Nightingale, oh Nightingale

(l-r) Bruno Roy as Japanese Envoy 3, Samuel Chan as Japanese Envoy 2, Jane Archibald as the Nightingale, Oleg Tsibulko as the Emperor and Miles Mykkanen as Japanese Envoy 1 in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables, 2018. Conductor Johannes Debus, director Robert Lepage, set designer Carl Fillion, costume designer Mara Gottler and lighting designer Etienne Boucher. Photo: Michael Cooper

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.

First published in Opera Canada online; will be in print in the next issue.

 

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Barrie Kosky Carmen on the big screen

ROH Carmen, 2018. The cigarette girls chorus (left) with the soliders chorus.

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).

Anna Goryachova as Carmen in ROH’s Carmen, 2018. Photo Bill Cooper

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??

Anna Goryachova as Carmen. ROH, 2018. Photo Bill Cooper.

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.

More ROH and ballet at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

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.

February podcast episode: Cecilia Livingston

I loved working on this one.

Cecilia Livinston is working on an opera about the Franklin expedition (TorQ and Opera 5). What were these people thinking? Terror and Erebus indeed. Also,

On being mentored by Steve Reich

On the issues around gender in music creation, presentation, mentoring and reception

Whether music is always ideological, no matter the composer’s intention?

On Bach, Debussy, Britten, John Luther Adams, opera Nixon in China, Steve Reich again, Julia Wolfe

Sarah Kirkland Snider’s article ‘Candy Floss & Merry-Go-Rounds: Female Composers, Gendered Language, and Emotion’ (NewMusicBox, May 17, 2017)

 

Goran Jurić: All about that bass

Goran Juric in the COC production of The Abduction from the Seraglio, 2018. Photo credit Gary Beechey.

Bass Goran Jurić (Osmin in the COC’s The Abduction from the Seraglio until February 24) is finishing his six year stint as the ensemble member at the Bavarian Opera and heading to Stuttgart next season. We met at the COC offices for a chat.

Tell me about your trajectory, Munich-based Croatian bass Goran Jurić.

I graduated from the University of Zagreb – I did opera studies there, and also Italian studies and general phonetics. My first operatic experiences were at the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb, where I sang Sarastro, among others…

When did you discover you’re a bass?

My low notes were immediately evident. When I was sixteen, seventeen, I developed my top notes in the course of my studies, but my base was clear early on.

And you knew immediately you wanted to sing – no instrument tempted you?

Music education at all levels is funded by the state in Croatia, and classical musician gets to go to a music-focused high school first and then on to university – what we call the Music Academy. So I went to music high school, where my primary subject was singing, but I had a minor too, the flute. I played the flute for a few years.

Completely different sound from the bass voice?

Yes, but there’s overlap – breathing technique has some similarities, it’s interesting. Then at university, I added Italian and phonetics to my studies. I’m really interested in linguistics, and Italian language and literature, even though I’ve always known I’d never work in the field of language. By the time I was 20, I knew I wanted to be an opera singer.

Do you come from a musical family?

Not at all. I come from a working class family, my dad is an electrician, my mom was a clerk. I don’t come from a family where you take private lessons in French or piano… I had “private lessons” in how to chop wood and stuff like that. If I was to become a musician at all, it was likelier I’d become a folk musician, because I grew up in a village. But somehow, through my education, primary school and high school, in my music classes, I discovered all these composers—and plus the TV probably helped and the occasional concert—and realized I have this great love of classical music. I started to sing in choirs, and my voice was being noticed etc. It’s thanks to our education system that I discovered I could be an opera singer. As it’s usually the case with children who come from rural backgrounds: what you don’t find at home, you’ll find thanks to a good public education system. One of the good things about the old Yugoslav socialist system was the free public schools with music education at every level.

And after the university?

After Croatia, I went to (what we call in our respective countries) “Europe” for singing competitions and I won a few. And that’s how I found my manager. The agency was then called Caecilia, out of Zurich, but now its former lyric section is its own agency, the Amman-Horak Agency for Opera Artists, and it’s remained Swiss. One of the first auditions that they sent me to was the Munich opera house. I had no idea what if anything I’ll get out of it. A chorus position, an opera studio job, an ensemble contract, a one-off role, nothing at all? I just wanted to work. I knew I wanted to move out from Croatia to a bigger operatic centre. And they offered me immediately to come on as an ensemble member. That was my big break. Munich is, well, probably the best opera house in Germany.

