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

What was that?

Alternate title for this concert review: Is Brian Current turning to religious mysticism and why??

Also: WTAF was that, Samy Moussa?

But let’s proceed.

21C, the reliably stimulating and boundary-pushing new music festival, opened last night at RCM’s Koerner Hall with concert that was a bit of a mixed bag, program-wise and in execution. Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and its music director Johannes Debus gave us a world premiere – Brian Current’s Naka / Northern Lights – and a selection of recent works by Unsuk Chin, Samy Moussa, Matthew Aucoin and Current. Mezzo Emily D’Angelo sang with verve the wittiest part of the program, Chin’s snagS&Snarls, the song-studies for what was to be Chin’s Alice in Wonderland opera which was premiered at the Bavarian State Opera in 2007. Two songs were particularly captivating: “The Tale-Tail of the Mouse”, with voice required to writhe and wind itself down as if through a mouse hole, and “Speak roughly to your little boy”, with some well-managed screaming that grows in intensity. There were, however, serious issues with the voice-orchestra balance, and most of the cycle D’Angelo found herself drowned by the orchestra. The intricate textual lace of “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” was completely erased and there was very little voice heard amid the fervent orchestra.

D’Angelo was much better heard in Matthew Aucoin’s dramatic cantata on the theme of Orpheus, The Orphic Moment (2014). Hearing it sung by a mezzo is a treat: the history of the piece shows a countertenor singing the role every time. Aucoin assigned the role of Eurydice to the first violin (here the COC Orchestra’s concertmaster Marie Bérard) and there were some exquisite moments of attempted communication and unbridgeable distance between the voice and the instrument in the Moment. Composer’s notes in the program hint at a flippant, hubristic Orpheus, but it wasn’t possible to observe those nuances without the text which was, you discover after a good chunk of time into the performance looking for it, left out of the booklet.

Brian Current’s Naka, a northern lights-themed work for orchestra, choir and narrator, came out of the composer’s residence in the Northwest Territories and his collaboration with the Tłı̨chǫ First Nation (in anglicized spelling: Tlicho). Richard Van Camp, who also wrote the libretto, narrated the text in Tlicho and English. Rosa Mantla, a Tlicho Elder, translated the text and was the pronunciation coach for the Elmer Iseler Singers choir. It is a serene, playful, occasionally droll, animated through-and-through piece, set up as a conversation between the Tlicho-speaking choir and the bilingual narrator. Van Camp’s twinkle-in-the-eye delivery was a particularly effective foil to the choir’s more ghostly character that spoke as forces of nature.

Current’s second piece in the program I found, at best, puzzling. Is Current taking a mystical turn? He of all composers, who is often heard saying that what contemporary music does best is trying to explore and express how we live our lives today? The composer is, we learn from the program, at work on a multi-movement cycle The River of Light with the texts of several religious traditions (Hindu, Christian, First Nations Canadian – which was Naka – Sufi, etc.) “that describe mystical journeys towards an exalted state.” The Seven Heavenly Halls from the concert program was composed on the texts from a particularly mystical book of the Kabbalah. The passage through the heavenly halls is the passage of a man through the levels of  heavenly exaltation. Or something? Reader, I lost interest halfway through the program note, and the music didn’t manage to draw me back in at any turn. The music, alas, sounds almost programmatic: vast, swelling, spirit-rousing sounds, meant to evoke solemnity, meant to be epic; suitable enough for a religious ceremony. Tenor Andrew Haji maintained a modicum of individuality and pushed through amid all the choral and orchestral solemnity, but not even his precise and warm – if occasionally drowned by the orchestra – tenor could breathe life into this religious painting. My first question to composers eager to explore this or that side of religion in their new work is Why? If most of western choral music is religious already, and where are we, the non-religious, to go?

