Ariodante by Richard Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q&A: Heather Flemming, Contralto

This is how I first heard of Heather Flemming: the Belgian public radio station has been live-commenting the Queen Elisabeth singing competition back in May (Camille de Rijck was behind the Musiq3 handle), and this popped up in my Twitter feed, followed by the exchange below:

HF TwitterThe rest is, as they say, browser history. I found Heather’s home page (impressive schooling, promising beginnings) and Twitter account and am looking forward to following this young artist as she builds her career.

How did you find your (contralto) voice in the course of your music education and after? My impression is there are never enough contraltos among singers of the younger generations in Canada, and I can’t remember seeing any in competitions and ensemble studios lately. (Is the situation better at McGill and in Quebec in general on this issue?)

Finding my contralto voice has been a journey in itself! I first began singing as a young girl attempting to sing soprano with a rather hefty voice with lack of top register…this was very limiting. It was during my undergraduate degree with a wonderful teacher Monette Gould (still one of my great mentors), that I began exploring the possibility of my voice deepening and adapting to a more natural mezzo-soprano quality. During my masters degree I gained access to my contralto register actually by accident. I was studying with soprano Joanne Kolomyjec when she discovered I had the ability to imitate a ‘false tenor’ voice, impressed with the color, she was able to help me turn this into something useful! At this point I still lacked a top voice and as we were developing the top, my bottom voice began to grow also. This is when we discovered I had the ability and the color to sing contralto repertoire. What often impressed people was that I was able to sing in the contralto register without the sound becoming brassy, edgy or harsh sounding. It maintained a warm quality which I am thankful for.

Yes, I too agree there are not enough of this voice type, especially in the younger generations. It is sometimes a mystery as to why this is. In my opinion, it is not that we have a lack of these voices (though they are indeed, and will always be, a rare breed), it is that there is a lack of opportunities in which to showcase this voice type. We are of the generation of ‘flashy, exciting, high note galore, stratospheric fireworks, which does not lend itself kindly to the contralto, or lower dramatic mezzo-sopranos. Apprenticeship programs rarely take chances on these voice types because they feel it limits their casting. These voice types tend to sing smaller roles, or in some cases, like mine, more Wagnerian or Verdi roles, which younger training programs tend not to program. I wouldn’t say the situation is better at McGill or in Quebec, I would say it is sadly, currently a global issue.

Your appearance at the Queen Elisabeth competition this year was an exciting exception.

Thank you! Yes, the Queen Elizabeth Competition is incredibly selective. I do think being a contralto was both a service as well as a disservice for me. I think being a Canadian contralto helped me in being selected, but it was also difficult for me to compete against the ‘firey’ sopranos and tenors and other voice types with ‘show stopping’ entertaining repertoire. I think biology does have a lot to do with voice type, especially in contraltos: aside the lack of roles/opportunities for this voice type, it is still not a common one.

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We did have a couple of star contraltos in Canada over the last few decades (of course– Lemieux and Forrester) and I hope they helped pave the way for other future contraltos…Were there any of import in the US, or do they tend to end up, due to larger career opportunities, promoting themselves as dramatic mezzos (I’m thinking Dolora Zajick, Stephanie Blythe, Michelle de Young)?

Maureen Forrester has most definitely helped to pave the way for contraltos, however during her ‘reign’ as the Canadian contralto, things were very different in the arts. There were more opportunities for concert work, Mahler symphonies, oratorios etc. It is noted that Forrester rarely performed operatic works, and to be honest, she did not really need to. She was kept very busy as a concert artist, which is much more difficult to do today. Why? Well it just seems that we are of the ‘operatic’ entertainment decade, or what sometimes feels, century! I would say that most contraltos in order to survive in the operatic repertoire, lend themselves to the dramatic mezzo soprano Fach. Yes, all of those mezzo-sopranos mentioned consider themselves dramatic mezzo-sopranos. If you want to be able to make a living you almost need to be able to spread yourself between the two fachs, at least to some degree.

Career paths for a contralto can be tricky. First and foremost, I would advise students to never limit themselves. Contraltos often tend to be placed in a box which can be very restricting, so I strongly advice students to continue to expand their horizons to gain the optimal amount of opportunity. This may mean some opera, some oratorio, passions, masses, concert work, contemporary work. Truthfully, for a career you may need to be a multiple trick pony, so to speak, and grab everything that is handed to you! Never underestimate high notes, though singing a high C may not be necessary for every low voice, contraltos do still need high notes. To me, it sometimes feels that we are the voice type that needs to be able to do it all.

Does the much more extensive and diverse baroque and early music scene in Europe make a huge difference for a contralto? Or maybe the fact that the Mahler lieder and other lieder rep in which a contralto can shine are also more frequently performed there than in N.A.?

It is somewhat true that the concert repertoire, symphonic repertoire and lieder repertoire are more frequently performed in Europe, but I feel that it is because there are so many smaller symphonies and venues in which to gain opportunities. However, though it seems very easy to just ‘cross the pond’ to sing, it is much more difficult than that. Making a name for yourself is very difficult, much more than people realize. Sometimes companies or agencies will only hear you based on your experience level, if you have not yet been engaged with a well recognized company than some will not even take the liberty to hear you. Like many people in multiple professions today, they simply want you to have experience first. However, sometimes it seems that no one will give you the experience…a two edged sword! I am still very much in the process of learning all of this myself and figuring out ways to help get my name out there and to be heard. You could have the best voice in the world, but if no one knows who you are it can be difficult to be recognized.

