…and a new song cycle emerged.
There was a time when men loved lesbians and considered them essential for their own artistic output. No, stay with me, it’s is true: that time is the latter half of the nineteenth century, the place is France, and the men are the poets of emerging modernism.
Charles Baudelaire’s Les fleurs de mal’s working title was Les lesbiennes and the section that got him censored and fined includes poems “Lesbos” and “Delpine et Hippolyte” (“Femmes damnée”, somehow, got away, in spite its cries of solidarity: Vous que dans votre enfer mon âme a pursuivies / Pauvres soeurs, je vous aime autant que je vous plains). Paul Verlaine’s series of sonnets around amorous encounters between young women Les amies is more specific, more explicitly visual and sensual. His “Ariette oubliée” IV from the later Romances sans paroles is a poetic embrace of the care-free female same-sex coupledom that, some critics argue, masks poet’s own embrace of male homoeroticism. Soyons deux jeunes filles / Éprises de rien et de tout étonnées, says the poem to the reader of either sex.
Sappho was mythologized and loomed large for male poets of the era, and Théodore de Banville and Henri de Régnier were just two of the poets who wrote lesbian poems set in some version of ancient Greece. In the words of Gretchen Schultz who wrote an entire book about this era of literary cross-sex fascination (Sapphic Fathers: Discourses of Same-Sex Desire from Nineteenth Century France), male poets’ quest for selfhood took detours through lesbian personae.
Best known in the classical world of all the lesbophile song cycles of this era remains Pierre Louÿs’s 1894 Chansons de Bilitis, an elaborate pseudotranslation of an ‘ancient Greek’ Sappho-like figure Bilitis—in fact, entirely concocted by Louÿs–whose biography of the senses the song cycle follows, from heterosexual beginnings through lesbian blossoming to the reminiscing old age. Louÿs’ friend Claude Debussy set three of the poems to music in 1897 to create the lush piano and voice opus now known as Trois Chansons de Bilitis. Debussy then worked on another, longer cycle titled Musique de scène pour les Chansons de Bilitis with twelve of Louÿs’s poems, but the text there is recited within the tableaux vivants with musical interludes scored for a small orchestra of flutes, harps and celesta. Recorded only a modest number of times—there’s a Deutsche Grammophon recording with Catherine Deneuve as the recitant—this other version of Chansons is extremely rarely performed.
The three-song cycle to piano is another story: it is widely claimed by both mezzos and sopranos and has been recorded frequently. At the February 9th noon Ensemble Studio concert at the COC, it will be sung by the young mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo accompanied by Hyejin Kwon at the piano. Both piano and vocal writing are of great richness, both of heightened sensuality of the Anaïs Nin kind. The well-curated program that abounds in literary references will also include…
Full piece here [PDF]– or even better, pick up a free copy of the magazine.
The 2015 Bregenz Festival, Johannes Debus-conducted Les Contes d’Hoffmann (DVD Unitel Classica, C-Major) has what Herheim productions tend to have–thoughtful attention to every bar of the score; redefinition of the passive, one-dimension female roles into agents; placement of the composer into the opera itself; engagement with political, philosophical contexts from the time of the creation and the present time. But, there’s a but coming. This has to be one of the least intricate, most straightforwardly structured of Herheim productions, in which he establishes the basic vocabulary early on and remains faithful to it till the end. Which–together with the general dramatic looseness of Hoffmann–makes for a fairly slow-going, pared down, not-quite-thrilling Herheim show.
Though there are moments of Herheimian thrill, absolutely. While Hoffmann (Daniel Johansson) waits and pines for Olympia to be carried out by her um father, the creator of creatures many and varied, the video projection above the set shows Courbet’s 1866 L’Origine du monde painting. But look more attentively, and it’ll show the body assembled as a mannequin or a machine, something Hoffmann doesn’t notice or doesn’t mind. Later in the scene, Olympia’s coloraturas are also a makeout choreography, and he is put in both active and passive sexual positions and quite determinedly bent over and topped by the automaton at the end.
Offenbach himself appears in the trio of supporting characters Andres, Cochenille and Franz and in a familiar Herheimian trope occasionally conducts his own choruses from the stage (perfectly costumed and perfectly jittery Christophe Mortagne). He is introduced at the very start, cello in tow, letter from Stella to Hoffmann in hand, and the baritone villain (Lindorf, Maitre Luther, Copelius, Miracle, Dapertutto–Michael Volle) comes onto the stage as a heckler from the audience, yelling, at the sight of the drag-queen version of Stella, against the “homo stuff, that has nothing to do with Offenbach”.
The operating principle of the production is Let’s complicate the all too easy sexual dichotomy in the libretto (male-female, and echoing it, artist-muse, artist-object of devotion, lover-beloved, gaze-the gazed, generator creator-elusive, ungraspable feminine etc). Herheim does it by dressing all principal characters in three basic costumes, depending on the scene: Hoffmann’s tails masculine ensemble, the femme fatale gown, and the corset and garters outfit. It’s amusing noticing how entire scenes change depending on who wears what: Dr Miracle appears to Antonia in the femme fatale garb, Antonia (Mandy Fredrich) and Olympia (Kerstin Avemo) sing their signature arias corset-clad–but Antonia dies in an oversized femme fatale dress from Dr Miracle, and it isn’t Olympia that is dismembered at the end of Act 1, but the (masculine version) doll of Hoffmann himself, while the actual singer Daniel Johansson appears, when the crowd has cleared out, corseted, badly made up, and very much alone again, stage left.
This proliferation works best with the Muse/Nicklausse/Voix de la tombe character (Rachel Frenkel), who appears as a femme fatale version of Stella, then in Act 1 as one of the Huffmanns of the drinking crowd, keeps the Hoffmann garb for the duration of Act 2 at Spalanzani’s, appears in corset in Act 3 to interrupt Hoffmann’s growing infatuation with Antonia and remind him of Olympia, and is back in the glam gown as one of the three women voicing Giulietta (ah yes, “Giulietta” is the Muse, Olympia and Antonia trio, all dressed in the identical glamour number).
The tripartite costuming is fun and games at certain turning points, but in those long stretches in between, the workaday parts of this opera, it gets ever so slightly unsurprising, dare I say… tedious. The ladygents and gentladies of the chorus are often dressed half-half or cross-dressed and that’s new and interesting until it isn’t. The Busby Berkeley-like staircase set keeps returning, and yes, it’s showbiz, it’s performance, and so are the genders, etc etc.
I hate to be That Guy Who Complains About French Diction, so I won’t, this time. COC’s music director Johannes Debus conducts with precision and flair the Wiener Symphoniker (and was not the only Torontonian in the pit: Jordan de Souza was in Bregenz last summer too as his assistant).
The recording comes in two discs, no bonus materials, with subtitles in French, English, German, Spanish, Korean, Japanese and Chinese. Video director was Felix Breisach.
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.
It was around the time of Tim Albery’s Aida at the COC that I started reading John Coulbourn. He was the only critic in any of the big media in town who actually got the Albery production and did not cry for the missing pyramids, so I realized I ought to pay attention. At that time, however, John was already approaching his retirement after 35 years of journalism and performing arts criticism. How could I have missed him before? My own anti-Sun prejudice, I suspect; who goes to the Sun for art coverage, I used to think? It turns out, during Coulbourn’s years at the Sun, the paper has been covering the arts at least as much as the other dailies, and in one particular case even more (“TIFF would probably never have gotten off the ground were it not for the Sun’s early boosterism. The other dailies roundly ignored the festival in its early years,” he recalls.)
A couple of weeks ago, JC agreed to meet me at the RCM Espresso Bar for a kaffeeklatsch and some shop talk. My secret agenda was to urge him to start writing an arts blog, the idea that he very sweetly but firmly rejected each time I re-proposed it. It turns out his enjoyment of theatre has become more immersive and more communal now that he doesn’t have to review what he sees. “The way I use to watch a show was in this fairly stiff posture and bent toward the stage. When I recline back on my chair, you could tell I found the lead. I was doing it all unconsciously, my husband Grant first noticed this and told me about it. The hardest part of writing for me was always finding the lead.” Writing for a tabloid meant, for him, “keeping it tight and keeping it bright”. The reviews of any kind of entertainment should be entertaining themselves. Not light—you can be weighty and entertaining, and that’s the challenge of your job, that’s what you’re paid to figure out how to do.
Coulbourn started as a movie critic, but after a couple of years realized that he didn’t want to “be part of even an alternate reality that gets saved by Sylvester Stalone or Arnold Schwarzenegger.” Yes, there are good movies, he concedes, but the percentage of good vs. bad is lower than in any other artistic discipline. He’s obviously kept the cheek and has no qualms classifying entertainment/art in order of greatness. He puts literature on top (“I have travelled the world by the time I was sixteen without ever leaving home”), and close to it the performing arts: theatre, opera, ballet, dance, concerts. Down the spectrum are good movies and “right at the bottom, television, which is basically furniture”. How refreshing to hear this in an age when the media put so many resources into covering TV shows, both here and the US. We are in the Golden Age of Television Drama, we are repeatedly being told. Netflix and HBO have become words of religious import. “I don’t get why the performing arts aren’t the go-to entertainment of our day,” he says. “I want to be in the world where you can have your heart broken by a great story, or a magnificent aria, or breath-taking pas de deux. You go to a performance because it can change your life. And I think we should always go to the theatre with a bit of that expectation. That’s how theatre should be sold.”
And so our conversation returns to the barriers that keep some demographics away from the theatre, opera and classical music. He spent his writing career at a paper perceived to be ‘blue collar’—and we both wondered how accurate that was and wished there were studies of the readership of each of the Toronto dailies. I suggest that beside the lack of disposable income, there’s the perhaps an even more important psychological barrier that prevents the low earning or the less educated audience from realizing that the so called elite arts are for them as much as for anybody else. And that perhaps the first task of arts journalism is this question of class and the opening of the doors. “I couldn’t agree more,” he says. “I was so lucky, I had one of the finest editors in the world—Kathy Brooks—who transitioned from being my editor to being one of my best friends. She’s now retired, but she was Assistant Entertainment Editor at the Sun, and she loved all of the arts, high and low. The one thing that she hated more than anything was when the writers get too inside baseball. When you appear to be writing only for a certain percentage of people who already understand the issues. And not writing like that can be really difficult. I mean, you sit down to review a great tragedy and how could you not be all inside baseball. But that’s what you get paid for.”
“The other end of it is, you can’t review that great tragedy so that people who’ve studied tragedy would dismiss you. So you’re constantly juggling. And that’s the fun. That’s the tightrope walking.”
Why then, I wonder out loud, is it that the Toronto dailies (not to mention the CBC) have stopped cultivating critics. No media in Canada now lets someone spend all her or his time consuming art, studying the beat, perfecting the craft. Opera and classical criticism are assigned ad hoc to freelancer(s) of choice who are either kept on a meagre contract or are engaged pitch by randomly accepted pitch. Coulbourn seems to be one of the last in the generation of art critics who worked and retired at a media organization that was willing seriously to invest in them. “Arts commentary is a really vital component for any art scene”, he says. There is no art scene without the records of that art scene. “And when the Toronto papers reduce space for art coverage, they’re cutting local, Canadian content. They’re cutting the only thing that distinguishes them from People magazine, TMZ and Perez Hilton.”
What was his approach to reviewing, I wanted to know. I tell him that I don’t review a lot but when I do it’s usually for my blog, where I allow myself wildly idiosyncratic reviews meant to be read by my couple of hundred returning readers and subscribers. In order to avoid lambasting somebody, I skip mentioning them at all. In a big, mainstream media review, none of this is allowed. You’re performing public service, and you simply have to cover all the principals of the cast and the creative. What are his principles of reviewing?
“My saving grace might have been the fact that I learned very early on that you should never write anything that you wouldn’t say to somebody’s face.” In other words, when buttonholed at a party by somebody who disagrees with you, or is the person’s sibling, or is the person himself, you need to be prepared to stand by your argument. “That, and the fact that in what we do, there is no right or wrong.” And there’s no true and untrue, I riff – maybe we should even drop fair and unfair in artistic judgment? “I think we should keep fairness as an ideal,” he demurs. “I can’t think of any critic who’s been consistently fair, but some of the best have always tried to be.”
And what does he do about going negative? “If you absolutely hated somebody’s performance, I’d try to express it in the fewest words possible in the funniest way possible. Do it briefly, and soften the edge with humour.”
Coulbourn is currently mentoring a group of young people interested in becoming art critics: he’s collaborating with the National Ballet and a dance magazine in a program for the emerging dance writers. They’re often told to read everything they can about dance, and to that Coulbourn always adds “Read everything you can”, period. “If you want to review a dance performance, and your only frame of reference is dance…you’re going to miss a lot,” he says.
And you won’t just be taking your knowledge of theatre (opera, or ballet) with you–you will take all of you, and you will use all of you to write the review. Which is excellent but also occasionally gets in the way. He remembers his impassioned reaction after seeing the musical Carousel for the first time. “I’ve reviewed it then and will never ever review it again. It’s got some beautiful music and a most hateful story. The short story on which it’s based is about Billy Bigelow who gets a second chance, comes back to earth, hits his daughter, and goes to hell. Rodgers and Hammerstein thought that wasn’t American, so they did a rewrite or two. In their musical, the daughter says to her mother, ‘Is it possible for someone to hit you and for you not to feel a thing,’ and the mother: ‘Yes, if you love them.’ The logical thing would be to do away with that part if you’re staging the piece today. Because you can hear every wife abuser and child abuser go, “SEE? I told you” after that scene. My dad loved me, but that’s not the point, he damn near killed me on numerous occasions. I was an abused child and I know that even if the person who’s hitting you loves you, it still hurts.”
Did he manage to say any of that in the review, I ask him. “That particular review I think I blew,” he says. “I just said this should never be done. I was so upset. Like I said: you take all of you.”
Oftentimes the readers who disagreed with his opinion would write letters along the lines of “Mr. Coulbourn obviously didn’t see the same show that we did”. His response to that is always: of course not. “Everybody saw a different show. Theatre happens half way between the stage and the person in the seat. The actors do the broad strokes, you do the shading.”
What about managing praise, how is the critic to control his or her enthusiasms? JC recommends staying away from hyperbole. Anything along the lines of “Best in the world”, “best in the country” or even “best within a very specific category X” is silly and just about always baseless. “One of the worst fights I had at the Sun was when they asked me to do the Top Ten Canadian Plays of all time. To which I said, Fuck you. But how hard can that be, they asked. It’s impossible, I said, I haven’t read, let alone seen all Canadian plays. Oh but the movie critics didn’t give us any grief, they said. Well, that’s their problem. It’s presumptuous to say top ten of anything. If really pressed, I can choose top ten personal favourites. And one of them would be singing ‘O, Canada’ before the National Ballet performance the day after the 1995 referendum, when everybody in the audience really noticed the line ‘God keep our land’ and gasped and sighed collectively. Life is theatre.”
Toronto, November 2015
I did press JC for a handful of his personal standouts, and this is what he said:
Why didn’t anyone think of this before? I Capuleti e i Montecchi as a lesbian love story crossing two Southern Italian crime families.
A Landestheater Niederbayern production.
I just returned from Stratford, went to see this play by Michel Marc Bouchard — only three more performances left before they close the almost-sold-out run. Highly recommended. Jenny Young is to be added to the Best of En Travesti, opera or spoken theatre, no question.
More info, booking and more photos HERE.
Photo captions & credits as above, Claire Lautier (left) as Countess Ebba Sparre and Jenny Young as Christina. Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Let’s hope that we will be able to see When the Sun Comes Out properly staged and orchestrated for at least a handful of instruments in the near future. (AtG, I’m looking at you?) Vancouver has seen the work staged (albeit minimalistically) and orchestrated for single violin, flute, clarinet cello and the piano and conducted by the composer Leslie Uyeda herself. All the thanks should go to Tapestry for bringing the concert version to Toronto.
It is a work that breaks new grounds, thematically, and opens up new ways of talking about love and the gendering within the couple. Leslie Uyeda’s music is consistently on edge and dissonant, without a single sentimental or sappy note. The only remotely post-Romantic sounding passage is when the two female protagonists kiss for the first time (I take it it’s much more than just kissing in the staged version), which sounds appropriately reminiscent of Der Rosenkavalier. There are moments of romantic relief here and there, but Uyeda thankfully steered clear of ‘beautiful melodies’ (of the kind found, say, in Rufus Wainwright’s Primadonna and will likely be found in his future COC opera). Uyeda is a composer who doesn’t compose as if the twentieth century never happened—nor as if there’s a lurking harmony and a key resolution to two women loving each other. It’s always complicated, the music doesn’t cease to remind us, never easy. Notably, there are no duos between the lovers, no singing in thirds for the Monteverdi dykes in the audience like myself. There is no escaping the harsh realities.
Props to music director Maika’i Nash who had the task of conveying the complexities of the score with only the piano at his disposal.
The libretto itself, I felt, needs the staging to come into full effect. Also, the surtitles. Poet Rachel Rose probably wrestled over every word, and those words should be known even when the soprano hangs out in the top of the top of her register. If we look at it as the text for a full-blown operatic piece, the libretto is not particularly convincing. (Not many operatic librettos make sense, I know, but many do within their own unique parameters.) A wandering heroine from a freer territory falls in love with a citizen of an oppressive country where same-sex love is punishable by death. The local woman is married, has children and many more constraints upon her freedom. What works really well is that the story reads semi-mythic, semi-all-too-recognizable—there are long thoughtful monologues recollecting past actions and brooding over the impossible future that bring to mind Tristan und Isolde, but there are also moments of the easily recognizable present. So far, so good.
The emergence of the husband and his attempt at murder after having caught them in flagrante and the subsequent emotional dissolution into confessing his own past same-sex love and loss… I’m still not sure what to make of that. Perhaps the idea was to show that the heteronormative patriarchy punishes equally its daughters and its sons? And I get that. But his quick switch from a brute to a crying mess is a bit too convenient a solution.
But perhaps we shouldn’t look for a typical full-blown operatic libretto in Rose’s text—perhaps it is, as one reviewer suggested, a dramatic poem more than a drama; and perhaps it is closer, as I kept thinking while watching it, to the melodramatic one-acters like Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine. In which case, with a lot of things abstracted out, a lot distilled to the one to three characters, and a touch of absurd here and there, it would be a good representative of the family.
Teiya Kasahara, for whom Uyeda wrote the character of Solana, displayed her usual stage charisma and sang (owned!) an extremely high role with great stamina. Solana is not a particularly complex character—she is angry, brave, wanderlust-y, reckless, never doubtful, always demanding, from the beginning till the end. Lilah, however, now there’s a novel in there somewhere. Stephanie Yelovich gave us a complex portrait of a human in an existential crisis, who can lose everything by loving who she loves. Her voice—and I am guessing the role tessitura–was a shade darker and lower than Solana’s and a respite next to Solana’s relentlessness and moral certitudes. (The Vancouver Lilah was a mezzo, NB.) The two women were good together, and what was also unique about this performance was that the kissing and the making out were devoid of the awkwardness between two straight singers that’s frequently seen on mainstream stage. If their music wasn’t easily harmonious, their bodies were, and very natural with one another.
A very special mention should go to Keith Lam who brilliantly acted and sang the character of the husband. The dude almost stole the show. (And he was tasked with inhabiting an implausible character, so imagine the degree of accomplishment.)
To sum up: WTSCO is an exciting new chamber opera-poem with great potential, deserving a serious staging or two.
Kasahara, Yelovich, Lam. Photo by Avenue One.
Der Freischütz (The Marksman) by Carl Maria von Weber (1821), libretto by Johann Friedrich Kind. Conductor David Fallis, director Marshall Pynkoski, choreography Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg. Principals are Krešimir Špicer (Max), Meghan Lindsay (Agathe), Vasil Garvanliev (Kaspar), Carla Huhtanen (Äanchen). Full cast and creative, plus dates and tickets here.
One of the earliest of the German Romantic operas, The Marksman is today rarely performed outside Germany, and after seeing it revived in the new OA production, I have some idea why.
Its first two acts chug along fine, but the third act’s inadvertently funny missed bullet, followed by the death of the villain, followed by the chorus to the Heavens, make the entire work a thoroughly alien type of soap opera. Unless, that is, it is radically reimagined in a staging by a brave director – though I’m not sure that would help either. (There are a few DVD recordings available: one from ’68, one more recent by Ruth Berghaus, from Hamburg in contemporary clothes this one, and one or two others). But Opera Atelier, as we know, is not the business of asking the question “What does this work tell us about our own time.” Pynkoski remains faithful to the idea of the ‘original intent of the composer’ and to employing the staging devices available at the time of the creation (or his stylization of the same). Lajeunesse Zingg continues to research and employ period choreography; it’s really interesting to read her program notes each time, but the dancing to a non-expert eye looks exactly the same from one OA production to another. Many other aesthetic choices keep recurring from production to production: beefcake in every scene, gestural (non)acting, the cut of women’s costumes, the tights and the codpieces in male costumes, the painted ‘period’ set. The OA also always works with the same conductor. Their donors apparently like this state of the affairs, and so do their subscribers, so my outsider dissent doesn’t really matter all that much.
The first two acts before the intermission are actually solid – the liveliest part of the production, with fewer of the usual OA mannerisms, and some elements of the unexpected. The warm-timbred tenor Krešimir Špicer is in his usual fine vocal form and he is even allowed to act a little beyond the gesturalism as the disconsolate Max who keeps losing at target practice. He is soon to take part in the marksmanship competition in order to win the hand of the beloved Agathe, and worried that the bad luck will continue, falls under the influence of a shady character Kaspar (baritone Vasil Garvanliev) who promises to supply him with infallible bullets, provided he pays in kind. Macedonian bari Garvanliev has an incredibly rich, resonant and (when called for) beautiful voice. His voice was one of the best things of the entire production. His acting – Pynkoski, I’m blaming you – was one of the worst. Kaspar, rather than being any shade of ominous, is campy to the point of hysteria, and completely undermines the seriousness of the dark side in this tale of darkness vs. light. Kaspar, in the tale, has known and traded with the Devil, and is running out of time, which is why he concocts this scheme with Max. Kaspar, in the OA production, is Jack from Will and Grace.
Both men have plenty of chance to shine vocally, the tenor getting a sad aria, the bari singing an incantation song and the closing aria “Silence, let no one warn him” (Garvanliev in full splendor, if you can ignore the hand-clasp, hand-to-the-sky gesturing). There is also a chorus of villagers, a trio, dance numbers of course, and much else, including the on-stage violin solo by Aisslinn Nosky.
Act 2 opens in women’s quarters, with Äanchen (Carla Huhtanen) leading the happenings with great comic flourish. She is the more practical and infinitely funnier – also a lighter soprano — ladyfriend to Meghan Lindsay’s Agathe. The two women are finely cast, and Lindsay’s voice has a very different, somewhat metallic colour, certainly appealing and certainly heavier in capacity, as her character is darker. The banter from Äanchen about boys she is attracted to could have been written today. Her comic mode continues even after Max arrives for a rendez-vous with Agatha.
After a change of scene, we are at the Wolf’s Glen, where Kaspar and Max are supposed to meet Kaspar’s underworld connection, actually Satan himself, here under the name of Samiel. Max has visions that prevent him coming down to join Kaspar. As Gerard Gauci explains in his Set Designer Notes, for these he used the period theatrical device called Fantascope, which projects images into walls and screens. The images projected do produce some creepiness, although the same and more would have been achieved with a regular overhead projector à la Daniel Barrow. The dancers who come in with the long waves of cloth and the choreography distract from the dread. The casting of the bullets, however, works really well: a flame consisting of human of hands comes out from under the stage and precisely to the music, each time one of the hand remains and gives the ring to Kaspar.
The less said about the naked Beefcake Satan (admirably stoic Curtis Sullivan), the better.
Intermission follows, and after it, we are back at Agathe’s room, where she is telling Äanchen about a nightmare she had. Von Weber reduced orchestration to strings here, and the setting becomes very intimate. The star of the much of this part of opera is the cello in the pit, which was the primary mover and colour-provider for most of what was happening. (Violas? Sounded like one cello to me, but I’d have to check the score to be sure.) Back up on the stage, it seems that Pynkoski doesn’t like the idea of leaving the two women without male presence for a minute, so we get the dancer/butler who watches over the two friends in silence, just like in the act 2.
It’s downhill from there. The competition takes place, Max misses and the bullet ends up going in the direction of the falling Agathe. Everybody weeps and mourns gesturally, until Agathe comes to, and the crowd parts to reveal the wounded Kaspar, whose buddy Samiel finally gets his payback. All is revealed and Max’s lack of faith and constancy publicly excoriated until a Wise Hermit (a really good bass, Gustav Andreassen) emerges from the crowd to remind them that clemency is among the highest virtues, that he who is without sin should cast the first stone, and so on. Let us all praise the Heavens Above, that are clement to us, he sings, and everybody points to the sky and sings. Agathe’s father promises to end the shootouts as a practice of testing valour. There is a nice sextet at the end, but it is drowned in the glaring ultra-conservative ideology of the scene.
Those who are already OA devotees will like this production as something a little bit different but safely within the permanently preset parameters of the OA aesthetic. Others can enjoy the two first acts as competently done escapism, and scratch their heads over the rest, and then the nature of this work, and how it could be credibly staged today.
Glorious find: comedienne/conductor Sue Perkins explores the life of Anne Lister, a Regency landowner who left a coded diary recording her sexual encounters and love affairs with “the fairer sex.” She also managed to get married to a woman. In a church. A fantastic documentary with not a trace of Regency-stalgia, with interviews with Amanda Vickery (of Behind Closed Doors fame), Helena Whitbread (who was the first historian ever to manage to publish the notorious diaries in the eighties), Margaret Reynolds, and more.
Run, don’t walk to see this (also because when the Beeb notices, it will act). Part one: