Not with a bang but with a whimper

(l-r) Karen Cargill as Waltraute and Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Götterdämmerung, 2017, photo: Chris Hutcheson
(l-r) Karen Cargill as Waltraute and Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Götterdämmerung, 2017, photo: Chris Hutcheson

I can’t say I loved this conclusion to the COC Ring cycle, Tim Albery’s Götterdämmerung, chiefly because if offers no food for thought. There’s very little for the eye too: Albery’s is an arte povera approach to the work that contains about two ideas and five props. Even lighting is use sparingly. Yes, the twilight of the gods, I get it, but this darkness with squint-inducing lights gets tired after three hours, not to mention five. The overarching set for all locations except the Gibichung quarters are the massive hydro towers and poles left and right and the wiring connecting them (hydro, the Rhine, electricity, geddit?). It’s a good idea that also gets tired by continuous reuse. There’s something of the deserted outskirts of a large city atmosphere in the set, but this never gets developed. The five props remain the five props.

One of these recurring objects is the marital bed which shows Brünnhilde’s implausible happiness in domesticity. After she’s taken away by Gunther, hours into the production, the bed reappears with the Rhinemaidens in Act III–who are also on the shady outskirts of a city among the hydro towers. There’s some inventive changing of costumes there and playing with blue lights which finally gives the brain something to play with. But this doesn’t last. The bed however is sure to reappear for the murder of Siegfried: he is back on it as Hagen and his men track the hero down and murder him. Siegfried recovers his memory of life with Brünnhilde *and* their marital bed.

The opening scene introducing the Norns was a lost opportunity, because it doesn’t pull you into the drama in any way. We’re in the same dark place with three random women pulling on yarn threads. Nothing uncanny or intriguing about any of it. They are just… chatting. Two of the three Norns in jarring voices at that (not Karen Cargill, about whom later). I’ve always found Ileana Montalbetti’s voice an acquired taste, and the colours employed in the opening scene here take some getting used to. Montalbetti was vocally and dramatically a fine Gutrune later in the show, however, so: you lose some, you win some.

Highly problematic for the story is the fact that in this production the gods, the Gibichung and the Nibelung (Alberich appears in one scene) are all indistinguishable in status and power. They’re all just people, some in corporate boardrooms, others roaming around like Siegfried. Take pretty much everything else out of Götterdämmerung and replace it with gas stations and crocodiles, but the decline of the most powerful must be in the production in some shape. Not in this production, where Hagen’s army of men in suits with spears look like the elite reaffirming its power while Siegfried and Brünnhilde read as a hippie couple living humbly in their remote natural abode. And of course there’s not a hint of fire in the immolation scene, don’t be uncouth.

Among the voices, two stood out for me: Estonian bass Ain Anger as Hagen, (consistently larger, more precise, dramatically more committed) and mezzo Karen Cargill as Waltraute and Second Norn, whose ample gravi excited. Christine Goerke too, of course; she remains the punk Brünnhilde of our era, but something unlovely happens to her voice when the open vowel E is on a high note and needs to be sustained.

The COC orchestra under Johannes Debus, just like the Albery production, could have employed more passion and stronger contrasts but even so the music remains the one reliably exciting side of Götterdämmerung while the libretto struggles with endless episode recaps, magic potions and helmets that provide shape-shifting on demand, and an incongruously weak Brünnhilde physically tackled and overcome by the tiny Gunther. (Wagner really should have hired a librettist occasionally… imagine what would have happened had he found his own Da Ponte, his own Hofmannsthal? But that’s another lament altogether.)

The 5h20min Götterdämmerung continues till February 25.

Andreas Schager as Siegfried (left) with the Rhinemaidens (l-r: Lauren Eberwein as Wellgunde, Lindsay Ammann as Flosshilde and Danika Lorèn as Woglinde) in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Götterdämmerung, 2017, photo: Michael Cooper
Andreas Schager as Siegfried (left) with the Rhinemaidens (l-r: Lauren Eberwein as Wellgunde, Lindsay Ammann as Flosshilde and Danika Lorèn as Woglinde) in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Götterdämmerung, 2017, photo: Michael Cooper
Ain Anger as Hagen (far left) with the Canadian Opera Company’s chorus in the COC Götterdämmerung, 2017, photo: Michael Cooper
Ain Anger as Hagen (far left) with the Canadian Opera Company’s chorus in the COC Götterdämmerung, 2017, photo: Michael Cooper
Advertisements

2016: A year in performing arts

Best spoken theatre

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 Ça Ira (1), La fin de Louis in Amsterdam at Holland Festival in June.

Best opera

Stefan Herheim’s The Queen of Spades in Amsterdam.

A very non-grand Traviata sung and spoken gorgeously by non-operatic singer-actors at Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris in October.

François Girard’s Siegfried at the COC. (But see opera on DVD for the verdict on his Parsifal.)

Scottish-Welsh-Tapestry Opera presented The Devil Inside.

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.

Dean Burry goes Schoenberg on Romanticism with Talisker Players.

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.

picture1picture2

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.

Overture Opera Guides: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

MeistersingerCoverENO’s reliably good OOG series released Die Meistersinger guide last year and I finally got a chance to read it. (Thank you, Gary!) I also happen to have watched Herheim’s Salzburg production on DVD just the other day–my first entire Die Meistersinger, and an unusually cozy and gentle one for Herheim, very Dickens and the Grimm Brothers.

The guide contains a useful chapter by Arnold Whittall on musical themes and developments, which comes with the graphic guide with notation, and both connect very logically to the libretto and its translation. There’s also an insightful chapter by Tin Blanning on the “holy German art” business, in which Schiller plays a prominent part and which explains that the Sachs speech that today reads as nationalist was, at the time of its creation and first utterance on stage, aspirational more than anything else (Germany united as a country a couple of years after Die M had its premiere).

And now for some quibbles.

The first essay could have been more exciting, shorter and more focused, and altogether less reverential. The author John Deathridge, tasked with introducing the work and how it was created, leaves no mystification and (Wagner’s own) self-mystification behind. We hear at great length how the plot also works as an allegory about Jesus and John the Baptist, and Jesus and the Apostles.  Wagner and his second wife Cosima both wrote that seeing Titian’s painting “Assumption of the Virgin” was what reignited Wagner’s interest in his abandoned Meistersinger, so that statement is taken seriously here too, and a connection via Schopenhauer concocted between the painting and the opera. We hear in excruciating detail about an altarpiece from a Nurenberg church and how it may or may not have influenced Wagner. We hear a lot about the first version of the Meistersinger, which Wagner abandoned before re-embarking on the one we have today, and a lot of psychologyzing around the question of why Wagner changed stuff. There are almost two pages dedicated to the forced analogy between King Marke and Hans Sachs. There are interesting bits–the one on Goethe’s Hans Sachs, for ex–but those flights of critical imagination are buried amid all the deference to the biographical and the biblical.

Moving right on… There are people who argue that there’s always something inherently anti-Semitic in Die Meistersinger because 1) there are documents pointing out that Wagner intended an anti-Semitic resonance in very specific spots in the piece, and 2) of the history of reception of the work before and during World War Two–namely, the Nazis embraced it, as a matter of cultural policy, and used its performances as a unification ritual. Hans Rudolf Vaget’s essay at first looked like it wasn’t going to be one of those. Titled “The Beckmesser Problem”, his chapter is a multi-layered history of ascribing anti-Semitism to (finding anti-Semitism in?) certain parts of the Meistersinger. It also provides context to Wagner’s own manifesto “The Jewishness in Music”, which apparently stemmed from his professional jealousies toward Meyerbeer and the resentment toward one particular critic, Edouard Hanslick. Adorno’s contention that all the rejects in Wagner’s operas are caricatures of Jews, and Beckmesser of the Meistersinger especially so, looms large in Vaget’s piece, though he reexamines it, together with a handful of other readings of anti-Semitic tropes, some finding baseless, others less so. He finds hidden in Walther’s Trial scene in Act One a wink to the anti-Semitic tale “The Jew in the Thorn Bush”– in a complicated way that I won’t dare attempt to reproduce here. This for him mars the piece permanently, constitutionally: by the end of the essay, Vaget comes close to the position that there are parts within Die Meistersinger that are inherently suspect and permanently offering an anti-Semitic reading. Because Wagner intended it, and because there have been audiences at a certain point in history–say, 1930s in Germany–who arguably found it and embraced it, it exists in the text itself.

