Das Lied ohne Erde, and similar experiences

What do you call a Das Lied von der Erde with inaudible soloists? Das Lied ohne Erde.

Sorry, could never resist a bad joke.

I am also trying to cheer myself up after a Das Lied von der Erde with Michael Schade and Susan Platts, neither of whom had a voice big and flexible enough to deliver the songs comfortably.  Neither was audible in anything a bit louder, anything with brass or in any of the tutti. When the orchestra thins out and voices are paired with a small group or one other instrument, then and only then the verses were being heard.

Luckily, some chunks of Der Abschied are chamber-like, so there was at least that. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra under Peter Oundjian saved (some of) the day, because the musicians came through and gave a solid read of this Mahler masterwork. But trying to listen to your favourite song cycle with singers under duress is not an experience I would recommend to anybody.

There was also world premiere on the program, a song cycle by Howard Shore to the words (an ode to nature) by Elizabeth Cotnoir. That was a snooze, I’m sorry to report, a musically static New Age-y set of poems about the plants, animals and “ancestors”.

It’s rare that I get out of a concert having disliked almost everything on the program (but a hat tip to the TSO). Forgive my grumpiness. I hate writing bad reviews, so I’ll leave it at this.

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Satie on marimba, an androgynous dancer & sophisticated pop

One week late (due to technical difficulties at The Wholenote blog, where this appears originally), here are my thoughts about Against the Grain’s pairing up with Kyrie Kristmanson. ‘Twas good.

A scene from Reverie at Alliance Francaise, directed by Amanda Smith. Photo by Jonathan Russell MacArthur / Against the Grain Theatre

Who knew that an album launch could become a unique theatrical experience? Yes, all right, the stars of pop music with mega-budgets and production companies do, but experimental mixed genre pop singers and small opera production companies don’t usually seek each other out for projects. Singer Kyrie Kristmanson invited the team of Against the Grain Theatre to create a theatrical component to the Canadian launch of her songs from Modern Ruin, and Friday night’s delightful do “Une rêverie musicale,” at the small theatre space at the Alliance Française, was the result.

Amanda Smith directed the first act. The little fantasy with a dancer (Mary-Dora Bloch-Hansen, in her own choreography) and a baritone (Adam Harris) had few props – some chairs covered with shiny metallic paper and some balloons. Music was a combination of purely instrumental and vocal, mostly French except for a bit near the end from Philip Glass’ Glassworks. It all sounded like one atmospheric piece thanks to the instrument that carried it all, marimba (Nathan Petitpas). Satie’s Gymnopedie 1 started the proceedings, and we got to meet the androgynous dancer (with glorious face make-up) first. The baritone entered as a late audience member and joined her onstage. Their interaction had, refreshingly, nothing to do with a potential seduction or couple formation. They were, more imaginatively, like two creatures from different planets trying to communicate through play.

Petitpas also played Satie’s Gnossiennes 2, 3 and 5, and accompanied Harris in Poulenc’s Hôtel and the final Après un rêve by Fauré, which I’ve never before heard in baritone register. A lot of sopranos perform this song, but it’s obvious to me now that it’s more appealing in a lower voice. Marimba added a dream-like quality.

It’s how opera as an art form began, really – as an intermedio between something else, between the acts of a theatre play for example. “Une rêverie” reminded us that it can still work perfectly fine like that – in this case, as an album launch with an operatic interlude of its own.

The second half of the show was Kyrie Kristmanson’s set. Kyrie Kristmanson is a new artist to me, but I’m glad I discovered her. The labels “folk” or “pop” or “baroque” don’t quite do her justice. Friday night she performed a set with the amplified Warhol Dervish string quartet. Among her singer-songwriter interests are recomposing and arranging what’s left of the songs of the trobairitz, the Occitan female version of the troubadours, and some of the songs in the program did have a distant medieval musical ring to them. Mostly the numbers they performed were musically more complex than medieval music, and more complex than any of the stuff performed by folk or pop or cabaret musicians. Few songs had a predictable danceable beat prevalent in pop concoctions. At first I thought I had finally found a Canadian version of what Rosemary Standley does in her baroque/folk work, but the music that Kyrie and the Warhol Dervish quartet play is more contemporary instrumental, with none of the simple and immediate appeal of pop songs. Kudos to them for smuggling in quite a bit of demanding listening into the popular song form and taking the road less travelled but more adventurous.

