Podcast Episode the First

So I went and created a podcast.

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

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

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

John of Opera Ramblings, Best Shows:

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

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

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

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

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

Sara Constant, Digital Media at the WholeNote:

The Soundstreams Vivier show

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

My own addendum to this:

Soundstreams doing R Murray Schafer Odditorium

PLUS Judy Loman in anything

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

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

Toronto’s best operatic performance: COC’s Gotterdammerung

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

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

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

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

Jenna Simeonov (Schmopera):

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

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

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

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

+ + +

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

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

 

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Handel Unbound

Miriam Khalil, Justin Welsh, Michael Uloth, Danika Lorèn, Topher Mokrzewski (Darryl Block Photography)

Against the Grain’s new Handel concoction, Bound, is still very much a work in progress. Last night, we had a chance to see the first version of the three-year process of developing a production, and the final version may end up being completely reinvented.

The founding idea is good: 7 characters who are confined due to a brush with the immigration law sing Handel arias about their condition. The spoken bits connect the arias – the Stage (voiced by Martha Burns, in a dark far away corner of the COC’s Jackman Studio) interrogates each inmate in a weary and slightly menacing tone through a glitchy microphone.

The Handel aria texts (Cara sposa, Ombra mai fu, Iris hence away and Ah mio cor I did manage to recognize) are discarded and new words written to build the stories for these specific characters. Music is often rearranged as well (Topher Mokrzewski @ piano) – sometimes to the detriment, when the coloraturas are sacrificed, and sometimes the arrangements indeed enrich the song, as when Arabic-inflected singing is added to Miriam Khalil’s character take on Ah mio cor.

The cast of young singers are good actors to one though neither is exactly a fireworks Handelian voice. The vocal side would matter much less if the dramatic core of the piece solidified — which is still not entirely the case. Is the State specifically Canadian, or is it American, or an abstract cross-cultural entity? Is the State meant to be uniformly oppressive? In which case, the individual stories need to be revised and made more specific. In one case, a man was asked about a German relative of his who’s had ties to the Nazi party. Sadly, Nazis are back in the news and I wasn’t entirely sure if the libretto was suggesting that the relatives of Nazis or the Nazis themselves have been in the past or are being today unfairly prosecuted or harassed by association?

Another character is sister of a man who committed I presume one of those white terrorism acts: lots of innocent people are killed, is all I gathered; and the man’s name is Liam, the name which, when sung out in a plaintive aria, sounds almost comical. She is being interrogated, I presume, as is customary to talk to family members of mass murderers? I am not entirely sure that that too is an extremely oppressive act.

Perhaps the main dramatic problem is that the reason why these characters are being interrogated remains unknown? More detail would help clarify the absurdity of the charge – the vagueness doesn’t help. Perhaps Joel Ivany should look at some of the news stories and work them in, with changed names? One of the characters wears a hijab, and is questioned by the State about it – but the exchange just doesn’t sound credible. Since we don’t have all the other information on why she’s being detained, it sounds like she is being given extra hard time because of the hijab? The hijab question is also a bit more complicated than that. If the State was Iranian or Saudi Arabian the woman harassed would be the one without a hijab or niqab. I kept thinking of Zhara Kazemi, who was an Iranian-Canadian photographer apprehended on false charges and beaten to death in a jail in Iran. Might be wise to take a wider look at what some other States are doing as well when it comes to women and how they dress.

Left as vague as this, neither of the character stories actually work. The one thing that is clear is that they are all massively incovenienced. A big crime in Canada, I know… But silliness aside, if the libretto is to stay Canada-specific, the stories should be more specific. A clear cut case that Ivany could have used is toddlers being stopped at border crossings because their names appear on do-not-fly lists, for instance. Or live-in caregivers being denied family sponsorship visas because their children have medical conditions which would be “a burden to Canadian health care system”. Or the live-in care-givers themselves. There is much to be mined from the actual news – no need to invent vague unspecific instances of what we are told is oppression.

This show can be much better. Meet you same place, next year?

Bound continues to Dec 16 and returns next year in a new disguise

Justin Welsh, Danika Lorèn (Darryl Block Photography)

 

A fine Austrian-Balkan romance

Hello, and good weekend, my dear blog readers.

Head over the Globe to read my article on Tim Albery’s COC-Santa Fe-Minnesota produced Arabella which will open at the COC next week. I look at the politics and geography of Hofmannsthal’s libretto — it concerns me not only as a lover of Strauss-Hofmannsthal collabs but personally as well, as I am South Slav, like Mandryka. South Slavs appear in Austrian and German opera and operetta with some regularity, and I’m all in favour. The Merry Widow, for example, both lampoons and celebrates Montenegrin culture, and I can’t really muster any amount of cultural appropriation outrage (actually these cultural crossings are crucial if humanity is to progress and de-parochialize, but that’s a topic for another post. Cultural theft is also another, and very different topic).

Strauss consulted South Slav folk song sources and gave Mandryka some of the stuff, if of course Straussified and deconstructed. But the text to “I went through the wood” sounded familiar, and after some memory refresher journey through YouTube, I remembered and tracked down the actual song that still exists and is still being performed in various musical arrangements in Montenegro, Serbia and Bosnia. The text is utterly absurd, and perhaps an allegory for proposing or propositioning or getting married:

I went through the wood, I don’t know which one
I met a girl, don’t know whose daughter
I stepped on her foot, don’t know which one
She screamed, no idea why.

which is almost word for word (with one extra line added) what Mandryka says:

Gieng durch einen Wald, weiss nicht durch welchen
Fand ein Mädchen, weiss nicht, wessen Tochter!
Trat ihm auf den Fuss, weiss nicht auf welchen,
fieng es an zu schrein, weiss nicht warum doch:
seht den Wicht, wie der sich denkt die Liebe!

Now, stepping on somebody’s foot is odd, but there’s a slang expression to step on a crazy rock, stati na ludi kamen that means to get married, to get hitched, so maybe it’s connected. I also read in a Balkan folkie forum that in some parts of Serbia this version of the song is usually sung at weddings. (There’s another version of I walked through the wood, in which there’s no stepping on feet but in which the man and the woman come across each other and just know they’re meant to be.)

I think Hofmannsthal and Strauss knew a thing or two about the Balkans. There are clues that Arabella and Mandryka are meant to be, and this song appears as one of those clues, I think. I don’t think it’s there to illustrate how bizarre those “Slavonian” songs are, though that’s a legit surface read too. It’s both a clue, and something that’ll sound absurd to the Viennese.

Another thing also intrigued me. Zdenka (a Slav name, by the way) lives as a man Zdenko because the family can’t afford the dresses, the balls, the accoutrements required to bring another daughter into the high society. This is also what has been happening in some impoverished families in rural, mountainous parts of Montenegro, Dalmatia, Bosnia and Albania. There is no money to raise a daughter, so she is raised as a boy – and will later dress as a man, work as a man, run the farm or the household as a man. In order to be able to live as a man, though, she can never marry — or even date. Did Hofmannsthal know about the Balkan sworn virgins (virdzinas)?  I wouldn’t be surprised. (Croatia and Bosnia don’t have them any more, the last one in Montenegro died recently, but Albania still has a couple of dozen, to the delight of western documentary filmmakers, journalists and novelists.)

 

Watch the Kentridge Wozzeck this Sunday

The COC-co-produced Wozzeck (with Salzburg, Met, and Opera Australia) directed by William Kentridge will be streamed on Medici TV this Sunday at 2PM Eastern. Watch it here. Medici will ask you to create a free account with a working email after a couple of minutes, so you might want to do that in advance.

I read somewhere that the Met will have it in 2019, so I doubt we’ll get it in the 18-19 season, but maybe the Met will have it in the Fall of 2019, which leaves a slight possibility that we may get it before NYC. We’ll stay tuned.

Here’s a short Salzburg Fest video with Kentridge talking about his ideas for the production:

 

Opera 5 introducing Ethel Smyth

Alexandra Smither as Mrs. Waters with Jonathan MacArthur and other Pub Crawlers in Opera 5’s The Boatswain’s Mate. Emily Ding Photography

Opera 5’s staging of two one-acts, Fête Galante and The Boatswain’s Mate, is probably Ethel Smyth’s (1858–1944) operatic debut in Toronto. The general and artistic directors of the company Rachel Krehm and Aria Umezawa as well as the director Jessica Derventzis and conductor Evan Mitchell deserve kudos for shedding light on this unexplored corner of the early twentieth century creation. Both librettos show their age, though — former is based on a story by Maurice Baring (read it here), and latter is adopted from a story by W.W. Jacobs (which in turn you can read here). Smyth adapted both. Umezawa rewrote the dialogues from the Mate libretto and that, together with a filmic, naturalistic direction of an ensemble of capable young singer-actors who unreservedly advocated for each of the characters salvaged the piece and gave it new life.

Fête Galante was a different story. It’s a fast one acter on betrayal and mistaken identities and courting outside your marital unit. There are characters in it called the King and the Queen as well as characters from commedia dell’arte. It’s more oneiric and fantastical than naturalistic, yet it mostly got a naturalistic directorial treatment. Its absurd and comedic elements probably needed drawing out. As your regular old naturalistic narrative, it didn’t quite tick. Perhaps if it was treated as akin to an opera like, say, Pelléas, the engine might have revved up.

It was, luckily, followed by the Mate which straight from scene one blossomed into a full-blown comedic opera–in this case, in the chamber orchestra score reduction obtained, as Mitchell explains in the program, thanks to Retrospect Opera. The story is of a pub owner Mrs. Waters (Alexandra Smither), her persistent suitor and customer Harry (Asitha Tennekoon), and a random pub goer Ned (Jeremy Ludwig) who’s recruited by Harry to pretend to be a burglar so Harry can fight him off and “save” Mrs. Waters. In a large-ish cast of young singers, there wasn’t a single weak link – a rare occurrence. A group of drunk revelers barged into the pub half-way into the proceedings, and everything was sung and done with impeccable timing and just the right kind of rowdiness and noise (the revelers were Kevin Myers, Alan MacDonald, Jean-Philippe McClish, Elizabeth Polese, Eugenia Dermentzis and Michael Dickey, who plays Mrs. Waters’ waitress on staff). If I had to pick a dramatic standout among the principals, it would be tenor Asitha Tennekoon who has a gift for physical comedy rarely found among opera singers. His smooth tenor all the while never wavered. Alexandra Smither was equally impressive — vocally as well as in her acting: here is a singer who is already in possession of a fully developed instrument and undeniable charisma. Jeremy Ludwig as Ned too struck the right note with his character and while maintaining the required supply of goofiness never fell into caricature.

Mrs. Waters discovers the awkward “burglar” Ned in her pub before the plot by the two men could even hatch and after Ned confesses everything, they concoct a plan on their own for Harry (fast asleep on guard by the cat flap). She leads Harry to believe that she had killed the house intruder with a baseball bat, which gives the tenor even more room to exercise his comedic gifts. A policeman gets involved and after the resolution of the farce, and some additional flirting, Mrs. Waters agrees to see Ned again. She’s again alone in her inn when waitress Mary Ann arrives and the two sit down to talk over what happened since they last saw each other. Curtain.

Ethel Smyth’s music in the Mate is certainly not along the lines of Puccini–it’s not particularly melodic or emotional except when she’s quoting, her own suffragette anthem The March of Women composed for the Women’s Social and Political Union, for example, or folk melodies–but it’s neither along the lines of the Second Viennese School either. It’s tonal, if ruggedly so, often chromatic and unrepetitive and eager to experiment with the pairing of instrument and voice and with instrumental solos. The transition between spoken and sung text worked well.

And while Smyth herself had a fascinating life, the libretto for the Mate, which turns the smart female protagonist soup-brained and romantically interested in a hapless stranger who broke into her house, resorts to some implausible old tropes on women. Consent is important throughout, which I suppose is new–and having the romantic couple in the making not romance each other immediately, but agree to meet and get to know each other later (Mrs. Waters has a business to run after all) is a nice twist. But imagine if Smyth had worked with a libretto that actually reflected at least some of her own life: defied her militaristic father’s wishes, did what she wanted to do; doggedly pursued music education in UK and Europe against all odds; as a young person met and worked with Brahms; spent two months in jail after being arrested for breaking a window at a suffragist protest; had affairs with women; was friends with Virginia Woolf; worked as a nurse during World War 1; became a successful writer later in life.

But I think we are still waiting for operas with female characters of even remotely that kind of scope. A lot of the contemporary composers still love the victimized or dead woman in opera, and even if you’re a singer specializing in contemporary music, you’re probably still likelier to sing Ophelia than a woman with any kind of agency. So it’s a question that still lingers. While Smyth put some of her politics in other musical forms–in choral piece titled 1910, for ex, which her obit describes as the “hullabaloo of a Parliament Square riot”–in choosing her operatic librettos she resorted to the paths more travelled. Mrs. Waters has rare pizzazz, but up to a point. We’ll relish it up to that point.

Smyth’s opus, meanwhile, remains of interest and worth exploring in the twenty-first century. Thanks Opera 5 for the discovery.

 

From Opera 5’s production of The Boatswain’s Mate. L-r: Jean-Philippe McClish (Policeman), Jeremy Ludwig (Ned Travers), Asitha Tennekoon (Harry Benn), Alexandra Smith (Mrs. Waters). Emily Ding Photography
Oepra 5’s production of Fete Galante. L-r: Eugenia Dermentzis (The Queen), Alexandra Smither (Puppet). Jonathan MacArthur (Harlequin), Philippe McClish (The King), Jeremy Ludwig (Puppet). Emily Ding Photography

Oksana G. is shockingly bad

I left the May 26 performance of Oksana G. stunned. The most ambitious operatic project by our biggest contemporary opera producer in recent years made a lot of us excited and keen to embrace it. The topic hinted at seriousness of purpose, boldness in the face of potential controversy and rootedness in our age. The libretto took the road less travelled by letting the characters speak in their original languages: Ukrainian, Russian and Italian in addition to English. The action, ambitiously, moves across several borders. The casting promised the right mix of the newcomers and the acclaimed.

The result of those ten years of work is, turns out, an atrociously banal libretto with music which serves as faded wallpaper or, in those rare moments of visibility, as an injection of lyricism for purposes of telling us what to feel.

The story of a young Ukrainian woman Oksana who is promised a job in a high income country but then taken into sexual slavery by her smuggler is told in the manner of a TV special for very slow children. We follow her life in chronological sketches and each leaden scene is designed to highlight a problem or explain a point. We are being walked through, with a heavy stomp. In between the acts, there are documentary intertitles that tell the place of action and the exact date.  There are moments of extraordinary vacuity. Middle-aged East-European women that Oksana leaves behind keep looking at tarot card to learn about her fate. (That’s how East European women inform themselves about world events, FYI.) Oksana’s guide-turned-pimp in one dramatic moment in the woods removes his glasses and she is horrified that his eyes are of different colour (bad omen, evil is ahead). Later, escaped and among other women in a recovery camp in Italy, Oksana and her girlfriends play folk dances to remind themselves of home. (Slavs = folk dances, FYI.) Speaking of Slavs, every woman in the story is clad in the style that can be best described as a cheap made-in-China quasi-glamour, which I suppose is there to suggest that they all, as a demographic, not only lack means, but also pine for western glam and try to scramble a knockout version of it.

But the most serious issue with the libretto is structural. The story of Oksana’s life is told through her passive relationship to two men who have agency in the story: her captor Konstantin, and then later, her savior, priest Father Alexander. Oh, and: Father Alexander is a blonde and muscular Canadian hunk who happens to live in southern Italy, where he runs the centre for the escaped trafficked women like Oskana G. It’s the myth we like telling each other, the peace-keeper Canadian who saves the day in the less fortunate parts of the world, and astoundingly, here it is served again, unexamined, in a 2017 opera.

The quiet scene between the priest and the recovering Oksana is jaw-dropping: he tells her there is still time for her, maybe she will meet a man one day who will lover her and she will have children, and a happy family life, and not to give up hope. Music heard from the orchestra stage right, amping up the sentiment, comes in unsubtly and signals that yes, this is sincere, this is a moment of rare intimacy between the two, his words are to be taken seriously.

There is the odd collective scene with other women in captivity but while a different librettist and composer pair would have made something out of it–a slave chorus, a gathering of forces, a lament of the kind that Britten created for the women of Peter Grimes–zero luck here. The women remain atomized.

The ending made everything that one final degree worse. There’s a very old operatic trope that goes like this. The impure woman has to die at the end of an opera – either by her own hand, by a man’s hand or due to an illness – as that is the only way we can feel for her. With no dramatic reason except this one, that we can finally be allowed to love and pity her, Oksana, finally free from her enslaver, commits suicide out of shame. What fresh Butterfly BS is this, librettist Colleen Murphy, composer Aaron Gervais, director Tom Diamond, and Tapestry Opera?

Singers are generally fine–Jacqueline Woodley as Oksana’s friend Nataliya, Keith Klassen as Konstantin, and Natalya Gennadi as Oksana in particular leave a mark–but colossally wasted by this production. Krisztina Szabo as Oksana’s mother is not given much to do except fret. (See also under: East European mothers) Adam Fisher as the priest was in fine voice, but his gym bunny physique and his stylish coif stood comically incongruous with his character’s profession.

And what to say of Gervais’ music which overall takes leave to the far background and lets the B-movie libretto take up all the air?

I don’t enjoy writing reviews this disappointed and hope to never have to do it again. So let’s end here.

Thierry Tidrow at the Deutsche Oper Berlin

ThierryProfile
Thierry Tidrow

Cologne-based Francontarien Thierry Tidrow’s new chamber opera is about to have a world premiere at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin at the Tischlerei stage, the smaller theatre within the DO dedicated to commissions and experiment. (More on the Tischlerei season here.) A couple of years ago the German opera house in collaboration with the Hanns Eisler School of Music Berlin held a competition for new composers and librettists and out of about 40 submissions, the jury, which included among others Aribert Reimann, chose three, Thierry Tidrow among them. His librettist was to be Uta Bierbaum. All three operas will premiere as one triptych this Friday in Berlin within the program titled Scenes III at the Tischlerei. (Full cast and creative here.)

Here’s what Thierry told me about his one-acter, My Corporate Identity:

It’s about people pretending to be who they are not, pretending to be happy in order to fit in, in this case in the corporate world, which affects not only their personalities, but the music and the way they speak. In Germany the corporate language is half English, full of vapid buzz words. There is this character in the opera named Boss, and these are his first lines:
Content Content Content Content! Das Wechselspiel von Tradition und Innovation ist die Quelle, die uns immer wieder neu inspiriert. Es geht um bestechende Kreativität! Immer auch um höchste Authentizität! Sich immer neue Ziele setzen, ständig in Bewegung bleiben! Content Content! Das ist digital, das ist Strategie, das hier sind die Key-Notes, das ist kreativ, das ist Social Media, das Wording ist top, die Performance ist GEIL! Noch eine Runde Q&A? Wir sind im Work-Flow, das bringt uns Insight, wir sind hier alle on the same Page, back to WORK NOW. WIR! Danke Danke Danke, TEAM, ihr macht uns zu dem, was wir sind! Rosmarin, Porsche, Lifestyle. Yeah!

The main character, Woman with the green silk blouse, is constantly telling us how happy she is with her life, as if trying to convince us. The whole opera is actually quite violent since the characters are all too worried about the void (which manifests itself as a crack in the coffee room, at first too small for anyone to care, but slowly becoming bigger), that they just continuously talk about how great and perfect everything is. This goes on until the main protagonist exhausts herself to the point where her body decomposes, which is almost sort of freeing for her.

There is also an alter-ego, the other woman also wearing a green silk blouse, who is like the inner child of the protagonist and who has the only lyrical and heartfelt lines of the piece. She is in constant observation of the world around her (seasons changing even though every day of work feels the same) and of her body (of its nature and later of its decay). Her text is very poetic, whereas all the others (our heroine, Boss, and Female Colleague) mostly get run-on sentences and matter-of-fact/common sense/truism speak.

The music plays with these different levels of mask-wearing, and mirrors the characters. For example, the colleague who is cartoonishly happy and constantly laughing to a nauseating degree, has energetic and constantly changing material, ranging from cheesy pop song when she sings about how amazing the weekend is to almost Gilbert-and-Sullivan/Commedia dell’arte melodrama when she talks about the crack she’s seen.

But generally the corporate characters only sing when they are putting a mask on. Otherwise they are in a speaking or half-speaking, half-singing mode, in a syllabic way which exaggerates the prosody of the German language (i.e. which notes are emphasized/high, which are low)

Here are some examples of vocal treatment:

Excerpt 2:

Excerpt 3:

Let’s hope a video clip surfaces for those of us who can’t be in Berlin this month. Meanwhile, here’s a fun chamber music piece by Thierry, STYROPORÖS:

Louis Riel’s Second Coming

Russell Braun as Louis Riel in Canadian Opera Company’s 2017 production of Louis Riel (director Peter Hinton). Photo credit Sophie I’anson

As the saying (approximately) goes, one person’s religious fanatic is another person’s hero, and Harry Somers and Mavor Moore’s multilayered opera Louis Riel certainly does not offer itself, in its ur-text, as a piece of simple pro-Riel propaganda. Had Riel fended off the forces of the Canadian federation, his Métis governance state would have probably been a theocracy with a charismatic governor, and not even notionally liberal—though the libretto in his last speech has him saying a verse on “man having rights” (perhaps the meaning here is treaty rights?). His first long aria at the end of Act 1 reveals that he hears God’s voice and feels directly and intimately called—“I am David” is its final verse—and upon his return to Canada from the exile he is given a scene in a Catholic church in Saskatchewan where he is a self-assured prophet with a large following. Riel was a figure akin to Ignazio di Loyola and Joan of Arc: not exactly a democrat. God spoke to him, and even skipped the Pope to go straight for this Prairie prophet.

He was of the future, however, in one way, and it’s an extremely important way: he was a bi-racial North American, and proud of it, while the Anglos in the opera throw around “half-breed” as an insult. He is also today read by some theorists of Canadian citizenship as a harbinger of the post-Trudeau I multiculturalism and bilingualism, the type of post-ethnic nationhood that we’ve been trying to work out in this country over the last 40 years. Not so, says a Métis scholar who contributed an opinion piece in the COC program for this new production of the opera. Dr. Adam Gaudry of University of Alberta argues that for Riel, land treaties were about staying separate but equal, not merging and integrating cultures and ethnicities into something new. And there are a number of Native rights groups today in Canada who argue against the Native integration in the general hodgepodge of Canadian citizenship; we’ve melted far enough in that particular pot, we’re now concerned with protecting the customs, reviving the languages and preserving the bloodlines. (Don’t act shocked. Huge majority of people on this planet still don’t want to marry outside their own ethnic or religious group. Most of your extended family to start with, whatever your ethnic background is.)

So Riel is a contradictory figure. (The periodic think pieces that appear in Canadian media in favour of exonerating and rehabilitating Riel are puzzling to me. Let the contradictory figure of the past be a contradictory figure of the past, why scrub him clean.) But Somers and Moore don’t exactly excoriate him in the opera either and in fact grant him a great, tragic dimension. He *is* a hero, in the sense of hero being a brave man who is blind to his constitutive flaws and who will be done in by those very flaws. Yes, and also by the encroaching armed forces of a nation in the making. Marxist historians would say “world-historical” forces—but that’s retrospective determinism, certainly in the case of Canada, which still feels like an unfinished business and up for grabs as a nation state in so many ways.

Riel is also given the most extraordinary music of this largely atonal score, solo arias of immense expressivity, variety, and power sung a cappella or to sparse instrumentation. In this new COC revival directed by Peter Hinton, Russell Braun sings Riel and as perfectly as anybody can come close to. He is certainly a little less butch, a little more pensive and Hamlet-like than the original Riel, Bernard Turgeon, but this singer-added Riel vulnerability works miracles for the character.

The major new thing that Hinton brought in is the invitation to the First Nations onto the stage and the turning of the spotlight onto the Métis and the Cree even more obviously as the centre of the story. You’d think that it would have occurred somebody in the original production to include a contingent of Native artists in the creative team or among the cast, but looks like it hadn’t. At the time of its first performances in the late 60s and early 70s, Riel was analyzed mainly as an opera on the FrancoCanadian-AngloCanadian conflict that makes up so much of Canadian history, even though more than half of the characters are Métis. Somers actively sought and employed musical material transcribed from the Native sources, for example for the Kuyas aria sung by Riel’s wife Marguerite (in this production sung by the soprano Simone Osborne, who handled this insanely demanding aria flawlessly; too bad the role is so short).

Hinton introduced a silent chorus that the original production did not have, what he describes in Director’s Notes as the Land Assembly which silently observes the action in every scene, sometimes apart, sometimes among other characters. He also replaced a scene of drunken revelry of the rebels with a scene of a group dance with the First Nations dancer Justin Many Fingers as the soloist. The quiet presence of Jani Lauzon, a grey-haired Métis singer and performer elegant in her red pant suit improved just about every scene because it somewhat attenuated the significant problem of the invisibility of women in Riel: without Lauzon, there are only three singing roles for women among 25 male singers, and they’re (hold on to your hats) sister, mother and wife to the Main Man.

What didn’t work for me was that the production is pretty minimalist. I think going minimalist in large multilayered operas is a cop-out, but in general too I don’t have a predilection for minimalism on operatic stage. (See Tim Albery’s Götterdämmerung, Carsen’s Iphigenie, Ivo van Hove’s anything…) There are long scenes of almost legalese debates in Riel during which there’s nowhere to look but at the blond wood panel in the back of the stage and the odd chair and table. About that blond wood panel: it reminds very much of the inside of the Four Seasons Centre, was that a hint? Yes, every opera is about that opera audience sitting right there, Hinton is right, but the set as the sets go was kind of dull.

The “Ottawa” set was better solved, but of course we are never shown the pseudo-Gothic interiors of the Parliament (it’s an iconic and much beloved building that would be perceived more positively than the director would necessarily want). Instead, the architectural plan of the Centre Block drops down as the background to the scenes among Sir John A., Cartier, Bishop Taché and “the representative of the commerce”, Hudson Bay’s Donald Smith. Baritone James Westman as Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald was another case of vocally and dramatically hand-meets-glove casting. Most of Sir John A.’s material is in the form of Sprechgesang—he doesn’t get any arias, but the only moments in the score that are comedic are to do with him: the trio of powerful men that announces that everything will be well when the opposite is about to happen; the drunk music in a scene of his hangover before dealing with the matters of the state (as Opera Rambling’s partner Katja put it last night, “most people in this opera are drunk most of the time”; fair).

Somers’ score operates in onslaughts and silences (moderation is for later in history) and I had forgotten how eventful and full of contrasts it is. The COC’s brass and percussions in particular get to do a lot of work. The only simpleminded tune in the entire opera is the mobbing chant of the Ontario protestants as they work up the anger against Riel, “We’ll Hang Him Up the River with the yah-yah-yah”. It’s also insidiously earworm-y, which was probably the composer’s naughty joke. Riel’s forces of course are defeated and he is hanged for treason. The silent chorus turns around one by one and looks straight to the audience after Riel goes down. Lights off, curtain calls, out we all go, and then there it is, the mobbing tune reappears, as a strange aftertaste—and a reminder how easy it is to hear, how ever susceptible we are to the call of the mob, then and now.

Continues at the COC April 23, 26, 29, May 2, 5, and 13.

(l-r, foreground) Russell Braun as Louis Riel, Michael Colvin as Thomas Scott and Charles Sy as Ambroise Lépine in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Louis Riel, 2017. Photo: Michael Cooper
(l-r) Peter Barrett as Col. Garnet Wolseley, James Westman as Sir John A. Macdonald, Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure as Sir George-Étienne Cartier and Alain Coulombe as Bishop Taché. Photo: Michael Cooper
(centre) Justin Many Fingers (Mii-Sum-Ma-Nis-Kim) as The Buffalo Dancer in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Louis Riel, 2017. Photo: Michael Cooper

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