Podcast Episode the First

So I went and created a podcast.

It’s called Alto, it’ll cover music and literature and occasionally other stuff too and it’ll drop last Thursday of every month. The first episode is right here and on the Soundcloud, & can be streamed or downloaded. Guests Jenna Douglas Simeonov of Schmopera, John Gilks of Opera Ramblings, Joseph So of Ludvig Van and Opera Canada, and Sara Constant of The WholeNote and I talk about the good, the bad and the WTF of the year that was.

I’m still getting the hang of the technical side of things so don’t judge my sound equalization, clip quality or my anti-radio voice too harshly. For now.

I also realized while I was editing the audio file that there’s not a lot from my own list in the mix, but that’s just fine, there was so much to talk about that I never got around to going down my own list. I did point out my Greatest Disappointment, so there’s that. Here’s the run-down of some of the Best of… choices but for the Worst of… (and we were all much naughtier than our writing voices) you’ll have to listen in.

John of Opera Ramblings, Best Shows:

Neema Bickersteth’s Century Song at The Crow’s Theatre

Toronto Symphony with Against the Grain: Seven Deadly Sins, staged for concert

The Ana Sokolovic Dawn Begins in the Bones recital 21C Festival at Koerner Hall

The Vivier show, Musik fur das Ende, by the Soundstreams

Category: Reconciliation : COC Louis Riel, the symphony putting on shows with First Nations content; Brian Current & Marie Clements’ opera Missing which opened in BC; land acknowledgements in the arts world.

Sara Constant, Digital Media at the WholeNote:

The Soundstreams Vivier show

Intersections Festival hosted by Contact Contemporary Music (Jerry Pergolesi’s ensemble) – immersive event at Allan Gardens

My own addendum to this:

Soundstreams doing R Murray Schafer Odditorium

PLUS Judy Loman in anything

Joseph So, a long-time opera critic (Opera, Ludvig Van, Opera Canada):

Category: Event – the Trio Magnifico concert at the Four Seasons Centre (Netrebko, Hvorostovsky, Eyvazov)

Toronto’s best operatic performance: COC’s Gotterdammerung

COC’s Arabella (even though he describes it as a “German Harlequin novel” – or maybe because of that exactly?)

Best recital: Barbara Hannigan & Reinbert de Leeuw recital: “Like Melisande is singing Berg, Schonberg, Webern and Zemlinsky”

Best  singing performance in an opera: Andrew Haji singing Nemorino in COC’s Elixir d’amore

Best opera seen abroad: Goetz Friedrich’s Ring in Deutsche Oper Berlin – the farewell performance.

Jenna Simeonov (Schmopera):

Absolute top of the chart: ROH Rosenkavalier directed by Robert Carsen with Renee Fleming, Alice Coote and Sophie Bevan.

The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak – an opera with puppets by Wattle and Daub at Wilton’s Music Hall in London.

Katie Mitchell’s production of Written on Skin at ROH with the original cast

A Schmopera interview highlight of the yer: Dr. Paul E. Kwak on vocal health of singers.

+ + +

For detailed info on the musical tidbits in the podcast, head here.

My own Best of 2017 coming out before end of year.

 

Advertisements

The Messiah, liberated

Karina Gauvin, Krisztina Szabó, Frédéric Antoun, Joshua Hopkins, Matthew Halls, TMC, TSO. Photo by Jag Gundu/TSO

British conductor Matthew Halls was unknown to me until last night, but I’ll be following his career from now on with interest since he liberated Toronto’s biggest Messiah from Andrew Davis’ vision and made it exciting again. Thanks also go to those who booked Halls for this run of The Messiah concerts in December (there are four left to go) and to whoever decided–I expect it was Halls himself–to move the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir from the crescent of the back balcony down to the concert stage. Five rows of about 28 singers each are a concentrated, powerful force. The inner intricacies of the sound sculpting among the voices are much more easy to follow too, and the contrasts are easier to spot. After this experience, I can’t see why any conductor would put the choir anywhere but on stage.

Halls also reduced the orchestra to the Mozart era size and skipped all the extraneous instruments that Davis is so fond of. The choir never overpowered the instruments, however. Balance was good throughout. There was the odd moment when this or that soloist was being covered by the orchestra, but they didn’t last long and the scale settled back into balance quickly.

There was opera and mélodies in Karina Gauvin’s solo arias. I don’t think Come unto Him and How beautiful are the feet ever sounded that lush and sensuous–more like Les chansons de Bilitis than religious worship, but you didn’t see me objecting for one second. Mezzo Krisztina Szabo was most impressive in He was despised, which more than made up for the occasional drops in volume power earlier in the oratorio. Tenor Frederic Antoun had the volume and coloratura galore, and an unusually dark timbre to boot–or did I get used to the thinned out near-falsetto hautes contres tenors that keep being asked to sing this? Another welcome change, in any case. Bari Joshua Hopkins completed this quartet of capable soloists that left nothing to be desired.

