Il Giardino d’Amore concert in Toronto

Maria Guzowska and Katarzyna CichonAs I mentioned in my previous post, the beautiful young people of Il Giardino d’Amore are in town, thanks to the presenter Mooredale Concerts. They performed today, Sunday October 20 at Walter Hall.

What stood out for me:

– the excellent lute and guitar player, Maria Guzowska. She was the only accompanist  to the soprano in Charpentier’s “Celle qui fait tout mon tourment”, for which she also improvised the percussion, and she had another notable solo sections in–if memory serves–Caresana’s “Dorme nimo”. The rest of the time she was a key person in the continuo. I hope we’ll see her again, with this or another band.

– the continuo was good and solid, and held the entire edifice together. Marco Vitale was at the harpsichord and Katarzyna Cichon at the cello: I wish the two were allowed more room to shine and more leadership opportunities and solos. The violins, usually leading the baroque ensemble, were today utterly disjointed (it sounded like there were five of them, rather than three or two, and each sounded differently tuned). One of the violinists came comically under-prepared, with a wrong stash of music and without his own music stand. The music director and the first violin Stefan Plewniak’s own playing in the very first number, Vivaldi’s Concerto for Violin “Il Grosso Mogul”, sounded slightly out of tune. (At first I thought maybe Vivaldi wanted to make a joke so he made the entire concerto chromatic, but no: I came home, listed to another version of the same concerto on Rdio, and realized that that was not the case.) By the final Concerto grosso by Corelli, Il Giardino managed to meld and sound like a real ensemble playing together. But that was the end of the concert. The band did not prepare an encore, although the audience was willing.

Natalia Kawalek has a lovely voice, especially when it travels to its high register. She sang only a short segment from the wonderful “Cessate, omai cessate”, and she sang it well, but it’s a shame that it ended so quickly: I was left wanting to hear more, the entire wide range of this cantata. I was left with the impression of a good voice, somewhat underused and under-challenged in this program. In her second appearance, Zebrowski’s “Suscepit Israel” she showed off her angelic, youthful inflections, and in “Celle qui fait mon tourment” was finally a bit more daring. The text was somewhat under-digested, and she had to rely on the music stand, but all the same, the two of them, Guzowska and Kawalek, managed to pull it off.

– The introductions to the program done by Plewniak at the beginning of each half of the concert did not help one bit! He seemed unprepared, but also as if he did not particularly care to remember what the items in the program are about. Here’s a suggestion: why not somebody else from the ensemble do the intro talk about the program? The music director doesn’t have to do everything. Why not one of the players, or the musician about to sing, tell us more about what we are about to hear? The program itself was rather light, with many short arias, one discarded number and no encores. I have the impression that these musicians can do much better than that.

Il Giardino d’Amore performed at Walter Hall, University of Toronto Department of Music, 80 Queen’s Park Cres.

Il Giardino d'Amore - post concertFar left Marco Vitale, fourth from the left Natalia Kawalek, red trousers Maria Guzowska, next to her with the cello Katarzyna Cichon. Far right, Stefan Plewniak, music director

Hell is a penthouse: Médée in Frankfurt

Hell is a penthouse: Médée in Frankfurt

Médée by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) at the Frankfurt Opera, Bockenheimer Depot. Conductor Andrea Marcon, director David Hermann. Anne Sofie von Otter in the title role. Complete cast and creative HERE. Seen on June 15 and June 17, 2011.

