East and west meet before the hardness of history: a conversation with Diana Tso

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Jen Hum Phoebe Hu, Vania Chan, and Vicki Kim in Comfort. Photo by Dahlia Katz

The 1937-45 Sino-Japanese war, the Asian leg of the Second World War, remains under-historicised in the west. Its most brutal event, the invasion of the then-capital of the Nationalist China, Nanking, by the imperial Japanese army, remains under-acknowledged in the east too, playwright Diana Tso tells me, and for a host of conflicting reasons. Japanese historiography still downplays the atrocities—estimated by other historians to be between 200,000 and 300,000 Nanking residents killed and tens of thousands of women raped. A great number of the surviving “comfort women” and their families prefer not to talk about their lives in conditions of sexual slavery due to the stigma. But books do exist, and are coming out with increasing frequency, and Tso used them for initial research for her latest play with music (a contemporary masque, in many ways), Comfort, opening tomorrow with Red Snow Collective at Aki Studio in Regent Park.

Tso had read Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking, the collection Chinese Comfort Women, and a book of testimonies by Japanese soldiers and their victims collected by a Japanese journalist, but it was her travels to Korea and China over the last ten years, for research and inspiration and activism, that shaped more directly her play. In 2009 she met some of the survivors in China and Korea. “They have created ‘houses of sharing’ in Korea where some of the grandmothers live together, paint, try to build a community and heal,” says Tso. “To this day, every Wednesday they stand in front of the Japanese embassy and ask for recognition of the crime and an apology.”

During the Japanese occupation of the city, about 20 remaining westerners, banking on their foreign power citizenships and employing not a small amount of chutzpah, marked off a Nanking Safety Zone with Red Cross flags and proclaimed it a no-atrocity area. It worked. In one of those perverse twists that history excels at, a German businessman who also happened to be a confirmed Nazi rescued thousands of Chinese and is now acknowledged as one of the most reliable witnesses  of Japanese brutality in Nanking. During her last visit to Nanjing, Tso met a widow of a man who had stayed in the ‘international zone’ and asked her to share the story of how they met. It was that encounter that planted the seed of the play as a love story amid historical unrest.

But nothing is straightforward: there’s a play within a play, and frequent incursions into mythology. “In my play, we follow a fisherman and a merchant’s daughter. Both are in love with the opera called Butterfly Lovers – an actual Chinese opera piece in which a knowledge-hungry girl is not allowed to go to school because of her gender. The woman in my play suffers similar fate; her upper-class merchant’s family has promised her hand in marriage. So, it’s 1937 in Shanghai. Two people fall in love. The war breaks out, she escapes her family home and the arranged marriage and is eager to help in the Chinese war effort, but is immediately captured. He, meanwhile, embarks on a search for her.”

Music is composed by Constantine Caravassilis and is there for dramaturgical accents, for atmosphere, for scene enrichment. Comfort is not a sung-through, through-composed opera, but an eclectic dramatic creation with music. The small band consists of erhu, percussion, accordion and piano. “I first worked with musicians exploring the text and the movement, while the composer worked on the score and proposed music – and this mix resulted in new text and new scenes.” Tso’s monologue for the Moon about devastation of humanity came out of just such a collaborative alchemy. “It would not have happened if I was working in isolation at home on a pre-music text. It was music that made me see things.” It’s only after that stage of collaboration that they (the director is William Yong) added straight theatre actors to the mix. In the  final show, there are 3 musicians, one professional dancer, one opera singer (soprano Vania Chan) and 7 actors, one of whom specializes in acrobatics. “If you put a group of different creators in the room, you want to use what each of them has as their forte.”

It will come as no surprise that Tso has the Jacques Lecoq School on her CV. “In other schools you’re trained as one thing only–an actor–with very specific skills; there, people of different skills come together, some are dancers, some directors, some actors. You’re exploring all those simultaneously, being a director, a writer, an actor, working as an ensemble to create something new. Instead of waiting for your agent to invite you to acting auditions, you create your own work.”