Heather Flemming Formal HeadshotCompetitions can help for some, but for different reasons, some voices do not compete well. No, not because they lack in ability or beauty of sound, but because winning competitions is hard to do! You must exude a certain level of flashiness; which with some voices, though they may be incredible, have trouble achieving this recognition. I have learned that in some competitions it is not always the best voice that wins, sometimes it is the most entertaining. But of course that is not the truth for all competitions. I continue to remind myself daily, there is not one road to the top and am often reminded of the famous words by Robert Frost “two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by and that has made all the difference.”

Your top five works for contralto that you either performed or would love to perform?

This is a tough one! I am constantly discovering new works each day as I continue to grow in this field. However, if I must choose 5 I would say that my picks for where I am currently in my life would be the following. In no particular order:

  1. Mahler – Urlicht (Symphony No. 2 4th movement) I have not yet sung this piece but REALLY hope to soon! Listen to Maureen Forrester sing this (via the wonderful YouTube) with Glenn Gould conducting and try not shed a tear…I dare you.
  1. Wagner – Weiche Wotan, Weiche! also known as Erda’s aria from Das Rheingold. This is my go-to aria, the one I frequently use for auditions, the one that tends to turn heads or at least have panels look up from staring at my resume during an audition (hehe). It is by no means ‘flashy’ but it is definitely intense!! I have not yet performed this role, but look forward to that someday.
  1. Elgar – Sea Pictures. I have performed this cycle with piano, but hope to sing it with orchestra someday. It is beautiful, descriptive, picturesque and one of the most beautiful works for contralto/mezzo-soprano.
  1. Bach – Es ist Vollbracht (St. John Passion). I am currently working on this aria and am in love with it. I love Bach, my soul sings when I hear Bach. His works have taught me so much about breath support, line, flexibility and musicianship.
  1. Robert Fleming – The Confession Stone (Canadian Cycle). This cycle is dear to my heart, not only because of the text but also because it is some of the best Canadian writing ever written! The piece follows the journey of Mary, told from her perspective, from the birth of Jesus through to His resurrection. It is captivating, moving and chilling and I hope to continue to work on this cycle and perform it throughout my career. Singing in church is where I discovered my voice, as a believer and Christian, sacred works are first and for most my passion and will forever give me grounding and continue to give me reason to sing.

Amore e morte dell’amore CD

Amore e morte dell’amore CD

Amore e morte d'amore CD cover

AMORE E MORTE DELL’AMORE Roberta Invernizzi, Sonia Prina Ensemble Claudiana Dir. Luca Pianca. Naïve, fall 2013. Sample it here

So here is the recording of the early baroque duetti for mezzo and soprano. Whereas several good recent CDs of the Handel duets exist, this is not exactly the case with the Monteverdi & comp era duetti. (One that I recently bumped into really enthralled me. I was resistant to the idea of having a countertenor part of the singing couple, but Rene Jacobs and my oldest mezzo crush Helga Mueller-Molinari are absolutely magical together.)

As I’ve never before heard Monteverdi’s “Mentre vada Angioletta”, this number is probably for me the biggest revelation. The text describes what kinds of sounds the fair Angioletta makes while singing—bends, pushes the harmonies, breaks accents, twists, goes slow, fast, murmurs, the shifting tones then the resting ones, pressing, pouring, eccetera—and the music onomatopoeically mirrors the text at every stage. I knew that madrigals are carnal this way a lot of the time, but this is a whole new level. Multiply all that by two and intertwine the voices, and you’ll get the picture of Angioletta.

The other Monteverdi numbers do not disappoint either. The recording opens with the pleading, chromatic “Interotte speranze” in which the two timbres establish how well they get along, even while beseeching. Maybe a third woman? Or each other? Or is it that one abandoned lover’s voice doubles in suffering? I’ll leave it to you to decide.

The musicians dared to include yet another edition of “Pur ti miro”, but as you’re listening you’re realizing that the two singers do add to this remarkable tradition some new twists. The orchestral segments stand out. Luca Pianca does some particularly fine theorbo fingerwork, after which Riccardo Minasi at the violin (or is it lira da braccio?) impresses with the melodic lines that are an imaginative rearrangement of what one usually hears in the accompaniment for this duetto.

“Vorrei baciarti” may remind you of the famous duet between Nerone with his bestie Lucano from L’Incoronazione di Poppea. This one reads equally sexual (and that’s saying something!), but of course via the usual codes of the fountains of sweetness, weeping eyes, welcoming mouths, pearls and rubies.

Other composers on the disc are less known: Benedetto Marcello, Antonio Lotti, Francesco Durante, in addition to some obscure geezer called Handel. (There had to be some Handel, I suppose… but the musicians steered clear of his Greatest Hits bag and explored two little known pieces from the Italian stage of il Sassone). My second biggest revelation of the disc was the incredible “Son io barbara donna” by Durante. It’s a long, complex and very sensuous lament that goes from stage to glorious stage. Anybody who loves Strozzi’s “Udite amanti” will really appreciate this one.

Ensemble Claudiana shows us what it’s got with an instrumental sonata by Scarlatti at the mid-way point in the recording. It’s a beautifully rendered piece with some unexpected colouring and what sounds like a lot of well-placed rubato and improvised embellishments. (It was probably all rehearsed down to a T—but I can never tell these things and the playing kept me curious.)

The only thing missing in the liner notes is the information on who wrote the poetry. Not all of the texts are anonymous, surely?

Definitely one for the collection, though.

