ROH opera screenings return to Bloor Cinema

ROH opera screenings return to Bloor Cinema

andrea_chenier_1aAaaaaaaaand opera is finally back at the Bloor Cinema: this Sunday Feb 22 at noon they’re screening a repeat of ROH’s Andrea Chenier directed by David McVicar with Jonas Kaufman in the title role.

The rest of the schedule looks like this:

March 22 – Tim Albery’s Der fliegende Holländer with Adrienne Pieczonka and Bryn Terfel.

June 28 (no idea why the long break) – a new production of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny with Anne Sofie von Otter (the production that I plan to see live in London on March 24)

July 26 – a traditional La Bohème by John Copley

August 30 – a new prod of Guillaume Tell with Antonio Pappano conducting.

The return flight on Airline Icarus

The return flight on Airline Icarus

Airline Icarus CD coverBrian Current’s chamber opera Airline Icarus is finally available on CD, and it sounds even better than I remember it. (I have reviewed the staged version directed by Tim Albery earlier on this blog.) It is best enjoyed while following the libretto by Anton Piatigorsky, which for some inexplicable reason was not included in the CD booklet. You will have to go to the Soundstreams website and download the PDF file, but it is worth the trouble. The text is even smarter than I managed to gather during live performance, the music more complex, more expressive and more emotionally wrenching. The interplay and the responsiveness between the words and the text are just about flawless.

When this CD arrived in the mail, I rushed to play the most obviously stand-alone segment, the Pilot Aria, characterized by an urgent danceable rhythm and a powerful declarative text. After carefully listening to the whole work again, it was clear to me that most of the segments can be enjoyed on their own even if it is a composed-through opera; the ensembles like the “Icarus, where are you?” just before the Pilot Aria, or the piece sung by the Scholar and the Voices “Time to take off–breathe” are veritable choral bonsais—not large in the number of musicians or length, but (if we stop and listen closely) in intricacy. Further, each of the individual characters in the drama is given a miniature solo psychological portrait alongside a few exchanges with other characters, and no line of music or text is used in vein. The characters are portrayed in a few strokes, but those reveal the key traits of their personalities.

So I recommend listening to the CD as you would a favourite pop or jazz album: in bits, repeatedly, idiosyncratically, irreverently, sometimes while doing other stuff, sometimes for dancing around the house, other times in search of social criticism of the technological hubris and the late capitalist citizen loneliness. Occasionally a contemporary music piece captures some of what it feels like to be alive in our age so well that it’s easy to adopt it as part of the everyday life. Airline Icarus is familiar and strange, both. It does feel like the flying experience put to music, and its philosophical and political implications put to music too.

Hell, it’s the family

Hell, it’s the family
COC Don Giovanni--photo by Michael Cooper
Photo by Micheal Cooper. A scene from the dress reh for the COC-Aix-Madrid-Bolshoi Don Giovanni, to open at the COC this afternoon.

Though it would be easy to read the family as representative of capitalist success, and the outsider Don Giovanni as the criticism of its values, Tcherniakov is adamant that social criticism of this kind is the last thing on his mind. “I am of the opinion that even if overnight we all became equal and well-off in material goods, we would all remain equally unhappy.”

My article on Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni for the GlobeArts here.

This made me remember Richard Rorty: both Marx and Freud should inform the Left, he kept reminding, never Marx solely.

Madama Butterfly, or America as the marital rights utopia


Madama Butterfly at the COC. Seen October 15, 2014. Tickets & more info

The libretto of Madama Butterfly is impossible to love, but the sad fact of the matter is that the music of this opera is probably Puccini’s most sophisticated score, least emotionally manipulative, least musical theatre, least cheddar. There are some exceptional musical moments, like the orchestral interlude that expresses the psychological state of Cio-Cio San during the night of the long wait for the just returned Pinkerton to come to her, and the music in just about any scene with her son and with Suzuki. (Conductor was Patrick Lange.) It’s a solid, composed through musical piece that doesn’t insult intelligence and could be enjoyed more if listened to rather than watched staged.

