And Glyndebourne happened

To pay homage and celebrate the final Cesare sung by Sarah Connolly–possibly the final mezzo Cesare on a major stage, as the CTs have just about completely taken over the role–a few of us made the trip to that little opera house on private property in Lewes. National representation, l-r: UK, Finland, Canada, Australia.

Photo is a deft multi-head selfie taken by Monique C (far right)
The house
Around the house

Back to us on a picnic blanket, minus the UK, who took the photo

We interrupt this program

Oh hi

Seeing this on June 15th, btw. Managed to find a good return that’s also within my budget.

Noir as the Puck

Hockey Noir in Montreal. Photo credit Maxime Boisvert

On paper, it looks like hubris: how can film noir, hockey, comics and opera tolerate (let alone enhance) one another? But ten minutes into Hockey Noir, a graphic opera composed by Andre Ristic to the libretto by Cecil Castellucci and video-projected comic book panels by Kimberlyn Porter, the resistance was futile. I sat up and got drawn in; the stock characters came alive to subvert the stereotype; the music became driven, full of energy and surprising at every turn.

You know that an opera succeeds if the words, the visuals, and the music blend just so, that intangible quality that makes or breaks the piece. It almost doesn’t matter what an opera is made of or what it is ‘about’, as long as this particular alchemy happens. I have no interest in hockey nor can I fathom our obsession with it. I don’t read comic books very often and to film noir I much prefer the screwball talkies. And yet and yet, none of that mattered in this case. The libretto (Cecil Castellucci, who collaborated with Ristic on another comic book opera) uses the clichés from noir films—stock characters of the double-crossing dame and the mobster, and some cliched lines in the dialogue–which can potentially dull down the piece. But they are used knowingly, for mimetic exacerbation, and put through the wringer of the two languages, or to be more precise through the hard-boiled, lumpen and underground versions of the two languages. It’s Montreal of the 1950s, pre-Quiet Revolution, when the boss (corporate and criminal, both) indeed did speak English, if not exactly posh English, but the dominant language of the libretto is the joual, rough, rudimentary, spiked with anglicisms, and creative spelling and grammar.

To that, some singers have to add another layer: soprano Pascale Beaudin, who sings the “hotshot player” Bigowsky, has to sing in French with a heavy Anglo accent, and this tells us that Bigowsky followed the trajectory of many allophone immigrants families to Quebec: English first, then French (maybe) later. Bigowsky is, as Gretzky is too, an East European name, possibly Russian or Polish, and in one scene Beaudin/Bigowsky has a line in Russian (was it Russian?), preceded by “As my mother always said.” Another East European name gets a tangle of Anglo-Franco textual material: the mobster boss Romanov (baritone Pierre-Etienne Bergeron), who while technically a total Anglo, swears and threatens in both official languages. I have never encountered a swearing aria that relishes the words and ties them to music so effectively, let alone one in two languages, let alone one that employs Quebec’s Catholic treasure box of swears, let alone one in which the music intervenes to bleep the swear words before they’re completed.

So what happens in the opera? Well, as in many noirs, the plot is somewhat obscure, and in the event doesn’t matter all that much. The aforementioned young hotshot hockey player Bigowsky refuses to fix the Montreal-Toronto match on behalf of Romanov, who plans on putting a lot of money on a Toronto win. To avoid the consequences, and in a nod to Some Like It Hot, Bigowsky goes underground and starts dressing as a woman. His cloche hat is very much Jack Lemmon as Daphne, but without the camp and the winks – this is, thankfully, a touch darker and angstier. His best team mate Lafeuille (tenor Michiel Schrey) bonds with a fan girl who, it transpires, is a brilliant coach—in fact, Bigowsky en feminine who just can’t resist the call of the rink. The character is called Gal Friday, so Howard Hawks lovers also get a nod, as does the recurring character of the super competent female professional from the talkies like His Girl Friday. It’s raining references to opera’s own history too. The Dame/Madame Lasalle (mezzo Marie-Annick Beliveau) who’s plotting for the overthrow of Romanov gets a Queen of the Night-like aria–only grubby, low-rent and from within a deep existential crisis. Bigowsky is a trouser role in the best tradition of trouser roles, and as such of course gets a feminine attire act too so we can observe a soprano singing a man who for plot purposes cross-dresses as a woman. Another way the tradition is honoured is that Beliveau gets a romantic thing with a female singer – Madame Lasalle – and a proper seduction/recognition scene. Elsewhere in the opera, there’s a catalogue aria. Of sorts. In a thoroughly non-sexy version of a Don Giovanni standard, Lafeuille and Romanov in “Games played: 1123” list Lafeuille’s hockey stats.

