The year in review

Some of the good things about 2017:

In Concert

Sarah Connolly with Chicago SO. Photo by Kristin Jensen.

Sarah Connolly sings Das Lied von der Erde with Chicago Symphony Orchestra, c. James Conlon. I went to Chicago for this; sadly the TSO’s own Erde was a wreck this year.

Adrianne Pieczonka sings Winterreise, Rachel Andrist @ piano

Soundstreams presents R. Murray Schafer’s Odditorium

Canadian Art Song Project + 21C Music Festival: the all-Ana Sokolovic recital with Danika Loren, Emily d’Angelo, etc

Mozart’s Piano – Kristian Bezuidenhout & Tafelmusik.

Opera

Vivier’s Kopernikus in Banff, Against the Grain & Banff Centre

Met in HD: Der Rosenkavalier (dir Carsen, with Fleming, Garanca, etc)

Arabella at the COC

Toronto Consort’s Helen of Troy (aka Cavalli’s Elena) – in concert.

Theatre

The Youth-Elders Project @ Buddies in Bad Times. Much of this was unscripted: half participants in their twenties, half past their sixties, all bent, some homosexual, some queer (and there is a generational divide with terminology too), talk about their lives and experiences.

What Linda Said by Priscila Uppal @ Factory Theatre. Late Linda Griffiths appears to her friend (based on Uppal) who is now herself sick and undergoing treatment for cancer. They talk about life, love, writing, dying.

Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools by Evalyn Parry & Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory @ Buddies. Second half was as close as I ever came to witnessing a shamanic ritual. Laakkuluk donned an animist persona/mask and went straight into the audience. Crawled over and between the rows, ground against people, grabbed, handled, dry-humped. All kinds of boundaries got crossed. It was fantastic.

Unholy by Diane Flacks, Buddies & Nightwood Theatre. A panel of four women (an Orthodox Jew, a Muslim, an atheist and a Catholic nun) debate whether women should abandon religion altogether. Further complications ensue after the atheist and the Muslim fall for each other.

Young Marx via National Theatre Live (Yonge-Bloor Cineplex). Young Marx lives in London, throws (and throws off) communist meetings, has no money, has a wealthy loyal friend in Engels, one wife, one servant-lover, many children, police always on his tail for one reason or another. A laugh out loud farce and the best piece of left propaganda (I mean this as a compliment) I’ve seen in performing arts in a long time.

The Bakkhai at Stratford Festival on the other hand disappointed – chiefly due to music which was sugary musical theatre fare.

Media arts

Fire at Sea, an Italian documentary about the locals of the southernmost Italian island Lampedusa and the African migrants making the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean into the EU.

Angry Inuk, a Canadian documentary about a handful of seal hunters in Nunavut who are barely making ends meet vs. the PR-savvy, big budget environmentalist organizations campaigning against seal hunting.

The Lives of Thérèse, a French doc about feminist activist Thérèse Clerc. Here’s a clip in which she tries to explain to her granddaughter that lesbianism is the sexual arm of feminist politics, and that heterosexuality is like sleeping with the occupier.

Dish: Women, Waitressing and the Art of Service, a Maya Gallus doc about women around the world who wait tables.

Agnes Varda & DJ: Faces, Places. Outstanding docu-fiction reminding us that there is no such thing as insignificant lives.

Sieranevada, a Romanian feature film about a Bucharest family preparing for the wake for its deceased patriarch. From the director of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.

Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves, a Quebec feature film which walks the esthetic and political avant garde side of the street. It imagines a radical left splinter group coming out of the Quebec anti-tuition fee protests from a couple of years ago which continues the fight in a more direct action mode (destruction of property, theft, and some violence against humans too). Refreshing, bizarre, Godard-ian, frustrating, but provocative and smart for its entire three hours. The movie that shifts the treatment of politics in Quebec’s engaged art – after this film, Robert Lepage’s play-pic 887 at CanStage, which still circles around the October unrest and the Quiet Revolution, seems dated.

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The Messiah, liberated

Karina Gauvin, Krisztina Szabó, Frédéric Antoun, Joshua Hopkins, Matthew Halls, TMC, TSO. Photo by Jag Gundu/TSO

British conductor Matthew Halls was unknown to me until last night, but I’ll be following his career from now on with interest since he liberated Toronto’s biggest Messiah from Andrew Davis’ vision and made it exciting again. Thanks also go to those who booked Halls for this run of The Messiah concerts in December (there are four left to go) and to whoever decided–I expect it was Halls himself–to move the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir from the crescent of the back balcony down to the concert stage. Five rows of about 28 singers each are a concentrated, powerful force. The inner intricacies of the sound sculpting among the voices are much more easy to follow too, and the contrasts are easier to spot. After this experience, I can’t see why any conductor would put the choir anywhere but on stage.

Halls also reduced the orchestra to the Mozart era size and skipped all the extraneous instruments that Davis is so fond of. The choir never overpowered the instruments, however. Balance was good throughout. There was the odd moment when this or that soloist was being covered by the orchestra, but they didn’t last long and the scale settled back into balance quickly.

There was opera and mélodies in Karina Gauvin’s solo arias. I don’t think Come unto Him and How beautiful are the feet ever sounded that lush and sensuous–more like Les chansons de Bilitis than religious worship, but you didn’t see me objecting for one second. Mezzo Krisztina Szabo was most impressive in He was despised, which more than made up for the occasional drops in volume power earlier in the oratorio. Tenor Frederic Antoun had the volume and coloratura galore, and an unusually dark timbre to boot–or did I get used to the thinned out near-falsetto hautes contres tenors that keep being asked to sing this? Another welcome change, in any case. Bari Joshua Hopkins completed this quartet of capable soloists that left nothing to be desired.

