Toronto Summer Music Art of Song Academy – first concerts

I wrote a bit of a preview on the TSMF’s Art of Song Academy in the summer issue of Wholenote.

The first of the recitals have just started happening. Yesterday, Julius Drake, who’s been working with the singers the preceding week, held a Master Class with four of them — four mezzo-sopranos, as it happens. It was really interesting to follow a master class that assigns equal amount of importance to the piano as to the voice. There is repertoire which fundamentally *comes* from the piano, and if that side isn’t finessed out or painted boldly, there’s no amount of voice and textual interpretation that’ll save the song.

This was extremely clear in his work around Fauré‘s A Clymene (Danielle Vaillancourt with Jinhee Park at the piano), Grieg’s Ein Traum (Karen Schriesheim and Frances Armstrong, piano). In Britten’s song about a mother losing patience with the baby who won’t sleep from A Charm of Lullabies (Lyndsay Promane with Leona Cheung) Drake pointed out something else: that the singing wasn’t interacting with the piano — whereas the text should be coming as a response to it.

And always, always, insistence on the text. That the singer look at it very closely and carefully and understand all the nuances. Should an important nuance be lost (say, the foreboding in Berg’s Nacht), the song is lost. After Vaillancourt sang Jean Coulthard’s The White Rose, quite a bit of time was spent on saying the words passion and love and what it means to colour each differently.

And in Rossini’s song Il rimprovero, the operatic virtuosity needed to be dialled down to a salon song. Renee Fajardo (with Pierre-André Doucet on piano), whose voice is indeed the embarrassment of riches, had to switch from the operatic AAAAH into the sigh-like Aah. Similarly, Drake asked Doucet to tone down the cheeriness and make the fiorituras in the piano score more laden and melodic by changing the dynamic. It was quite interesting to observe.

I came out of the class quite a fan of Drake. He is soft-spoken–had to move closer to hear what he was saying to the pianists–and wastes no words. At every turn he shows sharpness, sound judgment and impeccable instincts, but without any flashiness or self-importance. I did know he was good communicator since I attended his concert with Gerald Finley earlier in the year (while GF on the other hand can’t really do chatty informal eloquence…), and yesterday he impressed further. He reminded me of this piece by one my favourite columnists Janice Turner that just came out on the weekend, on the quiet, non-self-promoting heroism; there is such a thing as the quiet, non-self-promoting brilliance in art.

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The first reGENERATION concert (why they insist on that awkward moniker, beats me) took place today at 1 p.m. There was no detailed program, and I neglected to write down everything, so I’m working from memory here, pardon. Karen Schriesheim and Frances Armstrong returned with Ein Traum, which sounded more polished and energetic than the day before, though the piano could go much more wild — I felt Armstrong was still too polite with it. Schriesheim’s voice is already beautiful and voluminous – a high, bright, soprano-y mezzo that, as the song demands, bursts out by the end. Where there’s perhaps a bit more work to do is in the interpretation department; cockiness is all right–who among us didn’t know everything in our twenties?–but may put the blinkers on a singer.

Florence Bourget and Leona Cheung opened with Debussy’s Songs of Bilitis and it was I think the most accomplished set of the four. It was an artistically mature, well thought-out presentation of this sensuous cycle that’s available in some top notch recordings. Bourget is one of the contralto-y timbre’d mezzos in this year’s Academy. The voice is nimble and elastic, its opulence doesn’t hinder it. Extra points for the elegantissimo yet neutral black jump suit, an atypical dress choice. (Tip: elaborate dresses and hair may distract the listener from the job at hand, which is imaging a world based on the words and the music.)

Soprano Meave Palmer (piano: Jinhee Park) sang Strauss’ Ophelia songs. Although the voice is still very young and in the bud, she has a great dramatic gift already and a keen interest in contemporary music, which is always exciting to see. Toronto tenor Joey Jang is also young and possibly found himself undermined by a bad case of nerves. His singing was tentative, but there’s a sumptuous tenor tone in there waiting to come into development.

The level of singing overall is really quite something. Each of the musicians at the TSMF AofS Academy is on a donor sponsorship–a scholarship, really. You can catch them for another round of recitals next Saturday. I’ll be there again, at least for one, possibly both. Julius Drake and Christoph Pregardien meanwhile (on Tuesday, to be precise) will do a recital before the German tenor takes over the class of 2018.

