To pay homage and celebrate the final Cesare sung by Sarah Connolly–possibly the final mezzo Cesare on a major stage, as the CTs have just about completely taken over the role–a few of us made the trip to that little opera house on private property in Lewes. National representation, l-r: UK, Finland, Canada, Australia.
Back to us on a picnic blanket, minus the UK, who took the photo
On paper, it looks like hubris: how can film noir, hockey, comics and opera tolerate (let alone enhance) one another? But ten minutes into Hockey Noir, a graphic opera composed by Andre Ristic to the libretto by Cecil Castellucci and video-projected comic book panels by Kimberlyn Porter, the resistance was futile. I sat up and got drawn in; the stock characters came alive to subvert the stereotype; the music became driven, full of energy and surprising at every turn.
You know that an opera succeeds if the words, the visuals, and the music blend just so, that intangible quality that makes or breaks the piece. It almost doesn’t matter what an opera is made of or what it is ‘about’, as long as this particular alchemy happens. I have no interest in hockey nor can I fathom our obsession with it. I don’t read comic books very often and to film noir I much prefer the screwball talkies. And yet and yet, none of that mattered in this case. The libretto (Cecil Castellucci, who collaborated with Ristic on another comic book opera) uses the clichés from noir films—stock characters of the double-crossing dame and the mobster, and some cliched lines in the dialogue–which can potentially dull down the piece. But they are used knowingly, for mimetic exacerbation, and put through the wringer of the two languages, or to be more precise through the hard-boiled, lumpen and underground versions of the two languages. It’s Montreal of the 1950s, pre-Quiet Revolution, when the boss (corporate and criminal, both) indeed did speak English, if not exactly posh English, but the dominant language of the libretto is the joual, rough, rudimentary, spiked with anglicisms, and creative spelling and grammar.
To that, some singers have to add another layer: soprano Pascale Beaudin, who sings the “hotshot player” Bigowsky, has to sing in French with a heavy Anglo accent, and this tells us that Bigowsky followed the trajectory of many allophone immigrants families to Quebec: English first, then French (maybe) later. Bigowsky is, as Gretzky is too, an East European name, possibly Russian or Polish, and in one scene Beaudin/Bigowsky has a line in Russian (was it Russian?), preceded by “As my mother always said.” Another East European name gets a tangle of Anglo-Franco textual material: the mobster boss Romanov (baritone Pierre-Etienne Bergeron), who while technically a total Anglo, swears and threatens in both official languages. I have never encountered a swearing aria that relishes the words and ties them to music so effectively, let alone one in two languages, let alone one that employs Quebec’s Catholic treasure box of swears, let alone one in which the music intervenes to bleep the swear words before they’re completed.
So what happens in the opera? Well, as in many noirs, the plot is somewhat obscure, and in the event doesn’t matter all that much. The aforementioned young hotshot hockey player Bigowsky refuses to fix the Montreal-Toronto match on behalf of Romanov, who plans on putting a lot of money on a Toronto win. To avoid the consequences, and in a nod to Some Like It Hot, Bigowsky goes underground and starts dressing as a woman. His cloche hat is very much Jack Lemmon as Daphne, but without the camp and the winks – this is, thankfully, a touch darker and angstier. His best team mate Lafeuille (tenor Michiel Schrey) bonds with a fan girl who, it transpires, is a brilliant coach—in fact, Bigowsky en feminine who just can’t resist the call of the rink. The character is called Gal Friday, so Howard Hawks lovers also get a nod, as does the recurring character of the super competent female professional from the talkies like His Girl Friday. It’s raining references to opera’s own history too. The Dame/Madame Lasalle (mezzo Marie-Annick Beliveau) who’s plotting for the overthrow of Romanov gets a Queen of the Night-like aria–only grubby, low-rent and from within a deep existential crisis. Bigowsky is a trouser role in the best tradition of trouser roles, and as such of course gets a feminine attire act too so we can observe a soprano singing a man who for plot purposes cross-dresses as a woman. Another way the tradition is honoured is that Beliveau gets a romantic thing with a female singer – Madame Lasalle – and a proper seduction/recognition scene. Elsewhere in the opera, there’s a catalogue aria. Of sorts. In a thoroughly non-sexy version of a Don Giovanni standard, Lafeuille and Romanov in “Games played: 1123” list Lafeuille’s hockey stats.
