New podcast episode out

January Alto is out.

First guest is Victorine de Oliveira, contributing writer @ Philosophie Magazine in France, who talks about her opera and classical highlights this season, books she’s been reading and also the French opposition to the MeToo. (Recorded on Skype, please forgive the extraneous sounds) People mentioned: Lea Desandre, Claus Guth, Kaija Saariaho, Terry Gillian, Paris opera loggionisti, Sarah Bakewell, a historian of the May ’68 Ludivine Bantigny, sociologist Eva Illouz, Virginie Despentes, Catherine Millet & the signatories of the PasMois letter.

Song: Emoke Baráth with Emese Virág on piano, Debussy’s “Nuit d’etoiles” (Hungaroton label, May 2017)

Followed by the conversation with opera director Christoper Alden on directing Rigoletto at the COC, the figure of the “Fallen Woman” in Verdi, working on a Peter Pan play via Leonard Bernstein and Nina Simone, whether his (rent-controlled) apartment in NYC is more Zeffirelli or minimalism, what his worry would be if the Met ever came calling, and what is opera to do in the age of Trump and the internet domination of culture.

Haus Musik: Crossing / TraversĂ©e

Patricia Ahern (violin) with Charlotte Nediger (harpsichord) in HausMusik, November 2017. Photo: Haus Musik Twitter account.

I finally got the chance to see one of Tafelmusik’s “alternative” concerts, the November edition of the series known as Haus Musik. It took place at the Great Hall’s Long Boat venue, on Queen and Dovercourt. This is a series of non-traditional chamber-size concerts by Tafelmusicians in venues like night clubs, preceded and followed by a DJ set.

I somehow thought that the concert would be a conversation between electronic and baroque music, but the two stayed safely apart and what we had was a traditional concert (if shorter) alongside a kind of a staging with a dancer, video and, um, curated smell: envelopes with dried lavender were handed to each of the audience member, which connected to some of the shots of lavender fields that we saw in video projections. The DJ Andycapp DJ’d before and probably after (I didn’t hang out for long).

There were no chairs about, hey this is an alternative concert in a club, but people clearly needed them because 20 minutes into the concert much of the audience on the ground level sat on the floor. I don’t think anything will be lost by adding some chairs to the Haus Musik formula? There are no chairs in clubs because people dance in clubs, but there was no opportunity for the audience to dance to baroque here. So: which it is going to be, the chairs or the dancing? that is the question. No chairs and no dancing is the worst combination possible.

The pieces heard were short and well varied – a concert for two violins (Patricia Ahern and Genevieve Gilardeau), a solo piece for the harpsichord (Charlotte Nediger) and another for viola da gamba (Felix Deak), and some pieces that asked for all four musicians. Beside Couperin, Rameau and Marais, two composers who are new to me were played: Jean-Marie Leclair and Louis Constatin.

I feel it would be bitchy and beside the point to “review” this performance and to comment on whether the ensemble sounded under-rehearsed etc. Too, the staging-mit-choreography by Jennifer Nichols wasn’t quite… there. The story unfolding while the music is playing was of two couples, one from the time when the music was composed, one contemporary — and they could be one and the same couple. The contemporary couple has split and we only see the man of the pair (dancer Jack Rennie), struggling with memories or dreams or visions (projected on video; Patrick Hagarty is credited as the filmmaker). There is great potential in this idea of the present, the past and the future disturbing each other’s domains and melding before our eyes, but the thing never really got off the ground. A pre-recorded male voice read a poem in French by “J. Nichols” (Jennifer?) in between the segments, which did not add much to the piece. The props making up the man’s atelier were the familiar scruffy Toronto indie opera no-budget props.

The audience, though, was MUCH younger than one sees in regular Tafelmusik concerts, and the drinks were being carried all around this licensed venue. However, unless tweaked (dancing or chairs?), this kind of a do is not exactly my thing. Especially now that that I live in east end. Dovercourt-Queen is now far west for this autumn cyclist.

Next Haus Musik is scheduled for February 2018.

