Jamie Barton in recital

Jamie Barton with Bradley Moore at Koerner Hall. Photo credit James M. Ireland.
Jamie Barton with Bradley Moore at Koerner Hall. Photo credit James M. Ireland.

The cutest baby-Wagnerian around, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton made her Toronto recital debut at the Koerner Hall last night with Bradley Moore at the piano.

The program was diverse, but the format was kept traditional, with no witty intros or personal stories in between the sets of songs, which would have enriched and enlivened the event. She did finally speak–and kick off her shoes–before the last, American set, and showed talent for gab. More words next time, JB!

She mightily impressed in Dvořák’s Cigánské melodie. Moving through its divergent moods with great dramatic wisdom and excellent diction, Barton was very much at home in the Czech song cycle. She took good care of each word; the way she inhabited the word pláčem in the sombre fourth song effectively created a mini-scene of its own.

The three songs by Chausson too went well. The main issue with a large impressive voice like Barton’s in recital is to rein it in, not let it rip (too soon, too often, ever, maybe?). I wondered if an opulent voice would not maybe blow away some of the gossamer-ier sides of French mélodies, but turns out I didn’t need to: “Hébé” and “Le colibri” in particular were a delight as Barton gave her high floating pianissimi (yes they exist!) a good workout. We usually hear lighter voices in this rep, but hearing Barton and, say, Marie-Nicole Lemieux in mélodies is a whole different re-read. Pourquoi pas.

The Schubert set was a wee bit humdrum, possibly hindered by an under-ambitious choice of songs. Does anybody ever get excited by “The King of Thule” or “Shepherd’s Lament”? I’d loved to have heard Barton in some Lieder that mean the world to her personally, and the reasons why. Maybe something from Winterreise? Der Erlkönig? Ständchen? But no luck. OK, there was “Gretchen am Spinnrade” but the piano wheel didn’t spin for it with much propulsion, alas.

The final Jesus-y set wasn’t my thing (James Ivey-arranged “His Eye is on the Sparrow” and “Ride on King Jesus”) though “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (arr. H.T. Burleigh) can never fail. The encores were a Sibelius and a Princesse de Bouillon aria from Adriana Lecouvreur.

Now can we please hear Barton in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde? Sooner rather than later? She’s back to Toronto in the fall for Mahler 3 with TSO in the meantime.

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.


MY Opera does The Rape of Lucretia

Christina Campsall as Lucretia, Nicholas Borg as Tarquinius, Victoria Marshall as Bianca and Anne-Marie MacIntosh as Lucia. Photo by William Ford Photography.
Christina Campsall as Lucretia, Nicholas Borg as Tarquinius, Victoria Marshall as Bianca and Anne-Marie MacIntosh as Lucia. Photo by William Ford Photography.

Lots of good singing and musicianship last night in MY Opera’s The Rape of Lucretia, and Britten’s music (piano: Natasha Fransblow), the best thing about this opera, contains vast painterly visuals and subtlest love of detail. The music in Lucretia’s home, the women’s collective work and the light of a new day in particular, have rich cinematic quality. The ensembles are tremendous: whenever Britten has two or more people singing at the same time, a thrilling discord is heard. The oft returning, initially playful chord becomes the “is that all” motif that adds meaning wherever it appears.

Christina Campsall’s Lucretia felt right in just about every way. She was apprehensive and troubled from the get go, dignified in angst and (later) devastation and just a dash of glamorous throughout. Hers is a pretty mezzo that you wouldn’t exactly call either light or dark in timbre, doing both as needed. It’ll be interesting to see where she goes next (she’s sung Ruggiero and Offenbach’s Hélène at the GGS of Opera in recent years). Jonelle Sills (Female Chorus) and Daevyd Pepper (Male Chorus) were very good too, if very different characters dramatically. While Sills sang hers sincerely, Pepper’s showed hints of being calculating and self-interested. Hints only, however; much more could have been done to redefine the Choruses dramatically, especially because that was the initial promise.