MY Opera does The Rape of Lucretia

Christina Campsall as Lucretia, Nicholas Borg as Tarquinius, Victoria Marshall as Bianca and Anne-Marie MacIntosh as Lucia. Photo by William Ford Photography.
Christina Campsall as Lucretia, Nicholas Borg as Tarquinius, Victoria Marshall as Bianca and Anne-Marie MacIntosh as Lucia. Photo by William Ford Photography.

Lots of good singing and musicianship last night in MY Opera’s The Rape of Lucretia, and Britten’s music (piano: Natasha Fransblow), the best thing about this opera, contains vast painterly visuals and subtlest love of detail. The music in Lucretia’s home, the women’s collective work and the light of a new day in particular, have rich cinematic quality. The ensembles are tremendous: whenever Britten has two or more people singing at the same time, a thrilling discord is heard. The oft returning, initially playful chord becomes the “is that all” motif that adds meaning wherever it appears.

Christina Campsall’s Lucretia felt right in just about every way. She was apprehensive and troubled from the get go, dignified in angst and (later) devastation and just a dash of glamorous throughout. Hers is a pretty mezzo that you wouldn’t exactly call either light or dark in timbre, doing both as needed. It’ll be interesting to see where she goes next (she’s sung Ruggiero and Offenbach’s Hélène at the GGS of Opera in recent years). Jonelle Sills (Female Chorus) and Daevyd Pepper (Male Chorus) were very good too, if very different characters dramatically. While Sills sang hers sincerely, Pepper’s showed hints of being calculating and self-interested. Hints only, however; much more could have been done to redefine the Choruses dramatically, especially because that was the initial promise.

Victoria Marshall (Bianca) and Anne-Marie MacIntosh (Lucia) were flawless in their scenes / miniatures. At various points during the show I found myself wondering ‘Yes, but what I really want to know is what those two are doing right now.’ Among the men, Jacob Feldman (impossibly boyish looking, but vocally convincing) and Evan Korbut as Collatinus and Junius respectively left a stronger impression than Nicholas Borg as Tarquinius. With Borg, there was some apparent straining in higher notes, and acting occasionally came close to caricaturing without any real menace stemming from the character, but he did well and held his own in the most difficult of scenes, the preliminaries to the rape. There was proper tension between the two characters, and the singers really made most of the awkward setup.

Director Anna Theodosakis placed the opera in a mid-twentieth century country—time when Britten worked on the piece. The MYO says it’s Italy nearing liberation, but the production is nowhere near that specific. You would expect in that case an Italy closer to the Italian neo-realist cinema? No, the setting could more plausibly be any other country that experienced occupation or heightened military presence roughly around that time, Hungary under Soviets, Berlin under Soviets, Yugoslavia under Germans or Italians, Greeks under the colonels, Spain under Franco, and on and on. And this broader applicability is a compliment to it, actually. While the production did not have a built set, the costumes and the direction did the story-telling, and very competently.

But as far as Lucretia and I are concerned, we are done. I’ve given this work hours and hours of fair trial, and will give no more. This was a gentle, confident production, but the libretto stays bad, irreparable. A woman is treated like garbage, then kills herself because she is too ashamed. Angels sing of Christ’s tears, praise her purity. Curtain. For good.

 Daevyd Pepper as Male Chorus and Jonelle Sills as Female Chorus. Photo by William Ford Photography.
Daevyd Pepper as Male Chorus and Jonelle Sills as Female Chorus. Photo by William Ford Photography.

Ave atque vale, Lucretia

Lucretia-BannerThere are barely any operatic works that I’d consider unstageable or irredeemably irrelevant. But last year, after seeing the Glyndebourne streaming of The Rape of Lucretia in the oddly respectful, libretto-at-face-value staging by Fiona Shaw, I realized that TROL would from then on be one such work for me. And not because of the detailed scene of rape, or the fact that the male leads use women’s bodies as currency in intra-military and political competition with impunity, or that the division of women into the whores and the chaste gets all of the airtime, or that the victim of rape takes upon herself the ‘spoiled goods’ stigma and kills herself out of shame and guilt.

No, not because of that. An intelligent staging could rework the bits of this ghastly puzzle into something that subverts its surface meaning instead of amplifying it.

It’s because of its ending, in fact: after Lucretia’s death, the chorus wonder among themselves whether the suffering and pain is all there is, and reassure us that no, that Christ the Saviour will come soon and be crucified and with His wounds redeem the wounds of the suffering humanity, including the poor Lucretia. Just you wait: she will not have suffered and died in vain.


