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 Hercules 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.

Madama Butterfly, or America as the marital rights utopia

Butterfly

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.

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Kasahara, Yelovich, Lam. Photo by Avenue One.

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.

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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