Victoria Marshall (Bianca) and Anne-Marie MacIntosh (Lucia) were flawless in their scenes / miniatures. At various points during the show I found myself wondering ‘Yes, but what I really want to know is what those two are doing right now.’ Among the men, Jacob Feldman (impossibly boyish looking, but vocally convincing) and Evan Korbut as Collatinus and Junius respectively left a stronger impression than Nicholas Borg as Tarquinius. With Borg, there was some apparent straining in higher notes, and acting occasionally came close to caricaturing without any real menace stemming from the character, but he did well and held his own in the most difficult of scenes, the preliminaries to the rape. There was proper tension between the two characters, and the singers really made most of the awkward setup.

Director Anna Theodosakis placed the opera in a mid-twentieth century country—time when Britten worked on the piece. The MYO says it’s Italy nearing liberation, but the production is nowhere near that specific. You would expect in that case an Italy closer to the Italian neo-realist cinema? No, the setting could more plausibly be any other country that experienced occupation or heightened military presence roughly around that time, Hungary under Soviets, Berlin under Soviets, Yugoslavia under Germans or Italians, Greeks under the colonels, Spain under Franco, and on and on. And this broader applicability is a compliment to it, actually. While the production did not have a built set, the costumes and the direction did the story-telling, and very competently.

But as far as Lucretia and I are concerned, we are done. I’ve given this work hours and hours of fair trial, and will give no more. This was a gentle, confident production, but the libretto stays bad, irreparable. A woman is treated like garbage, then kills herself because she is too ashamed. Angels sing of Christ’s tears, praise her purity. Curtain. For good.

 Daevyd Pepper as Male Chorus and Jonelle Sills as Female Chorus. Photo by William Ford Photography.
Daevyd Pepper as Male Chorus and Jonelle Sills as Female Chorus. Photo by William Ford Photography.

Ave atque vale, Lucretia

Lucretia-BannerThere are barely any operatic works that I’d consider unstageable or irredeemably irrelevant. But last year, after seeing the Glyndebourne streaming of The Rape of Lucretia in the oddly respectful, libretto-at-face-value staging by Fiona Shaw, I realized that TROL would from then on be one such work for me. And not because of the detailed scene of rape, or the fact that the male leads use women’s bodies as currency in intra-military and political competition with impunity, or that the division of women into the whores and the chaste gets all of the airtime, or that the victim of rape takes upon herself the ‘spoiled goods’ stigma and kills herself out of shame and guilt.

No, not because of that. An intelligent staging could rework the bits of this ghastly puzzle into something that subverts its surface meaning instead of amplifying it.

It’s because of its ending, in fact: after Lucretia’s death, the chorus wonder among themselves whether the suffering and pain is all there is, and reassure us that no, that Christ the Saviour will come soon and be crucified and with His wounds redeem the wounds of the suffering humanity, including the poor Lucretia. Just you wait: she will not have suffered and died in vain.


Last time I got that angry after a show had to be after a Lars von Trier film—could be Breaking the Waves, could be the one with Nicole Kidman, could be any random misogynist crap that his funders and film critics encourage him to produce. One of his favourite tropes is Woman as the Sacrificial Lamb: an innocent, good woman being excruciatingly annihilated by a group/community, and this event, there are hints, works as an exorcism and brings catharsis for said community (or bro).

And von Trier is not alone: this trope is widespread in culture, its cinematic and operatic corners in particular, but everywhere else too.

TROL itself is so cavalier, so I-don’t-give-a-shit patriarchal, so unlayered dramatically, containing such simpleminded theology that would horrify or make laugh even a deeply religious Christian who indeed does believe that the Son of God had come to earth, died to redeem our sins and will return to abolish death and pain and reward the victims of injustice. (Any Christians reading this: I know you’re more sophisticated than this opera suggests. This is an insult to you, too.)

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that not one but two of the indie opera companies in Toronto would be doing TROL within a short time span. Of all the chamber-size operas around, it’s this one that got chosen—twice. Against the Grain will be co-producing it with various other organizations later this year, but MY Opera, a smart upstart run by the young & talented women who program lesser known rep gems and (equally important) pay the performers, surprised me much more.