Last time I got that angry after a show had to be after a Lars von Trier film—could be Breaking the Waves, could be the one with Nicole Kidman, could be any random misogynist crap that his funders and film critics encourage him to produce. One of his favourite tropes is Woman as the Sacrificial Lamb: an innocent, good woman being excruciatingly annihilated by a group/community, and this event, there are hints, works as an exorcism and brings catharsis for said community (or bro).

And von Trier is not alone: this trope is widespread in culture, its cinematic and operatic corners in particular, but everywhere else too.

TROL itself is so cavalier, so I-don’t-give-a-shit patriarchal, so unlayered dramatically, containing such simpleminded theology that would horrify or make laugh even a deeply religious Christian who indeed does believe that the Son of God had come to earth, died to redeem our sins and will return to abolish death and pain and reward the victims of injustice. (Any Christians reading this: I know you’re more sophisticated than this opera suggests. This is an insult to you, too.)

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that not one but two of the indie opera companies in Toronto would be doing TROL within a short time span. Of all the chamber-size operas around, it’s this one that got chosen—twice. Against the Grain will be co-producing it with various other organizations later this year, but MY Opera, a smart upstart run by the young & talented women who program lesser known rep gems and (equally important) pay the performers, surprised me much more.

The MYO press release also hinted that the director Anna Theodosakis would take considerable liberties with the work and set it in a very different historical period, with not a toga in sight. Company’s press materials also make obvious a sharply attuned awareness of the today widely and hotly debated issues around assault, consent, and artistic representation of same.

So I got curious: to see that a local small company has a more sophisticated approach to TROL than the kinda ideologically naïve one that Fiona Shaw and Glyndebourne took last summer was heartening. But when I emailed company’s General Manager Stephanie Applin, to ask if Theodosakis and the Artistic Director Kate Applin can meet me for tea and conversation, I warned them about my anti-TROL judgment.

They weren’t deterred: Anna and the Applin sisters were game to being challenged and talked to me about the concept and their reasons for doing the work for about an hour. I left in a better mood than the one I came in—which however is not to say that I’m converted to the work. This desperate piece is in capable hands, is what I can say: if anybody can do anything meaningful with it, it’s people like these three women who have thought through every political aspect of putting it on stage and are boldly ploughing though it for reinterpretation and salvage.

In Theodosakis’ regie, Lucretia takes place in Italy at the end of the Second World War. This chimes neatly with the libretto, as the original setting is the (un)rule of the kings before Rome became Rome, i.e. Roman Republic and later the Empire. With Theodosakis we’re still in Rome, but it’s a Rome at the twilight of a regime of a different kind. The militaristic rule is floundering, Italy clearly losing the war, and an internal Italian strife shaping up between the old monarchic regime tainted by its fascist ties, and the new forces of republicanism.

And while Tarquinius and Collatinus, Lucretia’s husband, are in the same army, their political loyalties are beginning to diverge.

So the rape does not exactly happen as an instrument of war—something that I expected we’d see, since the setting is the latter part of WW2. Rather, it’s a tool in the emerging civil conflict–perhaps even a retaliation?

While Tarquinius of the libretto, a vile Etruscan who bullied his way to the (Roman) top carries marks of the racially other, Theodosakis eliminated that complication: her Tarquinius is an insider through and through.

The male chorus and the female chorus are the greatest challenge in this opera. Theodosakis, wisely, puts the pious commenters smack in the middle of the drama. I won’t spoil everything ahead of the premiere, but I can say that they are a couple of functionaries with very specific allegiances and an agenda. The final words that usually irk me so much are uttered with political goals in mind—as something of a calculated manipulation by the means of Catholic vernacular in order to mobilize the populace.

As for the long scene of the assault, the MY Opera ladies tell me that it was important to them to avoid two pitfalls: one, of being gratuitous and voyeuristic, and the opposite one, of softening the scene and making the crime appear more bearable.

Will the production achieve the goals? The approach is certainly well-informed and thought-through. But can they accomplish the miracle of opening up to interpretation the work’s ossified core? We’ll all be able to see April 29 to May 1. Toi, toi, toi, gals.

In the banner photo: Christina Campsall (Lucretia).

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

 Toronto, November 2015

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

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

The multi-layered orchestral cake to gorge on

The multi-layered orchestral cake to gorge on

Peter Grimes (Benjamin Britten, Montagu Slater, 1945) at the Canadian Opera Company. A 2003 COC co-production with Opera Australia, Houston GO and West Australian Opera. Conducted by Johannes Debus, revival director Denni Sayers, original stage director Neil Armfield.

[My earlier Xtra intro to Grimes here.]

