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.)
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’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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.”
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.
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.
ENO’s reliably good OOG series released Die Meistersinger guide last year and I finally got a chance to read it. (Thank you, Gary!) I also happen to have watched Herheim’s Salzburg production on DVD just the other day–my first entire DieMeistersinger, and an unusually cozy and gentle one for Herheim, very Dickens and the Grimm Brothers.
The guide contains a useful chapter by Arnold Whittall on musical themes and developments, which comes with the graphic guide with notation, and both connect very logically to the libretto and its translation. There’s also an insightful chapter by Tin Blanning on the “holy German art” business, in which Schiller plays a prominent part and which explains that the Sachs speech that today reads as nationalist was, at the time of its creation and first utterance on stage, aspirational more than anything else (Germany united as a country a couple of years after Die M had its premiere).
And now for some quibbles.
The first essay could have been more exciting, shorter and more focused, and altogether less reverential. The author John Deathridge, tasked with introducing the work and how it was created, leaves no mystification and (Wagner’s own) self-mystification behind. We hear at great length how the plot also works as an allegory about Jesus and John the Baptist, and Jesus and the Apostles. Wagner and his second wife Cosima both wrote that seeing Titian’s painting “Assumption of the Virgin” was what reignited Wagner’s interest in his abandoned Meistersinger, so that statement is taken seriously here too, and a connection via Schopenhauer concocted between the painting and the opera. We hear in excruciating detail about an altarpiece from a Nurenberg church and how it may or may not have influenced Wagner. We hear a lot about the first version of the Meistersinger, which Wagner abandoned before re-embarking on the one we have today, and a lot of psychologyzing around the question of why Wagner changed stuff. There are almost two pages dedicated to the forced analogy between King Marke and Hans Sachs. There are interesting bits–the one on Goethe’s Hans Sachs, for ex–but those flights of critical imagination are buried amid all the deference to the biographical and the biblical.
Moving right on… There are people who argue that there’s always something inherently anti-Semitic in Die Meistersinger because 1) there are documents pointing out that Wagner intended an anti-Semitic resonance in very specific spots in the piece, and 2) of the history of reception of the work before and during World War Two–namely, the Nazis embraced it, as a matter of cultural policy, and used its performances as a unification ritual. Hans Rudolf Vaget’s essay at first looked like it wasn’t going to be one of those. Titled “The Beckmesser Problem”, his chapter is a multi-layered history of ascribing anti-Semitism to (finding anti-Semitism in?) certain parts of the Meistersinger. It also provides context to Wagner’s own manifesto “The Jewishness in Music”, which apparently stemmed from his professional jealousies toward Meyerbeer and the resentment toward one particular critic, Edouard Hanslick. Adorno’s contention that all the rejects in Wagner’s operas are caricatures of Jews, and Beckmesser of the Meistersinger especially so, looms large in Vaget’s piece, though he reexamines it, together with a handful of other readings of anti-Semitic tropes, some finding baseless, others less so. He finds hidden in Walther’s Trial scene in Act One a wink to the anti-Semitic tale “The Jew in the Thorn Bush”– in a complicated way that I won’t dare attempt to reproduce here. This for him mars the piece permanently, constitutionally: by the end of the essay, Vaget comes close to the position that there are parts within Die Meistersinger that are inherently suspect and permanently offering an anti-Semitic reading. Because Wagner intended it, and because there have been audiences at a certain point in history–say, 1930s in Germany–who arguably found it and embraced it, it exists in the text itself.
Not only do I not subscribe to this philosophical view of how meaning is created–there’s no ur-meaning outside all contexts, not even dormantly; all of the meaning is in the contexts, and if the contexts die, so die the meanings… Not only do I not subscribe to it philosophically, but I myself am a living proof against it. Namely, if Vaget, Adorno & others did not point out to me that the figure of Beckmesser (or Mime in the Ring) was “meant to make fun of the Jews”, it’d never have occurred to me. Not in a million years, not in the productions I’ve been seeing. Nor was I aware of the wink to the Brothers Grimm tale in the Meistersinger (nor will I look it up now; I’m fine without knowing the basics of the tale “The Jew in the Thorn Bush”, thank you very much). I am not in the minority; we are a massive majority of opera-going folk who would never seek out–why on earth would anybody?–any traces of hidden anti-Semitic caricature any of the Wagner’s characters, or in any other opera’s, for that matter. And yet, we get urged to do so.
The crux of my point being: those writing about an “anti-Semitic Mime” and an “an anti-Semitic Beckmesser” as permanently hiding in the work itself are, perversely, keeping both of those tropes alive. They’re doing that by re-sensitizing the audience (of, say, Toronto, London, or NYC, A.D. 2016) that would otherwise be absolutely deaf to this particular call to prejudice.
Nothing in fact contradicts the spirit of Vaget’s essay better than the essay that follows it, Aine Sheil’s piece on the performance history of Die Meistersinger. The denaturalization of the piece started with the abstract sets of Wieland Wagner, but German theatre radically opened up the work and faced the past head-on with the productions by Neuenfels (Stuttgart 1994) and Konwitchny’s (Hamburg 2002). The Neuenfels production opens with Germany in ruins in 1945 and ends with the reunification at the Brandenburg Gate. Konwitchny, in his, stops the proceedings at the exact moment of Hans Sachs’ nationalist tirade and lets the singers discuss why and if this piece should be done at all. It’s Katharina Wagner’s 2007 Bayreuth production that probably goes furthest in its radical redress and innovation–in it, there is an added segment in which the Regie director and his team get pushed in the dumpster and set on fire by the conservative Sachs. While Sachs goes increasingly authoritarian, Beckmesser ends the production as an independent artist forging his own path.
Interestingly, the productions by the houses in the English-speaking lands tend to be more warm, pretty and straightforward, like McVicar’s Glyndebourne production and Herheim’s own, which was a co-production with the Met (never to be seen this side of the Atlantic, turns out). Richard Jones’s 2010 WNO production, reworked and remounted for the ENO in 2015, made more effort: it found a way to honour the centuries of German and Austrian artists and mould-breakers across disciplines without any of the accompanying ethnocentrism, as a group of people ultimately playing for the team Humanity.
Lyon Opera and the COC are co-funding a new production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail with rewritten dialogues by Lebanese-Canadian-French playwright Wajdi Mouawad, who also directs. We may get to see it in Toronto next year, or the year after, but meanwhile the production opened in Lyon this July and can be watched online here, provided you download Tunnel Bear and set it on French browsing (the Culturebox video is geoblocked, but worth the trouble).
Mouawad’s is a retrospective telling of the opera, and opens with straight dialogue at the party that celebrates Konstanze (Jane Archibald) and Blonde (Joanna Wydorska)’s return from captivity. The garbs are operatic eighteenth-century, wigs and breeches, and Belmonte the Vater invites the guest to celebrate the big rescue as well as the superior values of the Enlightenment against barbarity. He unveils the high striker game he had prepared for them, and he uses its French name: la Tête de Turc. Guests take turns at the mallet wacking the top of the turban, but Konstanze and Blonde refuse, which leads to a marital skirmish with Belmonte and Pedrillo. After they agree to re-tell how each experienced the rescue mission, the overture starts.
From that point on, Belmonte and Pedrillo (baby-faced tenors Cyrille Dubois and Michael Laurenz) are the only characters who remain in their eighteenth-century costumes, now looking over-elaborate and silly. The guests are cleared away, sets turn grey and very basic (it’s not a costly production, I dare say), Konstanze is sat down and Belmonte meets Osmin for the first time (again). Osmin is not picking figs but fiddling with origami figures—stay for the explanation why further down—when Belmonte demands to know of Selim Pasha lives there.
“That’s how they treated me,” Belmonte concludes the scene of the rough exchange with Osmin, but Konstanze demurs: “That’s how you describe it”. Before Osmin sings the torture aria for Pedrillo, it’s revealed through the added dialogue that he despises the man because he’s a philanderer (“For you, love is a joke; for me, it gives meaning to life”). David Steffens’s Osmin could charm the breeches off anybody and turns out to be, when not dealing with Pedrillo, a decent, even-tempered bro. As the opera progresses, Mouawad’s Pedrillo becomes something of a figure that illustrates that the west has gone too far in the direction of mistaking choice and profligacy for freedom. Belmonte is an adventurer whose privileged background protects him from any real danger. Neither man is burdened by principles which he’s willing to defend with his own life (a quality that, conversely, makes Don Giovanni a noble figure).
Konstanze, yes—and says as much to Selim on two occasions in the original libretto. Her first scene with the Pasha (Peter Lohmeyer, calm and compelling) maintains most of the original dialogue, but as she sings “Ach ich liebte” while Belmonte looks on from his chair in the corner, we’re not entirely sure if she means it. The long dialogue between Konstanze and Selim presents them both as reasonable individuals at an impasse: the only thing he won’t do is let her go, the only thing she won’t do is deny she is kept against her will and grant consent. He weakly threatens to marry her against her will, and she asks for more time “to forget the pain”. “It’s been two years,” is his reply, and she demands one more night. Morgen it’ll be, then.
Konstanze then to Belmonte: “et malgre la cruauté de ses paroles, je le savais bon!” Belmonte is not pleased as she continues to defend him.
Blonde opens the second act with a newly minted monologue. Approximation: Why is it that I always fall for the men-children. Who moreover can’t stop complaining. Pedrillo is hovering, and Osmin enters the room for a bath. She continues to address both men: “You or him, here or there, you’re equally bad”. Osmin, now in the tub, invites her to scrub his back. She premises her “Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln” aria with “I tell you Pedrillo, as I told Osmin”. In the old libretto she threatens to gouge his eyes out and they genuinely fight, while here we are witnessing a teasing exchange. “Tenderness? Pretty words? But we are in Turkey. I am the master and you are my slave. I order, you obey,” replies Osmin from the tub and from the old libretto. “Hahaha it’s same in Europe”, yells Pedrillo from his chair and the new libretto. To “I am born a woman and defy anybody, here or there [this recurs a lot], who wants to coerce me”, Osmin answers “She is crazy” and Pedrillo “Hysterical”. She helps Osmin get dressed, and the banter ends with Osmin flirting with “You want me to be your puppet, like your jackass Petrillo” (Pedrillo next to them objects). “You are beginning to understand,” she replies, and they kiss.
To Pedrillo’s protestations, Blonde says: “I loved him because he aspired to greatness. What do you aspire to? Nothing. You child.”
Pedrillo: “Do you want me to lock you up?”
Osmin: “Do you want me to give you freedom to do whatever you like?”
Blonde: “Learn one from another. If you don’t, you’re both bound to be wrong”
[weak point of the libretto – the moral equivalence. On which later]
Osmin gets mad: “You still love him!”
Pedrillo: “Do you regret your Turk?”
Blonde: “My heart belongs to me!”
During the Osmin-Blonde duet, the two laugh and hug. The “O Engländer! seyd ihr nicht Thoren” is obviously a teasing session. He lowers on his knees and sings to her tummy, which is how we learn that Blonde is pregnant. He takes out the fiddly origami toy from the box—the one he made in Act 1—which was, it’s now clear, planned for a baby. They part ways gently.
Konstanze’s quarters. Long new dialogue given to Blonde and Konstanze, in which Blonde is shown as an optimistic, strong-willed creature and Konstanze as the hopeless of the two. Konstanze gets the extremely acute line “As somebody who was born into comfort and indifference, I am bound to feel fragile before difficulty”. Blonde reminds her that she’s familiar with exile and changing languages and countries; Konstanze: “We are too protected… I want to be you.” Blonde: “We used to be mistress and servant; now two women, shoulder to shoulder.”
Later, Konstanze and Selim argue. She asks him again to let her go. “Do you think your world is better than mine?” he asks. “No, but it’s my world.” She goes on to tell him that There as here, men sing of eternal beauty of women, but that here as well as there nothing is more difficult for a woman than to have freedom. “Our world differs from yours in language, religion, philosophy… in everything except in the idea that woman needs to be subjugated. Worship her and subject her. … the only thing different is your chosen way of subjugation.”
“I won’t let you go, Konstanze.”
“Then kill me.” And we’re back to old libretto. Aria ”Martern aller Arten” is sung with other women and girls of the harem gathered behind her.
Next scene is set in a mosque, during prayer – women separated from men, Blonde among the women, uncovered. Pedrillo informs her of the escape plan. She appears happy.
The Osmin and Pedrillo wine-drinking proceeds in the usual way, and the escape quartet follows. The moments of doubt for the men—whether the women had remained ‘faithful’ all this time away—are already in the old libretto, but after the women get mad and couples reconciled, Mouawad adds all-important coda to this scene: Konstanze goes on the offensive with “So you were going to save us only if we had been faithful? What if we hadn’t been? You would have gone away without us?” During this conversation, Blonde tells Pedrillo “I didn’t know if I loved him or hated him… I was lost, like you… He loved me unwaveringly”.
“And you, Konstanze?” Belmonte wants to know.
(bitterly) “If you want to know if I slept with the Pasha, then know that your honour is intact…”—and she goes on to defend Selim as a great noble man.
Belmonte: “I feel I lost you the moment I found you!”
The rest proceeds according to the libretto. Osmin catches them all, and during his next supposedly angry aria, the ghost / phantom/ hallucination of his daughter, now five years old, walks about wearing a nightgown. She can’t sleep. He sings about “Harems-Mäuse”—perhaps promising to fight the monsters that frighten her?—and then sobs.
When he meets Selim, he pleads that he spare Blonde: “If you condemn Blonde, you condemn two lives, and the one she’s carrying in her is innocent…”
What used to be the prison-harem from which the boys rescued the women—the elegant, claustrophobic globe-shaped cage—is now the prison for the recaptured quartet of protagonists. There’s the prison singing sequence and then the Selim clemenza scene. As they each come out of the prison one by one, the captives sing “Never will I forget your benevolence; For ever shall I sing your praises” which is exactly what they don’t do when they return home, if you remember the party from the beginning of the opera.
While the music is upbeat, the women aren’t: the opera ends with a barrier falling down between the principals and ‘them’, the people of the east. It comes down together with the chandeliers, and we’re back where we started.
When the new dialogues work well, they work gloriously well. There are also points where they don’t work as well (see below). Too, there are points where they’re awfully didactic. (“The hardest thing is to recognize that they aren’t as barbarian as we are wont to describe them”, Pedrillo says to Belmonte in Act 1. You paying attention, opera-goer? This is an important point!)
In an attempt to avoid cultural offense via western chauvinism, Mouawad puts the equation sign between two patriarchal societies a little too easily. Or maybe he really believes what the poignant words he’s given to Konstanze and Blonde say (here and there, both places)? Either way. There are degrees of oppression. To insist that everywhere is equally bad for women is an indefensible position. “You only differ in the method you choose to subjugate women” says Konstanze to Selim, but the devil, unsurprisingly, is in the details of that method. There’s misogyny and misogyny; there’s cultural misogyny and then there are very physically violent expressions of misogyny. There’s the photographic gaze and the Bechtel Test and the feminist shortcomings of an opera and then there’s sexual trafficking and stoning and death by gunman or policeman or abject poverty. Women’s bad luck is unevenly distributed across the globe (country, city).
Mouawad’s is, actually, a very gentle and light Entführung, the real darkness of sexual slavery eliminated completely. Blonde genuinely gives consent to Osmin; Konstanze doesn’t and her choice is respected by Selim. It could easily be a thought experiment or a treatise from the Enlightenment era, where individuals meet as rational minds to resolve the distribution of mutual obligations and individual rights. The violence is largely abstracted out. Although Mouawad’s production aims to put into question the glorification of Enlightenment values, it ends up being an oblique—and welcome–tribute to them.
More on the production here, including the Mouawad libretto in German and French. The old libretto, in German and English, here. All photos: Stofleth / Opera de Lyon.