Ristić’s compelling music is the circulation that keeps this work so alive at all times. Ensemble Contemporain de Montreal is on stage, a string quartet, an electronic keyboard and a set of percussion instruments, all conducted by the ECM’s AD Veronique Lacroix. As needed, the keyboard stands in for a Hammond organ, the electric instrument often heard in hockey matches of the era. The score is made up of the segments—arias, duos, ensembles—held together by detective voice-over (Jean Marchand). There’s a pervading atmospheric darkness, continuously disturbed by the forces of angular twisted sounds, unusual pairings of timbre via voice with instrument or instrument with instrument, mimetic details like the swoosh of skates against the ice and pre-recorded sounds like the crowd cheering. No film noir music is directly quoted that I could tell, so no echoes of saxophone, fortunately. Madame Lasalle’s arias involve some extended techniquing such as screaming in thinned out falsetto, and yo-yo-ing on a note for comic effect, but among other solos Bigowsky’s going underground aria stands out – “How do you become invisible to men? Become a woman”. The ensembles though is what I found most exciting of all. In “Quand l’avez-vu la derniere fois?” each character comes out of an electronic sound-field, which is pleasantly unpleasant and indeterminate, to tell of their last encounter with Bigowsky. The scenes of a hockey match at the end are fast and fun, as the projections, the characters and the instruments play without friction together. Shots are fired just before the final tutti, “J’aurais pu mourir”, which works as an epilogue. Everybody survived, but the music is grim. Bigowsky’s career continued going great until it didn’t, Lafeuille retired to the suburbs, Lasalle became the new Montreal Boss and Romanov… well, ran for city council and later became prime minister (to accompany this statement, the projection showed an orange-haired Romanov).
I’m not entirely sure why the singers were miked. Were some voices distorted in real time, and had to stay plugged to the grid? I couldn’t tell. But the small Jane Mallet certainly did not need singer amplification and the miking is perhaps the only component that diminished the show, not enhanced it.
The panels by Kimberlyn Porter are unfussy and vintage, no distracting details, and thanks to the video design by Serge Maheu they get some camera-like movement–closing in, gros plan, moving lense. They stay low key, and are there to complement the stage. Comic book panels may feel archaic and certainly less lively than film projections, but there’s pleasure in that tech delay, and it works well with the 1940s and 1950s aesthetic.
Closes tonight at the Jane Mallet Theatre, and tours Belgium in Nov/Dec. Tickets here.
I don’t mind when readers and opera goers review my reviews. Fair game. And I welcome the interaction. But I don’t understand the upset that I hear is brewing on Facebook and through emails to my editor around my review of Anna Bolena at the COC. It’s a fairly sedate review, but even that amount of disagreement comes across as RADICAL in a reviewing environment that has become extremely timid and let’s-all-get-along. Perhaps people should read some British, French or American negative reviews for comparison?
I don’t give negative reviews in a cavalier and off-hand manner. If something’s not working for me, I try to explain why. Large budget and established, stable organizations and in-demand, established singers and the fans of each should be able take a negative review without a hissy fit. Or not? Is it allowed not to like a certain opera? A certain production? A certain singer? Just keep that in mind. That not everybody will like every singer and every production and every composer. And some times they’ll have a public forum to say so and be lucky enough to have readers interested in their opinion (yes, this is a privilege and I do my darnest to earn it.)
To artists and arts administrators I say: just go on with your job and focus on your work. That should be your response.
And I am not talking out of school: I have been on both sides. My two books have received some good reviews and award shortlists, and some mixed reviews and a couple of negative reviews and some indifference/no reviews too. I think indifference is probably something you want the least. But it’s true: we remember certain sentences from negative reviews for a long time to come, and the stuff from positive reviews pales with time. (Unless you’re a massive narcissist… in which case, viceversa.)
