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.

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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.)

 

What was that?

Alternate title for this concert review: Is Brian Current turning to religious mysticism and why??

Also: WTAF was that, Samy Moussa?

But let’s proceed.

21C, the reliably stimulating and boundary-pushing new music festival, opened last night at RCM’s Koerner Hall with concert that was a bit of a mixed bag, program-wise and in execution. Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and its music director Johannes Debus gave us a world premiere – Brian Current’s Naka / Northern Lights – and a selection of recent works by Unsuk Chin, Samy Moussa, Matthew Aucoin and Current. Mezzo Emily D’Angelo sang with verve the wittiest part of the program, Chin’s snagS&Snarls, the song-studies for what was to be Chin’s Alice in Wonderland opera which was premiered at the Bavarian State Opera in 2007. Two songs were particularly captivating: “The Tale-Tail of the Mouse”, with voice required to writhe and wind itself down as if through a mouse hole, and “Speak roughly to your little boy”, with some well-managed screaming that grows in intensity. There were, however, serious issues with the voice-orchestra balance, and most of the cycle D’Angelo found herself drowned by the orchestra. The intricate textual lace of “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” was completely erased and there was very little voice heard amid the fervent orchestra.

D’Angelo was much better heard in Matthew Aucoin’s dramatic cantata on the theme of Orpheus, The Orphic Moment (2014). Hearing it sung by a mezzo is a treat: the history of the piece shows a countertenor singing the role every time. Aucoin assigned the role of Eurydice to the first violin (here the COC Orchestra’s concertmaster Marie Bérard) and there were some exquisite moments of attempted communication and unbridgeable distance between the voice and the instrument in the Moment. Composer’s notes in the program hint at a flippant, hubristic Orpheus, but it wasn’t possible to observe those nuances without the text which was, you discover after a good chunk of time into the performance looking for it, left out of the booklet.

Brian Current’s Naka, a northern lights-themed work for orchestra, choir and narrator, came out of the composer’s residence in the Northwest Territories and his collaboration with the Tłı̨chǫ First Nation (in anglicized spelling: Tlicho). Richard Van Camp, who also wrote the libretto, narrated the text in Tlicho and English. Rosa Mantla, a Tlicho Elder, translated the text and was the pronunciation coach for the Elmer Iseler Singers choir. It is a serene, playful, occasionally droll, animated through-and-through piece, set up as a conversation between the Tlicho-speaking choir and the bilingual narrator. Van Camp’s twinkle-in-the-eye delivery was a particularly effective foil to the choir’s more ghostly character that spoke as forces of nature.

Current’s second piece in the program I found, at best, puzzling. Is Current taking a mystical turn? He of all composers, who is often heard saying that what contemporary music does best is trying to explore and express how we live our lives today? The composer is, we learn from the program, at work on a multi-movement cycle The River of Light with the texts of several religious traditions (Hindu, Christian, First Nations Canadian – which was Naka – Sufi, etc.) “that describe mystical journeys towards an exalted state.” The Seven Heavenly Halls from the concert program was composed on the texts from a particularly mystical book of the Kabbalah. The passage through the heavenly halls is the passage of a man through the levels of  heavenly exaltation. Or something? Reader, I lost interest halfway through the program note, and the music didn’t manage to draw me back in at any turn. The music, alas, sounds almost programmatic: vast, swelling, spirit-rousing sounds, meant to evoke solemnity, meant to be epic; suitable enough for a religious ceremony. Tenor Andrew Haji maintained a modicum of individuality and pushed through amid all the choral and orchestral solemnity, but not even his precise and warm – if occasionally drowned by the orchestra – tenor could breathe life into this religious painting. My first question to composers eager to explore this or that side of religion in their new work is Why? If most of western choral music is religious already, and where are we, the non-religious, to go?