An even bigger draw for me have always been the choruses, and I can report that my favourites (And He shall purify, For unto us, His yoke, Behold the Lamb, All we like sheep, He trusted in God, The Lord gave the word, and Amen — ok, just about all by three) have been handled well. Well worked out tempi, nothing bizarre; limpid sopranos, velvety altos, bright tenors and dark but not too heavy as to sound Orthodox church basses were on at all times. Sometimes the middle alto-tenor section get smudged in complex choruses, but none of that here. (Noel Edison is the TMC’s artistic director and I presume he rehearsed the TMC until it was time for the tutti rehearsals.)

Continues today, tomorrow, Friday and Saturday and definitely worth catching.

Handel Unbound

Miriam Khalil, Justin Welsh, Michael Uloth, Danika Lorèn, Topher Mokrzewski (Darryl Block Photography)

Against the Grain’s new Handel concoction, Bound, is still very much a work in progress. Last night, we had a chance to see the first version of the three-year process of developing a production, and the final version may end up being completely reinvented.

The founding idea is good: 7 characters who are confined due to a brush with the immigration law sing Handel arias about their condition. The spoken bits connect the arias – the Stage (voiced by Martha Burns, in a dark far away corner of the COC’s Jackman Studio) interrogates each inmate in a weary and slightly menacing tone through a glitchy microphone.

The Handel aria texts (Cara sposa, Ombra mai fu, Iris hence away and Ah mio cor I did manage to recognize) are discarded and new words written to build the stories for these specific characters. Music is often rearranged as well (Topher Mokrzewski @ piano) – sometimes to the detriment, when the coloraturas are sacrificed, and sometimes the arrangements indeed enrich the song, as when Arabic-inflected singing is added to Miriam Khalil’s character take on Ah mio cor.

The cast of young singers are good actors to one though neither is exactly a fireworks Handelian voice. The vocal side would matter much less if the dramatic core of the piece solidified — which is still not entirely the case. Is the State specifically Canadian, or is it American, or an abstract cross-cultural entity? Is the State meant to be uniformly oppressive? In which case, the individual stories need to be revised and made more specific. In one case, a man was asked about a German relative of his who’s had ties to the Nazi party. Sadly, Nazis are back in the news and I wasn’t entirely sure if the libretto was suggesting that the relatives of Nazis or the Nazis themselves have been in the past or are being today unfairly prosecuted or harassed by association?

Another character is sister of a man who committed I presume one of those white terrorism acts: lots of innocent people are killed, is all I gathered; and the man’s name is Liam, the name which, when sung out in a plaintive aria, sounds almost comical. She is being interrogated, I presume, as is customary to talk to family members of mass murderers? I am not entirely sure that that too is an extremely oppressive act.

Perhaps the main dramatic problem is that the reason why these characters are being interrogated remains unknown? More detail would help clarify the absurdity of the charge – the vagueness doesn’t help. Perhaps Joel Ivany should look at some of the news stories and work them in, with changed names? One of the characters wears a hijab, and is questioned by the State about it – but the exchange just doesn’t sound credible. Since we don’t have all the other information on why she’s being detained, it sounds like she is being given extra hard time because of the hijab? The hijab question is also a bit more complicated than that. If the State was Iranian or Saudi Arabian the woman harassed would be the one without a hijab or niqab. I kept thinking of Zhara Kazemi, who was an Iranian-Canadian photographer apprehended on false charges and beaten to death in a jail in Iran. Might be wise to take a wider look at what some other States are doing as well when it comes to women and how they dress.

Left as vague as this, neither of the character stories actually work. The one thing that is clear is that they are all massively incovenienced. A big crime in Canada, I know… But silliness aside, if the libretto is to stay Canada-specific, the stories should be more specific. A clear cut case that Ivany could have used is toddlers being stopped at border crossings because their names appear on do-not-fly lists, for instance. Or live-in caregivers being denied family sponsorship visas because their children have medical conditions which would be “a burden to Canadian health care system”. Or the live-in care-givers themselves. There is much to be mined from the actual news – no need to invent vague unspecific instances of what we are told is oppression.

This show can be much better. Meet you same place, next year?

Bound continues to Dec 16 and returns next year in a new disguise

Justin Welsh, Danika Lorèn (Darryl Block Photography)

 

Haus Musik: Crossing / Traversée

Patricia Ahern (violin) with Charlotte Nediger (harpsichord) in HausMusik, November 2017. Photo: Haus Musik Twitter account.

I finally got the chance to see one of Tafelmusik’s “alternative” concerts, the November edition of the series known as Haus Musik. It took place at the Great Hall’s Long Boat venue, on Queen and Dovercourt. This is a series of non-traditional chamber-size concerts by Tafelmusicians in venues like night clubs, preceded and followed by a DJ set.

I somehow thought that the concert would be a conversation between electronic and baroque music, but the two stayed safely apart and what we had was a traditional concert (if shorter) alongside a kind of a staging with a dancer, video and, um, curated smell: envelopes with dried lavender were handed to each of the audience member, which connected to some of the shots of lavender fields that we saw in video projections. The DJ Andycapp DJ’d before and probably after (I didn’t hang out for long).

There were no chairs about, hey this is an alternative concert in a club, but people clearly needed them because 20 minutes into the concert much of the audience on the ground level sat on the floor. I don’t think anything will be lost by adding some chairs to the Haus Musik formula? There are no chairs in clubs because people dance in clubs, but there was no opportunity for the audience to dance to baroque here. So: which it is going to be, the chairs or the dancing? that is the question. No chairs and no dancing is the worst combination possible.