It’s perfectly fitting that the set of the new Frankfurt production of Médée should be a condo penthouse decorated in what can be called the banker modern (Toronto used to have a stockbroker Georgian), with the mandatory Knoll or van der Rohe armchairs, green roof garden, large abstract paintings, stainless steel and marble kitchen and an indoor fountain (for the right fang shui, you see): fitting because Frankfurt is the banking centre of Europe, home of the Deutsche Bank and the European Central Bank, and the only city in Europe with a North American skyline. In David Hermann’s Médée, this apartment is the court of Créon, the seat of the king of the Corinthians, as he’s obviously aware that for power to be portrayed truthfully, one shouldn’t really focus on current European nobility (as Christoph Marthaler did in his Duchesse) or even the heads of governments and politicians. Simon Bailey’s Créon walks around in silk housecoats because he doesn’t have to work: his investments work for him. He spends his days indulging his drives and scheming—there’s something of a whiff of imperial decadence for the age of financial capital. While the libretto by Thomas Corneille allows an ambivalent and even sympathetic readings of Créon as a ruler who, caught between conflicting obligations, chooses to do what’s best for his state, this Créon is, and I salute this directorial choice, an unmitigated scumbag. Another sound choice Hermann made was to make clear that the patriarchy remains a constant, whatever the sources of economic power.  Créon presides over the members of his household and his dependents with a lecherous flair: Jason is his lover, and he has prospects for Orontes as well. His daughters boobs in one scene drive him to distraction. The only person with no sexual allure for him is Médée herself, who is probably dismissed as an older refugee woman with some weird powers and an even weirder ability to love. He doesn’t really fear Médée until much later in the opera, which makes the act 4 scenes of the punishment of Créon even more effective.

There is a clear distinction between a certain kind of world that everybody else gladly plays their part in, and Médée as its impure outsider. Jason and Créuse, the young couple of hotties at the centre of the drama, don’t fare much better as characters either. Jason, sung with clarity and strength by the baby-faced, thoroughly cute twenty-something tenor Julian Prégardien, is a lying and calculating charmer who enjoys playing the hero and everybody’s favourite son. Créuse the Princess is a blonde airhead coquette who laughs at Médée’s entreaties and knows how to use her good looks for her own benefit. It is to the credit of the soprano Christiane Karg’s singing that for brief moments in various beautiful arias, she manages to make Creuse a character we should care for. Beautiful and sentimental very frequently in this production equals lies, and both characters get a lot of beautiful music, both shared and individual. Also interesting in this regard are the duos of Prégardien and von Otter, in which the young guy sings his untruths in a clear, loud, bell-like ring and his aggrieved wife her sincerity in anguished, shaded, not very loud voice (Otter’s lack of humungous volume is well known. À propos, can we stop dividing voices into ‘big’ and ‘small’ and call them ‘more decibelous’ and ‘less decibelous’ or something? Because, there are many ‘small’ voices that are anything but.)

The chorus is permanently stationed in the orchestra pit and there is absolutely no dance on stage. In Act 1, after Jason and Créon have completed their catching-up and fondling, the arrival of the hero Oronte is announced with a pompous fanfare, but there are no troops of the Corinthians and Argians on stage to distract from the interaction of the three men. Oronte (Sebastian Geyer) is a jock dressed in white polo gear (possibly because in his naiveté he believes in fair play? Cricket, polo, same difference to a German audience). He also wears his war wound proudly: there’s a permanent blood stain just under his heart. Since he states that, while indeed he likes military victories like any other hero, his heart is even more “animé par l’amour” for Créon’s daughter, this stain could arguably also come from his affected heart. The three men have a realpolitik conversation about whose marriage to Créuse would be better for the Corinth (Créon favours Jason and he wants him by his side for other reasons, of course), and musically a glorious fanfare with the chorus of the Corinthians and Argians follows. What happens on stage, meanwhile, is one of the most effective scenes in the opera. Unissons-nous en ce grand jour, sing the three characters joined by the crowd, La gloire et l’amour le demendent. Nous ferons triompher la gloire et l’amour. Créon is intrigued by the young hero in more ways than one, and orders him to pull his shirt up so he can see his wound. Jason observes with equal amount of excitement. Créon comes closer, touches the wound, slides his fingers across it, then parallel to the musical crescendo, pokes his finger in with sexual pleasure. The three men disappear to another room.

Not a production that celebrates military heroism, this one.

