To open up a libretto, or to rewrite it? The curious case of The Abduction from the Seraglio

I got hold of the libretto for Die Entführung aus dem Serail the other day (Cassell Opera Guides, London 1971) because I wanted to read it before the Wajdi Mouawad adaptation opens at the COC next week and see for myself again if the original was so egregiously xenophobic and orientalist as to warrant a radical rewrite. It is not, I will argue. It had occurred to me that this might be the case when I watched McVicar’s couldn’t-be-more-trad Abduction right after I watched the livestream of this Mouawad production from Lyon two years ago. But I wanted to be sure; and reading and re-reading the libretto itself, English by the German original (translation Lionel Salter) would be essential. 

Libretto is a hodge podge by Gottlieb Stephanie the Younger after C. F. Bretzner with Mozart himself editing as the dramaturge. There are two Ottoman Turkish characters, Pasha Selim and Osmin, mirroring the other two aristocracy + proletariat pairs, Constanze and Blonde, and Belmonte and Pedrillo. Pasha is a clement and wise ruler (similar to Tito, but more personality and more moral judgment – and in a lot of productions way hotter), and it’s only Osmin, something of a basso buffo, that may ruffle some oversensitive feathers. He is rough and peeved and mistrustful of the westerners, and threatens with torture and worse. In a lot of productions these play out as not particularly dark threats, since Osmin does not make these decisions himself, the Pasha does. Another instance where feathers may be ruffled — and which maybe ruffled Mouawad’s too — is the scene of the failed forced seduction between Osmin and Blonde who is technically in his possession, but resistant. At one point, he says “Tenderness? Coaxing? This is Turkey, and here we dance to a different tune. I’m the master, you’re my slave; I command, you must obey!” The argument that Blonde is clutching to is: I’m an Englishwoman, I’ve known freedom, and cannot submit now just because I’m in another part of the world.

There’s much to unpack here, nothing is straightforward, as is there much to unpack in the libretto as a whole. As Brigid Brophy, who wrote the intro to the Cassell guide, reminds, the “westerner goes abroad, writes home about the local customs” genre that bloomed alongside the global expansion of capitalist trade and colonization is more often than not a form of criticism of the local, western mores and governance – a form of political criticism of one’s own rulers disguised as a postcard from an exotic place. (OK, you can argue, but why didn’t the lot of them take the time to read up on different cultures instead of fantasizing about them for their own purposes? Some have, others haven’t. A valid question for  another conversation.) Here’s Brophy:

Exploration, commerce and empire gave eighteenth-century Europe the raw material for a cult of the exotic… Painters, including Stubbs and G.B. Tiepolo; architects, including J. Effner and John Nash; writers such as Pope, Montesquieu and Defoe; and librettists and composers of opera, including Frederick the Great and Mozart.

The effect made at home by travellers’ tales was the opposite of the effect intended abroad by most of the travellers. Missionaries set out to Christianize pagans, militarists and merchants to subdue and exploit savages. But from the information they sent back to Europe the message read by Enlightened thought was that pagans and savages might be more moral and more civilized than Christendom.

The taste for the exotic was the aesthetic and fictional face of a searching intellectual comparison. […] The form of the fictitious traveller’s tale, in which the traveller questions the natives about the institutions of their society and the answers cast a satirical and sceptical light on institutions at home, had been sketched by Sir Thomas More and is still in use by science fiction. In the eighteenth century Swift expanded the traveller’s tale into Gulliver’s Travels and Voltaire developed the form into his pamphlets in the shape of fictions (including his interplanetary science fiction, Micromegas).

So to return to my main question: of all operatic librettos of the standard repertoire, does The Abduction warrant a rewrite? Or do good, complex operas allow, are roomy enough, for a rewrite within existing parameters through an innovative, seriously engaging production? That’s what good staging does: identifies the kinks in the piece, and works up a concept that would make the opera viable to us, the present day audience. As I mentioned in my notes about the Lyon streaming of The Abduction, while Mouawad eliminates the danger of sexual slavery by making the easterners into Enlightenment salonniers who resolve conflicts through communication and not violence, the now notorious Bieito production of The Abduction emphasizes nothing but sexual slavery.

A good libretto can take this kind of interpretive beating on the regular, and is better for it.

And that’s how we re-signify most operas, without having to actually rewrite them. Has anybody done it with Butterfly, the rewrite? (Bieito’s production again reverses various things through the staging, but does not rewrite the actual text.) If there’s an opera in need of intervention, it’s that one. Or The Rape of Lucretia, which for me is a lost cause until someone radically re-stages the ending. The dramatically weak Il Trovatore could also use some help from a smart playwright. Most of Gluck needs an infusion of life. Yet the recent rewrite of the ending of Carmen in one (1) Italian production caused a disproportionate amount of international uproar.

