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.

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Herheim’s Hoffmann, or sexual difference in three costumes

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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.

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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

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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.

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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!”

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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.

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

How the book came about.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dame pique will be streamed on Opera Platform on June 21

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Fledermaus at the Bar Opera Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last performance tonight — tickets here.

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

 

Some thoughts on comping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ambur Braid sings Verdi

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

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

(Click photo to magnify)
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