0945 - Ellen Orford and the COC ChorusI love this score to pieces, and the biggest highlight for me last night was the COC orchestra. There are so many things in the work that keeps you interested: the composed-through sections with or without the ariosos, with or without the motivic reminiscing; the detachable numbers and arias; the inventive choral sections and the tutti scenes that remind of Gershwin and even of the musicals; the contrapuntal ensembles; the recitative-like dialogue, the spoken word dialogue, and what seemed to be in this production a hybrid of the two in the character of Mrs Sedley (here a buffo character).

There are so many parts worth analyzing, but let’s just look at the “passacaglia” in the second scene of Act 2, as we enter chez Grimes. Passacaglia is a form that starts with a little something that keeps repeating while the other instruments start piling on. So here the plucked basses and cellos start off a simple ostinato. Then the viola solo adds itself, and after its minute of fame, the more lively woodwinds, followed by the high strings and the brass. The drama on the stage rises as does the number of instruments playing.

The COC Orchestra’s Principal Viola Keith Hamm played this solo last night (so mournful and deep of sound that I was sure it was the cello). The solo returns later at the end of that scene, as the men have left Grimes’s hut and Balstrode, all alone, looks down the cliff.

For Grimes, strings, brass and percussion sections get reinforcements, so there were seven cellos (Bryan Epperson principal) and seven basses (Alan Molitz principal), plus the one harp, Sarah Davidson. (Gotta do the Interludes justice, thence: fourteen Violin I, twelve Violin II, ten Viola.)

The “fog horn” in the final scene, playing a single chromatic chord echoed by Peter Grimes on stage, mixing with the off stage chorus and a whole lot of silence, was the tuba. (Took some time figuring this out as a review of a recent British Grimes cites “three muted horns”—so, conductors can get creative with this apparently, even though the score enjoins a tuba (see Boosey)). The tuba was played back stage by Mark Bonang.

There was also a celesta in the orchestra, ladies and gents (Jenna Douglas), and an organ for the church music scenes (Wayne Vogan).

The score lets each orchestral section shine, and each of them came through. Woodwinds were birdies, brass were distinct without overpowering, and the strings… what can one say about the strings here. Sea. Moonlight. Storm rain. Anything sublime that Britten invites to the score.

The chorus is of course essential for Grimes, and the COC chorus showed us what it got (Chorus Master, Sandra Horst).  Stuff like the septuple metered “Old Joe”, with conflicting singing lines, was wild fun.

3543 - Peter Grimes and his apprenticeWhat about the production? It is interesting enough. All the action that would usually happen outdoors or in the pub takes place at the dreary “community hall”, which is a good idea. The only set change happens for the scenes in the Grimes hut, here the theatre-within-theatre part of the hall which moves to the front for that bit of the opera, leaving the rest of the hall hidden behind. The biggest challenge for the director of the non-literal production of Grimes is how to solve the scene of the boy’s death. Various directors take liberties with that key point and make Grimes more responsible or less responsible than what the libretto instructs. Stage direction is clear that Grimes is not in physical contact with the boy, but yells at him to hurry up so they can get away before the mob arrives (announced by the music of the marching men). Neil Armfield introduces a rope – I’ve seen this in some other productions on DVD too – with which Grimes ties little John around the waist before the boy leaves down the steep path and which Grimes controls until he is startled by the approaching mob and loses the grip. I am not a huge fan of this solution. So much else works in the production, but this scene left me wanting.

Singers! Ben Heppner’s voice was on and off. Some of the most intimate moments were disturbed by the appearance of croak—“Now the Great Bear and Pleiades”, for example. Acting-wise, there was not an iota of danger in Heppner’s Grimes, who is more of the good-humoured teddy-bear type. Then there’s also Heppner’s physique which doesn’t exactly evoke the years of food rationing and destitution.

On he other hand, Alan Held was an excellent Captain Balstrode, and the mezzos were good – Jill Grove as a cleared-voiced Auntie audible in every ensemble and Judith Christin as the wobbly, laudanum-addicted Mrs Sedley. Peter Barrett, Roger Honeywell and other smaller roles created memorable characters.

The two nieces were okay but there was absolutely no “gutter” in either–nothing in their frilliness to indicate they are conscious of what their real profession is (which happens to be the same as Mrs Warren’s). Ileana Montalbetti is a growing singer and it will be interesting to see how she settles into the heavier repertoire further in her career. As Ellen Orford, her voice showcased its trademark metallic sheen, which you’ll like if you like that kind of thing for this kind of role.