The NYT went to Lyon the year of the premiere and hailed the production in its piece on (roughly) how art brings people together and reconciles the antagonisms, but it’s unfair to ask that of opera or any art form – to program itself in order to fix historical injustices. Is that what the arts are for? What an operatic production is for? I’d argue good art does that any way, but not because it sets out to do that, but by its very existence.

Anyway. I have a soft spot for Mozart and his librettists, who take the side of the women, the servants and the ‘cultural other’ par for the course. I’d argue that he’s the last of the standard rep titans whose operas should be rewritten because ‘offensive’ or ‘cliched’.

Remains to be seen if the COC Abduction is in any way different than the Lyon livestream. I’m keeping an open mind. Mouawad, who is now running Theatre de la Colline in Paris, has not been reviving his own production here; this fell to Valerie Negre, assistant director, and I think that’s good. Women should stage and (if needed) rewrite things that directly concern them, and decide if something in an operatic work is misogynist or not by themselves. I hope more of them break into opera directing – there are quite a few in the assistant tier right now. Negre had to follow Mouawad’s instructions, I’m sure, but maybe she added her own touches here and there as well.

The Abduction from the Seraglio, the Wajdi Mouawad transladaptation, opening on Feb 7 and runs through Feb 24.

 

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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.

I have seen the future of the baroque concert, and it is programmed by Alison Mackay.

Safe Haven / Tafelmusik. Photo by Jeff Higgins

I’ve read good things about Tafelmusik’s multi-media, through-themed concerts, but did not know how special they are until I finally went to one this Friday. Safe Haven, programmed again by Tafelmusik’s double-bassist Alison Mackay, takes on  the theme of refugees and immigration this time. Pitfalls are many around the topic – sentimentality, didacticism, forced parallels, the idea that it’s incumbent upon art to fix historical injustices – but they were masterfully avoided. The multi- in its multi-media nature came from the video and lights (Raha Javanfar, projections & Glenn Davidson, lighting) and spoken text (researched and written by Mackay), with musical pieces tailored in.

Mackay spins the main thematic thread across the countries and continents while also remaining faithful to the orchestra’s preferred musical era, roughly the baroque style era between Lully on the one end (d. 1687) and Vivaldi (d. 1741) on the other. An extraordinary number of composers are on the program, many more than can be heard during regular Tafelmusik concerts because in most cases, single movements are played rather than the pieces in entirety. (And why not; didn’t, as Lydia Goehr argues, the ‘musical work’ as we understand it today emerge at around 1800 with Beethoven?) There are a few forays into our own time and among our contemporaries. A photo or two early on (the US-Canadian border crossing under snow, say), a recurring quote (“no one puts their children in a boat / unless the water is safer than the land”, the verse by Warsan Shire, young Somali-British poet), and at the very end the true story of a Newfoundlander who rescued a boat full of Tamil refugees thirty years ago.

The program itself is knitted into an almost narrative, pieces of music woven into the historical episodes described, often directly tied to the specific people named. The Huguenots had to leave France for England for reasons of religious persecution, the Jews had to leave Spain for The Netherlands, Catholics had to leave England and Scotland for Poland, the Roma had to keep moving through Europe even then, and all the while the slave trade is happening across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Africa is here important part of the narrative and is given voice in the musical program, with Diely Mori Tounkara’s solos on the multi-string plucked instrument from Mali called kora, which sounds a bit like a love child between cello and harp. Plus, the knockout lady percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand added beat to some of the western pieces, and absolutely blew the roof off with her solo on the Iranian daf.

Reading the script was the singer Maryem Tollar. She also sang the two vocal pieces on the program, “Or sus, serviteurs du seigneurs” by Goudimel and Bourgeois in old French and “A la salida de Lisboa” in Portuguese. The voice is non-operatic, which is exactly what was needed in the context – she naturally switched from the speaking mode to singing as a cabaret mezzo. It was simple, and intimate, and right. The only thing that perhaps wasn’t ideal is that during the reading segments she would overemphasize most of the adjectives and add dramatic enunciation to her words where this wasn’t called for. But not too big a deal, ultimately — and not everybody is a trained actor, c’est pas grave. She aptly navigated the microphones, the bows, the chairs and the other musicians–the narrator moves around a lot–and also played the tambourine in the final number with everybody taking part.

