Interview: Celia Hawkesworth

To visit Celia Hawkesworth, I took a Chiltern Lines train from London’s Marylebone Station to a village known, it turned out, for its outdoors shopping mall in the guise of ye olde main street. The train had announcements in Arabic and Chinese – something I haven’t seen anywhere else in England – and this hybrid of the rural with the global served as our conversation starter. How amazing that the diverse London youth and entire families would travel to Oxfordshire for brand-name shopping.

The moment we sat under the awning of one of the cafes (or was it an Itsu?), it started raining, but we soldiered on. I was finally meeting the legendary translator of Serbo-Croatian (today: Serbian, Bosnian, Croatian – etc.) and no amount of accompanying English drizzle was going to spoil the main event.

Between 1971 and 2002, Hawkesworth taught Serbian and Croatian in the Department of East European Languages and Culture at London’s biggest university, the UCL. She translated about 40 books from South Slav authors into English – 39 as of last count, a number that’s likely to grow – and published several books of her own writing.

Celia Hawkesworth

CH: I’m currently translating a US-based Bosnian writer, Semezdin Mehmedinović. He wrote this beautiful memoir in three parts. One part is about when he had a heart attack, then the middle piece is when he’s travelling with his son who’s a photographer, and the third bit is about his wife who had a stroke and clearly eventually dies, although he doesn’t take you there. I’ve translated it for Granta; it’s coming out next year. The editor said to me Oh, I knew it was long but didn’t know it was that long. But I’m going to do it because it’s astounding.

It’s totally unsentimental. From time to time very funny. Beautiful. Tender, understated.

LP: Well thanks to you and various small English-language publishers, I’ve discovered a lot of Balkan writers I had no clue about. Like, Nenad Veličković…

I don’t want you to ask me too many questions about contemporary scene, because as I said earlier, I’m in my village now. What I like about my current situation is, in the old days, when I was working at the University of London I used to come across things and say to myself, This is wonderful – I’d translate a bit, then send it around to various publishers who would then say Yes interesting, but not saleable. And that went on for years. So I stopped doing that. I just do my own things now and check email and there’ll be a message saying Would you be interested in doing this? And I say, Oh yes. When I was working in London and was constantly in touch with new things, but now I’m really terribly out of touch.

You did mention Nenad Veličković and I have liked his work in the past – especially Konačari. I discovered him when I was going fairly regularly [to the region] for work. I had this lovely friend who taught history of literature in Sarajevo who was Nenad’s friend. I think that’s how that happened.

You translated a lot of Dubravka Ugrešić and Daša Drndić. How did you come across each woman, do you remember?

I kept meeting Dubravka at various events in the country, particularly in Zagreb, so she’d be at any given literary gathering. She was tremendous; I really loved my association with her. I love her work, that was a real privilege to be able to do that.

I had heard about Daša for a long time. I don’t know if you’ve ever come across Jasna Lukić? [I had, turns out; she used to teach in the Women’s Studies Centre in Belgrade when I attended it, 1997-98. – LP] She’s from Belgrade but lives in Budapest. She was married to a Croatian critic and they have a son and a daughter. She said to me, there is one person you really ought to translate and really ought to read. She had spotted her ages ago. And then MacLehose Press came to me. I have to say, that was quite frightening because Daša had this reputation of being very scary. And I knew that she had not liked…

OMG, yes, she had ~words~ about her first big English translation, Trieste. I listened to the podcast that Susan Curtis of Istros recorded with her.

It was not entirely fair…

Not exactly diplomatic…

You could say that. Which is good, because she cuts through everything. But anyway, I was really quite frightened. She insisted on a sample of 30 pages first. In the event, most of it was alright. And because her English was so fabulous, it was a real joy to work with her; she knew exactly the nuance she wanted.

I was reading EEG in the original, and thinking, who on earth can translate this. So many localisms, so many things only understood in the region… Then I looked at your translation and thought, Yes, this is basically the same thing. How is this possible? You got the texture of it just right.

Grreat, I’m delighted.