L’Oracolo in Messenia è proprio un miracolo

Vivaldi L'Oracolo in Messenia

Vivaldi – L’Oracolo in Messenia – Fabio Biondi conducts Europa Galante, EMI/Virgin/Wiener Konzerthaus, 2012.

An embarrassment of riches, this recording: loads of gorgeous, unusual arias bridged by dramatic recits and lament-monologues; five very different mezzos spiced with fabulous tenor and counter-tenor; a daring, cheeky baroque orchestra that never settles for just a background.

The mature mezzo character, the queen Merope, is sung by Ann Hallenberg with the customary stylistic and technical mastery. She equally shines in the soliloquies of the type reminiscent of the long solos of Monteverdi and French baroque (No. 15 “Ecco pur giunto il giorno” on the first CD and No. 24 “Sei dolor, sei furor” on the second) as in the more traditional baroque arias (just compare her “Barbaro traditor” with “No, non meriti pietà” – both angry arias but sounding very different). She is also splendid in the recitatives, woven through by a bold, restless harpsichord, which will keep you interested at every turn. Her first argument with Polifonte (Magnus Staveland) is a complex business. The undercurrent of the harpsichord adds layers to the conversation, possibly even some erotic tension.

Speaking of Polifonte, the male voices are not shortchanged. Staveland gets, for example, “Se al cader del mostro orrendo”, with a most unusual and brilliant orchestral legwork, one of the top five in this work full of wonderfully weird music, or “Nel mar così funesta” with orchestral sections in all their unrestrained glory alternating for the tyrant’s benefit. Anassandro (Xavier Sabata) is probably the most complicated character of all, in charge of twisting the plot, shifting alliances and fighting his own demons. Sabata manages to make him very believable.

Trasimede, one of the trouser roles, is sung by the young Yulia Lezhneva. S/he pines for Merope and delivers perfectly the mad coloratura arias like “Son qual nave” and “Sin campo armato”. There are all manner of colours in her voice, and she employs the spectrum.  The ingénue (Elmira), in yet another atypical turn, is sung by the darkest voice on cast, Romina Basso. An aria that stands out is “Spera quest’alma amante”.

Elmira’s love interest and Merope’s son Epitide is Vivica Genaux, whose lighter timbre of a young man suits the role well. The remaining trousered mezzo Franziska Gottwald (Licisco) has a very different voice, darker and smaller and intricate – equivalent of a rose in bud which sometimes opens to the benefit of others too. Licisco’s “Sinche il tiranno scendere” is a very exciting ride.

The booklet contains, inter alia, a very interesting piece by Frédéric Delaméa about how the work came to be and the full libretto translated into English, German and French.

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Alcina, Morgana and Bradamante in conversation

It’s been tough eliminating of a lot of interesting material to fit the Xtra! piece on Alcina  into 500 words. So for true Alcina aficionados, here is the longer, Q&A version of our conversation.

How did you decide who will sing Morgana and who Alcina?

Maureen Batt: Our voice types decided that for us. It was immediately obvious that I would sing Morgana and Erin Alcina.

Erin Bardua:  When we did our first opera, The Marriage of Figaro, she was obviously Susanna and I the Countess. Those relationships are kind of the same vocally. The older and younger sister type roles.

Do lighter, coloratura voices go more for Morgana? What is the difference between the two types of sopranos?

M There are a lot of light and coloratura sopranos who sing Morgana, but that is not what I am. The role doesn’t sit as high as people hear it. Those singers are using ornaments the way they want their voice to work. I am a light lyric soprano, and the role sits quite comfortably. Mine will be a different take on Morgana.

E Both of us will be doing sort of sympathetic, lyrical version of these roles than the fireworks coloratura versions that you sometimes hear. The more I look at the music, the more I think that maybe that’s Handel wanted all along.

Did you write the ornaments in advance with the music director?

E Depends on the singer. Somebody like Vicki, for example, who’s sung all of the early music for years and years, might find themselves perfectly able to say, I feel really good about this aria and I’m going to sing what comes to me in the moment. You sort of have a catalogue in your head of all the ornaments that make sense and that work in a given style of piece, and a lot of people improvise their own ornaments. And you have other singers with little less experience who feel it’s better and safer to have something pre-composed. I do half and half; for this I’m mostly pre-composing and writing myself hints; I may change it on the night, but I make sure to have it written, “do a thing here”…

M Go up or go down…

E Do a wiggle, whatever’s gonna work. Since our rehearsal period is teenie, I want to have as few variables out of control as possible and ornaments is the variable that I’m putting under control in advance.

M I’m a very visual person and a visual learner, plus I don’t have that much experience singing Handel opera, so I like to write it all down. I may not do it, but I like to have it written. I’ve rewritten and tried different things and worked with our music director, and now that it’s there I’d like to learn it this way. I may change it, but at least it’s something to go from.

E I usually scribble dots in among things, or write a note “do more with that”…

M If you’re filling in a melody, that’s easy to do, I’m singing in thirds and I add little tiny noteheads here, but if I’m doing a cadenza, I must have it separately and see what it looks like. I must.

E It’s funny though, we still all go back to basically medieval numes when we’re writing our ornaments. They’re just dots.

M Here I do. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes, especially within a phrase, I’ll write very specifically… This edition of the score is tiny and there’s not enough room to put in what you want; there are editions with more room. But everybody has their own system.

Do you like doing da capos?