An even bigger draw for me have always been the choruses, and I can report that my favourites (And He shall purify, For unto us, His yoke, Behold the Lamb, All we like sheep, He trusted in God, The Lord gave the word, and Amen — ok, just about all by three) have been handled well. Well worked out tempi, nothing bizarre; limpid sopranos, velvety altos, bright tenors and dark but not too heavy as to sound Orthodox church basses were on at all times. Sometimes the middle alto-tenor section get smudged in complex choruses, but none of that here. (Noel Edison is the TMC’s artistic director and I presume he rehearsed the TMC until it was time for the tutti rehearsals.)

Continues today, tomorrow, Friday and Saturday and definitely worth catching.

Haus Musik: Crossing / Traversée

Patricia Ahern (violin) with Charlotte Nediger (harpsichord) in HausMusik, November 2017. Photo: Haus Musik Twitter account.

I finally got the chance to see one of Tafelmusik’s “alternative” concerts, the November edition of the series known as Haus Musik. It took place at the Great Hall’s Long Boat venue, on Queen and Dovercourt. This is a series of non-traditional chamber-size concerts by Tafelmusicians in venues like night clubs, preceded and followed by a DJ set.

I somehow thought that the concert would be a conversation between electronic and baroque music, but the two stayed safely apart and what we had was a traditional concert (if shorter) alongside a kind of a staging with a dancer, video and, um, curated smell: envelopes with dried lavender were handed to each of the audience member, which connected to some of the shots of lavender fields that we saw in video projections. The DJ Andycapp DJ’d before and probably after (I didn’t hang out for long).

There were no chairs about, hey this is an alternative concert in a club, but people clearly needed them because 20 minutes into the concert much of the audience on the ground level sat on the floor. I don’t think anything will be lost by adding some chairs to the Haus Musik formula? There are no chairs in clubs because people dance in clubs, but there was no opportunity for the audience to dance to baroque here. So: which it is going to be, the chairs or the dancing? that is the question. No chairs and no dancing is the worst combination possible.

The pieces heard were short and well varied – a concert for two violins (Patricia Ahern and Genevieve Gilardeau), a solo piece for the harpsichord (Charlotte Nediger) and another for viola da gamba (Felix Deak), and some pieces that asked for all four musicians. Beside Couperin, Rameau and Marais, two composers who are new to me were played: Jean-Marie Leclair and Louis Constatin.

I feel it would be bitchy and beside the point to “review” this performance and to comment on whether the ensemble sounded under-rehearsed etc. Too, the staging-mit-choreography by Jennifer Nichols wasn’t quite… there. The story unfolding while the music is playing was of two couples, one from the time when the music was composed, one contemporary — and they could be one and the same couple. The contemporary couple has split and we only see the man of the pair (dancer Jack Rennie), struggling with memories or dreams or visions (projected on video; Patrick Hagarty is credited as the filmmaker). There is great potential in this idea of the present, the past and the future disturbing each other’s domains and melding before our eyes, but the thing never really got off the ground. A pre-recorded male voice read a poem in French by “J. Nichols” (Jennifer?) in between the segments, which did not add much to the piece. The props making up the man’s atelier were the familiar scruffy Toronto indie opera no-budget props.

The audience, though, was MUCH younger than one sees in regular Tafelmusik concerts, and the drinks were being carried all around this licensed venue. However, unless tweaked (dancing or chairs?), this kind of a do is not exactly my thing. Especially now that that I live in east end. Dovercourt-Queen is now far west for this autumn cyclist.

Next Haus Musik is scheduled for February 2018.

The Emerging Art Critic Program 2017

The class of 2017 (front row) with, in the back row (l-r), Francine Labelle, media relations at the TSO, Sara Constant (managing editor, The Wholenote), David Perlman (publisher, The Wholenote), and John Coulbourn (former Toronto Sun performing arts critic, now retired). Photo: the National Ballet of Canada Twitter account.

The Emerging Art Critic Program is in its fourth year, with two additional organizations in the mix and an expanded mission. I first heard of the program when John Coulbourn mentioned it in our long conversation in 2015, and promptly put it out of my mind thinking it was bound to stay a dance criticism training ground only. This year, however, the Wholenote magazine joined the Dance Current on the media side, and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra joined the National Ballet of Canada on the arts organization side to make the training program about music criticism as well.

