Odditorium

Judy Loman at the harp / Odditorium / Photo by Trevor Haldenby

Review originally published in the Wholenote.

How to approach a massive work that may put off potential audiences by coming off as a wee bit megalomaniac? You distill it, and stage the highlights as a piece unto itself, is the lesson to take from Laurence Cherney’s selection of parts from R. Murray Schafer’s Patria cycle into Odditorium, which opened on March 2 at the Crow’s Theatre. Schafer’s Patria is a decades-long project consisting of a dozen works that follow a hero and a heroine in various disguises through the mythology of the ancient Crete and Egypt and even further through the Schafer-authored mythologies, but for this occasion Cherney, Schafer’s frequent collaborator, wisely chose four excerpts only, and invited director Chris Abraham and dancer Andrea Nann to find the red thread.

And threads were very much in evidence in the modest but effective set (Shannon Lea Doyle), as they are used to outline the walls of the labyrinth with the mannequin body parts of those who did not manage to find the exit piled up in corners. The overarching theme therefore came from the final, best known and multiple times recorded The Crown of Ariadne (1979), an elaboration on the myth of Ariadne, the Minotaur and Theseus through the voice of the harp and a series of percussive instruments. The Crown was originally written for Judy Loman, who plays it (fair to say, performs it) compellingly in Odditorium. There’s drama in the procession of unexpected soundscapes and instrument pairings of this piece, of course, but there’s additional drama in observing the demands on the musician, the extravagant arm movements and the comings and goings of smaller instruments while the other hand is always on the harp. It’s a good choice for the end piece.

The preceding two, Tantrika (1986) and an Egyptian fantasy Amente-Nufe (1982) involve a mezzo-soprano and impressive sets of percussions – again, the prominent instruments are themselves part of the set. Mezzo Andrea Ludwig, always charismatic, produces an endless variety of extended technique sounds, moves around, handles the odd percussive task and employs acting where acting is required: in the tantric piece, for example, she observes, perhaps voices, the male-female dance of merging and separation (Nann with Brendan Wyatt centre stage). In Amente-Nufe from the section of Patria called Ra, the singer voices words in what a scholarly guess says the Middle Egyptian might have sounded like, but feel free to ignore this backdrop: the words are best taken in for the texture of their sounds, not for their meaning. The culmination of the segment, with all the gongs and bells going full blast, is an experience rarely available in concert halls – or houses of religious worship. Ryan Scott and Daniel Morphy manned the considerable assortment of percussions (including gamelan) throughout the show with tireless focus and aplomb.

It all started with a scene best described as Felliniesque: the accordionist (Joseph Macerollo, in clown makeup) trots onto the stage and uncovers a severed head that speaks. Well, speaks: voices outrageous sounds is more accurate, as there are no words, but quite a lot of conversation happening between the accordion and the soprano head (belonging to the crystalline-voiced Carla Huhtanen). It’s a funny, charming opening to a performance that gets pretty serious immediately after.

Yes, but what does it all mean, you may ask? A question best left home for the occasion, I think. It’s slippery to pin meaning to music at the best of times, and this electrifying selection of oddities really rubs it in. It’s an immersive trip into what humans can do with their voices and their hands operating on metal, wood, strings and boxed air.

Still, Odditorium is an open work so should you need to, you may work out your own narrative out of it. Given its four prominent and very different women—a dancer, a virtuoso harpist, high- and low-voiced singers—the piece may indeed cohere, as Andrea Ludwig suggested after the opening night show, as an enactment of female empowerment. The world of classical music still leaves too little room for that, and any occasion that resembles it should be welcomed.

Or you can approach it as a ritual of sorts—a non-religious one. Schafer composed most of the Patria in 12-tone, and the unpinnable micro-intervals heard in Odditorium and the vocal acrobatics that evoke wonder rather than beauty keep the work refreshingly unfamiliar. And though your mind may drift in and out of it, it’s music that doesn’t lull you, but keeps the cogs turning and surprise in steady supply.

Andrea Ludwig and Ryan Scott in Odditorium. Photo by Trevor Haldenby.
Andrea Ludwig and Ryan Scott in Odditorium. Photo by Trevor Haldenby.
Andrea Nann and Brendan Wyatt with Andrea Ludwig in the background. Photo Trevor Haldenby.
Andrea Nann and Brendan Wyatt with Andrea Ludwig in the background and Daniel Morphy behind her. Photo Trevor Haldenby.

