Arabella reviewed

[I liked it but didn’t love it, is how I’d sum it up in one sentence. Here’s the review that was just published in the Globe online. What I’d like to add as there wasn’t much space to analyze smaller roles: Michael Brandenburg’s Matteo needs to have more appeal. A better mustache, a less whiney personality? Something. As it is now, it’s not clear why Zdenka would wreck her life for him.]

– Tim Albery’s Arabella –

Erin Wall as Arabella and Tomasz Konieczny as Mandryka in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Arabella, 2017. Photo: Michael Cooper

Arabella is a money story more than a love story, I realize halfway through Tim Albery’s elegant production that opened at the Canadian Opera Company Thursday, and the last of the Strauss-Hofmannsthal creations reveals itself as an unexpectedly sombre enterprise.

Money is its core, and also an escape from a troubled family, as there is no other way to account for the heroine’s decision to marry a rural landowner with a short temper and shifting moods and leave Vienna and everybody she knows for the countryside at the edge of the empire. Much is made in the libretto of the difference between the sophisticated but corrupt metropolis in decline and the moral simplicity of rural life, but Vienna to which the landowner from a far-flung province arrives to search for his bride is a rather civilized place where a woman can date three people at once, or live dressed as a man and date nobody. Once married off to the dark stranger, Arabella will be, as she herself sings in Act 2, obedient as a child.

Albery’s approach is as directorially neutral as they come, with sets in grey, costumes largely white and black in fin-de-siècle tailoring (both by Tobias Hoheisel). He lets the libretto breathe, and lets Arabella be a conflicted story of a frantic search for The One amidst a family solvency crisis. The Waldners are a titled family trying to fend off debtors and marry off Arabella, the reluctant older daughter, when the wealthy but uncouth Count Mandryka of the South Slavic lands arrives. Arabella and Mandryka are not the most logical of matches as they differ in just about everything, and she is after sincerity (or is it his fortune?) while he is struck by her beauty (or is it the insider Viennese glamour he is after?), but they are certain they are meant to be. Arabella’s younger sister, Zdenka, lives as a man as a money-saving measure, but also because she enjoys it – she will rather remain a boy, she tells her choosy sister right at the beginning, than be a woman like her: “proud, coquettish and cold.”

Some resplendent music is given to the sisters in the intimate Act 1 – the conversations, Arabella’s aria Er ist der Richtige für mich and the concluding monologue in which she considers whether to settle for Count Elemer, one of her other suitors. The strings are used to flirt with but promptly unsettle any outpouring of lyricism in Mein Elemer. If there is one certain thing, it’s that the sisters love and protect one other. Zdenka is a peculiar character, gender-defying while also being highly sexual: She is in love with her pal Matteo, who is also one of Arabella’s suitors, and lures him to Arabella’s bedroom by pretending to be her. The resulting confusion – Mandryka has overheard something about another man getting hold of Arabella’s bedroom key – almost wrecks Arabella’s engagements to Mandryka. Almost. After an agonizing Act 3 argument among the principals which wakes up other hotel guests at an ungodly hour, matters get solved. Mandryka trusts Arabella again, she forgives him his distrust and Matteo seems to be finally taking interest in Zdenka.

It’s Erin Wall who gives Arabella coherence and depth amid her contradictions. She is exquisitely melancholy in her first amorous duo with Mandryka in which she foresees the time when she will call him master. There are subtlest hints of regret in her individual farewells with the favourite Viennese suitors, and her request to Mandryka to have one more hour of dancing at the ball before she is his and his only. There is emphatically not to be any dancing with other men from then on. It’s no coincidence that pure spring water works as an important symbol in the opera.

Jane Archibald is a sweet and more-boyish-than-masculine Zdenko. Archibald’s voice, with its bright and secure high notes, easily soars above all the duos and group scenes. Both Wall and Archibald are apt operatic conversationalists in this, Konversationsstück genre and it’s to their and Albery’s credit that parts of Arabella feel like naturalist straight theatre. The COC orchestra under Patrick Lange is nimble in its tempos alongside the goings-on on stage, often sounding like a much lighter orchestra. It’s well-balanced, brass well reined in.

Bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny gives Mandryka the required rough edge and abruptness. His timbre is fairly bright for a baritone, while his vocal heft is Wagnerian, which makes Mandryka stand out from the Viennese crowd. I’m all in favour of South Slavs, imaginary or historical, appearing in Austrian and German opera and operetta, as I’m from that part of the world myself, but I just couldn’t warm up to the man. He easily seduces the elder Waldners, however, with his plain talk and ostentatious spending. There is a darkly comic scene in Act 1 in which he literally opens his wallet for Count Waldner (excellent John Fanning) to help himself with whatever he needs to settle his gambling debt of the day. Strauss distances us from the ugliness of the situation with the cheery melody given to the returning line, “Teschek, bedien dich!” – “Help yourself!” – and by turning Waldner into an overall comic character, but the discomfort lingers on.

Strauss wanted to repeat some of the success of Der Rosenkavalier, but those of us who are fans of Der Rosenkavalier will find it hard to love Arabella, a piece with less dazzling music and fewer dramatic layers. Strauss taunts us a little in Arabella‘s score, too, with Rosenkavalier motifs wiggling their way into the sisters’ conversation about the roses, and those soaring moments when it sounds like one or both sopranos are about to take a turn into some version of the final trio of the Rosenkavalier. Still, there is much to appreciate about Arabella – its knowingness about the ways of the world and the female lot, and that sublime soprano music most of all.


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.)


September in Art Song

A few interesting things coming up in September. In my new The Wholenote article, I go on a bit about the Sept 23 recital (see below), but there will be more concerts of interest. For ex:

10 September 2017, 12 PM: University of Toronto Faculty of Music. World of Music: Mysterious Barricades. A cross-Canada concert in honour of World Suicide Prevention Day. Lorna MacDonald, soprano; Nathalie Paulin, soprano; Monica Whicher, soprano; Russell Braun, baritone; Judy Loman, harp; Carolyn Maule, piano; Tracy Wong, conductor. Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building, University of Toronto, 80 Queen’s Park. 416-408-0208. Free. [I may write about this one.]

29 September 2017 09 8:30 PM: FusionFlamenco. Silvia Temis, voice, Benjamin Barrile, Flamenco guitar, Derek Gray, percussion. Gallery  345, 345 Sorauren Avenue, Toronto. $25/$10, cash only.

19 September 2017, 12:10 PM: Rising Stars Recital. Students from the Glenn Gould School. Nine Sparrows Arts Foundation/Yorkminster Park Baptist Church. Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, 1585 Yonge St. Free; donations welcomed. [Still no info about who is singing and what.]

25 September 2017, 7:30 PM: Canada in Words and Music. Toronto Masque Theatre Salon Series. Shaftesbury Atrium, 21 Shaftesbury Ave. $25.

Now, though, more on the Imperfect Recital – – – – – – – – – –

Lindsay Lalla. Photo credit Marc Betsworth

There are several song events worth your time this month, but the one that stands out will require a trip to upper Parkdale and Gallery 345, an unusually shaped space that’s becoming the recital hub of West Toronto. On the program for “The Imperfect Art Song Recital” (September 23 at 6pm), conceived by the soprano Lindsay Lalla, there is music by two living composers – Toronto’s Cecilia Livingston and Brooklyn-based Christopher Cerrone – as well as Strauss’ Mädchenblumen, an Anne Trulove recitative and aria from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, and a brief musical theatre set with Carousel and Showboat songs.

The imperfect as a recital theme may sound unusual, but it’s a question as old as the arts. It’s also a personal notion that kept Lalla focused on teaching and the vocal health of her students and at a distance from performing and concert stage. “My strong technical focus in my teaching carried over to my singing and I felt almost paralyzed trying to find perfection,” she explained when I asked what the story was behind the title. After years of working on other singers’ voices, the minutiae of their development, health and rehabilitation, the goal of perfection struck Lalla as a little overbearing. What if she created a whole program around the fact that there’s no such thing as perfect singing, a perfect lover, a perfect human?

The theme of imperfection runs loosely – er, imperfectly – through the texts of the pieces on the program. “The Strauss songs compare women to flowers and to me represent ‘old school’ classical music where perfection is an appreciated aesthetic,” she says. Livingston’s songs “explore the theme of an absent lover, and I find it really interesting that absent lovers are always perfect.” The character of Penelope, that mythical perfect wife of antiquity, appears in a Livingston song as well as Lalla’s own drawings (she admits to something of an obsession about Penelope) which will be on display at the gallery along with art by clarinetist Sue Farrow created during rehearsals.

Then there’s the Cerrone song cycle on the poetry of Tao Lin. The 18-minute piece for soprano, clarinet, percussion and piano, I Will Learn to Love a Person, can be found in its entirety on the composer’s website; on first listening it sounded to me like plainchant meets American minimalism, with shades of Ann Southam. Its engagement with text is fascinating – and I don’t use this word lightly. Lin is now primarily known as a novelist – Shoplifting from American Apparel, Taipei, Eeeee eee eeee – but he had published poetry as a young writer and Cerrone made a selection of poems that rang particularly true to his experience. The composer’s own statement highlights Lin’s accuracy about “millennial lives” and Lalla agrees, but this Gen X-er can tell you that Cerrone’s piece, like any good music, speaks to all cohorts. (Some of Lin’s fiction, Shoplifting for example, a novella of young impecunious lives in NYC’s emerging ‘creative classes’ flowing on vegan smoothies, band following, brand savvyness, internet, psychological opaqueness of characters and overall scarcity of explicit feeling will remind of Douglas Copeland, who’s probably an ancient writer to the millennials.) Lin made a selection of his poems available online, and I’d recommend listening to I Will Learn to Love a Person alongside the poem i will learn how to love a person and then i will teach you and then we will know to appreciate fully how they enhance one another.

The first piece by Cerrone that Lalla ever heard was this song cycle, and it impressed immediately. To wit: “It hit me hard!” She decided to do the chamber music version and invited two of her best friends, husband and wife Brian Farrow (percussion) and Sue Farrow (clarinet). The pianist and Lalla’s accompanist in other songs on the program, Tanya Paradowski, happens to be their niece. “We’ve been rehearsing up at their cottage, with the sounds of vibraphone over the lake… I can’t imagine what the neighbours must think.

“Because there is so much repetition on just a few notes, the focus goes to the text,” she says of the inner mechanism of the cycle. “Just like in the recitative of an opera, it’s now about the words, and the emotion behind the words. And the accompanying instrumental part is very repetitive, so you instinctively listen to the words to find out what’s going on. So, over top of this unconventionally textured background (quite an unusual mix of instruments!), you get just words. And they happen to be on notes. I think this is a brilliant way that Cerrone is highlighting the directness of Tao Lin’s text.”

It was actually composer Cecilia Livingston who first recommended Cerrone among a few other composers to Lalla (the two women have known each other from high school). Livingston’s own songs, too, Penelope, Kalypso and Parting, are going to be in the recital. Livingston’s website lists an impressive number of commissions, collaborations and fellowships – including a recent research fellowship at King’s College in London with one of the most interesting Verdian thinkers today, Roger Parker – but also an array of publications and papers both academic and journalistic, including her U of T PhD thesis on “the musical sublime in 20th-century opera, with a particular focus on the connections between the sublime, the grotesque, minimalism and musical silence.” There are also audio files of her work, including a good number of songs. I was eager to ask this vast and curious creative mind about her work.

Cecilia Livingston. Photo credit Kaitlin Moreno

In which art song features prominently, it turns out. “I just finished a commission for the Canadian Art Song Project, which reminded me that art song is one of my favourite things to write, period! It calls for this very strange close reading: scrutiny of a text combined with a huge, bird’s-eye view of its emotional terrain,” Livingston says. “Northrop Frye wrote about this, and he titled his book from Blake: The Double Vision – seeing a text both for what it is, and for what it can be in the imagination. And then also – for a composer – in the musical imagination, in the ear.”

Her three songs in the Imperfect recital explore a style that she describes as “somewhere between art song and torch song. Penelope and Kalypso are both portraits of Homer’s characters, of women who are waiting; both songs have weird, dark middle sections: one is sort-of-aleatoric and one isn’t, and I can see I was working out different solutions.” With Kalypso, Livingston was looking for a new way to write for coloratura soprano and ended up thinking about scat singing and the Harold Arlen songs she loves, like Stormy Weather. “I think Duncan [McFarlane]’s lyrics for Kalypso are one of the most extraordinary texts I’ve ever worked with: beautiful, intricate layers of language; so much that the music can shade and shadow and shape.”

A pianist by training, Livingston composes by singing as she writes: “It helps me build on the natural prosody of the language and makes sure the vocal line is comfortable: that there’s time for breath, that it’s well supported musically, that it sits comfortably in the tessitura, etc. – even when it’s challenging.” The process of finding a text that will lead to a song is more intuitive, harder to pin down. “I’m looking for something that catches my inner ear: an image, mood, the sound of a phrase. When I come across that, I can sort of hear the music for it, and then I know I can work with it. I don’t hear actual music yet, but I can hear the intensification that music can bring. Which sounds slightly bizarre; it’s probably easier to say I get a particular feeling in the pit of my stomach.”

She doesn’t entirely buy the argument that simple, unambitious or bad poetry makes better (because easier) text to set to music. “Look at the riches of Alice Goodman’s libretti, or the ways that Britten illuminated all sorts of texts. If a writer savours language – its sounds and its meanings – then I’m interested.”

Among the larger projects on Livingston’s agenda, there’s a full-length opera in the works for TorQ Percussion Quartet and Opera 5, with the world premiere in Toronto scheduled for the 2018/19 season and a European premiere in 2020. “I’ve admired TorQ Percussion Quartet’s musicianship since we met in 2008, and I wanted to write an opera with them the moment I saw their incredible performance of John Luther Adams’ Strange and Sacred Noise,” says Livingston. “They have a dramatic physicality to their performances that is perfect for contemporary opera.” And Opera 5 produced her first chamber opera: “We built the kind of really supportive friendship that I wish all young composers could have.”

And what does her music feel like to a singer? Let’s let Lindsay Lalla have the last word: “I adore how lyrical and melodic Cecilia’s songs are. I feel that they were written like mini operas, with so much emotion to explore in once piece… One of her musical instructions in the Kalypso (over the introductory coloratura) says: “Ella-Fitzgerald-meets-Chopin, vocalise-meets-scat.” As a singer, I fell in love with her just from that.”

End of year highlights: performing arts

George Benjamin, Gary Kulesha, Barbara Hannigan at Roy Thomson Hall, New Creations Festival, 2015

Best Hybrid Concert Performances, Hands Down

The 21C’s Cinq à sept concert that included Jordan Nobles’ π and Saariaho’s Grammar of Dreams. (RCM, 21C Festival, May, Toronto)

Against the Grain’s Death and Desire, the Messiaen & Schubert mashup. (Neubacher Shor Contemporary Gallery, June, Toronto)

CASP’s Living Spectacle concert (The Extension Room, November, Toronto)

Best Concerts

Barbara Hannigan, George Benjamin, Peter Oundjian and the TSO in “Let Me Tell You” by Hans Abrahamsen, etc. (New Creations Festival, RTH, February, Toronto). The TSO in Dutilleux’s Métaboles (same festival)–probably my TSO highlight of the year: they were positively levitating. The TSO again with George Benjamin conducting Written on Skin (still the same festival). This very scenic opera hampered by the lack of staging, but managed to impress.

Tania Miller conducts the RCM orchestra in Mahler 5 at Koerner Hall. Glorious acoustics; Mahler like I’ve never heard him before. (Koerner Hall, November, Toronto)

Spin Cycle: Afiara String Quartet with DJ Skratch Bastid (C21, Koerner Hall, May, Toronto). This is one instance where the electronica and the analogica really conversed.

Gewandhaus Orc with Ricardo Chailly at Musikverein, October 2015
Gewandhaus Orchestra with Riccardo Chailly at Musikverein, October 2015

Riccardo Chailly conducts Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig in a program of lesser known Strauss works. A Technicolor Dream Strauss. (Musikverein, October, Vienna, Austria)

Laurence Equilbey conducts Insula Orchestra in Mozart’s Concertante Symphony for Violin and Viola, Schubert’s 4th Symphony and a Fanny Mendelssohn overture. Rarely heard pieces done justice, in gorgeous period instruments colours. (Cité de la Musique / Philharmonie II, March, Paris, France)

Paris Philharmonie I & II
Paris Philharmonie I & II

Greatest disappointments in the Concert category

Mozart’s Mass in C Minor with the TSO (RTH, January, Toronto) – chiefly because of the two female soloists who indifferently phoned it in. Never seen a colder soloist than Julie Boulianne in “Laudate Me”; a bit terrifying, actually.

Andrew Davis’ orchestration of the Messiah with the TSO (RTH, December, Toronto). The add-ons add nothing to the sound and sometimes even take away from it. It’s the marimba, the snare drum and the xylophone, but it might as well have been pots and pans, bugles, and a vuvuzela—the latter as logical and organic to the sound as the former. And Toronto has heard it well by now; time for another conductor to do the big Messiah next year in whatever orchestration he/she chooses.

Best Operas

Not a lot of gushing to report here. It’s between Lepage’s Bluebeard, Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni and Alden’s Pyramus, all good productions but neither for various reasons will push through as life-long memorable. But I’m really glad I discovered Barbara Monk Feldman.

The most er unusual performance in an opera

Michael Schade in Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni was in his own production entirely. Gives me a chuckle even now thinking about it.

Best performance in an otherwise er unusual staging

Christine Rice in the ROH Mahagonny (ROH, March, London, UK). I feel obligated to like every attempt to mount a Brecht-Weill joint, so people would continue to do it, but still not sure if I can form an opinion, any opinion, about this one.

Royal Opera House detail (March 2015, Mahagonny)
A Royal Opera House detail (March 2015)

Greatest unexpected disappointment in the Opera category

Matthew Jocelyn’s staging of Philippe Boesmans’ Julie (Canadian Stage, November, Toronto). More fundamentally, Julie the opera itself. The Strindberg play can work as a claustrophobic battle of wills where subtle acting and silences matter, but as an opera? Not for this opera-goer. The dread of class miscegenation and the fear of female desire as sources of drama haven’t aged well into our own time. And opera has treated the master-servant shenanigans—and female desire–through its librettos for a couple of centuries now. I fail to fathom why any composer would want to turn Strindberg’s Miss Julie into a libretto, or why any director would hail such a work as one of the best contemporary operas today (as Matthew Jocelyn did in an interview).

Vienna Staatsoper, Macbeth (October, Vienna, Austria). The set was cement blocks, the costumes mid-twentieth-century dictatorship, Mid-Eastern or East European. Singing was fine, but the production overall showed no signs of life, no circulation, no breathing. How long was I going to stay on that balcony, craning my neck? I left at the intermission.

Inside Vienna Staatsoper, October 2015
Inside Vienna Staatsoper, October 2015

Best Theatre

NTLive’s The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard. I hate to put a screening in this category, but I have to. (Cineplex, April, Toronto)

Juliet Stevenson as Winnie at the Young Vic (March, London, UK). Here’s a good conversation about this production between the director Natalie Abrahami and Juliet Stevenson with the BBC’s Matthew Sweet.

Dario Fo is good news any time, and Soulpepper’s adaptation of Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist was a solid effort. It didn’t entirely work for me—the adaptation text didn’t emerge out of a movement or even a common experience or solidarity, as Fo’s original text did: Toronto theatre-goers are as likely to be Conservative as NDP, and have largely middle-class expectations and tastes. The play also appeared conflicted about what it wanted of us, to participate or be a silent audience; the foray into the audience was more odd than provocative. All that said, a theatre putting its resources into the social difficulty that is Fo should be saluted. (February, Toronto)

The most regretful miss-outs

Robert Lepage’s 887. I became aware of this play one day after it had closed! It’s touring now around the world, maybe it’ll return. Takes the PanAm Games to distribute some serious commissioning money around.

Betroffenheit: there were no tickets to be found. They’re returning to town next February, though.

Lisa Dwan in the three Beckett plays on women in extremis. Months preceding, I was looking forward to this, but that very month I had a death in the family and it all felt a little too close. I decided not to go. I hope to catch this somewhere eventually.

Would have loved to have seen Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at the Shaw, but it’s difficult to get there (train plus bus, and you need to match your itineraries very carefully to the minute while the GO website is working against you achieving that goal), and no ticket under $100. So to watch a leftist play about an Italian working-class family, you have to own a car, have hotel accommodation money and pay the not at all cheap ticket.

What I realized this year

I lost interest in the star-vehicle recitals.

I will miss Rdio. Am now between streaming loyalties—dipping my toes into Spotify and not particularly liking what I’m seeing there.

As for the books of the year… Well, the books deserve their own post.

Memories of Vienna on bicycle, October 2015
Memories of Vienna, October 2015

CASP, gasp!

CASP started its concert series auspiciously last night at the Extension Room, with the pieces by three living composers (two Canadian and one American) and a mini-lieder cycle by Strauss. The common (broad) theme was women in extreme situations.

“The Living Spectacle” (2015) by Erik Ross, the three-song cycle based on Baudelaire’s poems (tr. Roy Campbell), was performed by soprano Ambur Braid and Steven Philcox at the piano. The songs vary in tone and evoke different moods. “The Death of Lovers” is a vast and bright piece that beautifully straddles sadness and serenity, never for a moment giving up one for the other. The soundscape of “The Evil Monk” is a more familiar Goth-ish territory, lower on the stave and with more dramatic accents, while “The Death of Artists” has an irresistible piano undercurrent similar to Michael Nyman’s Piano score. We all knew that Ambur Braid had splendid highs, but what perhaps we don’t get to hear as often is how attractive and meaty her lower register is. The songs showed what a fabulous chiaroscuro voice she is. Somebody cast her in some Verdi, stat.

She also sang Libby Larsen’s to me new and astounding “Try Me, Good King: Last Words of the Wives of Henry VIII” (2000).  Normally, the Tudor-cultural industry and the royal family marriages are low on my list of interests, but Larsen researched and chose the text carefully, and gave each queen music materials to reflect their personal story and historical context. Katherine of Aragon gets a fairly pious song; Boleyn a complex mix of beseeching, anger, resignation; Jane Seymour’s is on the sweet and simple side; Anne of Cleves’s couples its staccato piano and quick rhythm with an almost sarcastic text. Ambur Braid provided tons of useful background info in her funny introduction to how each of the wives hooked up with Henry (“I nerd out… Bear with me”), but mood changed from comedic to dramatic when she started singing. She voiced each queen with unreserved commitment and compassion—it was probably the emotional peak of the evening. Powerful! Larsen’s excellent cycle found an excellent ambassador.

Carla Huhtanen, the ‘black belt’ of contemporary vocal music (was it Brian Current who said it? It’s true) sang the other half of the program. She was tone perfect in Strauss’s Three Ophelia Songs (1918), sincere, conflicted, a genuinely lost womanchild. When she wasn’t singing, the piano (Steven Philcox) echoed her competing feelings.

She had even more to do in the staged and choreographed “Sewing the Earthworm” (2012) by Brian Harman, to the poetry by David James Brock. The piece is about a woman who has been diagnosed with a neurological disease and is noticing the first signs of physical deterioration. She starts off with her frequent activities—gardening and sewing—but they get disturbed, meddled and finally leak into one another, and an earthworm gets conceptually lost among seams and needles. The final segment shows a mind desperately seeking the thread (of meaning) while being lost in the ‘squirming and slithering’ of her remaining incoherent life impulses. Harman employs the prepared piano in some segments, and the soprano is expected to be humming, moaning and screaming alongside the singing. The repetitions, the unexpected beat changes and the pauses are used to great effect. It’s really an exciting piece, here heightened by the presence of a dancer (Jennifer Nichols) who is the woman’s spirit and who is laid to rest and buried in the soil in the final scene.

The Living Spectacle was commissioned by CASP and Peter Deeb in 2014. Sewing the Earthworm was commissioned by CASP in 2010. For more about CASP and its future concerts, head over here.

Clockwise: Huhtanen, Nichols, Braid and Philcox.
Clockwise: Huhtanen, Nichols, Braid and Philcox.

Pieczonka the Golden

Pieczonka the Golden

Never look at the brass encouragingly, goes the conducting advice one-liner attributed to Richard Strauss, but Gianandrea Noseda must have had the eye permanently on the brass while rehearsing with the TSO for the last night’s performance of Casella/Strauss/Wagner/Beethoven. The loudness of the brass and winds required the rest of the orchestra to be at their most brash too. For some of the program, this worked fine—Casella and Beethoven—but the vocal pieces suffered from this imbalance, even while showcasing such a powerhouse soprano as Adrianne Pieczonka.

Noseda is an advocate for the revaluation of the Italian composer Alfredo Casella (1883-1947) and this is the reason we got to hear Casella’s “Italia” in the program. The rhapsody plays with two folk melodies in its two movements, and I found the first part more intriguing musically—perhaps because I couldn’t recognize any of its Sicilian folk roots, perhaps because it’s a movement of an appealingly dark mood. The second, Neapolitan part varies the “Funiculì, Funiculà” through various instrumental section and dynamics and has more of a big band in a summer festival quality.

Strauss’s Four Last Songs followed. The orchestra was flat-out too loud in “Frühling” and “September”, and even though the imbalance was slightly redressed for the last two songs, the asymmetry was there to stay. If you came to enjoy Pieczonka’s savoury ways with the German text, you left for the interval unsatisfied, ears ringing with brass. There was no withholding, no teasing, no sensuality in the orchestral tapestry in the Four Last Songs; it gave its all immediately and continued in that vein.

Surprisingly, this also happened in “Mild und Leise” and the Liebestod. The instrumental Prelude itself was subtle and there was plenty of douceur; as soon as the singing started, however, the imbalance was back. In her soaring resplendent highs, Pieczonka easily took over, but for the lower notes the orchestra was hogging the sound again. Still, it was a special occasion: one of the best young-dramatic sopranos in the world today trying out a major role ahead of her. We were the first to have a taste, we can say years from now. (There’s been talk about a future Bayreuth Isolde… In my profile of Pieczonka [PDF] for Opera Canada, for example.)

Finally, Beethoven and his mad Seventh. I’ve been listening a lot of Beethoven on period instruments lately and was worried I’d be biased against the all-out luxury Beethoven of a modern orchestra under Noseda, but turns out I had no reason to be. The Seventh really could be done as a spectacle, and as a series of explosions, and it’ll work just spiffingly. Not everything was in order last night—the extremely fast Presto movement, for example, had a number of late entries, and even though split-second, they were noticeable. But overall it was a tremendously fun performance, with all the connotations positive and negative of the term. Actually, scratch that. There can’t be any negative connotations of having child-like, bouncing off a trampoline type fun at a symphonic concert.

A note for the TSO program editors: please credit the translators.

Photos by Malcolm Cook / TSO

Noseda with the TSO
Gianandrea Noseda with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra

Tit for Tat

Tit for Tat

cosi-fan-tutte GUIDEThe ENO/Overture Opera Guides intro to Mozart’s Così fan tutte contains only three articles in addition to the libretto and its translation plus the usual shorter elements (discography, list of musical motives), but given the length of Da Ponte’s talkie, this should not come as a surprise. At 280 pp, it’s already a substantial volume.

Richard Wigmore writes about the opera’s genesis–who commissioned, the Mozart-Da Ponte collab on it, the casting rivalries, the choice gossip from Da Ponte’s diary and a wee bit on the historical context. Julian Rushton analyzes the music, recitative by recitative, aria by aria. What was particularly interesting was reading about the contrasting high and low/buffo styles given to the characters, but also how sometimes said styles get subverted. (For ex, Dorabella’s ‘Smanie implacabili’–is it moving, or crocodile tears? Today it will depend on the production, but the text and music allow for both. Fiordiligi’s ‘Come scoglio’ is usually sang earnestly these days, but Rushton argues that it could be read as a parody of the opera seria style. Eccetera.)

Hugh Canning looks at the performance history of Così from its Vienna premiere in 1790 till today. The nineteenth century revivals were usually bowdlerized versions (Tit for Tat, or The Tables Turned was one of them) and in Britain the opera stayed on the margins of the repertoire until 1910, when it was revived by Thomas Beecham. In 1920s, Richard Strauss was a rare prominent champion of the Così–the actual urtext version, that is–and the work saw a smattering of performances, notably in Salzburg and in Munich, and in the 1930s at the very first Glyndebourne Festival. The 1950s was a period of ‘beautiful’ sets and costumes, but once the opera gained its foothold in the repertoire, in 1960s, the interesting productions began to happen. To name a few: Peter Sellars‘ set in a diner, David Freeman’s beachside holiday setup, Johannes Schaaf’s version with sisters traumatized by the final revelation, Nicolette Molnar’s production in which to the contrary the girls figure out what the boys are up to early on and pack their bags and leave at the end, Doris Dörrie’s version set in a hippie ‘Sexual Revolution’ community, and of course Michael Haneke’s 2013 production. (Chris Alden’s NYCO, alas, does not get a mention.)

* * *

As I’m writing this, I’m listening to on the Rdio one of the more bizarre Cosis, the just dropped Currentzis recording with Kermes and Ernman. Have a listen.

Patrice Chéreau’s Elektra: The Coming to Desire

Elektra by StraussHoffmannsthal (Sophocles), a 2013 Aix-en-Provence Festival production in coproduction with La Scala, The Met, Finnish National, Liceu, Unter den Linden. Director Patrice Chéreau, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen with Orchestre de Paris & Coro Gulbenkian. Complete info + a trailer and photos HERE


By now you may be tired of hearing how good this Elektra is, but I’m afraid I am about to say the same thing. The recording of the last piece of theatre ever to be directed by Patrice Chéreau is bound to become a reference work.

First off, a lot of thought was put into the filming of the performance (director Stéphane Metge). The final edit is the combination of shots taken during two live performances, the on-stage takes with a hand-held camera, and the tracking shots recorded during dress rehearsals. Why doesn’t this kind of approach occur to the video directors more frequently? The inventiveness and cinematic quality of the camera work is immediately felt.

Chéreau questioned and changed a number of recurring (by now) tropes in the directing of Elektra. The colours of the set and the shape of the house do not scream tragedy—the house, in its earthy tones, is more sedate than foreboding, and its neutrality provide a usefully contrasting backdrop to the tragic proceedings.

The servants get a prominent role in the production (“Strauss didn’t really know how to do servants. He much preferred the heroic mode. And that poses a problem for the director,” says Chéreau in the bonus interview). They are mixed races and ages, with oldest servants acquiring the most prominent roles in the action. The Fifth Maid who defends Elektra in the early scenes, and gets beaten for it, is also one of the oldest (played by Roberta Alexander). First people to recognize Orestes when he arrives are the old servants—who recall his features before his sister does.

The directors tend to trust Elektra on her word and largely adopt her perspective, particularly on Klytaemnestra and Chrysothemis, but Chéreau argues we shouldn’t. Thus, Elektra’s mother is not a grotesque creature but a beautiful older woman who has behaved fairly logically (that nobody ever mentions Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia as the reason for her marital murder is a kind of dramatic injustice). Her sister is not an idiot who will marry anybody and have children for the sake of having children, but a rational, strong character who wants out of the situation in which they’re all held hostage by Elektra. The tussle between the sisters is one of the more intriguing scenes in the opera, and it shows an obvious sexual undercurrent. Is the fact that both her mother and her sister seem to be accepting the fact of desire that horrifies Elektra? Chéreau hints at this at many a turn.

To try to understand Elektra, he also looked at Hamlet and found family ties. Both are modern heroes assigned the task of revenge, and both are incapable of carrying it out because the moral intuitions of the age have put into question the blood feud and are envisioning a more legalistic, universal frame of justice.

The music and the drama – and the camerawork — blend just about seamlessly (note the I-will-dance-on-their-graves waltz, or the tracking shot when Elektra calls out Agameeeemnon.) Even though Chéreau says in the interview that the noise is at times so intense that you have to wait for it to pass and then continue with the drama, you won’t notice anything resembling any kind of pausing.

It’s rather boring having to say The singers are uniformly good, but here goes: the singers are uniformly good, musically and dramatically, from the petite but uber-menschy Herlitzius via Pieczonka and Maier to Petrenko and the maids.

If there’s one problem with the DVD, it would be this: the archaic English subtitles. Why BelAir thought it a good idea to use the translation to a sort of Elizabethan English is beyond me. There are also Italian, French, Spanish and German subtitles, so those who use any of those languages will have more luck. This plants a considerable side annoyance into this otherwise excellent testament of an excellent performance.

The photo is a screen grab showing Evelyn Herlitzius (Elektra) and Adrianne Pieczonka (Chrysothemis).

Suzie LeBlanc and the Music of the Text

suzie-leblancThe winter issue of Opera Canada will be on newsstands this month. Here are some highlights from my Suzie LeBlanc profile which appear in the issue.

“I always begin from the text.” Those who know her primarily through the coloraturas and trills of her early music pieces may be surprised by these words by Suzie LeBlanc, but a closer look at her multi-faceted career will confirm a great love of text and language as essential to music. “I used to be an instrumentalist – a harpsichord player – and when I switched to singing I was relieved to find words. I have words now! I love melody but for me it is there to enhance what I’m talking about. I love observing how composers take a word or a phrase and bring it out with the harmonies. When I work on a new piece, I have my own idea how the music of the text works before I go over to the composer.”

First big break was with the New World Consort, a renaissance ensemble from Vancouver.

“It just so happened that Emma Kirkby was pregnant and they asked me to come and audition. They had heard me before and they thought I sounded a bit like Emma. So I got the job replacing her.” This lasted a year, but LeBlanc and the NWC continued collaborating ad hoc, whenever the ensemble needed another soprano. Years on, Kirkby and LeBlanc would record together Buxtehude cantatas and Schütz’s Symphoniae Sacrae, both with the Purcell Quartet.

On the commonalities between the early music and folk, both of which she performs and records frequently.

“The folk music I’ve been doing is Acadian, which originates between the thirteenth-to-seventeenth centuries in France. So much of the tunes that we find are renaissance and early baroque. I find that lots of the so called court or learned music from the early music period sometimes borrows from the folk melodies; they’re amazingly close in terms of harmonies and melodies… Of course you can do the melodies to any style, you can do them in contemporary style and it all works. But I approach folk with what I know from early music, and try to re-give it a bit of its origin. And at the same time make it work for what we like as musicians today. Our music still retains a bit of its original flavour which was passed down orally in that we don’t use arrangements — we don’t buy arrangements. We have a tune and we make our own arrangements.” Of note among her folk recordings: Tout passe and La mer jolie.

In recent years LeBlanc has been rediscovering Romantic and post-Romantic world of Lieder and mélodies.

“I think Richard Strauss taught me to sing more than any other composer. I would say Mozart as well. The way Strauss writes for the soprano voice teaches you how to sing. All of which you can then adapt and put into early music and it helps. If you don’t actually sing well, you can’t sing it at all. Same with Mozart, if you don’t sing well, you can get through the phrases.” Schumann also, she adds, but not in the same way as Strauss. “Strauss teaches the soprano how to float, how to sing high notes without getting tired.” This summer, she sang Strauss’s the Mädchenblumen and the Drei Liebeslieder and toured the recital with the pianist Julius Drake. “There is that incredible lyrical phrase that just goes on and on and on, on a thread. Once you get the hang of it, it’s the most pleasurable physical experience.”

Photo by Tara McMullen

Salome by Atom Egoyan


Salome (1905) by Richard Strauss, libretto Hedwig Lachmann after the play by Oscar Wilde. Director Atom Egoyan, conductor Johannes Debus. The COC, Houston Grand Opera and Vancouver Opera co-production. The COC revival seen on April 27, 2013. INFO

Narraboth, Page, First Soldier, Second Soldier - Credit Michael Cooper

Salome scene shot - Photo credit Chris HutchesonNot exactly on the side of its women, this production of Salome by Atom Egoyan. Many elements add rich layers of meaning to the libretto, but there are others that are just facile. You’d expect more sophisticated gender politics from the director of the excellent Cruel and Tender and Felicia’s Journey, but we’re out of luck this time.

The three main female characters have each been given much harsher fate than the libretto enjoins. Herodias (Hanna Schwarz) is here directly involved in the killing of Jochanaan, likely even killed him herself: Egoyan has her follow the executioner to the prisoner’s cell, sword in hand, and bring the head out triumphantly to hand it to Salome herself. The prophet has been calling her a whore in his regular broadcasts from the cell from day one, and she’s only too eager to shut him up.

The Page is here made into a skirt role – something that many directors do these days, because obviously we can’t have any gay male desire on stage. Fine. So the Page is a woman who desires Narraboth (Nathaniel Peake). In this case, the role happens to be sung by the most distinctive voice in the entire production, mezzo Maya Lahyani. She made the absolute best of this small and ungrateful role. From the first line sung, the colour and the strength of the voice stand out. Her character is equally lively and strong, but then Egoyan decides to give it the task of mimicking oral sex with Narraboth, for reasons unclear. This is how it comes about: while Salome is expressing her desire for Jochanaan, Narraboth is enacting his desire for Salome by making out with the Page. This actually works fine, their making out is desperate and sensuous and a clash of eroticisms, until this very last choreography where the images from commercial straight pornography take over and the Page goes down on the soldier. Unnecessary.

And Salome herself… Much has been written about the 2002 version of this production and whether Egoyan brutalized Salome too much in it and reduced all her sensuous powers by turning the dance scene into the flashback to the sexual abuse that she suffered or still does at the hand of Herod’s and his soldiers. Egoyan was in search of a psychological explanation of Salome’s demand for Jochanaan’s death and offered this. It’s one way to go about it, I suppose, but it leaves me dreaming of a production of Salome that would show the brutality of patriarchy over its women without employing some of the tropes of the sexploitation movies.  (Salome is also in her underwear the entire production, which shows her fragility but also feeds the lurid to the male gaze that demands it. One can actually go without the other.)

So what was good in the production? The general concept: we’re in a sort of a clinic/spa for the well-off, and most of the action takes place in the living room of Herod and Herodias. Herod is a drug addict – and with this, a lot of his behaviour and the musical mood shifts and the winds that nobody hears but him all make sense. The quarreling Jewish theologians are bald-headed and dressed in clinical whites, so they easily turn to doctors at the clinic who in one scene even administer Herod’s drugs in order to calm him down. They are also, in another scene, Herod’s henchmen who are after Salome. Egoyan uses video to excellent effects, too (unsurprisingly). The images of a female body in mud and earth – perhaps in the spa mud, or the real mud, or the primal mud and water of creation, or all of these at different times, these are all possible – are particularly significant. The video of Jochanaan’s mouth prophesying is also used to great effect.

The COC orchestra, conducted by Johannes Debus, teased out with precision and passion the score that moves from lyricism to aggressive dissonance, from the big band sound to the chamber pieces and solos and back. Erika Sunnegårdh is a fine Salome, well-acted and sung, though the voice is not quite big as some occasions in Salome require and was sometimes difficult to hear over the orchestra. Richard Margison’s excellent acting really brought this weirdo Herod to life, and Martin Gantner’s excellent singing did not – because it never happens, such is the libretto – bring to life the one-note character of Jochanaan, the Patriarchal Damning Machine.

It’s an interesting production that will make you think about  its heights and regret its missed opportunities long after you’ve seen it.

Herodias and Salome - Photo credit Michael CooperTop (Narraboth and the Page) and bottom photo (Salome) by Michael Cooper. Middle photo (Herod, Herodias, Jewish theologians, Jochanaan’s disembodied mouth) by Chris Hutcheson. All from the 2013 COC production of Salome.