Interview: David McVicar

Stills from the documentary David McVicar’s Salome, A work in progress: Backstage in Covent Garden, ITV Productions, 2008.

“You are my only interview,” says the director David McVicar as he joins me in the boardroom that has been reserved for us for this purpose at the COC’s Front Street HQ, and I presume he implies “so make it good.” Fifty minutes later, it looks like both of us could very much go on, but the Rusalka rehearsal is about to start down the hallway and he is needed there.

In person, McVicar has a punk, no-bs attitude and the gruff, butch energy of a character from one of the fast-paced Patrice Chéreau movies. He fully invests himself in the conversation, though, and doesn’t hesitate to reveal his vulnerabilities. He often makes long pauses and here’s a tip for the next interviewer: there’s usually good stuff coming at the end of each.

Now, I was going to write that he is one of my favourite opera directors, but that is not quite it, because in his shtick, McVicar is unsurpassed. That shtick is human intimacy, the way we are with each other behind closed doors, and that entire ugly to sublime gamut of the human psyche. I’ve adored productions by Herheim, C. Alden, Albery, Kosky, Mitchell, but I don’t obsessively replay any bits of them the way I (and many opera lovers that I know) do with for ex. the McVicar Cesare, or Clemenza. While the Konzept school of opera directing is top-down, McVicar, in the best tradition of British liberalism, starts pointilistically, from the individual character, from the ground up.

There is a lot left that I still want to ask him. As somebody who’s refused the obligatory Bible in his Desert Island Discs episode on Radio 4, what does he make of the Christian eschatology at the end of The Rape of Lucretia? Does he really re-read Thackeray’s Vanity Fair with regularity? Do film and TV influence him to any extent? That will have to wait for the next time. Here’s what we did manage to cover.

I.

What a lot of your productions have in common, I think…

What have you seen?

Let’s see… Enführung on DVD, Figaro in cinema, Giulio Cesare live and DVD… Some Donizetti thing on the Met in HD, but I don’t really care about that opera so didn’t really get much out of the production…

I probably didn’t like it either.

…I watched the Ariodante from Vienna online, and I thought was exceptionally coherent. It’s hard to make that opera cohere. Also seen The Rape of Lucretia. There’s probably more.

That’s a good number.

So what I often find in your productions is… this coherence. And depth of characterization. People behave as they would actually behave in life. How do you get to that point?

That’s probably because of my training as an actor. I didn’t go to university [Ed: He attended to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama] so my solution to directing an opera is to approach it as an actor, and my solution to directing a singer is: How would I play this. I’m weak on concept. Though there is always a conceptual foundation to everything I’m doing – there’s always a reason why things are happening. But the conceptual interpretation is not the overriding thing for me: it’s how the performers perform it, that’s the primary concern. How the performers invest in the character and tell the story, and is the story clear to the audience. That’s really important. Anything that I do that obfuscates the story, that gets in the way is something that I try to edit out. Because at the end of the day people are sitting in the theatre and watching the performance. It’s sort of immaterial whether I was there or not. The relationship is between the people on the stage and the audience.

I watched the documentary about the making of your Salome at Covent Garden, and took from it that every minute of a production is fussed over and thought through.

It is thought through. Even when I did a title like Il Trovatore, which I absolutely don’t like – I’ve learned a big lesson doing it: never take on something you don’t fundamentally believe in – but even with that, I thought, OK, we’re going to make this work somehow. We’re gonna damn try and make this coherent and hang together and make the audience believe in it.

That was the Met production?

Yes. But I don’t like Trovatore and I don’t think I did a good job. I don’t like it. It’s such a retrograde step, after Traviata and Rigoletto, to tell that kind of story in that kind of way. And also, you’ve got a tenor with absolutely zero psychological interest. Every time Manrico’s on stage, I’m like, that’s 12 minutes of my life I’m not getting back.

But you try. You latch on to other things, in Manrico’s case his mother and his lover and their reactions to him, to try to generate some interest.

I’ve read somewhere that you much prefer the eighteenth century to the nineteenth?

I feel really at home doing eighteenth-century opera, whether it’s Mozartian Classical period or whether it’s the baroque period. I find opera, especially Italian opera, in the first 40 years of the nineteenth century very problematic. The forms, that is. I’ve done some but I’m not doing another bel canto opera. I’ve done enough.

Ross…

I hate Rossini, oh my god! I listen to Rossini and think, How did you get away with this. You just repeat the same bar fifteen times? I’ve been asked to do Barber about four times and I’ve always said no.

What about I Capuletti?

I don’t want to do that.

But you really get the trouser role. In fact, your trouser roles, with Sarah Connolly in particular, I don’t know if you know this, have a huge lesbian fan base from all over the world. How do you know so well what happens between two women?

I can imagine it and I can guess. And because I’m coming into it with an actor’s background and I’m always observing people. And I’m fascinated by what I can observe and the interactions that people have in real life and things we’re not even conscious of and don’t even think about. Sometimes with an opera singer, you just have to make them aware of the simplest things to unlock them. Imagine this is a glass of wine [he’s pointing at the bottle of mineral water on the table between us]. How would I pass this glass of wine with intent? [Grabs the bottle and takes a sip inattentively and places it in front of me while carrying the conversation] …anyway we’re talking about this and that and I’m not even looking at you and you won’t notice I took a sip because we’re talking about something else. But if I want to do it with intent, I’d go like this [he makes direct eye contact and slowly draws the bottle toward me in a straight line]. It’s really good to ground singers and make them think about little details of life like that. And then you can get somebody to act if you can get them focused. Focused, and having thoughts.

Of course some people are lost cases and some are not interested and some of them don’t know what’s going on when they’re not singing. You’d be surprised how many people don’t know what’s going on when it’s not their music.

Sarah Connolly said in an interview that she started really acting in opera since she started working with you. From your first Alcina, and her first Ruggiero. Do you remember that production?