The pieces heard were short and well varied – a concert for two violins (Patricia Ahern and Genevieve Gilardeau), a solo piece for the harpsichord (Charlotte Nediger) and another for viola da gamba (Felix Deak), and some pieces that asked for all four musicians. Beside Couperin, Rameau and Marais, two composers who are new to me were played: Jean-Marie Leclair and Louis Constatin.

I feel it would be bitchy and beside the point to “review” this performance and to comment on whether the ensemble sounded under-rehearsed etc. Too, the staging-mit-choreography by Jennifer Nichols wasn’t quite… there. The story unfolding while the music is playing was of two couples, one from the time when the music was composed, one contemporary — and they could be one and the same couple. The contemporary couple has split and we only see the man of the pair (dancer Jack Rennie), struggling with memories or dreams or visions (projected on video; Patrick Hagarty is credited as the filmmaker). There is great potential in this idea of the present, the past and the future disturbing each other’s domains and melding before our eyes, but the thing never really got off the ground. A pre-recorded male voice read a poem in French by “J. Nichols” (Jennifer?) in between the segments, which did not add much to the piece. The props making up the man’s atelier were the familiar scruffy Toronto indie opera no-budget props.

The audience, though, was MUCH younger than one sees in regular Tafelmusik concerts, and the drinks were being carried all around this licensed venue. However, unless tweaked (dancing or chairs?), this kind of a do is not exactly my thing. Especially now that that I live in east end. Dovercourt-Queen is now far west for this autumn cyclist.

Next Haus Musik is scheduled for February 2018.

The Cav does it again

Even though only his La Calisto is now performed with regularity, Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676) was a prolific operatic composer. Elena, one of a handful of his other operas making cross-century comeback, was first revived in 2013 and we are lucky that the Toronto Consort nimbly followed suit and programmed it as their opera-in-concert this season. The printed program adapts the opera’s title as Helen of Troy, but it might have been more accurate to call it Helen Before Troy, as the libretto invents the shenanigans around the kidnapping of the mythical Helen before she was married to the Mycenaean king Menelaus (of Iliad and Odyssey fame), from whom she was later to be abducted by Paris of Troy. The original story of Helen’s marriage to Menelaus is a more sedate affair involving the drawing of straws—attention, I am about to compare the “official” Greek mythology line with its Italian baroque riff, I love my job—and therefore not particularly useful to the early opera. Librettists of Elena Nicolò Minato and Giovanni Faustini needed a much wilder story of how Menelaus and Helen ended up together, so they created one.

Men in dresses are not unheard of in Greco-Roman mythology (see Achilles on Skyros) but there are more to be found in Italian baroque opera. Menelaus of Elena spends most of the time cross-dressed as an extraordinarily muscular Amazon who impresses young Helen with her wrestling prowess and becomes her intimate. Both of them, helpless women that they are, get abducted by Theseus (who also has a yen for Helen) and his sidekick Pirithous (who casts his eye on “Elisa” the Amazon) and are brought to the court of King Creon. There, Creon’s son Menestheus—you guessed it—also falls for Helen, and we learn that Theseus is actually already engaged to Hippolyta, who is one of those low-voiced, no-nonsense, sword-wielding women in the style of the female knight Bradamante of the Italian epic poems on the adventures of Orlando. Intrigues ensue. Helen finally decides that of all the suitors she prefers Menelaus—who finally comes out as a man—and Theseus returns to Hippolyta.

Musically too, Elena is an entertaining hodgepodge of comedic and solemn elements. The required instrumentation can be as small as half a dozen people at most points, one or two melody instruments against the basic continuo. (For a more luxurious sound with a bigger period ensemble, see the 2013 DVD of Elena from Aix-en-Provence with Cappella Mediterranea in the pit.) In the Toronto Consort’s version, Lucas Harris (theorbo), Felix Deak (cello) and Paul Jenkins (harpsichord) made up the continuo, which was joined, as required, by violins (Patricia Ahern and Julia Wedman) or recorders (Alison Melville and Colin Savage). Bud Roach, a one-man show as the court fool Iro, both sang and played baroque guitar.

There are five pants roles inherited from the castrati roles in Elena, and for this fan of pants roles that is not a small thing. TC’s music director and conductor David Fallis honoured all but one: Menelaus is sung by a tenor (Kevin Skelton), while Pirithous, Menestheus, Castor and Pollux were all indeed sung by women—Vicki St. Pierre, Katherine Hill, Emma Hannan and Veronika Anissimova respectively. Kevin Skelton, luckily, has a beautiful and agile tenor voice that made this Menelaus rather a good catch. His cross-dressing was achieved by way of a Wonderwoman apron. Cory Knight’s Theseus was paired with the ever reliable and the velvetiest mezzo of the TC ensemble, Laura Pudwell. That this Hippolyta was slightly older than her betrothed added a welcome May to December (or should I say, Emmanuel Macron-ian?) dimension to the story.

Mezzo Vicki St. Pierre’s pinpoint dexterity with melismas was back in town (the singer now lives and teaches in New Brunswick) for a spirited take on Pirithous. The young Emma Hannan and Veronika Anissimova were an intriguingly girly take on brothers Castor and Pollux, who happen to stop by Creon’s Tegea on their way from capturing the Golden Fleece. Their voices were bright and youthful.

Delicate sopranos are a mainstay of Toronto’s early music scene, which favours l’esprit de corps (those sopranos often play one or more period instruments too) to individual vocal vim. Oftentimes a pretty, light, vibrato-less voice is all one needs for particular pieces; but sometimes I wish the music director looked further from his usual pool of voices. Katherine Hill was somewhat underpowered as Menestheus who needed more vocal heft to come alive. Michele deBoer made a fine if at times pale Helen, the arm wrestling scene with Kevin Skelton notwithstanding.

