Haydn and Mozart in Tafelmusik season finale

Tafelmusik in Haydn & Mozart, May 4-7, 2017, Koerner Hall

Violinist Elisa Citterio, Tafelmusik’s Music Director Designate. Photo credit Monica Cordiviola.

This Haydn’s Symphony 98 was the first time I’ve seen and heard Tafalmusik’s new Music Director Elisa Citterio in action with the orchestra, and it’s intriguing to observe how the orchestra “gels” with its the new and very energetic concertmaster. Her playing is very involved and physical and she keeps a close eye on the ensemble throughout.

The symphony itself is your regular Classical beauty and precision fare–enjoyable and worth re-listening to at home, but nothing you’d go mad for. Ever since I’ve heard Insula Orchestra play Haydn’s Le Soir symphony and how they made it sound like an intimate chamber music piece, I’m a converted proponent of Haydn’s symphonies being played on period instruments. There are intricate details in the 98th too that come into sharper focus when period instruments are involved. There are a lot of the playful touches here and there that will keep you amused. The second movement is an instrumental citation of the Agnus Dei in Mozart’s Coronation Mass with violin standing in for the soprano–it was one of Haydn’s homages to the great colleague. The final movement ends with a fortepiano solo; the sudden change of the soundscape heavy on strings into the honeyed fortepiano sound was a delightful and witty twist on how to conclude a symphony.

(The fortepiano sound is catnip for me. I need the supply to increase, Toronto. Luckily Tafelmusik is bringing Kristian Bezuidenhout back next season.)

Second half of the evening was the masterpiece that is Mozart’s Mass in C Minor, unmissable whenever it’s performed. Ivars Taurins led a large and for the most part well-coordinated crew of the increased ensemble of Tafelmusicians, the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir and four soloists (two of whom, tenor Asitha Tennekoon and bass-baritone Joel Allison, stepped out of the choir). The well-rehearsed choir is essential in this mass, as the complicated part singing gets tangled and mushed otherwise, and the Choir, as usual, did not disappoint. The sopranos were just the right kind light and bright; altos, tenors and basses were excellent foil, the layering that they provided tangible and colour-confident. Soprano I soloist Julia Doyle unfortunately wasn’t in good voice last night. The top was pushed and the line insecure, control over breath and volume intermittent. Writ large in Et Incarnatus est, that Bermuda Triangle for sopranos, where any even smallest issue with the voice gets exposed and magnified. Soprano II soloist Joanne Lunn was altogether better news. Never mind the unexpected facial expressions: look elsewhere and appreciate the voice. She had the agility required for all the jumpy intervals and the required control. Her big demanding solo was Laudamus Te, and the ball wasn’t dropped at any point.

Ivars Taurins’s tempi for each of the movements were well chosen. The Mass kept going at a clip, slower moments not dragging, livelier parts lively indeed, just the sensible side of fast. Credo was a dance, as it should be; the many interweaving lines of Quoniam and Benedictus never spun out of control. Ending with the joyous frenzy of Osanna in excelsis was the right decision.

Tafelmusik Chamber Choir with Ivars Taurins. Photo credit Sian Richards

More ROH at HotDocs Cinema

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Sonya Yoncheva as Norma

ROH returns to Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in December. Here’s the schedule:

Saturday, December 3, 12:00 PM Norma (directed by La Fura dels Baus’ Alex Olle) with Sonya Yoncheva in the title role. It’s the one in which Druids are replaced by a ferocious, women-ordaining Catholic sect.  Sonia Ganassi is Adalgisa, Joseph Calleja Pollione. Antonio Pappano conducts. More info.

Saturday, December 10, 11:00 AM Cosi fan tutte by German director Jan Phillip Gloger, conducted by Semyon Bychkov. With Angela Brower (Dorabella), Corinne Winters (Fiordiligi), Daniel Behle (Ferrando), Alessio Arduini (Guiglielmo). More info.

Friday, December 30, 11:30 AM Les Contes d’Hoffmann by John Schlesinger. Vittorio Grigòlo in the title role, Thomas Hampson doing the four villains, Christine Rice as Giulietta, Sonya Yoncheva is Antonia, Sofia Fomina is Olympia, Kate Lindsey is Nicklausse. Evelino Pidò conducts. More.

Tickets for the general public are $16 (members $12 and down).

Die Entführung, the McVicar take

Every now and again David McVicar does a faithful-to-the-libretto read that works like a charm. His Carmen and Le Nozze di Figaro were like that; Giulio Cesare was more interventionist but it too showed this welcome attitude of unfussiness and laissez-faire.  We can now add the 2015 Glyndebourne Die Entführung aus dem Serail to this small but precious list of productions where what he and designer Vicki Mortimer describe as “radical realism” lets the piece do its thing and lets the viewer make up her own mind.

Which is not to say that this Entführung will not come across as somewhat old-fashioned and a mile too beautiful. It will, especially if you watch it after an interventionist version such as Mouawad’s. On the other hand, you will also feel less preached to and less in need of instruction. (Though I respect its willingness to expose the long avoided dark underside of this opera, I have no idea what I’d make of the notorious Bieito version. At this point I suspect he’s using violence and sex to “sell an opera” just like Hollywood does to sell a movie.) Mouawad’s gives a lot to chew on and is very aware and in tune with our time, while McVicar’s could have been funded by the Met circa 1950s.