But never mind the odd singer quibble: I will go to see Grimes again, as I can’t wait to bite into that multi-layered orchestral and choral cake again.

0594 - Captain Balstrode and Auntie

All photos by Michael Cooper / Canadian Opera Company.  Top, Ileana Montalbetti and several of the comprimario singers surrounded by the chorus. One down, Ben Heppner as Peter Grimes and Jakob Janutka as John the apprentice. Final picture: Jill Grove as Auntie and Alan Held as Captain Balstrode.

Karina Gauvin sings Britten’s Les Illuminations with TSO

Karina Gauvin, soprano
Jean-Marie Zeitouni, conductor
Toronto Symphony Orchestra 

Fauré: Pelléas et Mélisande
Britten: Les Illuminations for Soprano and String Orchestra
Brahms: Symphony No. 4

What Gauvin can do with this song cycle we already know thanks to the ATMA Classique CD from 2009, which the soprano recorded with Les Violons du roy and the same conductor, Jean-Marie Zeituni, that we saw last night with Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Even so, the flawless recording pales in comparison with the live performance.

The first obvious thing was Gauvin’s charisma and a kind of sexy exuberance and [Fernando is right] sophistication. Then there is her absolute command of the text. Rimbaud’s song cycle has no discernable narration or drama. It consists of dissociated impressions, symbols, mythical creatures against a background of tumultuous urban flânerie, all conveyed in a language of dense musicality. (An example:

Quels hommes mûrs ! Des yeux hébétés à la façon de la nuit d’été, rouges et noirs, tricolores, d’acier piqué d’étoiles d’or ; des faciès déformés, plombés, blêmis, incendiés ; des enrouements folâtres ! La démarche cruelle des oripeaux ….

Chinois, Hottentots, bohémiens, niais, hyènes, Molochs, vieilles démences, démons sinistres, ils mêlent les tours populaires, maternels, avec les poses et les tendresses bestiales. Ils interpréteraient des pièces nouvelles et des chansons “bonnes filles”. Maîtres jongleurs, ils transforment le lieu et les personnes, et usent de la comédie magnétique. )

Some of the sections in the cycle (“Villes”, and “Parade”, for example) the editor Britten shortened, and others left out entirely.* According to Ian Bostridge (A Singer’s Notebook), “Les Illuminations is full of young man’s anger” and its writer and composer were at similar crossroads and of similar disposition at the time of respective creation of the cycle. If this sounds like a plaidoyer for a masculinist and homosocial reading of the work — and Bostridge reminds that the cycle eventually “became a part of [Peter] Pears’ repertoire” — none of it rang particularly important last night. Gauvin embodied — to say that she sung it would not be enough — the text as something that’s easy to understand and to live, and made a winning case for a flâneuse and female artist.

And without a music stand. And while wearing a bold, expressive dress which she never let speak out of  turn.

The strings-only orchestration is exciting all the way through. The first section, “Fanfares” is a commentary (send-up?) of this, usually brass-y, form of musical announcement. Here, the violas engage with the violins in a call-and-response until the tensing buzz of the secondary strings becomes dominant and the soprano cuts through: “J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage!”, to be followed by a lyrical violin solo which silences everything down.

Other sections are varied and unpredictable in similar vein. “Villes” is busy and chaotic, “Phrase” uses very little, almost nothing in the way of musical material to create stunning lyricism, in “Antique” we observe the music going along, then against the vocal line like sonorous waves… The last exciting section is #8, “Parade”, but Britten won’t end on a loud “ta-da”, of course. “Départ” concludes the cycle, with very few and very long notes with no resolution, the voice leading the instruments. Assez vu… Assez eu…  Assez connu… Départ dans l’affection et le bruit neufs!

PS: At the intermission, Gauvin said she would be singing operatic roles in the near future at Glyndebourne, Bavarian Staatsoper and will become Vitellia for a Paris opera house. At the signing after the performance, I asked her about the roles, and for Glyndebourne it will be Armida in Handel’s Rinaldo and in Munich  Giunone in Cavalli’s La Calisto. Also NB: The recording of Giulio Cesare with Marie-Nicole Lemieux in the title role and KG as Cleopatra is now completed and the CD should be out with Naive soon.

*(Here’s a good edition of the complete Les Illuminations with the all-important critical commentary.)

There’s Plato in them canals

There’s Plato in them canals

(l – r) David Hurwitz, Peter Savidge as the Old Gondolier, Alan Oke as Gustav von Aschenbach and Caleb McMullen in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of Death in Venice, 2010. Photo by Michael Cooper.