Yes, of course. It was at the ENO in London.

How do you unlock people? Do you… antagonize them?

Noooooooo!

Some film directors do that.

Noooooo. I never have an antagonistic relationship with the singers. Never, there’s no point. You’ll never get anything out of them.

Sarah really has got it by the dress rehearsal. Early in the process she needs my help because I need to tease out the strands which are useful to her. Otherwise stuff which isn’t necessarily useful will distract her. And then something just happens to her. Normally I would do the piano dress before we move onto the stage and at that transfer point she locks it in the place, she gets it. And with the stage and the orchestra it just gets better and better.

She trusts me and I trust her. It’s a good relationship. There’s several ladies with whom I have a strong relationship of trust. We don’t have to say very much to each other when we’re working together. We hardly say things explicitly very much. Sarah follows my body language. She watches me a great deal. Sometimes when we’re doing an aria, I’ll be acting it for her, and she watches me and then she gets into her own body.

I remember watching parts of your La Clemenza from Aix-en-Provence where she’s a Byron-like Sesto and watching those long arias like Parto, parto, and how she and Vitellia interact and how she walks – and thinking, you filled every moment of that aria, nothing’s random or loose, everything holds together.

Well, yes, but Mozart filled every moment of it. I’m just paying attention to what Mozart wrote.

II.

I’ve noticed that your first instinct isn’t to transfer the opera you’re working on to another setting, or to present day.

I’ll do it if it tells the story.

Like, I don’t think we can do Agrippina in togas anymore. Yours isn’t in togas either.

You could do Agrippina in togas. I, Claudius is in togas so it can still work. I think the sense of humour in Agrippina is so extraordinarily modern to us, though. The premise of it is, just imagine a world where the Roman Empire never came to an end. Which, in a way, it never did. And what would that world be like. And would it be a lot like contemporary America.

You also transposed Salome, to a sort of Pasolinian Salò setting.

Yes, Salò was a big influence. To understand Salome, you have to understand the world in which she lives. I wanted to correct a misapprehension about Salome that she’s this monstrous virago – it’s actually a story about a woman who’s obsessed with virginity and with not being touch. It’s very important to her. All the characters in Salome are lusting after each other and wanting something from the other person, but no one ever obtains what they want. The fascist era helps to tell the story but it’s even more important that it’s all set in this sterile kitchen/bathroom area with sinks and urinals and tiles everywhere. I wanted to find a very sterile place to tell the story; I didn’t want to make it sensuous and lush, I wanted it quite brutal. It’s a place where people are washing all the time.

From David McVicar-directed Marriage of Figaro (Royal Opera House)

But your ROH Figaro stays in its own time. What intrigued me about the production is that it full-on centres the servants. We can see their living quarters well, and their labour is out in the open, not hidden away.

Figaro is about servants! It’s from their perspective. And that whole production is all about them. The aristocrats are almost interlopers into that world. That’s the way I saw it. It would be like if you do Downton Abbey but only from the perspective of the servants. But Figaro was interesting… I’ve done Figaro quite a few times now. I actually did a different production of it in Australia, and the battle is always getting the cast to understand master-servant relationships, because it’s something that they haven’t experienced and don’t understand. Getting the singers who sing Susanna to understand the sexual politics around her character. When she’s trapped in that room with the Count, I always say to them, what are your options. Where are you going to go, what are you  going to do, how are you going to manage this man who wants something from you. Your options are so limited. You can’t walk out, you can’t slap him, you can’t say no. And that unlocks the scene.

That opera, like Don Giovanni, needs to be in a period where the female characters’ options are more limited than they would be today because it makes their actions so much more understandable, and also dignifies them. Whenever I see a modern-dress Giovanni, and most of them today are, Zerlina makes no sense to me. I think it puts a misogynist gloss on her character. Whereas if she’s in a feudal society and an aristocrat comes to her wedding, he has the authority to send the bridegroom away and say I want to marry you. What are her options?

Would you agree that Figaro and Don Giovanni kinda have different politics? In Figaro, we’re all in this together against the tyrant; and in Don Giovanni, well: this newly emerging community will demand conformity for greater good.

There’s no question in Don Giovanni that society is going to change. But you never feel that Masetto and Leporello and Zerlina are going to be besties at the end of Giovanni. The societal order re-establishes itself after this lord of misrule has been consigned to hell. I think the sexual politics in Don Giovani is as intense as in Figaro, but has a different aspect to it. The female characters are fascinating.

Isn’t Don Giovanni the most interesting character of Don Giovanni?

Except that he doesn’t exist as a character. He only exists by the effect he has on other people. He doesn’t have a single moment of self-reflection. Which is interesting because that’s what psychopaths and sociopaths are like. Not a moment of self reflection is an interesting thing to play. There are few baritones who can do it – who can actually anchor it to anything in their lives. The baritone has to think: I can do anything and I can get away with it. And I am always pushing the boundaries of what I can get away with. But what if. What if retribution is real. What if those things which we’ve decided are not real turn out to be real. That’s why this opera bridges the Classical world and the Romantic world.

Goldoni’s Don Giovanni for example is the ultimate rational eighteenth century version coz he’s despatched by a bolt of lightening which may or may not be the judgment of God. And Mozart and Da Ponte explicitly gives us heavenly retribution, don’t they.

Yes but the ‘community’ kills Don Giovanni.

Does it though? Does it?

He wouldn’t conform. He would be free, and is punished for it.

When you say the community kills him, you mean the order that the others believe in that crushes him?

Yes, that’s it.

It’s the cosmic order that he subverts and that they want to cling to and that ultimately is the thing that crumbles Giovanni. It is a seminal Romantic piece.

Does it glamourize evil?

Of course it does.

That’s one of my favourite operas and the uncomfortable truth is that, like another favourite, L’Incoronazione, it totally glams up evil.