Forgive me, reader: I am inconsistent; I cared for this production and didn’t. I cared for it more than I didn’t. Yes, I think that’s accurate. More than not.

The pros:

There are hints on what life on Pasha Selim’s court and in his harem might be like throughout the production, but it’s only in the final scene after the Europeans leave that it all comes back to life for the viewer too: his three wives (three of his wives?) uncover their faces, and he takes a favourite kid out of the gaggle of his cute children for a cuddle. In his Figaro, McVicar made the lives of servants much more present and vivid, and here the life on Pasha’s court comes out more clearly than in a lot of productions. I think it’s important to show Pasha’s other women, and this production does (while Mouawad’s shows an implausibly monogamous and Konstanze-focused Selim).

The second repudiation scene that leads Konstanze to sing “Martern aller Arten” in the libretto happens in a garden, but McVicar raises the tension and the stakes by putting it in Pasha’s bedroom. Pasha (Franck Saurel) is a total beefcake to whom moreover consent matters and Konstanze is clearly tempted–mixed with angry and frightened. Her state may explain some of the extremeness of vocal writing, says Mortimer in the DVD interview. (Yes; I always wondered why this aria was so bizarre, almost comical with its sudden extreme lines.) While Mouawad’s Pasha is kind of meek, McVicar in this scene keeps you guessing whether Pasha is about to crack and resort to force after all.

There was a good period orchestra (the OAE, under Robin “The Curls” Ticciati) in the pit.

The cons, there are a few:

The Blonde-Osmin scene of comic marital strife in the kitchen amid cakelets and girly knitwear is a cop-out. Even though well sung and acted (Mari Eriksmoen’s Blonde and Tobias Kehrer’s Osmin, separately and together, have a whole lot of zest), it rings untrue. The idea was to show a captured woman who manages to avoid rape by wit and stubborn independence. It doesn’t work like that. You may tell me that that’s exactly what the Bretzner-Stephanie libretto commands, but is it ever specified in the libretto whether Blonde is Osmin’s slave in every possible way, or just in some? Or maybe the libretto does depict two Ottoman protagonists who, despite any other possible flaws, would never force themselves on a woman, even if they’ve kindnapped her off a foreign ship? Mouawad has, I think, solved this knot of issues better with Blonde’s pregnancy, but both directors create a likeable Osmin. Would it be more historically accurate to depict him as a brute, is averting the gaze a cop-out?

Pedrillo (Brenden Gunnell)’s life in the harem is highly estheticized, and much is made of the fact that the Pasha tolerates him because of his gardening skill. I get it, Singspiel is supposed to be comic at times, but the comic escape scene with the long ladder, windows opening and closing, Pedrillo’s tantrums in shouted whispers is just tiresome. (Mouawad opted for a non-comic escape, wisely.)

Belmonte (prettily sung by Edvaras Montvidas) in both productions and maybe every possible production is a windbag who stops the proceedings to sing a self-important aria. Sally Matthews’ Konstanze was a composite of lush frocks and stylized movements to the degree that comes dangerously close to Opera Atelier’s.

The Entführung production though still very much worth seeing on DVD/BluRay issued by Glyndebourne and making up your own mind about.

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Franck Saurel and Sally Matthews. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith.

The COC-Lyon Die Entführung aus dem Serail coming to Toronto

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Lyon Opera and the COC are co-funding a new production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail with rewritten dialogues by Lebanese-Canadian-French playwright Wajdi Mouawad, who also directs. We may get to see it in Toronto next year, or the year after, but meanwhile the production opened in Lyon this July and can be watched online here, provided you download Tunnel Bear and set it on French browsing (the Culturebox video is geoblocked, but worth the trouble).

Mouawad’s is a retrospective telling of the opera, and opens with straight dialogue at the party that celebrates Konstanze (Jane Archibald) and Blonde (Joanna Wydorska)’s return from captivity. The garbs are operatic eighteenth-century, wigs and breeches, and Belmonte the Vater invites the guest to celebrate the big rescue as well as the superior values of the Enlightenment against barbarity. He unveils the high striker game he had prepared for them, and he uses its French name: la Tête de Turc. Guests take turns at the mallet wacking the top of the turban, but Konstanze and Blonde refuse, which leads to a marital skirmish with Belmonte and Pedrillo. After they agree to re-tell how each experienced the rescue mission, the overture starts.

From that point on, Belmonte and Pedrillo (baby-faced tenors Cyrille Dubois and Michael Laurenz) are the only characters who remain in their eighteenth-century costumes, now looking over-elaborate and silly. The guests are cleared away, sets turn grey and very basic (it’s not a costly production, I dare say), Konstanze is sat down and Belmonte meets Osmin for the first time (again). Osmin is not picking figs but fiddling with origami figures—stay for the explanation why further down—when Belmonte demands to know of Selim Pasha lives there.

“That’s how they treated me,” Belmonte concludes the scene of the rough exchange with Osmin, but Konstanze demurs: “That’s how you describe it”. Before Osmin sings the torture aria for Pedrillo, it’s revealed through the added dialogue that he despises the man because he’s a philanderer (“For you, love is a joke; for me, it gives meaning to life”). David Steffens’s Osmin could charm the breeches off anybody and turns out to be, when not dealing with Pedrillo, a decent, even-tempered bro. As the opera progresses, Mouawad’s Pedrillo becomes something of a figure that illustrates that the west has gone too far in the direction of mistaking choice and profligacy for freedom. Belmonte is an adventurer whose privileged background protects him from any real danger. Neither man is burdened by principles which he’s willing to defend with his own life (a quality that, conversely, makes Don Giovanni a noble figure).

Konstanze, yes—and says as much to Selim on two occasions in the original libretto. Her first scene with the Pasha (Peter Lohmeyer, calm and compelling) maintains most of the original dialogue, but as she sings “Ach ich liebte” while Belmonte looks on from his chair in the corner, we’re not entirely sure if she means it. The long dialogue between Konstanze and Selim presents them both as reasonable individuals at an impasse: the only thing he won’t do is let her go, the only thing she won’t do is deny she is kept against her will and grant consent. He weakly threatens to marry her against her will, and she asks for more time “to forget the pain”. “It’s been two years,” is his reply, and she demands one more night. Morgen it’ll be, then.

Konstanze then to Belmonte: “et malgre la cruauté de ses paroles, je le savais bon!” Belmonte is not pleased as she continues to defend him.

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Jane Archibald, Peter Lohmeyer and the Lyon Opera chorus

Blonde opens the second act with a newly minted monologue. Approximation: Why is it that I always fall for the men-children. Who moreover can’t stop complaining. Pedrillo is hovering, and Osmin enters the room for a bath. She continues to address both men: “You or him, here or there, you’re equally bad”. Osmin, now in the tub, invites her to scrub his back. She premises her “Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln” aria with “I tell you Pedrillo, as I told Osmin”. In the old libretto she threatens to gouge his eyes out and they genuinely fight, while here we are witnessing a teasing exchange. “Tenderness? Pretty words? But we are in Turkey. I am the master and you are my slave. I order, you obey,” replies Osmin from the tub and from the old libretto. “Hahaha it’s same in Europe”, yells Pedrillo from his chair and the new libretto. To “I am born a woman and defy anybody, here or there [this recurs a lot], who wants to coerce me”, Osmin answers “She is crazy” and Pedrillo “Hysterical”. She helps Osmin get dressed, and the banter ends with Osmin flirting with “You want me to be your puppet, like your jackass Petrillo” (Pedrillo next to them objects). “You are beginning to understand,” she replies, and they kiss.

To Pedrillo’s protestations, Blonde says: “I loved him because he aspired to greatness. What do you aspire to? Nothing. You child.”
Pedrillo: “Do you want me to lock you up?”
Osmin: “Do you want me to give you freedom to do whatever you like?”
Blonde: “Learn one from another. If you don’t, you’re both bound to be wrong”
[weak point of the libretto – the moral equivalence. On which later]

Osmin gets mad: “You still love him!”
Pedrillo: “Do you regret your Turk?”
Blonde: “My heart belongs to me!”

During the Osmin-Blonde duet, the two laugh and hug. The “O Engländer! seyd ihr nicht Thoren” is obviously a teasing session. He lowers on his knees and sings to her tummy, which is how we learn that Blonde is pregnant. He takes out the fiddly origami toy from the box—the one he made in Act 1—which was, it’s now clear, planned for a baby. They part ways gently.

Konstanze’s quarters. Long new dialogue given to Blonde and Konstanze, in which Blonde is shown as an optimistic, strong-willed creature and Konstanze as the hopeless of the two. Konstanze gets the extremely acute line “As somebody who was born into comfort and indifference, I am bound to feel fragile before difficulty”. Blonde reminds her that she’s familiar with exile and changing languages and countries; Konstanze: “We are too protected… I want to be you.” Blonde: “We used to be mistress and servant; now two women, shoulder to shoulder.”

Later, Konstanze and Selim argue. She asks him again to let her go. “Do you think your world is better than mine?” he asks. “No, but it’s my world.” She goes on to tell him that There as here, men sing of eternal beauty of women, but that here as well as there nothing is more difficult for a woman than to have freedom. “Our world differs from yours in language, religion, philosophy… in everything except in the idea that woman needs to be subjugated. Worship her and subject her. … the only thing different is your chosen way of subjugation.”

“I won’t let you go, Konstanze.”

“Then kill me.” And we’re back to old libretto. Aria ”Martern aller Arten” is sung with other women and girls of the harem gathered behind her.

Next scene is set in a mosque, during prayer – women separated from men, Blonde among the women, uncovered. Pedrillo informs her of the escape plan. She appears happy.

The Osmin and Pedrillo wine-drinking proceeds in the usual way, and the escape quartet follows. The moments of doubt for the men—whether the women had remained ‘faithful’ all this time away—are already in the old libretto, but after the women get mad and couples reconciled, Mouawad adds all-important coda to this scene: Konstanze goes on the offensive with “So you were going to save us only if we had been faithful? What if we hadn’t been? You would have gone away without us?” During this conversation, Blonde tells Pedrillo “I didn’t know if I loved him or hated him… I was lost, like you… He loved me unwaveringly”.

