It’s been a long while since I left a production in a similar kind of WTF state. Maybe the Chinese Semele at the COC was the last time.
Which is to say that as far as Maometto II is concerned, I liked it?
There’s much to enjoy straightforwardly in this David Alden production of little known dramatic RossiniMaometto II, but there’s much more which you’ll find yourself enjoying because it’s out of place, weird, obviously doesn’t make any sense, or belongs very consciously to a retro theatrical language.
But let’s get out of the way a few things that could not be enjoyed at all on the opening night. There were chorus & pit coordination issues (the chorus, usually the male one, was behind the beat on more than one occasion), and choral homogeneity issues (female chorus sounded like a group of individuals unwilling to blend). The lead soprano’s voice (Leah Crocetto), while perfectly fine and apt rest of the time in its coloratura journeys, would occasionally have passages, especially if the text is on the open Italian E vowel, of unlovely shrill. When you put a hyperactive crowd—some among them armed with spears and doing their anti-choreography–on a narrow tilted stage with large holes, audience members will wait anxiously for the accident to happen instead of following the performance.
And now on to the pleasantly inscrutable, and even the unequivocally pleasant.
Here’s what, technically, happens in the libretto. Maometto the character is based on Mehmed II the Conqueror, the fifteenth-century Ottoman warrior who took Constantinople, put paid to Byzantium and pushed well into the Western Europe. As nineteenth-century Italian opera is wont to do, the historical episode of the war with Venice is reimagined as a melodrama that involves Mehmed II, the ruler of a Venetian outpost Erisso, his daughter Anna and her long-suffering suitor Calbo. As the Ottoman siege starts, it transpires that Anna had somehow managed to have an affair with Maometto himself in disguise way before his troops conquered the city. (Don’t ask me how.) She makes Maometto release her father and suitor from captivity and spends next part of the opera with Maometto conflicted over loyalties. In the event, she betrays him, which results in Venetian reconquest. In the final scene with Maometto, she takes her own life.
The Ottomans were still in the Balkans at the time the opera was created, so I’m not sure what particular events around 1820 nudged Rossini and librettist Cesare della Valle in this direction. The overeager seekers of noxious Orientalism in everything would likely classify it as an Orientalist opera—there are clarinet solos too, hey—but the piece has as much to say about geopolitics, history and religious strife as Rossini’s Guglielmo Tell or the glorious Tancredi, so: nothing at all.
It’s the director’s task to decide whether to tap into or ignore (completely wimp out of?) this hotbed of topics in a contemporary reading, and David Alden found an intelligent and honourable balance. I’m guessing his thinking was, to completely ignore the East vs. West undercurrent would be to miss the point entirely and to bet too much on it (either by critiquing it or embracing it) would be silly: it’s an obscure Italian bel canto opera from 1820.
There are many brilliant scenes in this staging that never quire coheres and perhaps even shouldn’t. At the opening of Act 2, the female chorus is lined up but we only see their niqab-veiled faces. They are observing Anna and a veiled dancer who gradually takes off her clothes to zero reaction from the impermeable Anna—some deconstructed elements of belly dance found their way to choreography (consistently imaginative, signed by David Laera). Maometto’s warriors wear ninja-like costumes, but they are not camp and not unserious: there is a front of stage throat slitting in one scene, and hints of a very different, unHollywood type of warrior recently seen on certain videos in the news. And whether Alden’s seen this particular political manipulation of Ottoman imagery I don’t know, but it was present in the costume of one of the silent characters on stage as well as Maometto’s.
But Alden takes a distance from too direct topicality in other ways, and when the bridge door goes down from the wall in Act 2, theatre smoke pours out and the massive black horses start sliding down just so Luca Pisaroni could climb up behind them and conclude the scene from there… we are back in the land of artificiality, mediation, nods to old skool set machinery and, well, fun.
My favourite thing about Rossini, apart from the heroic pants roles, are his trios, quartets, & quintets. Maometto II is all about the trios, many of the key scenes set up in this way. And while you could separate the work into numbers if you insisted, conductor Harry Bicket does the right thing and does not leave a split second for the applause after each. Recits are also sufficiently dramatic and substantial. The Maometto & Anna duo in Act 2 is some seriously sexy business. Credits to Luca Pisaroni and Crocetto (and Alden) for making the attraction and repulsion and the violence of that exchange come alive.
Pisaroni himself does not have get a showstopping traditional arias, but is a towering star presence throughout, producing some handsome and powerful bass coloratura. Elizabeth deShong as Calbo did have some spectacular solos, thank Rossini, and tenor Bruce Sledge as Erisso left nothing to be desired. The only principal I wasn’t seduced by was, as I mentioned, Crocetto, but every performance is different and things may change on other nights of the run.
In conclusion, I’m glad I discovered Maometto II. It’s certainly worthier of revival than any number of other bel canto works being reintroduced these days like the Tudor Trilogy, or Rossini’s own ubiquitous Cenerentola. Alden approached it in the right way (if sometimes to chaotic or static results). Thumbs up.
The podium sausage fest spell broooooo-ken! Keri-Lynn Wilson will conduct the Tosca revival. The production is underwhelming, Ramón Vargas is an unusual choice for Cavaradossi, but on the upside, AdriannePieczonka returns in the role, and KLW makes her COC debut. I hear she is one of the best Puccini conductors around, male or female. Can’t wait.
Bernard Labadie’s COC conducting debut in Mozart’s The Magic Flute (albeit in the YA-tailored Diane Paulus production).
The Dutch-Aix-COC co-pro Ariodante by Richard Jones is a-coming this side of the Atlantic.
The phenomenal Varduhi Abrahamyan will role-debut Polinesso in the same opera and make her Canadian debut.
Die Goerke returns for Götterdämmerung.
Sondra Radvanovsky and Isabel Leonard will sing together “Mira, o Norma” and be a hot pair in the SFO-Liceu-LOC-COC Norma by Kevin Newbury that incorporates, we are told, elements of sci-fi.
Harry Somers‘ Riel in a spanking new production by Peter Hinton. I am not too familiar with Hinton’s work, but I liked what he said in the video (too bad he wasn’t on stage to talk about the production–I suppose it’s still too early?). To the effect that the production won’t be of the “preserved in aspic” kind but will directly engage with the state of Canadian polity, AD 2017. I can’t wait for this one. Allyson McHardy is in it, Russell Braun takes the title role. Note: for a crash course on Riel, you could do worse than Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography. A few random panels from it:
The Okay, That’s Enough of That:
Nationalist rhetoric. It’s getting a bit much. Who still needs to be appeased? Who needs to be convinced? Certain journalists who raised the same question about “the lack of Canadian content at the COC” over and over at press conferences? (Meaning, only and always, the composers–as if, say, a Mozart or a Verdi put together by cast and creative that are 95 percent Canadian isn’t a Canadian piece in every conceivable way.) Certain clueless musicians who did the same through the social media? It looks like the pearl-clutching nationalists finally shut up and found other things to pearl-clutch about, a couple of seasons ago. So, can the brags like “the cast in such-and-such a production is entirely Canadian”(!?) be dropped? Can I come out of the closet and say that I don’t care what ethnicity or citizenship papers my opera artists have?
The One Big Nooooooooooo:
Alice Coote takes the title role in Ariodante. She has a considerable chunk of ardent fans, and she’s done some really interesting programs (the trouser role-themed program with Ali Smith in the UK, for example), but all I see and hear in Alice Coote is effort…effort, strain, discomfort, with singing, acting, and even being in a body. It’ll be tough without Sarah Connolly in this role. (Or Allyson McHardy, whom I dream-cast the other day. Naughty, naughty COC clues.)
The Yeah That’s A Good Idea
Instead of presenting an Ensemble Studio production, this year the young talent will be showcased in a concert of as yet to be determined scenes from operas alongside the full COC orchestra.
But there’s much of COC15/16 left to go. More on that soon.
Centre Stage, the ensemble studio competition, took place this Tuesday at the FSC in two parts: the private audition before the judging panel, and the public part with the full COC orchestra. I could only make the latter part this year–so my thoughts are about the public performances only.
There were four mezzo finalists, exceptionally, this time, alongside two sopranos and two baritones. The excitement was dampened by the fact that two of the mezzos sang Gounod in the public part of the competition. They are all fine voices with a lot of promise. Pascale Spinney’s “Faites-lui mes aveux” was too short and too cute (not to mention too Gounod) to allow me to form any proper judgment. I see she sang Dido’s Lament in the private audition, which would have been a more exciting choice for the big stage. Mezzo Marjorie Maltais also kept the fireworks for the private audition: “Non piu mesta”, the final aria of Cenerentola. On stage, she sang “Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle” from Gounod’s R&J. It’s a sweet aria that has some dramatic variety and allows the singer to show off her French. What was most appealing about Maltais’ performance is that she was visibly free and playful with it. She was also showing nascent signs of that all-important thing in a singer, a style. I’d really like to see what Maltais and Spinney do with proper roles on stage—perhaps next year we can see the contestants in mini-scenes of duos or trios?
The two mezzos who took the first and the second prize sang in Italian: Emily D’Angelo (“Contro un cor” from Il Barbiere) and Lauren Eberwein (“Parto” from La Clemenza). D’Angelo showcased a flawless coloratura, appealing timbre, and loads of charm. Rosina and Cherubino (she sang “Voi che sapete” in the private audition) however are the safest bet for any light mezzo—each aria already comes with a personality that just needs to be honoured and recreated, rather than invented out of one’s own resources. She is undeniably a remarkable singer already: the choice of arias, however, could have been more daring.
Whereas Lauren Eberwein’s choice definitely was: the second place winner sang Sesto’s “Parto, parto” and in audition Komponist’s “Sein wir wieder gut” from Ariadne. She imbued Sesto’s every line with meaning and compassion, there was no hamming, no illogical arm movement (an all-too frequent occurrence in singing competitions). Dramatically, it doesn’t get better and more stage-ready than this. Musically, more colours could have been added: the voice settled early on into the darker, a bit closed, a bit throaty hue. Perhaps more freedom in inflection was the only thing left to work on.
If there was an award for visual presentation, Eberwein would have won it in a blink: she was gorgeous andsmartly composed, the look reminiscent of Tilda Swinton, even showing some edge—as much edge as the COC Ensemble Studio competition allows. (Which is not a lot, alas.) Which brings me to the following question: are the female competitors dressed and styled by a specific person in charge of that sort of thing? D’Angelo and Eberwein wore similar outfits, while Spinney, Maltais and soprano Eliza Johnson had fabric and cuts in common, the body-shaping, tight lace gowns that from afar look like they’ve been crocheted. Men have it easier, of course—they all sing in the black-tie uniform and nobody is distracted by what they wear. I wish women too had a neutral clothing option that would set them on relatively equal footing visually in competitions.
But that’s an old topic and by-the-bye and let’s put it aside for now.
What I wanted to end with is my personal favourite of the night. Amid the embarrassment of the mezzo riches, I found myself moved the most by a soprano. I know! Inexcusable and inexplicable to this mezzo maniac. Eliza Johnson’s “Caro nome” had that special mix of technical mastery and emotional oomph that only best performances have—control and vulnerability, studiousness and rawness. The Ensemble is not in search of a soprano this year, so she was not a favourite to win; her visual presentation was not as slick and her dress wasn’t as flattering (she should ignore whoever dressed her and get her Adele on, a singer she already resembles). But by Jove, there’s a real artist in there. I can’t wait to hear her again.
What about the dudes, you ask — were there any dudes in that competition? No idea, where they?
The Aix-en-Provence production of Ana Sokolovic’s Svadba will be livestreamed tomorrow here – figure out your time zone via the live ticker on the screen. The production is by Ted Huffman and Zack Winokur, Dáirine Ní Mheadhra conducts with John Hess at the percussion. Here are a couple of good curtain call photos from the opening night, courtesy of the dramaturge Antonio Cuenca Ruiz. The only original cast member is Andrea Ludwig — Florie Valiquette sings Milica, alongside Liesbeth Devos, Jennifer Davis, Pauline Sikirdji and Mireille Lebel in the remaining roles.
The production looks much less abstract (alas) than the original Toronto production by Michael Cavanagh but I am open to being pleasantly surprised. While the teaser looks rather specific, I’m told these images are not really in the production. Trailers are now often being made completely independently from the stage-directorial concept.
A dandy audio mashup from the rehearsals:
This is a co-production between Aix Festival, Angers Nantes Opéra, the Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg, Festival Ljubljana, Ars Musica and Sarajevo Winter, so will probably travel to all those places sooner or later. More photos and info here.
The most exciting moment of the TSO’s Mahler Second was actually one of the more quiet and contemplative ones: mezzo Susan Platts’ entrance with the Urlicht, the first vocal solo appearing mid-symphony. After the swirls and the busyness of the preceding music, the low-voice timbre with its discreet accompaniment is a welcome change of mood and even texture. For a time, the solo violin dances a cheerful dance around the vocal line, but blends in with the orchestra as the text becomes more insistent—“Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott”.
Platts’ appealing colour (not to mention potency and a well controlled vibrato) is to return later in the piece, in a duo with the soprano. Said soprano Erin Wall gets material that’s a little less poignant, but she confidently soars above the chorus and orchestra in the tuttis, and very much makes her presence known. In the final stretch everything leads up to the big choral fireworks affirming the belief in the resurrection. What do you do with it if you don’t believe in the resurrection of the flesh and that Jesus was sacrificed to redeem everybody’s sins? Perhaps THE question of this symphony; a secular or a non-Christian listener may find the final chorus manipulative and bombastic, rather than moving. I, for one, do.
But let’s be fair: there is more to the work than the statement of faith of its second half. The first movement is really where it’s at—arguably the darkest and most dramatic, and the TSO under its music director Peter Oundjian did it justice. It’s in the following scherzi and dances that the symphony tends to lose me: they proliferate and the mood changes frequently, so the thoughts may drift. A strong dramatic unity needs to be imposed somehow in this section, and this was only occasionally in evidence on Wednesday night.
The final movement is a busy affair, with multiple percussion stations, a part of brass going off stage (horns for the distant trumpet call effect) and returning for the exuberant finale involving the organ and the bells. For those who like that kind of thing, this is the thing that they will very much like. For the rest of us, this remains a puzzling work, a challenging collage worth the trouble figuring out why and how it should be done today. The TSO gave it a solid read with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir in good form and two excellent soloists.
The 21C’s Cinq à sept concert yesterday turned out to be an extraordinary event. Let’s see if I can say something coherent about the two personal highlights, the world premiere of Jordan Nobles’ work titled π, and Carla Huhtanen and Marion Newman performing parts of Saariaho’s Grammar of Dreams.
Commissioned by the RCM specifically for this festival, π was performed by an ensemble consisting of violin (Aysel Taghi-Zada), cello (Amahl Arulanandam), vibes (Dave Burns), flute (Tim Crouch) and piano (Adam Sherkin), plus a soprano (Carla Huhtanen). The composer said a few introductory words on how the work came about and how he—basically, randomly–got interested in using the numbers of the π as the blueprint for the composition. This was just enough to send me on a research spree on my own after I made it back home.
So let’s break it down. Stay with me, it’s worth it.
π – 3.1415(et endless cetera) is a math constant. You’ll remember this from elementary school: the circumference of a circle equals its diameter times π, that is, its diameter times 3.14. It’s an irrational number that just goes on and that computers now can specify to millions of digits, if you’re into that sort of thing. For practical, earthly purposes, the engineers and what-nots limit the number to a couple of digits past the decimal point.
But Nobles didn’t; he went some way into the number and thought, hmm, what if I took a scale—let’s say D minor harmonic (my source on what scale precisely it was is Carla Huhtanen via Twitter! Thanks Carla):
image source: BasicMusicTheory.com
…and give each of the notes one of the numbers appearing in the π. So the start note would get 1, its second would get 2, its third 3 and so on. Since the octave obvs consists of eight notes, the note that gets number 9 is the next one up. 0 is a pause.
But how far into the π to go? In Nobles’ words: I needed to stop somewhere, but where? He discovered a spot in π that has several nines bunched up together, and decided that would be it.
Upon consulting sites like One Million Digits of Pi (yes, such websites exist), it’s easy to track down where Nobles decided to end the piece:
And there you have it: the entire score.
Although the five instruments and the singer play/sing simultaneously, the notes that each performs are of different length. Only one of them actually reaches 999999 – the piano, which plays on at a good clip while others take their (own) time. The cello gets the longest notes and therefore the shortest score. Musicians are positioned around the audience and the soprano walks the circumference of the room while singing her part. As the piano approaches the end, each of the instrumentalists starts leaving the music by pronouncing in whisper the number instead of playing the note. One whispered number followed by a few notes at the instrument is followed by two whispered numbers, and so on, but without any regularity, completely unpredictably. By the time the pianist gets to play and say 999999, everybody else has stopped playing but a smattering of whispers of 9 join it from the ghosts-formerly-known-as-instruments from around the room.
But here comes the crux of the matter. None of these fun and games would matter one iota if musically the piece didn’t turn out to be the most devastating work I’ve heard in a long time. It comes at you in ripples of heart-breaking melancholy that you only gradually acknowledge as such—you find yourself sad, then sadder, than closer to tears, then struggling not to sob, and not really knowing why. I tried to analyze later why I was crushed by it to such a degree. It could be the playing out of the finite vs. the infinite: the work marks off a limited segment of (to our view) the infinite row; what happens during that segment of time happens by chance but non-negotiably, there is no controlling it or improving it; then each of the finitudes peters out. The 999999 is like a life flat-lining—the beep of no vital signs.
It could be also that we’re operating in the D minor scale. Nobles mentioned in the intro that he used a “tone row” and I concluded, completely baselessly, that it must be the twelve-tone row and that the notes used are the first 9 notes of the twelve-tone. Talk about finding music in the totally random, out of any and all keys, I thought! But it wasn’t twelve-tone; it was the scale known for its melancholy pedigree. However, its notes are used aleatorically. Does this not make it all fairly atonal, then? Probably doesn’t matter a whole lot. (Dear Jordan Nobles, if you ever read this: I was the incoherent individual who tried to tell you, before running away, that she was gutted by this “twelve tone” piece. You know that people can’t count when they’re overly emotional, right?)
At any rate. This concert will be one for the annals. I expect to be talking about it to people for years.
Also thanks to Carla Huhtanen and Marion Newman’s take on Saariaho fragments. Awful of me to put such a magic performance in the last short paragraph. What Saariaho did with Sylvia Plath’s poems is she used the actual words, but distilled them, or merged them, or extracted the syllables and put them through the wringer of extended vocal techniques and in that way brought to light that side of the life of words, the one not straightforwardly semantic and consciously understood. (The semiotic, Kristeva would say?) The soprano and the mezzo rocked this score consisting of nothing but challenges—and idiosyncratic markings. Here’s the photo of the score that Marion Newman posted on Twitter after the concert:
Verdi’s Requiem is a huge spectacle: an opera in search of a staging—and preferably by Cirque de Soleil.
Those who like their Mass for the Dead showy and grand will think of Verdi’s Req as the default Req. There is an in-built mise-en-scène to the work. The dramatic Dies Irae (the Judgment Day) unleashes its force at the beginning of the Sequence, but then reappears half hour later between Confutatis and Lacrymosa, and then later, in the concluding Libera me. It is used as a melodic ‘hit’, and to add dramatic accents. Tuba mirum has brass on and off stage, which create a theatrical space in the music with a sort of call-and-response. The Recordare, usually one of the softest movements in any Requiem, with the dying narrator begging Jesus (the one who sits to the right of the Father, not the earth-roaming, merciful one) not to judge her too harshly, is here of course soft too but also a virtuoso soprano-mezzo exercise reminiscent of Norma and Adalgisa. The Libera me at the end is a mini-scena, given to the soprano who soars and amazes—more ostentation than supplication, more aria than a prayer.
There *are* some contemplative movements too, not all is over-excitement–Hostias, or the tenor’s Ingemisco and the bass’s Confutatis, and the very opening which begins with a pianissimo chorus particularly stand out. But this Requiem won’t get you thinking about death, put it that way. There are too many resplendent things in it that entertain and comfort. If to study philosophy is to learn to die (Cicero via Montaigne), to listen to a Requiem is also something of the sort—a reminder, a reckoning. Not so with Verdi’s Requiem.
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra was its usual competent self on Thursday night, under the baton of its very very very frequent guest conductor and former music director Andrew Davis. TSO is good at honouring its history—in fact, I wish it was less good at that, and have more guest conductor debuts. There seem to be a number of conductors who appear in just about every season brochure. Maybe skip your all-time favourites sometimes, dear TSO? What’s with the MSO’s seasons getting more and more unpredictable and diverse, how come they are beating us at that? Mariss Jansons’ one Canadian stop next year will be the MSO, par example.
On the good news front, the four soloists of the Requiem are all making their TSO debut with this concert. And they were uniformly good. I will begin by singling out the lyric tenor who among the three big-voiced soloists more than held his own. Frank Lopardo’s appealing timbre and evenly beautiful tone impressed in the Ingemisco solo, and all the trios and quartets, particularly in Hostias, arguably the contemplative peak of the entire musical score. As he’s no stranger to Toronto—he already sang at the COC—let’s hope we hear him again on concert stage.
The bass goes solo twice and Eric Owens struck the right tone with his interpretation: the considerable power of his voice in check, an almost humble, understated approach, without any overly dramatic flourishes. In contrast, the soprano is often asked to soar above the entire orchestra and the soloists and Amber Wagner gave a performance full of joy and zeal, never neglecting the technical precision. The score asks of the soprano some atypical jumps into the lower register, but Wagner handled them well.
Jamie Barton is such a distinctive voice and such a big personality, it’s almost too bad that we didn’t get to see her in a piece that gives the mezzo more to do. Still, her presence was notable. She particularly shone in the Lux aeterna (shared with the tenor and the bass) and the duos/vocal dances with the soprano—Recordare and Agnus Dei.
This was a fine performance by the Symphony and the TMC of a work that is likely to make you think of anything but the dead and the finitude.
As Achim Freyer well knows. Here’s the trailer for his (circus-y!) staging of Verdi’s Requiem at the Deutsche Oper.