But then there was the Samy Moussa piece in the program, the orchestral non-concerto cheekily titled Kammerkonzert which he wrote ten years ago, just before he left Montreal for Berlin. My Samy Moussa luck has been such that whenever I happen to attend a concert containing a piece by him, that piece will be unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. This happened again last night. Kammerkonzert is a series of sound explosions multiplying into a theatre of war that is somehow contained within a symphonic orchestra of unamplified instruments. This comes nowhere near exhausting its interpretation – and another person would probably tell you they heard something different – but I witnessed something akin to a camera zooming out from sporadic shots to a bird’s eye view of an out-and-out battlefield.

Or were we thrust in a particularly noisy cacophony of a large city, distilled to its harshest sound essence? Or should we abandon the imagery and the narrative altogether, and take Kammerkonzert as a visceral sound onslaught to be experienced and not overanalyzed? I hope I get a chance to hear it again in some form and make up my mind – or abandon any attempt to contain it in words.

First published on The Wholenote website

 

The Cav does it again

Even though only his La Calisto is now performed with regularity, Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676) was a prolific operatic composer. Elena, one of a handful of his other operas making cross-century comeback, was first revived in 2013 and we are lucky that the Toronto Consort nimbly followed suit and programmed it as their opera-in-concert this season. The printed program adapts the opera’s title as Helen of Troy, but it might have been more accurate to call it Helen Before Troy, as the libretto invents the shenanigans around the kidnapping of the mythical Helen before she was married to the Mycenaean king Menelaus (of Iliad and Odyssey fame), from whom she was later to be abducted by Paris of Troy. The original story of Helen’s marriage to Menelaus is a more sedate affair involving the drawing of straws—attention, I am about to compare the “official” Greek mythology line with its Italian baroque riff, I love my job—and therefore not particularly useful to the early opera. Librettists of Elena Nicolò Minato and Giovanni Faustini needed a much wilder story of how Menelaus and Helen ended up together, so they created one.

Men in dresses are not unheard of in Greco-Roman mythology (see Achilles on Skyros) but there are more to be found in Italian baroque opera. Menelaus of Elena spends most of the time cross-dressed as an extraordinarily muscular Amazon who impresses young Helen with her wrestling prowess and becomes her intimate. Both of them, helpless women that they are, get abducted by Theseus (who also has a yen for Helen) and his sidekick Pirithous (who casts his eye on “Elisa” the Amazon) and are brought to the court of King Creon. There, Creon’s son Menestheus—you guessed it—also falls for Helen, and we learn that Theseus is actually already engaged to Hippolyta, who is one of those low-voiced, no-nonsense, sword-wielding women in the style of the female knight Bradamante of the Italian epic poems on the adventures of Orlando. Intrigues ensue. Helen finally decides that of all the suitors she prefers Menelaus—who finally comes out as a man—and Theseus returns to Hippolyta.

Musically too, Elena is an entertaining hodgepodge of comedic and solemn elements. The required instrumentation can be as small as half a dozen people at most points, one or two melody instruments against the basic continuo. (For a more luxurious sound with a bigger period ensemble, see the 2013 DVD of Elena from Aix-en-Provence with Cappella Mediterranea in the pit.) In the Toronto Consort’s version, Lucas Harris (theorbo), Felix Deak (cello) and Paul Jenkins (harpsichord) made up the continuo, which was joined, as required, by violins (Patricia Ahern and Julia Wedman) or recorders (Alison Melville and Colin Savage). Bud Roach, a one-man show as the court fool Iro, both sang and played baroque guitar.

There are five pants roles inherited from the castrati roles in Elena, and for this fan of pants roles that is not a small thing. TC’s music director and conductor David Fallis honoured all but one: Menelaus is sung by a tenor (Kevin Skelton), while Pirithous, Menestheus, Castor and Pollux were all indeed sung by women—Vicki St. Pierre, Katherine Hill, Emma Hannan and Veronika Anissimova respectively. Kevin Skelton, luckily, has a beautiful and agile tenor voice that made this Menelaus rather a good catch. His cross-dressing was achieved by way of a Wonderwoman apron. Cory Knight’s Theseus was paired with the ever reliable and the velvetiest mezzo of the TC ensemble, Laura Pudwell. That this Hippolyta was slightly older than her betrothed added a welcome May to December (or should I say, Emmanuel Macron-ian?) dimension to the story.

Mezzo Vicki St. Pierre’s pinpoint dexterity with melismas was back in town (the singer now lives and teaches in New Brunswick) for a spirited take on Pirithous. The young Emma Hannan and Veronika Anissimova were an intriguingly girly take on brothers Castor and Pollux, who happen to stop by Creon’s Tegea on their way from capturing the Golden Fleece. Their voices were bright and youthful.

Delicate sopranos are a mainstay of Toronto’s early music scene, which favours l’esprit de corps (those sopranos often play one or more period instruments too) to individual vocal vim. Oftentimes a pretty, light, vibrato-less voice is all one needs for particular pieces; but sometimes I wish the music director looked further from his usual pool of voices. Katherine Hill was somewhat underpowered as Menestheus who needed more vocal heft to come alive. Michele deBoer made a fine if at times pale Helen, the arm wrestling scene with Kevin Skelton notwithstanding.

But no matter: all said and done, this Elena was a big treat. David Fallis’ translation of the libretto, projected in the form of supertitles, added entertaining contemporary touches at many a turn. And when the voices were called to come together, as in the choir of the Argonauts, we were given moments of breath-taking beauty. I kept thinking how wonderful it would be to see this staged (by a company other than Opera Atelier). Directors coming out of Toronto’s independent opera scene—Anna Theodosakis, Aria Umezawa, Amanda Smith, the Applin sisters—your turn.

Review first appeared in the Wholenote online.

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.

My First Art of Song column in The Wholenote

Sapphic February

There was a time when men loved lesbians and considered them essential for their own artistic output. No, stay with me, it’s is true: that time is the latter half of the nineteenth century, the place is France, and the men are the poets of emerging modernism.

Charles Baudelaire’s Les fleurs de mal’s working title was Les lesbiennes and the section that got him censored and fined includes poems “Lesbos” and “Delpine et Hippolyte” (“Femmes damnée”, somehow, got away, in spite its cries of solidarity: Vous que dans votre enfer mon âme a pursuivies / Pauvres soeurs, je vous aime autant que je vous plains). Paul Verlaine’s series of sonnets around amorous encounters between young women Les amies is more specific, more explicitly visual and sensual. His “Ariette oubliée” IV from the later Romances sans paroles is a poetic embrace of the care-free female same-sex coupledom that, some critics argue, masks poet’s own embrace of male homoeroticism. Soyons deux jeunes filles / Éprises de rien et de tout étonnées, says the poem to the reader of either sex.

Sappho was mythologized and loomed large for male poets of the era, and Théodore de Banville and Henri de Régnier were just two of the poets who wrote lesbian poems set in some version of ancient Greece. In the words of Gretchen Schultz who wrote an entire book about this era of literary cross-sex fascination (Sapphic Fathers: Discourses of Same-Sex Desire from Nineteenth Century France), male poets’ quest for selfhood took detours through lesbian personae.

Best known in the classical world of all the lesbophile song cycles of this era remains Pierre Louÿs’s 1894 Chansons de Bilitis, an elaborate pseudotranslation of an ‘ancient Greek’ Sappho-like figure Bilitis—in fact, entirely concocted by Louÿs–whose biography of the senses the song cycle follows, from heterosexual beginnings through lesbian blossoming to the reminiscing old age. Louÿs’ friend Claude Debussy set three of the poems to music in 1897 to create the lush piano and voice opus now known as Trois Chansons de Bilitis. Debussy then worked on another, longer cycle titled Musique de scène pour les Chansons de Bilitis with twelve of Louÿs’s poems, but the text there is recited within the tableaux vivants with musical interludes scored for a small orchestra of flutes, harps and celesta. Recorded only a modest number of times—there’s a Deutsche Grammophon recording with Catherine Deneuve as the recitant—this other version of Chansons is extremely rarely performed.

The three-song cycle to piano is another story: it is widely claimed by both mezzos and sopranos and has been recorded frequently. At the February 9th noon Ensemble Studio concert at the COC, it will be sung by the young mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo accompanied by Hyejin Kwon at the piano. Both piano and vocal writing are of great richness, both of heightened sensuality of the Anaïs Nin kind. The well-curated program that abounds in literary references will also include…

Full piece here [PDF]– or even better, pick up a free copy of the magazine.

gustave_courbet_-_le_sommeil_1866_paris_petit_palais
Painter Gustave Courbet was one of the many French lesbophile artists from the mid to latter half of the nineteenth century. This painting is called Le Sommeil (1866).

2016: A year in performing arts

Best spoken theatre

Best theatre was nontraditional: Germinal at World Stage 2016, Les Liaisons Dangereuses at NT Live in cinemas, Independent Aunties’ Gertrude and Alice at Buddies in Bad Times, Joel Pommerat’s Ça Ira (1), La fin de Louis in Amsterdam at Holland Festival in June.

Best opera

Stefan Herheim’s The Queen of Spades in Amsterdam.

A very non-grand Traviata sung and spoken gorgeously by non-operatic singer-actors at Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris in October.

François Girard’s Siegfried at the COC. (But see opera on DVD for the verdict on his Parsifal.)

Scottish-Welsh-Tapestry Opera presented The Devil Inside.

The David Alden’s Maometto was irreverent and fun (and tangentially caused a bizarre media storm in which the most conservative of Canada’s opera critics ended up getting a global platform for his pearl-clutching). While most people praised the singing, I was more into the production. I don’t include it here as one of the best opera performances ever seen, but rather as a major operatic event of the year for various non-operatic reasons. Kudos to David Alden for daring to put a little bit of an Islamic culture on stage without kid gloves and fear.

I’ll add Damiano Michieletto’s Samson et Dalila at Opera de Bastille in Paris in October for these things primarily: the brilliant coup de théâtre ending, the sexy as hell Anita Rachvelishvili as Dalila. Also, for the opera house itself. Bastille gets a lot of flak, and unjustly: it’s a very pleasant space inside and outside the hall.

Best concert or recital

This all-Beethoven on period instruments concert in Paris with Viktoria Mullova and Sarah Alice Ott as soloists. First visit to Paris’s new Philharmonie, so that was exciting. The hall is fantastic. The outside spaces, where people mingle in between and after performances, not so much: they’re narrow and like an after-thought to the hall.

As a Stranger, by the Collectif Toronto. I didn’t write about this all-female take on the Winterreise back then, but it was tremendous.

Lineage, the vocal + chamber orchestra program on 19th-20th-21st century musical lineage.

Dean Burry goes Schoenberg on Romanticism with Talisker Players.

Scenes of the Mediterranean: Stéphane Denève conducts TSO in Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture, Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No. 5 “Egyptian” – Jean-Yves Thibaudet at the piano, Ibert: Escales (Ports of Call) and Respighi: Pines of Rome

TSO and Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto (soloist discovery of the year for me) in Nielsen’s Violin Concerto. The program also had Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé (conductor Juanjo Mena, with Toronto Mendelssohn Choir) and Granados’ Intermezzo from Goyescas. 

The entire New Creations Festival 2016: first night of the Fragile Absolute, and subsequent nights. The TSO removes the concert web page as soon as the concert’s over, so I had to search through my emails for concert reminders and save them as JPGs.

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There was also a TSO concert with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique on the program, with Barbara Hannigan singing Dutilleux, that I attended in January, but I can’t remember much about it (it kinda pales) – so let’s include it as “it sounded so great on paper, but then IRL…”

Best opera: streaming, cinema & DVD

The Royal Opera House Boris Godunov, a Richard Jones production, at Bloor Hot Docs cinema. It was an unexpected joy.

Katie Mitchell’s Lucia di Lammermoor (same cinema): excellent with no reservations.

Katie Mitchell’s Pelléas et Mélisande from Aix-en-Provence: ground-breaking. Historians of operatic theatre will look on this production as a milestone, I have no doubts. I have saved an ungeoblocked URL with English subtitles here — do watch it the soonest, because Arte won’t keep it online forever.

I finally watched Girard’s Met-COC Parsifal on DVD and am sorry to report that I was disappointed. Too literal, too Christian-propaganda-y, especially the final act, which was an endless bro-ness renewed, Kundry humiliated agony. So the COC can keep postponing that production for as long as it wants, as far as I’m concerned.

Dance (of which I’ve seen very little this year)

Crystal Pite’s Betroffenheit at Canadian Stage; Toronto Dance Theatre’s Marienbad which wordlessly explored the dynamics of intimacy between two men.

Another good thing about 2016: meeting opera Twitter friends in real life.

Now let me see if I can do a quick post on the 2016 in reading.

Jamie Barton, she who wanders

cover-imageIt’s a joy to discover that Jamie Barton is one of those precious singers who can handle Mahler, although if I were to judge based on the lavish force of her voice, her extroverted bubbly-ness and love of camp, I’d have had doubts. Luckily, her first Lieder recording (with Brian Zeger at the piano) more than convinces that she can do inwardness, sombre colours, subtlety and even, often enough, holding back. About half of the disc is Mahler: the five Rückert-Lieder and three stand-alone songs plucked from other cycles. The Rückert doesn’t leave anything to be desired. “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” is all in the smooth feline legato lines, beautifully sustained and withheld by Barton (and thanks to the translation by Richard Stokes, which replaces “linden” with “lime”, even the text becomes er more fragrant than usual). “Um Mitternacht” is lesson on how to progressively darken a song and how to deliver its atmospheric moodiness and anger at the empty, godless sky. “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” accomplishes to be melancholy without being hopeless; Barton explains in her liner notes that for her the song is not about saying goodbye to the world, but saying goodbye to its harshness and pull and finding a place of calm, and you can sense this in the interpretation. She also goes softly-softly with this one, no excessive statements, and dials it to plaintive whisper by the final verses. “Ich leb’ allein in meinem Himmel, / In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied” is conveyed as a shared intimacy, whispered into one’s ear.

“Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen Wald” (from Mahler’s Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit, Book 2) continues, deliciously, in the same vein. It sounds very light and high and utterly girly.  “Scheiden und Meiden” is a riot; Barton mostly leaves behind the dainty vocality for this one and goes for the full blast, but why not, the song works this way too.

Unsurprisingly—we saw it in her recital at Koerner Hall—Barton is very much at home in Dvořák’s “Gypsy Songs” cycle. The folk-ish, dancey numbers are sung with great ease, but she is at her beautifulest in the introspective and bittersweet songs, “Má píseň zas mi láskou zní” (My song resounds with love), “A les je tichý kolem kol” (All around me the forest is quiet) and especially “Když mne stará matka zpívat, zpívat učívala” (When my old mother taught me singing), which is fevastating.

The Sibelius section that concludes the CD is more of a mixed bag. There’s a thing that a critic said about Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s Rückert-Lieder recording once: “[she] sings here with a monochrome severity”, and that’s a constantly lurking default for the voices of this kind that have great capacity and ripeness. The take-no-prisoners approach works well in “Svarta rosor” because it’s an ink black, terrifying song. The contemplative “Marssnön” just about pulls it through and stays this side of too loud, but the rest of Sibelius on the disc tends to go for too forte and too monochrome. It could also be that by the end of the disc the ear got satiated and is perhaps pining for something unfamiliar to happen? But the Sibelius finale is the only semi-sour note in the recording with plenty of other riches by an artist who will be developing in all kinds of interesting directions in the years ahead.

