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.

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Goran Jurić: All about that bass

Goran Juric in the COC production of The Abduction from the Seraglio, 2018. Photo credit Gary Beechey.

Bass Goran Jurić (Osmin in the COC’s The Abduction from the Seraglio until February 24) is finishing his six year stint as the ensemble member at the Bavarian Opera and heading to Stuttgart next season. We met at the COC offices for a chat.

Tell me about your trajectory, Munich-based Croatian bass Goran Jurić.

I graduated from the University of Zagreb – I did opera studies there, and also Italian studies and general phonetics. My first operatic experiences were at the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb, where I sang Sarastro, among others…

When did you discover you’re a bass?

My low notes were immediately evident. When I was sixteen, seventeen, I developed my top notes in the course of my studies, but my base was clear early on.

And you knew immediately you wanted to sing – no instrument tempted you?

Music education at all levels is funded by the state in Croatia, and classical musician gets to go to a music-focused high school first and then on to university – what we call the Music Academy. So I went to music high school, where my primary subject was singing, but I had a minor too, the flute. I played the flute for a few years.

Completely different sound from the bass voice?

Yes, but there’s overlap – breathing technique has some similarities, it’s interesting. Then at university, I added Italian and phonetics to my studies. I’m really interested in linguistics, and Italian language and literature, even though I’ve always known I’d never work in the field of language. By the time I was 20, I knew I wanted to be an opera singer.

Do you come from a musical family?

Not at all. I come from a working class family, my dad is an electrician, my mom was a clerk. I don’t come from a family where you take private lessons in French or piano… I had “private lessons” in how to chop wood and stuff like that. If I was to become a musician at all, it was likelier I’d become a folk musician, because I grew up in a village. But somehow, through my education, primary school and high school, in my music classes, I discovered all these composers—and plus the TV probably helped and the occasional concert—and realized I have this great love of classical music. I started to sing in choirs, and my voice was being noticed etc. It’s thanks to our education system that I discovered I could be an opera singer. As it’s usually the case with children who come from rural backgrounds: what you don’t find at home, you’ll find thanks to a good public education system. One of the good things about the old Yugoslav socialist system was the free public schools with music education at every level.

And after the university?

After Croatia, I went to (what we call in our respective countries) “Europe” for singing competitions and I won a few. And that’s how I found my manager. The agency was then called Caecilia, out of Zurich, but now its former lyric section is its own agency, the Amman-Horak Agency for Opera Artists, and it’s remained Swiss. One of the first auditions that they sent me to was the Munich opera house. I had no idea what if anything I’ll get out of it. A chorus position, an opera studio job, an ensemble contract, a one-off role, nothing at all? I just wanted to work. I knew I wanted to move out from Croatia to a bigger operatic centre. And they offered me immediately to come on as an ensemble member. That was my big break. Munich is, well, probably the best opera house in Germany.

I hear Munich loves its opera.

Not only do they have a full season, but a summer festival too, and there’s a different opera on every day, and every day it’s packed. Ticket prices can hit substantial three digit numbers, due to demand. And Munich is the centre of southern Germany, with a really strong economy. BMW is there, Siemens, Bayers. It’s a wealthy city and its budget for culture is equally big, and Munich audiences love opera. There are two operatic theatres in town in addition to the Bayerische and they’re also doing well.

You’ll be in Munich a while longer?

I actually just finished my fest contract there. Learned a lot, sang a lot of roles, and they were careful of Fach. I was never forced to try anything that wasn’t good for my voice; and how they saw me matched exactly how I understood my own voice. They saw me more in Italian, with a little bit of German and Russian rep, and I appreciated that. I sang Banquo in Macbeth, Timur in Turandot, Colline in La Boheme, Ferrando in Trovatore, Raimondo in Lucia, Oroveso in Norma… Rarely baroque, but I did Plutone in L’Orfeo, and we did Rameau’s Les Indes galantes, where I did…

Wait, Rameau has bass roles?

Not only that, it was a female role, written for a bass, and the character is goddess of war by the name of Bellona.

Now I have to get that DVD.

It’s available! I rarely sing baroque these days, though I used to sing some baroque oratorio rep. After six years in Munich, next season I am starting an artist in residence contract at the Stuttgart Opera. It’s similar to being an ensemble member, but you sing much less and have much more available time to guest in other opera houses.

Where do you see your voice going in the next, say, five years?

I will try to keep my voice where it is now. This is my first Osmin at the COC, and I’m enjoying it a lot. I’m not a typical Mozart singer, I don’t do Figaro, Leporello, Don Giovanni. The three Mozart roles I’ve done are Il Commendatore, Sarastro and this one. And I did a Sarastro at the COC last year, and am glad to do Osmin in a house that I know well.

What are your composers now?