Not only do I not subscribe to this philosophical view of how meaning is created–there’s no ur-meaning outside all contexts, not even dormantly; all of the meaning is in the contexts, and if the contexts die, so die the meanings… Not only do I not subscribe to it philosophically, but I myself am a living proof against it. Namely, if Vaget, Adorno & others did not point out to me that the figure of Beckmesser (or Mime in the Ring) was “meant to make fun of the Jews”, it’d never have occurred to me. Not in a million years, not in the productions I’ve been seeing. Nor was I aware of the wink to the Brothers Grimm tale in the Meistersinger (nor will I look it up now; I’m fine without knowing the basics of the tale “The Jew in the Thorn Bush”, thank you very much). I am not in the minority; we are a massive majority of opera-going folk who would never seek out–why on earth would anybody?–any traces of hidden anti-Semitic caricature any of the Wagner’s characters, or in any other opera’s, for that matter. And yet, we get urged to do so.

The crux of my point being: those writing about an “anti-Semitic Mime” and an “an anti-Semitic Beckmesser” as permanently hiding in the work itself are, perversely, keeping both of those tropes alive. They’re doing that by re-sensitizing the audience (of, say, Toronto, London, or NYC, A.D. 2016) that would otherwise be absolutely deaf to this particular call to prejudice.

Nothing in fact contradicts the spirit of Vaget’s essay better than the essay that follows it, Aine Sheil’s piece on the performance history of Die Meistersinger. The denaturalization of the piece started with the abstract sets of Wieland Wagner, but German theatre radically opened up the work and faced the past head-on with the productions by Neuenfels (Stuttgart 1994) and Konwitchny’s (Hamburg 2002). The Neuenfels production opens with Germany in ruins in 1945 and ends with the reunification at the Brandenburg Gate. Konwitchny, in his, stops the proceedings at the exact moment of Hans Sachs’ nationalist tirade and lets the singers discuss why and if this piece should be done at all. It’s Katharina Wagner’s 2007 Bayreuth production that probably goes furthest in its radical redress and innovation–in it, there is an added segment in which the Regie director and his team get pushed in the dumpster and set on fire by the conservative Sachs. While Sachs goes increasingly authoritarian, Beckmesser ends the production as an independent artist forging his own path.

Interestingly, the productions by the houses in the English-speaking lands tend to be more warm, pretty and straightforward, like McVicar’s Glyndebourne production and Herheim’s own, which was a co-production with the Met (never to be seen this side of the Atlantic, turns out). Richard Jones’s 2010 WNO production, reworked and remounted for the ENO in 2015, made more effort: it found a way to honour the centuries of German and Austrian artists and mould-breakers across disciplines without any of the accompanying ethnocentrism, as a group of people ultimately playing for the team Humanity.

Katharina Wagner’s production can be watched on Medici TV and is available on DVD. A review and another review.

meistersinger-kwagner-enriconawrath

CD Review: Rheinmädchen / Ensemble Pygmalion / dir. Raphael Pichon

 

Rheinmädchen contains what every good recording should: a diverse selection of pieces under one broad thematic umbrella, some bold transcriptions and rearrangements, the little known next to the better known, smart and imaginative conducting & performers, the sound capture that does justice to the material, and, well—the acknowledgment that women exist. (You’d be surprised—or maybe not–by how many works and how much programming in any artistic discipline to this day, 2016, do the last task perfunctorily.)