Which was Corelli’s legendary Allegro from Concerto grosso in D Major, except rearranged as a jam session between the instruments of the west, east and south with the percussion coming in loud and clear (Toller and Farahmand). A total burst of joy, ear-to-ear-grin ending to an emotional evening that was poignant and playful in turns and so smartly plotted out.

There’s one more performance left – at the big hall of the Toronto Centre for the Arts on Tuesday, January 23. Unmissable.

Safe Have – Tafelmusik. Photo by Jeff Higgins.

The year in books

Well. I suspect due to various personal upheavals this year, good (a lot more writing assigned and pitches picked up than last year, on top of my regular 3-day-a-week non-writing job in Etobicoke) and bad (having to move out from the rent-stabilized apartment where I lived for 9 years was a proper life kerfuffle), I read less this year, down to 2.333 books a month from the 4-a-month average.

OTOH, the newly added time and stress constraints made me choose wiser each one, which resulted in some consistently good reads across months.

Here’s all the books I’ve read this year, with favourites in bold.

Lee Smolin: Time Reborn. Dr. Smolin is a theoretical physicist at UoT and Waterloo’s Perimeter and this book gave my brain an extreme kind of exercise in scientific and philosophical thinking that it’s rarely asked to do. I didn’t grasp everything, and that’s just par for the course even though Smolin manages to write about the most perplexing questions before the human mind in an accessible, general public way.

Anne Garreta: Not One Day. An editor from BookForum got in touch to ask if I’d like to review this new translation of Garreta’s book, and after looking up the author (whom, shamefully, I hadn’t heard of before) it took me zero split seconds to jump at the opportunity. I am now an ardent fan of AG, the rare woman among the Oulipo gang. Read my review here [PDF, because it’s behind the paywall on Bookforum dot com].

Sam Byers: Idiopathy. Haven’t encountered this much knowledge about what happens within a couple since Iris Murdoch. SB is also on Twitter and excellent at it.

George F*cking Saunders: Lincoln in the F*cking Bardo – a masterpiece. If you deem it sentimental, there’s something seriously wrong with you. Or you haven’t yet encountered death from a closer distance.

Katie Kitamura: A Separation. Lots of good readers went gaga for this one, but meh.

Rachel Cusk: Arlington Park
Rachel Cusk: Transit
It became clear to me that I have to read everything this woman has ever written. Arlington Park, one of her “pre-fame” books, shot up past Transit and is now, together with Outline, in my Pantheon.

Edouard Louis: The End of Eddy. What a pile of self-important, over-publicized poverty porn dreck this was. Was supposed to review it for said BookForum, but wrote an angry, hatchet-y, impatient review that the editor wanted me to re-do, in a calmer tone of voice and with more textual examples. I said no.

Gwendolyn Riley: First Love. A gem.

Amy Parnes & Jonathan Allen: Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign. The very first book to come out about That Thing, and I had to have it. Nothing extremely new in it to anybody who religiously followed the US media at that time, but it was a good overview and the sundry off-the-record interviews with staffers resulted in some new insights. Not sure if I’m buying the “this was the most factional and divided campaign it could be”, but the authors provide plenty of evidence that there have always been too many cooks around the Clintons’ pot (which they cultivated themselves) and that while WJC could cut through his to form a unified, persuasive political vision, HRC couldn’t cut through hers. I also read

What Happened by HRC this year. I liked it. I was moved, and the Sisterhood chapter is on point. There’s some light bs occasionally, but it doesn’t mar the overall impression. I also closed the book thinking, I should call my loved ones much more frequently; Chelsea called her late grandma more frequently than I did my own late mother. And how many political memoirs will make you want to call your mother more?

Dorthe Nors: So Much for That Winter. I wanted to love this, but alas.

Roland Barthes: Mourning Diary. He wrote it after his mother passed. You’re beginning to notice some recurring themes in my reading materials, don’t you.

Delphine de Vigan: Based on a True Story. This won the Goncourt in France recently, and riding that wave of recognition got a swift English translation. The narrator who’s also an author meets a woman at a party, who quickly becomes her best friend and insinuates herself into every aspect of author’s life. She also subtly starts manipulating her fiction writing – and by the end of the book you don’t quite know if the woman really wrecked her life or if she was a character written by the author. One of those Who exactly is deceiving me now? read.

Mathias Enard: Compass. A Viennese musicologist goes to bed and can’t sleep; instead he’s pondering his life and his recent terminal diagnosis. Lots of music, lots of East meets West business, and a particularly effective argument against Edward Said’s concept of ‘orientalism’ — from the mouth of a female character. Meditative, erudite and unruly. Didn’t love it on the whole, but loved so many of its moments.