I hear Munich loves its opera.

Not only do they have a full season, but a summer festival too, and there’s a different opera on every day, and every day it’s packed. Ticket prices can hit substantial three digit numbers, due to demand. And Munich is the centre of southern Germany, with a really strong economy. BMW is there, Siemens, Bayers. It’s a wealthy city and its budget for culture is equally big, and Munich audiences love opera. There are two operatic theatres in town in addition to the Bayerische and they’re also doing well.

You’ll be in Munich a while longer?

I actually just finished my fest contract there. Learned a lot, sang a lot of roles, and they were careful of Fach. I was never forced to try anything that wasn’t good for my voice; and how they saw me matched exactly how I understood my own voice. They saw me more in Italian, with a little bit of German and Russian rep, and I appreciated that. I sang Banquo in Macbeth, Timur in Turandot, Colline in La Boheme, Ferrando in Trovatore, Raimondo in Lucia, Oroveso in Norma… Rarely baroque, but I did Plutone in L’Orfeo, and we did Rameau’s Les Indes galantes, where I did…

Wait, Rameau has bass roles?

Not only that, it was a female role, written for a bass, and the character is goddess of war by the name of Bellona.

Now I have to get that DVD.

It’s available! I rarely sing baroque these days, though I used to sing some baroque oratorio rep. After six years in Munich, next season I am starting an artist in residence contract at the Stuttgart Opera. It’s similar to being an ensemble member, but you sing much less and have much more available time to guest in other opera houses.

Where do you see your voice going in the next, say, five years?

I will try to keep my voice where it is now. This is my first Osmin at the COC, and I’m enjoying it a lot. I’m not a typical Mozart singer, I don’t do Figaro, Leporello, Don Giovanni. The three Mozart roles I’ve done are Il Commendatore, Sarastro and this one. And I did a Sarastro at the COC last year, and am glad to do Osmin in a house that I know well.

What are your composers now?

So, when it comes to bel canto. I’m not a Rossini singer, but I did sing Moses in Rossini’s Moses in Egypt in Bregenz this summer. I’m returning to Moses right after the Abduction, I’ll sing it in Naples. Raimondo in Lucia, Oroveso in Norma. That’s for bel canto. Then, Verdi. I would still wait for Filippo, but the Inquisitor I would do now. It’s quite short, it’s a big and important scene, but not as demanding as Filippo. For Filippo, you have to have the vocal maturity and also be mature as a person. Otherwise it’s just… not complete. In Don Carlo, I did already the Monk, and my next rank in that church would be the Inquisitor. Other Verdi, I do Sparafucile, Banquo, Ferrando, and happy with how that’s going. I’d like to do Ramphis as well. But I’ll wait out Filippo, Zaccharia, Attila. There’s still time.

What about the Russians?

I adore Russian composers. Last season here at the COC I did an all-Russian recital, with songs by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Sviridov. I would still wait for Boris a while. I will first do Pimen, which I will sing in Stuttgart in the near future. Pimen has some beautiful monologues. I would like to do King Rene in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. And Susanin in Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar. But for now—I’m 34, and that’s still young for a bass—I’d like to keep my voice between Mozart, bel canto and Verdi. I’ve been saying no to offers from the heavier rep. I’m often offered Wagner and most of those I decline. I will take Heinrich from Lohengrin – it’s written in an oratorio manner, the orchestra is not too thick, I don’t have to sing too dramatically. Let’s say King Mark from Tristan would be like like Filippo from Don Carlo for me; something I will wait for. That’s the role that I’d really like to do in the future. People tell me they can see me as Gurnemanz. I’ve sung Titurel, and there you can hear if someone would be good as Gurnemanz or not. But – there’s time.

I wanted to ask you about the Slavs in opera. I’ve read an interview with the Bulgarian singer Vesselina Kasarova in which, well, she put it like this: she encountered racism in the opera world around Slavic voices. Who are booming, unsophisticated, the “Russian School” etc. Does this sound familiar?

Yes! I’ve heard that before. There’s even some truth in what’s otherwise a crass stereotype. But this is how. What we think when we say “Slavs in opera”, it’s the Russian school of singing and the Bulgarian school of singing. Sometimes we add to that the ex-Yugoslav singers. Our languages probably affect our singing cultures. Our Slavic languages are kind of more guttural, throaty… and our folk music is written in a more virtuosic way than the folk music from the west. One of my Profs in Zagreb once told me that the nations that have long and complex tradition of folk music don’t have long and complex traditions of classical music, and vice versa. Perhaps the Slavic singing does come with and require bigger voices and differently coloured voices due to our folk traditions and religious singing, especially the Orthodox influence?