Ensemble Pygmalion is one of a good number of France’s period ensembles, which are now, counting from Les Arts Flo, three generations strong.  Its founder and conductor Raphael Pichon (YOB: 1984) is one of those non-dogmatic HIP conductors interested in Bach as much as contemporary music, in Mozart as much as the Romantic chamber choir rep. And while a lot of us who respect the HIP school of thought and its instrumental colours place its outer limes somewhere in between the early Romantics and the ripe ol’ Romantics (cause nobody wants Wagner and Mahler on period instruments), Pichon here productively blurred that distinction and very much got away with it. Schumann, Schubert, Brahms and Wagner here come together aesthetically unified as one Romantic brotherhood. Aside the all-female chamber choir, the instrumental forces begin and end with four natural horns, one harp and two double basses.

It’s easy to find in Brahms’ toolbox the gossamer and the chamber-music intimate—he wrote a lot for the chamber choir—but toning Wagner down to the chamber-music level must have been a more challenging task. There’s the horn solo from Siegrfried in the first half of the program, and the funeral march for Siegfried from Götterdämmerung rearranged for four horns (arr. James Wilcox) in the second. The CD opens with “Auf dem Grunde des Rheines”  from Das Rheingold, where 24 spatialized female voices stand in for the Wagnerian orchestra, together with seven aforementioned actual instruments (transcriber not credited). The Rhinemaidens return near the end, but it’ll be the Rhinemaidens of Götterdämmerung, in the transcription by Vincent Manac’h for the female choir, 2 horns and a harp.

In between this Wagner, light, pulverized, almost abstract as the a capella Strauss, a whole lot of exciting Schumann and Schubert choral rep is to be found. Much of the poetry (Rückert, Grillparzer, Uhland) is very dark—much of Romantic music is not really romantic at all, more of a tireless reminder that death and dying are always close, even when the text seems to be embarking on the topics of love and nature. Words are dark while music goes bright, intricate, enthralling. The other umbrella topic of the disc—first being the Female Figures of the Romantic Imagination—is canon as a musical form and compositional technique. Just about every included piece uses canon in some form. In Schumann’s heartrending  “Meerfey” (The Mermaid), voice parts weave around as the mermaid in the text combs her hair, but by the final verse it becomes clear that it was the now-lost ship that was bounced around in the winds and waves. Same composer with “In Meeres Mitten” (In the Midst of the Sea) elevates the odd, surreal text into a wrenching expression of helplessness before the march of history. His “Die Capelle”, with its bright soaring soprano lines dancing around the less extravagant, stabilizing alto sisters, is a most cheerful reminder that thou too shalt die, careless youth.

Warning: Schubert’s “Ständchen” (Serenade) is positively addictive. Bernarda Fink sings the solo part and her full-bodied, rich mezzo is an irresistible foil to the lighter and altogether more ghostly choir of voices that echo her entreaties. The text is a multi-layered delight: a collective of the unspecified voices led by the soloist mezzo-soprano come to interrupt a sleeping maiden because they love her too ardently. They consider the pros and cons of the action, then finally agree to “creep away” and let her sleep. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to this thing. Is it Fink’s silky but unfragile, whole-lotta-woman yet forceful voice with just the right amount of vibrato that kills it every time? The super nimble choir that responds as one? Or the text, in which there are women on both sides, the beloved and the lover? Addiction, I tell you.

There’s quite a bit of Brahms too on the disc, but for me he’s the least interesting composer of the lot. He represents with three Volkslieder in canon and concludes the disc with Vier Gesänge op.17 for female voices, 2 horns and a harp. I loved the most surprising item in there, the Volkslied for female voices op.113 No. 13,  “Einförmig ist der Liebe Gram” which cheekily borrows—hey, maybe even parodies–Schubert’s Leiermann melody and turns it into a sophisticated canon while also managing to be funny. The poem by Rückert (after a Farsi text by Hafis) moans that “Love’s grief is monotonous / A Song with only one note / And whenever I heard it / I had to hum it softly”, while Brahms messes with the monotonous melody of the Leierman and un-plies its yarn into multiple constituent parts that tangle and untangle and proves that the Romantics weren’t entirely devoid of humour.