Marie-Annick Beliveau (Madame Lasalle) with Pascale Beaudin (Bigowsky). Photo by Maxime Boisvert

Ristić’s compelling music is the circulation that keeps this work so alive at all times. Ensemble Contemporain de Montreal is on stage, a string quartet, an electronic keyboard and a set of percussion instruments, all conducted by the ECM’s AD Veronique Lacroix. As needed, the keyboard stands in for a Hammond organ, the electric instrument often heard in hockey matches of the era. The score is made up of the segments—arias, duos, ensembles—held together by detective voice-over (Jean Marchand). There’s a pervading atmospheric darkness, continuously disturbed by the forces of angular twisted sounds, unusual pairings of timbre via voice with instrument or instrument with instrument, mimetic details like the swoosh of skates against the ice and pre-recorded sounds like the crowd cheering. No film noir music is directly quoted that I could tell, so no echoes of saxophone, fortunately. Madame Lasalle’s arias involve some extended techniquing such as screaming in thinned out falsetto, and yo-yo-ing on a note for comic effect, but among other solos Bigowsky’s going underground aria stands out – “How do you become invisible to men? Become a woman”. The ensembles though is what I found most exciting of all. In “Quand l’avez-vu la derniere fois?” each character comes out of an electronic sound-field, which is pleasantly unpleasant and indeterminate, to tell of their last encounter with Bigowsky. The scenes of a hockey match at the end are fast and fun, as the projections, the characters and the instruments play without friction together. Shots are fired just before the final tutti, “J’aurais pu mourir”, which works as an epilogue. Everybody survived, but the music is grim. Bigowsky’s career continued going great until it didn’t, Lafeuille retired to the suburbs, Lasalle became the new Montreal Boss and Romanov… well, ran for city council and later became prime minister (to accompany this statement, the projection showed an orange-haired Romanov).

I’m not entirely sure why the singers were miked. Were some voices distorted in real time, and had to stay plugged to the grid? I couldn’t tell. But the small Jane Mallet certainly did not need singer amplification and the miking is perhaps the only component that diminished the show, not enhanced it.

The panels by Kimberlyn Porter are unfussy and vintage, no distracting details, and thanks to the video design by Serge Maheu they get some camera-like movement–closing in, gros plan, moving lense. They stay low key, and are there to complement the stage. Comic book panels may feel archaic and certainly less lively than film projections, but there’s pleasure in that tech delay, and it works well with the 1940s and 1950s aesthetic.

Closes tonight at the Jane Mallet Theatre, and tours Belgium in Nov/Dec. Tickets here.

A scene from Hockey Noir. Photo by Maxime Boisvert

The year in review

Some of the good things about 2017:

In Concert

Sarah Connolly with Chicago SO. Photo by Kristin Jensen.

Sarah Connolly sings Das Lied von der Erde with Chicago Symphony Orchestra, c. James Conlon. I went to Chicago for this; sadly the TSO’s own Erde was a wreck this year.

Adrianne Pieczonka sings Winterreise, Rachel Andrist @ piano

Soundstreams presents R. Murray Schafer’s Odditorium

Canadian Art Song Project + 21C Music Festival: the all-Ana Sokolovic recital with Danika Loren, Emily d’Angelo, etc

Mozart’s Piano – Kristian Bezuidenhout & Tafelmusik.

Opera

Vivier’s Kopernikus in Banff, Against the Grain & Banff Centre

Met in HD: Der Rosenkavalier (dir Carsen, with Fleming, Garanca, etc)

Arabella at the COC

Toronto Consort’s Helen of Troy (aka Cavalli’s Elena) – in concert.

Theatre

The Youth-Elders Project @ Buddies in Bad Times. Much of this was unscripted: half participants in their twenties, half past their sixties, all bent, some homosexual, some queer (and there is a generational divide with terminology too), talk about their lives and experiences.