And maybe it’s our way of speaking as well. Perhaps the difference between the European east and the European west is like the difference between south America and north America. There’s a different kind of… expressivity.

Russian operas are full of basses. More of them there than anywhere else.

That’s probably due to their sacred music. Bass is a major voice in Russian Orthodox music. Different from Italian operas, where tenor tends to be the leading voice.

And women’s voices have not exactly been dominating Orthodox chants and liturgies; it’s the male voices, and low ones, in choirs that are the more familiar colour.

Yes, though they also have some really awesome nuns’ choirs. I wish there was an extensive study on this, I’d love to read it. On these differences.

When you listen to a western European choir do Rachmaninov Vespers, like the French choir Accentus, for example, which recorded the Vespers with Eric Ericson Chamber Choir, it’s a very different piece. Gossamer light in comparison to some Russian recordings.

I can believe it.

And then the Balkans are similar but also apart. I grew up in Croatia and Croatia is at a crossroads between the Mediterranean, Central European and Balkan cultures. That’s why the Croatian singers are part of the so-called “Slavic school” but we also have the Mediterranean touch and the Germanic touch via Austria. Croatia, Montenegro too, at a crossroads between larger countries and the empires that occupied us. But we made use of these cultural influences.

Croatia, within and without Yugoslavia, gave quite a few opera singers to the world. Was Sena Jurinac Croatian?

Yes. Also Dunja Vejzović. And Ruža Pospiš-Baldani.

I remember reading about Dunja in my adolescence, in Svijet magazine. Fast forward to much later, I last watched her in a DVD of Il trittico a few years back.

She is now in her 70s and she’s training as a conductor. She went back to school and she’s going to add that to her degrees.

Then there’s Renata Pokupić.

That’s right, she’s a baroque and Rossini singer. And let’s not forget Vlatka Oršanić. She’s my voice teacher and she’s sung in all of Europe really and now teaches at the opera studies department in Zagreb. And if we broaden our search to the entire ex-Yu territory, there’s of course Željko Lučić (b. in Serbia), really one of the best Verdi baritones around.

And Marijana Mijanović, also from Serbia, but she kind of retired.

Oh yes, Marijana! A real baroque contralto. I’ve never met her, but I remember when I was a student watching clips of her on Youtube, she is incredible.

And her former partner, Krešimir Špicer, who is often in Toronto thanks to Opera Atelier.

Krešimir is from Slavonski Brod, in Croatia. Actually, my very first opera, when I was in my second year at university, was Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, and Krešimir was Orfeo in it.

There’s a lot of Slavs in German and Austrian opera. There’s the gruff Croatian count in Arabella and who knows, maybe you’ll end up singing the role eventually… or is it too high for a bass?

I’m not touching Strauss yet! In due course, I’ll take a peek.

But Haydn, too, was inspired by folk songs from Croatia. There were times when the Balkans were inspiring to the west European musicians. Nowadays, the word balkanization is a pejorative… And the stereotyping of Slav singers, yes, it’s a thing.

But this stereotyping maybe works in Slav basses’ favour?

Well let’s be honest, a huge chunk of basses come from Slavic countries. Come on. I’ve met Croatian basses, and Russian ones, Belorussian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian especially. It is something that’s ours. Provided that this we exists in the first place, of course.

OMG that’s right. Of course it doesn’t.

A friend from Croatia recently asked me: so when you’re away and you miss home, what do you miss: Croatia as Croatia, or Karlovac, your hometown, or Zagreb where you studied, or Munich where you live? My answer is, I never feel complete. From every city I live in or work in, I get something. But I leave a bit of myself there as well.

Goran Jurić continues as Osmin at the COC.

Goran Jurić as Osmin and Owen McCausland as Pedrillo in the Abduction from the Seraglio. Photo: Michael Cooper

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.

 

New podcast episode out

January Alto is out.