“We abandoned the good habit of printing the list of motifs for every opera that contains them,” lamented the Death in Venice conductor Steuart Bedford before proceeding to play on the piano the key motifs for us, the audience at the COC’s Opera Exchange this past Saturday. There is the motif associated with all the shadowy characters played by the baritone (the passenger, the gondolier, the barber, etc); the plague has its own motif, the beautiful view has one, Venice of course too, the presence of Tadzio’s mother is always announced with her motif, and Tadzio couldn’t have been left without one. In accordance with the leanness, you could say discretion, of the work itself, some of these motifs are only a few notes. Although under the normal circumstance the motifs and paying attention to them is only there so post-Wagnerian musicologists will have something to do with their lives (props to you, my friends), in Death in Venice they are another important layer to discern and appreciate. It’s a sparse but very complex – or as the Grove Book of Operas put it, restrained and intense – musical work.

In the COC’s production of DiV, the reviews have not been lying, this fragile complexity is handled with apt hands. It’s become almost a habit to dress the Venetian guests in elegant white from one production to another, and keep the components of the set in basic geometrical shapes. What makes Yoshi Oida and Tom Schenk’s staging stand out is the innovative use of video. Finally a production that is aware of contemporary visual/media arts, and that is not afraid to use them. At the perspectival center, TS-YO have placed a small video screen that during certain scenes shows video images, during others becomes a tilted mirror, and other times goes off and becomes imperceptible. The video images shown are sometimes abstract, sometimes contain an extreme closeup of an object (which, just like the musical motifs, may come back in a later image reworked), occasionally you wonder if you’re looking at a still or if there’s the time component after all. All this matters hugely in the context of a scene taking place before your eyes. One wonders if the screen communicates with the score in any way. Something to watch for at the next viewing.

Alan Oke, front, as Gustav von Aschenbach in the Canadian Opera Company production of Death in Venice, 2010. Photo by Michael Cooper.

Those of us who love Proust will find distant echoes of Noms de pays: le nom, and À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs in the costumes and the atmosphere. But this is not where literary allusions end. There’s a strong Colm Tóibín presence here, and through his Master, a dash of Henry James as well. Tóibín is great with the prose of unactualized desire, and contrary to the notion (which I hold on even dates too), not all gay men lit is about getting it on (nor all lesbian lit about never getting any). There’s a remarkable tradition of writing of the male same-sex desire being halted before it can even articulate itself, and Death in Venice (and Tóibín, and possibly Henry James) are its notable reps.

What makes Britten’s opera (not Mann’s novella) in certain accord with Nabokov’s Lolita is the set of characters sung by the baritone, which is the opera’s own Clare Quilty. Those are the kind of characters who by some whim of gods always know more about us than we do ourselves — those able to read our actions one step ahead of us. Much in Venice depends on the baritone, and Peter Savidge in this production inhabits his many roles with gusto. In the scenes when he is not singing, the intelligent stage direction has him sitting in the dark corner of the stage next to the rack where all his costumes are hanging. He observes Aschenbach incessantly. When his ultimate role gets revealed and as Dionysius he sings of surrender to temptation, we are grateful that Britten and the librettist Myfanwy Piper adopted the Greek (via Nietzsche, probably) and not the Christian mythology. How much worse the text would be if the shadowy character following Aschenbach was some sort of a Mefistofele.

(l – r) Alan Oke as Gustav von Aschenbach and Peter Savidge as the Hotel Manager in the Canadian Opera Company production of Death in Venice. Photo by Michael Cooper.

That Piper and Britten created a philosophical, Greek narrative and not a Catholic morality tale illustrates another fundamental in the texture of the opera, Aschenbach’s Platonic musings on the role of art and beauty and whether they distract and mystify or sharpen our minds and attune our ethical capabilities. When Aschenbach is alone with his thoughts, he is given a piano solo accompaniment, with a lot of a capella almost-parlando. On more than one occasion, he seems to channel some of the talkers in Plato’s Phaedrus or the Symposium. Yes, beauty can derail us from our purpose and make us mad with passion, but also “beauty is the only form of spirit that the eye can see,” so “brings to the outcast soul reflections of divinity.” This is classic stuff, expanded on by Plato’s disobedient 20th century niece, Iris Murdoch, which Piper and Britten must have read. (At one point, Aschenbach sounded like he was quoting from the ‘Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists’. I almost squealed. Myfanwy and John Piper knew Natasha and Stephen Spender, who were very close to Iris Murdoch and John Bayley, so they might have known IM personally as well. Still poring over the online Indices of the various memoirs for evidence of this.)