Kyrie Kristmanson, the Warhol Dervish quartet and artists from Against the Grain Theatre presented “Une rêverie musicale” on Friday, October 13 at Alliance Française, Toronto. Kristmanson’s next concert is at the NAC in Ottawa (October 19), after which she is off to Regina, Montreal and to a festival in France.

Kyrie Kristmanson

Arabella reviewed

[I liked it but didn’t love it, is how I’d sum it up in one sentence. Here’s the review that was just published in the Globe online. What I’d like to add as there wasn’t much space to analyze smaller roles: Michael Brandenburg’s Matteo needs to have more appeal. A better mustache, a less whiney personality? Something. As it is now, it’s not clear why Zdenka would wreck her life for him.]

– Tim Albery’s Arabella –

Erin Wall as Arabella and Tomasz Konieczny as Mandryka in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Arabella, 2017. Photo: Michael Cooper

Arabella is a money story more than a love story, I realize halfway through Tim Albery’s elegant production that opened at the Canadian Opera Company Thursday, and the last of the Strauss-Hofmannsthal creations reveals itself as an unexpectedly sombre enterprise.

Money is its core, and also an escape from a troubled family, as there is no other way to account for the heroine’s decision to marry a rural landowner with a short temper and shifting moods and leave Vienna and everybody she knows for the countryside at the edge of the empire. Much is made in the libretto of the difference between the sophisticated but corrupt metropolis in decline and the moral simplicity of rural life, but Vienna to which the landowner from a far-flung province arrives to search for his bride is a rather civilized place where a woman can date three people at once, or live dressed as a man and date nobody. Once married off to the dark stranger, Arabella will be, as she herself sings in Act 2, obedient as a child.

Albery’s approach is as directorially neutral as they come, with sets in grey, costumes largely white and black in fin-de-siècle tailoring (both by Tobias Hoheisel). He lets the libretto breathe, and lets Arabella be a conflicted story of a frantic search for The One amidst a family solvency crisis. The Waldners are a titled family trying to fend off debtors and marry off Arabella, the reluctant older daughter, when the wealthy but uncouth Count Mandryka of the South Slavic lands arrives. Arabella and Mandryka are not the most logical of matches as they differ in just about everything, and she is after sincerity (or is it his fortune?) while he is struck by her beauty (or is it the insider Viennese glamour he is after?), but they are certain they are meant to be. Arabella’s younger sister, Zdenka, lives as a man as a money-saving measure, but also because she enjoys it – she will rather remain a boy, she tells her choosy sister right at the beginning, than be a woman like her: “proud, coquettish and cold.”

Some resplendent music is given to the sisters in the intimate Act 1 – the conversations, Arabella’s aria Er ist der Richtige für mich and the concluding monologue in which she considers whether to settle for Count Elemer, one of her other suitors. The strings are used to flirt with but promptly unsettle any outpouring of lyricism in Mein Elemer. If there is one certain thing, it’s that the sisters love and protect one other. Zdenka is a peculiar character, gender-defying while also being highly sexual: She is in love with her pal Matteo, who is also one of Arabella’s suitors, and lures him to Arabella’s bedroom by pretending to be her. The resulting confusion – Mandryka has overheard something about another man getting hold of Arabella’s bedroom key – almost wrecks Arabella’s engagements to Mandryka. Almost. After an agonizing Act 3 argument among the principals which wakes up other hotel guests at an ungodly hour, matters get solved. Mandryka trusts Arabella again, she forgives him his distrust and Matteo seems to be finally taking interest in Zdenka.

It’s Erin Wall who gives Arabella coherence and depth amid her contradictions. She is exquisitely melancholy in her first amorous duo with Mandryka in which she foresees the time when she will call him master. There are subtlest hints of regret in her individual farewells with the favourite Viennese suitors, and her request to Mandryka to have one more hour of dancing at the ball before she is his and his only. There is emphatically not to be any dancing with other men from then on. It’s no coincidence that pure spring water works as an important symbol in the opera.

Jane Archibald is a sweet and more-boyish-than-masculine Zdenko. Archibald’s voice, with its bright and secure high notes, easily soars above all the duos and group scenes. Both Wall and Archibald are apt operatic conversationalists in this, Konversationsstück genre and it’s to their and Albery’s credit that parts of Arabella feel like naturalist straight theatre. The COC orchestra under Patrick Lange is nimble in its tempos alongside the goings-on on stage, often sounding like a much lighter orchestra. It’s well-balanced, brass well reined in.

Bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny gives Mandryka the required rough edge and abruptness. His timbre is fairly bright for a baritone, while his vocal heft is Wagnerian, which makes Mandryka stand out from the Viennese crowd. I’m all in favour of South Slavs, imaginary or historical, appearing in Austrian and German opera and operetta, as I’m from that part of the world myself, but I just couldn’t warm up to the man. He easily seduces the elder Waldners, however, with his plain talk and ostentatious spending. There is a darkly comic scene in Act 1 in which he literally opens his wallet for Count Waldner (excellent John Fanning) to help himself with whatever he needs to settle his gambling debt of the day. Strauss distances us from the ugliness of the situation with the cheery melody given to the returning line, “Teschek, bedien dich!” – “Help yourself!” – and by turning Waldner into an overall comic character, but the discomfort lingers on.

Strauss wanted to repeat some of the success of Der Rosenkavalier, but those of us who are fans of Der Rosenkavalier will find it hard to love Arabella, a piece with less dazzling music and fewer dramatic layers. Strauss taunts us a little in Arabella‘s score, too, with Rosenkavalier motifs wiggling their way into the sisters’ conversation about the roses, and those soaring moments when it sounds like one or both sopranos are about to take a turn into some version of the final trio of the Rosenkavalier. Still, there is much to appreciate about Arabella – its knowingness about the ways of the world and the female lot, and that sublime soprano music most of all.

A fine Austrian-Balkan romance

Hello, and good weekend, my dear blog readers.

Head over the Globe to read my article on Tim Albery’s COC-Santa Fe-Minnesota produced Arabella which will open at the COC next week. I look at the politics and geography of Hofmannsthal’s libretto — it concerns me not only as a lover of Strauss-Hofmannsthal collabs but personally as well, as I am South Slav, like Mandryka. South Slavs appear in Austrian and German opera and operetta with some regularity, and I’m all in favour. The Merry Widow, for example, both lampoons and celebrates Montenegrin culture, and I can’t really muster any amount of cultural appropriation outrage (actually these cultural crossings are crucial if humanity is to progress and de-parochialize, but that’s a topic for another post. Cultural theft is also another, and very different topic).

Strauss consulted South Slav folk song sources and gave Mandryka some of the stuff, if of course Straussified and deconstructed. But the text to “I went through the wood” sounded familiar, and after some memory refresher journey through YouTube, I remembered and tracked down the actual song that still exists and is still being performed in various musical arrangements in Montenegro, Serbia and Bosnia. The text is utterly absurd, and perhaps an allegory for proposing or propositioning or getting married:

I went through the wood, I don’t know which one
I met a girl, don’t know whose daughter
I stepped on her foot, don’t know which one
She screamed, no idea why.

which is almost word for word (with one extra line added) what Mandryka says:

Gieng durch einen Wald, weiss nicht durch welchen
Fand ein Mädchen, weiss nicht, wessen Tochter!
Trat ihm auf den Fuss, weiss nicht auf welchen,
fieng es an zu schrein, weiss nicht warum doch:
seht den Wicht, wie der sich denkt die Liebe!

Now, stepping on somebody’s foot is odd, but there’s a slang expression to step on a crazy rock, stati na ludi kamen that means to get married, to get hitched, so maybe it’s connected. I also read in a Balkan folkie forum that in some parts of Serbia this version of the song is usually sung at weddings. (There’s another version of I walked through the wood, in which there’s no stepping on feet but in which the man and the woman come across each other and just know they’re meant to be.)

I think Hofmannsthal and Strauss knew a thing or two about the Balkans. There are clues that Arabella and Mandryka are meant to be, and this song appears as one of those clues, I think. I don’t think it’s there to illustrate how bizarre those “Slavonian” songs are, though that’s a legit surface read too. It’s both a clue, and something that’ll sound absurd to the Viennese.

Another thing also intrigued me. Zdenka (a Slav name, by the way) lives as a man Zdenko because the family can’t afford the dresses, the balls, the accoutrements required to bring another daughter into the high society. This is also what has been happening in some impoverished families in rural, mountainous parts of Montenegro, Dalmatia, Bosnia and Albania. There is no money to raise a daughter, so she is raised as a boy – and will later dress as a man, work as a man, run the farm or the household as a man. In order to be able to live as a man, though, she can never marry — or even date. Did Hofmannsthal know about the Balkan sworn virgins (virdzinas)?  I wouldn’t be surprised. (Croatia and Bosnia don’t have them any more, the last one in Montenegro died recently, but Albania still has a couple of dozen, to the delight of western documentary filmmakers, journalists and novelists.)