First guest is Victorine de Oliveira, contributing writer @ Philosophie Magazine in France, who talks about her opera and classical highlights this season, books she’s been reading and also the French opposition to the MeToo. (Recorded on Skype, please forgive the extraneous sounds) People mentioned: Lea Desandre, Claus Guth, Kaija Saariaho, Terry Gillian, Paris opera loggionisti, Sarah Bakewell, a historian of the May ’68 Ludivine Bantigny, sociologist Eva Illouz, Virginie Despentes, Catherine Millet & the signatories of the PasMois letter.

Song: Emoke Baráth with Emese Virág on piano, Debussy’s “Nuit d’etoiles” (Hungaroton label, May 2017)

Followed by the conversation with opera director Christoper Alden on directing Rigoletto at the COC, the figure of the “Fallen Woman” in Verdi, working on a Peter Pan play via Leonard Bernstein and Nina Simone, whether his (rent-controlled) apartment in NYC is more Zeffirelli or minimalism, what his worry would be if the Met ever came calling, and what is opera to do in the age of Trump and the internet domination of culture.

The year in review

Some of the good things about 2017:

In Concert

Sarah Connolly with Chicago SO. Photo by Kristin Jensen.

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

Adrianne Pieczonka sings Winterreise, Rachel Andrist @ piano

Soundstreams presents R. Murray Schafer’s Odditorium

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

Mozart’s Piano – Kristian Bezuidenhout & Tafelmusik.

Opera

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

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

Arabella at the COC

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

Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

Media arts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podcast Episode the First

So I went and created a podcast.

It’s called Alto, it’ll cover music and literature and occasionally other stuff too and it’ll drop last Thursday of every month. The first episode is right here and on the Soundcloud, & can be streamed or downloaded. Guests Jenna Douglas Simeonov of Schmopera, John Gilks of Opera Ramblings, Joseph So of Ludvig Van and Opera Canada, and Sara Constant of The WholeNote and I talk about the good, the bad and the WTF of the year that was.

I’m still getting the hang of the technical side of things so don’t judge my sound equalization, clip quality or my anti-radio voice too harshly. For now.

I also realized while I was editing the audio file that there’s not a lot from my own list in the mix, but that’s just fine, there was so much to talk about that I never got around to going down my own list. I did point out my Greatest Disappointment, so there’s that. Here’s the run-down of some of the Best of… choices but for the Worst of… (and we were all much naughtier than our writing voices) you’ll have to listen in.

John of Opera Ramblings, Best Shows:

Neema Bickersteth’s Century Song at The Crow’s Theatre

Toronto Symphony with Against the Grain: Seven Deadly Sins, staged for concert

The Ana Sokolovic Dawn Begins in the Bones recital 21C Festival at Koerner Hall

The Vivier show, Musik fur das Ende, by the Soundstreams

Category: Reconciliation : COC Louis Riel, the symphony putting on shows with First Nations content; Brian Current & Marie Clements’ opera Missing which opened in BC; land acknowledgements in the arts world.

Sara Constant, Digital Media at the WholeNote:

The Soundstreams Vivier show

Intersections Festival hosted by Contact Contemporary Music (Jerry Pergolesi’s ensemble) – immersive event at Allan Gardens

My own addendum to this:

Soundstreams doing R Murray Schafer Odditorium

PLUS Judy Loman in anything

Joseph So, a long-time opera critic (Opera, Ludvig Van, Opera Canada):

Category: Event – the Trio Magnifico concert at the Four Seasons Centre (Netrebko, Hvorostovsky, Eyvazov)

Toronto’s best operatic performance: COC’s Gotterdammerung

COC’s Arabella (even though he describes it as a “German Harlequin novel” – or maybe because of that exactly?)

Best recital: Barbara Hannigan & Reinbert de Leeuw recital: “Like Melisande is singing Berg, Schonberg, Webern and Zemlinsky”

Best  singing performance in an opera: Andrew Haji singing Nemorino in COC’s Elixir d’amore

Best opera seen abroad: Goetz Friedrich’s Ring in Deutsche Oper Berlin – the farewell performance.

Jenna Simeonov (Schmopera):

Absolute top of the chart: ROH Rosenkavalier directed by Robert Carsen with Renee Fleming, Alice Coote and Sophie Bevan.

The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak – an opera with puppets by Wattle and Daub at Wilton’s Music Hall in London.

Katie Mitchell’s production of Written on Skin at ROH with the original cast

A Schmopera interview highlight of the yer: Dr. Paul E. Kwak on vocal health of singers.

+ + +

For detailed info on the musical tidbits in the podcast, head here.

My own Best of 2017 coming out before end of year.