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.

The Death of Maria Malibran by Werner Schroeter

The Death of Maria Malibran by Werner Schroeter

Just found out about this film and about this event on Sunday:

Werner Schroeter made a film (a “delirious biography”) about one of the greatest mezzos in history. The Tiff-Cinemateque has a Schroeter retrospective happening this month and the film is being shown on November 25. The COC’s GenMan Alexander Neef introduces the work.

Anybody seen it? Apparently Foucault was a fan.

Suzie LeBlanc and Robert Kortgaard Recital Series ‘Tis the last rose of summer’

Suzie LeBlanc and Robert Kortgaard Recital Series ‘Tis the last rose of summer’

A serendipitous night was had.

Soprano Suzie LeBlanc is currently touring with pianist Robert Kortgaard the ‘Tis the last rose of summer’ series, mostly in smaller towns in Ontario and Quebec. It’s a carefully programmed recital loosely based on the theme of the rose – and this includes a wide range of Lieder, as well as some Acadian folk, the Irish traditional giving the name to the series, a chanson, and two newly commissioned pieces for the Elizabeth Bishop Legacy Recording Project.

I attended the concert they gave last night in Waterloo, hosted by Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Music Society, which is an entirely privately run music presenter with a remarkable reputation. (Have a look at their season.) The venue itself is the presenter’s own home, with the biggest room in the house equipped as a concert hall. Tickets and CDs are bought in the kitchen. It really is a nifty idea and execution, and it beats me why more people of means in Toronto don’t do this kind of thing. (James Stewart’s Integral House concerts are for his friends only.)

LeBlanc started with Schubert, moved to Mozart, then to the eighteen-year-old Richard Strauss, and ended with Poulenc. Kortgaard played Schumann‘s ‘Arabeske’ and Poulenc’s ‘Homage à Edith Piaf’. LeBlanc is a great communicator, so each song was introduced with a little narrative, either poetic and melancholy, or funny, or personal. She did her research. They both commented on the shifting between C Major and C Minor among the songs they chose for the first section, the somewhat more ‘rosey’ part of the concert.

After the intermission, the tone was significantly changed with FaurĂ©‘s ‘Les Roses d’Ispahan’, ‘Nuit d’Ă©toiles’ by a contemporary composer Jeff Smallman, and back to Strauss with ‘Die Nacht’. Acadian ‘EvangĂ©line’, Kosma/PrĂ©vert, the ‘Tis the last’ traditional and Mendelssohn‘s piano variation of the same bridged us to the final song, Ben Moore’s setting of Elizabeth Bishop‘s ‘I am in need of music’. Before that, however, LeBlanc talked about how Bishop’s poems changed her life and got her to move to Nova Scotia from Montreal, and the EB Legacy Recording Project, essentially a series of new commissions of art songs based on Bishop’s poems. Then she read a poem by Bishop — possibly the highlight of the evening: a great artist delving in her non-primary medium, an intimate setting, and a very erotic and very complicated to read poem. Which happens to be about another woman. (You can read ‘Vague Poem (Vaguely Love Poem)’ on page 16 of this file.)

After the concert, since the rumour had spread around the room that I was the crazy person who took a bus to get there, Robert offered to give me a ride back to town. Suzie LeBlanc was in the same car. (!!!! That is how concerts should end: the artists leave with you. Thank you, Waterloo.) It was the most pleasant ride in the history of slow Ontario rides in wee hours through thick fog and lanes of construction work.  (Thank you, construction works.)

The recital itself was the sort of event we rarely see in Toronto any more. The Koerner Hall is closing down its recital series, the Aldeburgh Connections was 1) unaffordable ($50 for all tickets, non-negotiable, was not reasonable), 2) closing this year. The Glen Gould Studio Canadian Voices Series happens every once in a blue moon–Alyson McHardy’s recital is all the way in April. Gallery 345 and the odd small venue do recitals, but again infrequently. From the other direction comes Michael Holt and Marcel Aucoin’s The Piano Salon, a series taking place in private homes, but the energy of that series is petering out these days. More people should know about it and more musicians should embrace it, so more money will be earned from it–at the moment it is PWYC, with most people paying nothing at all. Till the twain meet,  there shall be a visible gap.

People with decent houses in Toronto — the ball is in your court.

Prima Donna — Karina Gauvin’s new CD

Karina Gauvin Prima Donna with Arion Orchestre Baroque, music director Alexander Weimann. ATMA Classique, 2012. Presto Classical, Grigorian, Amazon.

All the arias by Handel in this collection were either created or reworked in revivals specifically for soprano Anna Maria Strada del Pò.

A few on the playlist are little known Handel, the role of Adelaide in Lotario, and Elmira from Sosarme, for instance. “Scherza in mar” from Lotario is one of those treasures in miniature form, with the A section stating that a small ship sailing serenely will be easily drowned by the sea storm that is likely gathering, and the section B insisting that no, the narrator’s soul will not yield to fear if faced with similar rage of fate, even if it brings death. The music expresses all the changes of imagery and the coloratura runs in waves of a restless sea.

“Dite pace” from Sosarme is probably the fastest, most fireworks-y aria on the disc, a scream aimed toward the implacable heavens. “Tortorella se rimira” from Astianatte, not by Handel but by Leonardo Vinci (1696-1730), is in a resigned andante, about a turtle dove observing her companion caught in a snare. In addition to the usual (agile, dazzling Gauvin coloratura), there are moments of onomatopoeic gurgle of a turtle, and also some incredibly measured and mellifluous ornamentation in the second round.

In the less obscure group, there are two Angelica arias from Handel’s Orlando (“No, non potra” and “Verdi pianti”) and one from Flavio (“Da te parto”). Then there is the block-buster section of the recording, comprised of Alcina arias, the role also written for del Pò. You may think, do I need to hear Alcina’s arias one more time, after so many brilliant renditions, recorded and live? Yes, you do: Gauvin reinvents these to sound like you’re hearing them for the first time. Beginning from the recit “Ah Ruggier crudel” which sounds like a dramatic aria in Gauvin’s treatment, continuing with “Ombre pallide”, “Si, son quella” and “Ah mio cor” all sounding unfamiliarly beautiful. There’s the usual Gauvin metallic sheen and ease across the registers, serious darkness in the gravi, the muscle in the middle, and the gleaming top, but also a dramatic subtlety of the type in evidence in a live opera performance, and a full ownership the text.

One qualm: would have been nice to read the names of musicians and what instruments they are playing, but the booklet only lists the director Alexander Weimann for the entire Arion Orchestre Baroque. One big cheer: it’s fantastic that the government of Canada, through Canada Music Fund, invests in musical culture by helping to fund recordings like this one.

‘Hannah Arendt’ is brilliant

Margarethe von Trotta’s latest, Hannah Arendt, is complex, smart as hell, ethically discerning, politically brave, unique (I can’t think of another good film about a philosopher or about the drama of thinking), sexy (and it makes theory sexy), and feminist to boot. Words fail just now, there are too many of all sorts, but maybe later I’ll be able to curate them and more will be said.

Margarethe von Trotta flanked by (to her right) co-screenplay writer Pam Katz and TIFF programmer Cameron Bailey, and to the left Barbara Sukowa (who played Arendt in the film) and main producer whose name I rudely forgot.

‘Quartet’ opens at the TIFF

‘Quartet’ opens at the TIFF

Best things first.

The small roles and extras in the film are actual retired musicians, whose names and accomplishments we get to see during the closing credits. All the singing and playing in the film is done by them. The recorded music, when it’s being played in scenes, is borrowed from some of the classical editions. @GingerHat recognized Ileana Cotrubaş in ‘Caro nome’, which Maggie Smith’s Jean listens to in a scene as her own youthful rendition.

The Gwyneth Jones plays a small but characterful role of Ann Langley, a retired soprano who, by tacit agreement of all residents, was and still is the greatest talent of them all. She remains on the sidelines of the story, and only gets a few catty exchanges with Maggie Smith and the odd opportunity for silent comedic acting, which Dame Gwyneth uses really well. She gets to sing a bit of ‘Vissi d’arte’ near the end.

The best developed characters of the five or six main ones are Cecily of the fast-losing marbles (played by Pauline Collins) and the brooding tenor Reggie (Tom Courtenay) who gets a scene in which he explains the similarities between hip-hop and opera.

There was also the stardust factor. The four principals were there the entire evening, Hoffman and La Smith caused greatest decibels in this pagan love fest. Mags looked amazeballs.

The all-too-brief Q&A was the best bit. “What got you interested in this script,” somebody from the audience asked Hoffman, and he explained  that he had hung around opera singers when he was roommate with Robert Duvall, “back in the days when we were all still waiting tables”. They are amazing people, he went on, and “are they ever horny! They put actors to shame! They have sex between arias, I tell ya”. In another answer, he shared his displeasure by how their ‘industry’ and the society in general discard the singers after they reach a certain age.

As for the film itself… It really isn’t a very good film at all. Fakery abounds. The musicians’ retirement residence is a seventeenth-century manor with spectacular gardens and sports fields, surrounded by the walkable and very romantic forests and hills. (The manor-residence possibly comes from the desire to hitch on to some of the Downton Abbey success.) Its future funding (from the phantom donors) seems to depend on whether or not Jean the Star joins the other three retired singing stars in the annual gala. The drama therefore hinges on this absurd premise. All the characters but the two I mentioned are somewhere on the spectrum from slight to a crude stereotype, so we have a horny baritone with no inhibitions, a slutty French food server, a self-centred, flamboyantly dressed director, a compassionate Black nurse, a former conductor so poorly drawn it’s a waste of Andrew Sachs. Maggie Smith plays a version of the Dowager Countess, a diva character with many acid lines and absolutely no emotional plausibility. Why can’t she sing with the rest of them at the gala? Because she can’t. Why did her marriage with Reggie end in acrimony which he still can’t overcome? She had a fling with a tenor at La Scala after one drink too many, so the man immediately divorced her. (You wonder if Ronald Harwood — or is it the producers and editors of the film to blame? — ever met anybody who’s been married.) Sissy’s condition worsens (more sources of fake drama!) after Jean angrily throws a bouquet of flowers at her (I kid you not). The film can’t really tell anything truthful about the lives of aging and old artists, or about marriage, or about singing. Which is too bad. This is probably one of the worst films I’ve seen this year, and based on the names involved, it should have been one of the best.

Here’s the Rigoletto quartet that they rehearse for the gala. I should say, seemingly rehearse: all the singing and coaching scenes are covered by other audio, and we don’t even get to see one second of the lip-synced final performance of the quartet.

Pictures from our mid-orchestra row, courtesy of Ginger Hat:

Victoria Wood on music education

Victoria Wood on music education

As I might have mentioned before, Victoria Wood is a goddess.

Here’s a recent clip in which she explains why she supports a UK charity that provides means of musical expression to hospitalized children with complex health problems. “Music is not about exams, qualifications, carrying instruments on trains…”

In another interview, she gets into a righteous rant against music lessons becoming the extracurricular activity that is affordable only to children from the middle and upper classes.

Recently a good man from a far corner of the interwebs sent me the digital file of an early Vic Wood live performance, Lucky Bag, which has only ever been issued as an LP. So much wonderfulness there, and the odd mention of the operatic form worked into monologues and songs. Opera reappears here and there in her subsequent work too, in TV sketches in particular.

From the Desk of Helena Whitbread II

…in which Anne Lister meets a certain Italian diva.

On Friday 27th July, Helena Whitbread writes:

Spent a pleasant day in York yesterday with sister Eileen and daughter Claire. Had lunch at the historic Assembly Rooms (now an Italian restaurant). Strange to think that, the day before our visit, I was writing, as her biographer, about Anne Lister’s presence in that very same room, almost two hundred years ago, when the officers of the 2d Dragoon Guards, who were stationed at York barracks, had given a ball there. The ambience, of course, was totally changed. Where Anne Lister would have seen gorgeously dressed women in long gowns dancing sedately with their partners under candle-lit chandeliers we were met with a rather disillusioning scenario of white and red ultra modern and functional tables and chairs, occupied mostly by mothers and children (it is the summer school holidays here in England).

Despite the discouraging lack of atmosphere, if I closed my eyes (and ears!) I could almost visualise her, standing by one of the pillars in the room, dressed in her customary black attire. “…My dyed satin made into a slip. A striped black gauze over it, prettily trimmed round the bottom. Blond round the top. I looked very well.” (Anne Lister Wed. 9th April 1823.) I raised my glass of Italian wine to her – in silent acknowledgement of her non-visible presence!

Things got a little better once we had walked to York Minster, where Anne had often worshipped and where, also, the great Italian soprano, Catalani, sang. In September 1823, Madame Catalani gave a four-day concert there and Anne attended each day. On Sunday 28th September 1823 the singer dined at the home of the Belcombe family in Petergate York. Anne was also at that dinner.

We had a final glimpse of the historic York that Anne would have known when we sat for a while in the tranquility of the walled garden attached to the Treasurer’s House, just behind the Minster. Oh, yes – Anne’s spirit is still to be found haunting the streets and corners of that medieval city if one knows where to look.

From the Desk of Helena Whitbread is a series of e-vignettes sent to us from Helena in the course of her work on the biography of Anne Lister.

The Otter News, Evening Edition

The Otter News, Evening Edition

So Toronto International Film Festival announced at a presser today some of its programming for this year.

It turns out that the long-awaited A Late Quartet (which readers of the Otter Papers will remember being discussed way back when) will  finally see light of day — at TIFF in September. Will von Otter’s role still be in? The IMDB still lists her as one of the cast. As soon as TIFF gets out their detailed program in print and as web pages, I will report.