The MYO press release also hinted that the director Anna Theodosakis would take considerable liberties with the work and set it in a very different historical period, with not a toga in sight. Company’s press materials also make obvious a sharply attuned awareness of the today widely and hotly debated issues around assault, consent, and artistic representation of same.

So I got curious: to see that a local small company has a more sophisticated approach to TROL than the kinda ideologically naïve one that Fiona Shaw and Glyndebourne took last summer was heartening. But when I emailed company’s General Manager Stephanie Applin, to ask if Theodosakis and the Artistic Director Kate Applin can meet me for tea and conversation, I warned them about my anti-TROL judgment.

They weren’t deterred: Anna and the Applin sisters were game to being challenged and talked to me about the concept and their reasons for doing the work for about an hour. I left in a better mood than the one I came in—which however is not to say that I’m converted to the work. This desperate piece is in capable hands, is what I can say: if anybody can do anything meaningful with it, it’s people like these three women who have thought through every political aspect of putting it on stage and are boldly ploughing though it for reinterpretation and salvage.

In Theodosakis’ regie, Lucretia takes place in Italy at the end of the Second World War. This chimes neatly with the libretto, as the original setting is the (un)rule of the kings before Rome became Rome, i.e. Roman Republic and later the Empire. With Theodosakis we’re still in Rome, but it’s a Rome at the twilight of a regime of a different kind. The militaristic rule is floundering, Italy clearly losing the war, and an internal Italian strife shaping up between the old monarchic regime tainted by its fascist ties, and the new forces of republicanism.

And while Tarquinius and Collatinus, Lucretia’s husband, are in the same army, their political loyalties are beginning to diverge.

So the rape does not exactly happen as an instrument of war—something that I expected we’d see, since the setting is the latter part of WW2. Rather, it’s a tool in the emerging civil conflict–perhaps even a retaliation?

While Tarquinius of the libretto, a vile Etruscan who bullied his way to the (Roman) top carries marks of the racially other, Theodosakis eliminated that complication: her Tarquinius is an insider through and through.

The male chorus and the female chorus are the greatest challenge in this opera. Theodosakis, wisely, puts the pious commenters smack in the middle of the drama. I won’t spoil everything ahead of the premiere, but I can say that they are a couple of functionaries with very specific allegiances and an agenda. The final words that usually irk me so much are uttered with political goals in mind—as something of a calculated manipulation by the means of Catholic vernacular in order to mobilize the populace.

As for the long scene of the assault, the MY Opera ladies tell me that it was important to them to avoid two pitfalls: one, of being gratuitous and voyeuristic, and the opposite one, of softening the scene and making the crime appear more bearable.

Will the production achieve the goals? The approach is certainly well-informed and thought-through. But can they accomplish the miracle of opening up to interpretation the work’s ossified core? We’ll all be able to see April 29 to May 1. Toi, toi, toi, gals.

In the banner photo: Christina Campsall (Lucretia).

End of year highlights: performing arts

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

Tap:Ex Metallurgy with FKD UP

Jordan de Souza (front) with Jonah Falco (at the piano in the background) in Tap:Ex A. Photo by Dahlia Katz

There’s a music-making ethos that says that anybody can partake in music and compose by doing it, learn on the job as it were, regardless whether they have any music education. This is the pop, rock, folk, etc sphere—including the very DIY punk. Then there’s the classical music ethos, where music making is a matter of the written-down complex forms (the ‘musical work’), academic or communal training, perfectibility of performance.

The two kinds of ethos were expected to meet and collaborate in Tapestry Opera’s new project, Tap:Ex Metallurgy, but under one condition: each had to work in the other’s idiom. Jonah Falco from the punk band Fucked Up got to create Metallurgy A (to the libretto by the band mate Mike Haliechuk and poet David James Brock), and composer Ivan Barbotin Metallurgy B, with DJB as the librettist. As the FU explain in this video, his part was a collective effort in which conductor Jordan de Souza got the lion share of the work of notating Falco’s remarkable creation. Barbotin, in the second, much shorter work, got to use some of the pop idiom, including the drums and the electric guitar.