Those of us who have had our work reviewed should also keep in mind: it’s incomparably better to create something and have it commented upon by other people, than spending your life commenting on other people’s work. Some of criticism certainly equals creation: but that takes more time, more studiousness, knowledge of wider culture, a longer view, maybe the book format or film or TV documentary format. And some of the ad hoc reviews for the media, which do an extremely important public service, will also be works of art, if the luck strikes. But overall, reviewing is derivative because it depends on something else for it to exist, whereas creation is creation.
So: stop worrying and get on with the work. Neither good reviews nor bad reviews should matter to a creator. You do your art the way you feel it must be done and keep going and growing.
There’s something else that’s been worrying me lately regarding Toronto’s opera and classical scene: a certain uniformization and overlap of reviewing and performing circles. Everybody is friends with everybody. These writers went to same music school and performed with those other people. This reviewer being hired by an arts organization for task X or Y, then a few months later writing about the same organization as a journalist or critic. This editor hanging out with this executive, this donor or board member working for both an org and a magazine. This person dating that person, and having the same social circles as that other person. Everybody schmoozing at the same parties.
Under similar circumstances, it becomes extremely difficult to express disagreement of any substantial kind, or to even soberly look at a work of art. Everything will be great, everything will be a miracle.
And that’s simply not healthy. And it destroys the art of the positive review too: if everything is good, nothing is. The positive review loses its purpose and its credibility.
The COC’s nine-year-old production of Stravinsky’s shorts, The Nightingale and Other Short Fables directed by Robert Lepage has aged well — as family entertainment. It sells well, it brings children and rookies to the opera house, and this time around it put to work much of the COC Ensemble Studio.
For those of us who have seen it when it opened, the excitement has subsided. The production stitches together a selection of Stravinsky songs and instrumental pieces with the short opera The Nightingale into a puppetry-themed revue. While the children may rejoice the shadow puppetry illustrations during Pribaoutki and The Fox, the adults may wonder why this modernist composer is being given the Russian folklore treatment. In the pre-Nightingale pieces all the singers wear peasant clothes, and while this makes sense for Four Russian Peasant Songs (women of the COC Chorus, underpowered on the opening night), it does not for Two Poems of Konstantin Balmont (Danika Loren, bright-voiced and exquisite in Russian language) or Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet (the very engaging Juan Olivares).
The Nightingale itself is a strange bird, and Stravinsky thought so too. He composed Acts 2 and 3 after he had completed The Rite of Spring and Petrushka, thanks to a commission he couldn’t refuse, and Act 1 does remain stylistically apart. The opening song of the Fisherman and some of the surrounding woodwinds could have come from the Russian nineteenth-century opera, whereas the rest of the work fits in better with the invention, the sharp edges, the crafted-ness of Stravinsky’s mature oeuvre.
The story is, fittingly, bizarre. In the libretto by Stepan Mitussov based on H.C. Andersen, the courtiers of the Chinese Emperor are taken out into the nature to hear the nightingale. The cow and the frog confuse them at first, as they’ve never heard any sounds from the nature, but the live nightingale is finally found and they invite it to court. The Emperor is moved when the bird sings at his quarters, yet the Japanese visitors interrupt the jam with their gift, a mechanical nightingale, which also impresses the Emperor. The real nightingale leaves unnoticed and is subsequently banned for disobedience but returns for Act 3 to negotiate the Emperor’s release from death throes. Morning dawns, Emperor is alive and well, Death chased away with song.
Parable on the supremacy of nature over artifice? Not so fast. The music Stravinsky gives to the Nightingale is a whole lot of beautiful but also rather cool and detached coloratura atop of the text describing wet foliage in the night. Yet to the stilted and ceremonious figures of the imperial court—and to Death—it sounds extraordinary, perhaps because free. Free from emoting too, as will operatic expression attempt to free itself from voicing and enticing straightforward emotion for much of the rest of the twentieth century to come, excepting Puccini. “For me, music is reality… and like Baudelaire, but unlike Messiaen, J’aime mieux une boîte à musique qu’un rossignol,” Stravinsky said in his Dialogues with Robert Craft (’82).
