Archive for the ‘Mozart’ Category

You can always blame it on the Russian

January 25, 2015

The Don Giovanni of the winter season 2015 at the COC is the same Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni seen at the open stage of Aix-en-Provence’s festival. This time it appears that the production of which I have seen a dress rehearsal came across somewhat different.

Keeping the same stage throughout was perhaps accommodation to the limitations of the open stage in Aix rather than an attempt at minimalism. It is a key characteristic of Tcherniakov’s take on Don Giovanni. It is a hall of an urban household with custom-made pillars of bookcases symmetrically on both sides of the main entrance. There are no-name dinnertable chairs and a large rectangular dinnertable. The floor is covered with a large carpet. At the centre above is a humongous chandelier that can be anywhere from the Thirties until the late Sixties. I would say that it is a post-WWII situation. It is the same location of the memorial service upon the Commendatore’s passing and his family home. Donna Elvira is a cousin of Donna Anna. Zerlina, who in the original libretto is a peasant bride in a passerby wedding, is actually a daughter of Donna Anna, from her first marriage.

Although apparently at home, none of them behaves at home in that space. Don Giovanni appears more at home at this place than any of the women whose home it actually is. All the women are as if they were in a public place or asylum, but not at home.

A lot has already been written about costumes and what sort of character and habits that costumes imply. From where I was watching the costumes were for the most part indistinct. Zerlina’s wedding gown is post-Nineties hip hop. Elvira’s allegedly subdued elegance is in fact reduced to a drab, anonymous, grey outfit most suitable for basement cleaning. The Don himself is mostly dressed in a casual summer attire of a downtown homeless man attending a lunch at an upscale charity. And likewise his hairdo. For some unknown reason he appears frequently barefoot. The singers are subjected to protracted periods of lying scattered on the carpet over the stage, and I was not able to decipher what Tcherniakov meant to say by that.

There are numerous occasions when the singers are lacking guidance in stage movements and stood idle on the scene, almost not inhabiting the role. The interactions were occasionally in the direction of explicit and somewhat distasteful groping on the aggressive side which did not enhance any meaning that would be consistent and integrated into a larger context. Furthermore, the lighting was in particular neglected.

Most praiseworthy in this Don Giovanni are the singers. My favourites are Jane Archibald and Michael Schade. Russell Brown as the Don will not be remembered for any of the Don’s memorable arias. Peter Mattei’s Don Giovanni of the 2002 Aix-en-Provence Festival still reigns supreme, if you ask me.

The stage rendition of the famous Leporelo’s Madamina is a sadly missed opportunity to breed in some fun in this Don. While Leporello is uttering into the void air the geographical tallies of his master’s getting laid in the spirit of sport, Donna Anna is standing idle in a non-responsive state.

When I saw the live stream from Aix-en-Provence thanks to a helpful link from Parterra Box, the utmost authority in opera blogosphere, the then Don was more of a pater familias and there were more scenes of sitting at the table, which dignified every character to some extent, as is suitable to a living room or study.

The contextual reading of Don Giovanni by Calixto Bieito is an example of an integrated vision where the mannerism, costume and conduct of the people belonging to the shady edges of the underworld result in a coherent and powerfully told story. Or the Don Giovanni by Martin Kusej, with each character distinct and developed, yet the whole narrative elevated to the sphere of universality.

Plenty of explanatory materials have already been written in anticipation of this Don Giovanni. I would recommend that those who are interested in following the rising star of Jane Archibald and enjoy the privilege of listening the Michael Shade should come and listen with the eyes shut. The orchestra played a rendition, here and there, to my ears accentuated in an enriching and energizing way. Worth listening to, but watching may disappoint you. If criticism outweighs the accolades you can always blame it on the Russian.


Owen McCausland shines in the title role of La Clemenza di Tito

February 12, 2013

Seasonal flu prevented Michael Schade from performing the title role on February 9, 2013. The opportunity  presented itself  for a young tenor Owen McCausland. Hopefully for Mr. McCausland this will turn out to be one of those career milestones after which everything changes because we the audience had a chance to see that he is a tenor to keep an eye on. At the incredible age of 22 he assumes the role of a Roman emperor with a maturity, confidence and conviction extraordinary for a singer at such an early stage in his career and at that age. A native of Saint John, New Brunswick he emerges as a talented young singer, a multiple year winner of the New Brunswick Competitive Festival of Music. We will see him again this spring in Salome. He appeared in the previous season in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, understudied a role of Spalanzani in the Tales of Hoffman, and just this season in a small role of a young sailor this month in Tristan and Isolde. In 2011 he was one of the winners of the COC Ensemble Studio competition.

Owen McCausland (front) as Tito and Neil Craighead as Publio in the La clemenza di Tito, 2013.  Photo: Michael Cooper

Owen McCausland (front) as Tito and Neil Craighead as Publio in the La clemenza di Tito, 2013. Photo: Michael Cooper

The authorities I usually research on the subject of opera more or less agree that La Clemenza di Tito is not an opera even its author would be particularly proud of. Mozart wrote it in less than three weeks for the money he desperately needed. It was written for the coronation of Leopold II, King of Bavaria. Mozart wrote it at the time when he was busy writing the Magic Flute, recycling a libretto which was used before by many lesser known composers. The plot is improbable. At a time when for lot  minor transgressions people were thrown into cages with  lions, it seems a little dubious that for  plotting the assassination of a Roman emperor, the conspirators would be forgiven and get away with it with only  a few mildly resentful “tsk tsks” from the emperor.  Yet, this is exactly what happens. It is a digestible piece of a little over two hours with plenty of roles for female voices, including two “trouser roles”, some beautiful duets and orchestration bearing a distinct Mozart flavour.  It is also a nice little opera that fills the season’s repertoire and gives the young singers an opportunity to break their stage fright and gain some valuable confidence-building  experience, or as is the case of Owen McCausland a chance to rise and shine. This is exactly how it appears this season at the Canadian Opera Company.

This production of the Chicago Opera Theater, directed by Christopher Alden, uses a simple set that remains unchanged throughout, resembling the Capitol of any capital that has it, including  joggers, lobbyists, warts and all. Many humorous details are sprinkled through acting and stage movements that give a touch of lightness to this dramatic plot with a happy ending.

In “trouser roles” there were Isabel Leonard, a young American soprano as Sesto, and Wallis Giunta as Annio. Robert Gleadow in the role of Publio, and Mirelle Asselin as Servilia were other COC Ensemble studio members who took part in this opera with praiseworthy performance. It was the commendable team work of young singers and the 28-year-old conductor, Daniel Cohen, a protégé of Daniel Barenboim.

Worth mentioning are the lighting designer Gary Marder and set designer Andrew Cavanagh Holland, whose delicate attention and attunement contributed to the overall success that staging of this piece permits.

Don Giovanni Salzburg 2006

May 25, 2011

Isabel Bayrakdarian (C) performs on stage as character Zerlina during a dress rehearsal of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's 'Don Giovanni' at the Salzburg Festival August 8, 2006. Picture taken August 8. REUTERS/Martina Puehringer

An inspired convergence of many exceptionally talented artists took place at the 2006 Salzburg Festival in the making of Don Giovanni. Stage director Martin Kušej opted for a bare stage. It consists of two main planes. The first one is a narrow strip along the orchestra pit with doors at each end. Singers enter and exit as if on the main stage of life, dressed as ordinary people of today. The second plane is a circular, revolving scene with a set of vertical moving panels which placed together form a white cylinder-like wall. The dynamism of this second level along with superb lighting compensates for the complete absence of props and actually draws attention where it belongs — towards the dramatic interaction among the characters.

The string of visual snippets unfolds with arias, while recitatives are energized exchanges among well-developed, stereotyped characters.

The orchestra Wiener Philharmoniker leads and follows with a sound of refined fullness. It is an unthankful task to single out any one singer. Ildebrando D’Archangelo, endowed with a liberated voice that comes from the core of his being, unhesitant and unobstructed, gives his Leporello a lovable quality of youthful and charming wit. Christina Sheffer’s Donna Anna is a woman of dignity and sings with seared grief. I much enjoyed listening to Piotr Beczala as Ottavio. He invokes something old-fashioned by the lovely meandering curves in his phrasing. Although Thomas Hampson is not my favourite baritone he seems comfortable as a cool and dandy Don Giovanni.  My fellow Torontonian, Isabel Bayrakdarian, shines as an earthly, timid and warm Zerlina.

The revolving scene like the merry-go-round of life serves as a podium where psychological contents is displayed as mental images or moving pictures. Recurring theme in this revolving stage as if through time trajectory is a woman as a collective notion.  Uniformed in white or black underwear, a group of women is presented as ,tableaux .At first as young, pretty and sexy, doing their menial jobs, and as the end is getting closer we see them aging gray and worn-out,

Since the scene is plain and white, the costumes and lighting take the additional weight in dramatization. The costumes are unimposing and only slightly theatrical. Actually, each singer could walk out in his or her costume and blend in with the outside world of the western hemisphere today.

There is no particular message to unwrap or story between the lines in this Don Giovanni. It is face value—story of our time of hollow hearts.  Disconnected and fragmented within ourselves and with one another and unable to awaken. We do not actually live, love, and die. It all happens to us on the superficial plane of appearance.  It is a story of our time told in theatrically stylized but intelligible and plain language, leaving the spectator with an aftertaste of being exposed to something clean and clear. Perhaps the greatest achievement of this production is that it leaves no residual, undigested particles. It all flows smooth  and easy like a glass of fresh, cold water.

The Magic Flute, Disney-style

February 3, 2011

Isabel Bayrakdarian as Pamina and Michael Schade as Tamino

On February 1, 2011, I watched a production of the Canadian Opera Company’s  Magic Flute.  Mozart completed this opera shortly before he died at the age of 35. It has been 18 years since the last mainstage Canadian Opera Company performance of the Magic Flute, and 6 years since the last performance by the COC’s Ensemble Studio. 

The combination of comic and dramatic elements along the story-line, which reaches into the spiritual and metaphysical realm, presents a challenge in the staging of this opera. Which side will prevail, what aspect of the story will take a central part depends on the layer of the story followed by the production team.

The focus of this Magic Flute is on the comic and fairy-tale sides. It is tailored for light enjoyment and visual amusement, and is well suited for the younger audience.  Esoteric elements were inevitably neglected since the main thrust was to please the senses and produce an enchanting effect, which was successfully accomplished. It brings only warm and fuzzy feelings and occasional laughs. This production will not be remembered for anything groundbreaking or revolutionary. 

The design of Tamino’s and Pamina’s costumes draws inspiration from Disney’s  fairy-tale images. Pamina wears a pink dress with matching pink shoes as  we see in animated fairy-tale movies. Tamino is dressed in white with a blue overcoat, both in neon-bright colours.

The second act would look even better had it been staged as a show on ice. The trials in Sarastro’s temple were a parade of glitter and pixie dust. If the artistic advice of Jeff Koons was sought, he would not allow the final scene of the second act to go ahead without the image of the legendary castle of Ludwig the Second, the last King of Bavaria, being projected in the background with a rainbow over it. Understandably the Disney copyright obstacles would impede such a project and hence this Magic Flute comes out deprived of its last coating of sugar.   

The director’s notes (Diane Paulus) for this production instruct us that this is a play-within-a-play in the first act, which is set in the period when the Magic Flute was first performed. The second act takes place in a labyrinthine garden where the spectators and performers from Act One go through the actual experience of trial and transformation.

The conductor Johannes Debus usually brings out the crispness and edge from the orchestra. This time it was not the case and I missed it. This opera commands resoluteness, but the mellow floating sound with the peaks clipped out may be a purposeful choice consistent with this particular staging.  

The Russian baritone, Rodion Pogossov, as Papageno acted his role with a charming lightness and enthusiasm. Isabel Bayrakdarian as Pamina was equal to her reputation. Aline Kutan as The Queen of the Night projected her icy, spiky F’s right underneath my skin, resulting in the experience of large patches of goosebumps.  Recitatives were on occasion sluggish and lacking in vigour.   

Betty Waynne Allison, Wallis Giunta and Lauren Segal, the three ladies-in-waiting, representing voices from another sphere, were vocally exceptional. A smashing visual point was made with their outfits resembling the fashion of a not so spiritual secret society on the rise – the bikers.      

The spiritual transformation, growth out of deceptive appearance, liberation from fear and pursuit of truth, love and justice is what this opera is about. The fairy tale and comedy elements are merely ancillary embellishments. I have yet to see the Magic Flute in which Tamino, Pamina, Papageno and Papagena are but different sides of one personality. The only production that managed to tie together this complicated libretto was Ingmar Bergman’s filming of this opera. It is available on DVD and any Magic Flute lover should see it to taste the difference.