It was a good concert—not really an opera, not really two one-acters spliced together, but a concert. Musically, the Falco-de Souza collaboration with a small string orchestra, a piano and an electric guitar was much more interesting, if clearly the less popular one with the audience. There were no tunes, no rock rhythms and the soundscape was atmospheric and dissonant, occasionally lyrical in an austere (non-Rufus Wainwright) way. Krisztina Szabo and David Pomeroy produced some pretty awesome noise at certain junctures. The librettos, although great on the verse level, were as dramatic works bizarrely unambitious, intimate, almost banal – set within the couple in each case, a couple with a dead child in Tap A, and a couple just…er…being a couple over the years? in Tap B. The music was of greater interest in each Tap. Falco used the electronica very sparsely—was that one of the conditions?—while Barbotin used it unabashedly, together with some recognizable rock music quotes.

I expect the goal of the collaboration was to mix the two audiences more than anything—the Fucked Up’s and the Tapestry’s–and judging by the show of hands when Michael Mori asked after the first timers, the opening night did have a real mix of people. I wonder what FU connoisseurs thought about the experiment (they probably don’t analyze performances in this precious way that we in classical music do). Perhaps the project should leave the claustrophobic studio space on the third floor of a Distillery building and travel to a space where FU is likelier to perform. And perhaps it can be allowed to change each time it’s performed, in the spirit of spontaneity of a live band performance. Take the risk-taking further.

Tap:Ex continues Nov 20 (PWYC) and 21 (two performances).

David Pomeroy, Krisztina Szabó and Mike Haliechuk (behind). Photo by Dahlia Katz
David Pomeroy, Krisztina Szabó and Mike Haliechuk (behind). Photo by Dahlia Katz

Turner and Music at the AGO

Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842) by Joseph Mallord William Turner

J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free, occupying the second floor of the AGO till January 31, is an exhibition of Turner’s later works. It’s Turner at his least ‘realist’ and most experimental, pushing the boundaries of the form this way and that. What’s really new at the AGO, however, is the musical soirees programmed alongside and presented each Friday to the audience that happens to be in the gallery during the AGO Friday Nights extended hours. The music is meant to relate to the exhibition in some way–it’s up to the programmer to establish the connection. One of those pieces is always to be a work especially commissioned for the occasion.

Tapestry’s Artistic Director Michael Mori is the first music programmer of the November series. He chose an interesting mix of literally and indirectly Turner-related pieces, first half of which is piano only (Adam Sherkin) and second more of a Liederabend (with mezzo Marion Newman). The commissioned works concluded the concert, the atmospheric “Shade and Darkness” and “Light and Colour” composed by Adam Sherkin and inspired by some of the Turner paintings exhibited.

In Part I, Sherkin played Liszt’s “Orage” (1848) and “La lugubre gondola I” (1882), Beethoven’s Bagatelle Op. 126 (1824), a piano quickie by John Adams, “China Gates” (1978), and Sherkin’s own “The Fire Maker” (2013). The acoustics of the Walker Court dispersed the sound and did not entirely do justice to the evident drive and focus of Sherkin’s playing. People are also bound to mill about, clink glasses and drop programs, but the informality and the extraneous sounds soon enough became a legit part of the experience. As the available chairs quickly filled up, people sat on the stairs, and the un-concert-like seating arrangements abetted an intimate atmosphere.

The sound got much better once the mezzo started singing: Marion Newman rocked the place with her powerful voice and cabaret cheekiness. After Schubert’s sedate “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (1814), the gear switched to flirtatious with Carmen’s “Habanera” (1875) and settled down on poignant with Dido’s Lament. The bright and pretty “Where Corals Lie” from Elgar’s Sea Pictures concluded the historical part of the concert, while Sherkin’s commission concluded the evening.