“And you, Konstanze?” Belmonte wants to know.

(bitterly) “If you want to know if I slept with the Pasha, then know that your honour is intact…”—and she goes on to defend Selim as a great noble man.

Belmonte: “I feel I lost you the moment I found you!”

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Cyrille Dubois (Belmonte), David Steffens (Osmin), Jane Archibald (Konstanze), Joanna Wydorska (Blonde), the chorus and the extras of Opera de Lyon

The rest proceeds according to the libretto. Osmin catches them all, and during his next supposedly angry aria, the ghost / phantom/ hallucination of his daughter, now five years old, walks about wearing a nightgown. She can’t sleep. He sings about “Harems-Mäuse”—perhaps promising to fight the monsters that frighten her?—and then sobs.

When he meets Selim, he pleads that he spare Blonde: “If you condemn Blonde, you condemn two lives, and the one she’s carrying in her is innocent…”

What used to be the prison-harem from which the boys rescued the women—the elegant, claustrophobic globe-shaped cage—is now the prison for the recaptured quartet of protagonists. There’s the prison singing sequence and then the Selim clemenza scene. As they each come out of the prison one by one, the captives sing “Never will I forget your benevolence; For ever shall I sing your praises” which is exactly what they don’t do when they return home, if you remember the party from the beginning of the opera.

While the music is upbeat, the women aren’t: the opera ends with a barrier falling down between the principals and ‘them’, the people of the east. It comes down together with the chandeliers, and we’re back where we started.

Some thoughts:

  • When the new dialogues work well, they work gloriously well. There are also points where they don’t work as well (see below). Too, there are points where they’re awfully didactic. (“The hardest thing is to recognize that they aren’t as barbarian as we are wont to describe them”, Pedrillo says to Belmonte in Act 1. You paying attention, opera-goer? This is an important point!)
  • In an attempt to avoid cultural offense via western chauvinism, Mouawad puts the equation sign between two patriarchal societies a little too easily. Or maybe he really believes what the poignant words he’s given to Konstanze and Blonde say (here and there, both places)? Either way. There are degrees of oppression. To insist that everywhere is equally bad for women is an indefensible position. “You only differ in the method you choose to subjugate women” says Konstanze to Selim, but the devil, unsurprisingly, is in the details of that method. There’s misogyny and misogyny; there’s cultural misogyny and then there are very physically violent expressions of misogyny. There’s the photographic gaze and the Bechtel Test and the feminist shortcomings of an opera and then there’s sexual trafficking and stoning and death by gunman or policeman or abject poverty. Women’s bad luck is unevenly distributed across the globe (country, city).
  • Mouawad’s is, actually, a very gentle and light Entführung, the real darkness of sexual slavery eliminated completely. Blonde genuinely gives consent to Osmin; Konstanze doesn’t and her choice is respected by Selim. It could easily be a thought experiment or a treatise from the Enlightenment era, where individuals meet as rational minds to resolve the distribution of mutual obligations and individual rights. The violence is largely abstracted out. Although Mouawad’s production aims to put into question the glorification of Enlightenment values, it ends up being an oblique—and welcome–tribute to them.

More on the production here, including the Mouawad libretto in German and French. The old libretto, in German and English, here. All photos: Stofleth / Opera de Lyon.

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Archibald, Dubois, Laurenz, Wydorska

I’ll be the woman. I’ll be all the women.

The Dutch National Opera’s new production of Tchaikovsky’s Pique dame by Stefan Herheim proves that the right director can turn a meh opera into a great work of art. Musically a conventional garden-variety nineteenth century work with a sprinkling of melodramatic accents of storm, otherworldly sightings, unrequited love arias and pastiche, in Herheim’s hands becomes a moving meditation on the closet, artistic creation and sublimation, and loneliness.

The letter of the libretto has it that the gambling-addicted, impecunious Hermann falls in love with an aristocratic friend’s fiancée Liza, but after winning her over realizes his priorities are elsewhere: trading his soul for the fail-proof card combination from Liza’s grandmother, the aged Countess. She had herself paid for it in dearly but willingly as a young gambling addict. Hermann gets it eventually from the dead woman’s ghost—the actual Countess having died in horror when he tried to pry the numbers out of her. There are a handful of male characters who always appear together, among whom Liza’s original fiancé, Yeletsky—a one-aria role, all in all. They reconvene for the final scene at the gambling house (Liza’s also dead at this point, having thrown herself in the Winter Canal) and Yeletsky challenges him to a duel. Before Hermann completes his winnings with the third card, the Countess appears as his actual ‘final card’, Queen of Spades, after which he too dies.