News flash

News flash

Aida by Py— Bloor Cinema is starting to screen opera. The Met in HD is no longer the only game in town. The independent cinema house, owned by the Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival, will be showing the Paris Opera’s recent Aida (directed by Olivier Py, Philippe Jordan conducting) on Saturday January 18th at 1:30PM. For the very affordable tickets and more info go here. The new Paris production saw a great deal of controversy, and was one of the few which got boos even during the dress rehearsal. (Which prompted France Musique to dig out this video of a similar occasion, when GĂ©rard Mortier had to interrupt a dress rehearsal for Warlikowski’s Parsifal and ask the booers to be civilized or leave.) No fundamentalist is more rabid than the Aida fundamentalist, and the Parisian ones were out in full force for the duration of the run. To say that it’ll be an intriguing production would be an understatement. I was eager to go, but realized I had tickets for the Cosi fan tutte at the COC later that day, and two operas back-t0-back would not be something my ripe old age could handle. I hope some of you see it and tell me all about it.

I asked Robin Smith, the Cinema Programmer at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, if this was a one-off or if they plan to continue to screen operas. “Yes, we do have plans to do Operas regularly at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. Currently we are trying to feature at least 1 new opera to present our audience each month,” was his reply. He was able to share that we would see productions from both the ROH and the Paris Opera, but promised to have more specifics for me by mid-next week. Stay tuned.

–A new and intriguing transladaptation. Several departments of York University are collaborating on this updated version of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, to be directed by Gwen Dobie and conducted by Stephanie Martin.  Blurb: “In a Toronto prison in 2014, inmates crack open this satirical tale of corruption, social inequality — and a very messy love triangle.” Runs January 29-Feb 1, with the Jan 28 preview. More on the idea, and how to get the tickets here.

–Mezzo Stephanie Blythe is giving two voice Master Classes at UoT (Jan 21 and 23) and will perform “An Evening of English Songs” with pianist Steven Philcox and student artists (Jan 24). All of this is free, and takes place at UoT’s Walter Hall. More info here. Soprano Tracy Dahl is also giving a Master Class, baritone Thomas Allen is giving a talk, and British composer Gabriel Prokofiev is doing various things during his residence at UoT (look here for a handy calendar of UoT events this month).

–Hippolyte et Aricie in concert on February 2, something I can’t miss. The always outstanding Alyson McHardy will be Phedre, Kevin Mallon will conduct his period band the Aradia Ensemble, and the other credits look very appealing too.

Photo: The Paris Opera Aida, 2013

Pierre Audi’s Castor et Pollux (2009)

Castor_PolluxI’ve only managed to see this DVD now (the likely final straw – two opera bloggers, JohnG and Capriccio, recently reviewed it and reminded me of it). I avoided it due to its almost-monochromatism and the austere geometric set. How I was wrong.

This production and this work offer so much food for thought. The director Pierre Audi placed the mythical piece (fittingly) in the a-temporal setting. The hair, as the designer explains in the bonus documentary, was inspired by the representation of divinities that we can observe on the Ancient Greek pottery, but both hair and the costumes will to the present-day viewer look a touch Sci-Fi. And that is just fine: the Sci-Fi for us today is a sphere of myth and foundational stories and first questions. Do Star Trek and Star Wars and Alien and Blade Runner signify for us today the way Greek mythology signified in Rameau’s time? A question worth examining, and this C&P does it, though sideways, through the design.

More importantly, the Audi C&P blasts open for everybody to see what the work is ultimately about: becoming a human alas also means you have to shoe-horn yourself into one gender and with it, into romantic love, whatever the hegemonic models of it are in your epoch.

Although the tale begins as a familiar love triangle, only doubled (TĂ©laĂŻre and PhĂ©bĂ©e love Castor; Castor and Pollux both love TĂ©laĂŻre), it ends with two brothers choosing Hades over a happily-ever-after with TĂ©laĂŻre in this world. Big chunk of the latter part is a debate between the brothers over who gets to go back to being human, and why that’s not such a good idea.  They get awarded by Jupiter for their willingness to sacrifice by becoming part of the cosmos, the constellation Gemini.

But wait. Although on the one hand this is a work about transcending the human condition (yey), it is also about the homosocial world of male divinities who disregard the (irrevocably human) women, whose purpose of life they happily become. There is no happy ending, there is no reconciliation in the order of things. (Though maybe that was the Konzept for productions of Rameau’s time? I wish they had DVDs then.) The two women are repudiated, TĂ©laĂŻre kindly, PhĂ©bĂ©e brutally. To say no to the sexual difference is to say no to the other sex–to not accept the possibility of its incidence, perhaps.

Dancers are used brilliantly. I’ve seen several Rameau productions with choreographies that have nothing whatsoever to do with the goings-on on stage. Here, the dancers enact mini-dramas which reveal the psyche of the otherwise enigmatic characters. We observe their conflicted thought processes and drives out in the open. A truly ingenious solution.

As is the manipulation of the sets on the many passages between this world and the other one. (Some of the moving walls will again remind of the silent automatic doors in the many Sci-Fi creations; the designer claims it has to do with stage directing techniques of the Baroque era).

YT is a good place to sample this production — see it here.

For a very different take (and Happy New Year!) —

Rameau at the harpsichord equals joy

Rameau: Pièces de clavecin en concerts. Esemble Masques. Harpsichord Olivier Fortin, violin Sophie Gent, baroque transverse flute Anne Thievierge, viol Mélisande Corriveau. ATMA Classique, 2009 CD. Have a taste here.

The full title of the 1741 collection is Pièces de clavecin en concerts pour un violon ou un flute, une viole ou un second violon (Pieces for harpsichord in concert with a violin or flute, viol or second violin). They’re unusual for its time, as harpsichord does not provide basso continuo as it would in the baroque trio sonatas, but is the key part of the texture of the sound. The high dominant phrase is propelled by either the violin or the woodwind, the shade given by the bass viol, but everything else is formed by the virtuosic harpsichord tinkle, often given prolonged solo segments.

According to the liner notes (François Filiatrault in French, translated to English by Sean McCutcheon), with these curious concerts Rameau anticipated the trio for piano, violin and cello of the Classical period. “The concertants should hear each other,” Rameau instructs the performers in the preface of the collection, “and in particular the violin and the viol should adapt themselves to the harpsichord.” The lead role changes from high to keyboard back to high for the listener, and it’s quite a treat to notice the segments when the higher instrument is so obviously accompanying the significantly lower harpsichord.

There’s also a theatrical side to the pieces: Rameau named many of them after his friends, people he knew and knew of, and in some cases endeavoured to give something of the person’s character in music. “La Boucon”, the second, flute-driven melancholy movement of the Deuxième Concert, is named after Anne-Jeanne Boucon, daughter of an aristocratic family who was also a noted harpsichordist. De la Poplinière of “La La Poplinière” in the Troisième Concert was a well-known Maecenas of the era.

These are exquisite pieces, played in a vast palette of temperament and colour. The very good liner notes are the right mix of musicological and biographical information, and the cheeky cover design includes caricatures of some of the contemporaries of Rameau from across La Manche (bottom left is Edmund Burke). Olivier Fortin, the man behind the Masques harpsichord, comes to Toronto annually to teach at the Tafelmusik Summer Baroque Music Institute. Let’s hope he brings the full Masques for a performance next time.


Here’s Il Giardino Armonico performing La Forqueray, the fugue movement of the Cinquième Concert. Dedicated to Jean-Baptiste Antoine Forqueray, a renown viol player — or perhaps his second wife, the harpsichordist Marie-Rose Dubois.

On DVD: Les BorĂ©ades by Rameau, Christie/Carsen, Paris 2004

In this interesting production by Robert Carsen the Boreades, the people of the North Wind, dressed and buttoned up in expensive coats and accessories, are a workaholic, Protestant (as conductor William Christie explains in the bonus documentary) cold climate culture, and the Queen’s unsuitable suitor Abaris and his folk, later turning out to be Apollo’s geniture, clad in white Mediterranean rags, not adverse to far niente and nudity. It’s a visually attractive and consistently elegant production with, usual for the Carsen-Van Praet tandem, outstanding lighting design, but it’s not a terribly exciting production. The story is simple–the Queen of the Boreades ought to marry one of the two suitors arranged for her, but she most inconveniently loves somebody from another tribe. The vocabulary of the production is simple too, and once you pick it up, nothing that ensues will surprise. It’s a flawless exercise in beauty, within a very limited design vocabulary.

Christie and Carsen have decided to keep all the dance sequences and put Montrealers Edouard Lock and La La La Human Steps in charge of the elaborate and energetic pseudo-Classical choreographies.

Barbara Bonney as the Queen Alphise gets surprisingly few solo arias — just two — but they are stand-alone works of art, especially the first one with sobbing staccato breaking of the phrasing. Paul Agnew as her illegit sweetheart gets many more opportunties to impress. Other male voices are also well used (Toby Young and Stephane Degout as the two suitors, Nicolas Rivenq as both the priest of Apollo and Apollo himself, Laurent Naouri who comes in in the final act as BorĂ©e).

Highly recommended is The Making of… documentary in DVD’s Bonus Materials.  All the principals are interviewed and all have something substantial to say. Christie, Carsen and Bonney in particular underline how radical this opera was in its understanding of gender. Decades before the French revolution, the French absolutist court watched this opera in which a woman is fighting for her freedom to love and refuse a raison d’État marriage. There’s a poignant if short sequence in praise of la libertĂ© in the opera, sung by another woman, a nymph. Bonney and Christie in the documentary remind how important this is: a female subject, by fighting for her own liberty, is advancing universal citizen freedom.


I couldn’t find Bonney’s aria that I liked so much, but here’s a representative sequence instead:

The almost pious baroque

The almost pious baroque

Thanks to Tafelmusik Chamber Choir and Orchestra, we can finally hear the music of Rameau and Charpentier, two rare guests in our town. Handel, the Third Man of the program, is a little more frequent in these parts, but tends to visit as the Messiah and the Water Music. (How about a Handel opera in concert, Tafel? Ariodante or Alcina or an all-female Serse? And please no casting countertenors where the female trouser roles should be. Alright, I’m off the soapbox.) Officially, all three works on the program are sacred music — Handel’s Dixit Dominus, Rameau’s Grand Motet “In convertendo” and Charpentier’s Salve, Regina — but don’t take them for their word.  No piety will be in evidence, luckily. I have the Dixit Dominus CD by The Scholars Baroque Ensemble (with, ahem, countertenors instead of altos… my luck) and it sounds like Vivaldi got really drunk one night and decided to compose an opera in Latin. With dance numbers. You think I’m exaggerating, but go hear for yourself, the muscle cramp-inducing seats at Trinity St. Paul be damned.

Among the many attractions of the performance, the Dutch soprano Johannette Zomer.

Now, I doubt that she will wear that, but who knows, it’s baroque. Above is the picture from the Dutch National Opera’s imaginative 2009 production of Cavalli’s Ercole Amante in which La Zomer played three roles.  To have a taste, listen to her Pasitea here or the entire fabulous opera, which outs Hercules as a WWF wrestler and caveman, here in HD. Her recordings are full of good choices and are getting good reviews. The CD of Handel Arias Love and Madness contain stuff from Ariodante, Il trionfo del tempo e disinganno, Rinaldo and Amadigi, paired with the baroque oboe.

[As I’m writing this, I’m listening to Dixit Dominus — the Gloria is raving maaaaad. I’m putting it on Repeat right now.]

Or Zomer’s Caccini CD with Nuove Musiche. Here she’s explaining why she  simply had to include ‘Amarilli, mia bella‘:

What should also take you to the TSP church this week is Rameau’s ‘In convertendo’. Here’s one of the movements, Qui seminant in lacrimis, performed by Les Arts Florissants with soloists, conducted by William Christie.

The entire luscious piece is, thanks to the Mezzo television channel and protestant7, available on YouTube and starts here.

Concert tickets, dates, details.

Nov 11-14, Trinity-St. Paul

Johannette Zomer, soprano

Vicki St. Pierre, mezzo-soprano

Lawrence Wiliford, tenor

Peter Harvey, baritone

Tafelmusik Chamber Choir and Orchestra directed by Ivars Taurins