The program repeats November 20 and 27, 7:30, Walker Court at the AGO. Definitely worth experiencing after a proper visit with Mr. Turner upstairs.

CASP, gasp!

CASP started its concert series auspiciously last night at the Extension Room, with the pieces by three living composers (two Canadian and one American) and a mini-lieder cycle by Strauss. The common (broad) theme was women in extreme situations.

“The Living Spectacle” (2015) by Erik Ross, the three-song cycle based on Baudelaire’s poems (tr. Roy Campbell), was performed by soprano Ambur Braid and Steven Philcox at the piano. The songs vary in tone and evoke different moods. “The Death of Lovers” is a vast and bright piece that beautifully straddles sadness and serenity, never for a moment giving up one for the other. The soundscape of “The Evil Monk” is a more familiar Goth-ish territory, lower on the stave and with more dramatic accents, while “The Death of Artists” has an irresistible piano undercurrent similar to Michael Nyman’s Piano score. We all knew that Ambur Braid had splendid highs, but what perhaps we don’t get to hear as often is how attractive and meaty her lower register is. The songs showed what a fabulous chiaroscuro voice she is. Somebody cast her in some Verdi, stat.

She also sang Libby Larsen’s to me new and astounding “Try Me, Good King: Last Words of the Wives of Henry VIII” (2000).  Normally, the Tudor-cultural industry and the royal family marriages are low on my list of interests, but Larsen researched and chose the text carefully, and gave each queen music materials to reflect their personal story and historical context. Katherine of Aragon gets a fairly pious song; Boleyn a complex mix of beseeching, anger, resignation; Jane Seymour’s is on the sweet and simple side; Anne of Cleves’s couples its staccato piano and quick rhythm with an almost sarcastic text. Ambur Braid provided tons of useful background info in her funny introduction to how each of the wives hooked up with Henry (“I nerd out… Bear with me”), but mood changed from comedic to dramatic when she started singing. She voiced each queen with unreserved commitment and compassion—it was probably the emotional peak of the evening. Powerful! Larsen’s excellent cycle found an excellent ambassador.

Carla Huhtanen, the ‘black belt’ of contemporary vocal music (was it Brian Current who said it? It’s true) sang the other half of the program. She was tone perfect in Strauss’s Three Ophelia Songs (1918), sincere, conflicted, a genuinely lost womanchild. When she wasn’t singing, the piano (Steven Philcox) echoed her competing feelings.

She had even more to do in the staged and choreographed “Sewing the Earthworm” (2012) by Brian Harman, to the poetry by David James Brock. The piece is about a woman who has been diagnosed with a neurological disease and is noticing the first signs of physical deterioration. She starts off with her frequent activities—gardening and sewing—but they get disturbed, meddled and finally leak into one another, and an earthworm gets conceptually lost among seams and needles. The final segment shows a mind desperately seeking the thread (of meaning) while being lost in the ‘squirming and slithering’ of her remaining incoherent life impulses. Harman employs the prepared piano in some segments, and the soprano is expected to be humming, moaning and screaming alongside the singing. The repetitions, the unexpected beat changes and the pauses are used to great effect. It’s really an exciting piece, here heightened by the presence of a dancer (Jennifer Nichols) who is the woman’s spirit and who is laid to rest and buried in the soil in the final scene.

The Living Spectacle was commissioned by CASP and Peter Deeb in 2014. Sewing the Earthworm was commissioned by CASP in 2010. For more about CASP and its future concerts, head over here.

Clockwise: Huhtanen, Nichols, Braid and Philcox.
Clockwise: Huhtanen, Nichols, Braid and Philcox.

Quel trouble inconnu me pénètre

LooseTEA2Is Gounod’s Faust salvageable in any way and should we bother? Alaina Viau and Markus Kopp with the latest Loose TEA production Dissociative Me make the case that we should, and keep the score while rewriting the libretto, originally by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, based on Goethe. Gone is the religion from the text (yay), gone are all female roles but Marguerite (no yay; no trouser role of Siébel and no contralto Marthe). We are in the present time and Faust is a recent PhD in astrophysics (tenor Kijong Wi), lonely and unemployed, neither a job nor a date on the horizon. In comes Mephistopheles (baritone Michael York) and promises the world if Faust agrees to “stop taking his medication”.

