Archive for May, 2010

An Outdated Stitch in Time

May 28, 2010

On May 26, 2010, at the Theatre Centre in Toronto on lively Queen Street West there was a replay of last year’s successful première of the Stitch.

The Stitch is a singing performance of three seamstresses and the only sound support comes from the three sewing machines. The storytelling relies solely on a poetic associative arrangement of words revolving around stitching, sewing and clothing vocabulary in small, loosely connected monologues, dialogues or trios. It is supported by emotionally charged and expressive singing and acting invoking an array of collective memories of female hardship and suffering in a male-dominated world. The audience would have benefited had the programme provided the libretto, but that was not the case.

The entire performance probably does not include a single complete sentence that is intelligible. Yet,  the taste of collective memory of the social position of woman deprived of  equality, enslaved in her underappreciated labours and denied the status of a person in law and society comes across surprisingly clear and strong.

The programme and media release inform us that it is an operatic event of three good singers. Neema Bickersteth is evidently gifted with a voice of remarkable clarity, control and strength. The intimate space of this performance is also a great opportunity to enjoy the proximity of a singer but unfortunately only when Ms. Bickersteth released her voice in one or two short solos did it reach to my bones. (My personal message to Ms. Bickersteth: Keep auditioning for the big stages, you can do it!)

Patricia O’Callaghan, described in a profile available on the net in a provocative metaphor as a singer who sings with “a naked abandon”, did not take the opportunity to surrender to such an extent. In fairness to her this piece perhaps does not avail an opportunity for a “naked abandon”.

The third singer, Christine Duncan, had her effective stage moments too and contributed to some peaks of the dramatic friction in this performance.

The programme has it that the composer, Juliet Palmer, collaborated with Meredith Monk, and this piece shows that influence. Since Meredith Monk is not an artist of my personal preference I would raise the objection that there is not enough music in this piece. It is a performance but the music comes only in third place: after poetry and acting.

Anna Chatterton as a writer made a little poetic miracle with this text by managing to convey a firm statement with the associative power of words alone.

My friend who accompanied me to this performance made an excellent remark that this 45-minute performance did not reach a dramatic peak before its somewhat premature and abrupt end. Had it been more dramatically developed it would have qualified to be a solid piece. Concise as it is, it feels like a mid-term exercise in a performing arts course rather than a self-standing full-evening event.

Lighting, choreography and costume contribute to the impression that it is an experiment and not a fully elaborated performance. Each of these elements are somewhat neglected and the funding cannot be an excuse.

The world around us as it is today abounds with mind-provoking themes for a performance like this. Women’s issues as a theme today when even the mainstream universities have established entire departments devoted to this subject matter does not carry the provocative and daring energy we want to feel from the alternative off-mainstream podiums.


La Traviata, Madrid in the Thirties

May 18, 2010

Violetta: Norah Amsellem; Alfredo: José Bros, Giorgio Germont: Renato Bruson; Flora Bervoix: Itxaro Mentxaka, Annina: Maria Espada, Baron Dauphol: David Rubiera, Dr. Grenvill: Lorenzo Muzzi. Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Real, López-Cobos. Production: Pier Luigi Pizzi. Opus Arte.


This Traviata takes place in an Art Deco context of decadence, greased hair parted on the side, outfits a’là Gatsby and the presence of Fascist insignia. The opening scene reveals the interior parted into two rooms resembling the interior architecture in proportions suitable for the lobby of a railway station or some other space anticipating large congregations. The visual impression, which mostly reduces the colour palette to creamy white and black produces an environment which could be described as impersonalized, opulent and decadent. On the left side is Violetta’s boudoir with her private bathroom, and on the right is her salon where her party guests are indulging in sensual pleasures.

There is a detail which is controversial to my personal taste. It is the scene in the first act where we encounter a character, a guest at Violetta’s party, dressed in a military uniform, swastika on the forearm band, leather boots, etc. He sits on the floor with a woman, supposedly having a good time like everyone else. Of all men he is the only one sitting on the floor. This detail is dramatically unclear. Other than placing the event in a narrower time frame than can be accomplished by architecture and clothing he bears no relevance to this Traviata. These symbols are historically too raw and painful and far too charged with layers of meaning to be left as a casually thrown-in detail which bears no other meaning. The other controversial thing is why he is sitting on the floor. For a member of any uniformed force, when in uniform there is a code of conduct to be observed in public and private gatherings. Sitting on the floor at a party would not be a part of acceptable conduct. Perhaps having him sit on the floor was a value-charged statement by the director but it is not sufficiently clear and not well woven into the fabric of the story. In any event the golden rule of Stanislavski’s dramaturgy is that if there is a rifle hanging on a wall hook in the play, it has to be shooting in the play. Otherwise there is no place for the rifle on the wall in such a play. In this case this member of the Nazi army does not amount to anything more than a purposeless gun on the wall, which amounts to nothing more than flirting with heavily charged symbols.  And flirting with the Nazi insignia in art is a superficial and irresponsible act.

The second act takes place in an interior which resembles a Scandinavian furniture display room in white and a gorgeous shade of blue-tooth blue. The stage designer probably intended Bauhaus, but there is a scent of Ikea-like freshly furnished space far too clean in lines, that it actually does not invoke the targeted period.

The scene with the gypsy festivities and the matador’s dance and song is set in a bacchanal ambiance suitable for the orgy of a Roman Emperor. I would agree with some other commentators of this production that it fails to trigger the excitement and awe it meant to.

The details of the costumes are styled in proportion to the details of the set with a delicate touch in dressing Violetta and bringing up the beautiful body curves and youth of Norah Amsellem in the role of Violetta.

Ms. Amsellem, apart from being a gracious and beautiful young woman, is a good singer. What I miss in her portrayal of Violetta is passion, a feverish readiness to surrender. Her voice, although not incapable of nuance and from a technical standpoint well controlled and measured, lacks emotional depth and breadth. Her high notes are sharp and spiky but there is no fire in them. On occasions she is lagging in tempo and her expressiveness is controlled at the expense of the underlying emotion. Wait till the very end and you will see that Ms. Amsellem, though, is most gracious, emotional and sincere recipient of the applause. It is a treat to see her at bow.

Whoever was in charge of make-up for the role of Violetta deserves to be mentioned for a delicate task accomplished with excellence.

José Bros as Alfredo has carried out his role in singing and acting with and blended well in into the whole project. Renato Bruson in spite of his age and relying on a masterful technique has done equally well as father Germont.

Maria Espada as Annina is the best Annina in all the Traviatas I have ever heard or seen. Her radiant, fragile and vibrant bell-like quality of voice combined with a youthful persona gave a fresh appearance to this small and usually overshadowed role. Ms. Espada gave a delicate and touching quality to this young maid who helplessly watches the tailspin of a human tragedy unfolding in front of her eyes.

The orchestra under the conductor Jesus López Cobos from time to time seems to be carried away with their own show and too many times overrides the singers.  The overall sound is more suitable for a military brass band than a melodramatic plot such as La Traviata.


May 10, 2010

When Mozart was only 24 he was commissioned to compose Idomeneo for the Bavarian court carnival. It was his first opera seria. As a genre opera seria is based on historical or mythical events told in sequences of scenes rather than tightly knit in one tale.        

After being defeated in the Trojan war, the Trojan princess Ilia is taken as a prisoner to Crete. She is secretly in love with the prince Idamante, the son of the hostile country’s King  Idomeneo. During one of his sea voyages Idomeneo is caught in a storm. He pledges in his prayer to Neptune, the god of the sea, to sacrifice the life of the first person he encounters upon landing if Neptune spares his life from this storm.        

Prayers are not to be trifled with, because it is his son Idamante whom he meets first. Meanwhile the prisoners of war are all released and countries once at war are now at peace. As any other mortal (the royal heads in particular are prone to this inclination), Idomeneo too considers how to cheat on the god. So after consultations with Arbace, his adviser, he decides to send Idamante to Argos to escort the princess Elettra and so escapes his terrible fate. Ilia, who lost her homeland Troja, is now losing her beloved Idamante.  She decides to accept what is, and treats Idomeneo as her father. In her broken heart, Idomeneo recognizes that his heart is broken by having to send his son Idamante into exile. But Idamante is in love with Ilia and unhappy at the prospect of leaving for good with Elettra. The only person rejoicing in this plan is Elettra, who hopes that having Idamante away from Ilia and for herself alone will bring her happiness. The wrath of the gods descends upon the land and Idomeneo is pressed to reveal who is the person he promised Neptune to sacrifice. When he reveals that it is Idamante, the High Priest ponders how to negotiate with Neptune, whose sea monster is already wreaking havoc on account of fraudulent sacrificial activities. Fearing further possible revenge from the god of the sea, Idamante does not find reason to live if separated from Ilia. He is ready to be sacrificed. At that point Ilia offers her life instead. Here lies the esoteric secret of the story. The gods become gracious when they see mortals who overcome fear, and fear of death has always been high-ranking on the list. Neptune is appeased by seeing Idamante and Ilia rising above fear. All is well, and ends happily ever after. Only Elettra, who built her castles in the air founded on the sorrow of the hearts of Ilia and Idamante, perishes into the bottomless recycling bin of the universe.        

The new co-production of the Canadian Opera Company with the Opéra national du Rhin had its première yesterday in Toronto. It is a masterfully crafted piece with a great cast. The pride and treasure of our city, the internationally acclaimed Isabel Bayrakdarian, sings Ilia. Every phrase she sings brings to me wave after wave of thrills and goose bumps. Her voice is high and strong but carries the powerful emotional expressiveness of a whispering broken heart. Krizstina Szabó, another Torontonian, was chosen for the role of Idamante. Mozart initially meant this to be for the castrati tenor, but opera production long ago established gender equality and the choice of Ms Szabó was  brilliant. Ms. Szabó has a deep, wide, middle voice of a dark blue hue, and flames on the edges and the top.        

Do not be surprised if you find yourself in tears while listening to these two ladies

Do not be surprised if you find yourself in tears while listening to these two ladies

Tamara Wilson as Elettra delivered great acting and singing alike. Remarkable precision and refinement characterize her powerful and authoritative delivery. A delicate touch in the styling of this character is her cosmetic purse in crimson red patent leather.        

Tamara Wilson as Elettra

Paul Groves as Idomeneo has bravely undertaken a very challenging role for his otherwise well-cultivated and nuanced voice. However, this role demands certain dramatic moments of throbbing to which Mr. Groves’ voice cannot as yet reach. I read somewhere that one tenor who sang Idomeneo said that it was for him the most difficult role ever, and there could be no doubt about it. As Mr. Groves said in an interview, one has to know one’s voice and respect its limits. His effort and courage, though, are to be praised.        

Thanks to the estate bequest of Sara Ratney, the Toronto audience had the pleasure of hearing Michael Colvin sing the role of Arbace, the adviser of Idomeneo. Although this is a smaller role Mr. Colvin was greeted with enthusiastic applause for his authoritative and focused rendition.        

Michael Colvin as Arbace

The chorus appears in a relevant role in this opera. The crisp and powerful razor-sharp precision in delivery with perfectly controlled changing volume is not only a credit to the singers but to the invisible hand of Sandra Horst, who yet again guided them in  performing with the solemn spiritual quality we experience when listening to a good recording of  J.S. Bach’s mass.        

The orchestra sound under conductor, Harry Bicket, was a notch too mellow. Although it conceptually fit well with the whole production of a gentle retelling of this legend, a little sharper delineation would have been better to my personal taste, but I want to make it clear that this is hair-splitting by me.        

In the recent production of Attila at the Met, Miuccia Prada, was quoted as refusing to deal with the costumes of extras. Idomeneo production can pride itself for having spared no expense on costumes, including the shoes. The outfits of this performance may not draw the attention of the press since they were not stamped with the hallmark of haute couture. However, Karine Van Hercke has designed them with due care, which means not drawing undue attention and in general contributing to a very effective result. The only slight overkill was the four uniformed army officers and the occasional appearance of Idomeneo in the uniform of a Hauptman, who if dressed slightly differently would blend better into the overall concept.         

Even more elaborate than what we saw in the Flying Dutchman, the lighting is a contribution in and of itself. The director and the lighting designer for this performance deserves a special mention: François de Carpentries.               

Set designer Siegfried Mayer designed the scene which is clean, illustrative and versatile in perfect balance. In its visual effect this production shows a good collaboration between the light, set and costume-design people.        

The story of Idomeneo, told in a gentle voice, is a story about mortals and gods and their eternal negotiations. If you decide to attend, be prepared to be carried away and  forget that the outside world exists for a good three hours. Take with you some Kleenex just in case and be ready to experience beauty first-hand.

Opera Fans of North America unite…

May 8, 2010


…with European Opera Days

This is the fourth occasion that European Opera Days is taking place across Europe during this weekend, May 8th  and 9th. Opera houses are opening both main and back stage to the world around them. The theme this year is “Crossing Bridges”. It is about including other forms of art and connecting different people and cultures. The introductory words of their manifesto explain:

“Opera, the power of song 

The Italians who invented Opera four centuries ago were seeking to recreate the theatre of the ancient Greeks, an amalgam of words, music, dance and spectacle in the setting of a communal festival. The power of song to unlock strong emotions has been central to the ability of this composite art form to speak across national and linguistic boundaries ever since.

Over time Opera has become an emblem of European culture. Its creation and performance are a prime focus of a nation’s cultural identity, but one which communicates internationally. An opera house belongs to its own town and region, but it is visible to the world.

The greatest and most prolific composers of opera – Monteverdi, Händel, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, Puccini, Strauss, Janáček, Britten – bring to life stories which have a direct impact on people’s lives. Today’s creators may use different techniques, but the combination of music and theatre retains the magical potency to inspire and entertain which held Athenian audiences captive 2,500 years ago.”

Sadly, this year the bridges to Athens are burning,  but the festivities are crossing bridges to include Belgrade, a city sometimes forgotten on the  maps of weather forecasts and often marked in bold on military maps. The performances of Verdi’s Aida and Rossini’s Barber of Seville in Belgrade are scheduled for the 8th and 9th of May respectively.

May the glory of opera live long.

Maria Stuarda

May 1, 2010

This Donizetti opera was meant to be premiered in Naples, but it was banned by the King of this principality. It is fascinating that the execution of Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots, which took place a good 250 years before Donizetti composed the opera, was controversial enough to result in censorship.  Mezzo soprano, Maria Malibran, who was already a celebrity, had chutzpah to accept the role, despite controversy, and the première took place  in Teatro La Scala in Milan. Although the première in London was anticipated shortly thereafter it actually did not happen because of the premature death of Maria Malibran at the age of 28. It postponed the performance in London for more than a hundred years. It was performed for the first time in North America in San Francisco in 1970.

Ever since monarchy came into existence it became “business as usual” that the contenders to the throne would resort from time to time to physical annihilation of a rival if other options failed. Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots, was decapitated at the age of 45 for treason under the reign of her elder cousin Elizabeth I, who was 54 at the time. The historical underpinnings of this rivalry are far more complex than the rivalry between the two cousins for the throne, which explains the highly charged controversy surrounding this opera.  

This opera depicts the execution of Maria Stuarda as an outcome of a love triangle between Mary Stewart, Elizabeth I and Roberto Earl of Leicester. Roberto loves Maria, but Elizabeth is the monarch in power who is contemplating marriage with the King of France, although she is in love with Roberto. The execution of Maria is a result of Elizabeth’s jealousy. After all it is  Donizetti’s opera and not a thesis in history.

This opera held its dress rehearsal in Toronto on 27 of April. It is yet another piece of evidence that Toronto opera always has good singers. Ms. Serena Farnocchia in the title role is head and shoulders above everyone else in this production. Her singing portrays a passionate, dignified woman who accepts her fate with spiritual wisdom and an ability to forgive. Ms. Alexandrina Pendatchanska as Elizabeth, although adequate in singing, was not so successful in acting. Her portrayal of  jealousy in this royal character was not studied enough and came across as ordinary and on occasions hysterical.

The weakest elements in this production are costumes and scenography. The costumes are meant to be of the period but they lack in splendour and lavishness what one would expect to see. Elizabeth’s dress is made of a simple thin fabric making the wiring underneath  painfully visible. Such portrayal of the character whose namesake on the throne is the head of our state is dangerously close to intolerable. Roberto has some sort of ridiculous bermuda shorts under his mediaeval apparel. The only relatively decent costume, though lacking in detail, is the one  for the title role.

This lyrical drama takes place in a Shakespearean theatre with the royal subjects and courtiers as spectators. A lot of wood was used for this production but without the necessary refinement. The scenes that according to the libretto take place in royal chambers are hinted at by curtains adequate only in colour but not in texture and volume.  They are hung on a wire across the middle of the scene, which give the impression of the makeshift theatre one might expect to see in a public school concert rather than in an opera house of the second largest country in the world. The overall effect is that the entire effort of the singers is undermined by the unfinished stage job. The moat bridges which go up and down far too often are on the verge of dysfunctional. The stage movement is not well-studied either and the executioners in armour appear too casual in their movements.  

There is a great potential for staging this opera but the production efforts were spread thin instead of focusing on the core actors in this drama. The attempt at Shakespearean theatre did not convey an intelligible message, if any.  The lack of coordination in volume between the stage and the pit from time to time suffocated the voices of the singers.

Nevertheless, the piece is worth listening to for the singing. I personally expereienced few genuine thrills listening to Serena Farnocchia’s rendition of Maria Stuarda.