What Linda Said by Priscila Uppal @ Factory Theatre. Late Linda Griffiths appears to her friend (based on Uppal) who is now herself sick and undergoing treatment for cancer. They talk about life, love, writing, dying.

Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools by Evalyn Parry & Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory @ Buddies. Second half was as close as I ever came to witnessing a shamanic ritual. Laakkuluk donned an animist persona/mask and went straight into the audience. Crawled over and between the rows, ground against people, grabbed, handled, dry-humped. All kinds of boundaries got crossed. It was fantastic.

Unholy by Diane Flacks, Buddies & Nightwood Theatre. A panel of four women (an Orthodox Jew, a Muslim, an atheist and a Catholic nun) debate whether women should abandon religion altogether. Further complications ensue after the atheist and the Muslim fall for each other.

Young Marx via National Theatre Live (Yonge-Bloor Cineplex). Young Marx lives in London, throws (and throws off) communist meetings, has no money, has a wealthy loyal friend in Engels, one wife, one servant-lover, many children, police always on his tail for one reason or another. A laugh out loud farce and the best piece of left propaganda (I mean this as a compliment) I’ve seen in performing arts in a long time.

The Bakkhai at Stratford Festival on the other hand disappointed – chiefly due to music which was sugary musical theatre fare.

Media arts

Fire at Sea, an Italian documentary about the locals of the southernmost Italian island Lampedusa and the African migrants making the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean into the EU.

Angry Inuk, a Canadian documentary about a handful of seal hunters in Nunavut who are barely making ends meet vs. the PR-savvy, big budget environmentalist organizations campaigning against seal hunting.

The Lives of Thérèse, a French doc about feminist activist Thérèse Clerc. Here’s a clip in which she tries to explain to her granddaughter that lesbianism is the sexual arm of feminist politics, and that heterosexuality is like sleeping with the occupier.

Dish: Women, Waitressing and the Art of Service, a Maya Gallus doc about women around the world who wait tables.

Agnes Varda & DJ: Faces, Places. Outstanding docu-fiction reminding us that there is no such thing as insignificant lives.

Sieranevada, a Romanian feature film about a Bucharest family preparing for the wake for its deceased patriarch. From the director of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.

Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves, a Quebec feature film which walks the esthetic and political avant garde side of the street. It imagines a radical left splinter group coming out of the Quebec anti-tuition fee protests from a couple of years ago which continues the fight in a more direct action mode (destruction of property, theft, and some violence against humans too). Refreshing, bizarre, Godard-ian, frustrating, but provocative and smart for its entire three hours. The movie that shifts the treatment of politics in Quebec’s engaged art – after this film, Robert Lepage’s play-pic 887 at CanStage, which still circles around the October unrest and the Quiet Revolution, seems dated.

Vivier’s Kopernikus in rehearsal at Banff

I just attended a rehearsal performance of Claude Vivier’s Kopernikus at Banff Centre for the Arts staged by the AtG’s Joel Ivany and conducted by Topher Mokrzewski and my first impression is ALERT — this is going to be a special thing. The piece runs roughly about an hour and it involves a deceased character named Agni (mezzo Danielle MacMillan) after she braved, as they call it in some operas, le trépas. It’s not a narrative piece and often doesn’t even have sentences–there’s tons of extended techniques for voice, strategic miking of certain singers, some spoken text, and everybody, including the woodwinds and brass dominated orchestra of 7, has movement, costumes, and is part of the drama.

I won’t say too much–Kopernikus is opening on Thursday–except that Ivany brilliantly got rid of what is often read as the mystical and New Age nature of the piece and sketched the world that Agni is joining as a construction site populated by creatures in worker overalls who dialogue with or monologue at Agni. If you’ve read George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, one of the best novels of the last few years, this will bring that book to mind. It’s sort of a bardo, this perpetual construction site, where spirits (and memories, and episodes, and events) tarry.

Music is immersive and highly charged while it on the whole defies sense-making. The characters that nominally appear in the opera (except nobody fussed around making them recognizable, so they actually don’t—though there are occasional clues in the sung text) are Lewis Carroll, Merlin, the Queen of the Night, a blind prophet, an old monk, Tristan, Isolde, Mozart, and Copernicus.