Robert Lepage and his collaborators in Ex machina intuited exactly right this artificial, laboured over and crafted nature of everything in this piece, and gave every character a puppet double to speak through – except, again, the Nightingale, whose mechanical double flies around as it pleases (on a long stick supported by a handler disguised in black). This is a perfect role for Jane Archibald who, when not holding the bird, roams freely among the characters and supplies self-contained coloratura utterances. Other principals are all in the pool of water occupying the orchestra pit, while the orchestra is on stage, behind the action. The original Dyagilev production designed by Alexandre Benois also played with upstairs-downstairs, and placed the Nightingale and the Fisherman inside the orchestra pit.
While he was barely heard in Part 1 as one of the quartet of The Fox, Oleg Tsibulko got back the volume by the time he returned on stage as the Emperor in Part 2. Lauren Eberwein as the Cook and Lindsay Ammann as Death in a large crowd of small roles had a bit more substance to work with and they managed to leave mark with what they had. Owen McCausland secure, full tenor was very distinct in Part 1 and returned in Part 2 as the Fisherman. He was comfortable in Russian, and vocally even throughout the range. Occasionally a bit more inflection and nuance was called for: there’s certainly sufficient force there, but there’s also a certain over-relying on the oomph of the voice, whereas sometimes modulation is what’s needed in the text or the scene. It will be interesting to watch his voice as it likely grows more dramatic with years.
The crown achievement of the evening is Stravinsky’s music itself, incapable of dullness if honoured properly, and the COC Orchestra conducted by Johannes Debus honoured its crispness and animation. From the Ragtime which served as the overture (and which could have been written yesterday, by John Adams) to the last bars of the rising sun of The Nightingale, the lucid and nimble orchestra kept the evening, potentially weighed down by dolls, gallons of water and crowds of courtiers, in swift and steady motion.
Not a review – it’s video direction vs. stage direction with these things, and I only got the video – but a few thoughts.
This wasn’t a catastrophe, as many people led me to believe! It had some brilliant moments, some WTF moments, and some moments where it felt the director just couldn’t be bothered. Overall, though, the chutzpah tips the scales: it’s a wildly imaginative production–a bold and flawed (but which one is perfect) attempt to do something new with a popular classic that resists radical re-reading. It’s also one that goes deep into the score and connects it directly to dance (tons of dance) and movement of the actors, often at the expense of the textual layer of meaning.
Namely, in most of the scenes with more than one person, Kosky and his choreographer Otto Pichler find the rhythm, the clang, the pulsing brass, the percussion and make that the currency of communication, while text may or may not be in accord. If it’s not, then tant pis for the text. And it’s kind of all right – the scenes work all the same. For example, the scene in which Carmen dances for Jose, first time after he’s out of jail and comes looking for her, is unlike anything usually seen in Carmen productions. Ordinarily, we’d see a scene of seduction, more or less explicitly acted, but here Carmen (Anna Goryachova) barely moves while following the percussion beat with her hands on her hips. In a way, there’s not much happening other than Carmen enjoying the beat on her own. She is being watched while she’s busying herself with her own pleasure.
In the scene of arrival of Don Escamillo (Kostas Smoriginas), the man gets three male background dancers who amplify, mime or make fun of his statement. In the scene of cigarette girls and ogling soldiers, female chorus is on the left, male on the right, and the men are slowly creeping towards the women and get stuck in various positions on first contact, as the female chorus is not at all permeable. Near the end, as the various ranks of the corrida are introduced before the grand entrance by Escamillo, nothing really changes with the staged tableau other than choreography by the handful of dancers higher up on the stairs, and the jumping up and down of the crowd.
The one scene which was destroyed for me by this supremacy of choreography over text was the quintet of the three women with the smugglers at Lillas Pastia’s. It’s delivered as an absurd Rossinian act finale, with three dancers in between the line of singers, each person popping up and down in the game of whac-a-mole precisely to the rhythm in the music.
I did not mind that there’s not much of a set apart from that Busby Berkeley staircase. I did not miss the mountain and smugglers’ camp in Act 3, most of all, nor the pre-corrida parade.