E In this Alcina we’re doing a mix of da capo and not da capo in this show. It’s a long opera; people are sitting in pews; we don’t have shiny sets for people to look at. We boil it down to just what you actually need to show the drama and to keep it snappy and exciting and to keep the relationships cooking along. We’re doing the da capi that are required for the drama, where there’s a large dramatic change for the character between the A and the B section. You’re never just saying the same thing in the second A anyway, the second A comes with a new attitude that comes out of what you’ve said with the B section. Most of these arias are: A1- I have a thought about a thing and a feeling about that thing, B- Here is a whole new topic, A2- and now I feel a new way about the first thing. For some of them, we’ve turned it down, maybe the instruments are going to go back to the A for just a moment to give us that feel. For others we’re doing the wholeABA because there’s a lot happening during that da capo. I’m doing half and half. For Morgana, I think we left most da capos?

M I think so. I have four arias with one of the da capo cut, Ruggiero/Vilma Vitols is doing some shortened versions of her da capos and we shortened a couple of mine, so we are going back but only for long enough to give that new moment of drama – and some ornaments! — and that’s good, I think we all get it. It’s going to be a reasonable length Alcina.

How many duos are there?

E Just one trio, but no duos. Final chorus at the end, in the cast that we have it’s going to be a sextet, so that will be a nice way to wrap up.

How did you cast?

E We had an audition. We also asked around among our colleagues. But most people came in to a classroom at UoT where we held our audition and wowed us. I worked with Vilma on a couple of things before, she gave a lovely audition. We both know Julie [Ludwig] but we haven’t sung with her much; she gave a phenomenal audition. James Levesque worked with us before and sang great so we had to cast the crap out of him.

And let me grind my ax for a moment: hurray, there will be no counter-tenors stealing mezzo roles.

E It’s not like we started off with a mandate to cast more women… but we see what happens in auditions. We heard about 70 singers. You hear dozens and dozens of sopranos, you hear maybe 20 wonderful mezzos, and we heard half a dozen great baritones, first time around we didn’t hear a single tenor but this time we heard quite a few and they were lovely. But we heard so many women, likely because there are more women in the performing arts. And yes there’s something about that that needs to be fixed but in the meantime, there they are and there’s no work for them.

[Vicki, who’s sitting further down working on her score, adds:] Ruggiero tessitura would be difficult to a counter-tenor anyway.

E It’s almost a soprano role. And Bradamante is a woman. And for Oberto [sung by Julie Ludwig], as you can imagine we have no access to a large pool of boy sopranos in this town.

Tell me a bit about Essential Opera.

We started it two Augusts ago. Initially we wanted to put on one performance, The Marriage of Figaro. We began by saying, wouldn’t it be great to sing Figaro together, and then somehow we ended up with an opera company.

E Then we had to name it.

M And we couldn’t name it the Erin and Maureen Show. Because that would have been ridiculous.

E We did a little bit of branding work and then the questions started coming, So, what’s happening next season? We went, Hmm… Season… All right, I guess there’s the question of the next season. We then did a few more auditions, made sure we had a larger pool to draw from…

M But it’s not part of our mandate to perform works that are rarely performed in Toronto.

E No, it just happened with Chérubin and Alcina. But then we had The Marriage, which can’t get more standard rep.

Do you plan seasons in advance now?

E We held a bunch of auditions about a month ago, heard a bunch more amazing singers, and  told them to sit tight until we finish this show and then over the summer we’re gonna plan our next season.

M So far we’re really going show by show, we are making plans, but we are not a company that announces a certain month a year what the season is… So we have the flexibility when we hear some new amazing singers in these auditions, we look at them and say, We want that person in something – let’s find something where we can showcase them.

E But as soon as we decided to do Handel, we knew we wanted to invite Vicki to be the music director.

M We would not have Alcina without Vicki.

E That is not an exaggeration. That is a serious comment.

How do you juggle Bradamante and conducting?

V I’m not going to be conducting. All of my work is coaching and prepping the band and ornaments.

M Other music directors we had, they weren’t conducting either, they were at the piano. Opera in concert is a whole lot of trust. Trust and preparation.

V The bonus to doing something like Alcina is that there’s not a lot of accompanied recitative – there’s one — so it’s only really difficult for one little area, other than that it’s really, really straightforward, hardly any tempo changes, some in the B sections of the da capo arias, but all of is well within the capabilities of a good first violinist and that’s who will be leading the band.

E And the harpsichordist [Lysiane Boulva], who’s been in with you in most of the coaching sessions. That ensemble will be solid as a rock; we just need to remember to sing.

M We just need to plan in out advance and stick to it.

E Massenet was scarier; amorphous, frothier…

M Through-composed…

How do you decide what instruments and how many instruments per section etc?

V You can have certain instruments doubling other instruments… If you really don’t have two flutes, you can have the oboes cover those parts, which is exactly what we’re going to do. Do you need to hire two flutes for two pieces unless you’re a big opera company – no, you don’t. As far as how big – two at a part or one at a part it doesn’t really make a big difference so it’s easier for us to go one at a part and the people we hired are really capable… Essentially you just need your four-part strings, you need your harpsichord… it would be nice to have had a larger continuo section to vary the character of the continuo, to have perhaps a theorbo or a lute with certain people… with some of the gentler people you would have that… it would have been really cool to have something like a regal to play with Alcina, something really meaty and grindy occasionally when she’s doing her spells, for instance…

E …or she’s pissed off…

V Or she’s pissed off… Or even with Morgana it would be nice. But reasonably: where am I going to find a regal player? Where am I going to find a regal? So, to be reasonable… a good continuo section can be harpsichord and cello (or gamba – but we’re going with cello). So it’s very chamber. Essential Opera is exactly that.

