allows. (Which is not a lot, alas.) Which brings me to the following question: are the female competitors dressed and styled by a specific person in charge of that sort of thing? D’Angelo and Eberwein wore similar outfits, while Spinney, Maltais and soprano Eliza Johnson had fabric and cuts in common, the body-shaping, tight lace gowns that from afar look like they’ve been crocheted. Men have it easier, of course—they all sing in the black-tie uniform and nobody is distracted by what they wear. I wish women too had a neutral clothing option that would set them on relatively equal footing visually in competitions.

But that’s an old topic and by-the-bye and let’s put it aside for now.

What I wanted to end with is my personal favourite of the night. Amid the embarrassment of the mezzo riches, I found myself moved the most by a soprano. I know! Inexcusable and inexplicable to this mezzo maniac. Eliza Johnson’s “Caro nome” had that special mix of technical mastery and emotional oomph that only best performances have—control and vulnerability, studiousness and rawness. The Ensemble is not in search of a soprano this year, so she was not a favourite to win; her visual presentation was not as slick and her dress wasn’t as flattering (she should ignore whoever dressed her and get her Adele on, a singer she already resembles). But by Jove, there’s a real artist in there. I can’t wait to hear her again.

What about the dudes, you ask — were there any dudes in that competition? No idea, where they?

(l-r) Alexander Neef, Lauren Eberwein, Emily D’Angelo, Eliza Johnson, Bruno Roy, the Hon. Elizabeth Dowdeswell Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, Samantha Pickett, Marjorie Maltais, Zachary Read, Pascale Spinney, Johannes Debus. Photo by Michael Cooper.
Lauren Eberwein (second prize), Emily D’Angelo (first prize), Bruno Roy (third prize), COC Ensemble Competition. Photo by Michael Cooper.

Palpito dell’universo


I might as well come out: La Traviata is—together with Don Carlos—the best thing Verdi ever did. Even though it’s an opera in which the Fallen Woman is tortured, accepts greatest self-sacrifice, and dies so that we the audience, and her torturers on stage, can realize that her moral behaviour is superior to those of the more widely accepted bourgeois pater familias’. Even so. Taken line by line, the libretto by Francesco Maria Piave has poetry, truth-telling and intelligence to burn, and that’s 160 years later. Acts 1 and 3 especially are doing well, the middle act likelier to show its age and melodramatic roots. The “E strano…Sempre libera” in Act 1, in which Violetta probes, rejects, embraces love in turns is a mini-act in itself, every line meaningful, and equally of our time as of Verdi’s. Every line, too, married to music just about perfectly. There are some cadenzas that singers who don’t give it their all can leave appearing illogical but that in the hands of great singers make perfect emotional rollercoaster sense.

In her house debut, Ekaterina Siurina was a fine and correct Violetta, if not entirely commanding or emotionally shattering. I had the impression she was somewhat reserved, keeping quite a bit of herself to herself. The production could not have helped: Arin Arbus’s reduced-traditionalist approach alas did not reduce the volume of the hoop skirts nor the elaborateness of the wigs and the headwear. In “E strano”, Siurina needs to go through the slew of conflicting emotions and criss-cross the stage while wearing a big wig chignon and a tiara, an unnatural constraint to her head in a scene of emotional directness calling for naturalism. She is—and so are we—luckier in the final act where she wears a nightgown and is much freer in her movement and much more expressive. Conductor Marco Guidarini with the COC Orchestra struck a perfect tempo for “Addio del passato”, drawn out, but not too drawn out; melancholy, while still serene; acquiescent, with a tragic tinge of hopefulness.  Considering the opera as a whole, Siurina’s voice had the odd moment of unevenness and disappearance under the orchestra, but was reliable and pretty overall. Joyce El-Khoury is sharing the role and it’ll certainly be worthwhile going again to see what she makes of Violetta.

Act 2 in many ways belongs to the two male protagonists, the tenor and his baritone father, excepting the brief “Amami, Alfredo” farewell by Violetta. Germont the Father visits the two love-doves in their country house, and skilfully blackmails Violetta while seeming to appeal to her compassion. She decides to comply and leave Alfredo upon his request, so Alfredo’s younger sister, “an angel”, could marry her suitor, reportedly reluctant to have anything to do with the family in which the son lives in sin with a former courtesan. As is his wont, Quinn Kelsey was excellent as Giorgio Germont, making the case for the old patriarch by showing his soft spots—Verdi is to blame here, as he gives him some fairly lyrical music amidst the predominantly solemn and menacing colours.

Tenors are the most clueless characters of any nineteenth-century opera, and Alfredo is not only slow on the uptake but bloodless, too—or let’s say, underwritten. There isn’t much to him, but the voice can save the character, and Charles Castronovo does exactly that with his ample and generous tenor, beautiful of tone, consistent, burnished in timbre. Both male protagonists sounded a size bigger than the leading soprano, but they are also not the ones singing practically non-stop for two hours, and don’t have to pace themselves.