Of course. But L’Incoronazione is about life. Shits get away with it, don’t they.

Why do we cling to this – well, partly eighteenth-century – idea of what stage representation should be? That it should be morally enlightening, and that we should see evil punished, we should always get a happy end, when actually we don’t.

You know there’s a big fashion right now with productions of Carmen where she doesn’t die at the end. But if she doesn’t die, you’ve written politics out of it. We’re not celebrating that she’s dead; women are killed by their partners, and if she doesn’t die and walks away, then you’ve ripped all the meaning and all the political power out of Carmen. So get over yourselves.

Yes. Every few days, anywhere in the world that we want to look, a woman is killed by either a male partner, an ex or a male family member. Why suddenly decide to hide this?

We shouldn’t, and one of the great things about Carmen is the truthfulness of the depiction of that relationship. And how she fails to pick up the warning signals. From Flower Song even, after which she should be saying, ‘Right, so nice knowing you’, but she doesn’t, she chooses the other course. She decides to pursue the relationships. And he’s the biggest mistake of her life. I don’t think Carmen is about a “tragically doomed romantic passion”. It’s a piece about a relationship which was fucked up from the very beginning and goes horribly wrong. And he has this unusual attachment to the mother…

He also has a criminal record I think?

He’s a murderer.

Let’s stay with Mozart for a moment longer, because I wanted to ask you about Die Entführung. You didn’t update at all. You took it at face value, and made it work. Were you ever worried about a potential charge of ‘Orientalism’ and criticism of that kind?

Of course. But my version really wanted to bring out the Ottoman Empire side of the story. We really researched it. We were interested in that extraordinary clash of cultures, the Ottoman Empire beating at the doors of the Holy Roman Empire.

If you think that Entführung is an Arabian Nights-like fairly tale, which it too often can be, then I think that you are getting into a really tricky territory with cultural appropriation. If you say, no, this is set in a real political climate and a real place, these people’s lives are being defined from this clash of two opposing worldviews – it’s defining the story, the way these people behave towards each other – then it becomes a more serious piece.

We kept a lot of the dialogue. OK, it’s not Shakespeare, but you’ve got a lot of really great information and a lot of acting opportunity. And certainly the relationship between Konstanze and Bassa has so many more colours.

You put the negotiation scene in the bedroom.

I put “Martern aller Arten” in the bedroom. What does that aria mean? What does the extremity of the coloratura writing mean? So I had to put her in a situation where every single line of that coloratura is imbued with meaning. It’s a situation of so much danger but also in a situation of mutual attraction which can hardly be contained – my goodness, I’ll never forget rehearsing that for the first time. Everyone in the room was alert. And it helped that the actor who played the Bassa had learned all her music. It was a duet, he knew everything that she was going to sing to him. He’s as much part of the music as she is.

Then there’s the tense scene between Blonde and Osmin. In the production, both Osmin and Bassa are honourable characters in that they don’t force themselves on the women, but ask for consent and ultimately back off when they don’t get it. Where were Blonde and Osmin having a fight, in the kitchen was it?

I thought, what is Blonde doing in a crisis? She bakes. It’s a crisis because she’s been given as a slave to this man who wants to have sex with her, and how will she keep him at bay? She’s angry when Pedrillo questions her fidelity. That’s their domestic situation: Osmin tries something, and she has to wreck things to get him off her. She has to work so hard and be assertive, and hurt his feelings to keep him at bay. It was important to show how she manipulates him – it’s important for her character, and for Osmin’s, to show how he’s frustrated in his desire. There’s nothing more interesting than watching a big scary macho man who finds himself in a relationship with a woman who treats him like a kid. And he accepts that.

Tobias Kehrer and Mari Eriksmoen in the Serail (2015). Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

III.

Your Vienna Staatsoper debut was last year in Ariodante?

Ariodante for me is a piece about how easy it is for the forces of chaos to subvert society if we take our eyes off the ball. And how deceitful those forces will be and how someone like Polinesso can obtain so much power based on lies. He’s becoming the de facto ruler of Scotland.

What was new about your Ariodante is how strong you made the character. Usually he’s a hapless young man mindlessly following where other people’s action takes him; somehow in this Vienna production he is assertive.

But his flaw is Othello’s flaw. That’s what sends him off deep end. He should learn how to trust. He should never have doubted Ginevra in the first place. And Dalinda is fascinating – what a dark little character. All of her crazy coloratura is there for a reason. Her realization that this man that she’s obsessed with doesn’t give a shit about her. And the revenge that she then takes. It’s… They’re all real to me. All the characters in all the operas – well, most of them; some of them, like Manrico, are a lost cause. But they’re very real to me. In opera plots you find yourself in extraordinary situations; but then just think, if I was in that extraordinary situation, how would I behave, what would be my objective, how would I get out of it.

The Glyndebourne Cesare is today the best know and most popular Cesare that exists. So the directors pretty much save the operatic works with productions that strongly resonate in their own era. They carry the opera over, past our lifetimes, like a relay.

Oh but Cesare‘s been saved before. There have been productions… John Copley’s now…

Productions with staying power, though?

John Copley’s now looks very outdated, okay, but at the time it was extraordinary. Because he treated it seriously. He did it in a certain style, he drew on the paintings of Tiepolo for the visual world, and it’s all very statuesque – it’s a serious piece of work.

Then Peter Sellars comes along and does his version. With Cesar that’s a Reagan-esque figure.

I’ve never seen that one. There have been some other ones lately, like the Salzburg one with Bartoli, but I’m not sure that we will treat them as reference pieces in 10 years.

Our version is about colonialism, and about the British Empire. It was my idea to do it. Gus Christie’s dad George, who was running things at that point, told me [assumes posh British baritone] I’ve got to plan the season, David, what’d you want to do? I said, let’s do Julius Cesar, please. And some time passes and next time we meet he says: I’ve spoken to Bill Christie about it and… yeah. Let’s do it.