Virginia Woolf as ballet

picture1On February 25th you can watch the acclaimed ROH production of Woolf Works in Toronto, thanks to the good people of the Hot Docs Cinema and the ROH screening series. Choreographed by Wayne McGregor to the music by Max Richter, the piece adapts Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves into three consecutive but unified ballets.

Here’s one of the videos that the ROH made on how the work came to be. The dramaturge Uzma Hameed, Wayne McGregor, Max Richter and principal dancers explain:

The Hot Docs Cinema is not showing much opera over the last two months. The sole screening, taking place tomorrow, is of the first revival of David Bösch’s recent production of Il Trovatore set in present day. Casting is stellar and includes Anita Rachvelishvili, Gregory Kunde and Lianna Haroutounian.

I can get behind Maometto II

Luca Pisaroni & the COC Chorus in Maometto II. Photo by Gary Beechy.
A Scene from Maometto II. Photo by Gary Beechy.

It’s been a long while since I left a production in a similar kind of WTF state. Maybe the Chinese Semele at the COC was the last time.

Which is to say that as far as Maometto II is concerned, I liked it?

There’s much to enjoy straightforwardly in this David Alden production of little known dramatic Rossini Maometto II, but there’s much more which you’ll find yourself enjoying because it’s out of place, weird, obviously doesn’t make any sense, or belongs very consciously to a retro theatrical language.

But let’s get out of the way a few things that could not be enjoyed at all on the opening night. There were chorus & pit coordination issues (the chorus, usually the male one, was behind the beat on more than one occasion), and choral homogeneity issues (female chorus sounded like a group of individuals unwilling to blend). The lead soprano’s voice (Leah Crocetto), while perfectly fine and apt rest of the time in its coloratura journeys, would occasionally have passages, especially if the text is on the open Italian E vowel, of unlovely shrill. When you put a hyperactive crowd—some among them armed with spears and doing their anti-choreography–on a narrow tilted stage with large holes, audience members will wait anxiously for the accident to happen instead of following the performance.

And now on to the pleasantly inscrutable, and even the unequivocally pleasant.

Here’s what, technically, happens in the libretto. Maometto the character is based on Mehmed II the Conqueror, the fifteenth-century Ottoman warrior who took Constantinople, put paid to Byzantium and pushed well into the Western Europe. As nineteenth-century Italian opera is wont to do, the historical episode of the war with Venice is reimagined as a melodrama that involves Mehmed II, the ruler of a Venetian outpost Erisso, his daughter Anna and her long-suffering suitor Calbo. As the Ottoman siege starts, it transpires that Anna had somehow managed to have an affair with Maometto himself in disguise way before his troops conquered the city. (Don’t ask me how.) She makes Maometto release her father and suitor from captivity and spends next part of the opera with Maometto conflicted over loyalties. In the event, she betrays him, which results in Venetian reconquest. In the final scene with Maometto, she takes her own life.

The Ottomans were still in the Balkans at the time the opera was created, so I’m not sure what particular events around 1820 nudged Rossini and librettist Cesare della Valle in this direction. The overeager seekers of noxious Orientalism in everything would likely classify it as an Orientalist opera—there are clarinet solos too, hey—but the piece has as much to say about geopolitics, history and religious strife as Rossini’s Guglielmo Tell or the glorious Tancredi, so: nothing at all.

It’s the director’s task to decide whether to tap into or ignore (completely wimp out of?) this hotbed of topics in a contemporary reading, and David Alden found an intelligent and honourable balance. I’m guessing his thinking was, to completely ignore the East vs. West undercurrent would be to miss the point entirely and to bet too much on it (either by critiquing it or embracing it) would be silly: it’s an obscure Italian bel canto opera from 1820.

There are many brilliant scenes in this staging that never quire coheres and perhaps even shouldn’t. At the opening of Act 2,  the female chorus is lined up but we only see their niqab-veiled faces. They are observing Anna and a veiled dancer who gradually takes off her clothes to zero reaction from the impermeable Anna—some deconstructed elements of belly dance found their way to choreography (consistently imaginative, signed by David Laera). Maometto’s warriors wear ninja-like costumes, but they are not camp and not unserious: there is a front of stage throat slitting in one scene, and hints of a very different, unHollywood type of warrior recently seen on certain videos in the news. And whether Alden’s seen this particular political manipulation of Ottoman imagery I don’t know, but it was present in the costume of one of the silent characters on stage as well as Maometto’s.

