Not sure what to think of this. Grandstanding, is my first thought. When did funding cuts help diversify anything?
I get that the board members of the majors like the COC and the TSO need diversifying. But the main job of a board member is to fund-raise for the organization — such is our art funding structure, there’s no escaping it. And what is the best connected, wealthiest demographic that can bring in most buck and best connections? Are we expecting from board rooms of large arts organizations to diversify faster than other structures, than business boardrooms, arts journalism, government (hello, City Council. Not exactly diverse, and each member elected on, like, 40 percent turnout).
If anybody’s willing to explain to me how a funding cut might achieve the desired effects of “diversifying board rooms, staff, audiences and what we see on stage”, I’m happy to listen.
On paper, it looks like hubris: how can film noir, hockey, comics and opera tolerate (let alone enhance) one another? But ten minutes into Hockey Noir, a graphic opera composed by Andre Ristic to the libretto by Cecil Castellucci and video-projected comic book panels by Kimberlyn Porter, the resistance was futile. I sat up and got drawn in; the stock characters came alive to subvert the stereotype; the music became driven, full of energy and surprising at every turn.
You know that an opera succeeds if the words, the visuals, and the music blend just so, that intangible quality that makes or breaks the piece. It almost doesn’t matter what an opera is made of or what it is ‘about’, as long as this particular alchemy happens. I have no interest in hockey nor can I fathom our obsession with it. I don’t read comic books very often and to film noir I much prefer the screwball talkies. And yet and yet, none of that mattered in this case. The libretto (Cecil Castellucci, who collaborated with Ristic on another comic book opera) uses the clichés from noir films—stock characters of the double-crossing dame and the mobster, and some cliched lines in the dialogue–which can potentially dull down the piece. But they are used knowingly, for mimetic exacerbation, and put through the wringer of the two languages, or to be more precise through the hard-boiled, lumpen and underground versions of the two languages. It’s Montreal of the 1950s, pre-Quiet Revolution, when the boss (corporate and criminal, both) indeed did speak English, if not exactly posh English, but the dominant language of the libretto is the joual, rough, rudimentary, spiked with anglicisms, and creative spelling and grammar.
To that, some singers have to add another layer: soprano Pascale Beaudin, who sings the “hotshot player” Bigowsky, has to sing in French with a heavy Anglo accent, and this tells us that Bigowsky followed the trajectory of many allophone immigrants families to Quebec: English first, then French (maybe) later. Bigowsky is, as Gretzky is too, an East European name, possibly Russian or Polish, and in one scene Beaudin/Bigowsky has a line in Russian (was it Russian?), preceded by “As my mother always said.” Another East European name gets a tangle of Anglo-Franco textual material: the mobster boss Romanov (baritone Pierre-Etienne Bergeron), who while technically a total Anglo, swears and threatens in both official languages. I have never encountered a swearing aria that relishes the words and ties them to music so effectively, let alone one in two languages, let alone one that employs Quebec’s Catholic treasure box of swears, let alone one in which the music intervenes to bleep the swear words before they’re completed.
So what happens in the opera? Well, as in many noirs, the plot is somewhat obscure, and in the event doesn’t matter all that much. The aforementioned young hotshot hockey player Bigowsky refuses to fix the Montreal-Toronto match on behalf of Romanov, who plans on putting a lot of money on a Toronto win. To avoid the consequences, and in a nod to Some Like It Hot, Bigowsky goes underground and starts dressing as a woman. His cloche hat is very much Jack Lemmon as Daphne, but without the camp and the winks – this is, thankfully, a touch darker and angstier. His best team mate Lafeuille (tenor Michiel Schrey) bonds with a fan girl who, it transpires, is a brilliant coach—in fact, Bigowsky en feminine who just can’t resist the call of the rink. The character is called Gal Friday, so Howard Hawks lovers also get a nod, as does the recurring character of the super competent female professional from the talkies like His Girl Friday. It’s raining references to opera’s own history too. The Dame/Madame Lasalle (mezzo Marie-Annick Beliveau) who’s plotting for the overthrow of Romanov gets a Queen of the Night-like aria–only grubby, low-rent and from within a deep existential crisis. Bigowsky is a trouser role in the best tradition of trouser roles, and as such of course gets a feminine attire act too so we can observe a soprano singing a man who for plot purposes cross-dresses as a woman. Another way the tradition is honoured is that Beliveau gets a romantic thing with a female singer – Madame Lasalle – and a proper seduction/recognition scene. Elsewhere in the opera, there’s a catalogue aria. Of sorts. In a thoroughly non-sexy version of a Don Giovanni standard, Lafeuille and Romanov in “Games played: 1123” list Lafeuille’s hockey stats.
Ristić’s compelling music is the circulation that keeps this work so alive at all times. Ensemble Contemporain de Montreal is on stage, a string quartet, an electronic keyboard and a set of percussion instruments, all conducted by the ECM’s AD Veronique Lacroix. As needed, the keyboard stands in for a Hammond organ, the electric instrument often heard in hockey matches of the era. The score is made up of the segments—arias, duos, ensembles—held together by detective voice-over (Jean Marchand). There’s a pervading atmospheric darkness, continuously disturbed by the forces of angular twisted sounds, unusual pairings of timbre via voice with instrument or instrument with instrument, mimetic details like the swoosh of skates against the ice and pre-recorded sounds like the crowd cheering. No film noir music is directly quoted that I could tell, so no echoes of saxophone, fortunately. Madame Lasalle’s arias involve some extended techniquing such as screaming in thinned out falsetto, and yo-yo-ing on a note for comic effect, but among other solos Bigowsky’s going underground aria stands out – “How do you become invisible to men? Become a woman”. The ensembles though is what I found most exciting of all. In “Quand l’avez-vu la derniere fois?” each character comes out of an electronic sound-field, which is pleasantly unpleasant and indeterminate, to tell of their last encounter with Bigowsky. The scenes of a hockey match at the end are fast and fun, as the projections, the characters and the instruments play without friction together. Shots are fired just before the final tutti, “J’aurais pu mourir”, which works as an epilogue. Everybody survived, but the music is grim. Bigowsky’s career continued going great until it didn’t, Lafeuille retired to the suburbs, Lasalle became the new Montreal Boss and Romanov… well, ran for city council and later became prime minister (to accompany this statement, the projection showed an orange-haired Romanov).
I’m not entirely sure why the singers were miked. Were some voices distorted in real time, and had to stay plugged to the grid? I couldn’t tell. But the small Jane Mallet certainly did not need singer amplification and the miking is perhaps the only component that diminished the show, not enhanced it.
The panels by Kimberlyn Porter are unfussy and vintage, no distracting details, and thanks to the video design by Serge Maheu they get some camera-like movement–closing in, gros plan, moving lense. They stay low key, and are there to complement the stage. Comic book panels may feel archaic and certainly less lively than film projections, but there’s pleasure in that tech delay, and it works well with the 1940s and 1950s aesthetic.
Closes tonight at the Jane Mallet Theatre, and tours Belgium in Nov/Dec. Tickets here.
I don’t mind when readers and opera goers review my reviews. Fair game. And I welcome the interaction. But I don’t understand the upset that I hear is brewing on Facebook and through emails to my editor around my review of Anna Bolena at the COC. It’s a fairly sedate review, but even that amount of disagreement comes across as RADICAL in a reviewing environment that has become extremely timid and let’s-all-get-along. Perhaps people should read some British, French or American negative reviews for comparison?
I don’t give negative reviews in a cavalier and off-hand manner. If something’s not working for me, I try to explain why. Large budget and established, stable organizations and in-demand, established singers and the fans of each should be able take a negative review without a hissy fit. Or not? Is it allowed not to like a certain opera? A certain production? A certain singer? Just keep that in mind. That not everybody will like every singer and every production and every composer. And some times they’ll have a public forum to say so and be lucky enough to have readers interested in their opinion (yes, this is a privilege and I do my darnest to earn it.)
To artists and arts administrators I say: just go on with your job and focus on your work. That should be your response.
And I am not talking out of school: I have been on both sides. My two books have received some good reviews and award shortlists, and some mixed reviews and a couple of negative reviews and some indifference/no reviews too. I think indifference is probably something you want the least. But it’s true: we remember certain sentences from negative reviews for a long time to come, and the stuff from positive reviews pales with time. (Unless you’re a massive narcissist… in which case, viceversa.)
Those of us who have had our work reviewed should also keep in mind: it’s incomparably better to create something and have it commented upon by other people, than spending your life commenting on other people’s work. Some of criticism certainly equals creation: but that takes more time, more studiousness, knowledge of wider culture, a longer view, maybe the book format or film or TV documentary format. And some of the ad hoc reviews for the media, which do an extremely important public service, will also be works of art, if the luck strikes. But overall, reviewing is derivative because it depends on something else for it to exist, whereas creation is creation.
So: stop worrying and get on with the work. Neither good reviews nor bad reviews should matter to a creator. You do your art the way you feel it must be done and keep going and growing.
There’s something else that’s been worrying me lately regarding Toronto’s opera and classical scene: a certain uniformization and overlap of reviewing and performing circles. Everybody is friends with everybody. These writers went to same music school and performed with those other people. This reviewer being hired by an arts organization for task X or Y, then a few months later writing about the same organization as a journalist or critic. This editor hanging out with this executive, this donor or board member working for both an org and a magazine. This person dating that person, and having the same social circles as that other person. Everybody schmoozing at the same parties.
Under similar circumstances, it becomes extremely difficult to express disagreement of any substantial kind, or to even soberly look at a work of art. Everything will be great, everything will be a miracle.
And that’s simply not healthy. And it destroys the art of the positive review too: if everything is good, nothing is. The positive review loses its purpose and its credibility.
So, Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra partnered with the French tech company Meludia to make more than 600 ear training and music theory exercises available to anybody with a Canadian IP address free of cost for a period of one year. As of December last year, the interactive Meludia method is available to Canadians of all skill levels, chiefly thanks to the CPO, its Music Director Rune Bergmann who will be the program’s Canadian ambassador, and the CPO donors who are covering much of the cost associated with the project.
So I did a bit of research and from what I could gather, what distinguishes Meludia in the music e-learning field populated by software like Ear Training HQ, SingTrue and Ear Master is the method itself, created by the French educator and composer Vincent Chaintrier. A log-in (there’s a quick sign-in process where you have to give your email address) takes the user to a game-like universe where, the idea is, the instruction is imperceptible. Whether the level is Discovery, Intermediate, Advanced or Expert, as far as I can tell there is no musical grid in sight and no notation. The games on the density of the sound, ascending or descending melodies, contained or unresolved chords and “pitch identification gymnastics” grow in complexity with every new round. Tones and half-tones are introduced via intuitive visuals and an understanding of scales is built up by stealth.
While Meludia won’t train you to read notated music from the stave, its emphasis on the sensorial and play side of music is meant to develop your musical mind before you take the first piano or solfège lesson. Most of us start by taking that lesson, which kinda ties music-making to homework.
The 625 progressive exercises are now accessible to all Canadian internet provider addresses until December 2018 on meludia.com. I started it recently; if you give it a try, let me know how you get on.
Here’s my March art song column in this month’s Whole Note.
It looks better in print, as always, so do grab a copy somewhere. It is, as usual, free and priceless.
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On a pleasantly cold February evening, Toronto Masque Theatre held one of its last shows. It was a program of songs: Bach’s Peasant Cantata in English translation, and a selection of pop and Broadway numbers sung by musician friends. An actor was on hand to read us poems, mostly of Romantic vintage. The hall was a heritage schoolhouse that could have passed for a church.
The modestly sized space was filled to the last seat and the audience enjoyed the show. I noticed though what I notice in a lot of other Toronto song concerts – a certain atmosphere of everybody knowing each other, and an audience that knows exactly what to expect and coming for exactly that.
I was generously invited as a guest reviewer and did not have to pay the ticket, but they are not cheap: $40 arts worker, $50 general audience, with senior and under-30 discounts. And the way our arts funding is structured, this is what the small-to-medium arts organizations have to charge to make their seasons palatable. Now, if you were not already a TMT fan (and I appreciate their operatic programming and will miss it when it’s gone), would you pay that much for an evening of rearranged popular songs and a quaint museum piece by Bach?
The stable but modest and stagnating audience is the impression I get at a lot of other art song concerts in Toronto. Talisker Players, which also recently folded, perfected the formula: a set of readings, a set of songs. Some of their concerts gave me a lot of pleasure over the last few years, but I knew exactly what to expect each time. Going further back, Aldeburgh Connection, the Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata recital series, also consisted of reading and music. It also folded, after an impressive 30-year run. It was largely looking to the past, in its name and programming, and it lived in a cavernous U of T hall, but it could have easily continued on and its core audience would have continued to come. Stable audience, yes, but also unchanging.
The issue with a stable and unchanging audience is that the programming will suffer. It’ll go stale, ignore the not already converted, abandon the art of programming seduction. And the ticket will still cost at least $50.
I’ve also sat in the Music Gallery’s contemporary music recitals alongside the audience of eight so it’s not entirely the matter of heritage music vs. new music. Empty halls for contemporary music concerts are as depressing as book events in Toronto, to which nobody, not even the writer’s friends, go. (I know this well; don’t ask me how.)
So, where is art song performance in Canada’s largest city going?
Due to the way they’ve been presented for decades now, there’s a not-negligible whiff of Anglican and Methodist churchiness to Toronto’s art song concerts. They usually take place in a church (Trinity-St. Paul’s, Rosedale United, Trinity Chapel, St. Andrew’s, etc) or a place very much like a church (Heliconian Hall). They are often programmed as an occasion for personal edification – as something that’ll be good for you, that will be a learning opportunity. Why are we being read to so much in recitals – instead of, for example, being talked to and with? Does anybody really enjoy being read to in a music concert?
I sometimes wonder if the classical music infrastructure of concertgoing, its comportment etiquette, regulation of space, fussy rituals of beginning, presentation, breaks and ending wasn’t built to control and disguise classical music’s visceral power over humans? And to keep tame its community-expanding, boundary-blurring potential?
In other words, getting out of the church and the U of T will benefit Toronto’s art song performance. Classical music, including art song, is a pleasure, not homework; it’s inviting the stranger over, not getting together with the same group each time. Some of those who program art song and chamber music in Toronto are already grappling with these questions, fortunately.
Among them is the ensemble Collectìf, consisting of three singers and a pianist: Danika Lorèn, Whitney O’Hearn, Jennifer Krabbe and Tom King. They scour the city for locations and choose places off the beaten path. They held a recital in an Adelaide St. W. loft, and a raucous songfest at an old pub in Little Italy. For a Schubert Winterreise, performed in the more familiar quarters of Heliconian Hall, Danika Lorèn had prepared video projections to accompany the performance and the singing was divided among the three singers, who became three characters. For an outing to the COC’s free concert series, they created their own commedia dell’arte props and programmed thematically around the poets, not the composers who set their poems to music. Collectìf is a shoestring operation, just starting out, yet already being noticed for innovation. Lorèn is currently member of the COC’s Ensemble Studio, which is why the Collectìf somewhat slowed down, but when I spoke to her in Banff this summer, she assured me that the group is eager to get back to performing. Winterreise toured last fall to Quebec and an art song program around the theme of nightmares returns to the same festival later in the year.
Another group that caught my eye did not even have a name when I first heard them in concert. They are now called Happenstance, the core ensemble formed by clarinettist Brad Cherwin, soprano Adanya Dunn and pianist Nahre Sol. That’s an obscene amount of talent in the trio (and check out Nahre Sol’s Practice Notes series on YouTube), but what makes them stand way out is the sharp programming that combines the music of the present day with musical heritage. “Lineage,” which they performed about a year ago, was an evening of German Romantic song with Berg, Schoenberg, Webern and Rihm and not a dull second. A more recent concert, at the Temerty Theatre on the second floor of the RCM, joined together Françaix, Messiaen, Debussy, Jolivet and Dusapin. The evening suffered from some logistical snags – the lights went down before a long song cycle and nobody but the native French speakers could follow the text – but Cherwin tells me he is always adjusting and eager to experiment with the format.
Cherwin and I talked recently via instant messenger about their planned March concert. As it happens, both the pianist and the clarinettist have suffered wrist injuries and have had to postpone the booking for later in March or early April. Since you are likely reading this in early March, reader, head to facebook.com/thehappenstancers to find out the exact date of the concert.
In the vocal part of the program, there will be a Kurtág piece (Four Songs to Poems by János Pilinszky, Op.11), a Vivier piece arranged for baritone, violin, clarinet, and keyboards, and something that Cherwin describes as “structured improv involving voice”. “It’s a structured improv piece by André Boucourechliev that we’re using in a few different iterations as a bridge between sections of the concert,” he types.
I tell him that I’m working on an article on whether the art song concert can be exciting again, and he types back that it’s something they’ve been thinking about a lot. “How can we take everything we love about the chamber music recital and take it to a more unexpected place. How can repertoire and presentation interact to create a narrative/context for contemporary music. How can new rep look back on and interact with old rep in a way that enhances both?”
He tells me that they’re looking into the concert structure at the same time – so I may yet live to see recitals where the pieces are consistently introduced by the musicians themselves.
Will concerts continue to involve an entirely passive audience looking at the musicians performing, with a strict separation between the two? There were times, not so long ago, when people bought the published song sheets to play at home and when the non-vocational (better word than amateur) musicianship enhanced the concert-goers’ experience of music. Any way to involve people in the production of at least a fraction of the concert sound or concert narrative?, I ask him, expecting he’ll politely tell me to find a hobby.
“We’ve thought a lot about that actually,” he types back. “It’s a difficult balance. Finding a way to leave room for collaboration while also having a curated experience.” Against the Grain Theatre, the opera company where he now plays in the permanent ensemble, also wants to push in that direction, he tells me.
There is a corner of the musical avant-garde, it occurs to me as I thank him and log off from our chat, that actively seeks out non-professional participation. There are Pauline Oliveros’ tuning meditations, of course, but more locally there is also Torontonian Christopher Willes, whose various pieces require participation and are fundamentally collective and collaborative. Though he isn’t a musician, Misha Glouberman’s workshops in social behaviour, like Terrible Noises for Beautiful People, are arguably a process of music-making.
But how to achieve an active audience in the small, chamber or lieder situations? It’s easier with choruses and large production, where sing-alongs are possible – some smaller opera houses are already doing it, for example Opéra-Comique in Paris. The Collectìf trio did get the audience to sing at the Monarch Tavern that one time (the Do Over, January 2016) but the experiment hasn’t been repeated in Toronto.
Speaking of pub recitals, Against the Grain’s Opera Pub is a glorious project (first Thursday of every month at the Amsterdam Bicycle Club), but it’s more operatic than art song, at least for now. ClassyAF are a group of instrumentalists who perform in La Rev and The Dakota Tavern, no vocals. Drake One Fifty restaurant in the Financial District has just started the Popera Series with opera’s greatest hits performed in a restaurant full of people, but again, it’s opera, the more glamorous and easier-to-sell sibling to the art song.
Will Happenstance, Collectif and similar innovative upstarts, and their more established peers like Canadian Art Song Project, endure over the years, obtain recurring arts council funding and renew art song audience?
With that goal in mind, my immodest proposal for the present and future art song presenter: move out of the churches and university halls. Musicians, talk to people, introduce the pieces. Program the unfamiliar. Always include new music, maybe even by composers who can be there and say a few words. If the music is danceable, allow for concerts with audience dancing. (I’m looking at you, Vesuvius Ensemble.) Engage the people. If live music is to be different from staring at the screen, make it different from staring at the screen.
Some March highlights
Meanwhile, here are my March highlights, which are of the more traditional Toronto kind, though still of interest.
March 19 at 7:30pm, Canadian Art Song Project presents its 2018 commission, Miss Carr in Seven Scenes by Jeffrey Ryan. Miss Carr is Emily Carr, and the song cycle, based on her journals, was written for Krisztina Szabó and Steven Philcox. At (alas) U of T’s Walter Hall.
March 4, as part of Syrinx Concerts Toronto, mezzo Georgia Burashko will sing Grieg’s Lieder with Valentina Sadovski at the piano. Baritone Adam Harris joins her in Schumann duets for baritone and mezzo, whereas solo, he will sing Canadian composer Michael Rudman’s The City.
March 11 at Temerty Theatre, Andrea Botticelli will give a lecture-recital (I like the sound of this) on the Koerner collection, “Exploring Early Keyboard Instruments.” Vocal and keyboard works by Purcell, Haydn and Beethoven on the program with tenor Lawrence Wiliford singing. The only U of T chapel to which I will always gladly return, the Victoria College Chapel, hosts the Faculty of Music’s Graduate Singers Series, also on March 11.
Finally, if you are in Waterloo on March 7 and up for some Finnish folk, the U of W’s Department of Music presents the EVA-trio (cellist Vesa Norilo, kantele player Anna-Karin Korhonen and soprano Essi Wuorela) in a noon-hour concert.
I’m really liking the number of the TSO conducting debuts in the new concert season announced yesterday. Han-Na Chang, Trondheim Symfoniorkester’s Chief Conductor is coming to Toronto next season, and so is Hamilton Philharmonic’s Gemma New. Barbara Hannigan and Tania Miller return. Melanie Leonard, the Sudbury SO’s MD, debuts with an, alas, Fred Penner program, mais bon.
Among the notable non-returns this season, Keri-Lyn Wilson. I was hoping she was on the list of potential MDs, but maybe she is indeed but the scheduling just couldn’t be worked out this season.
Among notable returns, the TSO regulars Juanjo Mena, Andrey Boreyko, Thomas Dausgaard, Donald Runnicles. TSO regulars who are otherwise engaged this season: Stephane Deneve, Hannu Lintu and Gianandrea Noseda, and that is just fine. It’s good to mix it up.
Because the conductors we don’t usually see on the TSO roster who will be there next season: Louis Langree, the French-born, Cincinnati SO MD, Karl-Heinz Steffens, German-born MD director of the Oslo Opera, Aurora Orchestra’s Nicholas Collon and Kirill Karabits, Bournemouth SO’s and Staatskapelle Weimar’s MD. Interestingly, Aziz Shokhakimov, known to the readers of this blog the very young, underdog candidate from the documentary Dirigenten! that I recently reviewed, will also have his TSO debut.
Not a whole lot of new in the soloists department – a lot of names we see just about every year (Zukerman, Lisiecki, Goodyear, Josefowicz). Repertoire-wise, the interim era in an orchestra’s life is not usually time to experiment and try out new programming visions, so the war horses it’ll be. An extremely modest sprinkling of Debussy and Ravel, exactly one Stravinsky and one Berlioz, zero R Strauss and Scriabin, and not much past early 20th century. New Creations Festival is usually announced much closer to the date of the festival, and there is a chunk of empty dates in early March so I’m hoping it’ll return. New Creations Festival, it has been confirmed, is cancelled for good. BTW, the TSO website now has a nifty search engine for the 2018-19 season, worth spending some time with.
And what’s ahead for Peter Oundjian? His tenure as the MD of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra too ends this year, Thomas Søndergård taking over (also one of the regulars returning for a TSO gig next season). Oundjian’s agency website offers the following on the artist’s page: Oundjian was recently named Artistic Advisor for the Colorado Music Festival, and this season he returns to the Baltimore, Atlanta, and NHK Symphonies, and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Maybe a few years of freelancing after two busy MD-ships, I am guessing.
This and next season’s Interim MD will be Andrew Davis. As Opera Ramblings put it in his recent post, he won’t be “hogging the podium”, which is an excellent thing for an interim MD to do.
Really eager for some TSO news soon, though.
(And let’s hope for no more program copy faux pas like the unfortunate Ligeti graf that went globally viral-ish on Twitter. I found myself having to explain to Twitter friends from Seattle and Paris that no, the TSO is not usually terrified of the twentieth century and new music and that no, we don’t usually print warnings in programs and that I’d attribute the graf to a distracted program editor rather than read too much into it etc etc. )
Wajdi Mouawad, playwright and director entirely new to opera, read the libretto to Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio one day and decided it was not woke enough. Instead of looking at some other productions of this opera and and reading up on in and on Mozart’s own politics and oeuvre, he decided that, according to his notes:
-it condemns one civilization at the expense of another [it does not]
-that it might be read today as an exercise in caricature, or casual racism [libretto does not inevitably read as anything. If you decide to stage it like that, sure]
-it could constitute an argument for the “wholesale rejection of Islam and the East, thereby falling into larger patterns of Islamophobia in the West which would have us blame all our problems on the threat of an undifferentiated “Arabic” Other”. [What to do with this? I’ll just add that Ottomans weren’t Arabic and nobody in the libretto calls them that.]
So Mouawad rewrote the libretto (or Lyon-COC asked them to do it) to make the western side of the east-west encounter more obviously nasty. Like, really really nasty – and he wants you to know how nasty they are by opening the opera with the scene of a party in which the smug Europeans drunkenly discuss the escape from the Seraglio (the retelling of which we are about to see) by making fun of those awful Muhammedans and by desecrating the representations of the Prophet. This is entirely made up by Mouawad and is nowhere in the libretto.
What’s already in the original libretto, and what a good director can easily bring forward, is precisely the undermining of the idea that “west is best” and that “east is backward”– and the questioning of the east-west division tout court. But Mouaward keeps putting these ideas into the libretto with his own rewrites.
Terrified that any sign of cultural differences could be read as ‘Orientalist‘, Mouawad opted for a set of grey blocks and dresses all the principals in plan robes at the Pasha court (well, I say court… grey walls, on a planet, somewhere). The Janissaries and courtiers are all bald-headed creatures of indeterminate sex. While talking happens face to face, much of aria singing is to the audience: the old-fashioned p&b or a wish to de-naturalize the staging, I couldn’t decide.
Mouawad wants us to know loud and clear that the “Muslim” side (that’s what the Pasha & comp are reduced to here) are not the bad guys; that the pompous, prancing, moneyed idiot that is Belmonte represents the awful Europeans accurately (that’s already in the original libretto, hello). The abducting of women and their captivity is actually quite a sedate business. The Act II Blonde-Osmin battle of the sexes over consent is presented as purged of any real danger of violence ever breaking: it’s a teasing performance. So is Osmin’s rage in another scene.
There are a couple of extraordinary moments in the staging which stand out amidst all the blandness. After the intermission, the opera re-opens with a muezzin chant and we’re in a mosque, with women and men of the Pasha’s court praying — separated, and this is used well for the secret Pedrillo-Blonde exchange. It’s a moment of stillness: the Allahu Akbar chant and the swishing of the clothes as the worshipers bow and rise in prayer. (Did Ottoman Turks use Arabic in prayer? But of course Mouawad’s Pasha is not very Turkish; Mouawad is more interested in placing him and Osmin as the “Muslim Arabic Other” of the Bush Jr. era Pentagon and the American cable news.) Another intriguing tidbit: Blonde leaves the Seraglio pregnant. (This does not make the Act II negotiation between Osmin and Blonde entirely meaningless: they’re already in a relationship, but the question of consent of course remains.)
The musical side too was unusually clunky last night – disjointed, until almost two thirds in, when music finally gained its polish and the stage and the pit finally danced to the same tune. (Johannes Debus at the podium.) The fizz sorely lacked from the overture, and the act 1 continued as a very deflated, fatigued Mozart. Jane Archibald as Konstanze had her ups and downs, vocally, but credit to her for carrying this production in German — the Lyon one was with French dialogues, and this was a whole new chunk of spoken text to learn. Goran Juric as Osmin and Claire de Sevigne as Blonde were more evenly fueled throughout the evening, with Juric’s bass tireless and precise, and de Sevigne’s sharp, bright, exact singing, though a bit more volume wouldn’t have gone amiss. The actor of Israeli origin, Raphael Weinstock, played the Pasha. Mauro Peter was a decent Belmonte and got to shine in a lot of pretty music, though the character itself is a pompous balloon in need of piercing. It’s a tough act to pull, making Belmonte lovable, and he eventually gets there.
Yet the greatest sin of this production is not that it tries to make an 18th century libretto as inoffensive and didactic as possible; its greatest sin is that it’s deadly boring. The dialogues are endless because they are explanatory; the drama is expunged entirely, because that’s what happens when you eliminate any hint of genuine conflict, disagreement or even difference.
And I must add one last thing. Mouawad was probably asked to rewrite the libretto because he was born in Lebanon and has lived both in Middle East and “the west’ (Canada, and now France). Which is great. But if a woman of any culture was asked for her take on the libretto, it would have been a different take — and a different staging. For example, Leila Slimani, I wonder what she’d make of it? Mouawad’s now flaunted feminist record is not entirely impeccable (7 years ago, he chose to hire Bernard Cantat as a collaborator, the pop singer who served a sentence for killing his girlfriend Marie Trintignant, explaining that the singer had “already paid his debt to society” in, among other places, this insufferable Letter to My Daughter).
Bon ben. Men continue to write and rewrite the canon and decide what is and isn’t culturally offensive and what is and isn’t feminist in it.
Instead of leaving the production thrilled by its directorial vision and musical interpretation, I left Mouawad’s Seraglio thinking about that instead. And of that woker-than-thou correction our Prime Minister recently offered to a woman speaking in public.