In Conversation: Varduhi Abrahamyan, mezzo-soprano

The first time I heard Varduhi Abrahamyan sing was back in 2013 in Paris, at the Salle Pleyel, in a Johanespassion with Concerto Koeln conducted by Laurence Equilbey. It was easy to spot a singular voice: hers is a plush velvety yet nimble coloratura voice that makes you sit up and pay attention. That St. John Passion remains a favourite (thanks to the good person who captured and uploaded much of the France Musique-streamed audio recording onto YouTube), including of course Abrahamyan’s Es ist vollbracht.

The French mezzo of Armenian origin has a busy cross-European career and is covering quite the range of historic repertoire: there aren’t many singers whose repertoire spans Monteverdi to Verdi. It was a treat to discover last year that she would be appearing as Polinesso in the Richard Jones-directed Ariodante at the COC this season, which marks her Canadian, Toronto and COC debut. While researching for this article, I discovered that she would be coming back to the COC, in a production of Onegin in 2018. (The Carsen, possibly?)

We talked in French (with short trips into Italian and English) in her change room at the Four Seasons Centre this past Friday afternoon. She told me she hasn’t seen much of the city yet, but that the three-day window opening before the final performance will finally allow her to see some of it at leisure.

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How do you make this Richard Jones Polinesso living and breathing and credible?

At first I was taken aback by his level of villainy. To this degree, really? Then later I realized it would be impossible to do the character in any other way. You really have to take him on, go inside his skin, for him to work as a character for the audience. I’ll go as far as the role demands. And with this one I’m having fun. He’s changing all the time to hide his true self. He’s very proper, an angel practically, while wearing his cassock—and opposite when he takes it off. So the singer needs to interpret that. And you can’t do it half-heartedly. Much of the plotline depends on Polinesso being the way he is. He’s scheming all the time. I try to imagine and convey what it must be like to live a double life in that way.

He gets some good music, though.

Polinesso’s arias… well, to tell you the truth, there’s not much cantabile to enjoy in there. His music matches his character.

The first one is kinda nice, “Coperta la frode”.

Yeah, it’s OK. Not bellissima, nobody will be moved to tears. It corresponds to the character.

The last one, “Se l’inganno sortisce felice” has some mad coloratura. And you have to sing it all while jumping up and down on Ginevra’s bed.

It isn’t easy, but I am having fun with it now. With this Polinesso there’s a lot of personality to work with. I have to say I prefer roles that come with an interesting character, rather than those that are sort of in the same tone from beginning to end—even if they may be “positive” characters.

Was this a role debut?

No. I have a long history with the role. The very first time I’ve sung Handel on stage was a Polinesso in Geneva, at the Grand Théâtre de Genève. My agent called me to audition in Switzerland—in about 2005?—and that was the first one I was cast in. The COC one will be the last. It’s good to leave the role behind while you’re still having fun with it.

When you have to say no to a role, for what reason is it usually?

I first look at whether the role suits my voice, and whether it’s a character that I’d like to work on. I love theatre and the theatrical side of opera, and it’s important to put equal emphasis on both the musical and the theatrical side. I also like roles that allow me to evaluate and expand the repertoire. Gradually, though: qui va piano, va sano, va lontano.

Verdi is OK at this juncture?

Yes, I sing it already. I’ll be in a Fastaff in Paris soon, I’ve sung in Nabucco already… Rather, when I have to refuse a role, it’s because I think I can do it justice, say, in a few years’ time. Every role I take, I want to perform at the absolute top level. I don’t want to do things at an adequate level, I want to be among the best.

And you’ve already worked with some of the most important directors today. You were part of the already cult Alcina by Christof Loy in Zurich. Cecilia Bartoli, Malena Ernmann and Varduhi Abrahamyan in a love triangle: it doesn’t get better than that.

I love that production so much and I love working with Christof Loy.

There won’t be a DVD?

No, but we’re doing a revival in Zurich this coming December and January, and after that we’ll do it at Covent Garden, and at Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, same production and much of the same cast, with Cecilia Bartoli returning. We all really enjoyed that one.

Varduhi Abrahamyan as Bradamante in the Christof Loy-directed Alcina, Zurich 2015. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
Varduhi Abrahamyan as Bradamante in the Zurich Alcina directed by Christof Loy, 2015. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

You also sang Dalila in a Fura dels Baus production in Valencia?

That was with the wonderful Gregory Kunde as Samson. It was a modern production; a revival from Rome, I think, with a few little changes. I like Samson et Dalila as an opera and it was a pleasure to meet with Gregory again. First time we sang together was in La Donna del Lago at Theater an der Wien, which was directed by Christof Loy, in 2011.

You were Malcolm?

Yes, and just before I came to Toronto, I sang Malcolm in Pesaro. Great production by Damiano Michieletto, with a great conductor Michele Mariotti, and an amazing cast. There will be a DVD release. It was an unforgettable experience. I like Malcolm a lot. I’ll sing the role again at the Marseille Opera in 2018—I hope it’s OK to say this since you mentioned my COC return already–right after the Onegin at the COC. It’s back-to-back all the time. We close Ariodante on November 4; my flight back is November 5, I arrive November 6, unpack, and two days later, on November 8, I pack again and go to Palermo to sing Carmen. [laughs] It’s an interesting life.

Where is home?

In France, in Marseille – for about sixteen years now. France opened its doors to me, it believed in me. First contract for any opera house that I signed was for Opéra de Paris, for a Maddalena in Rigoletto. I was born and grew up in Armenia but moved to France in 2000, and I love it a lot too. Armenia and France, for me that’s like one’s the mother, the other one’s the father. Both are in my heart. I try to make it back to Armenia once a year at least.

You were also Goffredo in Robert Carsen’s Rinaldo at Glyndebourne, in the production set at a boarding school?

We spent about two months in Glyndebourne, back in 2010. That was my first collaboration with Carsen. I really like his openness. His ideas for characters are malleable enough to include the personality of the singer – singer’s own contribution. There’s the character, and then there’s the singer taking it on, and in some productions I guess you can adopt the given character because you are required to, and that’s where the conversation ends, but the acting then comes across as automatic. The audience will notice. The audience notices everything, the smallest movements, the look in the eyes, everything. We are naked on stage. And I will always be me and the character at the same time. And Carsen is a director who knows how to connect the two.

What about Bob Wilson’s L’Incoronazione, then? That must have been a whole different school of thought.

Ha, well yes. When it comes to movement, you don’t get to choose your own. We had something like the “I am sad” posture and the “I am happy” posture [she demonstrates] and it ends there. Nobody is to touch anybody else. Every cast member is placed at a very specific spot, we all share the same limited number of gestures, and  the lighting is extremely important. When you look at the production from the audience and as a whole, it works; I had great feedback from the audience, but for us, there isn’t a whole lot we can do on stage. We express our inner lives through the look in our eyes – and through the music and the text, of course. Since it was Monteverdi, the text was very important, and it all came together. Not sure if it would in every other opera; I can’t imagine a Carmen by Bob Wilson, for example. But with Monteverdi, with the text and the eyes, it was like Стихотворение: sung poetry.

You sang Ottone?

Yes. Again, a man.

Do pants roles give more freedom to the singer?

Not quite, but I enjoy each one of them a lot. In Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini directed by Terry Gilliam I sang Ascanio (Rome/Amsterdam/ENO co-production). Now that production was nothing short of a film. And I was pretty masculine in it too.

Varduhi Abrahamyan in Benvenuto Cellini.
Varduhi Abrahamyan as Ascanio in Benvenuto Cellini. Photo: Yasuko Kageyama

And Arsace?

Musical writing for that role is fabulous. The duos, his character, I love everything about it. I’ve done it a few times and will do it again, in Pesaro, again with Maestro Mariotti in a couple of years.

You also sang Adalgisa?

Yes, with Mariella Devia. When I found out that she would sing Norma, there was some serious fangirling happening on my part.

And then there’s the Bieito Carmen waiting for you early next year in Paris.

Yes! I saw the photos from the production, and am very excited about it. It’s a favourite, Carmen. Rich in character, a strong woman who knows how to love, who’s not afraid of anybody and is ready to risk everything to be true to her heart. She needs somebody next to her who will match her strength, but… in opera as in real life, men don’t particularly like strong women. I don’t know if you’ll agree?

Good grief, yes, absolutely. In all areas of life, as we can see these days.

I sang Carmen at the Bolshoi, and in Toulon, and also in Hamburg, last year. I have a lot of Carmens in the future.

And your foray into contemporary opera was Akhmatova composed by Bruno Mantovani?

Yes, that was the world premiere of the work at the Opera Bastille. And it’s impressive – and different when the composer is around and in the same room as you. There was lots to learn. Lots of changes of tempi… The work was well received. There should be a recording somewhere, at least the audio.

More contemporary music on the agenda?

Not in the near future. I like music that lets me interpret, add nuances. I love music that lets me play with colours. But in contemporary music that’s not often the case. Everything is planned and everything must be followed precisely. Perhaps a singer should make that choice early on, to focus on contemporary music and specialize there, or to dedicate herself to the historic repertoire.

Everybody should do what they do best. I like to set the bar for my singing and acting as high as possible, and bring something new with my interpretation. It’s the same with conductors and stage directors. We’re always trying to inch the bar higher. I am working on myself as a singer all the time, it’s a job that never ends.

You can still catch Ariodante on its closing night on November 4 at the COC.

Top and bottom photos courtesy IMG Artists.

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Ariodante by Richard Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jamie Barton in recital

Jamie Barton with Bradley Moore at Koerner Hall. Photo credit James M. Ireland.
Jamie Barton with Bradley Moore at Koerner Hall. Photo credit James M. Ireland.

The cutest baby-Wagnerian around, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton made her Toronto recital debut at the Koerner Hall last night with Bradley Moore at the piano.

The program was diverse, but the format was kept traditional, with no witty intros or personal stories in between the sets of songs, which would have enriched and enlivened the event. She did finally speak–and kick off her shoes–before the last, American set, and showed talent for gab. More words next time, JB!

She mightily impressed in Dvořák’s Cigánské melodie. Moving through its divergent moods with great dramatic wisdom and excellent diction, Barton was very much at home in the Czech song cycle. She took good care of each word; the way she inhabited the word pláčem in the sombre fourth song effectively created a mini-scene of its own.

The three songs by Chausson too went well. The main issue with a large impressive voice like Barton’s in recital is to rein it in, not let it rip (too soon, too often, ever, maybe?). I wondered if an opulent voice would not maybe blow away some of the gossamer-ier sides of French mélodies, but turns out I didn’t need to: “Hébé” and “Le colibri” in particular were a delight as Barton gave her high floating pianissimi (yes they exist!) a good workout. We usually hear lighter voices in this rep, but hearing Barton and, say, Marie-Nicole Lemieux in mélodies is a whole different re-read. Pourquoi pas.

The Schubert set was a wee bit humdrum, possibly hindered by an under-ambitious choice of songs. Does anybody ever get excited by “The King of Thule” or “Shepherd’s Lament”? I’d loved to have heard Barton in some Lieder that mean the world to her personally, and the reasons why. Maybe something from Winterreise? Der Erlkönig? Ständchen? But no luck. OK, there was “Gretchen am Spinnrade” but the piano wheel didn’t spin for it with much propulsion, alas.

The final Jesus-y set wasn’t my thing (James Ivey-arranged “His Eye is on the Sparrow” and “Ride on King Jesus”) though “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (arr. H.T. Burleigh) can never fail. The encores were a Sibelius and a Princesse de Bouillon aria from Adriana Lecouvreur.

Now can we please hear Barton in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde? Sooner rather than later? She’s back to Toronto in the fall for Mahler 3 with TSO in the meantime.