Rheinmädchen is out on harmonia mundi label.

Rheinmädchen CD

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

Siegfried by François Girard at the COC

Stefan Vinke as Siegfried and Jacqueline Woodley as the Forest Bird in the COC production of Siegfried directed by François Girard. Photo by Michael Cooper.

In the hands of the COC orchestra and its conductor Johannes Debus, the Siegfried score positively danced, and as luck would have it, the spare 2006 production by François Girard did not stand in the way. Acts I and II, “A cave in the rocks in the forest” and “Deep in the forest” respectively, never get as literal as to show any actual trees—in both acts, the view is dominated by the magnificent swirly construction containing buildings, human figures, objects, fragments of objects, light bulbs and wires. It’s an elaborate thing that I could never tire of looking at (the set and the costumes are by Michael Levine). Just about every key character is dressed in a simple all-white getup–a wise choice in an opera in which the division among the ‘races’ of the Nibelungs, the Giants and the Gods are inordinately being fussed about and reiterated. In other words, the Nibelung Mime, the Giant/Dragon Fafner and Wotan disguised as the Wanderer are all made of the same ‘stuff’ (visually). In the Siegfried libretto itself, the tripartite setup is already being frayed in so many ways, which of course will culminate in the final Ring opera. So Girard and Levine’s decision to remove any traces of racializing, even remotely associative, among the characters, is the right one.

But something interesting happens to the set from Act III on. Well: it disappears. There’s a whole lot of darkness when the Wanderer meets Erda and for the final encounter between him and Siegfried and Siegfried and the waking Brunnhilde the fire is enacted by a group of supernumeraries lighted red who are then extinguished, as it were, and slowly leave. Perhaps Gerard was aware that Wagner had composed Acts I and II first, then turned his attention to Tristan and Die Meistersinger, after which he went back to Act III of Siegfried? This difference is present in the musical material, and in Gerard’s staging visually too—but while the music ups the thickness, and the recitative is replaced by the composed-through arioso, the opposite is happening on stage, which becomes bare. The final exchange between Siegfried and Brunnhilde takes place on a brightly lit spot surrounded by darkness, which exhausted my eyes to the point of tears. Why this solution? No clue. It’s one thing to decide not to give Brunnhilde the breastplate, the helmet and Grane when she wakes up; it’s quite another not to have anything on stage but the two protagonists in a glaring white circle.

By that point, fortunately, you will have taken a lot of pleasure from the production anyway. There is some playfulness with the returning motives in Siegfried, and even the least attentive listener will be able to spot the materials they’ve heard before and connect them with earlier contexts in the Ring (the Giants’ drum-and-brass, for example, and the barely disguised Valkyries motive are impossible to miss). There is fun to be had with the solos from within the orchestra, and some of the smallest roles above the pit are so compelling they overshadow whatever else is happening around them (like the Woodbird, by the delightful Jacqueline Woodley, and Erda—Meredith Arwady–whose lower notes, I swear to you, came from somewhere deep underground and shook the FSC).

We usually feel obliged to praise the title role tenor for simply making it through the four hour singing ordeal, and I won’t be an exception to the rule. I felt there was some strain in that endless final dialogue with Brunnhilde, but I’m not sure there is a Siegfried who can be consistently 100 percent from the beginning till the end—not until the robots start singing halden rep at any rate. Stefan Vinke was an appropriately physical and forceful Siegfried, physique of a hockey player in fact, and often unsympathetic (the shaved head helped with that, but thank gott there was no blonde wig in sight). The colour of the voice, however, is on the light, youthful side, surprisingly reminiscent of Michael Schade’s.