But Alden takes a distance from too direct topicality in other ways, and when the bridge door goes down from the wall in Act 2, theatre smoke pours out and the massive black horses start sliding down just so Luca Pisaroni could climb up behind them and conclude the scene from there… we are back in the land of artificiality, mediation, nods to old skool set machinery and, well, fun.

My favourite thing about Rossini, apart from the heroic pants roles, are his trios, quartets, & quintets. Maometto II is all about the trios, many of the key scenes set up in this way. And while you could separate the work into numbers if you insisted, conductor Harry Bicket does the right thing and does not leave a split second for the applause after each. Recits are also sufficiently dramatic and substantial. The Maometto & Anna duo in Act 2 is some seriously sexy business. Credits to Luca Pisaroni and Crocetto (and Alden) for making the attraction and repulsion and the violence of that exchange come alive.

Pisaroni himself does not have get a showstopping traditional arias, but is a towering star presence throughout, producing some handsome and powerful bass coloratura. Elizabeth deShong as Calbo did have some spectacular solos, thank Rossini, and tenor Bruce Sledge as Erisso left nothing to be desired. The only principal I wasn’t seduced by was, as I mentioned, Crocetto, but every performance is different and things may change on other nights of the run.

In conclusion, I’m glad I discovered Maometto II. It’s certainly worthier of revival than any number of other bel canto works being reintroduced these days like the Tudor Trilogy, or Rossini’s own ubiquitous Cenerentola. Alden approached it in the right way (if sometimes to chaotic or static results). Thumbs up.

Bruce Sledge as Paolo Erisso, Leah Crocetto as Anna and Elizabeth DeShong as Calbo in the COC’s production of Maometto II, 2016. Photo: Michael Cooper

Have you heard the one about an atheist walking into a Messiah performance

As somebody who doesn’t believe in the Trinitarian God, the resurrection, and the Judgment Day, I’ve sometimes struggled to feel close to or give meaning to the texts of many of my favourite musical works (Mozart’s Mass in C minor and the Requiem, Faure’s Requiem, Bach’s Johannespassion, Rachmaninov’s Vespers, Berlioz’s Requiem, to name just the first few to come to mind). I look up the translations if it’s Latin or German, that’s not an issue, but the theology behind them is. Sometimes I succeed in understanding the words as directly relevant to my life today, sometimes I fail. When I fail, the music comes to the rescue: music is so bizarrely powerful over our emotions that it really doesn’t matter what the text is, music does its own text on you. And I am often one of the millions of unsophisticated listeners that make Adorno toss in his grave in agony, when we should know better. So for example I enjoy the dramatic anger of Mozart’s Dies Irae even though the notion of the omnipotent, omniscient God who will at one point divide the sheep from the goats means nothing to me. I do, there’s no other way to put it, often consume some of my favourite works of art kinda idiotically.

I wonder if the love that we—that I! I should stop using the nebulous we—have for these works is an expression of a nostalgia for faith? For a time and situations when Dies Irae really meant something? Did people who listened to Mozart’s Mass in C minor enjoy it as a theological work primarily? Who can even begin to tell. That’s an even worse kind of listening: escapist, mythologizing of the past, needy.

I wish that present-day conductors (institutions, program writers) doing these works today spoke about this question more. There’s a global audience for the sacred classical music canon today, consisting and potentially consisting of people of all kinds of non-Christian religions beside the atheists and agnostics. What more important is there for a conductor of a sacred work than this, to tell us why we should listen to these words, and therefore this work? Among the conductors that I follow, I’ve noticed Laurence Equilbey broaching the topic now and again, but still extremely rarely. There’s a quote in a magazine interview along the lines of some of these sacred works being about the celebration of creation, of the importance of something existing rather than nothing, of how glorious being alive can be, and I thought, okay, now we’re talking business. (The quote was frustratingly short.) In another radio interview she mentioned a potential collaboration with artist Philippe Quesne on The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross by Haydn and about the work being about something anybody can understand, the thirst for water, the need for air, the survival against all odds, and then too I stopped what I was doing and said, Go on, that’s interesting.

In moments like those I realize how badly I need these kinds of interpretations. We are taken for granted as an audience; we’re expected to keep showing up “because it’s the work X, Y, Z and the work X, Y, Z is important”.

Any of you reading this, have you encountered any other conductors addressing the issue of interpretation in this way?

These thoughts are actually prompted by last night’s performance of Handel’s Messiah (at the Metropolitan United on Church East, with Elmer Iseler Singers and Lydia Adams conducting). Bizarrely, I’ve become something of a Messiah fan, and even more bizarrely, I don’t have any problems finding its texts resonant. The music naturally oils the cogs, nothing new there, but the texts survive scrutiny even if I read them from the page, music-less. The Messiah text is a hodge-podge of snippets from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, a lot of it allegorical. I don’t know if it’s the poeticism of the King James translators or Handel’s genuinely populist music genius, but arias like:

Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight and the rough places plain. (Isaiah XL, 5)

…are a bottomless pit of interpretive pleasure. Yes, ultimately this is indeed about the Judgment Day, but it can also be about the dream of the this-wordly justice, of those who tirelessly work for it and won’t give up the notion? Those distant ideals that seem to be receding but not disappearing, the betterment of the condition of the womankind, the democracy?

Or this much trickier chorus:

And He shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. (Malachi III 3)

What do we do when we ‘offer an offering in righteousness’? Is this about leading by example?

For we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned, ev’ry one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah LIII 6)

You don’t need to believe in The Redeemer to get the depth of how much like sheep we have gone astray, and in what ways. But how are the consequences of our own iniquity transferred to another?

He trusted in God that He would deliver Him, let Him deliver Him, if He delight in Him. (Psalm XXII 8)

And where to even begin with this one: Christianity tangling itself into a knot of polytheism, in order to introduce the attribute of compassion to its god.

I mean, I could go on and on (“Let us break [the bonds of nations] asunder”, anyone?). But there it is. Sacred classical music as pop culture, where you know the lyrics, they mean something, you misremember and abuse them, want to sing and dance when they’re offered to you in much too solemn concerts. I’ll always prefer a whole slew of other sacred pieces to the Messiah—just about any of the named above–but there is some work ahead of us as a generation of classical music listeners and performers toward making them… come closer, put it that way.

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

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

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

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

II.

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

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

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

III.

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV.

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

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

 Toronto, November 2015

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

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

CASP, gasp!

CASP started its concert series auspiciously last night at the Extension Room, with the pieces by three living composers (two Canadian and one American) and a mini-lieder cycle by Strauss. The common (broad) theme was women in extreme situations.

“The Living Spectacle” (2015) by Erik Ross, the three-song cycle based on Baudelaire’s poems (tr. Roy Campbell), was performed by soprano Ambur Braid and Steven Philcox at the piano. The songs vary in tone and evoke different moods. “The Death of Lovers” is a vast and bright piece that beautifully straddles sadness and serenity, never for a moment giving up one for the other. The soundscape of “The Evil Monk” is a more familiar Goth-ish territory, lower on the stave and with more dramatic accents, while “The Death of Artists” has an irresistible piano undercurrent similar to Michael Nyman’s Piano score. We all knew that Ambur Braid had splendid highs, but what perhaps we don’t get to hear as often is how attractive and meaty her lower register is. The songs showed what a fabulous chiaroscuro voice she is. Somebody cast her in some Verdi, stat.

She also sang Libby Larsen’s to me new and astounding “Try Me, Good King: Last Words of the Wives of Henry VIII” (2000).  Normally, the Tudor-cultural industry and the royal family marriages are low on my list of interests, but Larsen researched and chose the text carefully, and gave each queen music materials to reflect their personal story and historical context. Katherine of Aragon gets a fairly pious song; Boleyn a complex mix of beseeching, anger, resignation; Jane Seymour’s is on the sweet and simple side; Anne of Cleves’s couples its staccato piano and quick rhythm with an almost sarcastic text. Ambur Braid provided tons of useful background info in her funny introduction to how each of the wives hooked up with Henry (“I nerd out… Bear with me”), but mood changed from comedic to dramatic when she started singing. She voiced each queen with unreserved commitment and compassion—it was probably the emotional peak of the evening. Powerful! Larsen’s excellent cycle found an excellent ambassador.

Carla Huhtanen, the ‘black belt’ of contemporary vocal music (was it Brian Current who said it? It’s true) sang the other half of the program. She was tone perfect in Strauss’s Three Ophelia Songs (1918), sincere, conflicted, a genuinely lost womanchild. When she wasn’t singing, the piano (Steven Philcox) echoed her competing feelings.

She had even more to do in the staged and choreographed “Sewing the Earthworm” (2012) by Brian Harman, to the poetry by David James Brock. The piece is about a woman who has been diagnosed with a neurological disease and is noticing the first signs of physical deterioration. She starts off with her frequent activities—gardening and sewing—but they get disturbed, meddled and finally leak into one another, and an earthworm gets conceptually lost among seams and needles. The final segment shows a mind desperately seeking the thread (of meaning) while being lost in the ‘squirming and slithering’ of her remaining incoherent life impulses. Harman employs the prepared piano in some segments, and the soprano is expected to be humming, moaning and screaming alongside the singing. The repetitions, the unexpected beat changes and the pauses are used to great effect. It’s really an exciting piece, here heightened by the presence of a dancer (Jennifer Nichols) who is the woman’s spirit and who is laid to rest and buried in the soil in the final scene.

The Living Spectacle was commissioned by CASP and Peter Deeb in 2014. Sewing the Earthworm was commissioned by CASP in 2010. For more about CASP and its future concerts, head over here.

Clockwise: Huhtanen, Nichols, Braid and Philcox.
Clockwise: Huhtanen, Nichols, Braid and Philcox.

And may they offer unto the audience all kinds of Messiahs

And may they offer unto the audience all kinds of Messiahs

What perhaps impressed the most last night, on the first night of Tafelmusik’s series of period Messiahs, was the subtlety of the choral work. There were many faces in the chorus last night that we know from solo performances elsewhere: sopranos Lesley Bouza (who recently solo’d in Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s Mozart and Haydn extravaganza) and Michele DeBoer (who often signs with Toronto Masque Theatre), baritone Keith Lam (recently seen in When the Sun Comes Out), and conductor/countertenor Peter Mahon (artistic director of the Tallis Choir) and that’s just naming four. All of these individual artists showed a different side to their talent as choral singers last night. Both the band and the choir performed Handel’s most popular creation alongside their long-time choral conductor Ivars Taurins countless times, but there were no signs of routine last night: the choruses were tremendously accomplished, and the modest size of the ensemble allowed for an easier discernment of the nuances and the dynamic shifts.

If I were to find a quibble or two, I would have preferred a numerically heftier, more female alto section. Too, some of the tempi were a fraction too brisk. “And he shall purify”, “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion”, “For unto us a child is born” all ended too speedily. (And even so, “He trusted in God” was as superb as it can possibly ever get, anywhere, HIP or not.) The soprano air “Rejoice greatly” was almost too fast for Lydia Teuscher, who however did survive and did not short-change on any of the coloratura. It’s in the slower movements that you could really notice the blend, the togetherness, yet also the many subtle differentiations within the Tafel-band sound. The bass was particularly remarkably blended; there were moments when the three cellos and the double bass sounded like a single instrument. Across the floor among the violins, Christopher Verrette was the reliable Concertmaster heading a group of a dozen seasoned string players. (The more I hear from and by this musician, the more I’m interested in hearing. He was very eloquent at an after-concert talk that I attended some months ago: perhaps he and a few of his colleague should start an informal edu-tainment salon so the conversations of this kind could continue?)

The movement most illustrative of what kind of delicacy of sound the choral Tafelians are capable of was probably the Amen. All the weaving and interweaving was there, and Taurins not only took time and took time to play with colours and shades, but slowed down into almost a fade-out towards the end of the work. Jubilant works always end on a bombastic tutti, and this was a most welcome twist—ending contemplatively, rather than on a rah-rah note.

Soloists, interestingly, were mixed. Originally, Julie Boulianne was booked to sing the all-important alto airs, but she cancelled (to sing Annio in Paris, is it happens: you can watch her in this role live at the TCE starting 1:30 EST today here). Countertenor James Laing was engaged to sing instead. There were some problems with the purity of tone last night, especially in the lower notes, which I hope are corrigible and will be fixed for the remaining performances.

It’s good to hear new artists debuting in Toronto, and kudos to Tafel for debuting international soloists, instrumental and vocal, fairly frequently. Enter young German soprano Lydia Teuscher, who’s received remarkable notices in NYC recently, in Emmanuelle Haim’s concert rendition of Acis, Galatea e Polifemo. Her bell-like, silvery timbre is very appealing, but perhaps due to nerves, the accentuating was a little unpredictable last night—many of the high syllables would get unusually high in volume too, which gave to the text a certain bumpy mapping. The diction also got a little fuzzy up high. However, sometimes an artist wins you over with vulnerability and rawness rather than the cool mastery.

Speaking of mastery, Colin Balzer (he of the chest even more magnificent than Michael Schade’s) has a gorgeous tenor and was the rock solid soloist of the four last night. Nevermind the odd thinning of the high “dash” in the otherwise exquisite “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron”: his tone was overall smooth, even, well-controlled; diction excellent; inflections in harmony with the meaning of the text. Baritone Brett Polegato was also good, but the occasional detachment from the text was evident; there was many a broad smile and a lot of acting in “The trumpet shall sound” where none at all was needed, and possibly distracted a little.

Koerner Hall was packed last night, which proves again that some like their Messiah chamber and intimate. But the either-or narrative that the media are giving to the Messiahs this season is ridiculous: it’s not modern, stonking vs HIP, intimate: it’s both-and. RTH for the spectacle, Koerner for a more intimist rendition. Let’s not forget the sing-along version and the staged versions (which are bound to come). I just wish the dance-hall version existed too; the danciness of much of the score sometimes makes sitting still in your seat a real challenge. Whoever picks up the idea first in this Messiah-crazed town—count me in.

The Tafelmusik Messiah at Koerner Hall continues Dec 18, 19, 20. Sing-along is on Dec 21 at the Massey Hall

How to review when Opera Atelier visits from the colonies

How to review when Opera Atelier visits from the colonies

It’s no secret to readers of this blog that I am not a fan of Opera Atelier.

So obvs, I was  curious to read the French reviews of their production of Lully’s Persée, which they recently took to the Versailles Royal Opera.

ForumOpera.com (a Belgium-based internet magazine with an international outlook) did not disappoint: Laurent Bury’s mockery of Pinkoski’s staging was fun, but the review was nuanced and actually took interest in its subject.

Then today on Twitter I bumped into a Le Monde review which went so overboard in nationalist anxieties and condescension that I found myself in an awkward position of wanting to defend OA. (It won’t last, I know, but leave the moment be.) The review is here, but you’ll probably hit the paywall, so I’m copying it below.

In the review the OA was put in the context of Kanye West renting parts of Versailles for his private function… Oh dear oh dear.

I propose that we revise the Rulebook of Reviewing Productions from the Colonies*, which now include the following:

–If a production comes from Canada, of course it will be a “maple syrup production”

–Single out the only French component of the production as the only French component in the production

–Place the production in the larger, unrelated context of the “North American invasion of moneyed ostentation over France”

–Make a point of how exaggerated the production is compared to the austere splendor of the French productions of the same stuff

–An extracurricular activity–Find a way to connect the term “queer” and the perceived effeminacy in the men on stage to kitsch

Now if you’ll excuse me, my daily maple syrup shower awaits.

//

*some of these work if you put “Great Britain” instead of France, but the British edition of the Rulebook will have its own items.

Here goes:

Soirée kitsch à Versailles entre Persée et Kanye West

LE MONDE | 29.05.2014 à 13h37 |Marie-Aude Roux

Il y avait de quoi avoir la perruque à l’envers, vendredi 23 mai, jour d’ouverture du festival Les Voix royales à Versailles (Yvelines). Allez savoir pourquoi, laprogrammation, annoncée sur la thématique « Haendel à Rome », débutait avecPersée, une tragédie lyrique de… Lully ! Certes, figurent également au programme de cette manifestation le Didon et Enée de Purcell et Les Sept Dernières Paroles du Christ en croix de Haydn… Mais le reste est bien de Haendel – Le Messie,Belshazzar, Amadigi, Dixit Dominus, etc.

Le plus difficile était cependant, ce soir-là, pour les spectateurs de réussir à accéder à l’Opéra royal. Un chemin de barrières métalliques jusqu’au milieu de la place d’armes, une bordée de vigiles à oreillettes et lunettes noires, rendaient impénétrable la voie menant à la cour royale. Seul pouvait y circuler un cortège de grosses cylindrées aux vitres teintées. Ordre nous fut intimé de passer par l’extérieur et de rejoindre l’entrée de la rue des Réservoirs. Sur les pavés, des chevaux caparaçonnés semblaient attendre une joute. Celle-ci était amoureuse : le château et ses jardins, nous dit-on, avaient été réservés par la star du rap américain Kanye West et sa future épouse, la vedette de téléréalité Kim Kardashian. Le couple avait organisé à Versailles une fête en costumes d’époque, avant de s’envoler dans un jet privé pour Florence où devait être célébré le mariage en bonne et due forme le lendemain, au Forte Belvedere, sur la colline Boboli.

Versailles en a vu d’autres, mais les consignes sont strictes. Rester groupés et éteindre les téléphones portables – ce qui n’empêchera pas l’un deux de sonner au milieu d’un des multiples combats de Persée à la conquête d’Andromède, contre Méduse, dont il coupe la tête dans son sommeil, contre le monstre marin envoyé par Junon, contre un rival jaloux et son armée. Persée vaincra grâce aux « médusants » pouvoirs de Méduse dont la tête continue à pétrifier jusqu’après la mort.

Créé le 18 avril 1862 à l’Académie royale de musique, à Paris, dix-huit jours avant l’installation du roi et de sa cour à Versailles, l’opéra offre la figure héroïque de Persée qui évoque, ainsi que l’indique la dédicace de Lully, celle de Louis XIV, souverain que menacent « Méduse et ses Gorgones », à savoir la triple alliance menée contre Louis XIV par le prince d’Orange (les Provinces-Unies, la Suède et l’Empereur), à laquelle viendra bientôt se joindre le « monstre » menaçant qu’est l’Espagne, qui s’y rallie en mai de la même année.

Le plus grand danger vient aujourd’hui de Toronto, où l’Opera Atelier a conçu en 2000 cette production à succès, dont la reprise en 2004 sous la direction d’Hervé Niquet a fait l’objet d’un DVD publié chez EuroArts.

MÉDUSE ET SES GORGONES, TRÈS QUEER

A mille lieues du faste austère des mises en scène à la française, ce Persée au sirop d’érable a les ingrédients énergétiques d’une comédie musicale. Costumes d’époque somptueux et colorés, accessoires réalistes frisant la gaudriole (la tête farces et attrapes de Méduse au revers d’un bouclier), gestuelle « baroque » franchement outrée, tout semble indiquer que la tragédie lyrique de Lully est une vaste plaisanterie.

Dans le public, on glousse aux poses efféminées des messieurs en collants de velours dont l’on peut admirer à son aise les culs avenants. La scène de Méduse et ses Gorgones, très queer, est parmi les plus réussies. Chanteurs, femmes et hommes, ont des physiques de danseurs et d’acteurs. Reste la musique.

Voix plutôt laides ou mal dégrossies, prosodie hasardeuse, la part audible du spectacle est la partie faible, ne seraient les musiciens du Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra et le chœur Les Cris de Paris, seul élément français du spectacle mis en scène par Marshall Pynkoski et adroitement chorégraphié par son épouse, Jeannette Lajeunesse-Zingg. A la sortie, le coup d’œil dans les jardins rassure : il n’y a pas qu’à l’intérieur que le spectacle frise le kitsch et le ridicule.

Festival Les Voix royales : Haendel à Rome. Château de Versailles, place d’Armes, Versailles (Yvelines). Du 23 mai au 8 juillet. Tél. : 01-30-83-78-89. De 35 € à 298 €.

Untitled Feminist Show at World Stage 2014

Untitled Feminist Show by Young Jean Lee’s Theatre Company at World Stage 2014. Fleck Dance Theatre, February 12-15 8PM. Practicalities

Untitled Feminist Show--Photo by Blaine DavisAs Young Jean Lee explains in interviews, Untitled Feminist Show started off as a naked play with words, but whatever those words happened to be and however many or few, the audience would always leave the show caught in endless academic discussions about feminism. That wasn’t her goal: the idea was to offer a theatrical experience they’ve never had before. So the words were removed – though some singing and vocalizing remained, and there is a lot of recorded music. Considering that the naked female bodies of varying shapes and sizes almost inextricably come with shame and anxiety in just about all contexts, to have an hour of no shame and no anxiety nakedness is in itself something worth seeing the show for.

In other respect, the show uses many traditional theatrical tools. For instance, the individual character. Each performer acquires a distinct personality in the course of the show, and we are definitely not observing a chorus of the Greek tragedies or an operatic mob. Music is crucial in almost every scene and it colours them in intelligible moods, gives each the dancing beat and in many ways “dresses” the women. There is a lot of choreography – a lot of it riffing on the tradition of classical dance, and after a while it is easy to discern who among the performers had a training in dance and who hadn’t. The bodies themselves are not entirely left au naturel and have been theatre-proofed too: the body hair was under control (being a Yeti myself, I am bound to notice the lack of hairy legs), the majority of the performers are what we traditionally see as very attractive, and all of them are young-ish (I’d guess under 40). So, the symbolizing went on even without the language – or, the language found many ways of seeping in through other kinds of sign-making (musical, choreographic, the body shaping practices, and the non-verbal narratives).

Still, some scenes are more straight-forwardly narrative than others. We open with a scene of story-telling that could be best described as a fairy tale were it not for its  continuously shifting grounds: that could be an evil witch with a hungry Quasimodo-ish sidekick, and the two of them could be paralyzing girls into unconsciousness in order to eat them, but then again, that could be a very different story of a group of girls on a playground, or something else entirely. There are enough twists to keep you wondering. Or the tutti episode with a techno beat and witty choreography that turns out to be about giving birth and mothering a baby. Then again, the episode of courting and loving between two women (danced by Katy Pyle and Madison Krekel) is easily legible, as is the hilariously dirty invitation to sex to the select audience members mimed with a child-like innocence by Amelia Zirin-Brown aka Lady Rizo.

Becca Blackwell and Jen Rosenblit each had a remarkable individual episode that kept you guessing, interpreting and feeling. Blackwell’s rendition of a simple musical tune in a sequence of very disparate psychological states, and Rosenblit’s dramatization of anger are both full of rawness and expressiveness not frequently available in theatre.

Remaining performances are tonight, tomorrow and Saturday night.

Photo by Blaine Davis

Overture Opera Guides with ENO: Carmen

 Overture Opera Guides - CarmenHere comes another indispensable OOG/ENO guide: Carmen (2013).

As is the case with many operatic works that are now standard repertoire, Carmen’s opening night was a failure, and Bizet endured a pummeling by the critics. The composer died three months later, overall unhappy and without any inkling of the opera’s future planetary success that lasts to this day. How the work came to be premiered at the Opéra-Comique, and all the politicking behind the scenes at this very French institution leading up to and after Carmen is documented in Lesley A. Wright’s fascinating chapter. Opéra-Comique, before the new young guard which was itching to burst in and which included Bizet, used to showcase conservative light comedies with a nuptial happy ending. Bizet’s work had the working classes and the lumpen, it had sex, murder, a woman with actual desires and various other breaches of respectability. Musically too, it was much more complex than the O-C audience and the Paris arts media would be accustomed to, and presented itself in a mainstream that looked at any complex harmonies as suspicious Wagnerization of the French national musical vernacular. (I am not making this up!) The O-C’s orchestra and the chorus found many parts “unperformable” due to their perceived difficulty.

I’ve also learned  thanks to Wright who the soiristes were (the first impressions reporters who would write for tomorrow’s papers a play-by-play and the summary of the reactions from the audience; then the proper critics would come in later, the lundistes) and that there existed corrupt journalists you simply had to pay off in order to have a smooth opening night.

Richard Langham Smith’s chapter analyzes the musical score(s) hand in hand with the libretto(s). There is also an interesting sub-section on how the libretto relates to its base text, Mallarmé’s then-wildly popular novella Carmen. (In it, Carmen is married to an evil one-eyed man called Garcia, whom Don Jose also kills by the end, and there is no Micaela – for example.) Why was there a wave of Hispanophilia in France in that period and why are so many French creations marked by Andalusia — that’s another line of inquiry in this chapter. Langham Smith is very detailed on the differences and versions between the scores and librettos, the spoken dialogue vs recitatives, and what exactly was the inserted and abandoned Pantomime scene all about… The complete score included in the book, with its side English translation, is prepared and edited by Langham Smith. He notes that a production or a recording with the complete dialogue libretto, without any cuts, has actually never been made.

The remaining two chapters are George Hall’s performance history of Carmen and Gary Kahn’s rundown of the opera’s early (often unlikely) fans. Both contain a myriad things you probably never knew. (Tchaikovsky and Nietzsche both loved Carmen?! Sally Potter’s 2007 ENO Carmen with Alice Coote had not a word of dialogue left in?!)

There is also the usual thematic guide for the score, the selected discography, videography and bibliography, and a selection of posters, photos — we get to see the very first singing actress who made Carmen a massive success — and engravings — the Cigarreras with their children at the tobacco factory in Seville, for example.

An essential volume.