Herheim’s Dame starts in Tchaikovsky’s living room, variations of which are the set for the opera. First scene is a silent one. Stage right, the composer is performing fellatio on an indifferent man (both are completely clothed) who’s agreed to it in exchange for money. The man recoils at the composer’s shy attempt to kiss his hand, and leaves laughing in his face. It’s at this point that Tchaikovsky sits at the piano and starts composing the opera Pique dame which we are about to watch as it’s being composed. The hateful man who doesn’t acknowledge his existence is transposed into Hermann (sung by Misha Didyk), the character who destroys lives and is incapable of love. Is he perhaps akin to the figure of the masculine, emotionally inscrutable Top that appears in a number of cultural creations by gay men (Patrice Chéreau’s Ceux qui m’aiment prendrons le train, and Xavier Dolan’s Tom à la ferme are just two examples)? The composer himself is present in most scenes, sometimes conducting the chorus, other times “playing” at the piano what the orchestra of a future performance—our own—is playing full-on. He also appears as an actual character, if not very frequently: as a gentle, self-effacing Yeletsky (sung by Vladimir Stoyanov).

There’s no consensus on how Tchaikovsky died, but some have argued that he intentionally drank the cholera-contaminated water so he would avoid an ignominious public outing. Herheim made the contaminated glass of water a recurring symbol in the opera: the menacing male chorus members keep carrying the glasses around and offering them to the composer at the drop of a hat; Liza dies awash in it; the Countess too drinks her own glass. There is a lot of public shaming and laughing at the composer—Hermann is a figure of fun by the other men of the pack, but he commands some degree of respect: it’s the composer who’s despised. In the scene of the Empress’ entrance, he bows and kisses her hand, and the Empress takes off her clothes to reveal Hermann in drag, to the delight of the jeering crowds.

While Ken Russell’s Music Lovers imagines a Tchaikovsky  horrified by women and women’s bodies, Herheim’s Tchaikovsky is clearly more at ease with women than with anybody in the pack. He is present in the sweet scene with Liza (Svetlana Aksenova) and her best friend Polina (Anna Goryachova) while they sing to each other. Polina is reinvented as a trouser role and the two women are amourous friends and each other’s favourites. That, and another scene with Tchaikovsky observing/creating/enjoying two women, are two gentlest, least emotionally problematic scenes that even have something idyllic about them. The second scene is the Daphnis & Chloe play-within-a-play (glorious Goryachova returning as Daphnis, with Pelageya Kurennaya) supposed to be happening at a ball, but here starts in the intimacy of Tchaikovsky’s room and only later turns into a performance of the naturalness of heterosexuality for the crowd at the ball. Musically the piece is a pastiche of Mozart’s Pappageno and Pappagena, and there are many other nods to the Rococo and Mozart in the opera which Herheim honours.

The Dame libretto was written by Tchaikovsky’s equally gay brother Modest, but Herheim makes a shortcut here for dramatic effect: the composer is the absolute creator of his work, libretto included. He is indeed in many ways all of his characters, but he is closest to and voices most directly the leading women, Liza and the Countess. There is so much love and tenderness towards these two, the darling tomboy Polina as well. And they love him back. Hermann is relatively insignificant in the scene of the Countess’s death: it’s her show, and deeply felt goodbye to the world.

All naturalness is removed from the scene in which Hermann and Liza declare each other’s love. Herheim has them reading their words off the composer-supplied score, as if trying out a staging approach to the roles they’ve just been assigned. Hermann, rightly, loses his centrality in the final scene as well: it’s in fact the composer who dies at the end of the opera as the chorus, hypocritically, sings “Give rest to his turbulent troubled spirit”.

No actual playing cards appear once in the production. The men in the final gambling scene deal in sheets of Tchaikovsky’s score.

Musically, things were less thrilling, but this fact didn’t spoil anything. Legendary Mariss Jansons conducted the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the pit and I expected fireworks, but it could be that this music is incapable of fireworks? It was all rather… adequate. The were minor issues of the odd instance of lateness and of the stage and orchestra coordination. Didyk’s was a barely audible Hermann and lost his centrality to the story in this way too. The Pack were uniformly good, if dramatically fairly insignificant. Aksenova’s Liza and Goryachova’s Polina were complex, multi-dimensional characters—often literally, Polina as Daphnis/Pappageno and Aksenova as an angel of compassion appearing to the composer. Larissa Diadkova’s Countess was decidedly not an ogre, but a thinking, feeling creature succumbing under the weight of the Weltschmerz.

Dame pique will be streamed on Opera Platform on June 21

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Filthy Brides, or: AtG gets Cozy

I managed to see A Little Too Cozy, the Against the Grain Theatre adaptation of Così fan tutte, on its closing night this weekend. This isn’t a comprehensive review by any means, but a few thoughts on the production that was extensively covered by multiple other media.

The basic idea behind Joel Ivany’s update works well: Fiordiligi/Felicity and Dorabella/Dora have made it to the last round of a reality TV show in which eligible singletons interact with each other via text, email and phone only. Before meeting in person their chosen bachelors, Guiglielmo/Elmo and Fernando, the women have one last test to pass: two ‘new candidates’ (actually Elmo and Fernando, switching girls, tempting fate) trying to seduce them with “A bird you laid your eyes on is better than the one hiding in the bush” shtick. Hosting the show—while sporting cheesy suits–is the devious presenter Donald L. Fonzo (Cairan Ryan), in cahoots with the show’s “talent relations coordinator” Despina (Caitlin Wood).