Unless something radical is done with its staging, that is. And in the greatest number of productions nothing radical is done, this COC revival of the Brian Macdonald production included. (When I asked Patricia Racette about the most unusual production she’s ever sung Cio-Cio San in, she cited Bob Wilson’s, the laser-precision of which she ended up enjoying very much—and I can absolutely see how a Wilsonian reductio might actually work in this case.) Macdonald opted for the traditional-minimalist aesthetic, with sets in near monochrome, the moving Japanese walls repurposed for different scenes, and a soft-focused and discreetly changing vista of the Japanese landscape as the backdrop (set and costume design by Susan Benson). The costumes are a bit more extravagant, the kimonos elaborate and the wigs somewhat limiting the movements of the two female protagonists.

The libretto is a cringe-fest, yes, but it has moments worth pondering. The US appears in it—to the Cio-Cio San—as the land where the rights of married women run a considerably larger gamut than in her own culture. She is indeed stuck between the rock of a local marriage negotiator / pimp (probably a man from her extended family) and the hard place of a deceiving American sex tourist (this excellent characterization of Pinkerton I owe to John Gilks). There is an extended conversation in the opera in which Butterfly argues that husbands in the US can’t just divorce their wives on a whim, and that if they try, the judges laugh them out of court. An illusion—I doubt marital rights of women in the US were particularly extensive in 1904—but the US appears and reappears in the opera not only as a place breeding the jingoistic, myopic, greedy Pinkertons but also as a utopia of marital rights, and of a different kind of citizenship. In many ways, Madama Butterfly is about the topics as contemporary the mail order brides, and the compromises that the women in the low-income countries make in order to be able to emigrate to the wealthier places where they perceive more opportunities awaiting. Whether this has been tackled in any previous productions and how it can be approached in future ones, remains to be seen.

Patricia Racette in her signature role was not a naïve flower but a conscious and determinate Cio-Cio San, the voice strong and not at all maidenly (I mean this as a compliment), the vibrato well-controlled, the timbre of the bright, gleaming bronze. She knows the role inside out and it shows. I always enjoy Elizabeth Deshong’s dark mezzo and hearing her again at the COC is a treat. Her acting was also good. The two main men—Stefano Secco as Pinkerton and Dwayne Croft as Sharpless—left nothing to be desired, each possessing a distinctive colour, solid projection and control, beauty of tone and precision in phrasing. (At the curtain call, Secco/Pinkerton had to endure the boos from the audience that seemed to be forgetting that we were not in a panto. Seriously, Toronto?!)

In summary: one of my least favourite operas, in a production that affords too much respect to the literal text, but musically an interesting work that the cast, the conductor and the orchestra at the COC do justice, and that deserves more radical, directly contemporary stagings if it is to be saved for a thinking opera goer.

L-R: Elizabeth Deshong, Patricia Racette and Dwayne Croft. Photo credit Michael Cooper.

When the Sun Comes Out – the Toronto Concert Premiere

Keith Lam, Stephanie Yelovich, Maika’i Nash and Teiya Kasahara
Keith Lam, Stephanie Yelovich, Maika’i Nash and Teiya Kasahara. Photo credit: Avenue One.

Let’s hope that we will be able to see When the Sun Comes Out properly staged and orchestrated for at least a handful of instruments in the near future. (AtG, I’m looking at you?) Vancouver has seen the work staged (albeit minimalistically) and orchestrated for single violin, flute, clarinet cello and the piano and conducted by the composer Leslie Uyeda herself. All the thanks should go to Tapestry for bringing the concert version to Toronto.

It is a work that breaks new grounds, thematically, and opens up new ways of talking about love and the gendering within the couple. Leslie Uyeda’s music is consistently on edge and dissonant, without a single sentimental or sappy note. The only remotely post-Romantic sounding passage is when the two female protagonists kiss for the first time (I take it it’s much more than just kissing in the staged version), which sounds appropriately reminiscent of Der Rosenkavalier. There are moments of romantic relief here and there, but Uyeda thankfully steered clear of ‘beautiful melodies’ (of the kind found, say, in Rufus Wainwright’s Primadonna and will likely be found in his future COC opera). Uyeda is a composer who doesn’t compose as if the twentieth century never happened—nor as if there’s a lurking harmony and a key resolution to two women loving each other. It’s always complicated, the music doesn’t cease to remind us, never easy. Notably, there are no duos between the lovers, no singing in thirds for the Monteverdi dykes in the audience like myself. There is no escaping the harsh realities.

Props to music director Maika’i Nash who had the task of conveying the complexities of the score with only the piano at his disposal.

The libretto itself, I felt, needs the staging to come into full effect. Also, the surtitles. Poet Rachel Rose probably wrestled over every word, and those words should be known even when the soprano hangs out in the top of the top of her register. If we look at it as the text for a full-blown operatic piece, the libretto is not particularly convincing. (Not many operatic librettos make sense, I know, but many do within their own unique parameters.) A wandering heroine from a freer territory falls in love with a citizen of an oppressive country where same-sex love is punishable by death. The local woman is married, has children and many more constraints upon her freedom. What works really well is that the story reads semi-mythic, semi-all-too-recognizable—there are long thoughtful monologues recollecting past actions and brooding over the impossible future that bring to mind Tristan und Isolde, but there are also moments of the easily recognizable present. So far, so good.

The emergence of the husband and his attempt at murder after having caught them in flagrante and the subsequent emotional dissolution into confessing his own past same-sex love and loss… I’m still not sure what to make of that. Perhaps the idea was to show that the heteronormative patriarchy punishes equally its daughters and its sons? And I get that. But his quick switch from a brute to a crying mess is a bit too convenient a solution.

But perhaps we shouldn’t look for a typical full-blown operatic libretto in Rose’s text—perhaps it is, as one reviewer suggested, a dramatic poem more than a drama; and perhaps it is closer, as I kept thinking while watching it, to the melodramatic one-acters like Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine. In which case, with a lot of things abstracted out, a lot distilled to the one to three characters, and a touch of absurd here and there, it would be a good representative of the family.

Teiya Kasahara, for whom Uyeda wrote the character of Solana, displayed her usual stage charisma and sang (owned!) an extremely high role with great stamina. Solana is not a particularly complex character—she is angry, brave, wanderlust-y, reckless, never doubtful, always demanding, from the beginning till the end. Lilah, however, now there’s a novel in there somewhere. Stephanie Yelovich gave us a complex portrait of a human in an existential crisis, who can lose everything by loving who she loves. Her voice—and I am guessing the role tessitura–was a shade darker and lower than Solana’s and a respite next to Solana’s relentlessness and moral certitudes. (The Vancouver Lilah was a mezzo, NB.) The two women were good together, and what was also unique about this performance was that the kissing and the making out were devoid of the awkwardness between two straight singers that’s frequently seen on mainstream stage. If their music wasn’t easily harmonious, their bodies were, and very natural with one another.

A very special mention should go to Keith Lam who brilliantly acted and sang the character of the husband. The dude almost stole the show. (And he was tasked with inhabiting an implausible character, so imagine the degree of accomplishment.)

To sum up: WTSCO is an exciting new chamber opera-poem with great potential, deserving a serious staging or two.


Kasahara, Yelovich, Lam. Photo by Avenue One.

Christopher Alden talks about his new production Il Turco in Italia

Christopher Alden talks about his new production Il Turco in Italia

How did you approach Il Turco in Italia, how do you understand it?

Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868)
Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868)

It’s the piece that I love, and once did years ago at the Long Beach Opera. I thought about it for years. It has this element running through the libretto about the cultural differences between two people who fall for each other. To me it’s about how brave they both are in this relationship that they begin– they break through the cultural barriers. In their relationship, they move out of their comfort zones. The ending is sad, because each goes back to their original partner, he to the woman from his culture, she to her husband.