E The band is not in the pit, they’re right up on the stage, and for that you really want a chamber ensemble.

V There is no pit. We all had discussions about that, about the size of the orchestra, before we even started talking about who we’re gonna hire.

Vicki, how are you enjoying Bradamante?

V I love it, I love singing it a 415Hz.

She gets all the action whereas Ruggiero kind of languishes.

V That’s funny, I always end up singing her fast. I wanted to make the third aria a little bit slower and more grounded, more of a statement rather than pure anger, which pretty much is what my other ones are. (She is often found shaking people, saying “Listen! Listen!”). She’s interesting because she ends up on the island in drag essentially, and is dismayed and shocked when Morgana seems to fall in love with her/him at first sight. She’s a very interesting character, she goes through so many emotional changes with Ruggiero and has to decide what to tell him at what point, and when she finally tells him, he goes, “I don’t believe you, it has to be magic.” There’s a lot of emotional diversity in the role; truly the recits are so well written, it’s a lot of fun.

M Your character is the most soap-opera-y. You tell Ruggiero, “But I’m me”, and he says “No, you’re not”. “BUT I AM”, “Nah-huh”. So we even have a case of soap opera amnesia here.

V It’s a great role, good and low… The trio at the end, it’s so great to hear the voices finally together. And the writing, all of it is really good, it’s Handel I think at one of his best moments of melodic writing. There are some really interesting coloratura passages that don’t follow some of his regular moulds of coloraturas, they take twists and turns when you don’t expect them to…

E Everybody is out of their element in this show. Everybody is stuck on this enchanted island, most people are either in disguise or under a spell or some other kind mental turmoil and you can really see it in the writing that people have these really angular lines; I have all these crunchy tri-tones that I sing, and people have weird coloratura lines, lots of strange chromaticism. There isn’t a lot of “here I am doing scales” business, none of the coloraturas are normal. Really exciting music.

V I don’t know how much he recycled for this, it doesn’t feel very much at all.

[Maureen’s phone alarm goes off to remind her to begin her coaching session in the next room, so she leaves and we’ll see her a bit later at the rehearsal]

What to make of the character of Ruggiero? Kind of a passive character, but he gets all these arias…

V Because he has all of this emotional turmoil. His feelings are a sort of central point — yours and his — central point of the whole opera. To have him commenting emotionally on the magic is really important.

E If I can jump in from more of an artistic director perspective, first of all to make Ruggiero work you need a wonderful, expressive performer and we have that in Vilma. And to me Ruggiero is the canvass on which you can understand what’s actually going on with the other characters. Because everyone else is a little bit hard to pin down. Bradamante has come under false pretenses and in disguise. Alcina’s music is all loving and romantic and you can really be on her side, except that she’s doing something really terrible here and you can see how tormented Ruggiero is by it. “I don’t know what’s real any more — I’m miserable — I can’t go do my war guy stuff that I miss doing — I can’t be myself here — and yet I love her”, but that’s not love. You’re trapped. It’s kind of an awful abusive relationship that they’re in and you only see that through him.

V Ruggiero is sometimes played as wimpy, but that’s not how we’re leaning with this one.

E It’s not his fault that he doesn’t have agency.

V That’s exactly it.

E Some opera characters who don’t take agency can be very frustrating. There are a lot of operas where stuff happens and just like in a lot of romantic comedies, you just wish you could tell them, “If you people would just use your words, we wouldn’t have to be here for the show tonight, we could all go home and have a beer.” But Ruggiero has had all his agency taken away from him by magic.

V And in the end he does turn into a strong character who’s able to break through that because of love, so you see the strength and Vilma’s been playing it very, very well. It’ll come through.

Then there’s that strange, seemingly happy ending to Alcina…

E It’s a little bit like the end of Don Giovanni where you go…. Yey? Are you guys all OK? Are Bradamante and Ruggiero gonna be OK after this? How about Morgana and Oronte? They don’t really seem to get along as well as you would hope… Did we really want Alcina to get defeated quite that awfully? Couldn’t she just maybe have learned a lesson? So we sing like a Greek chorus at the end, Hurray, everything is all right, but I’m not sure that it is. We’ll leave it to the audience to make up its mind about that.

V It’s a fascinating ending, I like it. I like that it’s not Disney.

All photos by Katie Cross. Top photo: Bardua (l) and Batt (r)

The Canadian Opera Company 2012/13 season highlights

The Canadian Opera Company 2012/13 season highlights

No baroque this year. (On the upside, no Gluck and no Puccini either.)

Psychoanalysis, stock market crash, decadence: Christopher Alden’s new production of Die Fledermaus. Laura Tucker as Prinz Orlofsky.

Peter Sellars’s Tristan und Isolde with Bill Viola’s video screens.

More dark Victoriana: David Alden’s ENO Lucia.

Christopher Alden’s La Clemenza, first shown at Chicago Opera Theatre. Sesto will be sung by Isabel Leonard, Wallis Giunta will be Annio.

Atom Egoyan will revive and ‘re-think’ his old COC Salome.

Robert Carsen returns with Dialogues des Carmelites (the 2004 La Scala production available on DVD), with mezzo Judith Forst as Madame de Croissy and Adrianne Pieczonka debuting the role as Madame Lidoine.

There’s also a Trovatore with Elena Manistina as Azucena. Here’s Stride la vampa from Liceu 2009:

Femmes handle the Old Testament Handel

Handel: Streams of Pleasure. Karina Gauvin, Marie Nicole Lemieux, Il Complesso Barocco conducted by Alan Curtis. Naïve, 2011.