Katie Roiphe: The Violet Hour. Authors in extremis. Brilliant through and through – even though most of the authors are not those that I would have looked at (all somewhere on the traditional masculinity and alcohol abuse spectrum).

Sally Rooney: Conversations with Friends. I wanted to love this too.

Margaret Drabble: The Dark Flood Rises. A very unusual Drabble, in that the best conveyed, most complex characters are male. Gave me two nights’ worth of flooding nightmares. Didn’t love it, but loved finding again that recognizable Drabble voice so unique to her. We’re lucky she’s still writing and publishing.

Penelope Lively: Dancing Fish and Ammonites. A cultural and personal memoir about reaching old age. Where do we go, what do we do, if we live still must?

Paula Fox: Desperate Characters. Americans don’t do (ie know how to handle, how to write about, how to be conscious of) class, either on film/TV or in novels. But this novel is among those few exceptions.

The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick is also among those exceptions.

Nick Mount: Arrival. A fun and thoroughly researched look into the making of the CanLit. Essential.

Sybille Bedford: A Compass Error. A lesbian triangle novel published in 1968 in Britain? Narrated by a sharp, erudite coming-of-age heroine? Set in a Highsmith-Ripley-sque version of Europe? I’ll take that extra large and to go, SVP.

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled. A claustrophobic, oneiric, Kafkaesque, incomprehensible world with classical music at its centre.

Brian Moore: The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. It works, it works just fine as a novel, well written and lively; I’m just not sure if the woman at its centre deserves what the author puts her through. It’s a bit much, the humiliation. Give her SOMETHING, shurly?

Alex Good: Revolutions: Essays on Contemporary Canadian Fiction. Oooh this is naughty and incisive.

Gonçalo Manuel Tavares: Joseph Walser’s Machine. Formally inventive, and I’m glad I discovered GMT thanks to the author interview in the French Philosophie magazine. However, in Joseph, women either don’t exist or appear in order to hinder the proceedings and to be discarded by the Important Ideas pushing the text forward.

Stuart Jeffries: Grand Hotel Abyss. A bit overlong, could have used a trim or five, but otherwise an informative, fair and occasionally even witty collective biography of the main thinkers of the Frankfurt School, Adorno, Marcuse, Horkheimer, Fromm, Habermas and its straying predecessor Benjamin.

Jon McGregor: Even the Dogs. This Wood essay made me aware of McGregor, and this novel did not disappoint.

Have a pleasant rest of holidays, dear readers – and thank you for reading.

 

The year in review

Some of the good things about 2017:

In Concert

Sarah Connolly with Chicago SO. Photo by Kristin Jensen.

Sarah Connolly sings Das Lied von der Erde with Chicago Symphony Orchestra, c. James Conlon. I went to Chicago for this; sadly the TSO’s own Erde was a wreck this year.

Adrianne Pieczonka sings Winterreise, Rachel Andrist @ piano

Soundstreams presents R. Murray Schafer’s Odditorium

Canadian Art Song Project + 21C Music Festival: the all-Ana Sokolovic recital with Danika Loren, Emily d’Angelo, etc

Mozart’s Piano – Kristian Bezuidenhout & Tafelmusik.

Opera

Vivier’s Kopernikus in Banff, Against the Grain & Banff Centre

Met in HD: Der Rosenkavalier (dir Carsen, with Fleming, Garanca, etc)

Arabella at the COC

Toronto Consort’s Helen of Troy (aka Cavalli’s Elena) – in concert.

Theatre

The Youth-Elders Project @ Buddies in Bad Times. Much of this was unscripted: half participants in their twenties, half past their sixties, all bent, some homosexual, some queer (and there is a generational divide with terminology too), talk about their lives and experiences.

What Linda Said by Priscila Uppal @ Factory Theatre. Late Linda Griffiths appears to her friend (based on Uppal) who is now herself sick and undergoing treatment for cancer. They talk about life, love, writing, dying.

Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools by Evalyn Parry & Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory @ Buddies. Second half was as close as I ever came to witnessing a shamanic ritual. Laakkuluk donned an animist persona/mask and went straight into the audience. Crawled over and between the rows, ground against people, grabbed, handled, dry-humped. All kinds of boundaries got crossed. It was fantastic.

Unholy by Diane Flacks, Buddies & Nightwood Theatre. A panel of four women (an Orthodox Jew, a Muslim, an atheist and a Catholic nun) debate whether women should abandon religion altogether. Further complications ensue after the atheist and the Muslim fall for each other.

Young Marx via National Theatre Live (Yonge-Bloor Cineplex). Young Marx lives in London, throws (and throws off) communist meetings, has no money, has a wealthy loyal friend in Engels, one wife, one servant-lover, many children, police always on his tail for one reason or another. A laugh out loud farce and the best piece of left propaganda (I mean this as a compliment) I’ve seen in performing arts in a long time.

The Bakkhai at Stratford Festival on the other hand disappointed – chiefly due to music which was sugary musical theatre fare.

Media arts

Fire at Sea, an Italian documentary about the locals of the southernmost Italian island Lampedusa and the African migrants making the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean into the EU.

Angry Inuk, a Canadian documentary about a handful of seal hunters in Nunavut who are barely making ends meet vs. the PR-savvy, big budget environmentalist organizations campaigning against seal hunting.

The Lives of Thérèse, a French doc about feminist activist Thérèse Clerc. Here’s a clip in which she tries to explain to her granddaughter that lesbianism is the sexual arm of feminist politics, and that heterosexuality is like sleeping with the occupier.

Dish: Women, Waitressing and the Art of Service, a Maya Gallus doc about women around the world who wait tables.

Agnes Varda & DJ: Faces, Places. Outstanding docu-fiction reminding us that there is no such thing as insignificant lives.

Sieranevada, a Romanian feature film about a Bucharest family preparing for the wake for its deceased patriarch. From the director of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.

Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves, a Quebec feature film which walks the esthetic and political avant garde side of the street. It imagines a radical left splinter group coming out of the Quebec anti-tuition fee protests from a couple of years ago which continues the fight in a more direct action mode (destruction of property, theft, and some violence against humans too). Refreshing, bizarre, Godard-ian, frustrating, but provocative and smart for its entire three hours. The movie that shifts the treatment of politics in Quebec’s engaged art – after this film, Robert Lepage’s play-pic 887 at CanStage, which still circles around the October unrest and the Quiet Revolution, seems dated.

Podcast Episode the First

So I went and created a podcast.

It’s called Alto, it’ll cover music and literature and occasionally other stuff too and it’ll drop last Thursday of every month. The first episode is right here and on the Soundcloud, & can be streamed or downloaded. Guests Jenna Douglas Simeonov of Schmopera, John Gilks of Opera Ramblings, Joseph So of Ludvig Van and Opera Canada, and Sara Constant of The WholeNote and I talk about the good, the bad and the WTF of the year that was.

I’m still getting the hang of the technical side of things so don’t judge my sound equalization, clip quality or my anti-radio voice too harshly. For now.

I also realized while I was editing the audio file that there’s not a lot from my own list in the mix, but that’s just fine, there was so much to talk about that I never got around to going down my own list. I did point out my Greatest Disappointment, so there’s that. Here’s the run-down of some of the Best of… choices but for the Worst of… (and we were all much naughtier than our writing voices) you’ll have to listen in.

John of Opera Ramblings, Best Shows:

Neema Bickersteth’s Century Song at The Crow’s Theatre

Toronto Symphony with Against the Grain: Seven Deadly Sins, staged for concert

The Ana Sokolovic Dawn Begins in the Bones recital 21C Festival at Koerner Hall

The Vivier show, Musik fur das Ende, by the Soundstreams

Category: Reconciliation : COC Louis Riel, the symphony putting on shows with First Nations content; Brian Current & Marie Clements’ opera Missing which opened in BC; land acknowledgements in the arts world.

Sara Constant, Digital Media at the WholeNote:

The Soundstreams Vivier show

Intersections Festival hosted by Contact Contemporary Music (Jerry Pergolesi’s ensemble) – immersive event at Allan Gardens

My own addendum to this:

Soundstreams doing R Murray Schafer Odditorium

PLUS Judy Loman in anything

Joseph So, a long-time opera critic (Opera, Ludvig Van, Opera Canada):

Category: Event – the Trio Magnifico concert at the Four Seasons Centre (Netrebko, Hvorostovsky, Eyvazov)

Toronto’s best operatic performance: COC’s Gotterdammerung

COC’s Arabella (even though he describes it as a “German Harlequin novel” – or maybe because of that exactly?)

Best recital: Barbara Hannigan & Reinbert de Leeuw recital: “Like Melisande is singing Berg, Schonberg, Webern and Zemlinsky”

Best  singing performance in an opera: Andrew Haji singing Nemorino in COC’s Elixir d’amore

Best opera seen abroad: Goetz Friedrich’s Ring in Deutsche Oper Berlin – the farewell performance.

Jenna Simeonov (Schmopera):

Absolute top of the chart: ROH Rosenkavalier directed by Robert Carsen with Renee Fleming, Alice Coote and Sophie Bevan.

The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak – an opera with puppets by Wattle and Daub at Wilton’s Music Hall in London.