And that’s a good development. There are rumours of orgs in other art disciplines expressing interest — and next year may bring an even bigger program.

This year, the plan is to train all the candidates in music writing (David Perlman and Sara Constant will work with writers on those reviews, which will be published in the Wholenote) and dance performance (John Coulbourn and Megan Andrews, TDC founding editor, guiding and TDC publishing). Each gets assigned two things to review. There are workshops and guest speakers and outings. This was the call that appeared on the TSO website, which joins the National Ballet call.

John, with whom I spoke on the phone  this morning, tells me the level of quality and enthusiasm is high. Many of the young writers are just recently out of school, with degrees in Dance, Music or English.

This is happening in very unfavourable conditions for arts journalism in Canada. Neither the Sun, the Post, the Star or the Globe has a permanent writer on the music beat. The Rogers magazines like Macleans and Chatelaine continue to reduce arts coverage. The CBC Music website as a depressing joke. (While the NYT and the Guardian are actually expanding music coverage.) How will the emerging arts writers monetize their skill in Canada? Well, that is a $50,000 question that will need dealing with later. For now – let’s enjoy the news that there are a good number of young people eager to write about arts each year. Arts journalism, in this one way, is on the renewal trajectory.

And now, the drum roll please: here is the Class of 2017, with Twitter handles embedded for those who are on Twitter:

Arianna Benincasa
Eve van Eeden
Josette Halpert
Kallee Lins 
Taylor Long
Jaimie Nacken
Melissa Poon
Wei Shen

Satie on marimba, an androgynous dancer & sophisticated pop

One week late (due to technical difficulties at The Wholenote blog, where this appears originally), here are my thoughts about Against the Grain’s pairing up with Kyrie Kristmanson. ‘Twas good.

A scene from Reverie at Alliance Francaise, directed by Amanda Smith. Photo by Jonathan Russell MacArthur / Against the Grain Theatre

Who knew that an album launch could become a unique theatrical experience? Yes, all right, the stars of pop music with mega-budgets and production companies do, but experimental mixed genre pop singers and small opera production companies don’t usually seek each other out for projects. Singer Kyrie Kristmanson invited the team of Against the Grain Theatre to create a theatrical component to the Canadian launch of her songs from Modern Ruin, and Friday night’s delightful do “Une rêverie musicale,” at the small theatre space at the Alliance Française, was the result.

Amanda Smith directed the first act. The little fantasy with a dancer (Mary-Dora Bloch-Hansen, in her own choreography) and a baritone (Adam Harris) had few props – some chairs covered with shiny metallic paper and some balloons. Music was a combination of purely instrumental and vocal, mostly French except for a bit near the end from Philip Glass’ Glassworks. It all sounded like one atmospheric piece thanks to the instrument that carried it all, marimba (Nathan Petitpas). Satie’s Gymnopedie 1 started the proceedings, and we got to meet the androgynous dancer (with glorious face make-up) first. The baritone entered as a late audience member and joined her onstage. Their interaction had, refreshingly, nothing to do with a potential seduction or couple formation. They were, more imaginatively, like two creatures from different planets trying to communicate through play.

Petitpas also played Satie’s Gnossiennes 2, 3 and 5, and accompanied Harris in Poulenc’s Hôtel and the final Après un rêve by Fauré, which I’ve never before heard in baritone register. A lot of sopranos perform this song, but it’s obvious to me now that it’s more appealing in a lower voice. Marimba added a dream-like quality.

It’s how opera as an art form began, really – as an intermedio between something else, between the acts of a theatre play for example. “Une rêverie” reminded us that it can still work perfectly fine like that – in this case, as an album launch with an operatic interlude of its own.

The second half of the show was Kyrie Kristmanson’s set. Kyrie Kristmanson is a new artist to me, but I’m glad I discovered her. The labels “folk” or “pop” or “baroque” don’t quite do her justice. Friday night she performed a set with the amplified Warhol Dervish string quartet. Among her singer-songwriter interests are recomposing and arranging what’s left of the songs of the trobairitz, the Occitan female version of the troubadours, and some of the songs in the program did have a distant medieval musical ring to them. Mostly the numbers they performed were musically more complex than medieval music, and more complex than any of the stuff performed by folk or pop or cabaret musicians. Few songs had a predictable danceable beat prevalent in pop concoctions. At first I thought I had finally found a Canadian version of what Rosemary Standley does in her baroque/folk work, but the music that Kyrie and the Warhol Dervish quartet play is more contemporary instrumental, with none of the simple and immediate appeal of pop songs. Kudos to them for smuggling in quite a bit of demanding listening into the popular song form and taking the road less travelled but more adventurous.

Kyrie Kristmanson, the Warhol Dervish quartet and artists from Against the Grain Theatre presented “Une rêverie musicale” on Friday, October 13 at Alliance Française, Toronto. Kristmanson’s next concert is at the NAC in Ottawa (October 19), after which she is off to Regina, Montreal and to a festival in France.

Kyrie Kristmanson

Anna & Anna in elegant minimalism

Jennifer McNichols (centre), Wallis Giunta. Photo by Jag Gundu

Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht’s The Seven Deadly Sins is a strange creature. A 40 minute long communist morality play in the form of a ballet with singing to a full orchestra was never going to be easy to stage.  To this day it’s more often recorded than performed, and the TSO programming it and hiring Joel Ivany to stage it–as much as the Roy Thomson Hall allows for any staging–was a fresh and bold move. To quote Nicole Paiement, the 20th and 21st century pieces are more easily accepted by today’s audience if there’s a scenic component added to the mix, and this is probably going to be a growing practice around the presenting of the 20thC works. There’s a good expression in French: mise en espace (while full-on staging is mise en scène), making the most of whatever the available space happens to be to dramatize the performance.  Sometimes a scenic component is added to the originally non-scenic, “pure music” work, and sometimes a thoroughly scenic work is intentionally reduced to a mise en espace. There have been some good cases lately (for example the 2016 Lucio Silla by Rita Cosentino, the precise opposite of Opera Atelier’s approach) and we’ll be seeing more.

Joel Ivany and choreographer Jennifer Nichols, who also danced as Anna II, opted for what could be described as elegant minimalism in this Sins production. The TSO conducted by Peter Oundjian was moved to the back of the stage, the front stage covered by the black, dancer-friendly flooring. Two video screens above the orchestra showed both the supertitles and, in interludes between the themed numbers, pre-recorded black-and-white videos of the two principals, Anna I (Wallis Giunta) and Anna II (Nichols). Videos are simple–close ups, mirroring and merging of the two faces, a female figure walking on the train tracks at the beginning and the end. Nichols and Giunta on stage wear similar dresses and hair (Nichols had to dance and be carried around the stage while wearing a long Giunta-lookalike wig). Movement-wise, Nichols opted for fairly modern choreography delivered however en pointe: an interesting choice, perhaps meant to add to the constraints that the character of Anna II is under in the piece.

The Seven Deadly Sins is probably the most overtly feminist thing that Weill and Brecht created together, which is not to say that it’s an uncomplicated call to arms for the cause of sisterhood. Anna I and II are two sides of the same character that is sent across the mythical Weill-Brecht America (always in the primitive accumulation of capital stage, ever the Wild West) in pursuit of success and money and the American Dream business. There’s an all-male chorus, the “family” that comments on the action and eggs her on. They’re also the ones naming Anna II’s actions as sins while also benefiting from them and expecting to benefit even more in the future.

The split Anna character is an intriguing interpretive challenge. Only Anna II goes places, does things, commits sins, lives the impure, while the singing, analyzing Anna II comments, justifies, shrugs off. It’s possible that Anna I-II is an image of woman’s life under patriarchal capitalism: we will be asked to sacrifice so others could benefit, for which we will be condemned too (Anna II); we will see clearly that this is the case and will be able to do nothing about it and may even become articulate in the oppressive vernacular (Anna I, but also the Mother of the chorus).

Ivany, I think wisely, leaves it to the viewer to wrangle these questions and clears up and simplifies the proceedings as much as possible. The male chorus sings from the aisles and the wings as well as on stage, and is given dance-like movements by Nichols to great effect. They’re all dressed in black and white with suspenders and fedoras as the only accents (costumes are by Krista Dowson). Isaiah Bell (Father), Owen McCausland (Brother), Geoffrey Sirett (Brother) and Stephen Hegedus (Mother) sounded like a madrigalist ensemble at times, they were that polished and multi-coloured. All singers, including Giunta, were miked, which was surprising to hear at first, but kinda understandable later on: a noisy orchestra, RTH acoustics, lots of movement for singers and small- to medium-size voices all around is a combination begging for voice microphones.

Music was of the familiar Weill-Brecht sort, noisy, brassy and clangy that plays with then twists and abandons anything smacking of lyricism. The Sins were part of the TSO’s Decades project, which joins together wildly disparate works from the shared decade in the same concert. It was premiered in 1930s, as was Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (TSO’s was a subtle take on the old hit) and Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (utterly sui generis,  wouldn’t  sound out of place at the New Creations Festival). It worked great in this case: the three works couldn’t have been more different, yet the program cohered.

Peter Oundjian, Wallis Giunta and Jennifer Nichols. Photo Jag Gundu

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.