But no matter: all said and done, this Elena was a big treat. David Fallis’ translation of the libretto, projected in the form of supertitles, added entertaining contemporary touches at many a turn. And when the voices were called to come together, as in the choir of the Argonauts, we were given moments of breath-taking beauty. I kept thinking how wonderful it would be to see this staged (by a company other than Opera Atelier). Directors coming out of Toronto’s independent opera scene—Anna Theodosakis, Aria Umezawa, Amanda Smith, the Applin sisters—your turn.

Review first appeared in the Wholenote online.

Karina Gauvin and Tafelmusik reconvene; good things happen

Karina Gauvin. Photo credit Michael Slobodian

Karina Gauvin and Tafelmusik are old friends and this shared history comes across in the ease of concertando whenever the two get together. A lot has happened since the rising light baroque coloratura Gauvin recorded Morgana’s “Torna mi a vagheggiar” with Tafelmusik for their 1999 Handel CD—she now sings Mozart’s Vitellia in European opera houses and Tafelmusik now claims the early Romantics as part of their repertoire—but this mutual understanding and ease of playing remains. Tafelmusik and Karina Gauvin will never not sound good together.

The two convened again March 23-26 at Koerner Hall in a program titled “Baroque Diva.” Gauvin sang four programmed pieces and two encores which demonstrated again how remarkable her range is. The aria “La mia costanza” from Handel’s opera Ezio is a serene, moderate number with a good amount of coloratura. “Mio caro bene,” from Rodelinda, which she introduced for the first encore as the “all is well with the world” aria, is in a similar tone. Alcina’s aria “Ah, mio cor,” on the other hand, is one of those agonizingly sad and long (it’s the most glorious kind of wallowing) Handel arias that shows how polished the soprano’s high sustained piani are. Beauty and purity of tone are a must. Together with “Verdi prati” in Alcina, “Ah, cor mio” is the saddest point of this magic opera, illustrating what happens when the spell of love wears off or is suddenly taken away. A dramatic commitment is required in equal measure. Gauvin of course got both sides down to a T. Her voice is more substantial now, there’s a well controlled vibrato, there are gradations in shading: not all light and bright, the voice is more womanly than girly. Gauvin acted the aria as a scene, and while she was as dramatic as she would be in a staged opera, nothing went overboard. There was no hamming, because she withheld nothing.

Moving on across the Gauvin range, the Vivaldi’s religious motet “O qui coeli” on first online listening in preparation for the concert may sound a little boring, but Gauvin rendered it as an aria and it was anything but. It sounded like the motet was written exactly for Gauvin’s tessitura and timbre; she made the absolute most of it at every turn, including the virtuoso “Alleluia” coda. Her final aria on the program was of the baroque soprano rage type: “Furie terribili” from Rinaldo showcased this side of the consummate baroqueuse. There are speedy high coloraturas, some stylish screams and extravagant ornamenting packed into this two-minute aria.

The concert finished with a second encore, the classic Handel weepie “Lascia ch’io pianga” that he used in more than one opera. We were back in the slow, intimate, melancholy range after a whole lot of different soprano territory was criss-crossed in the preceding two hours.

In the last several years, we have been lucky to hear a wide array of new guest musicians with Tafelmusik, which has brought in some new rep and new visions of the rep. One of those new interpreters—now fortunately a regular—is British/Brazilian violinist Rodolfo Richter. Deciding to open the concert with Telemann’s “The Frog” Concerto in A Major was unexpected and bracing: the solo violin is meant to echo frog sounds, and it starts the bariolage on its own, the production of the fairly unlovely sounds made by moving between stopped and open strings on (roughly) the same note. The other instruments join in, and the music continues as it keeps moving between the discordant frog chorus and beautiful passages of the familiar kind. It’s a funny and fun piece.

With Telemann’s Concerto in D minor, as with the sonata and concerto by J.G. Pisendel in second half of the concert, the extremely polished sound of the Tafelmusik ensemble is back on. Telemann’s D minor concerto in particular showed just how consistent and melded the sound of both the strings and the woodwinds are, and how they merge seamlessly in the tutti passages. It’s a fresco always worth coming back to.

The review originally appeared in The Wholenote magazine blog.

Program? Meh. Can’t be bothered.

A whinge, if I may.

If there’s one concert “promotion” practice that bothers me to the point of hot tears of frustration, it’s this: musicians not bothering to list the exact program of what they’ll be performing on any platform or medium anywhere before the concert. It frustrates me as a concert-goer and it frustrates me even more as a writer trying to announce, preview, possibly recommend said concerts.

I used to be a regular punter at I Furiosi concerts years ago, but I stopped going since they keep refusing to list what is it that they’re going to be playing. They like to organize their concerts by the theme, which is a decent practice, but the blurb explaining the theme would AT BEST list only the names of the composers. At worst, not even that. I took a peek at their forthcoming season, and sure enough: nothing. “Come to our concert on the topic of X! What will we play? We don’t know, but trust us! It’ll be great.”

As a journo, I’ve been noticing this with increasing frequency. Press releases with no program information, ensembles with no online presence or zero social media and a website that hasn’t been updated for years… and even the odd big guy not listing full program but relying on the list of composers in their releases.

This evening, I’m in the process of narrowing down what I’ll be writing in my next Wholenote column on the art of song. How I usually go about the business is I have the basic listings–the magazine has a great search engine called Ask Ludwig–for the entire month, and I go item by item, googling, looking at event pages, ensemble or singer website, researching the program and the composers, and then deciding what two strong highlights and what three or four quick picks I will feature.