Alan Oke deserves all the praise he’s been receiving in this role, for making the very difficult traits to sing – self deception, resignation in the face of death, inertia, fear of being transparent to strangers, complete aloneness in the world, devotion to a fantasy, and yes, philosophical debates with oneself – so believable. Even diction is so precise that you don’t need to consult the surtitles.

And there is something fantastically befitting about the fact that Tadzio is Pickering-born. A fresh-faced boy next door who was involved in Peter Pan and So You Think You Can Dance Canada, Adam Sergison has just the right CV for the role (did Piper also write artist bios? I wouldn’t be surprised). All this familiarity works well in contrast with the boy’s musical foreignness and his status outside a shared language. Musically, Tadzio is heterophonia – Britten gave him materials of foreign origin, the gamelan-like tuned percussions (says my Grove, so not quite gamelan itself). Britten used the ghost of gamelan in other operas (The Turn of the Screw, A Midsummer Night’s Dream) for the music associated with characters who disturb, among other things, the safe sexual binarism (Peter Quint, Oberon), and this time the “distant, inarticulate figure of the boy who is beloved”* gets it as his identity. I was also reminded of the sound of a toy xylophone played by a child – it was a kind of audio that goes with childhood. All this marks Tadzio as both a regular, familiar boy and in Aschenbach’s vision the most foreign creature possible.

In the last scene with Aschenbach dying, the Tadzio percussion is let into the orchestra as it were and played with the strings etc. of the rest of the score, but although Tadzio’s and Aschenbach’s music are not exactly merging, that they are now being played side by side, that that finally occupy the same segment of time, is an excellent ending.

Choreography is important in DiV, and Daniela Kurz doesn’t disappoint. Very often choreographers maintain and play with elements of the classical ballet in DiV dance, and there’s a good reason for that. There’s that whole conversation with the Apollonian in art, with forms and rules and how far one goes exploding them. The dancing characters also reflect this, most explicitly so in the episode with the Apollonian games. For all this (and the characters’ bourgeois propriety besides), the choreography itself will always be fairly classical. Meanwhile, let’s not forget that the choreographer in 1973 was the legendary Frederick Ashton. **


* Philip Brett, ‘Eros and Orientalism in Britten’s Operas’ in Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology (Second Edition), Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood, Gary C. Thomas (eds.), Routledge 2006

** The Frederick Ashton archives

DEAR READER: If you made it this far, I’m buying you a drink. Apologies for the length of this post, the next production reviewed will probably be Nixon in China, so no literary or philosophical refs to distract from the John Adams fun. I heard him on the radio say something along the lines of “biologically humans are predetermined to seek harmonic cords and a solution to dissonance”.  My man! Fun and games from now on.

October planner

October planner

Enjoy heaven, La Stupenda Diva

For us earthlings, listening tips for the rest of October:

Tonight, 8:oo EST: Vivavoce plays
Wolfgang Amadeus MozartDie Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio)
Edita Gruberova [Konstanze], Kathleen Battle [Blonde], Gösta Winbergh [Belmonte], Vienna State Opera Concert Chorus, Vienna Philharmonic, Sir Georg Solti (conductor) Listen here

(thanks to THẢ DIỀU for the Vivavoce info)

16 October — The Opera Exchange: Death in Venice gets new life in Toronto
9:30-10:30 Stephen Ralls and Steuart Bedford “Personal Reflections on the Premiere”
10:30-11:15 Lloyd Whitesell, Schulich School of Music, McGill University “Notes of Unbelonging”
11:15-11:45 Coffee break
11:45-1:00 Linda Hutcheon, Michael Hutcheon, Kimberly Canton, Amelia DeFalco, Katherine Larson, and Helmut Reichenbächer, with Lawrence Williford (tenor) “Britten’s Last Years and Late Style”
Tickets can also be purchased at the door

If you’re not there or decide to leave early, you can catch

October 16, 1:00 p. m. — CBC Saturday Afternoon at the Opera plays Carlo, Re d’Allemagna by Alessandro Scarlatti. Stavanger Sinfoniorkester (Norway), Fabio Biondi, violin & conductor. Voices: Romina Basso, contralto [King Lotario I, Emperor of Germany] / Roberta Invernizzi, soprano [Princess Giuditta, Empress Dowager] / Marina de Liso, mezzo-soprano [Princess Gildippe, her daughter] / Marianne B. Kielland, mezzo-soprano [Prince Adalgiso, Lotario’s son] / Carlo Vincentio Allemano, tenor [Berardo, a knight]. To listen online, click here (select Eastern Time).