 

September in Art Song

A few interesting things coming up in September. In my new The Wholenote article, I go on a bit about the Sept 23 recital (see below), but there will be more concerts of interest. For ex:

10 September 2017, 12 PM: University of Toronto Faculty of Music. World of Music: Mysterious Barricades. A cross-Canada concert in honour of World Suicide Prevention Day. Lorna MacDonald, soprano; Nathalie Paulin, soprano; Monica Whicher, soprano; Russell Braun, baritone; Judy Loman, harp; Carolyn Maule, piano; Tracy Wong, conductor. Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building, University of Toronto, 80 Queen’s Park. 416-408-0208. Free. [I may write about this one.]

29 September 2017 09 8:30 PM: FusionFlamenco. Silvia Temis, voice, Benjamin Barrile, Flamenco guitar, Derek Gray, percussion. Gallery  345, 345 Sorauren Avenue, Toronto. $25/$10, cash only.

19 September 2017, 12:10 PM: Rising Stars Recital. Students from the Glenn Gould School. Nine Sparrows Arts Foundation/Yorkminster Park Baptist Church. Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, 1585 Yonge St. Free; donations welcomed. [Still no info about who is singing and what.]

25 September 2017, 7:30 PM: Canada in Words and Music. Toronto Masque Theatre Salon Series. Shaftesbury Atrium, 21 Shaftesbury Ave. $25.

Now, though, more on the Imperfect Recital – – – – – – – – – –

Lindsay Lalla. Photo credit Marc Betsworth

There are several song events worth your time this month, but the one that stands out will require a trip to upper Parkdale and Gallery 345, an unusually shaped space that’s becoming the recital hub of West Toronto. On the program for “The Imperfect Art Song Recital” (September 23 at 6pm), conceived by the soprano Lindsay Lalla, there is music by two living composers – Toronto’s Cecilia Livingston and Brooklyn-based Christopher Cerrone – as well as Strauss’ Mädchenblumen, an Anne Trulove recitative and aria from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, and a brief musical theatre set with Carousel and Showboat songs.

The imperfect as a recital theme may sound unusual, but it’s a question as old as the arts. It’s also a personal notion that kept Lalla focused on teaching and the vocal health of her students and at a distance from performing and concert stage. “My strong technical focus in my teaching carried over to my singing and I felt almost paralyzed trying to find perfection,” she explained when I asked what the story was behind the title. After years of working on other singers’ voices, the minutiae of their development, health and rehabilitation, the goal of perfection struck Lalla as a little overbearing. What if she created a whole program around the fact that there’s no such thing as perfect singing, a perfect lover, a perfect human?

The theme of imperfection runs loosely – er, imperfectly – through the texts of the pieces on the program. “The Strauss songs compare women to flowers and to me represent ‘old school’ classical music where perfection is an appreciated aesthetic,” she says. Livingston’s songs “explore the theme of an absent lover, and I find it really interesting that absent lovers are always perfect.” The character of Penelope, that mythical perfect wife of antiquity, appears in a Livingston song as well as Lalla’s own drawings (she admits to something of an obsession about Penelope) which will be on display at the gallery along with art by clarinetist Sue Farrow created during rehearsals.

Then there’s the Cerrone song cycle on the poetry of Tao Lin. The 18-minute piece for soprano, clarinet, percussion and piano, I Will Learn to Love a Person, can be found in its entirety on the composer’s website; on first listening it sounded to me like plainchant meets American minimalism, with shades of Ann Southam. Its engagement with text is fascinating – and I don’t use this word lightly. Lin is now primarily known as a novelist – Shoplifting from American Apparel, Taipei, Eeeee eee eeee – but he had published poetry as a young writer and Cerrone made a selection of poems that rang particularly true to his experience. The composer’s own statement highlights Lin’s accuracy about “millennial lives” and Lalla agrees, but this Gen X-er can tell you that Cerrone’s piece, like any good music, speaks to all cohorts. (Some of Lin’s fiction, Shoplifting for example, a novella of young impecunious lives in NYC’s emerging ‘creative classes’ flowing on vegan smoothies, band following, brand savvyness, internet, psychological opaqueness of characters and overall scarcity of explicit feeling will remind of Douglas Copeland, who’s probably an ancient writer to the millennials.) Lin made a selection of his poems available online, and I’d recommend listening to I Will Learn to Love a Person alongside the poem i will learn how to love a person and then i will teach you and then we will know to appreciate fully how they enhance one another.