Well. You can guess where this is going. There’s this concert, for example, by a group called Musicians in Ordinary (lute and soprano, with occasional guest soloists or readers) titled John Donne’s A Nocturnall on S. Lucies Day. I have the listing: “Works by Dowland and his contemporaries. Ruby Joy, reader; Hallie Fishel, soprano; John Edwards, lute; Musicians In Ordinary. Emmanuel College Chapel,” address, time. And that is literally all. No information about it on Emmanuel College Chapel website. The MiO’s own blog hasn’t been updated since September last year. Nothing on Facebook. Nothing on Twitter. What Dowland’s contemporaries? What works by Dowland? I happen to love Dowland, and would have liked to write about this concert. But that’s now impossible.

Elsewhere, all that anybody knows about this concert with tenor Andrew Haji and baritone Jason Howard is that it’ll be called English Song Treasures. Are they singing a capella? It’s a mystery.

The always gloriously looking Measha B will have a concert at the Isabel Bader in Kingston end of March. Freedom Songs, her exploration of African-American spirituals, looks intriguing, let’s find out more, go to the Isabel Bader website… oh. An artistic statement instead of the program. Okay. (There’s a Songs of Freedom website that you’d have to find to find out about the potential program. Some or most of these will be sung, I expect?)

Toronto Consort’s first encounters-themed concert last month gave me a bit of a headache too. See how it’s all described? Who sings in what piece, are all the listed soloists part of the Beckwith piece? And what music from the early colonists? I had to do further googling and send emails to find out. A lot of journalists wouldn’t bother, and if I was a civilian concert-goer, I wouldn’t rush to hear a program that’s approximated rather than detailed.

Across town, in Distillery District… I would have loved to write about Tapestry’s Songbook VII, either in advance or to review it. But… there’ has been no information available regarding what will be in the songbook. Zilch.

Or have a look at this Art of Time Ensemble Northern Songs 2 program. “A selection of works by Canadian jazz and classical composers including R. Murray Schafer, Christos Hatzis, Oscar Peterson, Nicole Lizee and more.” And more and and others are becoming my favourite friends. I happened to have been there last night and it was a seriously good lineup of pieces which deserved to be publicized in advance. You know, so more people can come to the concert and some of us can preview it?

Musicians, programmers, promoters: why make it difficult?

There’s a band that’s consistently good about keeping its own programs absolutely up to date and well ahead of the concerts: Talisker Players. Sometimes they’d even post audio samples. I may have to introduce my own private award for this kind of thing? Seriously. But even they got wobbly ahead of their March concert. Which of the 25 Beethoven Scottish folk songs exactly? Vaughan Williams’ “Three Old English Folk Songs”? Tut tut. Just a glitch, right? Back to your old informative self in no time.

Zing-Along Messiah mit Herr Handel at Massey Hall: Instructions for Use

sing-along-messiah_garybeechey
Tafelmusik with conductor Ivars Taurins (as Handel) and the audience in a sing-along Messiah at Massey Hall. Photo credit Gary Beechey.

I am happy to report that I finally experienced my first Tafelmusik Sing-Along Messiah in which the audience too sings the choruses (grazie, Luisa!). The 30-year-old event has a cult status and is sold out every year; there were people there who have been coming every year for 10, 20, 30 years. (Conductor Ivars Taurins, he under the Handel costume and wig, asked for the show of hands last night for each of the decades.)  The full libretto can be downloaded beforehand or picked up at the Massey Hall. The soloists that Tafelmusik brings for the Messiah series each December–all concerts of that series but one are performed traditionally, without audience participation, and in a smaller hall–tend to be international HIP stars, and always a good mix of familiar and new-to-Toronto singers.

Since it’s a big, potentially unwieldy, practically pop concert, you should know what to expect from the Sing-Along (or Zing-Along, as Taurins/Haendel called it), and come prepared.

+ Avoid the gallery like the plague. I arrived 30 min before start time and the parterre and the mezzanine were already full so we were directed to the galleries. The seats are wooden there, without any upholstery, and with no leg room. I am not exaggerating: those with sensitive knees should think twice. There’s no room for the jacket behind your back, no room for a bag, let alone a backpack. In the course of the concert you are asked to rise and sit down multiple times. You will know your four neighbours N-S-E-W very closely by the end of it. How do you avoid the gallery? Come earlier, but if you come too early, there will be a long queue to join in the cold. There’s got to be a time when you arrive just as the queue starts being let in? Toronto practices long queues during Tiff, so treat this is a Tiff-size event. Come early.

+ OK so you ended up in  the gallery. If you spot any free seats in the mezzanine during the first half, you can at least move down and take ’em during intermission. It’s general seating, so you’re more than welcome to. Mezzanine and parterre seats are actually decent. This is what I did.

+ It’s a family-friendly event, so there will be children. Toddlers and babies too. Some of them will sit on their parent’s lap and be shown how to follow the score, maybe for the first time in their wee lives. So: don’t be a grump. [It takes one to know one.] These are future classical music audiences and performers. It’s all good. And they tend to be really well-behaved.

+ What I didn’t know was how ethnically diverse the Sing-Along audience is becoming. Lots of Asian families, multi-racial couples, black Canadians, together with the usual hardcore WASP contingent. It wasn’t entirely as diverse as Toronto Islands of a weekend, but it’s definitely  getting there.

+ The Sing-Along is not primarily a music experience, necessarily. Let me explain what I mean. If you like the choruses of The Messiah, you may feel shortchanged, because what you will hear around you will not be particularly pleasant. You won’t be able to hear the choir on stage at all, and depending on what section you’re in, your experience of the choruses may range from OK (the Altos area) to ugh (the Mixed section, where I spent the first half). There will be a lot of smudged coloratura, missed notes and creative tempo-keeping around you. This was particularly the case in the Mixed voices area, with two very loud elderly sopranos behind me, a quiet alto to the left, a guy who sang I’ve no idea what voice part to the right. When I moved to the last row of the Mezzanine Altos, it was like being within a gentle wave of alto base that included me (when I could find it, tonally) or left me alone, whichever I preferred in any given moment.

+ Oh yes: find an edge seat, a top row seat. That way, if you don’t want to get up for every chorus, you won’t attract attention. There were a few of us scattered who sang while remaining seated. It wasn’t unusual.

+ There may be people around you who will quietly “join” the soloist while s/he’s singing. This behaviour is deserving of a glare. Again, I heard it in the Mixed area from two of the sopranos, and there was some arm chair conducting from the guy to the right, but down among the altos, nothing of the sort. While the opposite does happen occasionally, your enjoyment of the soloists will for the most part be undisturbed. Amanda Forsythe’s laser-sharp coloratura stunned everybody into silence last night. (There’s an added task for the soloists here: stun the unruly audience into shutting up.) Tenor Colin Balzer (“Ev’ry valley” kicked the entire engine into motion) and baritone Tyler Duncan (whose “Trumpet will sound” closed it with a glorious clarity of tone) were just as good, and Krisztina Szabó got to shine in “O Thou that tellest” with the chorus/audience coming in at the end.

+ In conclusion, I think my next Messiah will be of the traditional sort. I like my choruses cleanly sung. (You should have heard what dog’s breakfast we all made of “Amen”. Or rather you shoudn’t.) But the Zing-Along has its own culture, its own following and–judging by the diverse multigenerational audience–a very bright future. And there’s room for both forms of concerts, and for some new forms to boot. Could a baroque concert in which the audience are allowed to dance be far behind? I see your sing-along, and I raise you dance, Tafelvolk.

In Conversation: Varduhi Abrahamyan, mezzo-soprano

The first time I heard Varduhi Abrahamyan sing was back in 2013 in Paris, at the Salle Pleyel, in a Johanespassion with Concerto Koeln conducted by Laurence Equilbey. It was easy to spot a singular voice: hers is a plush velvety yet nimble coloratura voice that makes you sit up and pay attention. That St. John Passion remains a favourite (thanks to the good person who captured and uploaded much of the France Musique-streamed audio recording onto YouTube), including of course Abrahamyan’s Es ist vollbracht.

The French mezzo of Armenian origin has a busy cross-European career and is covering quite the range of historic repertoire: there aren’t many singers whose repertoire spans Monteverdi to Verdi. It was a treat to discover last year that she would be appearing as Polinesso in the Richard Jones-directed Ariodante at the COC this season, which marks her Canadian, Toronto and COC debut. While researching for this article, I discovered that she would be coming back to the COC, in a production of Onegin in 2018. (The Carsen, possibly?)

We talked in French (with short trips into Italian and English) in her change room at the Four Seasons Centre this past Friday afternoon. She told me she hasn’t seen much of the city yet, but that the three-day window opening before the final performance will finally allow her to see some of it at leisure.

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How do you make this Richard Jones Polinesso living and breathing and credible?

At first I was taken aback by his level of villainy. To this degree, really? Then later I realized it would be impossible to do the character in any other way. You really have to take him on, go inside his skin, for him to work as a character for the audience. I’ll go as far as the role demands. And with this one I’m having fun. He’s changing all the time to hide his true self. He’s very proper, an angel practically, while wearing his cassock—and opposite when he takes it off. So the singer needs to interpret that. And you can’t do it half-heartedly. Much of the plotline depends on Polinesso being the way he is. He’s scheming all the time. I try to imagine and convey what it must be like to live a double life in that way.

He gets some good music, though.

Polinesso’s arias… well, to tell you the truth, there’s not much cantabile to enjoy in there. His music matches his character.

The first one is kinda nice, “Coperta la frode”.

Yeah, it’s OK. Not bellissima, nobody will be moved to tears. It corresponds to the character.

The last one, “Se l’inganno sortisce felice” has some mad coloratura. And you have to sing it all while jumping up and down on Ginevra’s bed.

It isn’t easy, but I am having fun with it now. With this Polinesso there’s a lot of personality to work with. I have to say I prefer roles that come with an interesting character, rather than those that are sort of in the same tone from beginning to end—even if they may be “positive” characters.

Was this a role debut?

No. I have a long history with the role. The very first time I’ve sung Handel on stage was a Polinesso in Geneva, at the Grand Théâtre de Genève. My agent called me to audition in Switzerland—in about 2005?—and that was the first one I was cast in. The COC one will be the last. It’s good to leave the role behind while you’re still having fun with it.

When you have to say no to a role, for what reason is it usually?

I first look at whether the role suits my voice, and whether it’s a character that I’d like to work on. I love theatre and the theatrical side of opera, and it’s important to put equal emphasis on both the musical and the theatrical side. I also like roles that allow me to evaluate and expand the repertoire. Gradually, though: qui va piano, va sano, va lontano.

Verdi is OK at this juncture?

Yes, I sing it already. I’ll be in a Fastaff in Paris soon, I’ve sung in Nabucco already… Rather, when I have to refuse a role, it’s because I think I can do it justice, say, in a few years’ time. Every role I take, I want to perform at the absolute top level. I don’t want to do things at an adequate level, I want to be among the best.

And you’ve already worked with some of the most important directors today. You were part of the already cult Alcina by Christof Loy in Zurich. Cecilia Bartoli, Malena Ernmann and Varduhi Abrahamyan in a love triangle: it doesn’t get better than that.

I love that production so much and I love working with Christof Loy.

There won’t be a DVD?

