Erotic and Esoteric Tristan and Isolde

February 3, 2013

This season the Canadian Opera Company’s home in Toronto is the place for revival of the 2005 production of  “Tristan and Isolde”, originally staged at the Opera Bastille in Paris. The truth of the proverbial phrase, that less is more, has been proven in this production of “Tristan and Isolde”. The acting role of singers was almost eliminated. The purpose of the costumes was to attract no attention whatsoever. The key visual elements of the stage are work of a visual artist Mr. Bill Viola. They are films and images projected onto the large screen in the background depicting the movements of water and fire, light and air. The majestic currents of Wagner’s score in its breath-like rhythm took the central role and carried each of us in the audience to a private inner journey. 

Peter Sellars in his director’s notes provided a reading of this libretto from the perspective of an esoteric quest with purification, awakening and transformation corresponding to the three acts of the opera. In light of his director’s notes, and stimulated by the visual projections on the screen, I attuned to the different roles in this opera as different aspects of a human being rather than as a plot with different characters. From this perspective, the representations of the sexual, emotional and intellectual in a human being were depicted in their polarity by Tristan and Isolde, Brangäne and Kurwenal, and Marke and Melot. Under the command of conductor Johannes Debus, Wagner’s orchestral reflections on love and death filled the air with scintillation and splendour, pulsating sublime erotic waves. “Tristan and Isolde” felt like a sacred initiation.

It occurred to me that instead of a traditional wedding ceremony, perspective spouses should be asked to listen to “Tristan and Isolde” while sitting silently and looking each other in the eyes, holding each other’s hands for the duration of this opera. After such an experience their gut feeling would crystallize more clearly towards yes or no, giving them a lot better idea if they want each other in marriage.  The rate of divorce might drop significantly if a couple who wish to become married are required to perform such a marriage test ceremony.

We were privileged to hear Ben Heppner in his signature role as Tristan, Melanie Diener as Isolde, Alan Held as Kurwenal, Daveda Karanas as Brangäne, Adam Luther as Shepherd, Robert Gleadow as Steersman, Owen McCausland as a Young Sailor, and Ryan McKinny as Melot. My favourite was Franz-Josef Selig as King Marke. The experience of listening to his singing resembles what I imagine might feel like raking your fingers through the treasure chest of the finest jewelry of pearls, gold and precious stones. 

The theatre felt like a giant pod where we the spectators were seeds being immaculately fertilized by waves of heavenly sounds from the stage and the pit, and at the end released into the cold winter night to grow the light with which we were impregnated.

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An afternoon at the Glen Gould Studio

January 28, 2013

This cloudy, dry and gloomy Sunday afternoon in Toronto, 27 January 2013, was just the right day for a little recital at the Glen Gould Studio, a cozy venue of ideal proportions for a soloist and a piano. The concert was prefaced with the insightful historical and biographical details from the lives of the composers presented by Ms. Julia Zarankin (PhD in Comparative Literature) about the friendships between Mozart and Haydn, Schumann and Brahms, and Wolf and Mahler.
Most of the programme was songs on German poetry both literary and folk. It also included two famous arias from Mozart’s operas: “Deh’ vieni alla finestra” from “Don Giovanni” and “Smanie implacabili” from “Cosi fan tutte “. Baritone Russell Braun and mezzo soprano Erica Iris Huang were followed by pianists, Ms. Elina Kelebeev and Ms. Carolyn Maule.
It was a good day for Mr. Russell Braun, who effortlessly transformed the verses by his impeccable rendition and refined phrasing into a vivid gliding journey through a series of different emotions. A little more affection in Deh” vieni alla finestra would not harm, though. Ms. Erica Iris Huang has a powerful voice with still undiscovered potentials for breadth and refinement. It became more transparent in her rendition of “Smanie implacabili”, where her expressiveness has not yet explored all the potentials of this aria. The overall impression was that that both singers enjoyed the afternoon, as we in the audience did too.
My friend and I agreed that the most rewarding piece came from the pianist duo, co-founders and artistic directors of Off Centre Music Salon and spouses of one another, Ms. Ina Perkis and Mr. Boris Zarankin. They were playing Brahms’ own piano four-hand arrangement Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 (1858) with zesty surrender. Warm and enthusiastic applause followed.
The modest but comprehensive programme brochure offered the complete text of the poems in the German original and English translation, and refreshingly–commercial free. Thanks to the generous patrons of this performance Ms. Katalin Schafer and Mr. Roger Moore, it was an afternoon worth attending at the Glen Gould Studio.
The next concert will be on April 28, 2013, celebrating philanthropists in music.