Another special thing about the work is the character of the poet who wanders through the piece. At the beginning this writer appears, and says, I have to come up with a plot for a dramma buffa but I can’t think of any plot, and starts following what’s happening with the other characters. All the way through the opera, he pushes the characters in certain direction to do things which would be more exciting.

It’s an aspect reminiscent of Pirandello. The way the libretto’s written, it’s a bit more like the poet runs into these people and is inspired by what he sees happening with them. The way I am tending to do it here in this production is a little bit more in the Pirandello vein, like Six Characters In Search of an Author. Sort of a dreamier, less literal way of telling the story. You’re in this space which is like a rehearsal space, or a limbo where these people are sitting around waiting for this man, the poet, who is a writer but also perhaps in many ways like an opera director. They’re all waiting for him to tell them who they are and what their story is. The production veers between the cracks of reality and fantasy or creativity, so you’re not quite sure whether the events are real or not. 

Is the character of the Turk really from an Eastern country and Fiorilla a West European?

Weeeelll…it’s a funny aspect of doing these pieces from the past… this piece or the other Rossini opera, L’Italiana in Algeri, or Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, where you have the clash between East and West, and the Muslim side is portrayed in a sort of buffoonish way. Confronting those pieces now it’s always a tricky thing… What kind of context can you put that in? In this production we’re downplaying that aspect of it and definitely downplaying the buffoonishness of the Salim character. In fact he’s played rather like a very serious, sensitive, intelligent man with a damaged past. A man who comes to Italy to get away from his bruised past and to see a different life. And Fiorilla, this Italian woman, picks him up, basically. She goes to the part of (ostensively) Naples where Gypsies hang out, where people go to have assignations, and meets him there. The woman who has a strong sense of freedom, who wants to live her life the way she wants to and not play by the rules of her society, finds this attractive guy and is intrigued. She also plays a dangerous game with him, wants to possess him but also maybe wants to destroy him. And drives him crazy in that way. There’s a dark side to it–an s/m side to this relationship.

alden headshot
Christopher Alden

So she indeed lives in Naples, that hasn’t changed?

They talk about Naples in the text, so that remains of course. In this production, it’s sort of mid-twentieth century Italian-ish feel to it, but more like a drier, Pirandello aesthetic. They are sort of in a rehearsal room, all these men and women together. It’s a world of men, with only two female characters, Fiorilla and Zaida. A room filled with men obsessing about this one woman: how they desire her and they’re in love with her and put her up on a pedestal but they also fear her and hate her and want to push her off the pedestal. Which is exactly what happens in the denouement of the opera.

At the end she is made to show her vulnerability. Underneath the bravado she wants to have a strong man to take care of her etc. etc. It’s kind of like you couldn’t have a nineteenth century Italian opera with a strong female character without having her have some kind of a fall at the end. Opera was entertainment where men go to the theatre to watch a beautiful woman suffer and die or get pushed off the pedestal. So this is how this opera ends too.

And for the most part Fiorilla actually runs the show. It’s just wonderful to see a free female character like that on stage.

I know, I know. It’s exciting, that character. And I have this amazing lady playing it, Olga Peretyatko. She’s an extraordinary singer but also wonderful actress. And she’s great in this role. The way she is as a person, she’s a really strong, take-charge kind of a person and she’s doing some exciting work in this. One of those opera singers who really want to find it for themselves, and make it their own. I’ll feed her an idea and she’ll say, OK, great, don’t tell me any more! She wants to work on the character herself, which is fun.

Can you tell more about the Pirandello side of the production.