No, but we’re doing a revival in Zurich this coming December and January, and after that we’ll do it at Covent Garden, and at Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, same production and much of the same cast, with Cecilia Bartoli returning. We all really enjoyed that one.

Varduhi Abrahamyan as Bradamante in the Christof Loy-directed Alcina, Zurich 2015. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
Varduhi Abrahamyan as Bradamante in the Zurich Alcina directed by Christof Loy, 2015. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

You also sang Dalila in a Fura dels Baus production in Valencia?

That was with the wonderful Gregory Kunde as Samson. It was a modern production; a revival from Rome, I think, with a few little changes. I like Samson et Dalila as an opera and it was a pleasure to meet with Gregory again. First time we sang together was in La Donna del Lago at Theater an der Wien, which was directed by Christof Loy, in 2011.

You were Malcolm?

Yes, and just before I came to Toronto, I sang Malcolm in Pesaro. Great production by Damiano Michieletto, with a great conductor Michele Mariotti, and an amazing cast. There will be a DVD release. It was an unforgettable experience. I like Malcolm a lot. I’ll sing the role again at the Marseille Opera in 2018—I hope it’s OK to say this since you mentioned my COC return already–right after the Onegin at the COC. It’s back-to-back all the time. We close Ariodante on November 4; my flight back is November 5, I arrive November 6, unpack, and two days later, on November 8, I pack again and go to Palermo to sing Carmen. [laughs] It’s an interesting life.

Where is home?

In France, in Marseille – for about sixteen years now. France opened its doors to me, it believed in me. First contract for any opera house that I signed was for Opéra de Paris, for a Maddalena in Rigoletto. I was born and grew up in Armenia but moved to France in 2000, and I love it a lot too. Armenia and France, for me that’s like one’s the mother, the other one’s the father. Both are in my heart. I try to make it back to Armenia once a year at least.

You were also Goffredo in Robert Carsen’s Rinaldo at Glyndebourne, in the production set at a boarding school?

We spent about two months in Glyndebourne, back in 2010. That was my first collaboration with Carsen. I really like his openness. His ideas for characters are malleable enough to include the personality of the singer – singer’s own contribution. There’s the character, and then there’s the singer taking it on, and in some productions I guess you can adopt the given character because you are required to, and that’s where the conversation ends, but the acting then comes across as automatic. The audience will notice. The audience notices everything, the smallest movements, the look in the eyes, everything. We are naked on stage. And I will always be me and the character at the same time. And Carsen is a director who knows how to connect the two.

What about Bob Wilson’s L’Incoronazione, then? That must have been a whole different school of thought.

Ha, well yes. When it comes to movement, you don’t get to choose your own. We had something like the “I am sad” posture and the “I am happy” posture [she demonstrates] and it ends there. Nobody is to touch anybody else. Every cast member is placed at a very specific spot, we all share the same limited number of gestures, and  the lighting is extremely important. When you look at the production from the audience and as a whole, it works; I had great feedback from the audience, but for us, there isn’t a whole lot we can do on stage. We express our inner lives through the look in our eyes – and through the music and the text, of course. Since it was Monteverdi, the text was very important, and it all came together. Not sure if it would in every other opera; I can’t imagine a Carmen by Bob Wilson, for example. But with Monteverdi, with the text and the eyes, it was like Стихотворение: sung poetry.

You sang Ottone?

Yes. Again, a man.

Do pants roles give more freedom to the singer?

Not quite, but I enjoy each one of them a lot. In Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini directed by Terry Gilliam I sang Ascanio (Rome/Amsterdam/ENO co-production). Now that production was nothing short of a film. And I was pretty masculine in it too.

Varduhi Abrahamyan in Benvenuto Cellini.
Varduhi Abrahamyan as Ascanio in Benvenuto Cellini. Photo: Yasuko Kageyama

And Arsace?

Musical writing for that role is fabulous. The duos, his character, I love everything about it. I’ve done it a few times and will do it again, in Pesaro, again with Maestro Mariotti in a couple of years.

You also sang Adalgisa?

Yes, with Mariella Devia. When I found out that she would sing Norma, there was some serious fangirling happening on my part.

And then there’s the Bieito Carmen waiting for you early next year in Paris.

Yes! I saw the photos from the production, and am very excited about it. It’s a favourite, Carmen. Rich in character, a strong woman who knows how to love, who’s not afraid of anybody and is ready to risk everything to be true to her heart. She needs somebody next to her who will match her strength, but… in opera as in real life, men don’t particularly like strong women. I don’t know if you’ll agree?

Good grief, yes, absolutely. In all areas of life, as we can see these days.

I sang Carmen at the Bolshoi, and in Toulon, and also in Hamburg, last year. I have a lot of Carmens in the future.

And your foray into contemporary opera was Akhmatova composed by Bruno Mantovani?

Yes, that was the world premiere of the work at the Opera Bastille. And it’s impressive – and different when the composer is around and in the same room as you. There was lots to learn. Lots of changes of tempi… The work was well received. There should be a recording somewhere, at least the audio.

More contemporary music on the agenda?

Not in the near future. I like music that lets me interpret, add nuances. I love music that lets me play with colours. But in contemporary music that’s not often the case. Everything is planned and everything must be followed precisely. Perhaps a singer should make that choice early on, to focus on contemporary music and specialize there, or to dedicate herself to the historic repertoire.

Everybody should do what they do best. I like to set the bar for my singing and acting as high as possible, and bring something new with my interpretation. It’s the same with conductors and stage directors. We’re always trying to inch the bar higher. I am working on myself as a singer all the time, it’s a job that never ends.

You can still catch Ariodante on its closing night on November 4 at the COC.

Top and bottom photos courtesy IMG Artists.

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Ariodante by Richard Jones

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

Richard Jones’s Ariodante (COC/DNO/Aix/LOC) is a very good production of a very feeble opera. It pains me to say this about a Handel opera that contains two of the best mezzo arias of all time, and a dazzling soprano-mezzo duo at the end, but I think I understand now why it’s rarely staged today and likelier to be heard in concert. As much as it is salvageable as a theatrical work, however, Jones and the COC revival director Benjamin Davis pulled it off.

The story is relatively simple for a baroque opera: the marriage between the King’s daughter Ginevra and a favourite knight is called off after the groom-to-be Ariodante and his brother Lurcanio see somebody who looks like Ginevra letting another knight into her chamber. The princess is ostracized and jailed for being unchaste (!) (the fallen woman is a rare figure in the eighteenth century opera; it becomes standard by the latter half of the nineteenth), but her lady-in-waiting Dalinda admits it was her who let the intruder into the chamber. The knight who plotted the scheme is punished, and the bride and the groom reunite.

The characterization is practically non-existent; the King a little too quickly throws his beloved daughter to jail, then upon denouement forgives everybody every misdoing. Ariodante, though the primo uomo, is the character with least amount of agency who disappears and is presumed dead just as the intrigue heats up. His brother Lurcanio journeys from expressing his love for Dalinda to a slut-shaming rage towards Ginevra to the point that he will fight anybody who defends her innocence, only to like her back when her innocence is proven. Polinesso is a bundle of evil impulses—an inconsistent bundle, it turns out, since he’s the one willing to fight for “Ginevra’s honour” when Lurcanio comes sword-waving.

With such a text on hand, it must be tempting for the director to do a fantastical, camped up version in which the design team goes wild. Jones & comp. decided precisely the opposite, and found a very specific environment in which such a story may credibly happen: a remote small-town finishing and sheep-farming community (in the worst sense of  the term), a few decades back from the present time. The Scottish setting lives on in kilts and tartan, but only if you want it to; this may equally take place in Cape Breton (who here has seen New Waterford Girl?), or Ireland, the Balkans, Kyrgyzstan, India, or wherever else female virginity was or remains a matter of social concern. The set is permanent and immobile: a prominent local figure’s home with two public rooms and last one private, his daughter’s. The doors and walls dividing the three spaces are, wisely, invisible except for the locks and handles—the many comings and goings between the rooms would have otherwise turned everything into a farce. This is Richard Jones, so the take on the opera is not exactly realist and naturalist—it’s rather realist-ish, with some signature Jonesian whimsy thrown in—but its greatest success is giving the people that inhabit the story credible emotional lives and drawing out the melancholy, on occasion even tragedy, from something that seems to be offering itself as a silly story. The pastoral dances in finales are replaced by puppetry scenes, with dolls of Ariodante and Ginevra manipulated by the villagers as the real Ariodante and Ginevra look on.

Polinesso commands respect among the villagers because he’s a priest (if also secretly a Lothario in off time), and the communal obsession with female purity is fed by the preaching and the Bible quotes that he regularly serves the villagers. We’ve seen people like this, religious figures who practice the opposite of what they preach, but Jones’ Polinesso maintains much of his cartoonish nature and is the one character in the production without nuance. Varduhi Abrahamyan was very good, regardless. Her four arias were rock solid. “Se l’inganno sortisce felice” and “Dover, giustizia” in particular must be a nightmare with endless low coloraturas, but clearly not for this singer.

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

The meatiest role of the production is Dalinda, who here is made into a maid who by virtue of her job has uncontested access to all the rooms of the household. Ambur Braid created a complex character, conflicted, manipulated, weak and defiant in turns, a perpetrator who’s also a victim herself. That this was done alongside some tremendous singing, including the insane “Neghittosi or voi che fate?” which she delivers after Polinesso’s motives are unmasked, never ceases to amaze. The earlier, “Se tanto piace al cor”, is a totally different beast: a wide-eyed andante aria on her future happiness with Polinesso. There’s gamut in this role, and Ambur uses every foot of it. Too, when she ornaments, she tends to go up; I don’t think she’s ever been next to a higher note that she didn’t like?

Another singer who more than convinced last night: Jane Archibald. I don’t get to write this often, as to me she usually comes across as a self-contained, even reserved singer, but there was nothing held back in her Ginevra, and she was as technically sharp as usual. Especially heartbreaking: “Il mio crudele martoro”, a long aria-scena taking place after she was falsely accused. The period of her communal ignominy Ginevra spends dressed in a slip, her vulnerability heightened, her body and underwear on display to the prying eyes of the Gemeinschaft.

The less said about Alice Coote in the title role, the better.

I was glad to see Johannes Weisser in a COC debut as the King, and one of my favourite young tenors anywhere, Owen McCausland, in the role of Lurcanio. The King was however underpowered last night and often covered by the orchestra, whereas Lurcanio was opposite, bold in volume while the subtlety of the coloratura suffered.

This was conductor Johannes Debus’s first Handel. He and Christopher Bagan alternate at the harpsichord, while Sylvain Bergerom mans the archlute and the baroque guitar. That’s as far as the period accents go: the rest was all modern instruments, and I wonder if some day he may try introducing some period brass here and there, for variety of colour. It’s not unheard of these days for a modern orchestra tasked with a baroque piece to include some period brassiness. Something to consider.

The tempi in best known arias were decent, nothing unusually fast or slow. Ornamenting was exercised in moderation; not sure if the conductor wrote the ornaments, if the singers improv’d them or if they were written ahead by the singer and the conductor together. Some of them did sound invented on the spot.

I’ll finish with the kudos for the added twist at the end, which is just what a thinking director should do with operas like this. Can a twist ending with Carmen saving herself and stabbing Don Jose be far behind? Here’s hoping.

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