There is another interesting if less successful reworking of a difficult-to-contemporize scene in Act 2, when Oronte declares his love to Créuse with Jason and Cleone (here the maid of the household, sung by Sharon Carty) present. According to the libretto—and I’m using here the translation in the liner notes of the William Christie 1992 Médée recording—Orontes gives tribute to the Princess and “a small Argian representing Love appears in a chariot drawn by captives of different nations and sexes.” A character called Une Italienne sings about why we shouldn’t fear the many pains of love and should just jump in. What happens here instead is that Créuse and Cleone emerge dressed in fitness leotards and make a pretense of working out under the gaze of the two excited men. Creuse herself sings Chi teme d’amore, Ilgrato martire, O non vuol gioire, O cuore non hà, ecc. in a sort of narcissistic trance.

In the first half of the opera, Médée is mostly pushed around and ridiculed, which she takes with a lot of hand wringing and even humility. From Act 3’s “Quelle prix de mon amour”, however, the real fun begins. The sadness turns into rage into desire for revenge, and the Médéeization of Médée is one of the best “I am fed up and won’t take it any more” scenes ever made. With the re-employment of her magic powers, the pleasure returns: von Otter’s Medee is in a state of rapture during the play of the demons and later in the course of each individual retribution. The scene of the summoning of the demons of Jealousy (Simon Bode) and Vengeance (Vuyani Mlinde) is a tour de force. The two fixers in cool suits and hairdos will remind people of Quentin Tarantino’s fixer characters, but this is actually pure Michael Haneke and his Funny Games. Jealousy adds his own poison to the dress by peeing on it (I wish the white living room furniture was peed on and more property destroyed, but I will accept that the set can’t be remade every evening. Besides, Médée herself bites the lounge chair in a fit at one point). The Demon of Jealousy also vandalizes a large painting by graffitoing it with an anarchist A in the colour of blood. Their spit starts small fires, so a girl can’t complain too much. Médée dares them to a poisoned dress licking contest, which the two demons lose since they become sick and have to go throw up. She also incites her own evil impulses by rubbing the charms of her necklace against her nose in an urgent, ecstatic gesture.

The rest of the proceedings the demons observe silently from their perches. By the book, Médée kills Créon when he sends his guards to apprehend her and she makes them turn around and attack him instead. Our Créon doesn’t have a private army, and what Hermann came up with is a much better solution. While Médée is singing a gentle, loving call Objets agréables, Fantômes aimables, Appaisez les fureurs, de ces farouches cœurs, two freakish versions of her own sons who’ve overgrown their shorts and school uniforms emerge to horrify Créon to madness. This was the absolute most powerful, moving and disturbing scene in this whole shebang for me. Here goes: While they trap him on the couch and the orchestra plays, Médée seated in the armchair turns on her side and goes into a sort of infantile regression: she takes great pleasure in pacifying herself by sucking her thumb and rubbing her earlobe. The horrific scene is ripe with interpretations. Is she in a way enacting her own children—who will forever remain in the thumb-sucking stage since they’re about to be killed; Or, herr Doktor, is the sorceress Médée herself some sort of a pre- or post-genital, multi-focal sexual body?

Créon goes mad and decides to live in his water fountain. He comes out to stab Oronte to death, then kills himself. Créuse has a final moment of glory when she sings her dying aria and the duo with Jason while wearing a dress that releases smoke (a rather hilarious “Quel feu dans mes veins s’allume” it would be but La Karg defended her Créuse well).

Instead of flying away on a dragon, Médée appears in the last scene wearing some sort of a black knitted (crochéd?) mask with some stuff hanging. I don’t quite get the mask, except that it makes Médée even more scary and sexy, but that’s a good enough reason for a weird mask, so no point in whinging, truth be told.

Von Otter’s wig and costumes are fantastic. The hair looked like natural hair under all kinds of lighting, and was the brunette colour the kind I always thought must be her natural colour (though I’ve been wrong before). I don’t know what pact with the devil she made to look this stunningly amazing at the age of 56, but the pact is obviously working. And I fear seeing von Otter in lead roles will become a diminishing opportunity (she’ll sing a small role in Tamerlano in Barcelona this summer, next year Geneviève in a Paris Pelléas and Cornelia in the Bartoli-Whitsun Cesare, which is a waste of a treasure if you want my opinion, and a Clairon in Paris, which is I suppose a little better).

Among my One or Two Things I Know About Opera is now this: whenever there’s von Otter in the lead role, there’s some good gender politics. How do women tend to react to betrayal, to disempowerment—with depression, or with anger? One of the first fundamental and difficult things that feminism taught me is that you can do something from the position of anger, while very little from the position of devastation. This Médée is a sistah, no doubt about that. Magic does happen when a woman abandons fear.

Remaining performaces inFrankfurt: June 23, 24 and 26.

Note:  The Frankfurt Opera doesn’t make the publicity photos available to the media during the run but requires that all, including bloggers, pay the photographer fee. Have a look at the photo gallery, though.

Inventons milles jeux divers

Inventons milles jeux divers

Masques of Orpheus, Toronto Masque Theatre, May 6, 2011

Consisting of:

La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704)

Orpheus and Eurydice by James Rolfe, libretto André Alexis

Artistic director, conductor, violin: Larry Beckwith

Here’s another creature in the vibrant Early Music eco-system of Toronto to cherish and support: the Toronto Masque Theatre, a seven-year-old company which performs pre-opera operas and commissions contemporary works in the spirit of the masque, combining literary, music, dance and visual arts. There’s no other troupe in town that stages works like Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, Purcell’s King ArthurJohn Blow’s Venus and Adonis (in previous seasons) or the 17th-century playwright Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure and Monteverdi’s Il Ballo delle Ingrate (both coming up next year).

The evening was divided into the French Baroque first half, and the contemporary take on the Orpheus story after the intermission, with the same instruments and the same voices as in Charpentier’s Orphée. The small orchestra of the TMT (two violins, two recorders, two viola da gambas, a cello, a lute and a harpsichord) provided delights of the symphonic size. Its players are all well-known musicians in their own right and they played exquisitely as an ensemble. They should be named: Joelle Morton (gamba), Justin Hayes (gamba), Kathleen Kajioka (violin), Alison Melville (recoder), Avery MacLean (recorder), Margaret Gay (cello), Ben Stein (lute), Noam Krieger (harpsichord/organ) . (TMT did not post the full list on their website, so I’m transcribing from the program here instead of linking.) When the goings got stalled on stage, you could always fall back on the orchestra and bask in its sound.

Every now and then, the going did get stalled up on the planks. It took some warm-up time for the performers to own their roles in the act 1, and the chorus voices just wouldn’t gel. Teri Dunn’s Eurydice was very subdued, shy, and often frowned. She sang much better and more freely in the second opera. Much of this piece is carried by the role of Orpheus, the haute-contre who has to show us why his singing is so fuss-worthy both in this world and the underworld, but the tenor Lawrence Wiliford did not exactly set the house on fire. His highs came across as forced, his French articulation could have been better, and volume was out of control occasionally. He was also holding the book in his key scenes, and wearing his RL glasses throughout. (Imagine a female singer singing costumed but with her RL glasses on. No, I know you can’t, because it doesn’t happen.) Wiliford also sung better and was more in control in the second opera.

After the rickety start, however, it was smooth sailing for all the other singers. The chorus became one by the end of act 1, and from the opening of act 2 with the hilarious entrance of Ixion, Tantale and Titye (Timothy Wong, Bud Roach and Peter McGillivray) until the concluding tutti and the choreography, it was one glorious ensemble singing and playing. Baritone Alexander Dobson was flawless as Pluton, soprano Shannon Mercer a charming Proserpine in both operas.