So, when it comes to bel canto. I’m not a Rossini singer, but I did sing Moses in Rossini’s Moses in Egypt in Bregenz this summer. I’m returning to Moses right after the Abduction, I’ll sing it in Naples. Raimondo in Lucia, Oroveso in Norma. That’s for bel canto. Then, Verdi. I would still wait for Filippo, but the Inquisitor I would do now. It’s quite short, it’s a big and important scene, but not as demanding as Filippo. For Filippo, you have to have the vocal maturity and also be mature as a person. Otherwise it’s just… not complete. In Don Carlo, I did already the Monk, and my next rank in that church would be the Inquisitor. Other Verdi, I do Sparafucile, Banquo, Ferrando, and happy with how that’s going. I’d like to do Ramphis as well. But I’ll wait out Filippo, Zaccharia, Attila. There’s still time.

What about the Russians?

I adore Russian composers. Last season here at the COC I did an all-Russian recital, with songs by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Sviridov. I would still wait for Boris a while. I will first do Pimen, which I will sing in Stuttgart in the near future. Pimen has some beautiful monologues. I would like to do King Rene in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. And Susanin in Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar. But for now—I’m 34, and that’s still young for a bass—I’d like to keep my voice between Mozart, bel canto and Verdi. I’ve been saying no to offers from the heavier rep. I’m often offered Wagner and most of those I decline. I will take Heinrich from Lohengrin – it’s written in an oratorio manner, the orchestra is not too thick, I don’t have to sing too dramatically. Let’s say King Mark from Tristan would be like like Filippo from Don Carlo for me; something I will wait for. That’s the role that I’d really like to do in the future. People tell me they can see me as Gurnemanz. I’ve sung Titurel, and there you can hear if someone would be good as Gurnemanz or not. But – there’s time.

I wanted to ask you about the Slavs in opera. I’ve read an interview with the Bulgarian singer Vesselina Kasarova in which, well, she put it like this: she encountered racism in the opera world around Slavic voices. Who are booming, unsophisticated, the “Russian School” etc. Does this sound familiar?

Yes! I’ve heard that before. There’s even some truth in what’s otherwise a crass stereotype. But this is how. What we think when we say “Slavs in opera”, it’s the Russian school of singing and the Bulgarian school of singing. Sometimes we add to that the ex-Yugoslav singers. Our languages probably affect our singing cultures. Our Slavic languages are kind of more guttural, throaty… and our folk music is written in a more virtuosic way than the folk music from the west. One of my Profs in Zagreb once told me that the nations that have long and complex tradition of folk music don’t have long and complex traditions of classical music, and vice versa. Perhaps the Slavic singing does come with and require bigger voices and differently coloured voices due to our folk traditions and religious singing, especially the Orthodox influence?

And maybe it’s our way of speaking as well. Perhaps the difference between the European east and the European west is like the difference between south America and north America. There’s a different kind of… expressivity.

Russian operas are full of basses. More of them there than anywhere else.

That’s probably due to their sacred music. Bass is a major voice in Russian Orthodox music. Different from Italian operas, where tenor tends to be the leading voice.

And women’s voices have not exactly been dominating Orthodox chants and liturgies; it’s the male voices, and low ones, in choirs that are the more familiar colour.

Yes, though they also have some really awesome nuns’ choirs. I wish there was an extensive study on this, I’d love to read it. On these differences.

When you listen to a western European choir do Rachmaninov Vespers, like the French choir Accentus, for example, which recorded the Vespers with Eric Ericson Chamber Choir, it’s a very different piece. Gossamer light in comparison to some Russian recordings.

I can believe it.

And then the Balkans are similar but also apart. I grew up in Croatia and Croatia is at a crossroads between the Mediterranean, Central European and Balkan cultures. That’s why the Croatian singers are part of the so-called “Slavic school” but we also have the Mediterranean touch and the Germanic touch via Austria. Croatia, Montenegro too, at a crossroads between larger countries and the empires that occupied us. But we made use of these cultural influences.

Croatia, within and without Yugoslavia, gave quite a few opera singers to the world. Was Sena Jurinac Croatian?

Yes. Also Dunja Vejzović. And Ruža Pospiš-Baldani.

I remember reading about Dunja in my adolescence, in Svijet magazine. Fast forward to much later, I last watched her in a DVD of Il trittico a few years back.

She is now in her 70s and she’s training as a conductor. She went back to school and she’s going to add that to her degrees.

Then there’s Renata Pokupić.

That’s right, she’s a baroque and Rossini singer. And let’s not forget Vlatka Oršanić. She’s my voice teacher and she’s sung in all of Europe really and now teaches at the opera studies department in Zagreb. And if we broaden our search to the entire ex-Yu territory, there’s of course Željko Lučić (b. in Serbia), really one of the best Verdi baritones around.

And Marijana Mijanović, also from Serbia, but she kind of retired.

Oh yes, Marijana! A real baroque contralto. I’ve never met her, but I remember when I was a student watching clips of her on Youtube, she is incredible.

And her former partner, Krešimir Špicer, who is often in Toronto thanks to Opera Atelier.

Krešimir is from Slavonski Brod, in Croatia. Actually, my very first opera, when I was in my second year at university, was Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, and Krešimir was Orfeo in it.

There’s a lot of Slavs in German and Austrian opera. There’s the gruff Croatian count in Arabella and who knows, maybe you’ll end up singing the role eventually… or is it too high for a bass?

I’m not touching Strauss yet! In due course, I’ll take a peek.

But Haydn, too, was inspired by folk songs from Croatia. There were times when the Balkans were inspiring to the west European musicians. Nowadays, the word balkanization is a pejorative… And the stereotyping of Slav singers, yes, it’s a thing.

But this stereotyping maybe works in Slav basses’ favour?

Well let’s be honest, a huge chunk of basses come from Slavic countries. Come on. I’ve met Croatian basses, and Russian ones, Belorussian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian especially. It is something that’s ours. Provided that this we exists in the first place, of course.

OMG that’s right. Of course it doesn’t.

A friend from Croatia recently asked me: so when you’re away and you miss home, what do you miss: Croatia as Croatia, or Karlovac, your hometown, or Zagreb where you studied, or Munich where you live? My answer is, I never feel complete. From every city I live in or work in, I get something. But I leave a bit of myself there as well.

Goran Jurić continues as Osmin at the COC.

Goran Jurić as Osmin and Owen McCausland as Pedrillo in the Abduction from the Seraglio. Photo: Michael Cooper

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

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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

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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.

Verdi Requiem at the TSO with Wagner, Barton, Lopardo and Owens

TSO-Davis-Verdi
Wagner, Barton, Davis, Lopardo and Owens with the TSO in Verdi’s Requiem. Photo by Malcolm Cook

Verdi’s Requiem is a huge spectacle: an opera in search of a staging—and preferably by Cirque de Soleil.

Those who like their Mass for the Dead showy and grand will think of Verdi’s Req as the default Req. There is an in-built mise-en-scène to the work. The dramatic Dies Irae (the Judgment Day) unleashes its force at the beginning of the Sequence, but then reappears half hour later between Confutatis and Lacrymosa, and then later, in the concluding Libera me. It is used as a melodic ‘hit’, and to add dramatic accents. Tuba mirum has brass on and off stage, which create a theatrical space in the music with a sort of call-and-response. The Recordare, usually one of the softest movements in any Requiem, with the dying narrator begging Jesus (the one who sits to the right of the Father, not the earth-roaming, merciful one) not to judge her too harshly, is here of course soft too but also a virtuoso soprano-mezzo exercise reminiscent of Norma and Adalgisa. The Libera me at the end is a mini-scena, given to the soprano who soars and amazes—more ostentation than supplication, more aria than a prayer.

There *are* some contemplative movements too, not all is over-excitement–Hostias, or the tenor’s Ingemisco and the bass’s Confutatis, and the very opening which begins with a pianissimo chorus particularly stand out. But this Requiem won’t get you thinking about death, put it that way. There are too many resplendent things in it that entertain and comfort. If to study philosophy is to learn to die (Cicero via Montaigne), to listen to a Requiem is also something of the sort—a reminder, a reckoning. Not so with Verdi’s Requiem.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra was its usual competent self on Thursday night, under the baton of its very very very frequent guest conductor and former music director Andrew Davis. TSO is good at honouring its history—in fact, I wish it was less good at that, and have more guest conductor debuts. There seem to be a number of conductors who appear in just about every season brochure. Maybe skip your all-time favourites sometimes, dear TSO? What’s with the MSO’s seasons getting more and more unpredictable and diverse, how come they are beating us at that? Mariss Jansons’ one Canadian stop next year will be the MSO, par example.

On the good news front, the four soloists of the Requiem are all making their TSO debut with this concert. And they were uniformly good. I will begin by singling out the lyric tenor who among the three big-voiced soloists more than held his own. Frank Lopardo’s appealing timbre and evenly beautiful tone impressed in the Ingemisco solo, and all the trios and quartets, particularly in Hostias, arguably the contemplative peak of the entire musical score. As he’s no stranger to Toronto—he already sang at the COC—let’s hope we hear him again on concert stage.

The bass goes solo twice and Eric Owens struck the right tone with his interpretation: the considerable power of his voice in check, an almost humble, understated approach, without any overly dramatic flourishes. In contrast, the soprano is often asked to soar above the entire orchestra and the soloists and Amber Wagner gave a performance full of joy and zeal, never neglecting the technical precision. The score asks of the soprano some atypical jumps into the lower register, but Wagner handled them well.

Jamie Barton is such a distinctive voice and such a big personality, it’s almost too bad that we didn’t get to see her in a piece that gives the mezzo more to do. Still, her presence was notable. She particularly shone in the Lux aeterna (shared with the tenor and the bass) and the duos/vocal dances with the soprano—Recordare and Agnus Dei.

This was a fine performance by the Symphony and the TMC of a work that is likely to make you think of anything but the dead and the finitude.

As Achim Freyer well knows. Here’s the trailer for his (circus-y!) staging of Verdi’s Requiem at the Deutsche Oper.

COC announces the 15/16 season

COC announces the 15/16 season

One doesn’t usually return from season announcements cheerful like a loonie, but there you go: I am cheerful. The seasons are usually planned according to the customary Neef Balance: some bold stuff on one side, some stuff for the conservabores* (term I’m borrowing off Michelle E) on the other, ratio at about 50-50. Tonight, though, the interesting and the bold tipped ever so slightly. A harbinger?

So: the good stuff:

A new work, composer Barbara Feldman Monk‘s Pyramus and Thisbe (2010, but never performed) to be paired up with Monteverdi’s rarely staged shorts Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and Lamento di Arianna, in a brand new (is it ever) production by Christopher Alden. The P&T libretto is engaging with Rilke, Faulkner, St John of the Cross, according to this page. I can’t wait to see how Alden interweaves the three elements.

Claus Guth’s Nozze sounds good. It’s a rental from Salzburg, apparently a dark and non-comedic take on the piece. This review and this review both emphasize its intimist, non-political, psycho-sexual-drama approach. Picture me intrigued. Available on DVD, so I’ll probably get hold of it beforehand.

Neef also announced from the stage a series of new commissions for the next few years. In 2016, they’ll be taking James Rolfe + Anna Chatterton’s Donna to Banff for workshopping; Harry Somers’ Louis Riel will get a new production in 2017 (the old made-for-TV one is available on DVD and still fairly watchable), 2018 is the time for Rufus Wainwright’s opera on the Emperor Hadrian and his, er, favourite, and by 2020 Ana Sokolovic will have composed an opera on Michel Marc Bouchard’s libretto to be based on his play Christina, La Reine-Garçon. The strong representation of women in these productions is highly commendable, starting from Barbara Monk next year, or even starting from Kaija Saariaho a couple of seasons back.

And speaking of women, there is will be one stage director of female persuasion next year: Arin Arbus. Her CV sounds intriguing–she’s sometimes described as an off-Broadway luminary and an innovative Shakespearean. She’s also done theatre in correctional facilities. Her Traviata looks fairly traditional and pretty, though.

Which already introduced us to:

The mixed blessings stuff:

The Divo/a Vehicle this time isn’t as conservaborish as last year’s Don Quichotte: Rossini’s Maometto II with and for Luca Pisaroni will be directed by David Alden. It’s a Santa Fe production. I dunno. Rossini doesn’t lift any of my skirts, but it’s David Alden, and apparently Pisaroni is a rare coloratura basso, so… we’ll see. Also in that production, mezzo Elizabeth DeShong, who is always good news.

Siegfried. My least favourite bit of the Ring. BUT. It’s François Girard so there’s bound to be something of interest there. Also, Christopher Purves house-debuts as Alberich. Oh and, hello Maria Radner, the Erda of the production.

A Carmen revival. Title role to be sung by Anita Rachvelshvili and Clementine Margaine. An old production, which looks like this, but some money will be put into reinventing it. Knowing Joel Ivany of the AtG, who is given the task, good things may happen.

Some final bits of the good stuff:

– FINALLY. Two of the three new Ensemble Studio members are not Caucasian: tenor Charles Sy and pianist Hyejin Kwon. HEAR ME OUT NOW. These Young Singers programs across North America tend to be awfully white, and not only that, the women increasingly tend to be of a certain (thin) body type. Would be nice to begin to buck the trend and kinda rock? The cherriest of the cherries on the cake tonight, soprano Aviva Fortunata (aka Ensemble Studio’s Adele) sang a gorgeously somber Rossini aria while sounding like Marilyn Horne. Plus, there was Andrew Haji.

– The opera house was full for the event. It’s an invitation-only (subscribers, donors, the media, singers’ families eccetera) but due to the number of people and the mix, it felt like an almost open to the public event. Ideally, you’d want to have the unticketed open-door ‘outreach’ and education events and concerts inside the R. Fraser Elliott too, not only on the uncomfortable steps of the Richard Bradshaw. That’s the hope, anyway. Opera is an opportunity for a community, a society, to gather round, and take a good look at itself. (Totally agree with Gérard Mortier on this one.) A public forum, in many ways. There was a hint of that in the air last night. Don’t know how long this feeling will last, but it’s nice to experience it.