Hot Docs 2017 – films of interest

The reliably good Hot Docs is back for another edition this year. Here’s what I can single out on first perusal of printed programs:


Chavela: on the legendary Mexican lezzer singer-songwriter who counted Frida Kahlo among her many lovers. Trailer:

Secondo Me: follows cloakroom attendants (on and off the job) in three opera houses: Vienna Staatsoper, La Scala and Odessa.

The Harvest of Sorrow: a formally inventive biodoc on Sergei Rachmaninov.

Integral Man: mostly on architecture, somewhat on music, the doc on the late mathematician Jim Stewart and his famous house/concert hall.


Elizabeth Smart: On the Side of the Angels screened with The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche.

Falls the Shadow: The Life and Times of Athol Fugard

Still Tomorrow: “Yu Xiuhua, a rural poetess, becomes an overnight success when her poem Crossing Half of China to Sleep with You goes viral. Sudden fame and fortune afford her the thing she’s always wished for: freedom from her husband of 20 years.”

Life and Death

The Lives of Thérèse: on the extraordinary life of human rights activist Thérèse Leclerc.

The Departure: a Japanese punk-rocker turned Buddhist priest tries to persuade people not to commit suicide and that staying alive is good. He does this daily. It begins to take its toll.


Derby Crazy Love – on roller-derby girls

A Memory in Khaki – Syrian artists in exile remember Syria. Is it still home, if it’s been destroyed and is now unrecognizable?

Dish: Women Waitressing and the Art of Service

Rat Film: “Baltimore’s history of systemic class and racial segregation intersects with an unusual examination of its dense rodent population–and the culture that surrounds it–in this incisive and unsettling anthropological study of poverty in America.”

Hotel Sunrise: life and pursuit of happiness in a Slovak town called Cierna nad Tisou, once hailed as the Golden Gate of Socialism.

I’ll be the woman. I’ll be all the women.

The Dutch National Opera’s new production of Tchaikovsky’s Pique dame by Stefan Herheim proves that the right director can turn a meh opera into a great work of art. Musically a conventional garden-variety nineteenth century work with a sprinkling of melodramatic accents of storm, otherworldly sightings, unrequited love arias and pastiche, in Herheim’s hands becomes a moving meditation on the closet, artistic creation and sublimation, and loneliness.

The letter of the libretto has it that the gambling-addicted, impecunious Hermann falls in love with an aristocratic friend’s fiancée Liza, but after winning her over realizes his priorities are elsewhere: trading his soul for the fail-proof card combination from Liza’s grandmother, the aged Countess. She had herself paid for it in dearly but willingly as a young gambling addict. Hermann gets it eventually from the dead woman’s ghost—the actual Countess having died in horror when he tried to pry the numbers out of her. There are a handful of male characters who always appear together, among whom Liza’s original fiancé, Yeletsky—a one-aria role, all in all. They reconvene for the final scene at the gambling house (Liza’s also dead at this point, having thrown herself in the Winter Canal) and Yeletsky challenges him to a duel. Before Hermann completes his winnings with the third card, the Countess appears as his actual ‘final card’, Queen of Spades, after which he too dies.

Herheim’s Dame starts in Tchaikovsky’s living room, variations of which are the set for the opera. First scene is a silent one. Stage right, the composer is performing fellatio on an indifferent man (both are completely clothed) who’s agreed to it in exchange for money. The man recoils at the composer’s shy attempt to kiss his hand, and leaves laughing in his face. It’s at this point that Tchaikovsky sits at the piano and starts composing the opera Pique dame which we are about to watch as it’s being composed. The hateful man who doesn’t acknowledge his existence is transposed into Hermann (sung by Misha Didyk), the character who destroys lives and is incapable of love. Is he perhaps akin to the figure of the masculine, emotionally inscrutable Top that appears in a number of cultural creations by gay men (Patrice Chéreau’s Ceux qui m’aiment prendrons le train, and Xavier Dolan’s Tom à la ferme are just two examples)? The composer himself is present in most scenes, sometimes conducting the chorus, other times “playing” at the piano what the orchestra of a future performance—our own—is playing full-on. He also appears as an actual character, if not very frequently: as a gentle, self-effacing Yeletsky (sung by Vladimir Stoyanov).

There’s no consensus on how Tchaikovsky died, but some have argued that he intentionally drank the cholera-contaminated water so he would avoid an ignominious public outing. Herheim made the contaminated glass of water a recurring symbol in the opera: the menacing male chorus members keep carrying the glasses around and offering them to the composer at the drop of a hat; Liza dies awash in it; the Countess too drinks her own glass. There is a lot of public shaming and laughing at the composer—Hermann is a figure of fun by the other men of the pack, but he commands some degree of respect: it’s the composer who’s despised. In the scene of the Empress’ entrance, he bows and kisses her hand, and the Empress takes off her clothes to reveal Hermann in drag, to the delight of the jeering crowds.

While Ken Russell’s Music Lovers imagines a Tchaikovsky  horrified by women and women’s bodies, Herheim’s Tchaikovsky is clearly more at ease with women than with anybody in the pack. He is present in the sweet scene with Liza (Svetlana Aksenova) and her best friend Polina (Anna Goryachova) while they sing to each other. Polina is reinvented as a trouser role and the two women are amourous friends and each other’s favourites. That, and another scene with Tchaikovsky observing/creating/enjoying two women, are two gentlest, least emotionally problematic scenes that even have something idyllic about them. The second scene is the Daphnis & Chloe play-within-a-play (glorious Goryachova returning as Daphnis, with Pelageya Kurennaya) supposed to be happening at a ball, but here starts in the intimacy of Tchaikovsky’s room and only later turns into a performance of the naturalness of heterosexuality for the crowd at the ball. Musically the piece is a pastiche of Mozart’s Pappageno and Pappagena, and there are many other nods to the Rococo and Mozart in the opera which Herheim honours.

The Dame libretto was written by Tchaikovsky’s equally gay brother Modest, but Herheim makes a shortcut here for dramatic effect: the composer is the absolute creator of his work, libretto included. He is indeed in many ways all of his characters, but he is closest to and voices most directly the leading women, Liza and the Countess. There is so much love and tenderness towards these two, the darling tomboy Polina as well. And they love him back. Hermann is relatively insignificant in the scene of the Countess’s death: it’s her show, and deeply felt goodbye to the world.

All naturalness is removed from the scene in which Hermann and Liza declare each other’s love. Herheim has them reading their words off the composer-supplied score, as if trying out a staging approach to the roles they’ve just been assigned. Hermann, rightly, loses his centrality in the final scene as well: it’s in fact the composer who dies at the end of the opera as the chorus, hypocritically, sings “Give rest to his turbulent troubled spirit”.

No actual playing cards appear once in the production. The men in the final gambling scene deal in sheets of Tchaikovsky’s score.

Musically, things were less thrilling, but this fact didn’t spoil anything. Legendary Mariss Jansons conducted the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the pit and I expected fireworks, but it could be that this music is incapable of fireworks? It was all rather… adequate. The were minor issues of the odd instance of lateness and of the stage and orchestra coordination. Didyk’s was a barely audible Hermann and lost his centrality to the story in this way too. The Pack were uniformly good, if dramatically fairly insignificant. Aksenova’s Liza and Goryachova’s Polina were complex, multi-dimensional characters—often literally, Polina as Daphnis/Pappageno and Aksenova as an angel of compassion appearing to the composer. Larissa Diadkova’s Countess was decidedly not an ogre, but a thinking, feeling creature succumbing under the weight of the Weltschmerz.

Dame pique will be streamed on Opera Platform on June 21


The Aix Svadba livestreams on Arte July 10

The Aix Svadba livestreams on Arte July 10

The Aix-en-Provence production of Ana Sokolovic’s Svadba will be livestreamed tomorrow here – figure out your time zone via the live ticker on the screen. The production is by Ted Huffman and Zack WinokurDáirine Ní Mheadhra conducts with John Hess at the percussion. Here are a couple of good curtain call photos from the opening night, courtesy of the dramaturge Antonio Cuenca Ruiz. The only original cast member is Andrea LudwigFlorie Valiquette sings Milica, alongside Liesbeth Devos, Jennifer Davis, Pauline Sikirdji and Mireille Lebel in the remaining roles.

The production looks much less abstract (alas) than the original Toronto production by Michael Cavanagh but I am open to being pleasantly surprised. While the teaser looks rather specific, I’m told these images are not really in the production. Trailers are now often being made completely independently from the stage-directorial concept.


A dandy audio mashup from the rehearsals:

This is a co-production between Aix Festival, Angers Nantes Opéra, the Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg, Festival Ljubljana, Ars Musica and Sarajevo Winter, so will probably travel to all those places sooner or later. More photos and info here.

Interview: Samantha Seymour, revival director of Wieler-Morabito’s Un Ballo in Maschera

Samantha Seymour 2012-bwA British ex-pat in Munich, Samantha Seymour was well-set on an engineering career when she first caught the opera fever. It came to her fairly late in life, and thanks to an opera-loving friend who shared the tickets to the Bayerische Staatsoper. A Xerxes with Ann Murray particularly stands out as an early favourite. Many operas later, Seymour found herself downsized and out of a job in an industry of seemingly stable employment and steady career paths. She used the opportunity to turn to what she loved even more than maths and sciences: opera directing. A return to school followed, and a period of retraining. At one of the workshops she met the directors Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, and it all started from there.

You were also the associate and revival director on another project by W & M, and that is the Rusalka in Salzburg. Do they usually rely on you for the revivals, how does this collaboration work?

We all think it’s best to have someone who knows the production from the beginning rather than getting someone who’s seen the video. And the Ballo was actually the first production I worked on with the two of them in Berlin, so I have a lot of happy memories of our time there.

Is there anything left for the associate director to decide when she’s working on the revival?

That’s the great thing about Jossi and Sergio—they give me and the artists a lot of flexibility. Which is great: artists aren’t marionettes and you don’t get them to do exactly the same thing that their predecessors in the role did. It’s my job to bring in their personality and their creativity and allow them to adapt the role in the spirit of the staging to their own personality. If they invent something that’s really nice, we keep that in. That’s great for me too because I get to make the artistic decisions with them.

Every singer already comes with an idea of the character because they learn the role and think about the words they are saying and the situation they’re in, what the character’s progression is. If there are any issues with the staging, the cast would discuss their take on the character. All that can be very useful. And I learned from Jossi and Sergio’s way of working with the singers, and then adapt that to working with the revival cast.

Do singers come with a notion of what the production is like? This one is not your typical Ballo; did singers watch a recording of it or some excerpts beforehand?

I don’t think they’ve seen the DVD this time. Sometimes they do, sometimes we say it would be good if the cast could get a DVD before they come to rehearsals, they can look at it if they want to; sometimes in a revival we work from the DVD; but here with didn’t work with the DVD at all. So it’s all – walk and talk. Sometimes it can be quite difficult [if you see the role on DVD and it looks very different from your own idea] and your reaction is Oh my god, seeing it from the outside. But with this production I found mostly when you actually walk and talk them through what they’re living and why, then it actually does make sense by the time you get through to the end.

I had a really lovely singer in Rusalka when we did it in Geneva and he was very upset by how his character in that staging. (He is Czech and the work is Czech and he grew up with the work…) He kind of freaked. For about five minutes. Then he came back, “Right, we have a job to do.” And he had hundreds of questions and by the time we got through them all, he was fine.

What is the idea behind this production? Set in 50s-60s? It looks American.

It is sort of American – it’s the Boston version, not the Swedish version of Ballo. It’s about finding the time period that is conservative enough and prejudiced enough to fit what’s happening in the opera. Riccardo is not JFK and not Bill Clinton and not Obama but he could be all of them.

If you put it in present time, it maybe too glib; you need a certain distance. For Verdi since this opera got moved its location so many times, that obviously wasn’t the most important thing, where it was set. More important was to find a setting that will show that this was social and political mechanism at work in this situation. So we have a synthetic America that looks like the 60s America but has some elements which aren’t necessarily congruent with the Sixties. (The “Bjork dress” that Oscar has in the third act, for example, which is here instantly recognizable). So it’s a composite time and place; picking up on what Verdi himself said, to copy the truth is good, but to invent the truth is better. We play with that a little bit. You’ll see with this young cast that we have, the dance style is slightly less traditional than it has been. They all got their moves and they’re showing them.

How is it to direct the chorus in a chorus-heavy opera?

Chorus staging is usually the most strenuous because you have loads of people running around – you need, like, five pairs of eyes to watch them all. But the stage management in the Anglo-American system really helps a lot. To have stage managers who know what they’re doing… and help coordinate the entrances, that’s a big help.

There’s a difference between the Continent and the rest in this regard?

The European system is slightly different. Stage managers here have many more duties and more responsibilities from the Inspizient in Europe. Part of the Assistant Director’s work in Europe is part of the Stage Manager’s work here. And obviously they look after health and safety and those kinds of things… When I first worked in Covent Garden and had proper stage management, I loved it.

Ballo1There are many crowd scenes in this opera, I take it.

Yeah, we have a lot, particularly with the gentlemen’s chorus; I know most of the men’s names but not all the ladies’ names. The ladies are in two of the scenes and the gentlemen in a lot of the scenes, and I spend a lot more time with them. I actually mixed up two of the guys and they swapped their name tags on the next rehearsal as a test, but I managed to remember! “You haven’t fooled me with your name tags! I know I need you and not him.”

And you probably know who’s baritone, who’s tenor…

To be honest: I don’t.

Then you probably don’t have to know.

We discussed it with the chorus master about who is being cast in which parts. They have the conspirators who are bass roles, and she divided up the chorus, and then we just said, this is how we’re gonna position them, is that fine, do you have the acoustic, do you want them more mixed, more grouped, she said No, mixed is good, and that’s how it went.

We put them in position, let them sing, check with the Maestro if it’s fine with him. It’s important to make sure that music is happy as well. And check at the beginning, because it’s much easier to change something at the beginning than is once you got on stage when you’re further down the line.

So the blocking… is it also called blocking when you’re directing the chorus?

Yeah, things you have to sort out, that everyone is in the right place at the right time, and that the principals aren’t obscured by the chorus and that kind of stuff. You have some blocking, you set it up, but then you let it run. I really encourage them to be inventive and to go with their instinct. There’s the scene with Riccardo where Ulrica is reading his palm and we got them set up in a semi-circle of chairs. If they feel like standing up and moving in to see what’s going on, then I’m encouraging them to go with that instinct. It makes it much more lively; they’re engaged with what’s going on and the audience is engaged with what’s going on. If they’re on the edge of their seats watching the palm being read, then the audience will be too. Or we have the scene when Riccardo says to all the gentlemen, Right, we’re gonna go to Ulrica, we’re gonna dress up. And they have this amazing energy—like, football game kind of energy—where they’re getting undressed and getting changed and disguised as sailors, and they really get into that. Throwing the sweaters like they’re footballs and that kind of thing.

I see, there’s a lot of room for them to invent their own characters.

Yeah. That’s what we want to see. There are some productions where you would want to have chorus as a uniform mass, you don’t want individuals – I don’t know, if you want to show a dictatorship or something, and you want them all to look the same and act the same, and there’d be an artistic reason for that. But here we want a group of individuals. Who maybe have a common purpose or common background but all do their own thing within the staging.

Does it ever get too lively for you, does it ever get anarchic?

Not yet! Up to now, it’s more encouraging them to actually experiment. It’s much easier to have too much and remove bits than is to want more from them and to not be getting it.

Where are you usually, do you watch from the distance, or are you among the singers?

Both. Particularly the first few times we did the scene because we have a huge set. When we’re doing the ball scene, for example, they’re in couples and dancing and then falling asleep and going down to the floor and making out. So in order to see all that properly, I would take a tour right through and check what people are doing – for the first couple of times. Then I’d pull back a bit and watch from out front but obviously in the rehearsal room it’s quite close. Now we’re on stage, I’ll be further away and getting the big picture.

The pit will be between you and the stage now?

Yes. I could go up if I wanted to, but I feel I have to be further away now – don’t know if it’s in the tenth row exactly, the desk – and pull back. And maybe also watch for the sight lines.

I have to ask you about women and the positions of artistic responsibility in the opera world. Conducting is obviously very closed to women, but I have the impression that stage direction is somewhat more open. Comparatively.

That is my impression as well. There are an increasing number of female directors, certainly in German-speaking Europe, which is the area I know. An increasing number who are becoming prominent. But still there are a lot more men doing the job. And there are more women assistants than directors, put it that way.

That was my next question. The assistant tier has probably more women.

Yeah, my impression is that there are a lot of assistant directors who are female. And I guess some of them don’t want to become directors. And some of them do.

Is that the way for a woman to become a director? By being the assistant first? I mean, I know there is no typical career, but maybe we can find some regularities.

I guess that’s what a lot of people do. Even those who studied directing, basically their first jobs are usually assistant or associate directors, there are very few who get the chance to do their own staging early on in their career. And some people—men too!—stay as associate directors and are more or less frustrated by it. Depending on what their goals are.

Maybe working on revivals gives more freedom than working together with the directors on a new production would?

Yeah… I tend to hold back although with Jossi and Sergio maybe now I would say more because of having revived several of their productions and maybe make more of a contribution. Some directors don’t want it. But with them—I sometimes find myself up on stage if one of the artists is not available for whatever reason and I would go up there. I “played” most of the cast of this production at some point in Berlin. My first one was Silvano, the drunken veteran marine. The first chorus rehearsal we had in Berlin—and I hadn’t acted since school, and hardly in school—I was asked, Oh can you go and give us your Silvano. (WHAT!?) But I went and did it and they really liked it. Basically every time after that when a role needed to be subbed, I was there. When we were doing scenes that require the chorus but the chorus wasn’t there yet, only the principals, I was asked to play the chorus. So there are several things that I introduced that way, and they’d go “We’re buying that!” and they would give it as a direction to the principal or to the chorus members later in the rehearsals.

They’re very open to suggestions. Like, jokey stuff too… I remember at one of the ORCAs for this production with the original cast, Piotr Beczala was singing Riccardo, and when he came into the ball, he just had a little dance with his first lady, just as a joke, and they said, “That’s it! We’re keeping it.”

Ballo2Can you tell me a bit about your other collaborations?

I’ve done workshops with young singers during their training programs with Peter Konwitschny and with Martin Kušej. But not a full-blown production with them yet. There are loads of people out there that it would be great  to work with, to see how they do things, people like Claus Guth, or Christof Loy. May come, we’ll see.

Stefan Herheim?

Yeah, I got to not work with him because I’m working on the revival of this.

That would have been Les vêpres in London?

I would have been in London, but I was in Berlin doing this.

Do you have to have an agent, as an associate director?

I don’t have one, no.

Do directors have to have an agent, even?

I think it’s a personal choice. Some people do, some people don’t. I guess it depends how tight your schedule is getting. If you’re booking 3, 4 years in advance, you need somebody to manage that.

What’s next for you, after this Ballo?

I get to have a holiday! And this summer I’ll be back with Jossi and Sergio in Stuttgart doing Tristan und Isolde. It’s a new production; we already had some pre-rehearsals in November, which was really great. Both our principals said that it was lovely for them, to have time to rehearse and think about things without the pressure of having to sing. The principal singers are Erin Caves, young American tenor and Chistiane Iven, member of the Stuttgart ensemble, who did Kundry and Ariadne. They’re both great, at singing and acting both. Erin was playing about with his Tristan doing jazz hands etc. He can move. We spent a lot of time reading the text and talking about what the text means and how to interpret it. I always like doing the spoken theatre rehearsal, so we can discus the text.

Is that how the three of you usually begin working on a new opera?

Not usually, but in the case of Tristan, we did. Especially with the second act duet, and Christiane was very keen, and kept asking, “So what does this actually mean!” Even as a German speaker, it’s really quite abstruse.

And they’re talking non-stop, the characters.

I saw a production by Claus Guth once which was the first time I actually realized that in the first act they tell the story of Isolde looking after Tristan when he was sick three times. Which they played out every single time. They told it, and they got two people to play Tristan and Isolde for each occasion.

He dramatized the monologues, essentially?

Yeah. Which is interesting, because when you listen, you don’t necessarily realize they’re telling the same scene over and over again. Then they tell it again in second act.

So it’s good to have time to read and discuss the text, and we did. It’s difficult especially because, as everyone says, “nothing happens” in this opera. This inner journey that they go through, it’s important to find a way to put that into a staging.

We do have a ship. We have a proper ship.  That’s all I can say.

This will be in Stuttgart in summer?

In July, yes.

I take it you speak fluent German.


Other opera languages probably too?

French and Italian, yeah. I’m learning Russian. Having had this experience in Czech with Rusalka, where I had no knowledge of the language, I thought, okay, if I have to do a production in Russian, I have to at least be able to read it and pronounce it.

But you are not learning it in Cyrillic letters?

I am, actually.


I started learning it just to read and pronounce, but I got into it, got interested in the language. But it’s not like I can speak it or anything.

Allow me a snarky observation: there are many opera directors who don’t speak any language other than their own.

I just love the languages. But German I would know, since I lived there for twenty years.

So that explains your German accent! On top of the British one.

I lived there for too long, and just seem to keep the German accent. When I was in London, I did a lot of the rehearsals still in German, and when I spoke in English people weren’t sure where I was from. I got asked if I was from the north of England a lot. Here in Toronto, I haven’t spoken any German. We’re all speaking English.

Un Ballo in Maschera opens at the Canadian Opera Company on February 2nd at 2PM. More info.

Photos by Ruth Walz show two scenes from the Berlin Staatsoper Un Ballo in Maschera, 2008.

Music and the Novel: October 23 at the High Park Library

Music and the Novel: October 23 at the High Park Library

I’ll be talking about music and the novel tomorrow at the High Park Library, and about my own book. Come on down. I hope to talk with the readers about some of the most impressive cases of music-in-written-word — well, my idiosyncratic choice, anyway — so, these good people will get a mention or three:

Eva Hoffman – Appasionata

Jeanette Winterson – Art & Lies

Barry Webster – The Sound of All Flesh

Marcel Proust – La Recherche, in particular the bits with the Vinteuil sonata

Lucy Ellmann – Mimi

Iris Murdoch – The Black Prince (for the Rosenkav scene)

Pascal Quignard – All the World’s Mornings

Possibly, Thomas Mann’s Dr Faustus which I’m just reading

And I must share this list that Twitterverse compiled the other week, after I asked about good examples of music in fiction. The answers just kept pouring in, and now I have this two-part Storify which I cherish very much.

Have a look at ONE and TWO.

See you there.

HighPark Library

Chantal Akerman films Sonia Wieder-Atherton

Chantal Akerman films Sonia Wieder-Atherton

Chantal Akerman filme Sonia Wieder-Atherton (box set: two DVDs and one CD) Naïve, 2011.

This is what getting a love letter from Chantal Akerman must be like.

There are four films here that Akerman made about the cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton, and all largely consist of the footage of Wieder-Atherton playing, either alone or with other musicians. This didn’t sound particularly exciting to me, but then I had never seen SWA play before. It’s an eventful occasion. The camera captures every moment in the SWA interaction with the instrument and every instance of pleasure and melancholy she gets from the music. Akerman’s cinematography also affirms (but does not belabour on) the essentially sexual nature of the playing of an instrument, especially the instrument which involves musician’s entire body, as the cello does.

The first film on Disc One is Avec Sonia Wieder-Atherton, which opens with SWA talking about herself and her musical path. She chose the cello because of the legato, and the possibility of a legato that could last forever; she found home when she started working with the Russian cellist Natalia Shakhovskaia. Her explanation on why she doesn’t divide the repertoire that touches her into historical periods is especially appealing. She is a fascinating artist to listen to talk, but after that initial interview she remains silent and the film is about framing the act of her playing into a cinematic or painting-like frame.

In Avec, Akerman films her, and later her guest musicians, through the doors and partitions of an apartment-like space, in dimmed lights or shade. In the second film, Trois strophes sure le nom de Sacher par Henri Dutilleux, the set up is more filmic. Colours are much livelier although far from naturalistic, and through the window by which SWA plays Dutilleux we see the couple that lives in the building across going about their chores, occasionally pausing at the window to listen.

Disc Two consists of the two-part À l’Est avec Sonia Wieder-Atherton, filmed inWarsaw with the Sinfonia Varsovia orchestra and assorted musicians. The idea for the film came from SWA herself, who wanted to pay homage to the beloved Slavic repertoire. Some of the works had to be transcribed for the cello and the chamber orchestra, and others rearranged, all of which she did with Franck Krawczyk. She is again wearing the white silky blouse (Akerman’s idea from the film one) which delineates and kind of ghosts her movement while bowing. The surrounds and the other musicians are all dark-grey, and again we have a painting-like chiaroscuro (“reminiscent of Flemish painting” is how SWA describes it). All the excitement comes from music – Rachmaninov, Kodaly, Donányi, Prokofiev, Martinů, Tcherepnin and Slavic folk sounding very unfamiliar.

The one CD in the box set is the music score from the movie A Couch in New York, which Akerman directed. (Yes, I know. It’s not a great film. Everybody has jobbing periods in their lives, mmkay?) SWA was in charge of the score and she did the typically remarkable job of reimagining the familiar pieces like Cole Porter’s “Nigtht and Day”. A lot of the music is her own, however. In addition to the cello-piano and cello-violin duos, we have the very intriguing series of cello-drums works on the disc. This score is probably the best thing about that unfortunate film.

This box set is a must for Akermaniacs (among whom I belong), but others may not get as excited by the fact of a brilliant woman behind the camera observing, sensualising, analyzing another brilliant woman in action with a musical instrument as much as I do.

The Canadian Opera Company 2012/13 season highlights

The Canadian Opera Company 2012/13 season highlights

No baroque this year. (On the upside, no Gluck and no Puccini either.)

Psychoanalysis, stock market crash, decadence: Christopher Alden’s new production of Die Fledermaus. Laura Tucker as Prinz Orlofsky.

Peter Sellars’s Tristan und Isolde with Bill Viola’s video screens.

More dark Victoriana: David Alden’s ENO Lucia.

Christopher Alden’s La Clemenza, first shown at Chicago Opera Theatre. Sesto will be sung by Isabel Leonard, Wallis Giunta will be Annio.

Atom Egoyan will revive and ‘re-think’ his old COC Salome.

Robert Carsen returns with Dialogues des Carmelites (the 2004 La Scala production available on DVD), with mezzo Judith Forst as Madame de Croissy and Adrianne Pieczonka debuting the role as Madame Lidoine.

There’s also a Trovatore with Elena Manistina as Azucena. Here’s Stride la vampa from Liceu 2009:

Magic, interrupted

Magic, interrupted

The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte) at the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto. Seen on February 8, 2011. Full Cast & Creative here.

Lauren Segal as the Third Lady, Wallis Giunta as the Second Lady, Betty Waynne Allison as the First Lady and Michael Schade as Tamino (lying down) in a scene from the COC production.  Photo Credit: © 2011 Michael Cooper

Don’t believe the papers: although this all-new staging garnered a lot of criticism for being too much like a musical and rather middle-brow, this is an unfair judgment, especially regarding the set. An aristocrat’s estate with the outdoor theatre and, for the second act, the labyrinths of the garden, actually work well for this damned-if-you-go-all-serious, damned-if-you-don’t opera. People of the manor of various ranks and their guests are seated in lawn chair and observe the comings and goings of the Act I, sometimes taking part. In Act II we follow the characters through the labyrinth — the gates, the temples, the dark corners, strangers with torches and long beards appearing from nowhere and giving the next set of directions, food carts appearing from nowhere and distracting the sidekick, and the final walk toward the fires at the centre of the maze: it all trundles along just fine and it never breaks down or gets too tedious, and that is not a small feat in the production created for all ages. (Attention, Aida cry-babies: two garden sphinx make an appearance: might these be refugees from Tim Albery’s purge last year? Since you missed them, you can go and see how they’re doing.)

Costumes are less successful. There are the usual long trains and the Goth makeup for the Queen of the Night and the multi-coloured feathers for Pappageno and Pappagena. Sarastro is camping it out with what looked like gold lamé coat and the beard of a Santa who’s down on his luck. The Three Ladies, on the other hand, the younger, de-trained versions of the Queen of the Night (plus the Harry Potter glasses) were very fetching. What Monostatos and the smaller roles sported suited them well. The only truly laughable garbs were worn by the two main characters, Tamino and Pamina, which were taken lock, stock and no irony out of gender reeducation camps of But I’m a Cheerleader. Why the director Diane Paulus didn’t blow this idea out of the water with a hearty laugh the moment (I presume) the set & costume designer Myung Hee Cho suggested it will remain a mystery.

The singing was excellent, though. It’s always a pleasure to hear Michael Schade. There’s a reason why he’s one of the busiest tenors in Europe and North America right now, and can be seen in a remarkable list of DVD recordings. Even his costume stopped being silly as soon as he started singing. He did keep a dash of humour to Tamino (the way he said “Because I am the prince” early in Act I remained the funniest thing that night), but kept him earnest and simple, then later quietly self-assured and patient,  and just this side of heroic. His voice did precisely what was required in any given scene, and went for pathos in one Act II aria. (That’s the right measure of pathos for Tamino.) I wondered why the audience didn’t applaud more often after his arias: maybe because he’s always on stage and moves the opera from scene to scene seamlessly and without any fuss.

The Queen of the Night had many fans in the audience and Aline Kutan delivered the high notes at proper speed in her two arias. The colour of her voice in recitatives was also very apposite for the role. Her emissaries, The Three Ladies (Betty Waynne Allison, Wallis Giunta and Lauren Segal) were pure joy to watch and listen. They acted well and sang in clear, commanding voices. It is exciting to observe young singers beginning to own their voices and realize their charisma — crossing over to the butterfly stage before our eyes. In this case, it’s that tingly feeling multiplied by three.

Lisa DiMaria as Papagena and Rodion Pogossov as Papageno in a scene from the COC production.  Photo Credit: © 2011 Michael Cooper

Rodion Pogossov as Pappageno was the show-stealer of the night. He combined the warm-coloured voice and technical strength with the dramatic delivery that made it all look perfectly effortless. The audience went wild for his understated charm. Lisa DiMaria, gorgeous in every way a singer can be, was his perfect match.

The disappointment of the evening was Isabel Bayrakdarian, of all people. The voice — if it could have been called that on the night of February 8 — was a stream of shaky sound threatening to burst completely out of singer’s control any moment now. At first I expected it was a matter of warming up. No: it continued like that through the performance. Just about every note, except the odd middle range one, came across as a strenuous effort. Her habit to tilt her head and sing to the floor did not help either. ‘Ach ich fühl’s’ was an arduous exercise, sung forte from the beginning till the end. The capacity to shade the words and vary their meaning was not in evidence. As Bayrakdarian is my favourite recorded Romilda, need I emphasize the extent of my disappointment? A Pamina who phones it in diminishes the entire Zauberflöte.

When I came home, I needed to hear a proper Ach ich fühl’s. Lucia Popp (1983, live) and Dorothea Röschmann (2003, live) provided comfort:

Lovingly, slovenly, slayingly, lavishly Slavic

Lovingly, slovenly, slayingly, lavishly Slavic

This is a good week to come out as a Slav. Picture me out, in all my barbarity. If the Slavic peoples contributed nothing else to the music world but that mighty upset of T. W. Adorno, it would still be huge. You’re welcome, humanity.

And why is this a good week to come out as (my) Slav(e), you ask? Because of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and its well-programmed three-night series of concerts called the Slavic Celebration, which includes works byProkofievJanáček, Chopin, Glinka, Stravinsky, Dvořák and Tchaikovsky, to name just the heaviest drinkers.* The remaining concert is on November 18 and 19 (INFO & TICKS). TSO’s Music Director Peter Oundjian conducts.

I attended the first concert in the series this Thursday, the Glagolitic Mass. On the program, Tchaikovsky’s Marche slave, Op. 31 and Astrophonia for viola (viola principalTeng Li) and string orchestra with (a very tempered — kudos to the TSO’s keyboard principal, Patricia Krueger) piano, a contemporary piece composed and conducted by the Czech composer Krystof Mařatka.

Which was followed by one of the funniest pieces created this side of pop culture, Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije Op. 60 (‘Lieutenant Etc.’) in five movements of his fictitious life: The Birth of Kije, Romance, Kije’s Wedding, Troika, The Burial of Kije. The work was commissioned by a Soviet film studio in the early 30s as a score for the eponymous Soviet talkie, based on the short story by Yuriy Tinyanov. Many years later, Woody Allen will use Kije music for (arguably) the best film he ever made, Love and Death. Here’s the final scene of the film where he dances with Death to the tune of Troika, the Kije’s fourth movement:

The Janáček’Glagolitic Mass was performed last, with the The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir out in full force, and the soloists Christine Brewer, soprano; the warm-voiced and underused by the text Nancy Maultsby, mezzo-soprano; John Mac Master, tenor (fantastic diction, nice timbre, but barely heard above the orchestra until the very end — grumpity grump) and Tyler Duncan, baritone (no complaints). This is an everything-plus-an-organ-solo kind of work, and the orchestra went completely silent near the end when Michael Bloss at the organ took over the podium with his energetic solo.

Musically, the Mass is full of unexpected twists and turns, and deserving of repeat listening. Textually, the same mischievous business. Janáček the atheist decides to compose a secular mass not to a God but to a different kind of being in community. He takes the words of the traditional Catholic mass, but in the language of the Catholic church’s old nemesis, that other, Eastern church: the Old Church Slavonic. And he calls it Glagolitic, after a very old, non-dominant way of writing the Old Church Slavonic. (He could have called it Cyrillic, but that would have been too obvious and, well, Eastern-Churchy.)

This way, the visionary that he was, Janáček made one of the earliest pan-European moves way before the EEC was a shade of an idea.  A huge dividing point between the Slavs is the Western-Eastern Christianity line. If you watch any clips similar to mine below on their original YouTube sites, you’ll see in the comments sections (and in a few other things, like the post-Yugoslav wars, ahem) that this strife merrily goes on, unperturbed by the 21st-century circumstances. “No, you have to give up Filioque and transubstantiation”; “No, you have to stop dividing the church along national lines”; “No, you have to get rid of the ridiculous confessions”; No, you” etc etc etc (Kije, Kije, Kije). So Janáček says, listen guys, I’m not wasting my energy on the parochialisms, imma let me finish some music. Some cassocked dudes might be miffed by my inventiveness? All the better.

And that, my friends is, the proto-European ‘tude to (his well-muddied Slavic) boot.

Kyrie (Gospodi pomiluj) according to the Glagolitizing Janáček:

A gorgeous Orthodox chant Kyrie, performed by Divna LjubojevicMelodi:

And this Kyrie, by an as-bad-as-Slav, opened-many-times-in-Prague doesn’t need introducing:

* Not a fact at all, but a useful Slavic stereotype nonetheless.