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.


The Human Passions

The 15-16 season opener The Human Passions with Tafelmusik under the returning guest director Rodolfo Richter was a good mix: a Francesco Maria Veracini overture in four movements, two Handel arias for the mezzo / castrato (a Sesto aria from Giulio Cesare, “L’angue offeso mai riposa” and the now legendary “Scherza infida” from Ariodante), two Vivaldi arias plus a Vivaldi Concerto for bassoon, and the centrepiece, Bach’s Concerto for harpsichord D Minor transcribed and rearranged for the violin.

The Bach concerto comes with a history—Bach wrote it for the harpsichord by re-using the first two movements of this cantata, and the first movement of this one that only survives as a reconstruction. Richter heard this piece as a child and loved it since, and for this occasion transcribed it for his own instrument, while emboldening the woodwinds with three oboes and a bassoon. Violin and harpsichord are two very different sounds, and it was delightful trying to parallel-listen and guess, especially in the long notes and legato transitions of the violin, the sound of the short, crisp, staccato-y harpsichord. Imagine that the solo instrument here is the violin, and you’ll get the idea:

Another highlight last night was the concerto on the (period) bassoon, with Dominic Teresi as the soloist. It’s an unusual sound to associate with Vivaldi—who composed a whole lot of bassoon concertos in his lifetime, but they’re not nearly as frequently performed today as his violin concertos. The melismas and the semiquavers must be difficult as hell to play on this instrument, and I suppose part of the excitement in live performance is not being able to guess the type of sound that’s coming next. Period bassoon’s is not a beautiful sound, but it’s odd and appealing in its oddness. This was a very welcome diversion in a string-heavy concert.

Among the vocal pieces with the young light mezzo Mireille Lebel, the standout was “Scherza infida”. As I’m not a massive Vivaldi fan, “Gelida in ogni vena” from Farnace is for me a mannerisms trap (like so). “L’angue offeso mai riposa” from Handel’s Cesare is a rather humdrum Sesto aria (take Otter over JDiddy). Any number of other mezzo arias or cantata bits could have been chosen from Vivaldi–hey, “Cessate, omai cessate” is passionate enough–and Handel. But “Scherza infida” was a superlative choice. Though frequently performed and recorded around the world, it’s still rarely heard in Toronto, and the ensemble and the singer did it justice. The fine-tuning, the subtle changes of mood between the instruments and the voice, and the attention to the text were all excellent. Lebel started too dramatic but settled down into the right mode for this aria that is more of resignation than of fury. We lucked out with the da capo too, which was well-judged—and da capo ornaments, it turns out, were all entirely improvised.

The Trinity-St Paul is much more comfortable now with the new seats, so definitely worth a go. Repeat performances on Sep 17, 18, 19 and 20.

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

We interrupt regular programming

We interrupt regular programming

My interview with the great Margaret Drabble now online over on The Believer web exclusives:

The Believer: The golden baby of your novel has a mother who decided to give up a lot. The mother in The Ice Age also, and they both do it quite happily. Before I read the book, I wondered if it was in any way like The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing.

Margaret Drabble: To tell you the truth, I couldn’t really read The Fifth Child. I knew Doris Lessing quite well and I knew I wasn’t going to like it and I know one or two people with children with problems who were cross with her about that book. They thought she’d shown a very bad side of care. She had not been without her own problems and they felt she shouldn’t perhaps be describing other people’s problems in this harsh tone.

BLVR: And the book is almost more about motherhood than about a child with special needs.

MD: Well, Doris was a problematic mother.

BLVR: I didn’t know this before reading it in Gold Baby, but she also had a son with special needs.

MD: From what I’ve learned about The Fifth Child through the grapevine, I imagine she was reflecting on the experience she had had with him. I think it’s lucky that he died before she did.

BLVR: A bit surprised to hear you say that Lessing was a problematic mother.

MD: But she would know that. She left two children behind and brought one with her and clung on to him very close. It’s a strange pattern of mothering. She has also said on the record that she hated her mother. I think the whole area of mothering is to her extremely problematic. She really loved the boy who stayed with her but it was not a calm relationship.

BLVR: And as many of your other novels, this one isn’t just about our own time. It’s also about the period of the British colonization of Africa, and goes back much further, into the archaeological history of the continent. The Seven Sisters hasThe Aeneid in its basis. The Peppered Moth has the matrilinear genetic history of the species and Hellenistic Egypt.

MD: For me, that’s entirely natural, to interpret what’s happening now in terms of the mythology. We get new insights. Some of what we read in classical literature is not relative to our condition, but then many women novelists and poets have turned it upside down and told the stories from the other point of view. I find that fascinating. But it seems natural to put women’s lives today in the context of what went before—either as a contrast or as a development.

I remember I had a lot of fun looking at various translations of the Aeneid. I enjoyed having a sort of background structure that is so far removed from the characters’ lives. In their real lives, a lot of them are quite washed up, really. And then they go off on this heroic journey. And yes, they’re all women.

BLVR: And in your novel A Natural Curiosity it is said that “when we meet our Gorgon, we die”—one character wonders if her sister, who had run away, “had met her Gorgon”. The ancient stuff comes to life in our otherwise mundane present.

MD: It’s very common in poetry, but in the novel you’re being a bit more adventurous when you do it. But it’s just that—I see symbols all around me. And apropos that trilogy I got very interested in things about the severed head and confronting the fate.

For MD’s musical choices, head over to Desert Island Discs, where of course she chose all the right people (i.e. Monteverdi, Bach and Handel; surprisingly no Mozart but bigup for Kurt Weill in the earlier DID).

In which I recommend the Opera Atelier Alcina

Allyson McHardy and Meghan Lindsay with Felix Deak at the cello in Opera Atelier's Alcina. Photo by Bruce Zinger.
Allyson McHardy and Meghan Lindsay with Felix Deak at the cello in Opera Atelier’s Alcina. Photo by Bruce Zinger.

This is the first time in years that I return from an Opera Atelier performance happy that I went.

There are usually a number of things that put me off Opera Atelier. For example 1) their very peculiar notion of the ‘authentic HIP performance’ (which always leads to similar sets, costumes, choreography and even hand positioning of every character, no matter the composer or the work performed), 2) their appreciation of the male gay homoerotic aesthetic, while completely avoiding any female gay homoerotic aesthetic (trouser role casting, for example, was near impossible to find in this company that favours countertenors; female dancers are always in prim hoop skirts while male dancers usually sport either body suits or tights), 3) the opulence, the ‘beautiful’ of the kind that certain opera donors in North America favour and want to see at the opera.

Last night, I’m happy to report, each of the 3 pillars has been shaken in some way—not radically, but small steps of this kind must feel radical for Opera Atelier patrons and subscribers, and for the company itself, so enamoured of its own tradition. Who knows, maybe in the future they’ll even cast a slightly overweight or a non-Caucasian singer or dancer? Anything can happen.

I didn’t actually want to be facetious, but praise seriously. Regarding 1), for the first time the set designer Gerard Gauci together with the director Marshall Pynkoski conceded that it might be okay to use video projections even though they are not HIP. (I don’t believe they ever worried about using the electricity or modern-day plumbing while preparing previous productions, so some inconsistency is obviously acceptable.) An insight for which we are grateful, because the video is used to really good effect. As Alcina’s previous victims are liberated from whatever inanimate form they were assigned—rocks, water, trees—the images move and humans appear as if from a layer of pentimento. Even in the less dramatic or the purely connecting scenes, the video is well employed (passing clouds, for example).

Further regarding 1), the stilted inexpressive hand gestures are almost all gone. There is still a lot of fussing over leg positioning in many scenes, and occasionally the stock arm positioning reemerges (I’ve spotted some in the pleading solo arias) but none of it exceedingly jars. Sometimes what replaces them is not always ideal—the early scenes between Bradamante and Alcina seem to be inspired by the silent era film—but let’s not quibble. It may appear to be a small step for us, but it’s a huge one for OA and we salute it.

2) This production is also somewhat more relaxed about female bodies, women courting and kissing each other, female desire in all its forms. There are still some blockages, mind; one of the steamiest scenes, Morgana singing ‘Torna mi a vagheggiar’ to Bradamante, is turned into a scene of Morgana singing to Bradamante’s coat, after Bradamante herself escaped backstage while Morgana was barely finishing the A section of the aria. But things improve elsewhere. Bradamante is kept in her masculine garb even after her reconciliation with Ruggiero—the two women look so much alike that the idea of the opposite-sex couple is continuously undermined. After some initial bumps and the exaggerated silent-film kisses, Alcina and Ruggiero do find their groove—or rather, their chemistry. Near the end, when Ruggiero sings ‘Sta nell ircana’, various bits of armour are handed to him/her to put on for the hunt, one of which is an armour bra (not a full plate). Touché.

Let’s look at the music before this missive gets too long. David Fallis was conducting Tafelmusik and his tempi were nothing extravagant or unusual. The trouser role of Oberto was entirely excised and so was his story line (he’d usually be on the island looking for his father) but I can’t say I missed either terribly. There is some great employment of instrumentalists outside the pit, so for the most of the fabulously effective ‘Si, son quella’, Meghan Lindsay is accompanied by the cellist (Felix Deak) and the lute (Lucas Harris) who are both part of the staging. Violinist Patricia Ahern also appears on stage in a later aria.