Comfort runs Nov 26 to Dec 10: Info & tickets

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Vania Chan, Phoebe Hu, Vicki Kim (front) and Jen Hum. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Ariodante by Richard Jones

Jane Archibald (seated L), Alice Coote (seated R), the puppeteers and the COC Chorus in Ariodante, 2016. Photo: Michael Cooper
Jane Archibald (seated L), Alice Coote (seated R), Johannes Weisser (standing next to Coote), the puppeteers and the COC Chorus in Ariodante, 2016. Photo: Michael Cooper

Richard Jones’s Ariodante (COC/DNO/Aix/LOC) is a very good production of a very feeble opera. It pains me to say this about a Handel opera that contains two of the best mezzo arias of all time, and a dazzling soprano-mezzo duo at the end, but I think I understand now why it’s rarely staged today and likelier to be heard in concert. As much as it is salvageable as a theatrical work, however, Jones and the COC revival director Benjamin Davis pulled it off.

The story is relatively simple for a baroque opera: the marriage between the King’s daughter Ginevra and a favourite knight is called off after the groom-to-be Ariodante and his brother Lurcanio see somebody who looks like Ginevra letting another knight into her chamber. The princess is ostracized and jailed for being unchaste (!) (the fallen woman is a rare figure in the eighteenth century opera; it becomes standard by the latter half of the nineteenth), but her lady-in-waiting Dalinda admits it was her who let the intruder into the chamber. The knight who plotted the scheme is punished, and the bride and the groom reunite.

The characterization is practically non-existent; the King a little too quickly throws his beloved daughter to jail, then upon denouement forgives everybody every misdoing. Ariodante, though the primo uomo, is the character with least amount of agency who disappears and is presumed dead just as the intrigue heats up. His brother Lurcanio journeys from expressing his love for Dalinda to a slut-shaming rage towards Ginevra to the point that he will fight anybody who defends her innocence, only to like her back when her innocence is proven. Polinesso is a bundle of evil impulses—an inconsistent bundle, it turns out, since he’s the one willing to fight for “Ginevra’s honour” when Lurcanio comes sword-waving.

With such a text on hand, it must be tempting for the director to do a fantastical, camped up version in which the design team goes wild. Jones & comp. decided precisely the opposite, and found a very specific environment in which such a story may credibly happen: a remote small-town finishing and sheep-farming community (in the worst sense of  the term), a few decades back from the present time. The Scottish setting lives on in kilts and tartan, but only if you want it to; this may equally take place in Cape Breton (who here has seen New Waterford Girl?), or Ireland, the Balkans, Kyrgyzstan, India, or wherever else female virginity was or remains a matter of social concern. The set is permanent and immobile: a prominent local figure’s home with two public rooms and last one private, his daughter’s. The doors and walls dividing the three spaces are, wisely, invisible except for the locks and handles—the many comings and goings between the rooms would have otherwise turned everything into a farce. This is Richard Jones, so the take on the opera is not exactly realist and naturalist—it’s rather realist-ish, with some signature Jonesian whimsy thrown in—but its greatest success is giving the people that inhabit the story credible emotional lives and drawing out the melancholy, on occasion even tragedy, from something that seems to be offering itself as a silly story. The pastoral dances in finales are replaced by puppetry scenes, with dolls of Ariodante and Ginevra manipulated by the villagers as the real Ariodante and Ginevra look on.

Polinesso commands respect among the villagers because he’s a priest (if also secretly a Lothario in off time), and the communal obsession with female purity is fed by the preaching and the Bible quotes that he regularly serves the villagers. We’ve seen people like this, religious figures who practice the opposite of what they preach, but Jones’ Polinesso maintains much of his cartoonish nature and is the one character in the production without nuance. Varduhi Abrahamyan was very good, regardless. Her four arias were rock solid. “Se l’inganno sortisce felice” and “Dover, giustizia” in particular must be a nightmare with endless low coloraturas, but clearly not for this singer.

Varduhi Abrahamyan  and Ambur Braid (behind). Photo by Michael Cooper.
Varduhi Abrahamyan and Ambur Braid (behind). Photo by Michael Cooper.

The meatiest role of the production is Dalinda, who here is made into a maid who by virtue of her job has uncontested access to all the rooms of the household. Ambur Braid created a complex character, conflicted, manipulated, weak and defiant in turns, a perpetrator who’s also a victim herself. That this was done alongside some tremendous singing, including the insane “Neghittosi or voi che fate?” which she delivers after Polinesso’s motives are unmasked, never ceases to amaze. The earlier, “Se tanto piace al cor”, is a totally different beast: a wide-eyed andante aria on her future happiness with Polinesso. There’s gamut in this role, and Ambur uses every foot of it. Too, when she ornaments, she tends to go up; I don’t think she’s ever been next to a higher note that she didn’t like?

Another singer who more than convinced last night: Jane Archibald. I don’t get to write this often, as to me she usually comes across as a self-contained, even reserved singer, but there was nothing held back in her Ginevra, and she was as technically sharp as usual. Especially heartbreaking: “Il mio crudele martoro”, a long aria-scena taking place after she was falsely accused. The period of her communal ignominy Ginevra spends dressed in a slip, her vulnerability heightened, her body and underwear on display to the prying eyes of the Gemeinschaft.

The less said about Alice Coote in the title role, the better.

I was glad to see Johannes Weisser in a COC debut as the King, and one of my favourite young tenors anywhere, Owen McCausland, in the role of Lurcanio. The King was however underpowered last night and often covered by the orchestra, whereas Lurcanio was opposite, bold in volume while the subtlety of the coloratura suffered.

This was conductor Johannes Debus’s first Handel. He and Christopher Bagan alternate at the harpsichord, while Sylvain Bergerom mans the archlute and the baroque guitar. That’s as far as the period accents go: the rest was all modern instruments, and I wonder if some day he may try introducing some period brass here and there, for variety of colour. It’s not unheard of these days for a modern orchestra tasked with a baroque piece to include some period brassiness. Something to consider.

The tempi in best known arias were decent, nothing unusually fast or slow. Ornamenting was exercised in moderation; not sure if the conductor wrote the ornaments, if the singers improv’d them or if they were written ahead by the singer and the conductor together. Some of them did sound invented on the spot.

I’ll finish with the kudos for the added twist at the end, which is just what a thinking director should do with operas like this. Can a twist ending with Carmen saving herself and stabbing Don Jose be far behind? Here’s hoping.

Jane Archibald as Ginevra (on bed) with Alice Coote as Ariodante and Johannes Weisser as the King of Scotland (in front row). Photo: Michael Cooper
Jane Archibald as Ginevra (on bed) with Alice Coote as Ariodante and Johannes Weisser as the King of Scotland (in front row). Photo: Michael Cooper
Varduhi Abrahamyan (in background), Jane Archibald and Ambur Braid. Photo by Michael Cooper
Varduhi Abrahamyan (in background), Jane Archibald and Ambur Braid. Photo by Michael Cooper

Overture Opera Guides: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

MeistersingerCoverENO’s reliably good OOG series released Die Meistersinger guide last year and I finally got a chance to read it. (Thank you, Gary!) I also happen to have watched Herheim’s Salzburg production on DVD just the other day–my first entire Die Meistersinger, and an unusually cozy and gentle one for Herheim, very Dickens and the Grimm Brothers.

The guide contains a useful chapter by Arnold Whittall on musical themes and developments, which comes with the graphic guide with notation, and both connect very logically to the libretto and its translation. There’s also an insightful chapter by Tin Blanning on the “holy German art” business, in which Schiller plays a prominent part and which explains that the Sachs speech that today reads as nationalist was, at the time of its creation and first utterance on stage, aspirational more than anything else (Germany united as a country a couple of years after Die M had its premiere).

And now for some quibbles.

The first essay could have been more exciting, shorter and more focused, and altogether less reverential. The author John Deathridge, tasked with introducing the work and how it was created, leaves no mystification and (Wagner’s own) self-mystification behind. We hear at great length how the plot also works as an allegory about Jesus and John the Baptist, and Jesus and the Apostles.  Wagner and his second wife Cosima both wrote that seeing Titian’s painting “Assumption of the Virgin” was what reignited Wagner’s interest in his abandoned Meistersinger, so that statement is taken seriously here too, and a connection via Schopenhauer concocted between the painting and the opera. We hear in excruciating detail about an altarpiece from a Nurenberg church and how it may or may not have influenced Wagner. We hear a lot about the first version of the Meistersinger, which Wagner abandoned before re-embarking on the one we have today, and a lot of psychologyzing around the question of why Wagner changed stuff. There are almost two pages dedicated to the forced analogy between King Marke and Hans Sachs. There are interesting bits–the one on Goethe’s Hans Sachs, for ex–but those flights of critical imagination are buried amid all the deference to the biographical and the biblical.