When the set is an actual TV studio on 10th floor of the CBC building, the feeling of unreality that one gets with the unfolding of Cosi is perfectly founded. You may ask yourself why the women would go through the absurd setup of this TV show to get engaged, but why do people go to reality TV shows in the first place? It’s more to do with becoming famous for 15 minutes than achieving whatever the official end goal of the show is, winning the race, or getting the bachelor. Ivany made the women, particularly Dora, publicity hounds. In a tech-positive affront on the fourth wall, the AtG encouraged the audience in the studio to tweet (suggested hashatags get repeated and flashed on screens) and take photos. As far as I know, this invitation to engage on social media during the performance is a precedent in Toronto, and a very positive one.

And still, Cozy did not manage to eliminate the boring bits of Cosi and this opera, like Mozart/Da Ponte’s, has snooze minutes. TV studio acoustics aren’t very good for unamplified singing and the trademark intimacy of the AtG’s productions was lost this time. A lot of the text for me was lost too, and the lustre of the score in this quartet-with-piano reduction. It was the largest, most warehouse-like space they’ve ever had a show in. Since it was the last show, there was probably some exhaustion to blame, but tenor Aaron Sheppard had very little volume all night, and even the charismatic and hilarious mezzo Rihab Chaieb occasionally produced impure, airy sound. While Clarence Frazer was both funny and sang well and was on all the time, Shantelle Przybylo’s continuous squinting distracted from her sweet and capable singing.

Ivany divided the libretto into segments that happen on camera and those that happen backstage, which is a brilliant touch. His Così libretto, like his Figaro was, is sharply zeitgeist-y and populist. What’s new is that it’s (and this is a compliment) filthy—much filthier than either Figaro or Uncle John was. I don’t know if Ivany knows of Ali Wong’s comedy yet, but her stage persona and Cozy brides-to-be have a lot in common.

 

End of year highlights: performing arts

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George Benjamin, Gary Kulesha, Barbara Hannigan at Roy Thomson Hall, New Creations Festival, 2015

Best Hybrid Concert Performances, Hands Down

The 21C’s Cinq à sept concert that included Jordan Nobles’ π and Saariaho’s Grammar of Dreams. (RCM, 21C Festival, May, Toronto)

Against the Grain’s Death and Desire, the Messiaen & Schubert mashup. (Neubacher Shor Contemporary Gallery, June, Toronto)

CASP’s Living Spectacle concert (The Extension Room, November, Toronto)

Best Concerts

Barbara Hannigan, George Benjamin, Peter Oundjian and the TSO in “Let Me Tell You” by Hans Abrahamsen, etc. (New Creations Festival, RTH, February, Toronto). The TSO in Dutilleux’s Métaboles (same festival)–probably my TSO highlight of the year: they were positively levitating. The TSO again with George Benjamin conducting Written on Skin (still the same festival). This very scenic opera hampered by the lack of staging, but managed to impress.

Tania Miller conducts the RCM orchestra in Mahler 5 at Koerner Hall. Glorious acoustics; Mahler like I’ve never heard him before. (Koerner Hall, November, Toronto)

Spin Cycle: Afiara String Quartet with DJ Skratch Bastid (C21, Koerner Hall, May, Toronto). This is one instance where the electronica and the analogica really conversed.

Gewandhaus Orc with Ricardo Chailly at Musikverein, October 2015
Gewandhaus Orchestra with Riccardo Chailly at Musikverein, October 2015

Riccardo Chailly conducts Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig in a program of lesser known Strauss works. A Technicolor Dream Strauss. (Musikverein, October, Vienna, Austria)

Laurence Equilbey conducts Insula Orchestra in Mozart’s Concertante Symphony for Violin and Viola, Schubert’s 4th Symphony and a Fanny Mendelssohn overture. Rarely heard pieces done justice, in gorgeous period instruments colours. (Cité de la Musique / Philharmonie II, March, Paris, France)

Paris Philharmonie I & II
Paris Philharmonie I & II

Greatest disappointments in the Concert category

Mozart’s Mass in C Minor with the TSO (RTH, January, Toronto) – chiefly because of the two female soloists who indifferently phoned it in. Never seen a colder soloist than Julie Boulianne in “Laudate Me”; a bit terrifying, actually.

Andrew Davis’ orchestration of the Messiah with the TSO (RTH, December, Toronto). The add-ons add nothing to the sound and sometimes even take away from it. It’s the marimba, the snare drum and the xylophone, but it might as well have been pots and pans, bugles, and a vuvuzela—the latter as logical and organic to the sound as the former. And Toronto has heard it well by now; time for another conductor to do the big Messiah next year in whatever orchestration he/she chooses.

Best Operas

Not a lot of gushing to report here. It’s between Lepage’s Bluebeard, Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni and Alden’s Pyramus, all good productions but neither for various reasons will push through as life-long memorable. But I’m really glad I discovered Barbara Monk Feldman.

The most er unusual performance in an opera

Michael Schade in Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni was in his own production entirely. Gives me a chuckle even now thinking about it.