Mireille Asselin was an excellent choice for Morgana. Her sparkling energy, coquetterie and falling-in-love-ability puts the whole opera merrily in motion, with her opening aria. She was also excellent in ‘Torna mi a vagheggiar’, but the staging had her, as I mentioned, singing to a coat. Asselin’s acting was also convincing throughout, including the scenes of her reconciliation with Oronte.

Alcina’s ‘Di, cor mio’ was when we first see the enchanted couple in a scene of intimacy, and it took me a while to warm up to Meghan Lindsay in this role. Her future is probably in the Germanic repertoire—she was an excellent Agathe in OA’s Der Freischütz a few seasons ago—but for Alcina I usually expect a lighter sound that can float endlessly, without any heaviness, any metallic shades. She was much more moving in ‘Si, son quella’, ‘Ombre pallide’ and ‘Ah! Mio cor!’, all slower, melancholy arias.

Wallis Giunta I thought was not the right voice for Bradamante—she came across as colourless and underpowered vocally, with unsmooth jumps between the registers, coloratura runs occasionally causing stress. Perhaps she was under the weather? Bradamante is usually given some high powered material (see for ex ‘Vorrei vendicarmi’), and anything less than high powered in the performance is immediately visible. I last saw Giunta as a very good Dorabella in Egoyan’s Così, and she can definitely do classical elegance and self-containment, but Bradamante’s baroque excess is to classical style what, say, Penelope Cruz is to Scarlett Johansson in Vicky Christina Barcelona.

Krešimir Špicer impressed in his scenes as a laddish Oronte, prone to foot stomping and shenanigans but deep down inside a heart of gold. His voice was also probably a size bigger than anybody else’s on cast (apart from Lindsay’s).

Allyson McHardy was a very accomplished Ruggiero, wonderful in each of her solos, from the teasing and fun ‘La bocca vaga’, to ‘Mi lusinga il dolce affetto’ full of resignation and foreboding, to ‘Verdi prati’, a sobering farewell to a dying love, to ‘Sta nell’ircana’, the frantic re-assertion of one’s old self. It’s a treat to hear a Bradamante with contralto colours.

Alcina continues today 26, Tuesday 28, Friday 31 and Saturday 1 at the Elgin. The cheapest ticket is $45, but you can get some really good balcony seats and extreme side view orchestra seats in that price range. More info on the production, libretto and original casting here.


Rodolfo Richter and Tafelmusik play Corelli, Telemann, Vivaldi, Handel

Rodolfo Richter

An exciting season lies ahead for Tafelmusik and the HIP audiences of Toronto alike: some of the guest violinists/conductors we’ll be able to hear (if not all! they’re tactfully not revealing the names of the candidates) are actively being considered for the post of the new Music Director/First Violin.

The season opened on September 18 with Rodolfo Richter and the Handel Fireworks program, with a couple of festive, outdoorsy crowd-pleasers heavy on brass and woodwinds, the expected violin solo pyrotechnics piece, and two or three lesser known works. It’s the latter two that moved me the most last night, so I’ll begin there.

Corelli’s Concerto grosso in D Major, op. 6. no. 4 (1714) isn’t that often heard although it has a fairly well-known initial Allegro in which the first and the second violin josh in a sort of a call-and-response, a beautiful movement that can be played very differently by the different bands, depending on what kind of attack, balance, embellishments they go for. It can sound like a march of an even, fully-powered machine, or as a twirl of the spring winds, and last night’s performance was definitely of the flirting breezes kind. Richter and Christopher Verrette across the stage played together with great ease and it was a joy to eavesdrop on this conversation. Richter added a bit of brass to the concerto, to diversify the customarily strings-only sound, and it worked fine once the right balance was established (the brass and the woodwinds started off a little stronger than expected, but settled down in later movements). It was the beautiful piece of the program.

I expected Telemann’s Concerto for trumpet & violin in D Major to be on the pompous and ceremonious side—that’s what it sounds like on more than one recording–but this is what good musicians do: Richter performed it with such conviction that I had to leave the prejudgment behind. He put so much drama and vulnerable intensity in the second movement, Adagio, that there was no turning back: the final Allegro cemented the work as a piece that can seriously stir emotions. (The trumpet solo (John Thiessen) didn’t have a whole lot of flashy to do for the most part, other than act like a stoic subsumed partner to the solo violin.)

