Cologne-based Francontarien Thierry Tidrow’s new chamber opera is about to have a world premiere at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin at the Tischlerei stage, the smaller theatre within the DO dedicated to commissions and experiment. (More on the Tischlerei season here.) A couple of years ago the German opera house in collaboration with the Hanns Eisler School of Music Berlin held a competition for new composers and librettists and out of about 40 submissions, the jury, which included among others Aribert Reimann, chose three, Thierry Tidrow among them. His librettist was to be Uta Bierbaum. All three operas will premiere as one triptych this Friday in Berlin within the program titled Scenes III at the Tischlerei. (Full cast and creative here.)
Here’s what Thierry told me about his one-acter, My Corporate Identity:
It’s about people pretending to be who they are not, pretending to be happy in order to fit in, in this case in the corporate world, which affects not only their personalities, but the music and the way they speak. In Germany the corporate language is half English, full of vapid buzz words. There is this character in the opera named Boss, and these are his first lines:
Content Content Content Content! Das Wechselspiel von Tradition und Innovation ist die Quelle, die uns immer wieder neu inspiriert. Es geht um bestechende Kreativität! Immer auch um höchste Authentizität! Sich immer neue Ziele setzen, ständig in Bewegung bleiben! Content Content! Das ist digital, das ist Strategie, das hier sind die Key-Notes, das ist kreativ, das ist Social Media, das Wording ist top, die Performance ist GEIL! Noch eine Runde Q&A? Wir sind im Work-Flow, das bringt uns Insight, wir sind hier alle on the same Page, back to WORK NOW. WIR! Danke Danke Danke, TEAM, ihr macht uns zu dem, was wir sind! Rosmarin, Porsche, Lifestyle. Yeah!
The main character, Woman with the green silk blouse, is constantly telling us how happy she is with her life, as if trying to convince us. The whole opera is actually quite violent since the characters are all too worried about the void (which manifests itself as a crack in the coffee room, at first too small for anyone to care, but slowly becoming bigger), that they just continuously talk about how great and perfect everything is. This goes on until the main protagonist exhausts herself to the point where her body decomposes, which is almost sort of freeing for her.
There is also an alter-ego, the other woman also wearing a green silk blouse, who is like the inner child of the protagonist and who has the only lyrical and heartfelt lines of the piece. She is in constant observation of the world around her (seasons changing even though every day of work feels the same) and of her body (of its nature and later of its decay).Her text is very poetic, whereas all the others (our heroine, Boss, and Female Colleague) mostly get run-on sentences and matter-of-fact/common sense/truism speak.
The music plays with these different levels of mask-wearing, and mirrors the characters. For example, the colleague who is cartoonishly happy and constantly laughing to a nauseating degree, has energetic and constantly changing material, ranging from cheesy pop song when she sings about how amazing the weekend is to almost Gilbert-and-Sullivan/Commedia dell’arte melodrama when she talks about the crack she’s seen.
But generally the corporate characters only sing when they are putting a mask on. Otherwise they are in a speaking or half-speaking, half-singing mode, in a syllabic way which exaggerates the prosody of the German language (i.e. which notes are emphasized/high, which are low)
Here are some examples of vocal treatment:
Let’s hope a video clip surfaces for those of us who can’t be in Berlin this month. Meanwhile, here’s a fun chamber music piece by Thierry, STYROPORÖS:
As the saying (approximately) goes, one person’s religious fanatic is another person’s hero, and Harry Somers and Mavor Moore’s multilayered opera Louis Riel certainly does not offer itself, in its ur-text, as a piece of simple pro-Riel propaganda. Had Riel fended off the forces of the Canadian federation, his Métis governance state would have probably been a theocracy with a charismatic governor, and not even notionally liberal—though the libretto in his last speech has him saying a verse on “man having rights” (perhaps the meaning here is treaty rights?). His first long aria at the end of Act 1 reveals that he hears God’s voice and feels directly and intimately called—“I am David” is its final verse—and upon his return to Canada from the exile he is given a scene in a Catholic church in Saskatchewan where he is a self-assured prophet with a large following. Riel was a figure akin to Ignazio di Loyola and Joan of Arc: not exactly a democrat. God spoke to him, and even skipped the Pope to go straight for this Prairie prophet.
He was of the future, however, in one way, and it’s an extremely important way: he was a bi-racial North American, and proud of it, while the Anglos in the opera throw around “half-breed” as an insult. He is also today read by some theorists of Canadian citizenship as a harbinger of the post-Trudeau I multiculturalism and bilingualism, the type of post-ethnic nationhood that we’ve been trying to work out in this country over the last 40 years. Not so, says a Métis scholar who contributed an opinion piece in the COC program for this new production of the opera. Dr. Adam Gaudry of University of Alberta argues that for Riel, land treaties were about staying separate but equal, not merging and integrating cultures and ethnicities into something new. And there are a number of Native rights groups today in Canada who argue against the Native integration in the general hodgepodge of Canadian citizenship; we’ve melted far enough in that particular pot, we’re now concerned with protecting the customs, reviving the languages and preserving the bloodlines. (Don’t act shocked. Huge majority of people on this planet still don’t want to marry outside their own ethnic or religious group. Most of your extended family to start with, whatever your ethnic background is.)
So Riel is a contradictory figure. (The periodic think pieces that appear in Canadian media in favour of exonerating and rehabilitating Riel are puzzling to me. Let the contradictory figure of the past be a contradictory figure of the past, why scrub him clean.) But Somers and Moore don’t exactly excoriate him in the opera either and in fact grant him a great, tragic dimension. He *is* a hero, in the sense of hero being a brave man who is blind to his constitutive flaws and who will be done in by those very flaws. Yes, and also by the encroaching armed forces of a nation in the making. Marxist historians would say “world-historical” forces—but that’s retrospective determinism, certainly in the case of Canada, which still feels like an unfinished business and up for grabs as a nation state in so many ways.
Riel is also given the most extraordinary music of this largely atonal score, solo arias of immense expressivity, variety, and power sung a cappella or to sparse instrumentation. In this new COC revival directed by Peter Hinton, Russell Braun sings Riel and as perfectly as anybody can come close to. He is certainly a little less butch, a little more pensive and Hamlet-like than the original Riel, Bernard Turgeon, but this singer-added Riel vulnerability works miracles for the character.
The major new thing that Hinton brought in is the invitation to the First Nations onto the stage and the turning of the spotlight onto the Métis and the Cree even more obviously as the centre of the story. You’d think that it would have occurred somebody in the original production to include a contingent of Native artists in the creative team or among the cast, but looks like it hadn’t. At the time of its first performances in the late 60s and early 70s, Riel was analyzed mainly as an opera on the FrancoCanadian-AngloCanadian conflict that makes up so much of Canadian history, even though more than half of the characters are Métis. Somers actively sought and employed musical material transcribed from the Native sources, for example for the Kuyas aria sung by Riel’s wife Marguerite (in this production sung by the soprano Simone Osborne, who handled this insanely demanding aria flawlessly; too bad the role is so short).
Hinton introduced a silent chorus that the original production did not have, what he describes in Director’s Notes as the Land Assembly which silently observes the action in every scene, sometimes apart, sometimes among other characters. He also replaced a scene of drunken revelry of the rebels with a scene of a group dance with the First Nations dancer Justin Many Fingers as the soloist. The quiet presence of Jani Lauzon, a grey-haired Métis singer and performer elegant in her red pant suit improved just about every scene because it somewhat attenuated the significant problem of the invisibility of women in Riel: without Lauzon, there are only three singing roles for women among 25 male singers, and they’re (hold on to your hats) sister, mother and wife to the Main Man.
What didn’t work for me was that the production is pretty minimalist. I think going minimalist in large multilayered operas is a cop-out, but in general too I don’t have a predilection for minimalism on operatic stage. (See Tim Albery’s Götterdämmerung, Carsen’s Iphigenie, Ivo van Hove’s anything…) There are long scenes of almost legalese debates in Riel during which there’s nowhere to look but at the blond wood panel in the back of the stage and the odd chair and table. About that blond wood panel: it reminds very much of the inside of the Four Seasons Centre, was that a hint? Yes, every opera is about that opera audience sitting right there, Hinton is right, but the set as the sets go was kind of dull.
The “Ottawa” set was better solved, but of course we are never shown the pseudo-Gothic interiors of the Parliament (it’s an iconic and much beloved building that would be perceived more positively than the director would necessarily want). Instead, the architectural plan of the Centre Block drops down as the background to the scenes among Sir John A., Cartier, Bishop Taché and “the representative of the commerce”, Hudson Bay’s Donald Smith. Baritone James Westman as Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald was another case of vocally and dramatically hand-meets-glove casting. Most of Sir John A.’s material is in the form of Sprechgesang—he doesn’t get any arias, but the only moments in the score that are comedic are to do with him: the trio of powerful men that announces that everything will be well when the opposite is about to happen; the drunk music in a scene of his hangover before dealing with the matters of the state (as Opera Rambling’s partner Katja put it last night, “most people in this opera are drunk most of the time”; fair).
Somers’ score operates in onslaughts and silences (moderation is for later in history) and I had forgotten how eventful and full of contrasts it is. The COC’s brass and percussions in particular get to do a lot of work. The only simpleminded tune in the entire opera is the mobbing chant of the Ontario protestants as they work up the anger against Riel, “We’ll Hang Him Up the River with the yah-yah-yah”. It’s also insidiously earworm-y, which was probably the composer’s naughty joke. Riel’s forces of course are defeated and he is hanged for treason. The silent chorus turns around one by one and looks straight to the audience after Riel goes down. Lights off, curtain calls, out we all go, and then there it is, the mobbing tune reappears, as a strange aftertaste—and a reminder how easy it is to hear, how ever susceptible we are to the call of the mob, then and now.
Continues at the COC April 23, 26, 29, May 2, 5, and 13.
Still Tomorrow: “Yu Xiuhua, a rural poetess, becomes an overnight success when her poem Crossing Half of China to Sleep with You goes viral. Sudden fame and fortune afford her the thing she’s always wished for: freedom from her husband of 20 years.”
Rat Film: “Baltimore’s history of systemic class and racial segregation intersects with an unusual examination of its dense rodent population–and the culture that surrounds it–in this incisive and unsettling anthropological study of poverty in America.”
Hotel Sunrise: life and pursuit of happiness in a Slovak town called Cierna nad Tisou, once hailed as the Golden Gate of Socialism.
How to approach a massive work that may put off potential audiences by coming off as a wee bit megalomaniac? You distill it, and stage the highlights as a piece unto itself, is the lesson to take from Laurence Cherney’s selection of parts from R. Murray Schafer’s Patria cycle into Odditorium, which opened on March 2 at the Crow’s Theatre. Schafer’s Patria is a decades-long project consisting of a dozen works that follow a hero and a heroine in various disguises through the mythology of the ancient Crete and Egypt and even further through the Schafer-authored mythologies, but for this occasion Cherney, Schafer’s frequent collaborator, wisely chose four excerpts only, and invited director Chris Abraham and dancer Andrea Nann to find the red thread.
And threads were very much in evidence in the modest but effective set (Shannon Lea Doyle), as they are used to outline the walls of the labyrinth with the mannequin body parts of those who did not manage to find the exit piled up in corners. The overarching theme therefore came from the final, best known and multiple times recorded The Crown of Ariadne (1979), an elaboration on the myth of Ariadne, the Minotaur and Theseus through the voice of the harp and a series of percussive instruments. The Crown was originally written for Judy Loman, who plays it (fair to say, performs it) compellingly in Odditorium. There’s drama in the procession of unexpected soundscapes and instrument pairings of this piece, of course, but there’s additional drama in observing the demands on the musician, the extravagant arm movements and the comings and goings of smaller instruments while the other hand is always on the harp. It’s a good choice for the end piece.
The preceding two, Tantrika (1986) and an Egyptian fantasy Amente-Nufe (1982) involve a mezzo-soprano and impressive sets of percussions – again, the prominent instruments are themselves part of the set. Mezzo Andrea Ludwig, always charismatic, produces an endless variety of extended technique sounds, moves around, handles the odd percussive task and employs acting where acting is required: in the tantric piece, for example, she observes, perhaps voices, the male-female dance of merging and separation (Nann with Brendan Wyatt centre stage). In Amente-Nufe from the section of Patria called Ra, the singer voices words in what a scholarly guess says the Middle Egyptian might have sounded like, but feel free to ignore this backdrop: the words are best taken in for the texture of their sounds, not for their meaning. The culmination of the segment, with all the gongs and bells going full blast, is an experience rarely available in concert halls – or houses of religious worship. Ryan Scott and Daniel Morphy manned the considerable assortment of percussions (including gamelan) throughout the show with tireless focus and aplomb.
It all started with a scene best described as Felliniesque: the accordionist (Joseph Macerollo, in clown makeup) trots onto the stage and uncovers a severed head that speaks. Well, speaks: voices outrageous sounds is more accurate, as there are no words, but quite a lot of conversation happening between the accordion and the soprano head (belonging to the crystalline-voiced Carla Huhtanen). It’s a funny, charming opening to a performance that gets pretty serious immediately after.
Yes, but what does it all mean, you may ask? A question best left home for the occasion, I think. It’s slippery to pin meaning to music at the best of times, and this electrifying selection of oddities really rubs it in. It’s an immersive trip into what humans can do with their voices and their hands operating on metal, wood, strings and boxed air.
Still, Odditorium is an open work so should you need to, you may work out your own narrative out of it. Given its four prominent and very different women—a dancer, a virtuoso harpist, high- and low-voiced singers—the piece may indeed cohere, as Andrea Ludwig suggested after the opening night show, as an enactment of female empowerment. The world of classical music still leaves too little room for that, and any occasion that resembles it should be welcomed.
Or you can approach it as a ritual of sorts—a non-religious one. Schafer composed most of the Patria in 12-tone, and the unpinnable micro-intervals heard in Odditorium and the vocal acrobatics that evoke wonder rather than beauty keep the work refreshingly unfamiliar. And though your mind may drift in and out of it, it’s music that doesn’t lull you, but keeps the cogs turning and surprise in steady supply.
If there’s one concert “promotion” practice that bothers me to the point of hot tears of frustration, it’s this: musicians not bothering to list the exact program of what they’ll be performing on any platform or medium anywhere before the concert. It frustrates me as a concert-goer and it frustrates me even more as a writer trying to announce, preview, possibly recommend said concerts.
I used to be a regular punter at I Furiosi concerts years ago, but I stopped going since they keep refusing to list what is it that they’re going to be playing. They like to organize their concerts by the theme, which is a decent practice, but the blurb explaining the theme would AT BEST list only the names of the composers. At worst, not even that. I took a peek at their forthcoming season, and sure enough: nothing. “Come to our concert on the topic of X! What will we play? We don’t know, but trust us! It’ll be great.”
As a journo, I’ve been noticing this with increasing frequency. Press releases with no program information, ensembles with no online presence or zero social media and a website that hasn’t been updated for years… and even the odd big guy not listing full program but relying on the list of composers in their releases.
This evening, I’m in the process of narrowing down what I’ll be writing in my next Wholenote column on the art of song. How I usually go about the business is I have the basic listings–the magazine has a great search engine called Ask Ludwig–for the entire month, and I go item by item, googling, looking at event pages, ensemble or singer website, researching the program and the composers, and then deciding what two strong highlights and what three or four quick picks I will feature.
Well. You can guess where this is going. There’s this concert, for example, by a group called Musicians in Ordinary (lute and soprano, with occasional guest soloists or readers) titled John Donne’s A Nocturnall on S. Lucies Day. I have the listing: “Works by Dowland and his contemporaries. Ruby Joy, reader; Hallie Fishel, soprano; John Edwards, lute; Musicians In Ordinary. Emmanuel College Chapel,” address, time. And that is literally all. No information about it on Emmanuel College Chapel website. The MiO’s own blog hasn’t been updated since September last year. Nothing on Facebook. Nothing on Twitter. What Dowland’s contemporaries? What works by Dowland? I happen to love Dowland, and would have liked to write about this concert. But that’s now impossible.
Elsewhere, all that anybody knows about this concert with tenor Andrew Haji and baritone Jason Howard is that it’ll be called English Song Treasures. Are they singing a capella? It’s a mystery.
The always gloriously looking Measha B will have a concert at the Isabel Bader in Kingston end of March. Freedom Songs, her exploration of African-American spirituals, looks intriguing, let’s find out more, go to the Isabel Bader website… oh. An artistic statement instead of the program. Okay. (There’s a Songs of Freedom website that you’d have to find to find out about the potential program. Some or most of these will be sung, I expect?)
Toronto Consort’s first encounters-themed concert last month gave me a bit of a headache too. See how it’s all described? Who sings in what piece, are all the listed soloists part of the Beckwith piece? And what music from the early colonists? I had to do further googling and send emails to find out. A lot of journalists wouldn’t bother, and if I was a civilian concert-goer, I wouldn’t rush to hear a program that’s approximated rather than detailed.
Across town, in Distillery District… I would have loved to write about Tapestry’s Songbook VII, either in advance or to review it. But… there’ has been no information available regarding what will be in the songbook. Zilch.
Or have a look at this Art of Time Ensemble Northern Songs 2 program. “A selection of works by Canadian jazz and classical composers including R. Murray Schafer, Christos Hatzis, Oscar Peterson, Nicole Lizee and more.” And more and and others are becoming my favourite friends. I happened to have been there last night and it was a seriously good lineup of pieces which deserved to be publicized in advance. You know, so more people can come to the concert and some of us can preview it?
Musicians, programmers, promoters: why make it difficult?
There’s a band that’s consistently good about keeping its own programs absolutely up to date and well ahead of the concerts: Talisker Players. Sometimes they’d even post audio samples. I may have to introduce my own private award for this kind of thing? Seriously. But even they got wobbly ahead of their March concert. Which of the 25 Beethoven Scottish folk songs exactly? Vaughan Williams’ “Three Old English Folk Songs”? Tut tut. Just a glitch, right? Back to your old informative self in no time.
On February 25th you can watch the acclaimed ROH production of Woolf Works in Toronto, thanks to the good people of the Hot Docs Cinema and the ROH screening series. Choreographed by Wayne McGregor to the music by Max Richter, the piece adapts Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves into three consecutive but unified ballets.
Here’s one of the videos that the ROH made on how the work came to be. The dramaturge Uzma Hameed, Wayne McGregor, Max Richter and principal dancers explain:
The Hot Docs Cinema is not showing much opera over the last two months. The sole screening, taking place tomorrow, is of the first revival of David Bösch’s recent production of Il Trovatore set in present day. Casting is stellar and includes Anita Rachvelishvili, Gregory Kunde and Lianna Haroutounian.
Best of 2016 book reading, dear readers. Forgive me for not including the publisher info or year of publication–I’m trying not to spend this entire day blogging.
J.M. Coetzee and Arabella Kurts: The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy. (Coetzee is no surprise on these lists, I know, but waittaminute this was the year in which I stumbled upon a Coetzee book that I ended up abandoning: Diary of a Bad Year. It’s still around, on one of the Limbo desks, but not sure where it’ll go from there.)
Eric Chevillard: Juste ciel. A little too cute for its own good, and with a surprisingly Hollywoodian ending, but sufficiently smart and imaginative–a witty contemporary riff on Plato’s vision of the other world–to make this list.
Jean Guerreschi: Seins. A book of short pieces that ficto-recall the narrator’s most overwhelming encounters with female breasts. This and the Chevillard I picked up from Jeremy’s last year’s Year in Reading so merci, ami. Another one from that list that I read, Maylis de Kerangal’s planetary successful Mend the Living (translated and published in Canada by Talon Books) I’m leaving out. Fantastic concept–why don’t people put medicine and the issues around organ transplant more in fiction, boggles the mind–but each sentence of the novel so overwritten to be beautiful that it alienates the reader.
A mini Jean-Philippe Toussaint binge: Television (hysterical), Self-Portrait Abroad and The Truth About Marie all amazed. I’ve also read his Bathroom and due to its ever so slightly iffy sexual politics, I’m leaving it out (the sole prominent female character serves as a sounding board for the male narrator’s increasing existential dread and madness).
Rick Moody’s Hotels of North America: a solitary, alienated American life narrated through dark-funny reviews of North American hotels and motels. Also, the second excellent novel I’ve read almost in a row (first being The Truth About Marie) in which the straight narrator writes lovingly about sexual encounters with women while they’re on their periods. Bravo, Team Hetero Men.
Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Cafe. Superb light touch to this substantial overview of the chief existentialist and phenomenologist philosophers, their work and lives as lovers and citizens all. Probably the only place this year in the entire world of English-language writing for general public where you can find a fair trial given to Heidegger’s philosophy, and a good intro to it. Husserl, Jaspers and Merleau-Ponty are all well-introduced, and their lives are narrated novelistically. Most of the space is of course taken up by Beauvoir and Sartre, but nobody is left short-changed. A joyous polyphony that renders a group of thinkers beautifully, and treats both life and philosophy as part of the same fabric: life and oeuvre together are the oeuvre.
Heidi Julavitz: The Folded Clock: A Diary. The diary entries of the writing (teaching, residence-ing, travelling) life of an East Coast woman who is also raising a family and happens to be married to another writer, Ben Marcus.
Jonathan Lynn: The Patriotic Traitor: A Play. The creator of Yes, Minister and much else excellent fictionalizes here the young General de Gaulle and the much older Maréchal Pétain, a World War One hero turning into a World War Two traitor. I borrowed this thin but intense volume from soprano Ambur Braid, who’s seen the play in London (and knows Lynn!).
Elizabeth McCracken’s memoir on the death of her first baby just before it was to be born, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. She is as sharp and moving as usual, but this is no fiction, and matters around the politics and sociology of giving birth are tackled. The loss of child happened in France, a country which for them, as one of their France-loving friends sadly states, “is now forever spoiled”–and so is, though McCracken insists both only coincidentally, the midwife-centric birth planning.
Cees Nooteboom, The Following Story. Probably my favourite book this year amid some impossibly tough competition. A classics professor goes to bed in his Amsterdam apartment, wakes up twenty years earlier in Lisbon, in bed with a married woman he loves. There’s lots of Ovid and Greek and Roman mythology weaved into the day-to-day concerns and struggles. This section near the end, from which I took this paragraph, has to be the best non-religious literary rendering of what happens after death I’ve ever found.
OK, let me rush through the remaining recommendations, as this is getting too long. Though there’s no commentary around them, they’re still as good as the upper side of the post:
Jack Robinson: by the same author
Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin
Claire-Louise Bennett: Pond
Adam Haslett: Imagine Me Gone
Douglas Glover: Elle (CANLIT finally)
Eimear McBride: The Lesser Bohemians
Marina Abramovic’s memoir
Kathrine Marçal: Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner
James Baldwin: The Fire Next Time
Jeff Connaughton: The Payoff: Why the Wall Street Always Wins
Jamaica Kincaid: At the Bottom of the River
Select chapters from George Packer’s The Unwinding and Charlotte Gray’s The Promise of Canada. Worth sampling; your call if you stay for the entire thing.
Best theatre was nontraditional: Germinal at World Stage 2016, Les Liaisons Dangereuses at NT Live in cinemas, Independent Aunties’ Gertrude and Alice at Buddies in Bad Times, Joel Pommerat’s ÇaIra (1), La fin de Louis in Amsterdam at Holland Festival in June.
The David Alden’s Maometto was irreverent and fun (and tangentially caused a bizarre media storm in which the most conservative of Canada’s opera critics ended up getting a global platform for his pearl-clutching). While most people praised the singing, I was more into the production. I don’t include it here as one of the best opera performances ever seen, but rather as a major operatic event of the year for various non-operatic reasons. Kudos to David Alden for daring to put a little bit of an Islamic culture on stage without kid gloves and fear.
I’ll add Damiano Michieletto’s Samson et Dalila at Opera de Bastille in Paris in October for these things primarily: the brilliant coup de théâtre ending, the sexy as hell Anita Rachvelishvili as Dalila. Also, for the opera house itself. Bastille gets a lot of flak, and unjustly: it’s a very pleasant space inside and outside the hall.
Best concert or recital
This all-Beethoven on period instruments concert in Paris with Viktoria Mullova and Sarah Alice Ott as soloists. First visit to Paris’s new Philharmonie, so that was exciting. The hall is fantastic. The outside spaces, where people mingle in between and after performances, not so much: they’re narrow and like an after-thought to the hall.
As a Stranger, by the Collectif Toronto. I didn’t write about this all-female take on the Winterreise back then, but it was tremendous.
Lineage, the vocal + chamber orchestra program on 19th-20th-21st century musical lineage.
Scenes of the Mediterranean: Stéphane Denève conducts TSO in Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture, Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No. 5 “Egyptian” – Jean-Yves Thibaudet at the piano, Ibert: Escales (Ports of Call) and Respighi: Pines of Rome
TSO and Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto (soloist discovery of the year for me) in Nielsen’s Violin Concerto. The program also had Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé (conductor Juanjo Mena, with Toronto Mendelssohn Choir) and Granados’ Intermezzo from Goyescas.
The entire New Creations Festival 2016: first night of the Fragile Absolute, and subsequent nights. The TSO removes the concert web page as soon as the concert’s over, so I had to search through my emails for concert reminders and save them as JPGs.
There was also a TSO concert with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique on the program, with Barbara Hannigan singing Dutilleux, that I attended in January, but I can’t remember much about it (it kinda pales) – so let’s include it as “it sounded so great on paper, but then IRL…”
Best opera: streaming, cinema & DVD
The Royal Opera House Boris Godunov, a Richard Jones production, at Bloor Hot Docs cinema. It was an unexpected joy.
Katie Mitchell’s Lucia di Lammermoor (same cinema): excellent with no reservations.
Katie Mitchell’s Pelléas et Mélisande from Aix-en-Provence: ground-breaking. Historians of operatic theatre will look on this production as a milestone, I have no doubts. I have saved an ungeoblocked URL with English subtitles here — do watch it the soonest, because Arte won’t keep it online forever.
I finally watched Girard’s Met-COC Parsifal on DVD and am sorry to report that I was disappointed. Too literal, too Christian-propaganda-y, especially the final act, which was an endless bro-ness renewed, Kundry humiliated agony. So the COC can keep postponing that production for as long as it wants, as far as I’m concerned.
Dance (of which I’ve seen very little this year)
Crystal Pite’s Betroffenheit at Canadian Stage; Toronto Dance Theatre’s Marienbad which wordlessly explored the dynamics of intimacy between two men.
Another good thing about 2016: meeting opera Twitter friends in real life.
Now let me see if I can do a quick post on the 2016 in reading.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Lyon Opera and the COC are co-funding a new production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail with rewritten dialogues by Lebanese-Canadian-French playwright Wajdi Mouawad, who also directs. We may get to see it in Toronto next year, or the year after, but meanwhile the production opened in Lyon this July and can be watched online here, provided you download Tunnel Bear and set it on French browsing (the Culturebox video is geoblocked, but worth the trouble).
Mouawad’s is a retrospective telling of the opera, and opens with straight dialogue at the party that celebrates Konstanze (Jane Archibald) and Blonde (Joanna Wydorska)’s return from captivity. The garbs are operatic eighteenth-century, wigs and breeches, and Belmonte the Vater invites the guest to celebrate the big rescue as well as the superior values of the Enlightenment against barbarity. He unveils the high striker game he had prepared for them, and he uses its French name: la Tête de Turc. Guests take turns at the mallet wacking the top of the turban, but Konstanze and Blonde refuse, which leads to a marital skirmish with Belmonte and Pedrillo. After they agree to re-tell how each experienced the rescue mission, the overture starts.
From that point on, Belmonte and Pedrillo (baby-faced tenors Cyrille Dubois and Michael Laurenz) are the only characters who remain in their eighteenth-century costumes, now looking over-elaborate and silly. The guests are cleared away, sets turn grey and very basic (it’s not a costly production, I dare say), Konstanze is sat down and Belmonte meets Osmin for the first time (again). Osmin is not picking figs but fiddling with origami figures—stay for the explanation why further down—when Belmonte demands to know of Selim Pasha lives there.
“That’s how they treated me,” Belmonte concludes the scene of the rough exchange with Osmin, but Konstanze demurs: “That’s how you describe it”. Before Osmin sings the torture aria for Pedrillo, it’s revealed through the added dialogue that he despises the man because he’s a philanderer (“For you, love is a joke; for me, it gives meaning to life”). David Steffens’s Osmin could charm the breeches off anybody and turns out to be, when not dealing with Pedrillo, a decent, even-tempered bro. As the opera progresses, Mouawad’s Pedrillo becomes something of a figure that illustrates that the west has gone too far in the direction of mistaking choice and profligacy for freedom. Belmonte is an adventurer whose privileged background protects him from any real danger. Neither man is burdened by principles which he’s willing to defend with his own life (a quality that, conversely, makes Don Giovanni a noble figure).
Konstanze, yes—and says as much to Selim on two occasions in the original libretto. Her first scene with the Pasha (Peter Lohmeyer, calm and compelling) maintains most of the original dialogue, but as she sings “Ach ich liebte” while Belmonte looks on from his chair in the corner, we’re not entirely sure if she means it. The long dialogue between Konstanze and Selim presents them both as reasonable individuals at an impasse: the only thing he won’t do is let her go, the only thing she won’t do is deny she is kept against her will and grant consent. He weakly threatens to marry her against her will, and she asks for more time “to forget the pain”. “It’s been two years,” is his reply, and she demands one more night. Morgen it’ll be, then.
Konstanze then to Belmonte: “et malgre la cruauté de ses paroles, je le savais bon!” Belmonte is not pleased as she continues to defend him.
Blonde opens the second act with a newly minted monologue. Approximation: Why is it that I always fall for the men-children. Who moreover can’t stop complaining. Pedrillo is hovering, and Osmin enters the room for a bath. She continues to address both men: “You or him, here or there, you’re equally bad”. Osmin, now in the tub, invites her to scrub his back. She premises her “Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln” aria with “I tell you Pedrillo, as I told Osmin”. In the old libretto she threatens to gouge his eyes out and they genuinely fight, while here we are witnessing a teasing exchange. “Tenderness? Pretty words? But we are in Turkey. I am the master and you are my slave. I order, you obey,” replies Osmin from the tub and from the old libretto. “Hahaha it’s same in Europe”, yells Pedrillo from his chair and the new libretto. To “I am born a woman and defy anybody, here or there [this recurs a lot], who wants to coerce me”, Osmin answers “She is crazy” and Pedrillo “Hysterical”. She helps Osmin get dressed, and the banter ends with Osmin flirting with “You want me to be your puppet, like your jackass Petrillo” (Pedrillo next to them objects). “You are beginning to understand,” she replies, and they kiss.
To Pedrillo’s protestations, Blonde says: “I loved him because he aspired to greatness. What do you aspire to? Nothing. You child.”
Pedrillo: “Do you want me to lock you up?”
Osmin: “Do you want me to give you freedom to do whatever you like?”
Blonde: “Learn one from another. If you don’t, you’re both bound to be wrong”
[weak point of the libretto – the moral equivalence. On which later]
Osmin gets mad: “You still love him!”
Pedrillo: “Do you regret your Turk?”
Blonde: “My heart belongs to me!”
During the Osmin-Blonde duet, the two laugh and hug. The “O Engländer! seyd ihr nicht Thoren” is obviously a teasing session. He lowers on his knees and sings to her tummy, which is how we learn that Blonde is pregnant. He takes out the fiddly origami toy from the box—the one he made in Act 1—which was, it’s now clear, planned for a baby. They part ways gently.
Konstanze’s quarters. Long new dialogue given to Blonde and Konstanze, in which Blonde is shown as an optimistic, strong-willed creature and Konstanze as the hopeless of the two. Konstanze gets the extremely acute line “As somebody who was born into comfort and indifference, I am bound to feel fragile before difficulty”. Blonde reminds her that she’s familiar with exile and changing languages and countries; Konstanze: “We are too protected… I want to be you.” Blonde: “We used to be mistress and servant; now two women, shoulder to shoulder.”
Later, Konstanze and Selim argue. She asks him again to let her go. “Do you think your world is better than mine?” he asks. “No, but it’s my world.” She goes on to tell him that There as here, men sing of eternal beauty of women, but that here as well as there nothing is more difficult for a woman than to have freedom. “Our world differs from yours in language, religion, philosophy… in everything except in the idea that woman needs to be subjugated. Worship her and subject her. … the only thing different is your chosen way of subjugation.”
“I won’t let you go, Konstanze.”
“Then kill me.” And we’re back to old libretto. Aria ”Martern aller Arten” is sung with other women and girls of the harem gathered behind her.
Next scene is set in a mosque, during prayer – women separated from men, Blonde among the women, uncovered. Pedrillo informs her of the escape plan. She appears happy.
The Osmin and Pedrillo wine-drinking proceeds in the usual way, and the escape quartet follows. The moments of doubt for the men—whether the women had remained ‘faithful’ all this time away—are already in the old libretto, but after the women get mad and couples reconciled, Mouawad adds all-important coda to this scene: Konstanze goes on the offensive with “So you were going to save us only if we had been faithful? What if we hadn’t been? You would have gone away without us?” During this conversation, Blonde tells Pedrillo “I didn’t know if I loved him or hated him… I was lost, like you… He loved me unwaveringly”.
“And you, Konstanze?” Belmonte wants to know.
(bitterly) “If you want to know if I slept with the Pasha, then know that your honour is intact…”—and she goes on to defend Selim as a great noble man.
Belmonte: “I feel I lost you the moment I found you!”
The rest proceeds according to the libretto. Osmin catches them all, and during his next supposedly angry aria, the ghost / phantom/ hallucination of his daughter, now five years old, walks about wearing a nightgown. She can’t sleep. He sings about “Harems-Mäuse”—perhaps promising to fight the monsters that frighten her?—and then sobs.
When he meets Selim, he pleads that he spare Blonde: “If you condemn Blonde, you condemn two lives, and the one she’s carrying in her is innocent…”
What used to be the prison-harem from which the boys rescued the women—the elegant, claustrophobic globe-shaped cage—is now the prison for the recaptured quartet of protagonists. There’s the prison singing sequence and then the Selim clemenza scene. As they each come out of the prison one by one, the captives sing “Never will I forget your benevolence; For ever shall I sing your praises” which is exactly what they don’t do when they return home, if you remember the party from the beginning of the opera.
While the music is upbeat, the women aren’t: the opera ends with a barrier falling down between the principals and ‘them’, the people of the east. It comes down together with the chandeliers, and we’re back where we started.
When the new dialogues work well, they work gloriously well. There are also points where they don’t work as well (see below). Too, there are points where they’re awfully didactic. (“The hardest thing is to recognize that they aren’t as barbarian as we are wont to describe them”, Pedrillo says to Belmonte in Act 1. You paying attention, opera-goer? This is an important point!)
In an attempt to avoid cultural offense via western chauvinism, Mouawad puts the equation sign between two patriarchal societies a little too easily. Or maybe he really believes what the poignant words he’s given to Konstanze and Blonde say (here and there, both places)? Either way. There are degrees of oppression. To insist that everywhere is equally bad for women is an indefensible position. “You only differ in the method you choose to subjugate women” says Konstanze to Selim, but the devil, unsurprisingly, is in the details of that method. There’s misogyny and misogyny; there’s cultural misogyny and then there are very physically violent expressions of misogyny. There’s the photographic gaze and the Bechtel Test and the feminist shortcomings of an opera and then there’s sexual trafficking and stoning and death by gunman or policeman or abject poverty. Women’s bad luck is unevenly distributed across the globe (country, city).
Mouawad’s is, actually, a very gentle and light Entführung, the real darkness of sexual slavery eliminated completely. Blonde genuinely gives consent to Osmin; Konstanze doesn’t and her choice is respected by Selim. It could easily be a thought experiment or a treatise from the Enlightenment era, where individuals meet as rational minds to resolve the distribution of mutual obligations and individual rights. The violence is largely abstracted out. Although Mouawad’s production aims to put into question the glorification of Enlightenment values, it ends up being an oblique—and welcome–tribute to them.
More on the production here, including the Mouawad libretto in German and French. The old libretto, in German and English, here. All photos: Stofleth / Opera de Lyon.