Sets (Ricardo Hernandez) and costumes (Cait O’Connor) do the job, and rather well and inoffensively. There is some witty macabre bull puppetry at the party at Flora’s, and some gender-switching in the chorus-led story of the matador. The revelry in Act 1 and Act 2 has subtle accents of Tim Burton around the edges, but the protagonists remain traditionally clad. The final act set is particularly effective, as it lays bare the depth of Violetta’s solitude and her diminished means.

It’s a good production to take an opera novice to, faithful to the letter of the libretto, and probably the crowd-pleaser of the season. Unlike the Rossinis and Bellinis of yesterseasons, however, this crowd-pleaser has Verdi and Piave at the top of their game, and Arin Arbus’s production that, if not exactly adventurous, never for a moment gets tedious or lazy. We should count our blessings wherever we can.

15-16-01-MC-D-1052Photos, both by Michael Cooper, show Charles Castronovo and Ekaterina Siurina. La Traviata continues until November 6: tickets, dates and alternating casts here.

50 ways to misread your lover

Monteverdi: Lamento d’Arianna/Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda; Barbara Monk Feldman: Pyramus and Thisbe, world premiere at the Canadian Opera Company, October 20, 2015. Director Christoper Alden, conductor Johannes Debus, singers Krisztina Szabo, Phillip Addis, Owen McCausland and the COC Orchestra and Chorus. Tickets & calendar.

Pyramus1How to describe Barbara Monk Feldman’s music? (For *it* is absolutely the centrepiece of the COC’s production of the triple bill Pyramus & Thisbe that opened at the FSC on Tuesday.) I have been seeking words to do it justice for two days now, while listening to her recent recording Soft Horizons (New World Records, February 2015) on Rdio and this piece on YT, The Northern Shore. Have a listen:

When it’s tonal, it’s not tunefully, but complicatedly so. If it’s minimalist, it does not rely on repetition and rudimentary formulas. When it’s Feldman, it is Feldman with a human face. (Let me explain this flippancy. I’ve heard Morton Feldman’s “For Bunita Marcus” performed by Marc-André Hamelin last year and was struggling to stay interested. Any of Barbara Monk Feldman’s pieces, by contrast, keep me involved and deepen the focus. Never a dull moment—and this includes the silences.) If it’s atmospheric à la Saariaho, it’s generous to the listener, never blanketing with a single colour, always engaging you with unexpected turns, instrumental accents, extended techniques, micro-tones and slides down the pitch akin to electronic music. In short, although we can compare it to this or that style or composer, BMF’s is a musical language apart, with a personality all of its own.

Add to this the layer of human voices, treated (especially the chorus) much in the same way, as a palette for nonfigurative, nonlinear expression—BFM acknowledges visual arts among her main influences–and you’ll get closer to what Pyramus and Thisbe sounds like. She composed the libretto too—out of very disparate bits of text by different authors from different eras. The story of forbidden love, first told in Ovid and reworked over the centuries, involves two lovers who communicate through a crack in the wall that divides the households. When they finally have a chance to meet, Thisbe arrives early to the agreed spot where, instead of Pyramus, she comes across a roaring lioness. Her veil gets caught in lioness’ teeth, but the beast spares her. Pyramus also crosses paths with the lioness and presumes Thisbe was murdered by the animal. He dies by his own hand, and Thisbe follows suit after she finds him dead.

It would be a thoroughly absurd story if followed literally, and BMF doesn’t; she chops it up and re-creates it rather cubistically, as a collage of psychological intensities shared among the two singers and the silent observer/narrator/reader. She is particularly interested in the figure of the lioness—is it desire itself? what is it?—and the wall of miscommunication.

Director Christopher Alden even more so, since he made the Wall the alpha and omega of the production. The panels here are painted in the Rothko style and they are gorgeous to look at and produce a calming effect, but my favourite Chris Alden is the busy Chris Alden, and I kept wondering what a busier, more daring production of this piece would have looked like. (Compare, for example, the static L’Amour de loin by Peter Sellars with the very busy, theatrical production of the same work by Daniele Finzi-Pasca.) In this pared-down, Alden-going-Bob-Wilson-on-us version, the three soloists interact only musically, never physically, with each other and with the chorus that is permanently positioned at the foot of the Rothko panel behind them.

It would also have been very useful to have the libretto handy somewhere in the printed program. Surtitles are not conducive to deep reading, let alone re-reading, and although they were mostly in English, switching to German poetry only in latter parts, they are from several different sources and it would have been fascinating to study how, say, Faulkner as opposed to St. John of the Cross as opposed to Rilke, interacted with particular musical material. The words “Pyramus” and “Thisbe” never appear, as far as I can tell, and * The work could have been given a completely different title, no great loss.