The cheekiest CD title of the last year was probably chosen to divert the attention from the potentially least exciting artistic decision of the baroque recording universe of that same year: programming the arias from Handel’s late, English-language, chiefly Old Testament oratorios. All of the oratorios included in this CD–Belshazzar, Alexander Balus, Susanna, Judas Maccabaeus, Joseph and his Brethren, Joshua, Solomon and the two standouts, the Christian Theodora and the pagan Hercules–have been recorded in full, many more than once. Some of the set pieces live on in collections, eg. Loraine Hunt Lieberson Handel CDs would have bits from Susanna and Theodora, Sarah Connolly in Handel’s Heroes and Heroines includes pieces from Solomon and Hercules. There are many glorious CDs of Handel duets, but they are all and for a good reason either heavily Italian (Arcadian Duets, Haïm conducting; LeBlanc-Taylor Love Duets; Ciofi-DiDonato Amor e gelosia; Piau-Mingardo in Handel Opera Arias and Duets) or mostly Italian with some English items (the Joshua-Connolly Handel Duets c. by Harry Bicket). The only exclusively English oratorio CD of duets that I could find is the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s Handel Duets from the Great English Oratorios with the female-male duet of Carolyn Sampson and Robin Blaze.

True, not all under-recorded corners of the repertoire should be revived and conceivably a recoding of nothing but bits of Old Testament oratorios in English could be deadly dull. Streams of Pleasure avoids this successfully, and primarily thanks to the two singers engaged. Gauvin and Lemieux already have notable separate recording histories, but are also a perfect match in duets here. In addition to the six duets, Gauvin sings five and Lemieux three solo arias. Gauvin gets the Hercules, by way of Iole (we have yet to hear Lemieux’s Dejanira), and an assortment of young women and queens. Lemieux gets the Irene solos from Theodora, beside the more expected cast of warriors and kings.

The duets, however, are the main attraction. In the first Theodora duet “To thee, thou glorious son of worth”, Princess Theodora (Gauvin) sings with the secretly converted Roman soldier Didymus a lento of great simplicity, resignation and beauty. [If you remember the classic Sellars DVD, David Daniels was Didymus to Dawn Upshaw’s Theodora.] The second duet between the same characters gives the title to the CD, and is slightly more serene. “Streams of pleasure ever flowing / Fruits ambrosial ever growing” etc. sings Didymus about the after-life pleasures awaiting the blessed, and is joined by Theodora in a duet “Tither let our hearts aspire / Objects pure of pure desire… Wake the song and tune the lyre / Of the blissful holy choir.”  The imagery is very erotic, and it’s easy to forget the religious register in which it’s formally taking place.

The Judas Maccabaeus duet involves the Israelite couple who combine staccato and long florid legato in a dynamic, mournful plea, Where to now? The couple from the Joshua, however, are much happier: a warrior unites with his betrothed to the tune of “Our limpid streams with freedom flow”. Finally, in Belshazzar and Solomon duets, we have the king and the queen reuniting (“Great victor, at your feet” in the first with Cyrus and Nitocris, and “Welcome as the dawn” between Solomon and his queen).

These are all too often recorded with a counter-tenor in the role of the king or young warrior, so kudos to Il complesso barocco, Alan Curtis and the two singers, Naive and probably most of all to the “supporter of the project in every conceivable form” Donna Leon, for helping to make the duets in this non-conservative version with the two femmes with fabulously compatible yet dramatically different voices. The unabashed woman-centrism of the collection is equally embraced by the cover design (there are these gorgeous pastel pink accents all over cover art) and the lipstick-and-mirror cover photo.

The Old Testament all girl’d-up? Yes, please.

Divas on the internet: a primer

Divas on the internet: a primer

I’ve been paying closer attention lately to how the social media are being used by the mezzos and altos, and some other musicians and opera professionals.

Twitter

Many singers stay away. American singers, the younger generation Canadian, American and UK singers, and singers who often work in North America and the UK and have vast NA audiences join sooner than others. There are exceptions to the rule (see below who gets the award).

Much worse than staying away is the following: creating an account (the idea was probably the agency’s or the publicist’s), getting thousands of followers, then either never showing up (the lovely Sarah Connolly tweeted the whole of three times since joining; see also, Cecilia Bartoli) or tweeting one sentence every two months (Susan Graham, I’m looking at you).

Equally bad is opening an account, then having a publicist run it for you. Even worse if he runs it for you by posting links to the official press releases. (Elīna Garanča, a case in point. The young conductor Pablo Heras-Casado had such a start, but after a few months started tweeting himself in his own name. Excellent correction.)

Then there are the Twitter Divas: they tweet a little more frequently than the above categories but still very infrequently, never interact with followers, and often couch announcements in emo, diva-is-personally-moved language. Renée Fleming is a good example. “It is with great emotion that I [ fill in the blanks]” is the usual structure of the tweet. Could be anything, from “I say good-bye to bel canto”, “I sing my final night at La Scala” or “…I saw this film”.