Best performance in an otherwise er unusual staging

Christine Rice in the ROH Mahagonny (ROH, March, London, UK). I feel obligated to like every attempt to mount a Brecht-Weill joint, so people would continue to do it, but still not sure if I can form an opinion, any opinion, about this one.

Royal Opera House detail (March 2015, Mahagonny)
A Royal Opera House detail (March 2015)

Greatest unexpected disappointment in the Opera category

Matthew Jocelyn’s staging of Philippe Boesmans’ Julie (Canadian Stage, November, Toronto). More fundamentally, Julie the opera itself. The Strindberg play can work as a claustrophobic battle of wills where subtle acting and silences matter, but as an opera? Not for this opera-goer. The dread of class miscegenation and the fear of female desire as sources of drama haven’t aged well into our own time. And opera has treated the master-servant shenanigans—and female desire–through its librettos for a couple of centuries now. I fail to fathom why any composer would want to turn Strindberg’s Miss Julie into a libretto, or why any director would hail such a work as one of the best contemporary operas today (as Matthew Jocelyn did in an interview).

Vienna Staatsoper, Macbeth (October, Vienna, Austria). The set was cement blocks, the costumes mid-twentieth-century dictatorship, Mid-Eastern or East European. Singing was fine, but the production overall showed no signs of life, no circulation, no breathing. How long was I going to stay on that balcony, craning my neck? I left at the intermission.

Inside Vienna Staatsoper, October 2015
Inside Vienna Staatsoper, October 2015

Best Theatre

NTLive’s The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard. I hate to put a screening in this category, but I have to. (Cineplex, April, Toronto)

Juliet Stevenson as Winnie at the Young Vic (March, London, UK). Here’s a good conversation about this production between the director Natalie Abrahami and Juliet Stevenson with the BBC’s Matthew Sweet.

Dario Fo is good news any time, and Soulpepper’s adaptation of Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist was a solid effort. It didn’t entirely work for me—the adaptation text didn’t emerge out of a movement or even a common experience or solidarity, as Fo’s original text did: Toronto theatre-goers are as likely to be Conservative as NDP, and have largely middle-class expectations and tastes. The play also appeared conflicted about what it wanted of us, to participate or be a silent audience; the foray into the audience was more odd than provocative. All that said, a theatre putting its resources into the social difficulty that is Fo should be saluted. (February, Toronto)

The most regretful miss-outs

Robert Lepage’s 887. I became aware of this play one day after it had closed! It’s touring now around the world, maybe it’ll return. Takes the PanAm Games to distribute some serious commissioning money around.

Betroffenheit: there were no tickets to be found. They’re returning to town next February, though.

Lisa Dwan in the three Beckett plays on women in extremis. Months preceding, I was looking forward to this, but that very month I had a death in the family and it all felt a little too close. I decided not to go. I hope to catch this somewhere eventually.

Would have loved to have seen Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at the Shaw, but it’s difficult to get there (train plus bus, and you need to match your itineraries very carefully to the minute while the GO website is working against you achieving that goal), and no ticket under $100. So to watch a leftist play about an Italian working-class family, you have to own a car, have hotel accommodation money and pay the not at all cheap ticket.

What I realized this year

I lost interest in the star-vehicle recitals.

I will miss Rdio. Am now between streaming loyalties—dipping my toes into Spotify and not particularly liking what I’m seeing there.

As for the books of the year… Well, the books deserve their own post.

Memories of Vienna on bicycle, October 2015
Memories of Vienna, October 2015

Have you heard the one about an atheist walking into a Messiah performance

As somebody who doesn’t believe in the Trinitarian God, the resurrection, and the Judgment Day, I’ve sometimes struggled to feel close to or give meaning to the texts of many of my favourite musical works (Mozart’s Mass in C minor and the Requiem, Faure’s Requiem, Bach’s Johannespassion, Rachmaninov’s Vespers, Berlioz’s Requiem, to name just the first few to come to mind). I look up the translations if it’s Latin or German, that’s not an issue, but the theology behind them is. Sometimes I succeed in understanding the words as directly relevant to my life today, sometimes I fail. When I fail, the music comes to the rescue: music is so bizarrely powerful over our emotions that it really doesn’t matter what the text is, music does its own text on you. And I am often one of the millions of unsophisticated listeners that make Adorno toss in his grave in agony, when we should know better. So for example I enjoy the dramatic anger of Mozart’s Dies Irae even though the notion of the omnipotent, omniscient God who will at one point divide the sheep from the goats means nothing to me. I do, there’s no other way to put it, often consume some of my favourite works of art kinda idiotically.

I wonder if the love that we—that I! I should stop using the nebulous we—have for these works is an expression of a nostalgia for faith? For a time and situations when Dies Irae really meant something? Did people who listened to Mozart’s Mass in C minor enjoy it as a theological work primarily? Who can even begin to tell. That’s an even worse kind of listening: escapist, mythologizing of the past, needy.