So instead of the discourse on sin, we are within the discourse of mental health, and in this way Viau’s update is very much of its—our–time. Today we prefer talking about criminal responsibility instead of ‘evil’, which to us smacks of Catholic Hell. We find it difficult to analyze (still no better word->) evil acts committed by the perfectly sane, well-educated and comfortable people. Our secular age lacks a discourse on evil, because we’re all too happy to chuck it with the rest of the Christian mythology. This doesn’t solve the problem, alas. And evil as an applicable concept, to echo Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, survives well into our secular age, whether we have the framework for it or not.

Viau could argue of course that in their adaptation, Faust is not evil as much as a nasty date; seducing a woman from a very patriarchal family, impregnating her and abandoning her perhaps isn’t evil, perhaps it’s a bad love practice, perhaps he is just being an unethical slut. Yes, I can go with that. But in the course of Dissociative Me, Faust also lands a spectacular job and acquires charisma. Those are the worldly goods he was promised—and he is finally enjoying them. Marguerite, on her part, ends up being devastated by the abandonment and single-motherhood to the point of killing her newborn and herself. Would that really happen today, or is Mephistopheles again pulling some underworldly strings? The Catholic bits of the original libretto return to Dissociative Me to undermine the mental illness paradigm. The eerie prerecorded sounds heard in some scenes also flirt with the supernatural, but remain ambiguous enough to work (is it the supernatural or is Faust hallucinating, or is it atmospheric music like a film score). Viau and Kopp have approached the rework of the Gounod with seriousness, and for that kudos. They could have, however, gone much further, particularly with the character of Marguerite. The poor soul still gets seduced via a box of jewels.

In any case, the two-sides-of-the-same-person idea works well overall. Viau and Kopp keep the two characters fairly independent until the key scene at the end when Faust’s suicide also kills Mephistopheles, his other face. This is very effective as the final act. I suspect this dual protagonist idea would have worked even without the mental illness: a sane, unmedicalized Faust could have met his darker self and decided to give it full reign. Or perhaps Mephistopheles could stand for or supply some mood- and concentration-enhancing drug to which Faust becomes addicted.  It is to Viau and Kopp’s credit that I found myself long after the show thinking about this and Gounod’s Faust in general, an opera I don’t usually rush to contemplate. And this in spite—or perhaps because—of the blind spots in the adaptation. This take on Faust will get opera lovers thinking and talking, even if the execution leaves a thing or two to be desired.

There was probably no money for the set or the props, so the director (Viau) makes the best of the location—the night club RED in the Liberty Village—and some dark curtains. For example, Act 2 happens at the bar, and moves to a coffee shop where Marguerite works. Among the bits of the opera that were cut out is unfortunately also “King of Thule”, Marguerite’s melancholy aria. Her jewellery aria is still there and still as unflattering for the character as in the original libretto (selfies are involved). Soprano Beth Hagerman did her utmost in the ungrateful role, sang movingly and acted credibly. She was innocent when innocence was called for and believably broken in the latter parts.

Michael York was a compelling Mephistopheles who goes by the innocuous name of Lee. The devil’s emissary is usually the meatiest role in any production of Faust, no exception here. York exercised the greatest range of emotions, including forays into comedy. Kijong Wi’s Faust was somewhat single-note dramatically; vocally, however, he was reliably good, with a full-bloodied top and the evenness of tone.

Jennifer Tung at the piano kept the motor running and the vehicle moving. Somebody should write a long piece on the music directors who act as one-person orchestras—where would the Toronto indie opera be without you. Hat tip from us all.

One performance left to go: August 22.

LooseTEA1Left: Beth Hagerman as Marguerite. Top photo: l-r Michael York and Kijong Wi as Lee and John Faustus. Both photos by Rachel McCaig Photography.