The first piece by Cerrone that Lalla ever heard was this song cycle, and it impressed immediately. To wit: “It hit me hard!” She decided to do the chamber music version and invited two of her best friends, husband and wife Brian Farrow (percussion) and Sue Farrow (clarinet). The pianist and Lalla’s accompanist in other songs on the program, Tanya Paradowski, happens to be their niece. “We’ve been rehearsing up at their cottage, with the sounds of vibraphone over the lake… I can’t imagine what the neighbours must think.

“Because there is so much repetition on just a few notes, the focus goes to the text,” she says of the inner mechanism of the cycle. “Just like in the recitative of an opera, it’s now about the words, and the emotion behind the words. And the accompanying instrumental part is very repetitive, so you instinctively listen to the words to find out what’s going on. So, over top of this unconventionally textured background (quite an unusual mix of instruments!), you get just words. And they happen to be on notes. I think this is a brilliant way that Cerrone is highlighting the directness of Tao Lin’s text.”

It was actually composer Cecilia Livingston who first recommended Cerrone among a few other composers to Lalla (the two women have known each other from high school). Livingston’s own songs, too, Penelope, Kalypso and Parting, are going to be in the recital. Livingston’s website lists an impressive number of commissions, collaborations and fellowships – including a recent research fellowship at King’s College in London with one of the most interesting Verdian thinkers today, Roger Parker – but also an array of publications and papers both academic and journalistic, including her U of T PhD thesis on “the musical sublime in 20th-century opera, with a particular focus on the connections between the sublime, the grotesque, minimalism and musical silence.” There are also audio files of her work, including a good number of songs. I was eager to ask this vast and curious creative mind about her work.

Cecilia Livingston. Photo credit Kaitlin Moreno

In which art song features prominently, it turns out. “I just finished a commission for the Canadian Art Song Project, which reminded me that art song is one of my favourite things to write, period! It calls for this very strange close reading: scrutiny of a text combined with a huge, bird’s-eye view of its emotional terrain,” Livingston says. “Northrop Frye wrote about this, and he titled his book from Blake: The Double Vision – seeing a text both for what it is, and for what it can be in the imagination. And then also – for a composer – in the musical imagination, in the ear.”

Her three songs in the Imperfect recital explore a style that she describes as “somewhere between art song and torch song. Penelope and Kalypso are both portraits of Homer’s characters, of women who are waiting; both songs have weird, dark middle sections: one is sort-of-aleatoric and one isn’t, and I can see I was working out different solutions.” With Kalypso, Livingston was looking for a new way to write for coloratura soprano and ended up thinking about scat singing and the Harold Arlen songs she loves, like Stormy Weather. “I think Duncan [McFarlane]’s lyrics for Kalypso are one of the most extraordinary texts I’ve ever worked with: beautiful, intricate layers of language; so much that the music can shade and shadow and shape.”

A pianist by training, Livingston composes by singing as she writes: “It helps me build on the natural prosody of the language and makes sure the vocal line is comfortable: that there’s time for breath, that it’s well supported musically, that it sits comfortably in the tessitura, etc. – even when it’s challenging.” The process of finding a text that will lead to a song is more intuitive, harder to pin down. “I’m looking for something that catches my inner ear: an image, mood, the sound of a phrase. When I come across that, I can sort of hear the music for it, and then I know I can work with it. I don’t hear actual music yet, but I can hear the intensification that music can bring. Which sounds slightly bizarre; it’s probably easier to say I get a particular feeling in the pit of my stomach.”

She doesn’t entirely buy the argument that simple, unambitious or bad poetry makes better (because easier) text to set to music. “Look at the riches of Alice Goodman’s libretti, or the ways that Britten illuminated all sorts of texts. If a writer savours language – its sounds and its meanings – then I’m interested.”

Among the larger projects on Livingston’s agenda, there’s a full-length opera in the works for TorQ Percussion Quartet and Opera 5, with the world premiere in Toronto scheduled for the 2018/19 season and a European premiere in 2020. “I’ve admired TorQ Percussion Quartet’s musicianship since we met in 2008, and I wanted to write an opera with them the moment I saw their incredible performance of John Luther Adams’ Strange and Sacred Noise,” says Livingston. “They have a dramatic physicality to their performances that is perfect for contemporary opera.” And Opera 5 produced her first chamber opera: “We built the kind of really supportive friendship that I wish all young composers could have.”