I also had casting control over that one; Bill was quite happy for me to take care of it. And then the final thing was, at the last second, Dani (Ed: Danielle de Niese) came. We had somebody else but she had to drop out due to surgery and 10 days before we were due to start we got Dani. And I didn’t know anything about her. Absolutely nothing, and was like, Fingers crossed.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

It’s been revived various places, Chicago…

…and at the Met, which I wasn’t very happy with. The place is just too big.

And a countertenor sang it, alas.

Yeah, he was good. [whispers] But Sarah was… magnificent.

 OMFG where to start.

She is magnificent in it. It’s a career-defining role for her. And you never question it – it’s a thing of beauty, you absolutely accept that it doesn’t matter that it is a woman playing a man.

Welllll… We know there’s a female body there. (My ilk certainly does.)

Yes we know there’s a female body there but it’s the way she plays it. She believes that she is that man. And she carries it off.

I was passionate about Giulio Cesare from the word go, I just love it so much. And I’ve seen that our production has been imitated — for example in how far you can take the choreography in opera productions. And I’ve seen productions that are just aria after aria after aria. And productions where Cleopatra’s scenes are just plain tacky. But somehow we found the right way, we pulled it off. We did it, somehow.

I know you have to go, so this will be my last question. What the everlasting tuck is happening with the UK?

I moved back from London to Scotland last year because I couldn’t stand it anymore. Brexit ripped the lid off Pandora’s Box and things have emerged that we’ll never to be able to get back in there. One of the ugliest things was that English nationalism found a cause and a voice. And it’s a very ugly thing. And what the Leavers understood, and us Remainers it took a while to understand, is that this was an existential vote about identity. It’s now clear that that’s what it was about. The country is so split and the atmosphere is so hostile… and now we have our very own pound store Trump in Boris Johnson, who is learning the lessons of his master well. Is that going to play well in Britain, we won’t find out till the general election, but it’s scary.

Is there going to be another independence vote for Scotland?

There’ll have to be. What’s also coming out loud and clear is the total disregard for other parts of the union from the English parliament. Ian Blackford, who’s one of the SNP representatives at Westminster, every time he stands up to make what are actually intelligent speeches, the Tory backbenchers shout Go back home, Go back home. That’s the rhetoric that Trump’s using. They should be ashamed of themselves. They’re the Conservative and Unionist party and they should be listening to our voices and the voices of Northern Ireland which is not just their devilish friends, the DUP. And this whole process has made it abundantly clear that in the thinking of Westminster Parliament, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are colonies. I didn’t live in Scotland when the last referendum happened so I didn’t vote because I didn’t feel I should. Now I do live there and would vote for independence. I moved back to Glasgow for some sanity. It’s the best thing I ever did.

Rusalka opens at the COC on October 12th. Torontonians can watch several David McVicar productions, including Cesare, Troyens and the Meistersinger, on Medici.tv for free by logging on with a Toronto Public Library card via tpl.ca/medici.

Toronto Summer Music Festival 2019

There are a few things of interest at the TSMF this summer and I think the festival is going to be more exciting than the last year’s.

Rihab Chaieb is singing Das Lied von der Erde with a chamber group of musicians from the TSO in the Schoenberg-Riehn version. Gemma New conducts, Mario Bahg sings the tenor songs. Also in the program, Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219 “Turkish” with Jonathan Crow as the soloist. August 1, Koerner Hall. More & tickets.

By the way, I profiled Gemma New for the summer issue of the Wholenote here. She and the Hamilton Philharmonic have some excellent ideas about how to rethink the traditional concert format.

To me not particularly known, American tenor Anthony Dean Griffey is the lead song artist in this year’s Academy. His American-British recital program with Warren Jones at the piano however is intriguing: at least two men in the program were gay (Samuel Barber and Charles Tomlinson Griffes); another one, Frank Bridge, though hetero, was Benjamin Britten’s teacher and friend. One is a folkie (John Jacob Niles). There is also Charles Ives, Gerald Finzi and one woman, the prolific US composer Lori Laitman and her Four Dickinson Songs. Which is timely, as Emily Dickinson is having a Cultural Moment, it seems: Terence Davies’ black biopic A Dark Passion has recently had a wacky, joyful rejoinder in Madeleine Olnek’s Wild Nights with Emily:

In other words: I like the Crazy New Englander streak in this program. It’s promising. July 16, Walter Hall (alas).

Then there’s Angela Hewitt playing Goldberg Variations at Koerner Hall. July 30. Nothing else need be added.

There are a bunch of string quartet repertoire concerts and the reGeneration recitals – and I’ll need to have a closer look and make my choices.

Opening night looks like a good pick-and-mix. Not sure why there’s a radio host in there? Anyway – beside said radio host, there are three pianists, one violin soloist, one string quartet, and soprano Adrianne Pieczonka in a program consisting of a Mozart piano sonata, Ravel’s Cinq mélodies populaires grecques, Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, Kreisler’s selections for violin and piano, a Chopin Ballade and Strauss Four Last Songs in the arrangement by Canadian composer John Greer. The Strauss and the Ravel are the only two vocal pieces.

Art of Time Ensemble will be performing an unspecified program with Sarah Slean, pop musician who is gradually returning to her original love (and training), classical music. Another singer-songwriter is in the show, John Southworth. The title, From Franz Schubert to Freddie Mercury, is all we have to go by for now. Koerner Hall, July 25.

 

Verbotenlieder, or women take over men’s repertoire

Marcello & Rodolfo aka Vanessa Oude-Reimerink & Alexandra Beley

After an all-male, all-baritone and crowded Die Winterreise this summer, baritones Aaron Durand and Michael Nyby a.k.a. the Tongue-in-Cheek Productions decided in the interest of fairness and variety to throw an all-female do. Verbotenlieder, or the Forbidden Songs, came together as a program for the sopranos and mezzos who always wanted to sing certain arias, duos or songs that remained off limits because they were written for and exclusively performed by men.