A Late Quartet is not to be mistaken for Quartet, based on Ronald Harwood’s play, directed by Dustin Hoffman, UK-filmed and full of fantabulous British actors playing retired opera singers. Among whom is Maggie Smith. That film – and Maggie Smith – will also be in town for TIFF in September. By now you will have all seen the trailer.

[I will have to wait patiently and see if Haneke’s latest and full of music film Amour will be screened too. Come on. It must.  Ozon  and Cantet are bringing new films to TIFF. Haneke can’t not. ]

But back to Otter News… ASvO returns to Baroque with her latest CD with Cappella Mediterranea @ Naive, Il Sogno Barocco. The digital version of the album can already be purchased at Qobuz, and also sampled. The disc version is out in September. I needn’t say more than that there are Monteverdi duos with Sandrine Piau on the tracklist.

Another Otter CD appeared in the meantime, with a niche label–A Summer’s Day, collection of Swedish Romantic songs with Bengt Forsberg at the piano. Snippety snippets here.

And a reminder! There’s merely 1.5 days left to re-watch favourite bits from the intriguing Giulio Cesare production from Salzburg over on ArteLive.

Finally, for some mezzo-to-mezzo respect, head to WSJ.

“Cornelia is “a new widow,” says Ms. von Otter, “and she has a couple of sad arias. I thought, ‘This is not for me.’ But when Cecilia Bartoli calls, you sit up straight.” Ms. Bartoli “is such a phenomenon—the way she works and sings—and she is a nice person. So I said, ‘Of course.’ “

The Swedish Roots of a Global Talent

Photo by Ewa-Marie Rundquist

Chantal Akerman films Sonia Wieder-Atherton

Chantal Akerman films Sonia Wieder-Atherton

Chantal Akerman filme Sonia Wieder-Atherton (box set: two DVDs and one CD) NaĂŻve, 2011.

This is what getting a love letter from Chantal Akerman must be like.

There are four films here that Akerman made about the cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton, and all largely consist of the footage of Wieder-Atherton playing, either alone or with other musicians. This didn’t sound particularly exciting to me, but then I had never seen SWA play before. It’s an eventful occasion. The camera captures every moment in the SWA interaction with the instrument and every instance of pleasure and melancholy she gets from the music. Akerman’s cinematography also affirms (but does not belabour on) the essentially sexual nature of the playing of an instrument, especially the instrument which involves musician’s entire body, as the cello does.

The first film on Disc One is Avec Sonia Wieder-Atherton, which opens with SWA talking about herself and her musical path. She chose the cello because of the legato, and the possibility of a legato that could last forever; she found home when she started working with the Russian cellist Natalia Shakhovskaia. Her explanation on why she doesn’t divide the repertoire that touches her into historical periods is especially appealing. She is a fascinating artist to listen to talk, but after that initial interview she remains silent and the film is about framing the act of her playing into a cinematic or painting-like frame.

In Avec, Akerman films her, and later her guest musicians, through the doors and partitions of an apartment-like space, in dimmed lights or shade. In the second film, Trois strophes sure le nom de Sacher par Henri Dutilleux, the set up is more filmic. Colours are much livelier although far from naturalistic, and through the window by which SWA plays Dutilleux we see the couple that lives in the building across going about their chores, occasionally pausing at the window to listen.

Disc Two consists of the two-part À l’Est avec Sonia Wieder-Atherton, filmed inWarsaw with the Sinfonia Varsovia orchestra and assorted musicians. The idea for the film came from SWA herself, who wanted to pay homage to the beloved Slavic repertoire. Some of the works had to be transcribed for the cello and the chamber orchestra, and others rearranged, all of which she did with Franck Krawczyk. She is again wearing the white silky blouse (Akerman’s idea from the film one) which delineates and kind of ghosts her movement while bowing. The surrounds and the other musicians are all dark-grey, and again we have a painting-like chiaroscuro (“reminiscent of Flemish painting” is how SWA describes it). All the excitement comes from music – Rachmaninov, Kodaly, Donányi, Prokofiev, Martinů, Tcherepnin and Slavic folk sounding very unfamiliar.

The one CD in the box set is the music score from the movie A Couch in New York, which Akerman directed. (Yes, I know. It’s not a great film. Everybody has jobbing periods in their lives, mmkay?) SWA was in charge of the score and she did the typically remarkable job of reimagining the familiar pieces like Cole Porter’s “Nigtht and Day”. A lot of the music is her own, however. In addition to the cello-piano and cello-violin duos, we have the very intriguing series of cello-drums works on the disc. This score is probably the best thing about that unfortunate film.

This box set is a must for Akermaniacs (among whom I belong), but others may not get as excited by the fact of a brilliant woman behind the camera observing, sensualising, analyzing another brilliant woman in action with a musical instrument as much as I do.