The singer who impressed me the most in this stellar lineup was Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Mime. It’s perhaps easier for the shorter roles to impress with consistency and polish? WAS’s Mime was a delight from start to finish. The singer played him as a comic character just this side of caricature, and while Gerard could have easily reduced some of the twitching, shaking and limping, WAS’s considerable acting talent came through loud and clear all the same. Not to mention his flawless, beautifully coloured tenor voice, which also came through loud and clear. His exchanges with Siegfried and the Wanderer were so natural, and the pit-stage balance maintained so well by Johannes Debus, that I felt I was watching a piece of well-paced spoken theatre for a good part of Acts I and II.

Christine Goerke, of course, did not disappoint, neither vocally nor sartorially, but the final scene with Siegfried was rather anticlimactic. Part of the reason was the prolonged white glare, but the other part was that Gerard here expunged just about any trace of eroticism and went for a stand-and-deliver approach. If there was chemistry and urgency, it passed me by.

Fafner (Phillip Ens, off stage) and, in a special case of luxury casting, Christopher Purves’ Alberich, were excellent in their respective modest corners of the drama. Alan Held was given an anonymous and slow-moving Wotan as the Wanderer, in all-white too and a long grey wig. He boomed, he fretted, and there was no end to the depth of his resignation, but he also perfectly blended with the rest of the vivarium, a ghostly figure already meeting the twilight.

Continues through February 14

Stefan Vinke as Siegfried and Alan Held as The Wanderer in the Canadian Opera Company production of Siegfried, 2016. Photo: Chris Hutcheson
Stefan Vinke as Siegfried and Alan Held as The Wanderer in the Canadian Opera Company production of Siegfried, 2016. Photo: Chris Hutcheson

COC16/17 announced

Keri-Lynn-WilsonThe Hurrahs:

The podium sausage fest spell broooooo-ken! Keri-Lynn Wilson will conduct the Tosca revival. The production is underwhelming, Ramón Vargas is an unusual choice for Cavaradossi, but on the upside, Adrianne Pieczonka returns in the role, and KLW makes her COC debut. I hear she is one of the best Puccini conductors around, male or female. Can’t wait.

Bernard Labadie’s COC conducting debut in Mozart’s The Magic Flute (albeit in the YA-tailored Diane Paulus production).

The Dutch-Aix-COC co-pro Ariodante by Richard Jones is a-coming this side of the Atlantic.

The phenomenal Varduhi Abrahamyan will role-debut Polinesso in the same opera and make her Canadian debut.

Die Goerke returns for Götterdämmerung

Sondra Radvanovsky and Isabel Leonard will sing together “Mira, o Norma” and be a hot pair in the SFO-Liceu-LOC-COC Norma by Kevin Newbury that incorporates, we are told, elements of sci-fi.

Harry SomersRiel in a spanking new production by Peter Hinton. I am not too familiar with Hinton’s work, but I liked what he said in the video (too bad he wasn’t on stage to talk about the production–I suppose it’s still too early?). To the effect that the production won’t be of the “preserved in aspic” kind but will directly engage with the state of Canadian polity, AD 2017. I can’t wait for this one. Allyson McHardy is in it, Russell Braun takes the title role. Note: for a crash course on Riel, you could do worse than Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography. A few random panels from it:

ChesterBrownStrip1

ChesterBrownStrip3

ChesterBrownStrip2

The Okay, That’s Enough of That:

Nationalist rhetoric. It’s getting a bit much. Who still needs to be appeased? Who needs to be convinced? Certain journalists who raised the same question about “the lack of Canadian content at the COC” over and over at press conferences? (Meaning, only and always, the composers–as if, say, a Mozart or a Verdi put together by cast and creative that are 95 percent Canadian isn’t a Canadian piece in every conceivable way.) Certain clueless musicians who did the same through the social media? It looks like the pearl-clutching nationalists finally shut up and found other things to pearl-clutch about, a couple of seasons ago. So, can the brags like “the cast in such-and-such a production is entirely Canadian”(!?) be dropped? Can I come out of the closet and say that I don’t care what ethnicity or citizenship papers my opera artists have?

The One Big Nooooooooooo:

Alice Coote takes the title role in Ariodante. She has a considerable chunk of ardent fans, and she’s done some really interesting programs (the trouser role-themed program with Ali Smith in the UK, for example), but all I see and hear in Alice Coote is effort…effort, strain, discomfort, with singing, acting, and even being in a body. It’ll be tough without Sarah Connolly in this role. (Or Allyson McHardy, whom I dream-cast the other day. Naughty, naughty COC clues.)

The Yeah That’s A Good Idea

Instead of presenting an Ensemble Studio production, this year the young talent will be showcased in a concert of as yet to be determined scenes from operas alongside the full COC orchestra.

But there’s much of COC15/16 left to go. More on that soon.

 

Pieczonka the Golden

Pieczonka the Golden

Never look at the brass encouragingly, goes the conducting advice one-liner attributed to Richard Strauss, but Gianandrea Noseda must have had the eye permanently on the brass while rehearsing with the TSO for the last night’s performance of Casella/Strauss/Wagner/Beethoven. The loudness of the brass and winds required the rest of the orchestra to be at their most brash too. For some of the program, this worked fine—Casella and Beethoven—but the vocal pieces suffered from this imbalance, even while showcasing such a powerhouse soprano as Adrianne Pieczonka.

Noseda is an advocate for the revaluation of the Italian composer Alfredo Casella (1883-1947) and this is the reason we got to hear Casella’s “Italia” in the program. The rhapsody plays with two folk melodies in its two movements, and I found the first part more intriguing musically—perhaps because I couldn’t recognize any of its Sicilian folk roots, perhaps because it’s a movement of an appealingly dark mood. The second, Neapolitan part varies the “Funiculì, Funiculà” through various instrumental section and dynamics and has more of a big band in a summer festival quality.

Strauss’s Four Last Songs followed. The orchestra was flat-out too loud in “Frühling” and “September”, and even though the imbalance was slightly redressed for the last two songs, the asymmetry was there to stay. If you came to enjoy Pieczonka’s savoury ways with the German text, you left for the interval unsatisfied, ears ringing with brass. There was no withholding, no teasing, no sensuality in the orchestral tapestry in the Four Last Songs; it gave its all immediately and continued in that vein.

Surprisingly, this also happened in “Mild und Leise” and the Liebestod. The instrumental Prelude itself was subtle and there was plenty of douceur; as soon as the singing started, however, the imbalance was back. In her soaring resplendent highs, Pieczonka easily took over, but for the lower notes the orchestra was hogging the sound again. Still, it was a special occasion: one of the best young-dramatic sopranos in the world today trying out a major role ahead of her. We were the first to have a taste, we can say years from now. (There’s been talk about a future Bayreuth Isolde… In my profile of Pieczonka [PDF] for Opera Canada, for example.)

Finally, Beethoven and his mad Seventh. I’ve been listening a lot of Beethoven on period instruments lately and was worried I’d be biased against the all-out luxury Beethoven of a modern orchestra under Noseda, but turns out I had no reason to be. The Seventh really could be done as a spectacle, and as a series of explosions, and it’ll work just spiffingly. Not everything was in order last night—the extremely fast Presto movement, for example, had a number of late entries, and even though split-second, they were noticeable. But overall it was a tremendously fun performance, with all the connotations positive and negative of the term. Actually, scratch that. There can’t be any negative connotations of having child-like, bouncing off a trampoline type fun at a symphonic concert.

A note for the TSO program editors: please credit the translators.

Photos by Malcolm Cook / TSO

Noseda with the TSO
Gianandrea Noseda with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra

ROH opera screenings return to Bloor Cinema

ROH opera screenings return to Bloor Cinema

andrea_chenier_1aAaaaaaaaand opera is finally back at the Bloor Cinema: this Sunday Feb 22 at noon they’re screening a repeat of ROH’s Andrea Chenier directed by David McVicar with Jonas Kaufman in the title role.

The rest of the schedule looks like this:

March 22 – Tim Albery’s Der fliegende Holländer with Adrienne Pieczonka and Bryn Terfel.

