Arabella reviewed

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

– Tim Albery’s Arabella –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jamie Barton, she who wanders

cover-imageIt’s a joy to discover that Jamie Barton is one of those precious singers who can handle Mahler, although if I were to judge based on the lavish force of her voice, her extroverted bubbly-ness and love of camp, I’d have had doubts. Luckily, her first Lieder recording (with Brian Zeger at the piano) more than convinces that she can do inwardness, sombre colours, subtlety and even, often enough, holding back. About half of the disc is Mahler: the five Rückert-Lieder and three stand-alone songs plucked from other cycles. The Rückert doesn’t leave anything to be desired. “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” is all in the smooth feline legato lines, beautifully sustained and withheld by Barton (and thanks to the translation by Richard Stokes, which replaces “linden” with “lime”, even the text becomes er more fragrant than usual). “Um Mitternacht” is lesson on how to progressively darken a song and how to deliver its atmospheric moodiness and anger at the empty, godless sky. “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” accomplishes to be melancholy without being hopeless; Barton explains in her liner notes that for her the song is not about saying goodbye to the world, but saying goodbye to its harshness and pull and finding a place of calm, and you can sense this in the interpretation. She also goes softly-softly with this one, no excessive statements, and dials it to plaintive whisper by the final verses. “Ich leb’ allein in meinem Himmel, / In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied” is conveyed as a shared intimacy, whispered into one’s ear.

“Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen Wald” (from Mahler’s Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit, Book 2) continues, deliciously, in the same vein. It sounds very light and high and utterly girly.  “Scheiden und Meiden” is a riot; Barton mostly leaves behind the dainty vocality for this one and goes for the full blast, but why not, the song works this way too.

Unsurprisingly—we saw it in her recital at Koerner Hall—Barton is very much at home in Dvořák’s “Gypsy Songs” cycle. The folk-ish, dancey numbers are sung with great ease, but she is at her beautifulest in the introspective and bittersweet songs, “Má píseň zas mi láskou zní” (My song resounds with love), “A les je tichý kolem kol” (All around me the forest is quiet) and especially “Když mne stará matka zpívat, zpívat učívala” (When my old mother taught me singing), which is fevastating.

The Sibelius section that concludes the CD is more of a mixed bag. There’s a thing that a critic said about Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s Rückert-Lieder recording once: “[she] sings here with a monochrome severity”, and that’s a constantly lurking default for the voices of this kind that have great capacity and ripeness. The take-no-prisoners approach works well in “Svarta rosor” because it’s an ink black, terrifying song. The contemplative “Marssnön” just about pulls it through and stays this side of too loud, but the rest of Sibelius on the disc tends to go for too forte and too monochrome. It could also be that by the end of the disc the ear got satiated and is perhaps pining for something unfamiliar to happen? But the Sibelius finale is the only semi-sour note in the recording with plenty of other riches by an artist who will be developing in all kinds of interesting directions in the years ahead.

Orfeo ed Euridice by Laurence Equilbey streaming on demand

Orfeo ed Euridice by Laurence Equilbey streaming on demand

Thadieu was wondering why on earth I wasn’t posting last night during my favourite conductor’s concert, but I was — only on Twitter, while consuming G&Ts and yakking to a number of other people of the increasingly tipsy Twitteriat fellowship.

I had to deal with a hungover of the musicoholic kind all day today.

So the Gluck is on replay here (on Medici.tv also). Not a fan of the counter-tenor voice, so I was secretly casting Marianne Crebassa, Anna Bonitatibus et bloody cetera in the title role while Fagioli sang. He sang well, but it just doesn’t compare, as Bette said to Tina apropos Jodi. (She was wrong about Jodi, mind, so my parallel is rather a wasted one too.)

Amid some splendid music, I was trying to capture a screen grab that would show Equilbey’s lip gloss. Such a thing did appear last night — an extraordinary occurrence. Not much luck with the closeup-weary streaming director, however. And as I was about to give up, this interview appeared.

Ladies and gents, I introduce to you The Lip Gloss.

(For the French-challenged, I translated the convo in Thadieu’s comments section here.)

We interrupt regular programming

We interrupt regular programming

My interview with the great Margaret Drabble now online over on The Believer web exclusives:

The Believer: The golden baby of your novel has a mother who decided to give up a lot. The mother in The Ice Age also, and they both do it quite happily. Before I read the book, I wondered if it was in any way like The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing.

Margaret Drabble: To tell you the truth, I couldn’t really read The Fifth Child. I knew Doris Lessing quite well and I knew I wasn’t going to like it and I know one or two people with children with problems who were cross with her about that book. They thought she’d shown a very bad side of care. She had not been without her own problems and they felt she shouldn’t perhaps be describing other people’s problems in this harsh tone.

BLVR: And the book is almost more about motherhood than about a child with special needs.