And what does her music feel like to a singer? Let’s let Lindsay Lalla have the last word: “I adore how lyrical and melodic Cecilia’s songs are. I feel that they were written like mini operas, with so much emotion to explore in once piece… One of her musical instructions in the Kalypso (over the introductory coloratura) says: “Ella-Fitzgerald-meets-Chopin, vocalise-meets-scat.” As a singer, I fell in love with her just from that.”

Watch the Kentridge Wozzeck this Sunday

The COC-co-produced Wozzeck (with Salzburg, Met, and Opera Australia) directed by William Kentridge will be streamed on Medici TV this Sunday at 2PM Eastern. Watch it here. Medici will ask you to create a free account with a working email after a couple of minutes, so you might want to do that in advance.

I read somewhere that the Met will have it in 2019, so I doubt we’ll get it in the 18-19 season, but maybe the Met will have it in the Fall of 2019, which leaves a slight possibility that we may get it before NYC. We’ll stay tuned.

Here’s a short Salzburg Fest video with Kentridge talking about his ideas for the production:

 

Vivier’s Kopernikus in rehearsal at Banff

I just attended a rehearsal performance of Claude Vivier’s Kopernikus at Banff Centre for the Arts staged by the AtG’s Joel Ivany and conducted by Topher Mokrzewski and my first impression is ALERT — this is going to be a special thing. The piece runs roughly about an hour and it involves a deceased character named Agni (mezzo Danielle MacMillan) after she braved, as they call it in some operas, le trépas. It’s not a narrative piece and often doesn’t even have sentences–there’s tons of extended techniques for voice, strategic miking of certain singers, some spoken text, and everybody, including the woodwinds and brass dominated orchestra of 7, has movement, costumes, and is part of the drama.

I won’t say too much–Kopernikus is opening on Thursday–except that Ivany brilliantly got rid of what is often read as the mystical and New Age nature of the piece and sketched the world that Agni is joining as a construction site populated by creatures in worker overalls who dialogue with or monologue at Agni. If you’ve read George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, one of the best novels of the last few years, this will bring that book to mind. It’s sort of a bardo, this perpetual construction site, where spirits (and memories, and episodes, and events) tarry.

Music is immersive and highly charged while it on the whole defies sense-making. The characters that nominally appear in the opera (except nobody fussed around making them recognizable, so they actually don’t—though there are occasional clues in the sung text) are Lewis Carroll, Merlin, the Queen of the Night, a blind prophet, an old monk, Tristan, Isolde, Mozart, and Copernicus.

A couple of nice photos courtesy of the fellow rehearsal audience member Isaac Fernandez.

Now if only there’s a way to see this in Toronto after Banff.

Christopher Mokrzewski and Danielle MacMillan et al. during rehearsal for Kopernikus by Claude Vivier.
Danika Loren and Danielle MacMillan in Kopernikus
The team of Kopernikus – Jennifer Taverner on the far right

Opera 5 introducing Ethel Smyth

Alexandra Smither as Mrs. Waters with Jonathan MacArthur and other Pub Crawlers in Opera 5’s The Boatswain’s Mate. Emily Ding Photography

Opera 5’s staging of two one-acts, Fête Galante and The Boatswain’s Mate, is probably Ethel Smyth’s (1858–1944) operatic debut in Toronto. The general and artistic directors of the company Rachel Krehm and Aria Umezawa as well as the director Jessica Derventzis and conductor Evan Mitchell deserve kudos for shedding light on this unexplored corner of the early twentieth century creation. Both librettos show their age, though — former is based on a story by Maurice Baring (read it here), and latter is adopted from a story by W.W. Jacobs (which in turn you can read here). Smyth adapted both. Umezawa rewrote the dialogues from the Mate libretto and that, together with a filmic, naturalistic direction of an ensemble of capable young singer-actors who unreservedly advocated for each of the characters salvaged the piece and gave it new life.

Fête Galante was a different story. It’s a fast one acter on betrayal and mistaken identities and courting outside your marital unit. There are characters in it called the King and the Queen as well as characters from commedia dell’arte. It’s more oneiric and fantastical than naturalistic, yet it mostly got a naturalistic directorial treatment. Its absurd and comedic elements probably needed drawing out. As your regular old naturalistic narrative, it didn’t quite tick. Perhaps if it was treated as akin to an opera like, say, Pelléas, the engine might have revved up.