It’s a brilliant idea that was only half executed with the December concert at Lula Lounge. A wide mix of singers and songs followed one another with no introduction, and no reason offered why those choices and not others. The repertoire that is never sung by women or specific voice types is vast. Was the choice random, or did it always mean something special for the singer? Nyby and Durand and one or two singers did manage to say a few words here and there, but all this just made obvious one big lack in the programming: a cabaret style MC who can talk competently, succinctly and with humour about these songs and spin the show’s red thread.

Another thing that was missing and that usually comes with real cabaret: naughtiness. Raunch. Some of the men-narrated songs in the program are love songs for women. There is a long and honourable tradition of women singing pants roles and pants Lieder and mélodies. As the societies of origin liberalized in the twentieth and twenty first centuries, so did cultural interpretations of these songs. There are now lively interpretive cultures of this rep for which, say, a male POV German Lied written for a mezzo is not a mezzo voicing a guy, but a mezzo voicing women-to-woman love of some sort, or in some cases explicitly lesbian desire.

This remained underexplored, but it did make an appearance.

For example in the transposed for soprano Lensky aria from Eugene Onegin, exquisitely rendered by Natalya Gennadi with Natasha Fransblow on piano. This Lensky’s farewell to youth and life is brought about by the love of his life Olga flirting with Onegin at the ball. Gennadi additionally honoured the trouser role tradition by wearing an elegant pant suit and camouflaging her long hair into a modest bob.

Or in the tenor-baritone duo from The Pearl Fishers ‘Au fond du temple saint’, which got a lavish and genuinely new take by soprano Jennifer Taverner and mezzo Beste Kalender (Elina Kelebeeva on piano). In it, the two men reminisce on the moment they first saw the woman they both fell in love with, a veiled Brahmin priestess, but rush to give up the phantom in favour of their own mutual bond before the song is over. An intriguing twist, to see this ode to bro-hood sung by women and effectively turned into a song about bond between women who are resisting the lures of a fantasy.

Soprano Vanessa Oude-Reimerink and mezzo Alexandra Beley (Natasha Fransblow,  piano) took on the Marcello-Rodolfo duo from La Bohème, in which they gossip and pine after Mimi and Musetta. There was some awkward stage movement at the beginning, and it appeared to me that the chuckles from the audience indicated that most of us weren’t sure if the women were singing to each other. The surtitles cleared up some of the confusion, but again, a good intro, even by the singers themselves, would have made all the difference.

Lauren Margison

And then there’s Lauren Margison. First, accompanied by Natasha Fransblow, she took on ‘Addio, fiorito asil’, unofficially known as the Bastard is Leaving, from Madama Butterfly. Puccini gives Pinkerton this manipulatively beautiful and highly emotional tenor aria while he is secretly running off and leaving Butterfly to face ignominy. Margison somehow managed to sing this aria in a pissed off manner and still gloriously—exactly the right formula. Her second one was ‘Nessun dorma’ and it too came with the right attitude and glorious top notes. The attitude was, If you think Pavarotti is the last word in this department, I have a soprano to show you. At one point she invited the audience to fill in a couple of verses of the aria, which we happily did. Already during the Pinkerton aria, people got engaged and rowdy almost immediately, and a loud Brava flew her way at the right place during the aria—something you rarely hear Toronto opera audiences do. But that’s the virtuous circle that comes with a good performance: the more daring a singer is, the more reactive the audience.

On the other hand, there was stuff that didn’t light the spark. It wasn’t clear to me why ‘O sole mio’, Ravel’s Don Quixote songs to Dulcinea and one of Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel were in the program. They’re all fine songs, but why should we hear women singing them? What do women add to them that’s missing? I have my theories, but I was more interested in hearing the singers’, and the performances themselves did not make strong enough case. Elsewhere in the program, the soprano version of the Count’s aria from Marriage of Figaro, in which he plots the destruction of Susanna’s announced wedding out of jealousy, was delivered in English and adapted—I am guessing, I could not hear everything clearly and there were no surtitles for songs in English—as Susanna’s resistance song of sorts? The Great Inquisitor scene from Don Carlo with two mezzos taking their low notes for a wild ride is a great idea, but the performance was hampered by Leah Giselle Field’s mocking and hammed-up take on the Inquisitor. Catherine Daniel sang King Philip in earnest—no panto and no distancing, she really played a king, and it was a pleasure to watch.

The evening ended with the ironic takeover of the men’s chorus singing about the trickiness of women from The Merry Widow.

All in all: an excellent concept delivered as a disjointed hodgepodge of highs and huhs. But the gents of the TICP have my attention.

The gang

Review originally written for the Wholenote and published here.

Miss d’Angelo sure photographs well

A couple of good photos of Emily d’A in the Opera News apropos her recent prise du role as Rosina at Glimmerglass.

At twenty-three, she has a rich, flexible, darkly gleaming voice, well suited to a fach she defines as “a lot of Rossini, a lot of Handel and Mozart—anything early.” High on her wish list are Strauss’s Octavian and Composer.

Octavian? I would not object. Nobody with a pulse would.

PS: Video from Francesca Zambello’s production which doesn’t look particularly exciting.

Some optimism about the TSO 2018/19 season

Han-Na Chang. Photo: Harrison Parrott

I’m really liking the number of the TSO conducting debuts in the new concert season announced yesterday. Han-Na Chang,  Trondheim Symfoniorkester’s Chief Conductor is coming to Toronto next season, and so is Hamilton Philharmonic’s Gemma New. Barbara Hannigan and Tania Miller return. Melanie Leonard, the Sudbury SO’s MD, debuts with an, alas, Fred Penner program, mais bon.