I wish that present-day conductors (institutions, program writers) doing these works today spoke about this question more. There’s a global audience for the sacred classical music canon today, consisting and potentially consisting of people of all kinds of non-Christian religions beside the atheists and agnostics. What more important is there for a conductor of a sacred work than this, to tell us why we should listen to these words, and therefore this work? Among the conductors that I follow, I’ve noticed Laurence Equilbey broaching the topic now and again, but still extremely rarely. There’s a quote in a magazine interview along the lines of some of these sacred works being about the celebration of creation, of the importance of something existing rather than nothing, of how glorious being alive can be, and I thought, okay, now we’re talking business. (The quote was frustratingly short.) In another radio interview she mentioned a potential collaboration with artist Philippe Quesne on The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross by Haydn and about the work being about something anybody can understand, the thirst for water, the need for air, the survival against all odds, and then too I stopped what I was doing and said, Go on, that’s interesting.

In moments like those I realize how badly I need these kinds of interpretations. We are taken for granted as an audience; we’re expected to keep showing up “because it’s the work X, Y, Z and the work X, Y, Z is important”.

Any of you reading this, have you encountered any other conductors addressing the issue of interpretation in this way?

These thoughts are actually prompted by last night’s performance of Handel’s Messiah (at the Metropolitan United on Church East, with Elmer Iseler Singers and Lydia Adams conducting). Bizarrely, I’ve become something of a Messiah fan, and even more bizarrely, I don’t have any problems finding its texts resonant. The music naturally oils the cogs, nothing new there, but the texts survive scrutiny even if I read them from the page, music-less. The Messiah text is a hodge-podge of snippets from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, a lot of it allegorical. I don’t know if it’s the poeticism of the King James translators or Handel’s genuinely populist music genius, but arias like:

Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight and the rough places plain. (Isaiah XL, 5)

…are a bottomless pit of interpretive pleasure. Yes, ultimately this is indeed about the Judgment Day, but it can also be about the dream of the this-wordly justice, of those who tirelessly work for it and won’t give up the notion? Those distant ideals that seem to be receding but not disappearing, the betterment of the condition of the womankind, the democracy?

Or this much trickier chorus:

And He shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. (Malachi III 3)

What do we do when we ‘offer an offering in righteousness’? Is this about leading by example?

For we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned, ev’ry one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah LIII 6)

You don’t need to believe in The Redeemer to get the depth of how much like sheep we have gone astray, and in what ways. But how are the consequences of our own iniquity transferred to another?

He trusted in God that He would deliver Him, let Him deliver Him, if He delight in Him. (Psalm XXII 8)

And where to even begin with this one: Christianity tangling itself into a knot of polytheism, in order to introduce the attribute of compassion to its god.

I mean, I could go on and on (“Let us break [the bonds of nations] asunder”, anyone?). But there it is. Sacred classical music as pop culture, where you know the lyrics, they mean something, you misremember and abuse them, want to sing and dance when they’re offered to you in much too solemn concerts. I’ll always prefer a whole slew of other sacred pieces to the Messiah—just about any of the named above–but there is some work ahead of us as a generation of classical music listeners and performers toward making them… come closer, put it that way.

TSO’s 2015-16 season announcement

TSO by Sian Richards
Photo by Sian Richards

Toronto Symphony Orchestra announced the 2015-16 season last week. A few highlights:

Matthias Pintscher will make his TSO debut as conductor and composer on April 28, 30 2016. He will conduct his own work towards Osiris, and also Mahler’s First and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 with Inon Barnatan at the piano. (Pintscher is also conducting a fabulous  program with the NAC Orchestra in Ottawa next month. Double Ravel, including the iconic piano concerto in G, and one of my favourite Beethoven works, the Sixth.)

Dina Gilbert, the dynamic young (27) assistant conductor at the Montreal Symphony Orchestra will debut as a conductor at the TSO, but in a children’s program. (Alas. Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, May 14.)

Speaking of women conductors, Victoria Symphony will guest in a Matinee Masterworks concert on March 31, under the baton of its music director Tania Miller. Oesterle, Grieg’s Piano Concerto (with Stewart Goodyear), Copland and Stravinsky on the program. The one remaining woman conductor this season will be Barbara Hannigan, who will sing and conduct in the program of Haydn, Nono, Mozart, Ligeti and Stravinsky, October 7 and 8, 2015.

The New Creations Festival will be curated this year by the Australian composer, conductor and violist Brett Dean, while Bernard Labadie curates Mozart@260 Festival.

Composer stats this year look like this: The warhorses for the TSO are again Mozart (9 works) and Beethoven (6), with Brahms and Tchaikovsky at the atypically low 3 each. There are, unusually, 5 Richard Strauss works in the program this season. Among the composers I’d like to hear more performed, we find 3 Berlioz (including Symphonie fantastique), 2 Debussy, 2 Haydn, 2 Mahler (usually a higher number per TSO season), 2 Ravel, 3 Sibelius, 4 Stravinsky, 1 von Weber (a clarinet concerto). Kurtag and Ligeti 1 each. For those who like Shostakovich: 4.

The TSO multidisciplinary programs also continue, the pop and jazz nights, children’s programs, the Second City at the Symphony is back, and there’s some stuff with circus artists in December. The standout in their film with a live orchestra program this year is Hitchcock’s Psycho. Constantine Kitsopoulos (TSO debut) will conduct Bernard Herrmann’s string orchestra score.