June 28 (no idea why the long break) – a new production of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny with Anne Sofie von Otter (the production that I plan to see live in London on March 24)

July 26 – a traditional La Bohème by John Copley

August 30 – a new prod of Guillaume Tell with Antonio Pappano conducting.

Christine Goerke as Brunhilde: Punk is Not Dead

Walkure-MC-0969I have a confession to make: for me all too often best things in Wagner happen in the orchestral pit, under the text and the plots, in the score. The Ring plot, ridden with arbitrary cause and effect connections, intricate feudal-like loyalties and sub-loyalties, the limitless exegesis of various ancient contractual obligations, the monological recaps of previous episodes, and at its centre the recognizably nineteenth-century bourgeois marital dispute around monogamy and mortgage, would, if staged even remotely ‘literally’—breastplates, horses, spears, forests–lose most of its relevance and force for the contemporary audience. (Had Fricka been written in the eighteenth century, she would not have been the goddess of marital nagging quite in the same vein, because the haute bourgeoise Victorian hausfrau did not yet exist at that time—is my theory.) My theory is also that the decades of regie in Germany, ranging from genuinely inventive to genuinely mad, and perhaps starting with the extremely bare and abstract Wieland Wagner sets, saved and will continue to save the Ring as a work of dramatic art for posterity.

All this to say that Atom Egoyan’s unambitious production of Die Walküre, with the one set for 4-plus hours and a lot of the stand-and-sing, combined with the longueurs in which a character recollects the Rheingold plot or explains what happened to him from the day of his birth to the arrival to the house of Hunding, had me occasionally struggling to stay awake. The set is smart — the Valhalla in ruins, its innards exposed, and the theatre spotlights all out to remind us of the artificiality of the tale – but the idea wears off after hour 1. There are exactly two coups de théàtre in the whole of the production: Brunnhilde’s announcement of death to Siegmund, with some nifty use of video projection, and the setting of the fire for Brunhilde’s sleep in the final scene. The Valkyries are the punks who wear corsets and hoop skirts with the Doc Martens-style boots, and the dead heroes they are collecting are wrapped in white body bags. All good, but this is where it ends. Everything else in the three acts takes place on the patch of gravel by the fallen tree trunk centre stage.

What gave the piece the rush of circulation last night was the COC orchestra under Johannes Debus. It was a crisp performance beginning to end, everything clearly outlined and phrased, well-balanced (give or take a couple of moments of overexcitement in the brass section), spritely where necessary, slow (but still alert and precise) where necessary. My highlights would be Wotan’s Monologue (Johan Reuter, excellent in the role anyway you look at it, but particularly so in the Monologue); Brunhilde’s death announcement to Siegmund, which had palpable suspense of a strenuous negotiation between a human and his fate, taking place before our eyes; the arrival of Brunhilde and the Hojotoho of course, in which we get the first taste of just how cheeky Christine Goerke’s Brunhilde is; and the Fire Scene, with its urgent orchestral ripples of something very close to cheerfulness and reassurance. From the Third Ring you could see who is playing what when within the orchestra pit—I had a perfect view over the cello section and its lead Bryan Epperson and the oboes with Lesley Young in the solos, both sections playing with flare and conviction.

Christine Goerke was a Brunny that redefines foxy: timbre and the force both perfectly right, acting too, the twinkle in the eye always there. Her Brunhilde is a fearless and lovable teen, with a go-get-‘er attitude, but there was plenty of gravity too, especially in the final act. You rarely see a singer having such fun with the role.

The Valkyries were a mix of the COC Ensemble, emerging and established singers and some of the solos were better than others. They didn’t strike me as a unified ensemble. Heidi Melton as Sieglinde also had her ups and downs. We lucked out, however, with Johan Reuter’s Wotan who owned the role as much as Goerke owned hers. Their interactions, too, were a treat. Two of them and the orchestra are the pillars of this production and the reason people should absolutely see it.

Performance dates and more info in the usual place

Photos are by Michael Cooper.

Walkure-MC-1808