It was, luckily, followed by the Mate which straight from scene one blossomed into a full-blown comedic opera–in this case, in the chamber orchestra score reduction obtained, as Mitchell explains in the program, thanks to Retrospect Opera. The story is of a pub owner Mrs. Waters (Alexandra Smither), her persistent suitor and customer Harry (Asitha Tennekoon), and a random pub goer Ned (Jeremy Ludwig) who’s recruited by Harry to pretend to be a burglar so Harry can fight him off and “save” Mrs. Waters. In a large-ish cast of young singers, there wasn’t a single weak link – a rare occurrence. A group of drunk revelers barged into the pub half-way into the proceedings, and everything was sung and done with impeccable timing and just the right kind of rowdiness and noise (the revelers were Kevin Myers, Alan MacDonald, Jean-Philippe McClish, Elizabeth Polese, Eugenia Dermentzis and Michael Dickey, who plays Mrs. Waters’ waitress on staff). If I had to pick a dramatic standout among the principals, it would be tenor Asitha Tennekoon who has a gift for physical comedy rarely found among opera singers. His smooth tenor all the while never wavered. Alexandra Smither was equally impressive — vocally as well as in her acting: here is a singer who is already in possession of a fully developed instrument and undeniable charisma. Jeremy Ludwig as Ned too struck the right note with his character and while maintaining the required supply of goofiness never fell into caricature.

Mrs. Waters discovers the awkward “burglar” Ned in her pub before the plot by the two men could even hatch and after Ned confesses everything, they concoct a plan on their own for Harry (fast asleep on guard by the cat flap). She leads Harry to believe that she had killed the house intruder with a baseball bat, which gives the tenor even more room to exercise his comedic gifts. A policeman gets involved and after the resolution of the farce, and some additional flirting, Mrs. Waters agrees to see Ned again. She’s again alone in her inn when waitress Mary Ann arrives and the two sit down to talk over what happened since they last saw each other. Curtain.

Ethel Smyth’s music in the Mate is certainly not along the lines of Puccini–it’s not particularly melodic or emotional except when she’s quoting, her own suffragette anthem The March of Women composed for the Women’s Social and Political Union, for example, or folk melodies–but it’s neither along the lines of the Second Viennese School either. It’s tonal, if ruggedly so, often chromatic and unrepetitive and eager to experiment with the pairing of instrument and voice and with instrumental solos. The transition between spoken and sung text worked well.

And while Smyth herself had a fascinating life, the libretto for the Mate, which turns the smart female protagonist soup-brained and romantically interested in a hapless stranger who broke into her house, resorts to some implausible old tropes on women. Consent is important throughout, which I suppose is new–and having the romantic couple in the making not romance each other immediately, but agree to meet and get to know each other later (Mrs. Waters has a business to run after all) is a nice twist. But imagine if Smyth had worked with a libretto that actually reflected at least some of her own life: defied her militaristic father’s wishes, did what she wanted to do; doggedly pursued music education in UK and Europe against all odds; as a young person met and worked with Brahms; spent two months in jail after being arrested for breaking a window at a suffragist protest; had affairs with women; was friends with Virginia Woolf; worked as a nurse during World War 1; became a successful writer later in life.

But I think we are still waiting for operas with female characters of even remotely that kind of scope. A lot of the contemporary composers still love the victimized or dead woman in opera, and even if you’re a singer specializing in contemporary music, you’re probably still likelier to sing Ophelia than a woman with any kind of agency. So it’s a question that still lingers. While Smyth put some of her politics in other musical forms–in choral piece titled 1910, for ex, which her obit describes as the “hullabaloo of a Parliament Square riot”–in choosing her operatic librettos she resorted to the paths more travelled. Mrs. Waters has rare pizzazz, but up to a point. We’ll relish it up to that point.

Smyth’s opus, meanwhile, remains of interest and worth exploring in the twenty-first century. Thanks Opera 5 for the discovery.