We observe the writer working out his ideas, his feelings about life and society, his issues about women, and you get an interesting perspective on the creative process and the writer’s relationship to a story or to the characters in his story. When you read about the families of writers, there’s often a lot of interesting tensions between a writer and people close to him that gets used as fodder for writer’s work. We read a lot about that. And our production also has that going on. People in this story often turn to him and they’re upset that he’s excited by what’s happening in their lives—he thinks they contain many dramaturgic possibilities. It was interesting to work through this piece always with the perspective of How does the writer feel about what’s happening in this scene? How does he feel about the end of this piece especially? When two people have the courage to break their cultural barriers and connect, how does the writer feel about backing away from it and writing this kind of ending? He created this strong female character but by the end her strength is traded off.

I gather you don’t really see Il Turco as a comedy?

I think it’s always interesting what serious things you can talk about through comedy. This piece is a good example of that. The clash of cultures, which is also a metaphor for the clash of cultures between men and women… this piece has a lot to say about that, but it’s all said  essentially through these comic situations.

But even in itself, the way the piece is written, there’s sort of a turning point two thirds of the way in the act two when Fiorilla realizes that there’s a threat of losing her husband—that there’s a chance that she will return to the lower class upbringing that she came from, with her parents in Sorrento. The tone perceptibly changes.

And, thinking about this piece, I realized that were many parallels with the life of Maria Callas. A woman with a wealthy husband, like Callas’s husband Meneghini, but then this exciting stranger on a yacht shows up and she leaves the comfort of that life to be with Onassis. And how that parallel is played out in this production is that Fiorilla is in a way the diva of the company. It’s very much about this woman’s relationships with all of these men in the room, with the poet who is like a writer or director like Visconti, or Zeffirelli, or Pasolini. There’s also her relationship with the husband who’s like one of those husbands of sopranos who sits in the rehearsal room reading a newspaper because he’s afraid to leave his wife alone because she’ll have a thing with the leading man, which is exactly what happens in this piece. Then there’s also the character of the tenor, written to be one of her lovers or ex-lovers but in this production we’re playing him a bit more like a sort of stalker/fan who’s always following her around. A dodgy guy in a raincoat who, as the piece goes on, takes a more and more dangerous and threatening aspect.

Toi toi toi for the opening night! The production is going to be seen also in Dijon and in Poland?

It’ll be Dijon, Warsaw, Torino and Bahrain, those are the four co-producers. It’s a fitting mish-mash of cultures.


Gioacchino Rossini (1792 – 1868) IL TURCO IN ITALIA. Dramma buffo in two acts on a libretto by Felice Romani. World premiere on 14 August 1814 at Teatro alla Scala in Milan.

The new Aix-en-Provence production to open (if the strike action by the intermittents du spectacle does not take place) on July 4 at the Théâtre de l’Archevêché. Stage direction: Christopher Alden, musical direction Marc Minkowski. Full cast & creative

Il Turco in CD artwork:

Callas-Il Turco CDIl Turco-Caballe-Ramey


Il Turco-Sumi Jo

Roberto Devereux at the COC

Roberto Devereux at the COC

Roberto Devereux (1837) by Gaetano Donizetti, libretto Salvadore Cammarano after Francoise Ancelot‘s tragedy Elisabeth d’Angleterre. A Dallas Opera Production, the Canadian Opera Company premiere. Director Stephen Lawless, conductor Corrado Rovaris. More info here.Devereux-COCIt’ll be easy to mock this work — and other operas of this era that share the bel canto ideas of historical accuracy and plotting — so I will try not to and do the harder thing: find something in it that works.

For example, its distillation of the questions around the royal succession and Elizabeth’s resistance to get married down to the story of the queen’s final affair of  the heart. The political issues behind the simplified operatic melodrama are real. The affair itself is largely based on fact (Essex, likely her very last favourite, did lead an unconvincing campaign in Ireland, did attempt a rebellion and was executed for treason). If we compare RD with other two operas in Donizetti’s Tudor Trilogy for the care taken to honour at least some of the history, RD comes out rather well. Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda are — a highly technical term I’m introducing here — a pack of lies. In Roberto Devereux, what’s invented for dramatic purposes is the character of the married lady-in-waiting (another Elizabeth’s “favourite”, say the COC program synopsis, and I can go with that) and her affair with Essex. Oh and let’s not forget her husband. So, the soap opera aspect is enhanced; the geo-political backdrop is surprisingly solid.