16 October, 7:30 p. m.Death in Venice opens at the COC

20 21 October, 8:00 p.m. — Wolfgang Amadeus MozartIdomeneo on Vivavoce
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor) [Idomeneo],  Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano) [Idamante],  Sylvia McNair [Ilia], Hillevi Martinpelto [Elettra], The Monteverdi Choir, The English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner (conductor). Listen here. This is one of (many, granted) von Otter’s best roles.

29 October, 8:00 p. m. — Wolfgang Amadeus MozartLe nozze di Figaro on Vivavoce
Thomas Hampson (baritone) [Count Almaviva], Kiri Te Kanawa (soprano) [Countess Almaviva], Dawn Upshaw (soprano) [Susanna], Ferruccio Furlanetto (bass) [Figaro], Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano) [Cherubino], Tatiana Troyanos [Marcellina], The Metropolitan Opera Chorus, The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra,  James Levine (conductor) An all-star cast. If you don’t already own the CD, listen here

30 October, 7:30 p. m. Opera Atelier opens Acis and Galatea. Description, cast, tickets here. WholeNote did a profile of OA’s Artistic Directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, which is worth checking out.

31 October, 10 a. m., Varsity Cinema at Manulife, 55 Bloor WGeneral Manager of the Met Peter Gelb will be talking about The Met: Live in HD and how broadcasting is changing opera.  To purchase tickets and get more info: click.

What happens in Venice, stays in the canon

What happens in Venice, stays in the canon

Alan Bennett‘s latest National Theatre play The Habit of Art spurred more interest in an opera that is already firmly in the operatic canon, Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice. The play was simulcast in movie theatres across the world earlier this year and if you missed it you ought to get a DVD when it becomes available. It brings together W H Auden and Benjamin Britten for a tension-filled chat about the opera Britten’s working on, based on the novella by Thomas Mann and involving a man obsessed by a boy. The encounter is imaginary — it seems that Britten never considered Auden as a potential librettist for the Death — but the history between the two men in the play isn’t.

Richard Griffiths (Auden), Adrian Scarborough (biographer Humphrey Carpenter) and Alex Jennings (Britten), in the Habit of Art, National Theatre London
Richard Griffiths (Auden), Adrian Scarborough (biographer Humphrey Carpenter) and Alex Jennings (Britten), in the Habit of Art, National Theatre London

There is plenty in the play for the lovers of Britten’s music. The strategically placed audio excerpts from Peter Grimes and his other works are an important part of the play, but there’s also a lot of lively give and take between the two about Britten’s way of working, his place in the western music canon, his de facto husband Peter Pears (who, as we hear more than once with a tone of foreboding, is at the moment far away, “in Toronto”) and his coping with his inner censor. “Death in Venice! Imagine what Strauss would do with that,” says Auden/Fitz wistfully on one occasion. “Yes, sea is your thing, isn’t it,” it occurs to him how to classify Britten on another. In one particularly heated exchange, he urges Britten to drop the mythological mystification, Apollos and Dionysuses and all the high brow obfuscation about lost innocence when it’s really all about boys to begin with. He urges Britten to admit to himself that it is all about boys, and that that is just as good.

Worth reading is Alan Bennett’s own account on why he wrote the play, what sources he used and why he believes himself to be closer to Britten, and even the visiting rent boy, rather than Auden. UK’s National Theatre also posted a short clip from the documentary about the two lives and the play, which contains many gems. (If you go here and click on Alan Bennett Short Film, you’ll get there. NT is keeping its clips close to its Flash chest.)

Benjamin Britten on Lowestoft sea wall, 1929. Photo: Britten-Pears Foundation
Benjamin Britten on Lowestoft sea wall, 1929. Photo: Britten-Pears Foundation

The Canadian Opera Company is putting on Death in Venice in mid-October this year, with Alan Oke as Gustav von Aschenbach. Oke already performed in the role in many productions to acclaim (“Ever since Peter Pears and Anthony Rolfe Johnson…” and so on). There is a photo gallery on the COC site of a Opera Lyon production with Oke, but in thumbnail size. The audio files — yes, those still exist on some websites, and COC has yet to discover YouTube — are from an earlier Death conducted by Steuart Bedford, with the English Chamber Orchestra, Members of The English Opera Group and Peter Pears as Aschenbach. Bedford will conduct the upcoming COC production.

Meanwhile, here’s a reportage from the recent gorgeous Staatsoper Hamburg staging: