Verbotenlieder, or women take over men’s repertoire

Marcello & Rodolfo aka Vanessa Oude-Reimerink & Alexandra Beley

After an all-male, all-baritone and crowded Die Winterreise this summer, baritones Aaron Durand and Michael Nyby a.k.a. the Tongue-in-Cheek Productions decided in the interest of fairness and variety to throw an all-female do. Verbotenlieder, or the Forbidden Songs, came together as a program for the sopranos and mezzos who always wanted to sing certain arias, duos or songs that remained off limits because they were written for and exclusively performed by men.

It’s a brilliant idea that was only half executed with the December concert at Lula Lounge. A wide mix of singers and songs followed one another with no introduction, and no reason offered why those choices and not others. The repertoire that is never sung by women or specific voice types is vast. Was the choice random, or did it always mean something special for the singer? Nyby and Durand and one or two singers did manage to say a few words here and there, but all this just made obvious one big lack in the programming: a cabaret style MC who can talk competently, succinctly and with humour about these songs and spin the show’s red thread.

Another thing that was missing and that usually comes with real cabaret: naughtiness. Raunch. Some of the men-narrated songs in the program are love songs for women. There is a long and honourable tradition of women singing pants roles and pants Lieder and mélodies. As the societies of origin liberalized in the twentieth and twenty first centuries, so did cultural interpretations of these songs. There are now lively interpretive cultures of this rep for which, say, a male POV German Lied written for a mezzo is not a mezzo voicing a guy, but a mezzo voicing women-to-woman love of some sort, or in some cases explicitly lesbian desire.

This remained underexplored, but it did make an appearance.

For example in the transposed for soprano Lensky aria from Eugene Onegin, exquisitely rendered by Natalya Gennadi with Natasha Fransblow on piano. This Lensky’s farewell to youth and life is brought about by the love of his life Olga flirting with Onegin at the ball. Gennadi additionally honoured the trouser role tradition by wearing an elegant pant suit and camouflaging her long hair into a modest bob.

Or in the tenor-baritone duo from The Pearl Fishers ‘Au fond du temple saint’, which got a lavish and genuinely new take by soprano Jennifer Taverner and mezzo Beste Kalender (Elina Kelebeeva on piano). In it, the two men reminisce on the moment they first saw the woman they both fell in love with, a veiled Brahmin priestess, but rush to give up the phantom in favour of their own mutual bond before the song is over. An intriguing twist, to see this ode to bro-hood sung by women and effectively turned into a song about bond between women who are resisting the lures of a fantasy.

Soprano Vanessa Oude-Reimerink and mezzo Alexandra Beley (Natasha Fransblow,  piano) took on the Marcello-Rodolfo duo from La Bohème, in which they gossip and pine after Mimi and Musetta. There was some awkward stage movement at the beginning, and it appeared to me that the chuckles from the audience indicated that most of us weren’t sure if the women were singing to each other. The surtitles cleared up some of the confusion, but again, a good intro, even by the singers themselves, would have made all the difference.

Lauren Margison

And then there’s Lauren Margison. First, accompanied by Natasha Fransblow, she took on ‘Addio, fiorito asil’, unofficially known as the Bastard is Leaving, from Madama Butterfly. Puccini gives Pinkerton this manipulatively beautiful and highly emotional tenor aria while he is secretly running off and leaving Butterfly to face ignominy. Margison somehow managed to sing this aria in a pissed off manner and still gloriously—exactly the right formula. Her second one was ‘Nessun dorma’ and it too came with the right attitude and glorious top notes. The attitude was, If you think Pavarotti is the last word in this department, I have a soprano to show you. At one point she invited the audience to fill in a couple of verses of the aria, which we happily did. Already during the Pinkerton aria, people got engaged and rowdy almost immediately, and a loud Brava flew her way at the right place during the aria—something you rarely hear Toronto opera audiences do. But that’s the virtuous circle that comes with a good performance: the more daring a singer is, the more reactive the audience.

On the other hand, there was stuff that didn’t light the spark. It wasn’t clear to me why ‘O sole mio’, Ravel’s Don Quixote songs to Dulcinea and one of Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel were in the program. They’re all fine songs, but why should we hear women singing them? What do women add to them that’s missing? I have my theories, but I was more interested in hearing the singers’, and the performances themselves did not make strong enough case. Elsewhere in the program, the soprano version of the Count’s aria from Marriage of Figaro, in which he plots the destruction of Susanna’s announced wedding out of jealousy, was delivered in English and adapted—I am guessing, I could not hear everything clearly and there were no surtitles for songs in English—as Susanna’s resistance song of sorts? The Great Inquisitor scene from Don Carlo with two mezzos taking their low notes for a wild ride is a great idea, but the performance was hampered by Leah Giselle Field’s mocking and hammed-up take on the Inquisitor. Catherine Daniel sang King Philip in earnest—no panto and no distancing, she really played a king, and it was a pleasure to watch.

The evening ended with the ironic takeover of the men’s chorus singing about the trickiness of women from The Merry Widow.

All in all: an excellent concept delivered as a disjointed hodgepodge of highs and huhs. But the gents of the TICP have my attention.

The gang

Review originally written for the Wholenote and published here.

Animula vagula blandula

Anima Vagula Blandula in Hadrian’s Mausoleum

I first visited Rome in 2006 and for a long while before and after it was my favourite city of all actual and possible cities. I had read the Yourcenar novel about the Emperor Hadrian especially before the trip and enjoyed it much more than I enjoy the memory of it now. Then, I thought it was a terribly sophisticated, subterranean investigation of a “good” emperor’s public and (verrrrry subtly) private life. Now I find Yourcenar’s académicienne sentence a bore, and the multiply veiled story coy (the way exciting literature usually isn’t): a writer writing from deep within the closet.

At any rate, I of course went to Hadrian’s Mausoleum and loved it. The only picture I seem to have taken is this one above, with Hadrian’s poetry chiseled fairly recently onto a stone plate and placed high up (or was it low down? I forget) on a wall inside the mausoleum. There’s a modern-day Italian intro at the top: “Words from the dying Emperor Hadrian to his soul”.

Hadrian likely wrote more, but as far as I know only this poem remains, & has been translated in multiple versions. Yourcenar amplified further its importance in the novel.

I was surprised after I’ve read Daniel MacIvor’s libretto for Hadrian, his and Rufus Wainwright’s operatic child which just premiered at the COC, that he did not include this famous bit of Hadriana in the text. All the same, it’s a decent libretto, and a functioning (if clunkily) opera which has alas been given a commercial theatre-type production. Why nobody said at any point Waiiit that’s just too many bare bottoms mixed in with the extras from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, I don’t know.

Here’s my Opera Canada review.

I think it’s a touch of (devious gay) genius that Antinous tops the Emperor in their very detailed and leisurely sex scene. If any of you have read Alan Hollingurst’s The Swimming Pool Library, the brilliant last sex scene in that book comes to mind. You know, the one where the wealthy English aristocratic narrator who’s been topping everybody in the book finally gets bottomed–and totally naturally and ordinarily, with no words exchanged on the topic–by a working class guy of Middle Eastern origin. Hollinghurst has this incredibly poetic, uber-stylish way of describing the filthiest sex between men, and he doesn’t disappoint here. “He fucked him with leisurely vehemence”, he writes of the guy topping Will the aristocratic narrator. Leisurely vehemence! A phrase to make you guffaw and blush at the same time. Well yes. Quite. There was some leisurely vehemence in evidence in that Hadrian-Antinous encounter.

 

More ROH and ballet at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

The Barrie Kosky Carmen (that all British people in my Twitter feed hated) will be screened in Toronto this Sunday, April 8, starting 1:30 p.m. I’m curious about this consensus and will go; will see if I abandon it or stay till the end (there will be two 15-min intermissions, so count the entire afternoon off). Here’s more about this Carmen in the ROH Insights series:

The spectacular (in every way: good and… other, I hear) Macbeth with Anna Netrebko and Zeljko Lucic, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, will also be screened in a delayed encore, on Sunday May 20, starting 12 p.m. Trailer:

For ballet-heads, there’s the Royal Ballet Manon and a Bernstein Centenary event also in May.

Tickets are $17 for non-members. I think they’ve gone up – I think they’ve been $16 last time I went. More info here.

New podcast episode out

January Alto is out.

First guest is Victorine de Oliveira, contributing writer @ Philosophie Magazine in France, who talks about her opera and classical highlights this season, books she’s been reading and also the French opposition to the MeToo. (Recorded on Skype, please forgive the extraneous sounds) People mentioned: Lea Desandre, Claus Guth, Kaija Saariaho, Terry Gillian, Paris opera loggionisti, Sarah Bakewell, a historian of the May ’68 Ludivine Bantigny, sociologist Eva Illouz, Virginie Despentes, Catherine Millet & the signatories of the PasMois letter.

Song: Emoke Baráth with Emese Virág on piano, Debussy’s “Nuit d’etoiles” (Hungaroton label, May 2017)

Followed by the conversation with opera director Christoper Alden on directing Rigoletto at the COC, the figure of the “Fallen Woman” in Verdi, working on a Peter Pan play via Leonard Bernstein and Nina Simone, whether his (rent-controlled) apartment in NYC is more Zeffirelli or minimalism, what his worry would be if the Met ever came calling, and what is opera to do in the age of Trump and the internet domination of culture.

Virginia Woolf as ballet

picture1On 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.

Ambur Braid sings Verdi

Believe it or not, there’s a summer concert series at Casa Loma May 31-August 30. It’s called Symphony in the Gardens and this year it opens with Ambur Braid singing a program of Puccini, Gershwin and Verdi (Violetta’s entire “Che strano…Sempre libera” and Leonora’s “Tacea la notte placida”, rumour has it.).  I wanted to hear Ambur in Verdi since CASP’s The Living Spectacles, so this is exciting.

Concerts are every Tuesday, and the program is general populist fare with a few gems and curiosities. Single tickets are around $30, judging by the cost of the passes and include admission to Casa Loma, I expect. I’ve never been, so I may decide to play tourist in my own town on May 31.

(Click photo to magnify)
CasaLomaConcertSeries

Othalie Graham in Opera Canada

I wanted to share my conversation with the Ontario-born, US-based dramatic soprano Othalie Graham that just came out in Winter 2015-16 issue of Opera Canada. Some highlights:

Is operatic career only attainable to the well-off:

The cost of ongoing lessons, coaching, language instruction, travel to auditions, the accompanists, the formalwear, the hotel stays during rehearsals and runs—all require deep pockets as soon the singer leaves school or a young-artist program. “It’s very difficult, but it’s certainly attainable,” says Graham. “I’m not sure how a lot of us do it. You can afford to prepare new roles only if in between the coaching and studying you’re continuing to perform in other engagements.” The number of capable singers coming out of schools is also growing each year and auditions are getting more competitive. Most singers cross borders in search of work, but visa regulations remain inflexible. This Canadian in the U.S. moved from student visa to work visas until she acquired dual citizenship.

Graham confirms that the period after school is the most difficult. “You still don’t have a team in place, you have to do all on your own, and that is the time when a lot of people give up. They see how emotionally and financially difficult it is, and they don’t see a way to make it work for them. But sometimes, it’s the people who don’t give up who end up having a career, even if they’re not as talented as some others.”

On the lovability of Turandot

“I like to keep her young,” she says of her Turandot. “I don’t play her as this screamy, icy princess because you lose something in your voice if you do that. I like to keep her as youthful and beautiful as possible. Which is why I still sing Verdi Requiems, Aidas, things that require pianissimos, which for a big voice is difficult. You can’t hide in that kind of rep.”

There is humanity in Turandot, Graham continues, she is not a mythical figure or a caricature. “When she’s begging her father not to give her away, there are moments where you can float and use pianissimos to show some of her softness and vulnerability. She has to be seductive… even if it’s just underlined. This beauty is the soft underbelly of Turandot.”

Wagner the tender?

Graham is already singing quite a lot of Wagner in concert, and projecting in front of a Wagner orchestra rather than above it on stage presents its own set of challenges. “I just remind myself to sing with my own voice, and again to find the beauty—and Wagner, too, wrote some beautiful, tender things.”

Or even better, read the whole thing here [downloads the PDF file].

Othalie Graham - Turandot - Photo by Reed Hummel
Othalie Graham as Turandot at Nashville Opera. Photo by Reed Hummel

End of year highlights: performing arts

IMG_20150228_205217[1]
George Benjamin, Gary Kulesha, Barbara Hannigan at Roy Thomson Hall, New Creations Festival, 2015

Best Hybrid Concert Performances, Hands Down

The 21C’s Cinq à sept concert that included Jordan Nobles’ π and Saariaho’s Grammar of Dreams. (RCM, 21C Festival, May, Toronto)

Against the Grain’s Death and Desire, the Messiaen & Schubert mashup. (Neubacher Shor Contemporary Gallery, June, Toronto)

CASP’s Living Spectacle concert (The Extension Room, November, Toronto)

Best Concerts

Barbara Hannigan, George Benjamin, Peter Oundjian and the TSO in “Let Me Tell You” by Hans Abrahamsen, etc. (New Creations Festival, RTH, February, Toronto). The TSO in Dutilleux’s Métaboles (same festival)–probably my TSO highlight of the year: they were positively levitating. The TSO again with George Benjamin conducting Written on Skin (still the same festival). This very scenic opera hampered by the lack of staging, but managed to impress.

Tania Miller conducts the RCM orchestra in Mahler 5 at Koerner Hall. Glorious acoustics; Mahler like I’ve never heard him before. (Koerner Hall, November, Toronto)

Spin Cycle: Afiara String Quartet with DJ Skratch Bastid (C21, Koerner Hall, May, Toronto). This is one instance where the electronica and the analogica really conversed.

Gewandhaus Orc with Ricardo Chailly at Musikverein, October 2015
Gewandhaus Orchestra with Riccardo Chailly at Musikverein, October 2015

Riccardo Chailly conducts Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig in a program of lesser known Strauss works. A Technicolor Dream Strauss. (Musikverein, October, Vienna, Austria)

Laurence Equilbey conducts Insula Orchestra in Mozart’s Concertante Symphony for Violin and Viola, Schubert’s 4th Symphony and a Fanny Mendelssohn overture. Rarely heard pieces done justice, in gorgeous period instruments colours. (Cité de la Musique / Philharmonie II, March, Paris, France)

Paris Philharmonie I & II
Paris Philharmonie I & II

Greatest disappointments in the Concert category

Mozart’s Mass in C Minor with the TSO (RTH, January, Toronto) – chiefly because of the two female soloists who indifferently phoned it in. Never seen a colder soloist than Julie Boulianne in “Laudate Me”; a bit terrifying, actually.

Andrew Davis’ orchestration of the Messiah with the TSO (RTH, December, Toronto). The add-ons add nothing to the sound and sometimes even take away from it. It’s the marimba, the snare drum and the xylophone, but it might as well have been pots and pans, bugles, and a vuvuzela—the latter as logical and organic to the sound as the former. And Toronto has heard it well by now; time for another conductor to do the big Messiah next year in whatever orchestration he/she chooses.

Best Operas

Not a lot of gushing to report here. It’s between Lepage’s Bluebeard, Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni and Alden’s Pyramus, all good productions but neither for various reasons will push through as life-long memorable. But I’m really glad I discovered Barbara Monk Feldman.

The most er unusual performance in an opera

Michael Schade in Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni was in his own production entirely. Gives me a chuckle even now thinking about it.

Best performance in an otherwise er unusual staging

Christine Rice in the ROH Mahagonny (ROH, March, London, UK). I feel obligated to like every attempt to mount a Brecht-Weill joint, so people would continue to do it, but still not sure if I can form an opinion, any opinion, about this one.

Royal Opera House detail (March 2015, Mahagonny)
A Royal Opera House detail (March 2015)

Greatest unexpected disappointment in the Opera category

Matthew Jocelyn’s staging of Philippe Boesmans’ Julie (Canadian Stage, November, Toronto). More fundamentally, Julie the opera itself. The Strindberg play can work as a claustrophobic battle of wills where subtle acting and silences matter, but as an opera? Not for this opera-goer. The dread of class miscegenation and the fear of female desire as sources of drama haven’t aged well into our own time. And opera has treated the master-servant shenanigans—and female desire–through its librettos for a couple of centuries now. I fail to fathom why any composer would want to turn Strindberg’s Miss Julie into a libretto, or why any director would hail such a work as one of the best contemporary operas today (as Matthew Jocelyn did in an interview).

Vienna Staatsoper, Macbeth (October, Vienna, Austria). The set was cement blocks, the costumes mid-twentieth-century dictatorship, Mid-Eastern or East European. Singing was fine, but the production overall showed no signs of life, no circulation, no breathing. How long was I going to stay on that balcony, craning my neck? I left at the intermission.

Inside Vienna Staatsoper, October 2015
Inside Vienna Staatsoper, October 2015

Best Theatre

NTLive’s The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard. I hate to put a screening in this category, but I have to. (Cineplex, April, Toronto)

Juliet Stevenson as Winnie at the Young Vic (March, London, UK). Here’s a good conversation about this production between the director Natalie Abrahami and Juliet Stevenson with the BBC’s Matthew Sweet.

Dario Fo is good news any time, and Soulpepper’s adaptation of Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist was a solid effort. It didn’t entirely work for me—the adaptation text didn’t emerge out of a movement or even a common experience or solidarity, as Fo’s original text did: Toronto theatre-goers are as likely to be Conservative as NDP, and have largely middle-class expectations and tastes. The play also appeared conflicted about what it wanted of us, to participate or be a silent audience; the foray into the audience was more odd than provocative. All that said, a theatre putting its resources into the social difficulty that is Fo should be saluted. (February, Toronto)

The most regretful miss-outs

Robert Lepage’s 887. I became aware of this play one day after it had closed! It’s touring now around the world, maybe it’ll return. Takes the PanAm Games to distribute some serious commissioning money around.

Betroffenheit: there were no tickets to be found. They’re returning to town next February, though.

Lisa Dwan in the three Beckett plays on women in extremis. Months preceding, I was looking forward to this, but that very month I had a death in the family and it all felt a little too close. I decided not to go. I hope to catch this somewhere eventually.

Would have loved to have seen Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at the Shaw, but it’s difficult to get there (train plus bus, and you need to match your itineraries very carefully to the minute while the GO website is working against you achieving that goal), and no ticket under $100. So to watch a leftist play about an Italian working-class family, you have to own a car, have hotel accommodation money and pay the not at all cheap ticket.

What I realized this year

I lost interest in the star-vehicle recitals.

I will miss Rdio. Am now between streaming loyalties—dipping my toes into Spotify and not particularly liking what I’m seeing there.

As for the books of the year… Well, the books deserve their own post.

Memories of Vienna on bicycle, October 2015
Memories of Vienna, October 2015

Palpito dell’universo

15-16-01-MC-D-216

I might as well come out: La Traviata is—together with Don Carlos—the best thing Verdi ever did. Even though it’s an opera in which the Fallen Woman is tortured, accepts greatest self-sacrifice, and dies so that we the audience, and her torturers on stage, can realize that her moral behaviour is superior to those of the more widely accepted bourgeois pater familias’. Even so. Taken line by line, the libretto by Francesco Maria Piave has poetry, truth-telling and intelligence to burn, and that’s 160 years later. Acts 1 and 3 especially are doing well, the middle act likelier to show its age and melodramatic roots. The “E strano…Sempre libera” in Act 1, in which Violetta probes, rejects, embraces love in turns is a mini-act in itself, every line meaningful, and equally of our time as of Verdi’s. Every line, too, married to music just about perfectly. There are some cadenzas that singers who don’t give it their all can leave appearing illogical but that in the hands of great singers make perfect emotional rollercoaster sense.

In her house debut, Ekaterina Siurina was a fine and correct Violetta, if not entirely commanding or emotionally shattering. I had the impression she was somewhat reserved, keeping quite a bit of herself to herself. The production could not have helped: Arin Arbus’s reduced-traditionalist approach alas did not reduce the volume of the hoop skirts nor the elaborateness of the wigs and the headwear. In “E strano”, Siurina needs to go through the slew of conflicting emotions and criss-cross the stage while wearing a big wig chignon and a tiara, an unnatural constraint to her head in a scene of emotional directness calling for naturalism. She is—and so are we—luckier in the final act where she wears a nightgown and is much freer in her movement and much more expressive. Conductor Marco Guidarini with the COC Orchestra struck a perfect tempo for “Addio del passato”, drawn out, but not too drawn out; melancholy, while still serene; acquiescent, with a tragic tinge of hopefulness.  Considering the opera as a whole, Siurina’s voice had the odd moment of unevenness and disappearance under the orchestra, but was reliable and pretty overall. Joyce El-Khoury is sharing the role and it’ll certainly be worthwhile going again to see what she makes of Violetta.

Act 2 in many ways belongs to the two male protagonists, the tenor and his baritone father, excepting the brief “Amami, Alfredo” farewell by Violetta. Germont the Father visits the two love-doves in their country house, and skilfully blackmails Violetta while seeming to appeal to her compassion. She decides to comply and leave Alfredo upon his request, so Alfredo’s younger sister, “an angel”, could marry her suitor, reportedly reluctant to have anything to do with the family in which the son lives in sin with a former courtesan. As is his wont, Quinn Kelsey was excellent as Giorgio Germont, making the case for the old patriarch by showing his soft spots—Verdi is to blame here, as he gives him some fairly lyrical music amidst the predominantly solemn and menacing colours.

Tenors are the most clueless characters of any nineteenth-century opera, and Alfredo is not only slow on the uptake but bloodless, too—or let’s say, underwritten. There isn’t much to him, but the voice can save the character, and Charles Castronovo does exactly that with his ample and generous tenor, beautiful of tone, consistent, burnished in timbre. Both male protagonists sounded a size bigger than the leading soprano, but they are also not the ones singing practically non-stop for two hours, and don’t have to pace themselves.

Sets (Ricardo Hernandez) and costumes (Cait O’Connor) do the job, and rather well and inoffensively. There is some witty macabre bull puppetry at the party at Flora’s, and some gender-switching in the chorus-led story of the matador. The revelry in Act 1 and Act 2 has subtle accents of Tim Burton around the edges, but the protagonists remain traditionally clad. The final act set is particularly effective, as it lays bare the depth of Violetta’s solitude and her diminished means.

It’s a good production to take an opera novice to, faithful to the letter of the libretto, and probably the crowd-pleaser of the season. Unlike the Rossinis and Bellinis of yesterseasons, however, this crowd-pleaser has Verdi and Piave at the top of their game, and Arin Arbus’s production that, if not exactly adventurous, never for a moment gets tedious or lazy. We should count our blessings wherever we can.

15-16-01-MC-D-1052Photos, both by Michael Cooper, show Charles Castronovo and Ekaterina Siurina. La Traviata continues until November 6: tickets, dates and alternating casts here.