The orchestra was precise and committed under Johannes Debus, breathing as one. Debus himself played the harpsichord in the Monteverdi, and as part of the continuo that included a cello, a bass and a period instrument, theorbo (strummed by the La Nef, Les Violons du Roy and Apollo’s Fire regular, Sylvain Bergeron). The aria “Ariadne’s Lament” opens the proceedings, with a tremendous amount of stillness. It’s minutes of nothing happening while Krisztina Szabó, stage left, sings of betrayed love. The second part, “The battle between Tancredi and Clorinda” is a little more dynamic, with Szabo and Phillip Addis getting into a gentle lovers’ tussle while the narrator (the outrageously good recent Ensemble Studio graduate, tenor Owen McCausland) tells of sword fights and blood spilling, here only metaphorical. Monteverdi’s music is visceral enough, but more could have been done with the staging. It’s not entirely clear why Monteverdi’s shorts were paired with Monk Feldman here—and it could have been any number of one-acters or song cycles or quasi-oratorios by people like Schubert, Schumann or even Strauss or Mahler. Yes, Monteverdi is always good news. However, for this particular pairing, there are other composers who would have been equally good news and would have communicated with BMF’s work in interesting ways.

Would a smaller theatre have been a better setting for an intimate production full of subtle cinematic, non-operatic acting? Very likely. And as the Monteverdi parts were coming to conclusion, I was ready to accept the fact that I would end up appreciating the ideas behind the triple bill without actually being moved by it in any memorable way. But then BMF’s music took over and changed everything–it is the absolute star of the production. The triple bill brought BMF’s music to the COC stage and—fingers crossed—into the classical music-listening mainstream. For that, I am grateful. For that, mission more than accomplished. May this production travel widely, so many others too can find themselves under the spell of BMF’s gossamer magic.

* Correction: They are uttered twice, I’m told by a more careful listener. Pyramus and Thisbe are the first two lines of the libretto, sung by the chorus. In one other line, Thisbe addresses Pyramus by his name.

Photos by Gary Beechey, Canadian Opera Company. Top: Krisztina Szabo, Phillip Addis, Owen McCausland. Bottom: Szabo, Addis and the COC Chorus.


The Human Passions

The 15-16 season opener The Human Passions with Tafelmusik under the returning guest director Rodolfo Richter was a good mix: a Francesco Maria Veracini overture in four movements, two Handel arias for the mezzo / castrato (a Sesto aria from Giulio Cesare, “L’angue offeso mai riposa” and the now legendary “Scherza infida” from Ariodante), two Vivaldi arias plus a Vivaldi Concerto for bassoon, and the centrepiece, Bach’s Concerto for harpsichord D Minor transcribed and rearranged for the violin.

The Bach concerto comes with a history—Bach wrote it for the harpsichord by re-using the first two movements of this cantata, and the first movement of this one that only survives as a reconstruction. Richter heard this piece as a child and loved it since, and for this occasion transcribed it for his own instrument, while emboldening the woodwinds with three oboes and a bassoon. Violin and harpsichord are two very different sounds, and it was delightful trying to parallel-listen and guess, especially in the long notes and legato transitions of the violin, the sound of the short, crisp, staccato-y harpsichord. Imagine that the solo instrument here is the violin, and you’ll get the idea:

Another highlight last night was the concerto on the (period) bassoon, with Dominic Teresi as the soloist. It’s an unusual sound to associate with Vivaldi—who composed a whole lot of bassoon concertos in his lifetime, but they’re not nearly as frequently performed today as his violin concertos. The melismas and the semiquavers must be difficult as hell to play on this instrument, and I suppose part of the excitement in live performance is not being able to guess the type of sound that’s coming next. Period bassoon’s is not a beautiful sound, but it’s odd and appealing in its oddness. This was a very welcome diversion in a string-heavy concert.

Among the vocal pieces with the young light mezzo Mireille Lebel, the standout was “Scherza infida”. As I’m not a massive Vivaldi fan, “Gelida in ogni vena” from Farnace is for me a mannerisms trap (like so). “L’angue offeso mai riposa” from Handel’s Cesare is a rather humdrum Sesto aria (take Otter over JDiddy). Any number of other mezzo arias or cantata bits could have been chosen from Vivaldi–hey, “Cessate, omai cessate” is passionate enough–and Handel. But “Scherza infida” was a superlative choice. Though frequently performed and recorded around the world, it’s still rarely heard in Toronto, and the ensemble and the singer did it justice. The fine-tuning, the subtle changes of mood between the instruments and the voice, and the attention to the text were all excellent. Lebel started too dramatic but settled down into the right mode for this aria that is more of resignation than of fury. We lucked out with the da capo too, which was well-judged—and da capo ornaments, it turns out, were all entirely improvised.

The Trinity-St Paul is much more comfortable now with the new seats, so definitely worth a go. Repeat performances on Sep 17, 18, 19 and 20.

Minoriten Konvent

MinoritenKonventI can’t get over how good this CD is. I stumbled on it via Stephanie Paulet‘s (inactive) Twitter account, found it on Rdio in its entirety and haven’t been able to leave the computer since.

It’s a selection of late seventeenth-century sonatas for violin and organ from the Habsburg and German lands. The only composer (remotely) known to most of us will be Biber.

Paulet is Insula Orchestra‘s Concertmaster and I’ve only ever heard her play within the orchestra and orchestral solos, never in duos or a chamber ensemble. Elisabeth Geiger is at the organ.

Two YT clips that’ll give you an idea.