A couple of nice photos courtesy of the fellow rehearsal audience member Isaac Fernandez.

Now if only there’s a way to see this in Toronto after Banff.

Christopher Mokrzewski and Danielle MacMillan et al. during rehearsal for Kopernikus by Claude Vivier.
Danika Loren and Danielle MacMillan in Kopernikus
The team of Kopernikus – Jennifer Taverner on the far right

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.

Not with a bang but with a whimper

(l-r) Karen Cargill as Waltraute and Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Götterdämmerung, 2017, photo: Chris Hutcheson
(l-r) Karen Cargill as Waltraute and Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Götterdämmerung, 2017, photo: Chris Hutcheson

I can’t say I loved this conclusion to the COC Ring cycle, Tim Albery’s Götterdämmerung, chiefly because if offers no food for thought. There’s very little for the eye too: Albery’s is an arte povera approach to the work that contains about two ideas and five props. Even lighting is use sparingly. Yes, the twilight of the gods, I get it, but this darkness with squint-inducing lights gets tired after three hours, not to mention five. The overarching set for all locations except the Gibichung quarters are the massive hydro towers and poles left and right and the wiring connecting them (hydro, the Rhine, electricity, geddit?). It’s a good idea that also gets tired by continuous reuse. There’s something of the deserted outskirts of a large city atmosphere in the set, but this never gets developed. The five props remain the five props.

One of these recurring objects is the marital bed which shows Brünnhilde’s implausible happiness in domesticity. After she’s taken away by Gunther, hours into the production, the bed reappears with the Rhinemaidens in Act III–who are also on the shady outskirts of a city among the hydro towers. There’s some inventive changing of costumes there and playing with blue lights which finally gives the brain something to play with. But this doesn’t last. The bed however is sure to reappear for the murder of Siegfried: he is back on it as Hagen and his men track the hero down and murder him. Siegfried recovers his memory of life with Brünnhilde *and* their marital bed.

The opening scene introducing the Norns was a lost opportunity, because it doesn’t pull you into the drama in any way. We’re in the same dark place with three random women pulling on yarn threads. Nothing uncanny or intriguing about any of it. They are just… chatting. Two of the three Norns in jarring voices at that (not Karen Cargill, about whom later). I’ve always found Ileana Montalbetti’s voice an acquired taste, and the colours employed in the opening scene here take some getting used to. Montalbetti was vocally and dramatically a fine Gutrune later in the show, however, so: you lose some, you win some.

Highly problematic for the story is the fact that in this production the gods, the Gibichung and the Nibelung (Alberich appears in one scene) are all indistinguishable in status and power. They’re all just people, some in corporate boardrooms, others roaming around like Siegfried. Take pretty much everything else out of Götterdämmerung and replace it with gas stations and crocodiles, but the decline of the most powerful must be in the production in some shape. Not in this production, where Hagen’s army of men in suits with spears look like the elite reaffirming its power while Siegfried and Brünnhilde read as a hippie couple living humbly in their remote natural abode. And of course there’s not a hint of fire in the immolation scene, don’t be uncouth.

Among the voices, two stood out for me: Estonian bass Ain Anger as Hagen, (consistently larger, more precise, dramatically more committed) and mezzo Karen Cargill as Waltraute and Second Norn, whose ample gravi excited. Christine Goerke too, of course; she remains the punk Brünnhilde of our era, but something unlovely happens to her voice when the open vowel E is on a high note and needs to be sustained.

The COC orchestra under Johannes Debus, just like the Albery production, could have employed more passion and stronger contrasts but even so the music remains the one reliably exciting side of Götterdämmerung while the libretto struggles with endless episode recaps, magic potions and helmets that provide shape-shifting on demand, and an incongruously weak Brünnhilde physically tackled and overcome by the tiny Gunther. (Wagner really should have hired a librettist occasionally… imagine what would have happened had he found his own Da Ponte, his own Hofmannsthal? But that’s another lament altogether.)

The 5h20min Götterdämmerung continues till February 25.