MD: Well, Doris was a problematic mother.

BLVR: I didn’t know this before reading it in Gold Baby, but she also had a son with special needs.

MD: From what I’ve learned about The Fifth Child through the grapevine, I imagine she was reflecting on the experience she had had with him. I think it’s lucky that he died before she did.

BLVR: A bit surprised to hear you say that Lessing was a problematic mother.

MD: But she would know that. She left two children behind and brought one with her and clung on to him very close. It’s a strange pattern of mothering. She has also said on the record that she hated her mother. I think the whole area of mothering is to her extremely problematic. She really loved the boy who stayed with her but it was not a calm relationship.

BLVR: And as many of your other novels, this one isn’t just about our own time. It’s also about the period of the British colonization of Africa, and goes back much further, into the archaeological history of the continent. The Seven Sisters hasThe Aeneid in its basis. The Peppered Moth has the matrilinear genetic history of the species and Hellenistic Egypt.

MD: For me, that’s entirely natural, to interpret what’s happening now in terms of the mythology. We get new insights. Some of what we read in classical literature is not relative to our condition, but then many women novelists and poets have turned it upside down and told the stories from the other point of view. I find that fascinating. But it seems natural to put women’s lives today in the context of what went before—either as a contrast or as a development.

I remember I had a lot of fun looking at various translations of the Aeneid. I enjoyed having a sort of background structure that is so far removed from the characters’ lives. In their real lives, a lot of them are quite washed up, really. And then they go off on this heroic journey. And yes, they’re all women.

BLVR: And in your novel A Natural Curiosity it is said that “when we meet our Gorgon, we die”—one character wonders if her sister, who had run away, “had met her Gorgon”. The ancient stuff comes to life in our otherwise mundane present.

MD: It’s very common in poetry, but in the novel you’re being a bit more adventurous when you do it. But it’s just that—I see symbols all around me. And apropos that trilogy I got very interested in things about the severed head and confronting the fate.

For MD’s musical choices, head over to Desert Island Discs, where of course she chose all the right people (i.e. Monteverdi, Bach and Handel; surprisingly no Mozart but bigup for Kurt Weill in the earlier DID).

I am in need of music: Elizabeth Bishop, sung

BishopCDcover

I AM IN NEED OF MUSIC – Songs on poems by Elizabeth Bishop. With Suzie LeBlanc, soprano & various composers. All the info you need

I am working on a profile of Suzie LeBlanc for Opera Canada, so naturally I’ve been listening to her recordings, including the recently published compilation of songs on poems by Elizabeth Bishop put to music by five living Canadian composers.

The texts are, as it is to be expected, fantastic, and the music – by the variety of its vocabulary and the painstaking attuneness to the language – does them more than justice.

Some of Bishop’s poems are anything but ‘realist’, and several on this list are rather oneiric and nocturnal, delving in dreamwork and symbols. “Sunday 4 A.M.” is one such poem, and the care that the composer John Plant took to create for its polysemy a corresponding musical polysemy is extraordinary. He explains some of the process in the liner notes; each composer does this at length, except for Emily Doolittle who chose to do a cryptic note and leave the music to speak for itself.

And does it ever speak. Her interpretation of “A Short, Slow Life” keeps you on your toes for the entirety of its 9-plus minutes. The musical whirlwind that come after the line “along the dark seam of the river” which ends in a silence pierced by a dialogue of a couple of woodwinds, which then grows to include the other instruments while the vocal line prevails over all that stirring with the beautiful echo-y melody – is but one of the details in this piece. Further along, she achieves great effects by sculpting out the musicality of a word for everybody to see, then finding it a mirror/dance partner among the instruments.

The opening three songs are set to the most ‘straightforward’ texts, but their composer Alasdair MacLean luckily did not opt for a straightforward or simple music. Each of the concluding four songs composed by Christos Hatzis has something of the musical and ‘big band’ flair to it, which may or may not be your thing, but “The Unbeliever” is the most complex and unexpected of the four and deserves a close listening.

All songs are sung by Suzie LeBlanc, the godmother of this project and a Bishop devotee ever since she stumbled upon a brochure about the poet in a church in rural Nova Scotia. A bonus DVD disc comes with the CD—the 36min film about a walking/hitchhiking tour through Newfoundland that LeBlanc and filmmaker friend Linda Rae Dornan undertook in 2007 following in the footsteps of Bishop herself. It too is worth seeing.

And of course, I can’t sign out without some EB Herself. Here’s “Close Close”, set to music by MacLean in the disc.

Close close all night
the lovers keep.
They turn together
in their sleep,

close as two pages
in a book
that read each other
in the dark.

Each knows all
the other knows,
learned by heart
from head to toes.

PS: To keep in mind, there was a feature film on EB recently and Barbara Hammer told me in an interview back in March that she was working on some wonderful experimental biographical Bishop madness of her own.