Katie Mitchell’s production of Written on Skin at ROH with the original cast

A Schmopera interview highlight of the yer: Dr. Paul E. Kwak on vocal health of singers.

+ + +

For detailed info on the musical tidbits in the podcast, head here.

My own Best of 2017 coming out before end of year.

 

The Messiah, liberated

Karina Gauvin, Krisztina Szabó, Frédéric Antoun, Joshua Hopkins, Matthew Halls, TMC, TSO. Photo by Jag Gundu/TSO

British conductor Matthew Halls was unknown to me until last night, but I’ll be following his career from now on with interest since he liberated Toronto’s biggest Messiah from Andrew Davis’ vision and made it exciting again. Thanks also go to those who booked Halls for this run of The Messiah concerts in December (there are four left to go) and to whoever decided–I expect it was Halls himself–to move the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir from the crescent of the back balcony down to the concert stage. Five rows of about 28 singers each are a concentrated, powerful force. The inner intricacies of the sound sculpting among the voices are much more easy to follow too, and the contrasts are easier to spot. After this experience, I can’t see why any conductor would put the choir anywhere but on stage.

Halls also reduced the orchestra to the Mozart era size and skipped all the extraneous instruments that Davis is so fond of. The choir never overpowered the instruments, however. Balance was good throughout. There was the odd moment when this or that soloist was being covered by the orchestra, but they didn’t last long and the scale settled back into balance quickly.

There was opera and mélodies in Karina Gauvin’s solo arias. I don’t think Come unto Him and How beautiful are the feet ever sounded that lush and sensuous–more like Les chansons de Bilitis than religious worship, but you didn’t see me objecting for one second. Mezzo Krisztina Szabo was most impressive in He was despised, which more than made up for the occasional drops in volume power earlier in the oratorio. Tenor Frederic Antoun had the volume and coloratura galore, and an unusually dark timbre to boot–or did I get used to the thinned out near-falsetto hautes contres tenors that keep being asked to sing this? Another welcome change, in any case. Bari Joshua Hopkins completed this quartet of capable soloists that left nothing to be desired.

An even bigger draw for me have always been the choruses, and I can report that my favourites (And He shall purify, For unto us, His yoke, Behold the Lamb, All we like sheep, He trusted in God, The Lord gave the word, and Amen — ok, just about all by three) have been handled well. Well worked out tempi, nothing bizarre; limpid sopranos, velvety altos, bright tenors and dark but not too heavy as to sound Orthodox church basses were on at all times. Sometimes the middle alto-tenor section get smudged in complex choruses, but none of that here. (Noel Edison is the TMC’s artistic director and I presume he rehearsed the TMC until it was time for the tutti rehearsals.)

Continues today, tomorrow, Friday and Saturday and definitely worth catching.

Handel Unbound

Miriam Khalil, Justin Welsh, Michael Uloth, Danika Lorèn, Topher Mokrzewski (Darryl Block Photography)

Against the Grain’s new Handel concoction, Bound, is still very much a work in progress. Last night, we had a chance to see the first version of the three-year process of developing a production, and the final version may end up being completely reinvented.

The founding idea is good: 7 characters who are confined due to a brush with the immigration law sing Handel arias about their condition. The spoken bits connect the arias – the Stage (voiced by Martha Burns, in a dark far away corner of the COC’s Jackman Studio) interrogates each inmate in a weary and slightly menacing tone through a glitchy microphone.

The Handel aria texts (Cara sposa, Ombra mai fu, Iris hence away and Ah mio cor I did manage to recognize) are discarded and new words written to build the stories for these specific characters. Music is often rearranged as well (Topher Mokrzewski @ piano) – sometimes to the detriment, when the coloraturas are sacrificed, and sometimes the arrangements indeed enrich the song, as when Arabic-inflected singing is added to Miriam Khalil’s character take on Ah mio cor.

The cast of young singers are good actors to one though neither is exactly a fireworks Handelian voice. The vocal side would matter much less if the dramatic core of the piece solidified — which is still not entirely the case. Is the State specifically Canadian, or is it American, or an abstract cross-cultural entity? Is the State meant to be uniformly oppressive? In which case, the individual stories need to be revised and made more specific. In one case, a man was asked about a German relative of his who’s had ties to the Nazi party. Sadly, Nazis are back in the news and I wasn’t entirely sure if the libretto was suggesting that the relatives of Nazis or the Nazis themselves have been in the past or are being today unfairly prosecuted or harassed by association?

Another character is sister of a man who committed I presume one of those white terrorism acts: lots of innocent people are killed, is all I gathered; and the man’s name is Liam, the name which, when sung out in a plaintive aria, sounds almost comical. She is being interrogated, I presume, as is customary to talk to family members of mass murderers? I am not entirely sure that that too is an extremely oppressive act.

Perhaps the main dramatic problem is that the reason why these characters are being interrogated remains unknown? More detail would help clarify the absurdity of the charge – the vagueness doesn’t help. Perhaps Joel Ivany should look at some of the news stories and work them in, with changed names? One of the characters wears a hijab, and is questioned by the State about it – but the exchange just doesn’t sound credible. Since we don’t have all the other information on why she’s being detained, it sounds like she is being given extra hard time because of the hijab? The hijab question is also a bit more complicated than that. If the State was Iranian or Saudi Arabian the woman harassed would be the one without a hijab or niqab. I kept thinking of Zhara Kazemi, who was an Iranian-Canadian photographer apprehended on false charges and beaten to death in a jail in Iran. Might be wise to take a wider look at what some other States are doing as well when it comes to women and how they dress.

Left as vague as this, neither of the character stories actually work. The one thing that is clear is that they are all massively incovenienced. A big crime in Canada, I know… But silliness aside, if the libretto is to stay Canada-specific, the stories should be more specific. A clear cut case that Ivany could have used is toddlers being stopped at border crossings because their names appear on do-not-fly lists, for instance. Or live-in caregivers being denied family sponsorship visas because their children have medical conditions which would be “a burden to Canadian health care system”. Or the live-in care-givers themselves. There is much to be mined from the actual news – no need to invent vague unspecific instances of what we are told is oppression.

This show can be much better. Meet you same place, next year?

Bound continues to Dec 16 and returns next year in a new disguise

Justin Welsh, Danika Lorèn (Darryl Block Photography)

 

Dirigenten! review

Filming the work of an orchestra is not an easy job. The television series Mozart in the Jungle, about a fictional orchestra, focuses on a handful of individuals to tell the broader story. Dutch documentary Around the World in 50 Concerts (dir. Heddy Honigmann, 2014) follows the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on tour and looks at the orchestra’s work in a roundabout way, by talking to music lovers about how they experience the music they hear. While both creations have much to recommend them, neither is quite as exciting as the orchestral music-making itself—and neither exactly capture the contingency, the heartache and the unpredictability of a career in music.

Conduct! Every Move Counts, screened in Toronto on Tuesday, November 21 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema as part of the cinema and the Royal Conservatory’s Music on Film series, made me think of these earlier examples because this 2016 German documentary about the Georg Solti Conductors’ Competition comes closer to both the glory and the gore. It zooms in on a few candidates (I presume the team interviewed many more of the 24 conductors selected for the 2008 competition before deciding who to follow), and while the winner did turn out to be among them, the documentary centres on the “losing” candidates and their personalities and musicianship, which they have in bucket-loads. The winner too comes across as an interesting character – Shizuo Kuwahara, who at first stands out for his bizarre arm gestures and grimacing, but who eventually convinces the orchestra (of the Frankfurt Opera), the jury, the audience on the final night as well as the doc viewers of the seriousness of his approach.

Still, he remains in the background. Foreground is occupied by the then little-known, now established conductors Alondra de la Parra (who doesn’t make it to the second round, and who in the cab on the way back to the airport says on camera: “I shouldn’t have done it. I already have my orchestra, I already conduct – I really didn’t need this”), James Lowe, Andreas Hotz, and the “dark horse” figure in this film, the very young Aziz Shokhakimov. Shokhakimov and Lowe become fast friends and the camera captures them a few times playing the “guess the symphony by my hand movement” game.

The director, Götz Schauder, managed to access and film the jury’s pre-selection of candidates, the rounds of the competition which are not open to the public, jury deliberations, the announcement of results, and of course, the final, public round at the Frankfurt Opera. On the candidates’ side, in addition to the on-camera interviews, there was access to their hotel rooms, prep time, off time, waiting time and the feedback conversations – including one particularly memorable one in which the orchestra’s first violinist tries to explain to Shokhakimov that he should try to be less cocky and listen more, since he just couldn’t fix a problem in a particular section in rehearsal.

This documentary is not afraid to go into details: there is a lot of useful footage on the nitty-gritty of the work of conducting and playing in an orchestra. There are also some surprises along the way, but after all is said and done, the reasoning of the jury remains looking fairly arbitrary, or mysterious at best. Competitions are there to drum up media interest and the excitement of the public, and to give a boost to the careers of musicians who don’t have connections or a big agency behind them. At the same time, competitions can be as arbitrary as awards and auditions, dependent on multiple other factors besides candidate’s musicianship and potential.