 

From Opera 5’s production of The Boatswain’s Mate. L-r: Jean-Philippe McClish (Policeman), Jeremy Ludwig (Ned Travers), Asitha Tennekoon (Harry Benn), Alexandra Smith (Mrs. Waters). Emily Ding Photography
Oepra 5’s production of Fete Galante. L-r: Eugenia Dermentzis (The Queen), Alexandra Smither (Puppet). Jonathan MacArthur (Harlequin), Philippe McClish (The King), Jeremy Ludwig (Puppet). Emily Ding Photography

Anna & Anna in elegant minimalism

Jennifer McNichols (centre), Wallis Giunta. Photo by Jag Gundu

Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht’s The Seven Deadly Sins is a strange creature. A 40 minute long communist morality play in the form of a ballet with singing to a full orchestra was never going to be easy to stage.  To this day it’s more often recorded than performed, and the TSO programming it and hiring Joel Ivany to stage it–as much as the Roy Thomson Hall allows for any staging–was a fresh and bold move. To quote Nicole Paiement, the 20th and 21st century pieces are more easily accepted by today’s audience if there’s a scenic component added to the mix, and this is probably going to be a growing practice around the presenting of the 20thC works. There’s a good expression in French: mise en espace (while full-on staging is mise en scène), making the most of whatever the available space happens to be to dramatize the performance.  Sometimes a scenic component is added to the originally non-scenic, “pure music” work, and sometimes a thoroughly scenic work is intentionally reduced to a mise en espace. There have been some good cases lately (for example the 2016 Lucio Silla by Rita Cosentino, the precise opposite of Opera Atelier’s approach) and we’ll be seeing more.

Joel Ivany and choreographer Jennifer Nichols, who also danced as Anna II, opted for what could be described as elegant minimalism in this Sins production. The TSO conducted by Peter Oundjian was moved to the back of the stage, the front stage covered by the black, dancer-friendly flooring. Two video screens above the orchestra showed both the supertitles and, in interludes between the themed numbers, pre-recorded black-and-white videos of the two principals, Anna I (Wallis Giunta) and Anna II (Nichols). Videos are simple–close ups, mirroring and merging of the two faces, a female figure walking on the train tracks at the beginning and the end. Nichols and Giunta on stage wear similar dresses and hair (Nichols had to dance and be carried around the stage while wearing a long Giunta-lookalike wig). Movement-wise, Nichols opted for fairly modern choreography delivered however en pointe: an interesting choice, perhaps meant to add to the constraints that the character of Anna II is under in the piece.

The Seven Deadly Sins is probably the most overtly feminist thing that Weill and Brecht created together, which is not to say that it’s an uncomplicated call to arms for the cause of sisterhood. Anna I and II are two sides of the same character that is sent across the mythical Weill-Brecht America (always in the primitive accumulation of capital stage, ever the Wild West) in pursuit of success and money and the American Dream business. There’s an all-male chorus, the “family” that comments on the action and eggs her on. They’re also the ones naming Anna II’s actions as sins while also benefiting from them and expecting to benefit even more in the future.

The split Anna character is an intriguing interpretive challenge. Only Anna II goes places, does things, commits sins, lives the impure, while the singing, analyzing Anna II comments, justifies, shrugs off. It’s possible that Anna I-II is an image of woman’s life under patriarchal capitalism: we will be asked to sacrifice so others could benefit, for which we will be condemned too (Anna II); we will see clearly that this is the case and will be able to do nothing about it and may even become articulate in the oppressive vernacular (Anna I, but also the Mother of the chorus).

Ivany, I think wisely, leaves it to the viewer to wrangle these questions and clears up and simplifies the proceedings as much as possible. The male chorus sings from the aisles and the wings as well as on stage, and is given dance-like movements by Nichols to great effect. They’re all dressed in black and white with suspenders and fedoras as the only accents (costumes are by Krista Dowson). Isaiah Bell (Father), Owen McCausland (Brother), Geoffrey Sirett (Brother) and Stephen Hegedus (Mother) sounded like a madrigalist ensemble at times, they were that polished and multi-coloured. All singers, including Giunta, were miked, which was surprising to hear at first, but kinda understandable later on: a noisy orchestra, RTH acoustics, lots of movement for singers and small- to medium-size voices all around is a combination begging for voice microphones.

Music was of the familiar Weill-Brecht sort, noisy, brassy and clangy that plays with then twists and abandons anything smacking of lyricism. The Sins were part of the TSO’s Decades project, which joins together wildly disparate works from the shared decade in the same concert. It was premiered in 1930s, as was Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (TSO’s was a subtle take on the old hit) and Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (utterly sui generis,  wouldn’t  sound out of place at the New Creations Festival). It worked great in this case: the three works couldn’t have been more different, yet the program cohered.

Peter Oundjian, Wallis Giunta and Jennifer Nichols. Photo Jag Gundu