Andreas Schager as Siegfried (left) with the Rhinemaidens (l-r: Lauren Eberwein as Wellgunde, Lindsay Ammann as Flosshilde and Danika Lorèn as Woglinde) in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Götterdämmerung, 2017, photo: Michael Cooper
Andreas Schager as Siegfried (left) with the Rhinemaidens (l-r: Lauren Eberwein as Wellgunde, Lindsay Ammann as Flosshilde and Danika Lorèn as Woglinde) in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Götterdämmerung, 2017, photo: Michael Cooper
Ain Anger as Hagen (far left) with the Canadian Opera Company’s chorus in the COC Götterdämmerung, 2017, photo: Michael Cooper
Ain Anger as Hagen (far left) with the Canadian Opera Company’s chorus in the COC Götterdämmerung, 2017, photo: Michael Cooper

Norma by Kevin Newbury

(l-r) Elza van den Heever as Norma and Isabel Leonard as Adalgisa in the Canadian Opera Company production of Norma, 2016. Photo: Michael Cooper
(l-r) Elza van den Heever as Norma and Isabel Leonard as Adalgisa in the Canadian Opera Company production of Norma, 2016. Photo: Michael Cooper

Just about everything can be made better by two women singing in thirds “Mira, o Norma”, including a cold October day and a timid production of Bellini’s Norma. Elza van den Heever as Norma and Isabel Leonard as Adalgisa singing “Mira” is worth the proverbial price of admission, and last night made obvious Kevin Newbury’s vision for the Bellini piece: creating space for the canto and the voices. Not more, not less. It’s not a particularly ambitious directorial vision but there’s focus there and the resulting production is a calm, pleasing, slow-burn of a show.

The libretto is taken more or less literally but distilled into the essentials, with design simplified, made geometric and stylish, potential Monty-Pythonesque edges smoothed off (no centurion garb for Pollione, thankfully). For much of the show, the set is vast and empty, with drama taking place in twos and threes: the chorus is large, but crowd scenes remain few. Most of the time we are within a temple or fortress with high walls and a door opening up into the forest, a sacred place too that changes colour and lighting depending on where we are in the drama. Scenes are distinctly un-busy and nothing will distract from the voices. The sheltering set is sheltering for the same reason.

The women were great together–with the tenor too–each of the voices drawing the best out of the other one. Individually, especially in recits, neither Leonard nor Heever has a particularly memorable timbre or heart-breaking beauty and smoothness of tone. Each however exercises the ability of the instrument to the maximum, withholding nothing, and each possesses impressive technical mastery. Heever’s “Casta diva” had control, trill, coloratura, messa di voce, while keeping it all at an intimate p to mf level.

Russell Thomas was a total star. Let me get my superficiality out of the way first: did he lose weight,  gain muscle, take acting lessons, since last time I checked? He was a complete singing-actor as Pollione, dramatically nimble and vocally… vocally, positively Pavarotti. Not everything was perfect (the outer reaches of the top could have been reached with a bit more ease at certain points) but by golly, you know a star when it smacks you in your operatic jadedness. His voice is so elegant and even throughout the register and so consistently compelling that notions of a perpetuum mobile engine come to mind. One patented by Pavarotti, to boot.

The pit under Stephen Lord gave a competent reading of the score, but didn’t go out of its way to seduce us with subtle accents or daring innovation. Mostly it got out of the way of the voices, just like the production itself.

Norma continues at the Canadian Opera Company Oct 28 and Nov 5. Tickets & more.

Russell Thomas as Pollione and Elza van den Heever as Norma in the COC production of Norma, 2016. Photo: Michael Cooper
Russell Thomas as Pollione and Elza van den Heever as Norma in the COC production of Norma, 2016. Photo: Michael Cooper
Elza van den Heever as Norma (COC, 2016). Photo: Michael Cooper
Elza van den Heever as Norma (COC, 2016). Photo: Michael Cooper

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

Viewing alert: Nathalie Stutzmann & Emőke Baráth sing Handel

…to each other. In a mashup of duos and arias from various Handel operas, titled Il Duello Amoroso.

The streaming starts here at 3pm EST. In the unlikely case that it’s geoblocked (concerts usually aren’t), you know what to do (Hola, Tunnel Bear, HideMyAss or similar geomasking programs).

EDITED: Replay will be available starting August 31.

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