The librettist for the contemporary Orpheus was André Alexis, who came to some additional prominence last year when he published an odd essay which zooms in on John Metcalf and his one or two disciples as the reason for the “state of Canadian literary criticism”. (The piece has since been shredded on multiple occasions, notably by Jeet Heer and by Ryan Bigge’s line up of Alexis’ own reviewing gems.) This libretto is a mixed bag: there are moments of great imagination at work, as well as plenty of tired old conventions. On the up side, the scene in which Orpheus on his way out of the Underworld meets the recently deceased shepherd (excellently rendered by Peter McGillivray) and his three complaining sheep (ditto for Agnes Zsigovics, Timothy Wong and Bud Roach) is original, funny and serious, and perfectly put to music by James Rolfe. On the  down side, we learn that death is “stillness and peace”, Proserpine is a hectoring wife, women love better than men, and Eurydice is still a helpless, wide-eyed and not too smart a lass with zero agency. (Back to the upside, she gets to show off her voice in a lovely solo “Very well, I will sing a song of yours”, something not given to Orpheus this time around).

No matter; James Rolfe’s music and the singing and acting shown by the ensemble could enliven any kind of text. And so they did, and left us with the impression that it all ended too soon.

May you live long and double your productions, TMT.

(And queer it up a little—can we see some men in skirts and women in trousers, and some mezzos and altos on cast? No point in pretending Early Music is a straight traditionalist business. Ever grateful.)

The almost pious baroque

The almost pious baroque

Thanks to Tafelmusik Chamber Choir and Orchestra, we can finally hear the music of Rameau and Charpentier, two rare guests in our town. Handel, the Third Man of the program, is a little more frequent in these parts, but tends to visit as the Messiah and the Water Music. (How about a Handel opera in concert, Tafel? Ariodante or Alcina or an all-female Serse? And please no casting countertenors where the female trouser roles should be. Alright, I’m off the soapbox.) Officially, all three works on the program are sacred music — Handel’s Dixit Dominus, Rameau’s Grand Motet “In convertendo” and Charpentier’s Salve, Regina — but don’t take them for their word.  No piety will be in evidence, luckily. I have the Dixit Dominus CD by The Scholars Baroque Ensemble (with, ahem, countertenors instead of altos… my luck) and it sounds like Vivaldi got really drunk one night and decided to compose an opera in Latin. With dance numbers. You think I’m exaggerating, but go hear for yourself, the muscle cramp-inducing seats at Trinity St. Paul be damned.

Among the many attractions of the performance, the Dutch soprano Johannette Zomer.

Now, I doubt that she will wear that, but who knows, it’s baroque. Above is the picture from the Dutch National Opera’s imaginative 2009 production of Cavalli’Ercole Amante in which La Zomer played three roles.  To have a taste, listen to her Pasitea here or the entire fabulous opera, which outs Hercules as a WWF wrestler and caveman, here in HD. Her recordings are full of good choices and are getting good reviews. The CD of Handel Arias Love and Madness contain stuff from Ariodante, Il trionfo del tempo e disinganno, Rinaldo and Amadigi, paired with the baroque oboe.

[As I’m writing this, I’m listening to Dixit Dominus — the Gloria is raving maaaaad. I’m putting it on Repeat right now.]

Or Zomer’s Caccini CD with Nuove Musiche. Here she’s explaining why she  simply had to include ‘Amarilli, mia bella‘:

What should also take you to the TSP church this week is Rameau’s ‘In convertendo’. Here’s one of the movements, Qui seminant in lacrimis, performed by Les Arts Florissants with soloists, conducted by William Christie.

The entire luscious piece is, thanks to the Mezzo television channel and protestant7, available on YouTube and starts here.

Concert tickets, dates, details.

Nov 11-14, Trinity-St. Paul

Johannette Zomer, soprano

Vicki St. Pierre, mezzo-soprano

Lawrence Wiliford, tenor

Peter Harvey, baritone

Tafelmusik Chamber Choir and Orchestra directed by Ivars Taurins