Moving right on… There are people who argue that there’s always something inherently anti-Semitic in Die Meistersinger because 1) there are documents pointing out that Wagner intended an anti-Semitic resonance in very specific spots in the piece, and 2) of the history of reception of the work before and during World War Two–namely, the Nazis embraced it, as a matter of cultural policy, and used its performances as a unification ritual. Hans Rudolf Vaget’s essay at first looked like it wasn’t going to be one of those. Titled “The Beckmesser Problem”, his chapter is a multi-layered history of ascribing anti-Semitism to (finding anti-Semitism in?) certain parts of the Meistersinger. It also provides context to Wagner’s own manifesto “The Jewishness in Music”, which apparently stemmed from his professional jealousies toward Meyerbeer and the resentment toward one particular critic, Edouard Hanslick. Adorno’s contention that all rejects in Wagner’s operas are caricatures of Jews, and Beckmesser of the Meistersinger especially so, looms large in Vaget’s piece, though he reexamines it, together with a handful of other readings of anti-Semitic tropes, some finding baseless, others less so. He finds hidden in Walther’s Trial scene in Act One a wink to the anti-Semitic tale “The Jew in the Thorn Bush”– in a complicated way that I won’t dare attempt to reproduce here. This for him mars the piece permanently, constitutionally: by the end of the essay, Vaget comes close to the position that there are parts within Die Meistersinger that are inherently suspect and permanently offering an anti-Semitic reading. Because Wagner intended it, and because there have been audiences at a certain point in history–say, 1930s in Germany–who arguably found it and embraced it, it exists in the text itself.

Not only do I not subscribe to this philosophical view of how meaning is created–there’s no ur-meaning outside all contexts, not even dormantly; all of the meaning is in the contexts, and if the contexts die, so die the meanings… Not only do I not subscribe to it philosophically, but I myself am a living proof against it. Namely, if Vaget, Adorno & others did not point out to me that the figure of Beckmesser (or Mime in the Ring) was “meant to make fun of the Jews”, it’d never have occurred to me. Not in a million years, not in the productions I’ve been seeing. Nor was I aware of the wink to the Brothers Grimm tale in the Meistersinger (nor will I look it up now; I’m fine without knowing the basics of the tale “The Jew in the Thorn Bush”, thank you very much). I am not in the minority; we are a massive majority of opera-going folk who would never seek out–why on earth would anybody?–any traces of hidden anti-Semitic caricature any of the Wagner’s characters, or in any other opera’s, for that matter. And yet, we get urged to do so.

The crux of my point being: those writing about an “anti-Semitic Mime” and an “an anti-Semitic Beckmesser” as permanently hiding in the work itself are, perversely, keeping both of those tropes alive. They’re doing that by re-sensitizing the audience (of, say, Toronto, London, or NYC, A.D. 2016) that would otherwise be absolutely deaf to this particular call to prejudice.

Nothing in fact belies the spirit of Vaget’s essay better than the essay that follows it, Aine Sheil’s piece on the performance history of Die Meistersinger. The denaturalization of the piece started with the abstract sets of Wieland Wagner, but German theatre radically opened up the work and faced the past head-on with the productions by Neuenfels (Stuttgart 1994) and Konwitchny’s (Hamburg 2002). The Neuenfels production opens with Germany in ruins in 1945 and ends with the reunification at the Brandenburg Gate. Konwitchny, in his, stops the proceedings at the exact moment of Hans Sachs’ nationalist tirade and lets the singers discuss why and if this piece should be done at all. It’s Katharina Wagner’s 2007 Bayreuth production that probably goes furthest in its radical redress and innovation–in it, there is an added segment in which the Regie director and his team get pushed in the dumpster and set on fire by the conservative Sachs. While Sachs goes increasingly authoritarian, Beckmesser ends the production as an independent artist forging his own path.

Interestingly, the productions by the houses in the English-speaking lands tend to be more warm, pretty and straightforward, like McVicar’s Glyndebourne production and Herheim’s own, which was a co-production with the Met (never to be seen this side of the Atlantic, turns out). Richard Jones’s 2010 WNO production, reworked and remounted for the ENO in 2015, made more effort: it found a way to honour the centuries of German and Austrian artists and mould-breakers across disciplines without any of the accompanying ethnocentrism, as a group of people ultimately playing for the team Humanity.

Katharina Wagner’s production can be watched on Medici TV and is available on DVD. A review and another review.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jane Archibald, Peter Lohmeyer and the Lyon Opera chorus

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I won’t let you go, Konstanze.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some thoughts:

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

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

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Archibald, Dubois, Laurenz, Wydorska

I can get behind Maometto II

Luca Pisaroni & the COC Chorus in Maometto II. Photo by Gary Beechy.
A Scene from Maometto II. Photo by Gary Beechy.

It’s been a long while since I left a production in a similar kind of WTF state. Maybe the Chinese Semele at the COC was the last time.

Which is to say that as far as Maometto II is concerned, I liked it?

There’s much to enjoy straightforwardly in this David Alden production of little known dramatic Rossini Maometto II, but there’s much more which you’ll find yourself enjoying because it’s out of place, weird, obviously doesn’t make any sense, or belongs very consciously to a retro theatrical language.

But let’s get out of the way a few things that could not be enjoyed at all on the opening night. There were chorus & pit coordination issues (the chorus, usually the male one, was behind the beat on more than one occasion), and choral homogeneity issues (female chorus sounded like a group of individuals unwilling to blend). The lead soprano’s voice (Leah Crocetto), while perfectly fine and apt rest of the time in its coloratura journeys, would occasionally have passages, especially if the text is on the open Italian E vowel, of unlovely shrill. When you put a hyperactive crowd—some among them armed with spears and doing their anti-choreography–on a narrow tilted stage with large holes, audience members will wait anxiously for the accident to happen instead of following the performance.

And now on to the pleasantly inscrutable, and even the unequivocally pleasant.

Here’s what, technically, happens in the libretto. Maometto the character is based on Mehmed II the Conqueror, the fifteenth-century Ottoman warrior who took Constantinople, put paid to Byzantium and pushed well into the Western Europe. As nineteenth-century Italian opera is wont to do, the historical episode of the war with Venice is reimagined as a melodrama that involves Mehmed II, the ruler of a Venetian outpost Erisso, his daughter Anna and her long-suffering suitor Calbo. As the Ottoman siege starts, it transpires that Anna had somehow managed to have an affair with Maometto himself in disguise way before his troops conquered the city. (Don’t ask me how.) She makes Maometto release her father and suitor from captivity and spends next part of the opera with Maometto conflicted over loyalties. In the event, she betrays him, which results in Venetian reconquest. In the final scene with Maometto, she takes her own life.

The Ottomans were still in the Balkans at the time the opera was created, so I’m not sure what particular events around 1820 nudged Rossini and librettist Cesare della Valle in this direction. The overeager seekers of noxious Orientalism in everything would likely classify it as an Orientalist opera—there are clarinet solos too, hey—but the piece has as much to say about geopolitics, history and religious strife as Rossini’s Guglielmo Tell or the glorious Tancredi, so: nothing at all.

It’s the director’s task to decide whether to tap into or ignore (completely wimp out of?) this hotbed of topics in a contemporary reading, and David Alden found an intelligent and honourable balance. I’m guessing his thinking was, to completely ignore the East vs. West undercurrent would be to miss the point entirely and to bet too much on it (either by critiquing it or embracing it) would be silly: it’s an obscure Italian bel canto opera from 1820.

There are many brilliant scenes in this staging that never quire coheres and perhaps even shouldn’t. At the opening of Act 2,  the female chorus is lined up but we only see their niqab-veiled faces. They are observing Anna and a veiled dancer who gradually takes off her clothes to zero reaction from the impermeable Anna—some deconstructed elements of belly dance found their way to choreography (consistently imaginative, signed by David Laera). Maometto’s warriors wear ninja-like costumes, but they are not camp and not unserious: there is a front of stage throat slitting in one scene, and hints of a very different, unHollywood type of warrior recently seen on certain videos in the news. And whether Alden’s seen this particular political manipulation of Ottoman imagery I don’t know, but it was present in the costume of one of the silent characters on stage as well as Maometto’s.

But Alden takes a distance from too direct topicality in other ways, and when the bridge door goes down from the wall in Act 2, theatre smoke pours out and the massive black horses start sliding down just so Luca Pisaroni could climb up behind them and conclude the scene from there… we are back in the land of artificiality, mediation, nods to old skool set machinery and, well, fun.

My favourite thing about Rossini, apart from the heroic pants roles, are his trios, quartets, & quintets. Maometto II is all about the trios, many of the key scenes set up in this way. And while you could separate the work into numbers if you insisted, conductor Harry Bicket does the right thing and does not leave a split second for the applause after each. Recits are also sufficiently dramatic and substantial. The Maometto & Anna duo in Act 2 is some seriously sexy business. Credits to Luca Pisaroni and Crocetto (and Alden) for making the attraction and repulsion and the violence of that exchange come alive.

Pisaroni himself does not have get a showstopping traditional arias, but is a towering star presence throughout, producing some handsome and powerful bass coloratura. Elizabeth deShong as Calbo did have some spectacular solos, thank Rossini, and tenor Bruce Sledge as Erisso left nothing to be desired. The only principal I wasn’t seduced by was, as I mentioned, Crocetto, but every performance is different and things may change on other nights of the run.

In conclusion, I’m glad I discovered Maometto II. It’s certainly worthier of revival than any number of other bel canto works being reintroduced these days like the Tudor Trilogy, or Rossini’s own ubiquitous Cenerentola. Alden approached it in the right way (if sometimes to chaotic or static results). Thumbs up.

Bruce Sledge as Paolo Erisso, Leah Crocetto as Anna and Elizabeth DeShong as Calbo in the COC’s production of Maometto II, 2016. Photo: Michael Cooper

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.

What.the.actual.fuck.

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).

Carl Maria von Weber – Der Freischütz from Semperoper Dresden

“We had a war once against the animals, which we called hunting, though in fact war and hunting are the same thing”, is a sentence in J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello but might as easily be the précis of Axel Köhler’s 2015 Dresden production of Weber’s Der Freischütz (Unitel Classica / C Major DVD). Although Köhler and the costume designer Katharina Weissenborn visually distinguish the hunting society and show its own folklore as somewhat autonomous, there is no doubt that the men who shoot guns for entertainment and the women who cheer them on are a colourful outpost of a military structure that, it is hinted, is in a permanent state of war. The booklet suggests that the production is set in “the aftermath of a war”, and the set indeed shows a drab town in ruins (set designer Arne Walther). However, there are various places in the production that signal a permanent militaristic hierarchy, and violence as a constant undercurrent.

The plot goes like this: the ever reliable marksman Max is suffering an unlucky streak. As fate will have it, this problem appears just before he is to win his bride Agathe—the Prince’s daughter—in a traditional trial shoot-out in which, to become Prince’s son-in-law, he must excel. An emissary from the Satan is hanging out in the same village, and he suggests they meet at the notorious part of the wood called the Wolf’s Glen and together forge some special bullets that never miss. Max eventually follows him there. The day of the trial before the Prince, Max aims at a dove but the bullet downs 1) Agathe, who yells “But Max, I am that dove”, the connection the libretto established via Agathe’s dream of premonition a couple of scenes before, 2) Kaspar, the evil emissary. Agathe, turns out, only fainted, while, in a confirmation of Devil’s untrustworthiness even to his own emissaries, Kaspar’s wound is deadly. But wait, we are nowhere near the end. Max admits to the Prince the little business around the Wolf’s Glen, and the Prince indignantly refuses to give Agathe’s hand. Deus ex machina descends to correct his judgment and approves the union of the two fallible humans who deserve our compassion. He also abolishes the tradition of the trial shootouts. The villagers rejoice. Curtain.

Don’t ask me how any of this makes any fucking sense: it doesn’t. Or rather—since the work keeps being staged and is here to stay—it is up to the director to make sense of it. Many cop out and do a quasi-literal staging. The one production of DF that I’ve seen was by Opera Atelier and thinking about it now makes me cringe in embarrassment as it was all about beautiful costumes, beautiful bodies and beautiful music. Luckily, Köhler’s a serious engagement with the work while also extremely respectful of the original libretto. (The way somebody like, say, Bieito, would not be. He would likely not keep the huntsmen, but conceive them as paramilitary troopers, ignoring the gajillion references to hunting and marksmanship uttered by the characters on stage.)

In the first two acts, the huntsmen are kind of visibly their own society, clad in green and grey reminiscent of military fatigues but they are also of the village. When the Prince arrives, however, he is a distinct higher ranking figure dressed in double-breasted long coat and knee-high boots, as the heads of secret police tend to be represented on film. With such a figure around, the villagers’ words “he will make Max the Grand Master of the Chase” mean a very different thing. “Sir, I am unworthy of your mercy”, something Max says after his confession, and Prince’s response “Hell must be kept separate from Heaven” and “Agathe is too pure for him” too have a whole new meaning. When the chorus of villagers sings the Huntsmen Song for the Prince, the little boys of the village re-enact hunting, while the girls play the hunted-down stags, the adults proudly watching on. The work comes together and slides into coherence.

And while the first two acts read fairly recognizable, and uneventful, it’s in the Act II finale at the Wolf’s Glen that the war breaks onto the stage full blast—as this society’s past, its unacknowledged present and as we’ll see in the final act, its future. It’s a scene masterfully directed as a build-up of suspense: the forging of the seven bullets is in the sky behind Kaspar and Max being played out, with some amazing use of projections and lighting (by Fabio Antoci), as the gradations of warfare, starting with the relatively low-tech hangings to the weapons of mass destruction and aerial fire bombing.

How does Köhler solve the Deus ex machina? Let’s say, honourably. When He appears, He appears as a warrior: long-haired, muddied, perhaps just out of battle. The Prince defers and bows, as he’s obviously before somebody higher up in the same hierarchy he belongs to. Is he a wink in the direction of the mythical hero figures like Hercules or Samson or Siegfried? Possibly. At any rate, He is not outside war, He is very much of it. And while the villages sing the final triumphant song, He rudely demands Agathe’s wedding wreath (she rushes to hand it to him) while we notice the Prince up the staircase, training little boys to shoot. The final sound heard in the production is by a gun shot by a boy aiming at a bird, at Prince’s urging.

Staatskapelle Dresden is in the pit, under Christian Thielemann, and Weber’s music sounds lavish and maturely (not early) Romantic and very cinematic on modern instruments. While I love Weber’s “Kampf und Sieg” on period instruments, his best-known opera sounds much more dramatic with a modern orchestra. The spoken dialogue was slightly adapted (by Werner Hintze), and the transitions between music and speech seem natural. Unlike in Wagner, there are duos, trios and choruses, and it’s quite interesting listening to those in a German opera. Weber segregated the sexes musically too, with women getting the lyrical and occasionally comedic material, while men get the gravity, good and bad. (He musically divides the good and the bad, says the booklet, the diminished cords, including tritones, and the “wan and dark sonorities” going to the reps of the underworld.)

The singers were uniformly solid, the male leads perhaps having a slight edge. Michael König in the title role stays musically mellifluous while dramatically highly wrought and conflicted. Georg Zeppenfeld is sinister and weaselly as the wiry, leather-clad Kaspar, while his baritone voice is even and chocolaty. Adrian Eröd as Ottokar the Prince was equally tone perfect. Agathe (Sara Jakubiak) and Ännchen (Christina Landshamer) were fine but could have had more personality. I know the libretto doesn’t really give them a whole lot of that—one is solemn, the other one light, and that’s sort of it. Much of what they do is waiting.

The limping maid is a great dramatic device, and I’m glad the silent but important role is credited in the booklet: Anna Katharina Schumann.

Video direction by Tiziano Mancini is unobtrusive, with occasionally some unexpected camera positioning from the side of the stage thrown in to keep things interesting.

A Unitel Classica Production with Semperoper Dresden, 2015. 

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.