And although the other two operas of the Trilogy could be read as Catholic propaganda indeed, Devereux reads to me more like a contribution to the long march of cultural iconization of Elizabeth I. Like hundreds of thousands of others, I have a weakness for all things Bess, and this work and this production I found fundamentally pro-Bess. If anybody’s ever seen a production of RD that actually manages to portray EI as a monster, you must let me know about it.

Director Stephen Lawless opens with a fun and busy sequence — sort of an “Intro to Elizabeth I” — in which the cardboard figures of ships and the unrolling of the maps are mixed with three-dimensional action of actors playing people like Shakespeare and Raleigh. It’s a well choreographed sequence that ends with Elizabeth shooting a period pistol with great panache.  From then on, the permanent backdrop to the action is the Globe Theatre-like set. When a crowd is required, the chorus is in the upper levels. Private scenes at the Nottingham household always take place with the marital four-poster bed in the background, to great effect. (The first one is between Essex and Sara; the second between Sara and her husband.) Of all the intimate scenes, these two stand out the most. The most effective Elizabeth scenes, on the other hand, are when she is alone, and in conversation with her own calling, her place in history, and even already the museological and cultural iconicity in the making. (The production may be goofy but is never naive.)

One of the problems with it is, however, that it is a diva vehicle all the way. Sondra Radvanovsky is unnaturally placed centre stage in just  about every scene, even when a different arrangement would make more dramatic sense. Other scenes, with two or three characters in a supposedly dramatic exchange, are bare and slow going.

Radvanovsky was good, of course, but she didn’t thrill me in this kind of material, and maybe it’s the repertoire to blame? I worshiped religiously her Aida from 2010, but here I did not witness the same intensity and beauty of singing and willingness to go the extra mile dramatically. The depth of feeling was just not there. (On the up side, she was not camp, thank goodness (a frequent Elizabeth trap).) The colouring was almost uniform — brash, showy, fairly loud in almost every scene.

Leonardo Capalbo, the tenor lead singing Essex, was a revelation. Beautiful voice, supple, always in control, yet always giving it his all dramatically and emotionally too. I never like tenors best in opera, so this is a first. He had to work against my anti-tenor prejudice, and still came out a winner.

I’d also like to highlight Russell Braun, who makes the most and then some of the role of the betrayed husband, a character with some interesting music and overall well written until the very last Gothic, borderline comic scene.

As far as the traditional productions of historically inaccurate bel canto works remounted as diva vehicles go, this is actually very good. I may even be back to re-live a few favourite moments — there’s no such thing as too much Bess.

Photo by Michael Cooper shows one of the best scenes: QE1 on her (relative) own

Hercules directed by Peter Sellars / A LOC-COC co-production

Hercules directed by Peter Sellars / A LOC-COC co-production

Hercules - photo by Michael CooperHandel – Hercules. A Canadian Opera Company / Lyric Opera Chicago co-production, seen April 11 2014. Director Peter Sellars, conductor Harry Bicket. Eric Owens (Hercules), David Daniels (Lichas), Richard Croft (Hyllus), Alice Coote (Dejanira), Lucy Crowe (Iole). Complete cast & creative plus tickets and dates here

I found this Sellars production to be in effect a semi-staging, with one permanent set, one recurring trick with the lighting (stars flicker in different colours, for different moods!) and one idea: Hercules is a present-day-cum-mythical soldier returning from the war, traumatized.

War has bad consequences on the people affected by it. (A rather original thought, yes.) Hercules’s wife is, the director’s notes tell us helpfully, on tranquilizers and also has a drink problem. Hercules, Dejanira and the captive Iole all deal with flashes of traumatic memories. And that’s about it. After Dejanira’s murder-by-shirt, the lights on stage intensify, the casket wrapped in an American flag is wheeled in, the conqueror’s son Hyllus marries the captive Iole, and everybody hugs. Community is reconciled (!) and there is hope.