My great love, which you might have noticed, is Ivo Andrić. It’s completely fanciful, but I imagine I understand his way of thinking. Of course I don’t. But I really appreciate that irony, and the tolerance and the compassion that I find in his work and it totally lies with me. Whereas Dubravka and Daša are completely different personalities from me. So you have to work at it … your way into their head.

That’s so interesting. But you found Andrić simpatico.

Ivo Andric in 1961. Photo by Stevan Kragujevic

Totally, a real sort of soulmate. It’s ridiculous to say but that’s how I feel. So I was thrilled when the NYRB asked me to do Omer Paša Latas.

There was this article about his entire work in the NYRB magazine recently…

… a really good article about his historical fiction, yes.

 And today Bosniaks don’t really claim him because of the alleged pro-Serbian point of view… For the Serbs and the Croats he was probably too much of a Yugoslav… I wonder who can take pride in him today.

I was invited last year, because I’d just finished Omer Paša, to some Andrić event in Višegrad. And I just can’t imagine going there now that it’s not what it was [it is now a town in a highly Serbianized Republika Srpska, one of the three ethnic enclaves that form post-Dayton Bosnia-Herzegovina – added by LP]. They’ve built something called Andrićgrad. I just couldn’t face it. I was terribly busy.

They can’t have him, as far as I’m concerned.

And I suspect he wouldn’t let himself be had by the nationalists, if he was still around. I’m glad the NYRB piece covers the basics, because I’d forgotten that he essentially went into an inner exile when the Nazis occupied Yugoslavia – he didn’t join the resistance exactly, but did not take part in any form of public life.

That’s when he wrote his novels. Because he was sitting in his flat in Belgrade and wouldn’t publish anything. He was really much more at home in short stories. Na Drini ćuprija is really a series of short stories – wonderfully linked – but Travnička hronika looks much more like a novel. He might never have written novels had he not been in that kind of enforced silence.

A lot of intellectuals just hunkered down when their countries fell under Nazi occupation. Inner exile. Sartre and Beauvoir essentially did the same, taught in provincial schools… But the Yugoslavs had to go all out.

I still can’t really accept it… the end of it.

What do you think of this. This has been bugging me. Our newly created countries now have all kinds of issues with corruption and weak civil society etc. That all unfortunately I think started during communism. It exploded exponentially after it, but communism started it. Though we like to remember it fondly now. And I think Daša did that a little too. Slightly idealized the previous system. But arbitrary rules, nepotism – it was all there already.

Yes. Definitely the country had become corrupt.  One of my favourite vignettes is a friend who has taught English, he’s in his eighties now, Damir Kalodjera at University of Zagreb, he said after the war, I used to sit in faculty meetings with all these communists around me, thinking oh god, they are idiots. And then suddenly after the war they were all nationalists. And I thought: No, I’m the idiot.

II

Any idea why there are so many great Croatian women writers? No other republic has that many.

No, that’s true.

I remember there being a lot of great Croatian non-fiction writers and journalists back in the late eighties, early nineties… people like Slavenka Drakulić…

(whispers) I don’t enjoy her work.

Interesting! I adored her early writing and her journalism, but her writing in English – I don’t recognize it at all.

I liked the first book, about her dialysis. That was very touching. And well written. But a publisher sent me something that was done two or three years ago… it was potentially interesting. I’m afraid it just didn’t come off.

Ah. That’s how I feel about her writing in English. The Balkan Express for ex? So slight. And so obviously written for Americans.

But back to Dubravka, who’s an example of a Croatian female writer you have in mind…

Was it you who translated Forsiranje romana reke, I can’t remember?

No that was Michael Henry Heim, her good friend and ours. And I thought his Fording the Stream of Consciousness was very clever. I did Museum of Unconditional Surrender. Museum I thought was really good. But she did become bitter, and I think that spoiled the next one, the novel about a teacher of Croatian in Amsterdam… just very bitter and negative. She had a hard time, learning Dutch seems to be really difficult. It was hard for her to be accepted. So she was always with the exiles. Things may have changed since then, though.

But your question was why are there so many women. I spend quite a lot of time trying to find women writers.

See, I suspected as much. I’m glad.

Really liked Svetlana Velmar Janković, for example.

What should I read?

 Lagum. I translated it long time ago, and called it Dungeon.

You also translated Olja Savićević Ivančević for Istros. She was a huge discovery for me.

Absolutely. She’s a delight in every way – and extremely sharp. And perceptive.

Olja Savicevic

And political. Nevertheless her touch is very light.

Comic, even. Farewell, Cowboy is comic, but under the surface kind of depressed.

The new one is very strange, Singer in the Night. It’s a very strange genre; she’s playing with genre, you don’t know where you are at the end.

Then there’s Vedrana Rudan, who’s extremely popular in Croatia, whom you’ve also translated.

[pause] I know. But somebody asked me to.

Ha, but such writers need to exist, I suppose. Punk, angry writers.

I suppose so. I did put together this book called The History of Central European Women’s Writing. I went hunting. [CH actually put together two books on the topic: that one, and this one – LP]

The thing about Croatia within Yugoslavia is, they had feminism. They had feminist publications and writers in late eighties.

They’d had it before. This is what I found when I was doing my history. They had had it between the wars. It’s just that after the Second World War when male communists took over, they just denied it. So they had to start all over again in 1970s. There’ve had some very interesting people in between the wars – women. You wouldn’t know this.

I did not know this! In the time of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes?

Yes. And not only in Croatia.

Ah. But then communism came and everybody became equal.

And yet men were still running things.

Zagreb had feminist press in 1980s, I guess that’s how long it took to reignite the fight. A magazine called Svijet, which changed my young life. Now all that is gone. Now they have a female president who’s very right wing. Do you go to Croatia now, do you go to any of the republics?

Very little. We have just a few old friends left. Damir Kalodjera in Zagreb and the Lešić family in Sarajevo. The Lešić family include our goddaughter who now has her own daughter. Zdenko Lešić and his wife were living on the 7th floor in Sarajevo with no glass in the windows. They could see people blown apart in front of them – unimaginable. Then their daughter went to Belgrade to study and they couldn’t really see her. His two brothers lived in Ilidza, one of them was killed by his next door neighbour. In the house they found the glasses. The neighbour came for a visit, they had their drinks together, and then he shot him. The other brother took his Muslim wife – they were Croatian and living in the wrong place, the Serbian part of Bosnia – he took his wife to Novi Sad, and then promptly had a heart attack and died. So Zdenko has not seen either on time to say goodbye. It was one thing after another, absolutely dreadful. They had decided they couldn’t get through another winter, that even death was better… I got my boss in London to say we could do a job share if he could get out and we knew somebody at British Council who helped. Anyway because he’d known all those dreadful people like Nikola Koljević who were all in charge of things, he could get out and they did. They came to London and Andrea came and that was wonderful.

And then they moved back after war and were very much welcome because they hadn’t sided with anyone, she’s Serbian, and he’s Croatian. Thoroughly decent human beings. He died last year sadly, in his eighties. But Andrea and Kaća, her mother, are still there.  They go to Mljet in the summer so our plan is to go there. My husband and I went secretly for her eightieth birthday, just appeared in Sarajevo.

That’s about it. I really don’t go very much because I just don’t know enough people in Belgrade any more. A lot of people I knew either left or they turned out to be people I didn’t understand at all. They had this nationalist button you could push, which it seemed incredibly easy to do.

Were you ever interested in people like Pekić or Crnjanski?

Both of them, yes. Pekić of course was in London so I knew him.

His wife worked as an architect. I’m not sure if he ever worked in England.

And they had a lovely daughter. He was a most interesting writer. I really didn’t like Besnilo – but all his other writing much more than that novel. Crnjanski, I love the early work, but once he came to London he became a bitter emigré… Roman o Londonu is unreadable, I think.

Seobe is absolutely worth reading.

Yes! Though there’s no point in trying to transfer it to English.

Somebody already did.

That’s right, but I don’t see how it could possibly work. I mean, the dismal thing about translating stuff from smaller languages is: the books just vanish. If you’re very lucky, they are published and then gone. People don’t read them. It hasn’t approved a bit – well, it’s improved a dot, people are more prone to read translations, but most people still don’t. And there are very few people to promote them. Exceptions are few, like the amazing Irish critic Eileen Battersby who did a huge amount to promote Daša – it’s such a tragedy that she’s gone.

All the time, when I was trying to translate, all those years when I was working in London, I was just acutely aware when in Yugoslavia that these writers are enormously important. They could not understand why that wasn’t carried over when they were translated. I mean – Kiš. Anybody should know Kiš.

He’s barely read now.

He was barely read in English when he was alive and very vigorous.

Have you read Mark Thompson’s Kiš biography, Birth Certificate? What an extraordinary book. And finally some Montenegro content. We’re the smallest and very few people have the faintest about Montenegro.

I’ve read it, I agree. Mark is a great guy. We had dinner with him and his Croatian wife recently, and Kiš’s widow Pascale Delpech. I used to see his first wife in Belgrade from time to time, Mirjana Miočinović.

Birth Certificate suggests that he was kind of veering between those two women till the very end. Fascinating guy, but tricky.

Weren’t they all?

Yes, what is with the Balkan macho…

No, women too. Daša was tricky. There were tricky women too.

Ha! Well, if you had asked Daša, she’d probably not have called herself a feminist. And if you look at the writers she invites into her own fiction, it’s mostly Mitteleuropa men.

She certainly lived life of a feminist.

Absolutely.
I’ve been trying to interest a Canadian translator in her book
Dying in Toronto, but no luck. It’s a bit older, from 1990s, and also it’s not very flattering to the host country. They really struggled in Canada.

No, she was not happy in Toronto.

Oxfordshire, October 2019

Onegin!

So the Carsen Onegin is twenty years young and just opened the COC’s 18/19 season. My review is up on Opera Canada.

I’ve been going through some recordings in preparation and in the process discovered a glorious 1955 mono from the Bolshoi with Galina Vishnyevskaya. This chorus gets me every time, but this rendition in particular:

Loved that Carsen introduced an Orthodox priest into the scene — there are indeed shades of Orthodox chanting in this chorus, and it all went beautifully together with the autumn leaves strewn across the stage, the peasants coming back from the harvest, the women peeling fruit and veg and kibitzing.

There are brilliant moments in every scene in this Carsen, and I thought there is a touch of genius in how Lensky’s death is bridged with the next scene, the famous polonaise at the Prince Gremin’s ball.

Anybody seen any other Onegin productions, live or on video? There are bits of Kasper Holten’s ROH Onegin on the internet, and various Bolshoi clips of varying vintage. I can’t remember which director turned it into the Onegin & Lensky forbidden love type story? There’s been at least one of those about.

L’Histoire de la soldate

Suzanne Roberts Smith and Jonathan Crow in L’Histoire du soldat directed by Alaina Viau for the Toronto Summer Music Festival. Photographer James Ireland.

By casting a woman in the title role in Stravinsky’s kind-of staged L’Histoire du soldat performed last night at Koerner Hall in the Toronto Summer Music Festival, Alaina Viau effectively rescued this rather thin story from the fate of being but a curious Russian folkloric riff on Faustian bargaining. The text, based on a story by Aleksandr Afanasjev, involves a returning soldier striking a bargain with the devil and losing everything in exchange for the magic ability to create wealth with the help of, um, a magic book. He eventually saves an ailing yet dancing princess (dancer and choreographer Jennifer Nichols) but by the end loses her again by disobeying the devil’s injunction never to leave the confines of the palace? It’s a tale alternating between confusing and tedious, with not enough Stravinsky’s music to make it all worthwhile. It is a piece in need of directorial intervention.

We did get that in one respect: the Soldier-Princess storyline is livened up with the woman + woman casting; the travails and tribulations of a wandering soldier, and the obstacles to charming a princess, are a very different game when a female principal is involved. Suzanne Roberts Smith, give or take a spot of goofy miming of fiddle playing, was a credible and handsome soldier, sometimes clueless, sometimes foolhardy, always engaging. Jennifer Nichols was appropriately enigmatic and distant as the Princess on pointe.

The Narrator and the Devil on the other hand were merged into one, which didn’t work as well. L’Histoire is often performed with one person taking on all the roles, but once you begin to distinguish the characters, there is no reason to leave any two merged. The fact that Derek Boyes (who performed in L’Histoire many times before) read his words from the script wasn’t ideal either. It felt like some parts of the production were staged and others not.

More work could have been done in the visual side of story-telling. The lighting and the video remained modest; I am not of course expecting the William Kentridge scale, but a stronger presence of the visuals would have considerably improved things, which remained under-defined, as if grappling towards an idea. On the upside, Viau did give bits of stage business to the orchestra, the TSO Chamber Soloists with TSMF’s AD Jonathan Crow on the violin.

The Soldat was preceded by a concert performance of Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland. Scored for more instruments than the Stravinsky piece, Spring brought to the stage some of the TSMF Academy Chamber Music fellows. There are parts of stunning lyricism in Spring that otherwise sounds very familiarly American, with citations from folk and dance, and an overall upbeat-ness.

At the opposite end of that, and at opposite end of the night, there was Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time at 10:30pm, billed as the TSMF Late Night Encore. The hall was emptied to one third of occupied seats when Jonathan Crow, Julie Albers (cello), Miles Jaques (clarinet) and Natasha Paremski (piano) came out and dug into the first movement, ‘Liturgie de cristal’. As one movement followed the other, the narrow vertical screen showed video, mostly abstract shapes changing ever so slightly. For the movement with clarinet solo, the lights went down in the house and the only things remaining lit were musicians’ stands.

Good ideas, but not enough of them, and executed modestly.

Messiaen’s war camp quartet is a tricky choice for a late night performance. It has long stretches of mournful and/or monotonous sound-making: a long violin line sul ponticello that varies in intensity and stretches eeeever so slowly to its extinction, is just one example. There was not much demanding our attention from the stage (except when trying to fend off the idea this video art looks too much like a screensaver I used to have…) and as we were pushing past 11pm, there was quite bit of nodding off all around me. Again, more directing wouldn’t have gone amiss – more doing stuff with the lights, both house lights and stage lighting. Still, there was something pleasantly taboo-breaking about a late night concert. It had a less formal atmosphere perhaps, and breaking the house lights rules contributed to that.

TSMF continues apace. There is a Russo-German chamber program tonight, and on Saturday it’s back to reGeneration, the final round.

IMG_20180719_233623[1]
A quick snapshot at the end of the Quartet for the End of Time: l-r Natasha Paremski, Julie Albers, Miles Jaques and Jonathan Crow

Nightingale, oh Nightingale

(l-r) Bruno Roy as Japanese Envoy 3, Samuel Chan as Japanese Envoy 2, Jane Archibald as the Nightingale, Oleg Tsibulko as the Emperor and Miles Mykkanen as Japanese Envoy 1 in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables, 2018. Conductor Johannes Debus, director Robert Lepage, set designer Carl Fillion, costume designer Mara Gottler and lighting designer Etienne Boucher. Photo: Michael Cooper

The COC’s nine-year-old production of Stravinsky’s shorts, The Nightingale and Other Short Fables directed by Robert Lepage has aged well — as family entertainment. It sells well, it brings children and rookies to the opera house, and this time around it put to work much of the COC Ensemble Studio.

For those of us who have seen it when it opened, the excitement has subsided. The production stitches together a selection of Stravinsky songs and instrumental pieces with the short opera The Nightingale into a puppetry-themed revue. While the children may rejoice the shadow puppetry illustrations during Pribaoutki and The Fox, the adults may wonder why this modernist composer is being given the Russian folklore treatment. In the pre-Nightingale pieces all the singers wear peasant clothes, and while this makes sense for Four Russian Peasant Songs (women of the COC Chorus, underpowered on the opening night), it does not for Two Poems of Konstantin Balmont (Danika Loren, bright-voiced and exquisite in Russian language) or Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet (the very engaging Juan Olivares).

The Nightingale itself is a strange bird, and Stravinsky thought so too. He composed Acts 2 and 3 after he had completed The Rite of Spring and Petrushka, thanks to a commission he couldn’t refuse, and Act 1 does remain stylistically apart. The opening song of the Fisherman and some of the surrounding woodwinds could have come from the Russian nineteenth-century opera, whereas the rest of the work fits in better with the invention, the sharp edges, the crafted-ness of Stravinsky’s mature oeuvre.

The story is, fittingly, bizarre. In the libretto by Stepan Mitussov based on H.C. Andersen, the courtiers of the Chinese Emperor are taken out into the nature to hear the nightingale. The cow and the frog confuse them at first, as they’ve never heard any sounds from the nature, but the live nightingale is finally found and they invite it to court. The Emperor is moved when the bird sings at his quarters, yet the Japanese visitors interrupt the jam with their gift, a mechanical nightingale, which also impresses the Emperor. The real nightingale leaves unnoticed and is subsequently banned for disobedience but returns for Act 3 to negotiate the Emperor’s release from death throes. Morning dawns, Emperor is alive and well, Death chased away with song.

Parable on the supremacy of nature over artifice? Not so fast. The music Stravinsky gives to the Nightingale is a whole lot of beautiful but also rather cool and detached coloratura atop of the text describing wet foliage in the night. Yet to the stilted and ceremonious figures of the imperial court—and to Death—it sounds extraordinary, perhaps because free. Free from emoting too, as will operatic expression attempt to free itself from voicing and enticing straightforward emotion for much of the rest of the twentieth century to come, excepting Puccini. “For me, music is reality… and like Baudelaire, but unlike Messiaen, J’aime mieux une boîte à musique qu’un rossignol,” Stravinsky said in his Dialogues with Robert Craft (’82).

Robert Lepage and his collaborators in Ex machina intuited exactly right this artificial, laboured over and crafted nature of everything in this piece, and gave every character a puppet double to speak through – except, again, the Nightingale, whose mechanical double flies around as it pleases (on a long stick supported by a handler disguised in black). This is a perfect role for Jane Archibald who, when not holding the bird, roams freely among the characters and supplies self-contained coloratura utterances. Other principals are all in the pool of water occupying the orchestra pit, while the orchestra is on stage, behind the action. The original Dyagilev production designed by Alexandre Benois also played with upstairs-downstairs, and placed the Nightingale and the Fisherman inside the orchestra pit.

While he was barely heard in Part 1 as one of the quartet of The Fox, Oleg Tsibulko got back the volume by the time he returned on stage as the Emperor in Part 2. Lauren Eberwein as the Cook and Lindsay Ammann as Death in a large crowd of small roles had a bit more substance to work with and they managed to leave mark with what they had. Owen McCausland secure, full tenor was very distinct in Part 1 and returned in Part 2 as the Fisherman. He was comfortable in Russian, and vocally even throughout the range. Occasionally a bit more inflection and nuance was called for: there’s certainly sufficient force there, but there’s also a certain over-relying on the oomph of the voice, whereas sometimes modulation is what’s needed in the text or the scene. It will be interesting to watch his voice as it likely grows more dramatic with years.

The crown achievement of the evening is Stravinsky’s music itself, incapable of dullness if honoured properly, and the COC Orchestra conducted by Johannes Debus honoured its crispness and animation. From the Ragtime which served as the overture (and which could have been written yesterday, by John Adams) to the last bars of the rising sun of The Nightingale, the lucid and nimble orchestra kept the evening, potentially weighed down by dolls, gallons of water and crowds of courtiers, in swift and steady motion.

First published in Opera Canada online; will be in print in the next issue.

 

Podcast Episode the First

So I went and created a podcast.

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

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

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

John of Opera Ramblings, Best Shows:

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

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

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

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

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

Sara Constant, Digital Media at the WholeNote:

The Soundstreams Vivier show

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

My own addendum to this:

Soundstreams doing R Murray Schafer Odditorium

PLUS Judy Loman in anything

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

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

Toronto’s best operatic performance: COC’s Gotterdammerung

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

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

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

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

Jenna Simeonov (Schmopera):

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

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

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

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

+ + +

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

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

 

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.)

 

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:

Music

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.

Writers

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.

Also!

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

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