Score-wise, this version is not the one with spoken dialogues, unfortunately, but some of the recits have been cut and replaced by female voice-over reading from Prosper Mérimée‘s novel. I really like how this connected the scenes, and sometimes revealed what a character was actually feeling, or some background information usually not available in the opera (for ex that Carmen had a mother in a distant city who depended on her for financial support).
Another interesting contribution to the meaning of Carmen: Goryachova dressed as a female toreador is present in all the early scenes, even before her scheduled grand entrance. The opera opens with her, thusly clad, seated on the staircase, while the voice-over is reading a description of what the ultimate fantasy woman looks like, “according to the Spaniards”. The voice takes its time going part by part of the female body, as the character starts slowly descending, with a knowing, almost “whatever, this is a game” smirk. She stays on for the early scenes as the fantasy that everybody there, men, women, need – and briefly disappears and reappears for the Habanera. She is dressed butch for the aria (don’t ask me to explain the minute inside the gorilla costume) and is also dressed butch in the scene of the fight with that other cigarette girl whose name escapes me. The other cigarette girl however wears an ultra femme gown, and is dragged and kicked by the much more aggressive Carmen. There’s a possible subtext here, but which one precisely, up to you (is she repudiating femininity? interesting that in later Acts she sartorially embraces it. Or is this just a measure-for-measure, if you clap, I clap back one-off violence?) Elsewhere in the opera, she is one of the girl gang and it’s possible that both Mercedes and Frasquita are or have been sexual liaisons too (for what’s a little sex among friends?).
The voiceover in the smuggling-in-the-mountain scene informs us that Don Jose has been treating her badly, there’s a hint that he’s been violent to her, and she won’t take it anymore. She won’t take any crap from men, type thing.
The big emo solo arias are largely left intact (Micaela’s in Act 3, the big Don Jose aria at Lillas Pastia) as they’re musically pretty much unassailable.
Micaela (Kristina Mkhitaryan) is, interestingly, something of a girlish, pre-sexual, flustered, innocent white-dress-wearing version of Carmen herself.
Goryachova’s voice is OK if a bit monocromatic at times, under-inflected and under-nuanced. There’s a certain range of a dark bass-y drone that feels like a default place of her voice where it likes settling itself, and though it’s full and beautiful, there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing. She gave it a workout in the “Pres des ramparts de Seville” and it was wonderful; most of the opera though the voice stayed in its default setting.
I’m not entirely sure what to make of the final shrug. So Don Jose stabs Carmen, she falls and (for all intents and purposes) dies; he sings what’s left for him to sing, Arrest me, I killed her, etc, and disappears off stage. Carmen, only her body visible in the spotlight of the dark stage, then gets up, dead serious, and looks straight into audience. And the she shrugs and smirks. I was expecting something more poignant, more… sisterhood. WHAT WAS THAT ABOUT??
I’m sure I’ll remember several more things I wanted to add the moment I post this, but right now, that’s all I can think of. It’s a carefully thought-out production with some fascinating moments; Kosky deconstructs the work into unexpected pieces (beat-cum-body units) and reconstructs it back, with text re-wiring itself into a different kind of dramatic coherence.
And I’m now pretty sure Margaret Atwood phrased the famous line “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them” right after coming out of the final act of Carmen. Could be legit used as the subtitle of the work, en fait.
Because my credits here are sporadic, full list here.
The Barrie Kosky Carmen (that all British people in my Twitter feed hated) will be screened in Toronto this Sunday, April 8, starting 1:30 p.m. I’m curious about this consensus and will go; will see if I abandon it or stay till the end (there will be two 15-min intermissions, so count the entire afternoon off). Here’s more about this Carmen in the ROH Insights series:
The spectacular (in every way: good and… other, I hear) Macbeth with Anna Netrebko and Zeljko Lucic, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, will also be screened in a delayed encore, on Sunday May 20, starting 12 p.m. Trailer:
For ballet-heads, there’s the Royal Ballet Manon and a Bernstein Centenary event also in May.
Tickets are $17 for non-members. I think they’ve gone up – I think they’ve been $16 last time I went. More info here.