The high points of the production are the individual characters that each singer manages to build almost independently. Even though the whole does not show very many vital signs — this Hercules remains an oratorio through and through — Richard Croft as Hyllus, Lucy Crowe as Iole and David Daniels as Lichas in particular are worth seeing the production for. Croft and Crowe are flawless vocally and give convincing and original personalities to their roles. Lichas crosses the border between the warrior’s public and family lives, and here in Daniels’ version he is fragile and perplexed, and this works really well.

Dramatically, Eric Owens is mostly given the task of projecting gravitas and statesmanship, but the supple and precise singing gives life to the otherwise cut-out figure of Hercules. Alice Coote, alas, has a stage presence that suggests (accurately or misleadingly) considerable effort behind every note sung, and this never allows me to enjoy her performances. The melisma runs sometimes come across as approximate, and certain notes acquire unexpected colours.

It’s always nice to hear Handel at the COC, and yes even if it means modern instruments, and Harry Bicket displayed penchant for a discreet, stylish, never all-out or opulent sound, which is all fitting with Hercules, probably the least luscious, seductive and playful of all of Handel’s creations. The score is consistently somber, barring one or two rowdy choruses, and making a slow da capo as viscerally stirring as a fast one can’t be an easy thing to do. No trouble at all, it seems, for Bicket and the COC orchestra tonight. Another thing to appreciate in the surprisingly underwhelming production.

Photo by Michael Cooper

Laura Pudwell as Cavalli’s Giasone, and other things I will miss

Laura Pudwell as Cavalli’s Giasone, and other things I will miss

A mezzo with a gorgeous contralto timbre, Laura Pudwell, is scheduled to sing the title role in the concert version of Cavalli’s Giasone with Toronto Consort, April 4-5-6, TSP. I can’t overemphasize how rare it is for a mezzo/alto to get this role, be it here in Canada/USA (where the counter-tenors are steadily taking over the trouser roles from the mezzos) or in Europe (where they aren’t just yet).

Kevin Skelton will sing Aegeus, and Michelle DeBoer  Medea. The bad news is, I will not be in Toronto at that time. I hope many see this and write about it.

It’s not easy finding the mezzo version of Giasone on YouTube, so here’s a clip with Christoph Dumaux. John G of Opera Ramblings reviewed the DVD of the Mariame Clement production here.


Another thing that I will sadly miss; a day-long discussion on various aspects of Handel’s Hercules and the COC/Chicago Lyric Peter Sellars production of it, involving musicologists (Susan McClary!), a former war correspondent, a scholar of the eighteenth century theatre, and Sellars himself. This is happening on April 4, and here is the complete description.


Same day, a bit later at 7:30PM and further east, at Ernest Balmer Studio, Tapestry is performing excerpts from a work in progress, Movable Beast. Described as “an experimental transformation of the standard recital form”, Movable Beast looks a whole lot of intriguing. Take a peek at this project synopsis. Bits of it will be performed on April 4, but fingers crossed I’ll be around when the proper opening happens.

Featuring: Neema Bickersteth, Andrea Ludwig, Adrian Kramer, and Andrew Love. Music direction by Gregory Oh, choreography by Marie-Josée Chartier, and direction by Michael Mori.

Un ballo in maschera by Wieler-Morabito at the COC

Un ballo in maschera by Wieler-Morabito at the COC

Un ballo in maschera (Giuseppe Verdi-Antonio Somma, 1859). A Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden production directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, revival director Samantha Seymour. Conductor Stephen Lord. Seen at the Canadian Opera Company on February 5. My intro to Il Ballo HERE.

MaskedBall-COC1The setting is American of indeterminate age, closer to the Civil Rights era American South than perhaps today’s South. Riccardo (Dimitri Pittas) is a progressive and popular but philandering governor or President who is, unlike the libretto Riccardo, married—to a lady aware of his peccadilloes but willing to turn the blind eye. (This is a silent role, costumed in Jacky O-like ensembles with gloves and hats.)