Then there are artists who use Twitter a lot, but do nothing but systematic and pretty shameless self-promotion. I’ve noticed a number of men in this category (a certain bass singing currently at the COC doesn’t shy away from sending links of his other media coverage to CBC personalities on Twitter begging for Ceeb coverage, for example). If you asked me months ago, I would have put Joyce DiDonato in this category. She developed a consolidated, multi-pronged social media publicity approach which has no peer among her peers. But I can’t object too much to how she uses Twitter these days. Yes, I am annoyed by the endless exclamation points and the saccharine cheerfulness. Yes, she loves being complimented by men (don’t know whether she’d say this to a woman follower telling her “you’re hawt in drag”:

and around the time of Wimbledon earlier this year we were told in many many different ways that she really likes Rafael Nadal). But crass, obvious, open-this-link-now promotion is a low percentage point of JDD tweets. She often interacts with followers (OperaCreep regularly has little chats, but then again, he’s a mad fan, so he doesn’t count; he gets in via flattery road). She is also unique in using Flickr and YouTube very aptly – former for the photographs she takes, which sometimes include exclusive behind-the-scene images with a unique vintage point that no reporter could even try to provide (“Looking at Diana Demrau from the wings while she’s singing”, eg.), and latter her own video reportage and the footage of her answers to the questions from the audience (not live, but recorded, edited, packaged — but still). I’ve never seen another singer use Flickr or YouTube this way —  though Elizabeth DeShong does something similar with her photoblog, but her tack is different: she records everything but her professional life, which also works well.

JDD sometimes, not frequently but it happens, expresses a political opinion or gives her support to a cause. She expressed support for the withdrawal of DADT in the US military, and have written an open letter for her native State of Kansas which recently overnight cancelled all arts funding on state level.

But there is one tweeter who still manages to oneupman her (one-up-mezzo her?) and that is Malena Ernman. She does the healthy amount of direct promotion, yes. But she also interacts. Just before she released Opera di fiori, she asked on Twitter what people would like to see in pre-listening on YT, and followed the received preferences. For the most part Ernman tweets as people who joined twitter not for self-promotion do. And this means expressing opinions about issues of the day (political included), not hiding a grumpy mood or sadness, whingeing about the stodginess of Vienna or a video segment lost on the cutting room floor, tweeting about the weather, European soccer championship, live-tweeting her expulsion from the visa lineup at the Russian embassy, and occasionally clearly not taking herself too seriously (a rarity among opera singers; hell, people in any profession). She also facilitates tweetups for her fans:

For all this, Malena Ernman gets the first prize in the category Twitter Usage By a Diva.

Facebook

She is also very good on Facebook, although probably due to the amount of people (10,000 plus readers, with average posts by her getting something like 40 comments) she doesn’t interact there. She posts a lot of photos taken from an exclusive vintage point. She also doesn’t mind posting photos of herself unkempt and wearing raggedy old around-the-house things.

That’s something you won’t see in another good Facebook commando profile, Joyce DiDonato’s (though apparently she was game for a few impromptu photos after all for these boys). Joyce posts a lot and interacts occasionally, and I think that she indeed runs her own Facebook page, probably with some consultation with her Web 2.0 person.

Another mezzo with a solid Facebook page who runs it herself and interacts on it is Ann Hallenberg. Lots of timely announcements there, and media coverage links. Some photos, not too many and no private or family photos at all. And that is just ducky.

But the Facebook user I’d actually single out for the award in this category is an alto. Sonia Prina has the official Sonia Prina page (which 391 followers “Like”), where news, clips and announcements get posted, and that is decent enough in itself. But the main thing is SP’s personal account, which is run by SP herself and set to Public.

Since there are 2000-plus FB friends there, she probably friends strangers/audience members (I don’t know – I didn’t dare send a request, and besides can read the updates from the outside anyway). And this is a FB profile with a real voice (as much as such a thing is possible on Facebook). SP really sounds like an artist human being, and not a brand. There’s all of that that I described in Ernman’s twitter usage, and much more along those lines, and even more idiosyncratic and human.

Openness to the alternative and smaller traditional media

Eh heh, this is a big one for me. How much are the divas willing to be interviewed by people other than the 72-year-old permanent dude music critic of a major national daily with a penchant for soft-ball – and here I mean anything from individual-run blogs / vlogs / podcasts, the freelancers who have yet to sell the story somewhere, the so-called ethnic media in large North American cities, large web portals for music and musical criticism (such as MusicalCriticism.com, Quobuz, OperaBritannia.com and Forumopera.com) and also, very importantly, the queer press.

I will have to rely on other writers to share their experiences, and go by my own. I am assuming that a lot depends on the publicist advice; that if somebody’s publicity consultant or agency is open to these types of media that the artist will be open to the idea. I am speculating, of course; no idea if most artists follow their instinct, or seek advice.

But let me highlight some good examples. Vesselina Kasarova recently allowed an independent videographer (on other words, a filmmaker who did not have a backing of a large media house, nor air time secured for the segment to be broadcast anywhere) to film her stay in Moscow. The access given was very generous. I don’t have the full story here and all the background information – how well they knew each other before etc. — but this one thing is undeniable: an alt-media maker shooting a YouTube documentary was welcomed to record (and debate) her around Moscow, including the rehearsals. I choose to see this as a precedent-setting case which will invite other publicists to relax a little. (The responses to the doc were pretty positive.)

Sonia Prina interviewed (via Skype, it seems) by this geezer who likes talking about himself, for a university online network. She is excellent in a situation where not very much is under her control; not stiff, not patronizing, not afraid, just being fine with whatever question may be thrown her way and making the best of the situation.

The COC organized the online chat with some of the cast of Aida last year. Sondra Radvanovsky was a primer in how a diva should interact in a live online chat with her audience and gave well thought-out and frank and not at all short answers.

…and I have to say, that is about it. Any other examples I’ll welcome with a happy dance.

If you look at the film industry, pop music and politics: all have a huge alternative media population that has become fundamental (and probably the largest) part of their respective mediascapes. But I don’t see changes of this kind in the opera world, though the opera blogosphere is growing like fire.

Updated this morning:

La Ernman just tweeted a production photo of her as Serse, at a follower’s request. Johnny Who isn’t even in the same category. Behold.

Countless thanks to the total doll Eyes for her help with media capturing for this post.

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My favourite Canadian girlfriends

My favourite Canadian girlfriends

Inspired by Sofi’s Canada Day list of Sexy Typewriter’s Top 14 Canadian Boyfriends, here’s my attempt at a List of Top Canadian Girlfriends. Let’s take it as a work in progress, shall we.

♥ Aisslinn Nosky, violinist

Just  go to one of her concerts and all will be clear.

♥ Adrianne Pieczonka, soprano

Most of all, because of the Puccini CD, which crushed me.

♥ Margaret MacMillan, historianBecause Paris 1919 reads like Noel Coward. Spectacular off-the-cuff public speaker, great sense of humour. Plus, reminds a bit of Vita Sackville-West.

♥ Diane Dufresne, singer/screamer/angry woman/artist


♥ k d lang

♥ Karina Gauvin, soprano

 Because of everything. Lately, the Purcell and Canteloupe CDs.

♥ Marie-Nicole Lemieux

Because of, doh–everything, but especially that long interview on France Classique. And Vivaldi alto coloraturas. And “Ne me refuse pas” CD. And and and and and and and and.

♥ Margaret Atwood, writer/sage

 Mostly because of getting it. And Cat’s Eye. And Surfacing. And feminism, but that comes under getting it.

♥ Nancy Greene, skier


♥ Patricia Rozema, film director

♥ Josey Vogels, sex columnist

♥ Regine Chassagne (Arcade Fire)

♥ Tanya Tagaq, Inuit throat singer

DVD Review: King Arthur, Salzburg 2004

King Arthur 
A Dramatick Opera in Five Acts by Henry Purcell.
Libretto: John Dryden.

Director: Jürgen Flimm, Conductor: Nikolaus Harnoncourt. In multiple singing roles: Isabel Rey (soprano), Barbara Bonney (soprano), Birgit Remmert (contralto), Michael Schade (tenor), Oliver Widmer (baritone). Spoken roles: Sylvie Rohrer (Emmeline), Alexandra Henkel (Philidel), Michael Maertens (King Arthur), Christoph Bantzer (Merlin), Werner Wölbern (Grimbald), Dietmar König (Oswald), Ulli Maier (Mathilda), Roland Renner (Osmond), Peter Maertens (Conon), Christoph Kail (Aurelius). Salzburg Festival, 2004. EuroArts DVD.

Just deciding what King Arthur is on the bases of what remains of it was huge part of the job for Flimm and Harnoncourt. The “Dramatick Opera” is a collection of sung, spoken and danced bits the intended order of which is not known, and neither is the definitive score or instrumentation. The arrangement they decided on works well. This King Arthur doesn’t get unstuck into its sum parts.

The stage is circular and encloses the orchestra pit where Harnoncourt and Concentus Musicus Wien are placed. The space inside the pit is also part of the drama. Characters hide there when chased, ask the Maestro if he has a sword, hand him and the musicians toques for the Freeze Scene and so on. There also some action in the auditorium and through the orchestra seats. All that is very fitting for this, genre-anarchic operatic work.

Two tribes are at war: the Britons against the Saxons, who have yet to adopt Christianity and give up Wotan, Freya and Thor. They’re warring over territories, but also over a woman, the blind Emmeline, who favours the Brit King Arthur. There is some WWI imagery in costuming: Britons are very WWI Britain and Saxons are more Teutonic with all manner of unruly Wagnerian ‘dos. Soon enough, though, their allies in the form of fairies, ghosts, wizards and witches take over the action and the historical references luckily withdraw to the background. The would-be lovers, together with their sidekicks, wander around the fantastic landscapes until they are happily reunited.

The interplay of spoken and sung parts is choreographed in many interesting ways; sometimes the sung roles are the aspects of the spoken characters’ personalities or their evil or better doubles. Singing was lovely and well stylized, except for Isabel Rey’s soprano which sounded much too big and vibrato-y for this kind of thing. Barbara Bonney showed that her sense of humour includes laughing at herself: in her final aria she parodies her own image of the cute, forever young and forever debutante type of singer, and her own star status within this production.

The acting is superb in spoken roles. Alexandra Henkel as the air spirit Philidel, Sylvie Rohrer as the blind Emmeline who gains sight and experience (and the boy) on the way to denouement, Werner Wölbern as the hilariously disfigured and stinky spirit of the earth and Christoph Bantzer who played Merlin as a Quentin Crisp old queen, created such rich personalities that you really didn’t miss the music for one second. The physical fight between King Arthur and his opponent Oswald, one among several Oh! What a Lovely War moments, is staged as a boxing match between two least physically apt men in history, refereed by the jittery Sopranos-type performed by Michael Schade. Merlin is given some spectacular entrances, the best of which is the improvised monologue he gives as an old lady subscriber of the Salzburg Festival who claims her seat in the second row was mistakenly given to somebody else and launches into a rant about all the awful liberties directors take with the operas today. “Do you know who you’re talking to? My husband is the CEO of Global Management and Consult Inc. in Frankfurt am Main!… When Mr Mortier was in charge, this kind of thing never happened!… Nothing remains of what we’ve been used to for years! Now we open with this musical! 20-25 years ago we saw classics how they were originally staged!”

Entertainment of the best kind.