Among the notable non-returns this season, Keri-Lyn Wilson. I was hoping she was on the list of potential MDs, but maybe she is indeed but the scheduling just couldn’t be worked out this season.

Among notable returns, the TSO regulars Juanjo Mena, Andrey Boreyko, Thomas Dausgaard, Donald Runnicles. TSO regulars who are otherwise engaged this season: Stephane Deneve, Hannu Lintu and Gianandrea Noseda, and that is just fine. It’s good to mix it up.

Because the conductors we don’t usually see on the TSO roster who will be there next season: Louis Langree, the French-born, Cincinnati SO MD, Karl-Heinz Steffens, German-born MD director of the Oslo Opera, Aurora Orchestra’s Nicholas Collon and Kirill Karabits, Bournemouth SO’s and Staatskapelle Weimar’s MD. Interestingly, Aziz Shokhakimov, known to the readers of this blog the very young, underdog candidate from the documentary Dirigenten! that I recently reviewed, will also have his TSO debut.

Not a whole lot of new in the soloists department – a lot of names we see just about every year (Zukerman, Lisiecki, Goodyear, Josefowicz). Repertoire-wise, the interim era in an orchestra’s life is not usually time to experiment and try out new programming visions, so the war horses it’ll be. An extremely modest sprinkling of Debussy and Ravel, exactly one Stravinsky and one Berlioz, zero R Strauss and Scriabin, and not much past early 20th century. New Creations Festival is usually announced much closer to the date of the festival, and there is a chunk of empty dates in early March so I’m hoping it’ll return. New Creations Festival, it has been confirmed, is cancelled for good. BTW, the TSO website now has a nifty search engine for the 2018-19 season, worth spending some time with.

And what’s ahead for Peter Oundjian? His tenure as the MD of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra too ends this year, Thomas Søndergård taking over (also one of the regulars returning for a TSO gig next season). Oundjian’s agency website offers the following on the artist’s pageOundjian was recently named Artistic Advisor for the Colorado Music Festival, and this season he returns to the Baltimore, Atlanta, and NHK Symphonies, and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Maybe a few years of freelancing after two busy MD-ships, I am guessing.

This and next season’s Interim MD will be Andrew Davis. As Opera Ramblings put it in his recent post, he won’t be “hogging the podium”, which is an excellent thing for an interim MD to do.

Really eager for some TSO news soon, though.

(And let’s hope for no more program copy faux pas like the unfortunate Ligeti graf that went globally viral-ish on Twitter. I found myself having to explain to Twitter friends from Seattle and Paris that no, the TSO is not usually terrified of the twentieth century and new music and that no, we don’t usually print warnings in programs and that I’d attribute the graf to a distracted program editor rather than read too much into it etc etc. )

The Seraglio for the Peoplekind

Claire de Sevigne (Blonde) and Goran Juric (Osmin) in COC’s new The Abduction from the Seraglion, 2018. Photo: Gary Beechey.

Wajdi Mouawad, playwright and director entirely new to opera, read the libretto to Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio one day and decided it was not woke enough. Instead of looking at some other productions of this opera and and reading up on in and on Mozart’s own politics and oeuvre, he decided that, according to his notes:

-it condemns one civilization at the expense of another [it does not]

-that it might be read today as an exercise in caricature, or casual racism [libretto does not inevitably read as anything. If you decide to stage it like that, sure]

-it could constitute an argument for the “wholesale rejection of Islam and the East, thereby falling into larger patterns of Islamophobia in the West which would have us blame all our problems on the threat of an undifferentiated “Arabic” Other”. [What to do with this? I’ll just add that Ottomans weren’t Arabic and nobody in the libretto calls them that.]

So Mouawad rewrote the libretto (or Lyon-COC asked them to do it) to make the western side of the east-west encounter more obviously nasty. Like, really really nasty – and he wants you to know how nasty they are by opening the opera with the scene of a party in which the smug Europeans drunkenly discuss the escape from the Seraglio (the retelling of which we are about to see) by making fun of those awful Muhammedans and by desecrating the representations of the Prophet. This is entirely made up by Mouawad and is nowhere in the libretto.

What’s already in the original libretto, and what a good director can easily bring forward, is precisely the undermining of the idea that “west is best” and that “east is backward”– and the questioning of the east-west division tout court. But Mouaward keeps putting these ideas into the libretto with his own rewrites.

See my analysis of the issues around the original libretto

See my detailed description of the changes that Mouawad brought to the libretto, as seen in the Lyon production

Terrified that any sign of cultural differences could be read as ‘Orientalist‘, Mouawad opted for a set of grey blocks and dresses all the principals in plan robes at the Pasha court (well, I say court… grey walls, on a planet, somewhere). The Janissaries and courtiers are all bald-headed creatures of indeterminate sex. While talking happens face to face, much of aria singing is to the audience: the old-fashioned p&b or a wish to de-naturalize the staging, I couldn’t decide.

Mouawad wants us to know loud and clear that the “Muslim” side (that’s what the Pasha & comp are reduced to here) are not the bad guys; that the pompous, prancing, moneyed idiot that is Belmonte represents the awful Europeans accurately (that’s already in the original libretto, hello). The abducting of women and their captivity is actually quite a sedate business. The Act II Blonde-Osmin battle of the sexes over consent is presented as purged of any real danger of violence ever breaking: it’s a teasing performance. So is Osmin’s rage in another scene.

