2019 in rearview mirror

The Pite-Young Revisor was the hightlight of the year. It’s probably harder to be moved by it than by Betroffenheit – which may explain some of the puzzled reviews by Toronto dance critics – but it’s a larger work of art in every sense of the word. The work has multiple co-producers from around the world, so if it comes anywhere near you in 2020, do not miss it. I saw it (twice… and the tickets weren’t cheap) at the Canadian Stage.

Now on to the usual classification.

OPERA

Tim Albery-directed Giulio Cesare in Egitto by Opera North which I watched in Leeds, was the standout. Completely unknown (to me) singers all impressed, and the set was some sort of golden multi-purpose edifice that revolves (by  Leslie Travers) – absolutely the most was made of it.  Christian Curnyn conducted what turned out to be a spritely, cohesive, gleaming performance.

Lucie Chartin (Cleopatra) and Maria Sanner (Giulio Cesare) in a photo by Alastair Muir

Locally, the COC’s Elektra revival with Christine Goerke wasn’t too shabby either. I also saw an oldie Rosenkavalier production in Leipzig with the gorgeous-looking and sounding Wallis Giunta, but though musical side of it all was lush, more actual acting by some of the principals would not have gone amiss. The Little Opera That Could award this year goes to Pomegranate, which I hope to see re-mounted with a different cast. Dud of the Year? The ENO Orphée, which I abandoned at the intermission. Torture. Granted, Alice Coote will never be my cuppa, but even so: had the production been different, I’d have soldiered on.

Via Met in HD, I saw Nico Muhly’s Marnie and I’m glad I did. I read the novel soon after and enjoyed being able to compare the Hitchcock film with the novel with the opera. While in both the movie and the novel, Marnie’s husband rapes her – which in the movie slooowly results in her getting used to her situation and male sexuality, and in the novel things end on the status quo, she’s resigned to her life – the opera removes the rape from the story. Marnie’s husband in the opera accepts her refusal and doesn’t force himself on her. Why the Met-commissioned team made that decision, and whether the opera is better work of art or a less truthful one for it, I’ll leave to you to ponder.

IN CONCERT

Gemma New conducting Hamilton Philharmonic in Mahler 5
Vesuvius Ensemble’s The Plucking Opera
Agnela Hewitt playing Goldberg Variations
The Happenstencers give Bach a re-do, via Vivier, Southam, Dusapin et al.
Barbara Hannigan conducting the TSO

MUSEUMS, GALLERIES

Sir John Soanes Museum (London, UK) all the way! It had a big Hogarth exhibit when I visited, but the museum’s permanent collection is a Disneyworld for anybody interested in the 18th century.
Fondation Luis Vuitton (Paris, France) for Charlotte Perriand: Inventing a New World.

THEATRE

The Piaf/Dietrich musical was very pleasant (and has been recently extended into January).
Michael Healey’s 1979 has some incredibly accomplished scenes but it relied too much on text projections to let the audience know what’s going on and the cross-sex casting didn’t quite work.
Robert Lepage’s take on Coriolanus was good fun. This I saw in cinema via Stratford in HD.
And that is where I draw a blank. I’ve seen some atrocious Toronto theatre last year – The Cherry Orchard at Crow’s Theatre, Four Sisters at Theatre Centre – which put me off theatre altogether.