Margarethe von Trotta & Mezzo Love

Margarethe von Trotta & Mezzo Love

Three of my films have music sung by Janet Baker. She was my favorite singer for a very long time. In Christina Klages there’s the Bach cantata, in Sisters there’s Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and in Die bleierne Zeit I put Handel’s cantata “Lucrezia.” I’ve always loved Baker’s singing. For the first film, I couldn’t get the rights… but I happened to meet Alfred Brendel at a dinner, he was friend of a friend, and I told him, “I would like so much to include this song in the film, but the reproduction rights are too expensive,” and so on… He said, “write a letter to Janet Baker and I will give it to her.” So I did, and she wrote me back a wonderful letter in long hand, beginning with “I am so honoured that you would like to include the song…” I made a copy of that letter, and sent it to the publisher and got the permission. I used this letter for the second and the third film as well. There are still two arias of hers that I wanted to put in my films. One is by Monteverdi, Ottavia’s “Addio, Roma.” The other one is a song by Mahler, this perhaps I’ll put in my next film if I get the rights. (In my many moves I seem to have lost the letter!) It’s one of the Rückert Lieder, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”—“I am lost to the world.” Baker has the most wonderful piano. I was a singer myself and I know that to produce a wonderful piano you need great strength. And she has it. [sighs]

Read my interview with von Trotta on The Believer online.

The Vintage von Otter Series continues

The Vintage von Otter Series continues

von Otter as?Anybody know what the production is? I stumbled on the picture many moons ago on the interwebs, but no information. Any guesses? Could be Sesto in a traditional production, but I really wanted to set my eyes on an image of one of her early bel canto roles which she abandoned promptly, so this was simply calling to be called Tancredi. (But probably incorrectly.)

I got into a conversation with an older gent on YouTube last year and he promised he’d scan his copy of the ROH program of von O’s Cenerentola debut for me but he never did it (ball-dropper). So… any programs lurking at the bottom of anybody’s drawers, ladies, gents and inbetweeners, you know how to reach me.

 

Laurence, Always

Excuse me a moment while I worship Laurence Equilbey.

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THE SHIRT.  Should have its own Twitter account.
Laurence Laurence 2

Laurence Laurence 3

The Mass in C minor, for everything.

The first documentary on this list, for the Gremlin-looking doggie
http://www.laurenceequilbey.com/audio-video/audio-video.html

Her tongue-in-cheek yet serious presidential platform (NB: “l’onglet” is a website tab)

This delightful long interview on things musical (one highlight: her techno name is Iko)

My new desktop background
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Miriam Margolyes as Dickens’ women (and a man or two)

Miriam Margolyes as Dickens’ women (and a man or two)

The ever so fabulous Miriam Margolyes was in Toronto last week, for the next-to-last North American stop of the tour of her play Dickens’ Women. (The tour ends in Chicago tonight.) Even though I wasn’t able to make it, DtO’s newest and, fingers crossed, returning contributor Nina Levitt agreed to share her impressions with us

Miriam Margolyes. Photo credit Prudence UptonShe is probably not more than five feet tall even in heels, but Miriam Margolyes is a towering thespian—especially if you somehow manage to get front row seats. That’s where I sat at the Young Center for Margolyes’ final Toronto performance of her one-woman play, Dickens’ Women. The moment the self-described “fat Jewish lesbian” strode onto the stage with her floppy grey “Jewfro” and fiery eyes, I was riveted.

Granted, it is a one-woman show, but Margolyes demanded attention through her powerful presence, and the seemingly endless varieties of English accents she conjured, while using minimal props: three large upholstered chairs, and a replica of a lectern Dickens designed for his readings. (According to Margolyes, the only time Dickens ever earned a significant income was during his reading tours of America). Plus, she seemed to relish performing, something that made her, in and of itself, sparkle somehow. For nearly two hours, Miriam Margolyes-Photo by Prudence Uptonshe effortlessly wove in and out of a sumptuous buffet of Dickens’ female characters—the majors and the minors­—sprinkled with morsels of biography of the man himself.

Margolyes was at her best when she created an assignation between the lecherous Mr. Bumble and the calculating Mrs. Corney (from Oliver Twist). She was able to capture both genders, and the implied physicality of the two characters, simply through voice and gesture while hopping back and forth between two chairs.

I must admit that some of the portraits were difficult to follow. Having only read David Copperfield and Great Expectations (high school English was eons ago), I wasn’t familiar with any of the minor characters. But regardless, listening to Margolyes’ faultless monologues was sheer joy. And who knew Dickens had a lesbian character — Miss Wade, in Little Dorritt?

Thanks, Ninotchka! Let’s hope the Margolyes sparkle gets preserved on DVD for the rest of us to enjoy. Full production credits here. MM was accompanied by the local pianist Peter Tiefanbach. The two photos are by Prudence Upton.