There are a couple of extraordinary moments in the staging which stand out amidst all the blandness. After the intermission, the opera re-opens with a muezzin chant and we’re in a mosque, with women and men of the Pasha’s court praying — separated, and this is used well for the secret Pedrillo-Blonde exchange. It’s a moment of stillness: the Allahu Akbar chant and the swishing of the clothes as the worshipers bow and rise in prayer. (Did Ottoman Turks use Arabic in prayer? But of course Mouawad’s Pasha is not very Turkish; Mouawad is more interested in placing him and Osmin as the “Muslim Arabic Other” of the Bush Jr. era Pentagon and the American cable news.) Another intriguing tidbit: Blonde leaves the Seraglio pregnant. (This does not make the Act II negotiation between Osmin and Blonde entirely meaningless: they’re already in a relationship, but the question of consent of course remains.)

The musical side too was unusually clunky last night – disjointed, until almost two thirds in, when music finally gained its polish and the stage and the pit finally danced to the same tune. (Johannes Debus at the podium.) The fizz sorely lacked from the overture, and the act 1 continued as a very deflated, fatigued Mozart. Jane Archibald as Konstanze had her ups and downs, vocally, but credit to her for carrying this production in German — the Lyon one was with French dialogues, and this was a whole new chunk of spoken text to learn. Goran Juric as Osmin and Claire de Sevigne as Blonde were more evenly fueled throughout the evening, with Juric’s bass tireless and precise, and de Sevigne’s sharp, bright, exact singing, though a bit more volume wouldn’t have gone amiss. The actor of Israeli origin, Raphael Weinstock, played the Pasha. Mauro Peter was a decent Belmonte and got to shine in a lot of pretty music, though the character itself is a pompous balloon in need of piercing. It’s a tough act to pull, making Belmonte lovable, and he eventually gets there.

Yet the greatest sin of this production is not that it tries to make an 18th century libretto as inoffensive and didactic as possible; its greatest sin is that it’s deadly boring. The dialogues are endless because they are explanatory; the drama is expunged entirely, because that’s what happens when you eliminate any hint of genuine conflict, disagreement or even difference.

And I must add one last thing. Mouawad was probably asked to rewrite the libretto because he was born in Lebanon and has lived both in Middle East and “the west’ (Canada, and now France). Which is great. But if a woman of any culture was asked for her take on the libretto, it would have been a different take — and a different staging. For example, Leila Slimani, I wonder what she’d make of it?  Mouawad’s now flaunted feminist record is not entirely impeccable (7 years ago, he chose to hire Bernard Cantat as a collaborator, the pop singer who served a sentence for killing his girlfriend Marie Trintignant, explaining that the singer had “already paid his debt to society” in, among other places, this insufferable Letter to My Daughter).

Bon ben. Men continue to write and rewrite the canon and decide what is and isn’t culturally offensive and what is and isn’t feminist in it.

Instead of leaving the production thrilled by its directorial vision and musical interpretation, I left Mouawad’s Seraglio thinking about that instead. And of that woker-than-thou correction our Prime Minister recently offered to a woman speaking in public.

Continues until Feb 24. Go see it and tell me if I’m wrong.

Jane Archibald as Konstanze (centre) in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of The Abduction from the Seraglio, 2018. Photo: Michael Cooper

To open up a libretto, or to rewrite it? The curious case of The Abduction from the Seraglio

I got hold of the libretto for Die Entführung aus dem Serail the other day (Cassell Opera Guides, London 1971) because I wanted to read it before the Wajdi Mouawad adaptation opens at the COC next week and see for myself again if the original was so egregiously xenophobic and orientalist as to warrant a radical rewrite. It is not, I will argue. It had occurred to me that this might be the case when I watched McVicar’s couldn’t-be-more-trad Abduction right after I watched the livestream of this Mouawad production from Lyon two years ago. But I wanted to be sure; and reading and re-reading the libretto itself, English by the German original (translation Lionel Salter) would be essential. 

Libretto is a hodge podge by Gottlieb Stephanie the Younger after C. F. Bretzner with Mozart himself editing as the dramaturge. There are two Ottoman Turkish characters, Pasha Selim and Osmin, mirroring the other two aristocracy + proletariat pairs, Constanze and Blonde, and Belmonte and Pedrillo. Pasha is a clement and wise ruler (similar to Tito, but more personality and more moral judgment – and in a lot of productions way hotter), and it’s only Osmin, something of a basso buffo, that may ruffle some oversensitive feathers. He is rough and peeved and mistrustful of the westerners, and threatens with torture and worse. In a lot of productions these play out as not particularly dark threats, since Osmin does not make these decisions himself, the Pasha does. Another instance where feathers may be ruffled — and which maybe ruffled Mouawad’s too — is the scene of the failed forced seduction between Osmin and Blonde who is technically in his possession, but resistant. At one point, he says “Tenderness? Coaxing? This is Turkey, and here we dance to a different tune. I’m the master, you’re my slave; I command, you must obey!” The argument that Blonde is clutching to is: I’m an Englishwoman, I’ve known freedom, and cannot submit now just because I’m in another part of the world.

There’s much to unpack here, nothing is straightforward, as is there much to unpack in the libretto as a whole. As Brigid Brophy, who wrote the intro to the Cassell guide, reminds, the “westerner goes abroad, writes home about the local customs” genre that bloomed alongside the global expansion of capitalist trade and colonization is more often than not a form of criticism of the local, western mores and governance – a form of political criticism of one’s own rulers disguised as a postcard from an exotic place. (OK, you can argue, but why didn’t the lot of them take the time to read up on different cultures instead of fantasizing about them for their own purposes? Some have, others haven’t. A valid question for  another conversation.) Here’s Brophy:

Exploration, commerce and empire gave eighteenth-century Europe the raw material for a cult of the exotic… Painters, including Stubbs and G.B. Tiepolo; architects, including J. Effner and John Nash; writers such as Pope, Montesquieu and Defoe; and librettists and composers of opera, including Frederick the Great and Mozart.

The effect made at home by travellers’ tales was the opposite of the effect intended abroad by most of the travellers. Missionaries set out to Christianize pagans, militarists and merchants to subdue and exploit savages. But from the information they sent back to Europe the message read by Enlightened thought was that pagans and savages might be more moral and more civilized than Christendom.

The taste for the exotic was the aesthetic and fictional face of a searching intellectual comparison. […] The form of the fictitious traveller’s tale, in which the traveller questions the natives about the institutions of their society and the answers cast a satirical and sceptical light on institutions at home, had been sketched by Sir Thomas More and is still in use by science fiction. In the eighteenth century Swift expanded the traveller’s tale into Gulliver’s Travels and Voltaire developed the form into his pamphlets in the shape of fictions (including his interplanetary science fiction, Micromegas).

So to return to my main question: of all operatic librettos of the standard repertoire, does The Abduction warrant a rewrite? Or do good, complex operas allow, are roomy enough, for a rewrite within existing parameters through an innovative, seriously engaging production? That’s what good staging does: identifies the kinks in the piece, and works up a concept that would make the opera viable to us, the present day audience. As I mentioned in my notes about the Lyon streaming of The Abduction, while Mouawad eliminates the danger of sexual slavery by making the easterners into Enlightenment salonniers who resolve conflicts through communication and not violence, the now notorious Bieito production of The Abduction emphasizes nothing but sexual slavery.

A good libretto can take this kind of interpretive beating on the regular, and is better for it.

And that’s how we re-signify most operas, without having to actually rewrite them. Has anybody done it with Butterfly, the rewrite? (Bieito’s production again reverses various things through the staging, but does not rewrite the actual text.) If there’s an opera in need of intervention, it’s that one. Or The Rape of Lucretia, which for me is a lost cause until someone radically re-stages the ending. The dramatically weak Il Trovatore could also use some help from a smart playwright. Most of Gluck needs an infusion of life. Yet the recent rewrite of the ending of Carmen in one (1) Italian production caused a disproportionate amount of international uproar.

The NYT went to Lyon the year of the premiere and hailed the production in its piece on (roughly) how art brings people together and reconciles the antagonisms, but it’s unfair to ask that of opera or any art form – to program itself in order to fix historical injustices. Is that what the arts are for? What an operatic production is for? I’d argue good art does that any way, but not because it sets out to do that, but by its very existence.

Anyway. I have a soft spot for Mozart and his librettists, who take the side of the women, the servants and the ‘cultural other’ par for the course. I’d argue that he’s the last of the standard rep titans whose operas should be rewritten because ‘offensive’ or ‘cliched’.

Remains to be seen if the COC Abduction is in any way different than the Lyon livestream. I’m keeping an open mind. Mouawad, who is now running Theatre de la Colline in Paris, has not been reviving his own production here; this fell to Valerie Negre, assistant director, and I think that’s good. Women should stage and (if needed) rewrite things that directly concern them, and decide if something in an operatic work is misogynist or not by themselves. I hope more of them break into opera directing – there are quite a few in the assistant tier right now. Negre had to follow Mouawad’s instructions, I’m sure, but maybe she added her own touches here and there as well.

The Abduction from the Seraglio, the Wajdi Mouawad transladaptation, opening on Feb 7 and runs through Feb 24.

 

Kristian Bezuidenhout back in Toronto

In rehearsal with Tafelmusik musicians

Kristian Bezuidenhout has added a great deal not only to the HIP circles but to the whole of this music field that we call classical. He is a fortepianist, an occupation probably even more niche than a harpsichordist, but as such has become a one-man movement for period piano. I can’t think of another equally busy fortepianist today; let’s hope the gate is now open for others and that he won’t remain an exception.

What he’s best known for is his recordings and performances of Mozart’s keyboard music, which indeed sounds much different on a fortepiano vs modern piano. It’s almost a transladaptation, Mozart on a fortepiano – though one returning to Mozart-era technology of sound-making. Chamber music in particular, including of the vocal kind, is an inventive field: Classical and early Romantic Lieder to fortepiano, anyone? Why, yes: KB and Mark Padmore recorded two discs of select Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Schumann songs for harmonia mundi, and KB also did a disc for the Canadian label ATMA, a Schoene Muellerin with tenor Jan Kobow back in 2003. All worth sampling.

Bezuidenhout made his Tafelmusik debut in 2013, and returns this year for four performances of the program titled Mozart’s Piano (Nov 9, 10, 11 and 12, Trinity St-Paul). In the first half, he kind of conducted from the fortepiano without much playing it – just from time to time seeking a chord or a few bars as part of his conducting. This was a new thing for me, silent fortepiano conducting, but there’s a first for everything, I suppose. First two symphonies, by two of the junior Bachs, Johann Christian and CPE, were fine and pleasant, if a little same-y. Mozart’s S29 livened things up: it’s a varied, rich piece, with inner unfolding drama of (I’m only ever slightly exaggerating) Beethoven’s Pastoral. There was a lot there to keep you interested through its entire length.

Second part was of course why most of us came – and let me tell you, I’ve rarely seen TSP that full. To the rafters. Tafel-subscribers know their stuff and come out, -10C degrees or not. The audience was also tilting a bit older than usual, which was good too–no Toronto mandatory standing ovation here, ladies and gents, and no rushing to get to the parked car. Second part beginning, Bezuidenhout came back to the emptied stage and did a memorable Mozart Rondo in A Minor for solo piano K511. Too bad there was no possibility of an encore–while some European concert halls allow it, here it wasn’t really an option. I would have happily sat in my crammed seat surrounded by other people’s winter coats for two or more solo encores.

The final piece was a Mozart piano concerto with Tafelmusicians back on stage – the no. 12 in A Major. Solo fortepiano alternated with orchestral sections, and although the piece kind of paled in comparison with no. 29, there was some extraordinary concertare happening.

In short – Bezuidenhout is becoming one of those soloists  whom it’s not wise to miss. If he passes through your fair town, don’t idle.

Kristian Bezuidenhout photo by Marco Borggreve