Handel’s Royal Fireworks piece was interesting in as much as it brought to the stage an unusual number of period brass players together with a percussionist. It’s the music that was meant to be played at a public fete with fireworks and I can listen to it as a historical curiosity only. On the upside, the wind instruments blended well with the Tafelstrings and there was pleasant melding—an accord–in the tone of the ensemble. I found myself in a similarly detached listening during Heinichen’s Serenata di Moritzburg, originally written to fill leisurely hours of an aristocratic ruler and today coming across as a piece of applied music, or flattery, or nobility marketing, even.

Vivaldi’s Il grosso Mogul concert, one of the composers most virtuoso creations, I expected to be dazzling in its pyrotechnics but a bit of a snooze otherwise (I keep thinking, whenever I hear it, This is just absurd… or, This is like the techno micro-variations—you lose interest after a while). But again Richter’s musicianship came to the rescue: he played “Mogul” as an intimate virtuoso piece—yes he wedded the two opposites—and while the pyrotechnics were all there, he seemed to have decided to tone down the volume (literally, too: the solo extravaganza cadenza was entirely played in about mezzo forte to piano) and engage the listener on a more profound level. What can I say? I won’t be giving up on “Mogul” just yet.

Rodolfo Richter and Tafelmusik repeat the program tonight, tomorrow Saturday 20th and Sunday 21stmore info and tickets. Don’t miss the Talkbacks after the concert, they’re informative and fun.

Tafelmusik-Photo by SianRichards
The musicians of Tafelmusik. Photo credit Sian Richards.

Ariodante at the Aix-en-Provence is a COC co-prod

ARIODANTEI didn’t notice on the Aix Festival website page that the Richard Jones Ariodante is a COC co-production! Thanks go to Opera Traveller for the tip at the bottom of his review (Nov-Oct 2016, he sez).

Let the imaginary casting begin. Gods, let it please not be a counter-tenor in the title role (or Polinesso, hey).

Ariodante is available to watch on demand on CultureBox until Jan 2015



Hercules directed by Peter Sellars / A LOC-COC co-production

Hercules directed by Peter Sellars / A LOC-COC co-production

Hercules - photo by Michael CooperHandel – Hercules. A Canadian Opera Company / Lyric Opera Chicago co-production, seen April 11 2014. Director Peter Sellars, conductor Harry Bicket. Eric Owens (Hercules), David Daniels (Lichas), Richard Croft (Hyllus), Alice Coote (Dejanira), Lucy Crowe (Iole). Complete cast & creative plus tickets and dates here

I found this Sellars production to be in effect a semi-staging, with one permanent set, one recurring trick with the lighting (stars flicker in different colours, for different moods!) and one idea: Hercules is a present-day-cum-mythical soldier returning from the war, traumatized.

War has bad consequences on the people affected by it. (A rather original thought, yes.) Hercules’s wife is, the director’s notes tell us helpfully, on tranquilizers and also has a drink problem. Hercules, Dejanira and the captive Iole all deal with flashes of traumatic memories. And that’s about it. After Dejanira’s murder-by-shirt, the lights on stage intensify, the casket wrapped in an American flag is wheeled in, the conqueror’s son Hyllus marries the captive Iole, and everybody hugs. Community is reconciled (!) and there is hope.

The high points of the production are the individual characters that each singer manages to build almost independently. Even though the whole does not show very many vital signs — this Hercules remains an oratorio through and through — Richard Croft as Hyllus, Lucy Crowe as Iole and David Daniels as Lichas in particular are worth seeing the production for. Croft and Crowe are flawless vocally and give convincing and original personalities to their roles. Lichas crosses the border between the warrior’s public and family lives, and here in Daniels’ version he is fragile and perplexed, and this works really well.

Dramatically, Eric Owens is mostly given the task of projecting gravitas and statesmanship, but the supple and precise singing gives life to the otherwise cut-out figure of Hercules. Alice Coote, alas, has a stage presence that suggests (accurately or misleadingly) considerable effort behind every note sung, and this never allows me to enjoy her performances. The melisma runs sometimes come across as approximate, and certain notes acquire unexpected colours.

It’s always nice to hear Handel at the COC, and yes even if it means modern instruments, and Harry Bicket displayed penchant for a discreet, stylish, never all-out or opulent sound, which is all fitting with Hercules, probably the least luscious, seductive and playful of all of Handel’s creations. The score is consistently somber, barring one or two rowdy choruses, and making a slow da capo as viscerally stirring as a fast one can’t be an easy thing to do. No trouble at all, it seems, for Bicket and the COC orchestra tonight. Another thing to appreciate in the surprisingly underwhelming production.

Photo by Michael Cooper

Laura Pudwell as Cavalli’s Giasone, and other things I will miss

Laura Pudwell as Cavalli’s Giasone, and other things I will miss

A mezzo with a gorgeous contralto timbre, Laura Pudwell, is scheduled to sing the title role in the concert version of Cavalli’s Giasone with Toronto Consort, April 4-5-6, TSP. I can’t overemphasize how rare it is for a mezzo/alto to get this role, be it here in Canada/USA (where the counter-tenors are steadily taking over the trouser roles from the mezzos) or in Europe (where they aren’t just yet).

Kevin Skelton will sing Aegeus, and Michelle DeBoer  Medea. The bad news is, I will not be in Toronto at that time. I hope many see this and write about it.

It’s not easy finding the mezzo version of Giasone on YouTube, so here’s a clip with Christoph Dumaux. John G of Opera Ramblings reviewed the DVD of the Mariame Clement production here.


Another thing that I will sadly miss; a day-long discussion on various aspects of Handel’s Hercules and the COC/Chicago Lyric Peter Sellars production of it, involving musicologists (Susan McClary!), a former war correspondent, a scholar of the eighteenth century theatre, and Sellars himself. This is happening on April 4, and here is the complete description.


Same day, a bit later at 7:30PM and further east, at Ernest Balmer Studio, Tapestry is performing excerpts from a work in progress, Movable Beast. Described as “an experimental transformation of the standard recital form”, Movable Beast looks a whole lot of intriguing. Take a peek at this project synopsis. Bits of it will be performed on April 4, but fingers crossed I’ll be around when the proper opening happens.

Featuring: Neema Bickersteth, Andrea Ludwig, Adrian Kramer, and Andrew Love. Music direction by Gregory Oh, choreography by Marie-Josée Chartier, and direction by Michael Mori.

Suzie LeBlanc and the Music of the Text

suzie-leblancThe winter issue of Opera Canada will be on newsstands this month. Here are some highlights from my Suzie LeBlanc profile which appear in the issue.

“I always begin from the text.” Those who know her primarily through the coloraturas and trills of her early music pieces may be surprised by these words by Suzie LeBlanc, but a closer look at her multi-faceted career will confirm a great love of text and language as essential to music. “I used to be an instrumentalist – a harpsichord player – and when I switched to singing I was relieved to find words. I have words now! I love melody but for me it is there to enhance what I’m talking about. I love observing how composers take a word or a phrase and bring it out with the harmonies. When I work on a new piece, I have my own idea how the music of the text works before I go over to the composer.”

First big break was with the New World Consort, a renaissance ensemble from Vancouver.

“It just so happened that Emma Kirkby was pregnant and they asked me to come and audition. They had heard me before and they thought I sounded a bit like Emma. So I got the job replacing her.” This lasted a year, but LeBlanc and the NWC continued collaborating ad hoc, whenever the ensemble needed another soprano. Years on, Kirkby and LeBlanc would record together Buxtehude cantatas and Schütz’s Symphoniae Sacrae, both with the Purcell Quartet.

On the commonalities between the early music and folk, both of which she performs and records frequently.

“The folk music I’ve been doing is Acadian, which originates between the thirteenth-to-seventeenth centuries in France. So much of the tunes that we find are renaissance and early baroque. I find that lots of the so called court or learned music from the early music period sometimes borrows from the folk melodies; they’re amazingly close in terms of harmonies and melodies… Of course you can do the melodies to any style, you can do them in contemporary style and it all works. But I approach folk with what I know from early music, and try to re-give it a bit of its origin. And at the same time make it work for what we like as musicians today. Our music still retains a bit of its original flavour which was passed down orally in that we don’t use arrangements — we don’t buy arrangements. We have a tune and we make our own arrangements.” Of note among her folk recordings: Tout passe and La mer jolie.

In recent years LeBlanc has been rediscovering Romantic and post-Romantic world of Lieder and mélodies.

“I think Richard Strauss taught me to sing more than any other composer. I would say Mozart as well. The way Strauss writes for the soprano voice teaches you how to sing. All of which you can then adapt and put into early music and it helps. If you don’t actually sing well, you can’t sing it at all. Same with Mozart, if you don’t sing well, you can get through the phrases.” Schumann also, she adds, but not in the same way as Strauss. “Strauss teaches the soprano how to float, how to sing high notes without getting tired.” This summer, she sang Strauss’s the Mädchenblumen and the Drei Liebeslieder and toured the recital with the pianist Julius Drake. “There is that incredible lyrical phrase that just goes on and on and on, on a thread. Once you get the hang of it, it’s the most pleasurable physical experience.”

Photo by Tara McMullen