We are in a wedding/dance hall on the ground floor of a hotel. One look at the first crowd scene, and there is an obvious racial divide between the guests and the serving staff. We are in the middle of what could be a political party retreat—the hotel has been booked for a few days and the operators, the handlers, the staff will all work and play in the same building. The wives are there too, but women make fewer outings. The tutti chorus scenes are the occasions for expressing American nationalism, so for the martial  “O figlio d’Inghilterra” everybody is solemnly putting their hands to their hearts as they would for the Star-Spangled Banner. The final scene of the opera also unfolds as the national coming together in a joint destiny.

Oscar is the only woman among the inner circle, and according to the program notes, she is a performance artist hired by the free-thinking politician to inspire, stir up, and tell the truth during their decision-making sessions. I would not have known this without the notes, but the girl called Oscar (Simone Osborne, in the best role I’ve seen her in) could easily work here as a mysterious jester figure who just happens to join the suits at some of the key moments to mock or propel action. It’s a really well thought-out role—Oscar runs around (entire stage is her playground), toys with the microphone, wears the Bjork swan dress at the ball, mocks the dramatic scenes as they’re happening, and does macabre pranks. (The first shot heard in the production is Oscar’s doing. It is a glitter gun shot-cum-champagne cork explosion, at the end of Act 1, making fun of everybody’s protectiveness around the politician, and of his own fear of assassination. Needless to say, we’ll hear another, proper shot in the final act.)

Ulrica (Elena Manistina) is likely the member of the staff, since one of her layers of clothing is the light blue staff uniform, over which she’s thrown a knitted sweater. I couldn’t figure out what the object levitating while she’s telling fortune is, but it looks much like one of those public washroom keys that have enormous key chains. She might as well be washroom cleaning staff, or one of those old ladies who collect coins at the toilette entrances. For her prophesy scene, the female chorus wearing staff uniforms settles down to listen. It’s the end of the work day.

The big do around Ulrica’s expulsion that Riccardo prevents could be either the firing from the hotel, or deportation due to her immigration status. Either would make sense.

Riccardo and Amelia have their big private courting scene in the empty hall after everybody else has gone to bed. (Except his wife, who after walking in on them, discreetly leaves unnoticed.) The two hanged figures incongruously dangling from the ceiling—the lovers are, after all, supposed to be meeting near the gallows—could be a wink-and-nudge in the direction of the letter of the libretto, or, and I prefer this interpretation, an illustration that we’re still in an era of the acceptance of the death penalty.

The scene of the masked ball is equally well executed, with most of the people ending in a sleepy drunken stupor, and Oscar lying down over the laps of the equally inebriated conspirators seated front stage. Renato seems to be the only one left sober.

Musically, no fault was to be found in the Stephen Lord-conducted Verdi that night. I was in row N (about eight or nine rows from the pit) and the orchestra never overpowered. The volume stayed under control, and Lord kept the pit finely attuned to the sometimes rather intimate and other times properly rowdy goings-on on stage. Bryan Epperson Alastair Eng‘s cello provided a sweetly dark accompaniment to Amelia’s remarkable “Morro, ma prima in grazia”. Adrianne Pieczonka’s Amelia equally shone in her other solo number, “Ma dell’arido stelo divulsa” (English horn obbligato from the pit by Lesley Young). There were some show-stopping highass pianissimi out of silent pauses that were sheer magic.

Pittas sang Riccardo well, although he is and looked much too young for the role of a charismatic middle-age Lothario. Roland Wood’s baritone is brightly coloured and supple, but his Renato was more in a comic than sinister mode. I somewhat missed the drama of the vengeful husband with Wood’s Renato as a genial John Goodman sort.

Osborne’s bouncy Oscar added necessary spice of ironic & fabulous & sometimes even camp to the proceedings.

Remaining performances: 8, 11, 14, 16, 20, 22 February.

Photos by Michael Cooper / COC