In the post-screening Q&A at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, conductor Tania Miller talked about her own experiences with competitions – and as a young conductor, she’s tried some, including one that was won by the then still little-known Gustavo Dudamel. The Music on Film Series MC, the Royal Conservatory’s Mervon Mehta, asked her about her take on why there are still few women making a career in conducting, and she said she perceived three main reasons. First, the business side of a career in classical music: agencies, labels and media “sell” what they know and what’s been profitable so far, and that will be men. Second, some of the women conductors just out of school will not feel confident enough faced with what looks like an awe-inducing, largely male monolith – the classical music canon and the people whose job is to run it and write about it – and will need a confidence boost which may not come from anywhere. ‘Well, if nobody else is willing to believe in me, they must be right and I must be wrong,’ is the kind of thinking that may make a woman conductor change careers. And third, Miller said, is in part a matter of choice. It’s not an easy road to take. Alondra de la Parra says at one point in the documentary that she is studying scores from early morning to late in the evening, “and I believe her,” said Miller. “It is actually like that.” Miller went on to say that, if you want a family as an aspiring conductor, you must be extremely lucky to have an accommodating partner who is willing to do a lion’s share of child-rearing and relationship maintenance.

Greatest laugh of the evening? Mervon Mehta describing seasoned orchestra players as, on principle, “cranky bastards.” “Not the Royal Conservatory Orchestra,” interjected Miller. “Yes, not them, because they’re still students,” said Mehta to another wave of audience laughter.

The Music on Film series continues on January 30 with Strad Style, a documentary about an Ohio-based, Stradivari-obsessed violin maker, and February 27 with a bio-doc dedicated to Miriam Makeba, Mama Africa. Full program for Music on Film can be found here.

This review first appeared online in the Wholenote magazine

Haus Musik: Crossing / Traversée

Patricia Ahern (violin) with Charlotte Nediger (harpsichord) in HausMusik, November 2017. Photo: Haus Musik Twitter account.

I finally got the chance to see one of Tafelmusik’s “alternative” concerts, the November edition of the series known as Haus Musik. It took place at the Great Hall’s Long Boat venue, on Queen and Dovercourt. This is a series of non-traditional chamber-size concerts by Tafelmusicians in venues like night clubs, preceded and followed by a DJ set.

I somehow thought that the concert would be a conversation between electronic and baroque music, but the two stayed safely apart and what we had was a traditional concert (if shorter) alongside a kind of a staging with a dancer, video and, um, curated smell: envelopes with dried lavender were handed to each of the audience member, which connected to some of the shots of lavender fields that we saw in video projections. The DJ Andycapp DJ’d before and probably after (I didn’t hang out for long).

There were no chairs about, hey this is an alternative concert in a club, but people clearly needed them because 20 minutes into the concert much of the audience on the ground level sat on the floor. I don’t think anything will be lost by adding some chairs to the Haus Musik formula? There are no chairs in clubs because people dance in clubs, but there was no opportunity for the audience to dance to baroque here. So: which it is going to be, the chairs or the dancing? that is the question. No chairs and no dancing is the worst combination possible.

The pieces heard were short and well varied – a concert for two violins (Patricia Ahern and Genevieve Gilardeau), a solo piece for the harpsichord (Charlotte Nediger) and another for viola da gamba (Felix Deak), and some pieces that asked for all four musicians. Beside Couperin, Rameau and Marais, two composers who are new to me were played: Jean-Marie Leclair and Louis Constatin.

I feel it would be bitchy and beside the point to “review” this performance and to comment on whether the ensemble sounded under-rehearsed etc. Too, the staging-mit-choreography by Jennifer Nichols wasn’t quite… there. The story unfolding while the music is playing was of two couples, one from the time when the music was composed, one contemporary — and they could be one and the same couple. The contemporary couple has split and we only see the man of the pair (dancer Jack Rennie), struggling with memories or dreams or visions (projected on video; Patrick Hagarty is credited as the filmmaker). There is great potential in this idea of the present, the past and the future disturbing each other’s domains and melding before our eyes, but the thing never really got off the ground. A pre-recorded male voice read a poem in French by “J. Nichols” (Jennifer?) in between the segments, which did not add much to the piece. The props making up the man’s atelier were the familiar scruffy Toronto indie opera no-budget props.

The audience, though, was MUCH younger than one sees in regular Tafelmusik concerts, and the drinks were being carried all around this licensed venue. However, unless tweaked (dancing or chairs?), this kind of a do is not exactly my thing. Especially now that that I live in east end. Dovercourt-Queen is now far west for this autumn cyclist.

Next Haus Musik is scheduled for February 2018.