But then there was the Samy Moussa piece in the program, the orchestral non-concerto cheekily titled Kammerkonzert which he wrote ten years ago, just before he left Montreal for Berlin. My Samy Moussa luck has been such that whenever I happen to attend a concert containing a piece by him, that piece will be unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. This happened again last night. Kammerkonzert is a series of sound explosions multiplying into a theatre of war that is somehow contained within a symphonic orchestra of unamplified instruments. This comes nowhere near exhausting its interpretation – and another person would probably tell you they heard something different – but I witnessed something akin to a camera zooming out from sporadic shots to a bird’s eye view of an out-and-out battlefield.

Or were we thrust in a particularly noisy cacophony of a large city, distilled to its harshest sound essence? Or should we abandon the imagery and the narrative altogether, and take Kammerkonzert as a visceral sound onslaught to be experienced and not overanalyzed? I hope I get a chance to hear it again in some form and make up my mind – or abandon any attempt to contain it in words.

First published on The Wholenote website

 

The Cav does it again

Even though only his La Calisto is now performed with regularity, Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676) was a prolific operatic composer. Elena, one of a handful of his other operas making cross-century comeback, was first revived in 2013 and we are lucky that the Toronto Consort nimbly followed suit and programmed it as their opera-in-concert this season. The printed program adapts the opera’s title as Helen of Troy, but it might have been more accurate to call it Helen Before Troy, as the libretto invents the shenanigans around the kidnapping of the mythical Helen before she was married to the Mycenaean king Menelaus (of Iliad and Odyssey fame), from whom she was later to be abducted by Paris of Troy. The original story of Helen’s marriage to Menelaus is a more sedate affair involving the drawing of straws—attention, I am about to compare the “official” Greek mythology line with its Italian baroque riff, I love my job—and therefore not particularly useful to the early opera. Librettists of Elena Nicolò Minato and Giovanni Faustini needed a much wilder story of how Menelaus and Helen ended up together, so they created one.

Men in dresses are not unheard of in Greco-Roman mythology (see Achilles on Skyros) but there are more to be found in Italian baroque opera. Menelaus of Elena spends most of the time cross-dressed as an extraordinarily muscular Amazon who impresses young Helen with her wrestling prowess and becomes her intimate. Both of them, helpless women that they are, get abducted by Theseus (who also has a yen for Helen) and his sidekick Pirithous (who casts his eye on “Elisa” the Amazon) and are brought to the court of King Creon. There, Creon’s son Menestheus—you guessed it—also falls for Helen, and we learn that Theseus is actually already engaged to Hippolyta, who is one of those low-voiced, no-nonsense, sword-wielding women in the style of the female knight Bradamante of the Italian epic poems on the adventures of Orlando. Intrigues ensue. Helen finally decides that of all the suitors she prefers Menelaus—who finally comes out as a man—and Theseus returns to Hippolyta.

Musically too, Elena is an entertaining hodgepodge of comedic and solemn elements. The required instrumentation can be as small as half a dozen people at most points, one or two melody instruments against the basic continuo. (For a more luxurious sound with a bigger period ensemble, see the 2013 DVD of Elena from Aix-en-Provence with Cappella Mediterranea in the pit.) In the Toronto Consort’s version, Lucas Harris (theorbo), Felix Deak (cello) and Paul Jenkins (harpsichord) made up the continuo, which was joined, as required, by violins (Patricia Ahern and Julia Wedman) or recorders (Alison Melville and Colin Savage). Bud Roach, a one-man show as the court fool Iro, both sang and played baroque guitar.

There are five pants roles inherited from the castrati roles in Elena, and for this fan of pants roles that is not a small thing. TC’s music director and conductor David Fallis honoured all but one: Menelaus is sung by a tenor (Kevin Skelton), while Pirithous, Menestheus, Castor and Pollux were all indeed sung by women—Vicki St. Pierre, Katherine Hill, Emma Hannan and Veronika Anissimova respectively. Kevin Skelton, luckily, has a beautiful and agile tenor voice that made this Menelaus rather a good catch. His cross-dressing was achieved by way of a Wonderwoman apron. Cory Knight’s Theseus was paired with the ever reliable and the velvetiest mezzo of the TC ensemble, Laura Pudwell. That this Hippolyta was slightly older than her betrothed added a welcome May to December (or should I say, Emmanuel Macron-ian?) dimension to the story.

Mezzo Vicki St. Pierre’s pinpoint dexterity with melismas was back in town (the singer now lives and teaches in New Brunswick) for a spirited take on Pirithous. The young Emma Hannan and Veronika Anissimova were an intriguingly girly take on brothers Castor and Pollux, who happen to stop by Creon’s Tegea on their way from capturing the Golden Fleece. Their voices were bright and youthful.

Delicate sopranos are a mainstay of Toronto’s early music scene, which favours l’esprit de corps (those sopranos often play one or more period instruments too) to individual vocal vim. Oftentimes a pretty, light, vibrato-less voice is all one needs for particular pieces; but sometimes I wish the music director looked further from his usual pool of voices. Katherine Hill was somewhat underpowered as Menestheus who needed more vocal heft to come alive. Michele deBoer made a fine if at times pale Helen, the arm wrestling scene with Kevin Skelton notwithstanding.

But no matter: all said and done, this Elena was a big treat. David Fallis’ translation of the libretto, projected in the form of supertitles, added entertaining contemporary touches at many a turn. And when the voices were called to come together, as in the choir of the Argonauts, we were given moments of breath-taking beauty. I kept thinking how wonderful it would be to see this staged (by a company other than Opera Atelier). Directors coming out of Toronto’s independent opera scene—Anna Theodosakis, Aria Umezawa, Amanda Smith, the Applin sisters—your turn.

Review first appeared in the Wholenote online.

My First Art of Song column in The Wholenote

Sapphic February

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.

gustave_courbet_-_le_sommeil_1866_paris_petit_palais
Painter Gustave Courbet was one of the many French lesbophile artists from the mid to latter half of the nineteenth century. This painting is called Le Sommeil (1866).

More ROH at HotDocs Cinema

opera_norma_1
Sonya Yoncheva as Norma

ROH returns to Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in December. Here’s the schedule:

Saturday, December 3, 12:00 PM Norma (directed by La Fura dels Baus’ Alex Olle) with Sonya Yoncheva in the title role. It’s the one in which Druids are replaced by a ferocious, women-ordaining Catholic sect.  Sonia Ganassi is Adalgisa, Joseph Calleja Pollione. Antonio Pappano conducts. More info.

Saturday, December 10, 11:00 AM Cosi fan tutte by German director Jan Phillip Gloger, conducted by Semyon Bychkov. With Angela Brower (Dorabella), Corinne Winters (Fiordiligi), Daniel Behle (Ferrando), Alessio Arduini (Guiglielmo). More info.

Friday, December 30, 11:30 AM Les Contes d’Hoffmann by John Schlesinger. Vittorio Grigòlo in the title role, Thomas Hampson doing the four villains, Christine Rice as Giulietta, Sonya Yoncheva is Antonia, Sofia Fomina is Olympia, Kate Lindsey is Nicklausse. Evelino Pidò conducts. More.

Tickets for the general public are $16 (members $12 and down).

In Conversation: Varduhi Abrahamyan, mezzo-soprano

The first time I heard Varduhi Abrahamyan sing was back in 2013 in Paris, at the Salle Pleyel, in a Johanespassion with Concerto Koeln conducted by Laurence Equilbey. It was easy to spot a singular voice: hers is a plush velvety yet nimble coloratura voice that makes you sit up and pay attention. That St. John Passion remains a favourite (thanks to the good person who captured and uploaded much of the France Musique-streamed audio recording onto YouTube), including of course Abrahamyan’s Es ist vollbracht.

The French mezzo of Armenian origin has a busy cross-European career and is covering quite the range of historic repertoire: there aren’t many singers whose repertoire spans Monteverdi to Verdi. It was a treat to discover last year that she would be appearing as Polinesso in the Richard Jones-directed Ariodante at the COC this season, which marks her Canadian, Toronto and COC debut. While researching for this article, I discovered that she would be coming back to the COC, in a production of Onegin in 2018. (The Carsen, possibly?)

We talked in French (with short trips into Italian and English) in her change room at the Four Seasons Centre this past Friday afternoon. She told me she hasn’t seen much of the city yet, but that the three-day window opening before the final performance will finally allow her to see some of it at leisure.

verduhi_abrahamyan_1

How do you make this Richard Jones Polinesso living and breathing and credible?

At first I was taken aback by his level of villainy. To this degree, really? Then later I realized it would be impossible to do the character in any other way. You really have to take him on, go inside his skin, for him to work as a character for the audience. I’ll go as far as the role demands. And with this one I’m having fun. He’s changing all the time to hide his true self. He’s very proper, an angel practically, while wearing his cassock—and opposite when he takes it off. So the singer needs to interpret that. And you can’t do it half-heartedly. Much of the plotline depends on Polinesso being the way he is. He’s scheming all the time. I try to imagine and convey what it must be like to live a double life in that way.

He gets some good music, though.

Polinesso’s arias… well, to tell you the truth, there’s not much cantabile to enjoy in there. His music matches his character.

The first one is kinda nice, “Coperta la frode”.

Yeah, it’s OK. Not bellissima, nobody will be moved to tears. It corresponds to the character.

The last one, “Se l’inganno sortisce felice” has some mad coloratura. And you have to sing it all while jumping up and down on Ginevra’s bed.

It isn’t easy, but I am having fun with it now. With this Polinesso there’s a lot of personality to work with. I have to say I prefer roles that come with an interesting character, rather than those that are sort of in the same tone from beginning to end—even if they may be “positive” characters.

Was this a role debut?

No. I have a long history with the role. The very first time I’ve sung Handel on stage was a Polinesso in Geneva, at the Grand Théâtre de Genève. My agent called me to audition in Switzerland—in about 2005?—and that was the first one I was cast in. The COC one will be the last. It’s good to leave the role behind while you’re still having fun with it.

When you have to say no to a role, for what reason is it usually?

I first look at whether the role suits my voice, and whether it’s a character that I’d like to work on. I love theatre and the theatrical side of opera, and it’s important to put equal emphasis on both the musical and the theatrical side. I also like roles that allow me to evaluate and expand the repertoire. Gradually, though: qui va piano, va sano, va lontano.

Verdi is OK at this juncture?

Yes, I sing it already. I’ll be in a Fastaff in Paris soon, I’ve sung in Nabucco already… Rather, when I have to refuse a role, it’s because I think I can do it justice, say, in a few years’ time. Every role I take, I want to perform at the absolute top level. I don’t want to do things at an adequate level, I want to be among the best.

And you’ve already worked with some of the most important directors today. You were part of the already cult Alcina by Christof Loy in Zurich. Cecilia Bartoli, Malena Ernmann and Varduhi Abrahamyan in a love triangle: it doesn’t get better than that.

I love that production so much and I love working with Christof Loy.

There won’t be a DVD?

No, but we’re doing a revival in Zurich this coming December and January, and after that we’ll do it at Covent Garden, and at Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, same production and much of the same cast, with Cecilia Bartoli returning. We all really enjoyed that one.

Varduhi Abrahamyan as Bradamante in the Christof Loy-directed Alcina, Zurich 2015. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
Varduhi Abrahamyan as Bradamante in the Zurich Alcina directed by Christof Loy, 2015. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

You also sang Dalila in a Fura dels Baus production in Valencia?

That was with the wonderful Gregory Kunde as Samson. It was a modern production; a revival from Rome, I think, with a few little changes. I like Samson et Dalila as an opera and it was a pleasure to meet with Gregory again. First time we sang together was in La Donna del Lago at Theater an der Wien, which was directed by Christof Loy, in 2011.

You were Malcolm?

Yes, and just before I came to Toronto, I sang Malcolm in Pesaro. Great production by Damiano Michieletto, with a great conductor Michele Mariotti, and an amazing cast. There will be a DVD release. It was an unforgettable experience. I like Malcolm a lot. I’ll sing the role again at the Marseille Opera in 2018—I hope it’s OK to say this since you mentioned my COC return already–right after the Onegin at the COC. It’s back-to-back all the time. We close Ariodante on November 4; my flight back is November 5, I arrive November 6, unpack, and two days later, on November 8, I pack again and go to Palermo to sing Carmen. [laughs] It’s an interesting life.

Where is home?

In France, in Marseille – for about sixteen years now. France opened its doors to me, it believed in me. First contract for any opera house that I signed was for Opéra de Paris, for a Maddalena in Rigoletto. I was born and grew up in Armenia but moved to France in 2000, and I love it a lot too. Armenia and France, for me that’s like one’s the mother, the other one’s the father. Both are in my heart. I try to make it back to Armenia once a year at least.

You were also Goffredo in Robert Carsen’s Rinaldo at Glyndebourne, in the production set at a boarding school?

We spent about two months in Glyndebourne, back in 2010. That was my first collaboration with Carsen. I really like his openness. His ideas for characters are malleable enough to include the personality of the singer – singer’s own contribution. There’s the character, and then there’s the singer taking it on, and in some productions I guess you can adopt the given character because you are required to, and that’s where the conversation ends, but the acting then comes across as automatic. The audience will notice. The audience notices everything, the smallest movements, the look in the eyes, everything. We are naked on stage. And I will always be me and the character at the same time. And Carsen is a director who knows how to connect the two.

What about Bob Wilson’s L’Incoronazione, then? That must have been a whole different school of thought.

Ha, well yes. When it comes to movement, you don’t get to choose your own. We had something like the “I am sad” posture and the “I am happy” posture [she demonstrates] and it ends there. Nobody is to touch anybody else. Every cast member is placed at a very specific spot, we all share the same limited number of gestures, and  the lighting is extremely important. When you look at the production from the audience and as a whole, it works; I had great feedback from the audience, but for us, there isn’t a whole lot we can do on stage. We express our inner lives through the look in our eyes – and through the music and the text, of course. Since it was Monteverdi, the text was very important, and it all came together. Not sure if it would in every other opera; I can’t imagine a Carmen by Bob Wilson, for example. But with Monteverdi, with the text and the eyes, it was like Стихотворение: sung poetry.

You sang Ottone?

Yes. Again, a man.

Do pants roles give more freedom to the singer?

Not quite, but I enjoy each one of them a lot. In Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini directed by Terry Gilliam I sang Ascanio (Rome/Amsterdam/ENO co-production). Now that production was nothing short of a film. And I was pretty masculine in it too.

Varduhi Abrahamyan in Benvenuto Cellini.
Varduhi Abrahamyan as Ascanio in Benvenuto Cellini. Photo: Yasuko Kageyama

And Arsace?

Musical writing for that role is fabulous. The duos, his character, I love everything about it. I’ve done it a few times and will do it again, in Pesaro, again with Maestro Mariotti in a couple of years.

You also sang Adalgisa?

Yes, with Mariella Devia. When I found out that she would sing Norma, there was some serious fangirling happening on my part.

And then there’s the Bieito Carmen waiting for you early next year in Paris.

Yes! I saw the photos from the production, and am very excited about it. It’s a favourite, Carmen. Rich in character, a strong woman who knows how to love, who’s not afraid of anybody and is ready to risk everything to be true to her heart. She needs somebody next to her who will match her strength, but… in opera as in real life, men don’t particularly like strong women. I don’t know if you’ll agree?

Good grief, yes, absolutely. In all areas of life, as we can see these days.

I sang Carmen at the Bolshoi, and in Toulon, and also in Hamburg, last year. I have a lot of Carmens in the future.

And your foray into contemporary opera was Akhmatova composed by Bruno Mantovani?

Yes, that was the world premiere of the work at the Opera Bastille. And it’s impressive – and different when the composer is around and in the same room as you. There was lots to learn. Lots of changes of tempi… The work was well received. There should be a recording somewhere, at least the audio.

More contemporary music on the agenda?

Not in the near future. I like music that lets me interpret, add nuances. I love music that lets me play with colours. But in contemporary music that’s not often the case. Everything is planned and everything must be followed precisely. Perhaps a singer should make that choice early on, to focus on contemporary music and specialize there, or to dedicate herself to the historic repertoire.

Everybody should do what they do best. I like to set the bar for my singing and acting as high as possible, and bring something new with my interpretation. It’s the same with conductors and stage directors. We’re always trying to inch the bar higher. I am working on myself as a singer all the time, it’s a job that never ends.

You can still catch Ariodante on its closing night on November 4 at the COC.

Top and bottom photos courtesy IMG Artists.

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Ariodante by Richard Jones

Jane Archibald (seated L), Alice Coote (seated R), the puppeteers and the COC Chorus in Ariodante, 2016. Photo: Michael Cooper
Jane Archibald (seated L), Alice Coote (seated R), Johannes Weisser (standing next to Coote), the puppeteers and the COC Chorus in Ariodante, 2016. Photo: Michael Cooper

Richard Jones’s Ariodante (COC/DNO/Aix/LOC) is a very good production of a very feeble opera. It pains me to say this about a Handel opera that contains two of the best mezzo arias of all time, and a dazzling soprano-mezzo duo at the end, but I think I understand now why it’s rarely staged today and likelier to be heard in concert. As much as it is salvageable as a theatrical work, however, Jones and the COC revival director Benjamin Davis pulled it off.

The story is relatively simple for a baroque opera: the marriage between the King’s daughter Ginevra and a favourite knight is called off after the groom-to-be Ariodante and his brother Lurcanio see somebody who looks like Ginevra letting another knight into her chamber. The princess is ostracized and jailed for being unchaste (!) (the fallen woman is a rare figure in the eighteenth century opera; it becomes standard by the latter half of the nineteenth), but her lady-in-waiting Dalinda admits it was her who let the intruder into the chamber. The knight who plotted the scheme is punished, and the bride and the groom reunite.

The characterization is practically non-existent; the King a little too quickly throws his beloved daughter to jail, then upon denouement forgives everybody every misdoing. Ariodante, though the primo uomo, is the character with least amount of agency who disappears and is presumed dead just as the intrigue heats up. His brother Lurcanio journeys from expressing his love for Dalinda to a slut-shaming rage towards Ginevra to the point that he will fight anybody who defends her innocence, only to like her back when her innocence is proven. Polinesso is a bundle of evil impulses—an inconsistent bundle, it turns out, since he’s the one willing to fight for “Ginevra’s honour” when Lurcanio comes sword-waving.

With such a text on hand, it must be tempting for the director to do a fantastical, camped up version in which the design team goes wild. Jones & comp. decided precisely the opposite, and found a very specific environment in which such a story may credibly happen: a remote small-town finishing and sheep-farming community (in the worst sense of  the term), a few decades back from the present time. The Scottish setting lives on in kilts and tartan, but only if you want it to; this may equally take place in Cape Breton (who here has seen New Waterford Girl?), or Ireland, the Balkans, Kyrgyzstan, India, or wherever else female virginity was or remains a matter of social concern. The set is permanent and immobile: a prominent local figure’s home with two public rooms and last one private, his daughter’s. The doors and walls dividing the three spaces are, wisely, invisible except for the locks and handles—the many comings and goings between the rooms would have otherwise turned everything into a farce. This is Richard Jones, so the take on the opera is not exactly realist and naturalist—it’s rather realist-ish, with some signature Jonesian whimsy thrown in—but its greatest success is giving the people that inhabit the story credible emotional lives and drawing out the melancholy, on occasion even tragedy, from something that seems to be offering itself as a silly story. The pastoral dances in finales are replaced by puppetry scenes, with dolls of Ariodante and Ginevra manipulated by the villagers as the real Ariodante and Ginevra look on.

Polinesso commands respect among the villagers because he’s a priest (if also secretly a Lothario in off time), and the communal obsession with female purity is fed by the preaching and the Bible quotes that he regularly serves the villagers. We’ve seen people like this, religious figures who practice the opposite of what they preach, but Jones’ Polinesso maintains much of his cartoonish nature and is the one character in the production without nuance. Varduhi Abrahamyan was very good, regardless. Her four arias were rock solid. “Se l’inganno sortisce felice” and “Dover, giustizia” in particular must be a nightmare with endless low coloraturas, but clearly not for this singer.

Varduhi Abrahamyan  and Ambur Braid (behind). Photo by Michael Cooper.
Varduhi Abrahamyan and Ambur Braid (behind). Photo by Michael Cooper.

The meatiest role of the production is Dalinda, who here is made into a maid who by virtue of her job has uncontested access to all the rooms of the household. Ambur Braid created a complex character, conflicted, manipulated, weak and defiant in turns, a perpetrator who’s also a victim herself. That this was done alongside some tremendous singing, including the insane “Neghittosi or voi che fate?” which she delivers after Polinesso’s motives are unmasked, never ceases to amaze. The earlier, “Se tanto piace al cor”, is a totally different beast: a wide-eyed andante aria on her future happiness with Polinesso. There’s gamut in this role, and Ambur uses every foot of it. Too, when she ornaments, she tends to go up; I don’t think she’s ever been next to a higher note that she didn’t like?

Another singer who more than convinced last night: Jane Archibald. I don’t get to write this often, as to me she usually comes across as a self-contained, even reserved singer, but there was nothing held back in her Ginevra, and she was as technically sharp as usual. Especially heartbreaking: “Il mio crudele martoro”, a long aria-scena taking place after she was falsely accused. The period of her communal ignominy Ginevra spends dressed in a slip, her vulnerability heightened, her body and underwear on display to the prying eyes of the Gemeinschaft.

The less said about Alice Coote in the title role, the better.

I was glad to see Johannes Weisser in a COC debut as the King, and one of my favourite young tenors anywhere, Owen McCausland, in the role of Lurcanio. The King was however underpowered last night and often covered by the orchestra, whereas Lurcanio was opposite, bold in volume while the subtlety of the coloratura suffered.

This was conductor Johannes Debus’s first Handel. He and Christopher Bagan alternate at the harpsichord, while Sylvain Bergerom mans the archlute and the baroque guitar. That’s as far as the period accents go: the rest was all modern instruments, and I wonder if some day he may try introducing some period brass here and there, for variety of colour. It’s not unheard of these days for a modern orchestra tasked with a baroque piece to include some period brassiness. Something to consider.

The tempi in best known arias were decent, nothing unusually fast or slow. Ornamenting was exercised in moderation; not sure if the conductor wrote the ornaments, if the singers improv’d them or if they were written ahead by the singer and the conductor together. Some of them did sound invented on the spot.

I’ll finish with the kudos for the added twist at the end, which is just what a thinking director should do with operas like this. Can a twist ending with Carmen saving herself and stabbing Don Jose be far behind? Here’s hoping.

Jane Archibald as Ginevra (on bed) with Alice Coote as Ariodante and Johannes Weisser as the King of Scotland (in front row). Photo: Michael Cooper
Jane Archibald as Ginevra (on bed) with Alice Coote as Ariodante and Johannes Weisser as the King of Scotland (in front row). Photo: Michael Cooper
Varduhi Abrahamyan (in background), Jane Archibald and Ambur Braid. Photo by Michael Cooper
Varduhi Abrahamyan (in background), Jane Archibald and Ambur Braid. Photo by Michael Cooper

Viewing alert: Nathalie Stutzmann & Emőke Baráth sing Handel

…to each other. In a mashup of duos and arias from various Handel operas, titled Il Duello Amoroso.

The streaming starts here at 3pm EST. In the unlikely case that it’s geoblocked (concerts usually aren’t), you know what to do (Hola, Tunnel Bear, HideMyAss or similar geomasking programs).

EDITED: Replay will be available starting August 31.

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Herheim’s Hoffmann, or sexual difference in three costumes

Herheim HOFFMANN

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.