CINEMA

A good year. It opened with Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War, which though eeever so slightly sexist, is a work of art quand même. Icelandic film Woman at War about an eco-terrorist who applies to adopt a child from Ukraine has everything a film needs. Olivier Assayas’ Non-Fiction and Mike Leigh’s Peterloo are fine but I won’t remember them in a few years. Johanna Hogg’s The Souvenir on the other hand is ah-mazing, as is her entire opus (I’ve finally seen Exhibition, thanks to a Tiff retrospective, the only remaining film of hers that I hadn’t and… she’s a fecking genius, no ifs or buts). Madeleine Olnek’s Wild Nights with Emily was a riot. Patricia Rozema’s Mouthpiece is Patricia Rozema’s best film. What to say of Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire that the raving critics and the adoring audiences already haven’t? (Which I saw at the London Film Festival, where it was much easier for me to get a ticket than at my local international festival. Tiff is a lost cause. Don’t even bother trying.) The 2019 Palm D’or, Parasite, was good and the Berlin winner, Synonyms, even better, I thought. Official Secrets with Keira Knightly was a decently done whistleblower drama. Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia (based on Eileen Atkins’ play) was a very smart delight. Sophie Deraspe’s Antigone, which puts the Greek heroine in an immigrant family in Quebec, is a sophisticated brain bon-bon, if perhaps not as engaging as one might expect. And 63 Up and Knock Down the House stand out among the documentaries.

I shall return for the 2019 in Books. Till tomorrow!

Martin Kušej’s Elektra on DVD

Strauss-Hofmannsthal Elektra. Zurich Opera House production 2003, 2005; Arthaus DVD 2012. Conductor Christoph von Dohnányi, stage director Martin Kušej. Elektra: Eva Johansson, Klytämnestra Marjana Lipovšek.

Eva Johansson is a perfect Elektra.  Unlike many other singers known for the role, she is comparatively young and made even younger by the punk drop-out aesthetics (hoodies, running shoes, biker gloves, bleached Blondie hair with overgrown roots, rejection of femininity when all other women of her family are embracing it). Her singing makes this sharp-edged role almost pleasant – there’s almost a creamy continuity to the vocal line, and a tight, muscular vibrato. It’s impossible to find any flaws to Johansson’s acting. Making Elektra close to naturalistic, somebody with a human, recognizable psychology is an incredible achievement.

Melanie Diener is excellent as Chrysothemis, tall, made up and coiffed, wearing a dress, not at all a naïve ingénue, but a mature sibling facing the facts of life in patriarchy with quiet resignation. Her voice also achieves the qualities of melodic legato in a role that’s exactly the opposite. Alfred Muff as Orest and Rudolf Schasching as Aegisth are equally solid. The only problem in the casting, and unfortunately a very central one, is Marjana Lipovšek’s Klytämnestra, or rather her costuming. Not having read the full cast list beforehand, at Klytämnestra’s first entrance I found myself shocked that a tenor was cast in a skirt role for such an important female character.  About 30 minutes later in the DVD, I was still comparing this cross-dressing male singer with Jean-Paul Fouchécourt’s Arnalta in L’Aix Poppea, finding makeup similarities, grumbling about men taking over female roles… Then I looked at the cast list. Of all the strange things in this production, the strangest one was having to switch the gender of one of the principals half way through. It takes particularly disastrous case of make up and costuming to exaggerate Klytämnestra’s performative femininity to the point of drag queenness. A camp Klytämnestra can undermine an entire production; it’s a testament to its other qualities that this production remains remarkable in spite this wobble at its centre.

Kušej combines a nightmarish world with skewed, dreamwork logic and a contemporary realist setting. Elektra dwells in what seems to be the only dark room of a large and busy household. Multiple doors keep opening, all leading to rooms full of light and activity. The doors are white and padded from the other side, not Elektra’s, and all other characters come from there and return there. The girls arrive in the first scene in regular clothes, and change into sexy maids before disappearing in. Lost-looking women with ripped clothes come out in other scenes. In her first entrance, the Klytämnestra retinue are actually the three dazed skinny girls wearing nothing but hastily buttoned jackets. Naked bodies of both sexes pour in later and spill out before the mother and the daughter in a horror version of Spencer Tunick’s bodyscapes. It would be easy to conclude that there’s almost a perpetual orgy happening in the house of Aegisth – along the lines of Kraus-Kubrick Eyes Wide Shut, but with women as sexual slaves — were it not for the hints that there’s something possibly even worse taking place, requiring padded doors and medically clean rooms and lighting, and a high turn-over of people.