Glen Gould Studio, Toronto

Glen Gould Studio, Toronto

Einstein on the Beach and my fresh prayer to St. George

September 26, 2012


The truth has its frequency. Einstein on the Beach captures the frequency of the truth about human dysfunction in its many forms. The language is fresh because dysfunction is more apparent than ever. It is everywhere. Our daily language is abundantly dysfunctional and often stripped of any meaning. How are you?”… Have a nice day…This call may be monitored or recorded for quality assurance…Your call is important to us… This is a recording… I am sorry…
Is this dysfunction a genetic glitch, a loop embedded in the human source code which keeps us enslaved? Is this dysfunction an inability to crack open the boundaries and connect the fragmentized parts of ourselves scattered in an equally fragmentized, dysfunctional world.
Because of my job, I spend a lot of time in the courtroom. Here is an emotional recollection I had on the sounds of Einstein on the Beach. It is a recollection of a feeling of deafening, mind-numbing silence that filled the air for a fraction of a second at a real-life hearing at the court of appeal. It happened in a moment between the judge’s question and the answer which I am going to describe.
A year ago I was at a hearing before the court of appeal. The case was about to be finally dismissed on the preliminary question: Is there known cause of action? After hearing the procedural arguments, the appellant said: “I would like to say briefly what this case is about.” The judge interrupted: “Why would I need to know what the case is about”. The answer that followed: “For the reason of common sense” sent the situation back into the role-playing context of hierarchy and personalities.
The moment of silence between this question and the answer was for me charged with the noise of all sounds and yet quiet and numb. It lasted a second or less, yet it took many weeks for me to recover from the devastating effect of this silent noisy numbness. The images and music in Einstein on the Beach evoked that moment and expanded its noisy silence to infinity. It brought up visual and auditory tastes of that moment as if it was now revived under some kind of microscope, and I saw meaningless images and heard unrelated fragments of sounds embedded in the silence of that actual moment. The interesting thing is that my association to this short but memorable moment of life experience did not bring any emotion. It was neutral. Einstein on the Beach registered like a litmus where the absurd falls apart and becomes deconstructed down to its building molecules.
The enchanting beauty of Einstein on the Beach is that it felt broad enough to embrace any individual experiences of dysfunctionality. That is why I like Einstein on the Beach and can’t get enough of the bizarre, yet soothing meditative state to which it takes me.

Royal Opera tabloid about turning flesh into a zip-lock meat.

September 19, 2012

The real story of Anna Nicole is fascinating. In short: a single mother from a remote parochial town in Texas abandons her low-paid job selling fast-food fried chicken. She sets her mind on a career in dangerous proximity to pornography and prostitution. As a breast-augmented blond stripper she wins the heart of an 80-year-old billionaire. Six months into the marriage her sugar-daddy husband dies leaving his estate to be litigated between his children and his playboy-mate-of-the-year widow. The remainder of her life is a payback of hidden costs in making a livelihood by being DD-breast endowed, blonde and sexy. We learn, that much of Anna Nicole’s life as a widow takes place in tax-insulated and litigation-proof geographical locations. On the front of finding new revenue sources her vulturous lawyer friend advises that she give birth in a pay-per-view live broadcast (spearheading thereby the yet-to-come era of reality shows). Three days after her daughter is born, her twenty-year-old firstborn dies. The death of her son is unbearable and six months later she surrenders her own life, posing one more time for the tabloids as a pretty corpse from her unzipped body bag. Her baby daughter is left at the mercy of a flock of vulturous claimant fathers who are invigorated by the baby’s entitlement to wealth from her unfortunate mother.

The libretto abounds with educational verses such as: what distinguishes illegal prostitution from legal lap-dancing, the capital gain returns from investment in breast augmentation surgery, and associated risks. There are many proverbial lines, such as the one for horny nursing-home males: “hump and dump, spunk and leave” or the pill-popper’s comfort: “ease the pain, block the shame, down the hatch wah-ooo”.

Making an opera on the life and death of Anna Nicole is similar to attempting to capture in a painting or an artistic photography the beauty of galloping giraffes in Serengeti at sunset. It is bound to sink down to kitsch. Everything in the actual life and the real death of this shooting star is crystalized in a “National Geographic” type of perfection. In itself her life, including her death, is an amazing cliché. It was risky and difficult to attempt an artistic take of something so perfect and complete in its own pathetic domain, exactly the way it happened. The interest of the Royal Opera House to commission an opera about the life of an American tabloid star, with the prominent role of paparazzi-style photos documenting her death, is too obvious, and I would say lacking in good taste. For this opera house it was not a good choice of story.

Eva Maria Westbroek made an honest effort to portray Anna Nicole in singing, acting, and her American accent. Unfortunately, the overall concept was aiming equally towards the story-telling of the protagonist’s life and the deconstruction of the failed American dream, and, sprinkled with too many elements of farce. This indecision, coupled with excessive descriptiveness, blurred the focus and undermined the shaping up of the key character. Furthermore, the costume designer made Ms. Westbroek look at the peak of the character’s career in the sex industry, like Miss Piggy of the Muppets Show. Ms. Westbroek if of courpulent physique, but very well shaped. It is shame that the costume designer missed the opportunity to bring up her gorgeous look. Musically, we heard it all from Alban Berg. The jazz and pop elements promised by the composer in the DVD additional materials are pale and identifiable only by forensic means. The libretto aimed to elevate Anna Nicole’s version of the failed American Dream into a universal story of the destructive currents of big money and fame. But the fatal proximity of a paparazzi pimp in the life of Anna Nicole was not brought up in the story as told from the podium of the Royal Opera House.

The side effect was that too many threads were touched upon, and none completely followed through. These lines of the libretto were explored at the expense of the profile and fate of the main character. The character of Anna Nicole was oversimplified and reduced. The actual pinnacle of her life, her real-life Pietà moment, the moment of her son’s death literally in her arms after which she quickly wilted into her own premature death was somehow missed. Her own death, captured for the tabloids, which made its way into mainstream media headlines, went almost unnoticed in this libretto. It is as if we were told that had she been shrewder and had calculated her moves more cleverly, she could have lived happily ever after, mingling among the Hollywood celebrities, but she blew it because she was stupid. The tragedy of the real-life Anna Nicole lies in her false belief that she could be a good mother and at the same time be a poor, sexy, stripper bride of a filthy-rich dying old man. The marriage of such extremes is impossible. In such tension only vultures thrive.

Real life abounds with cliché melodramas and beyond-Monty Python absurdities. Paraphrasing these stories does not constitute a creative process resulting in a piece of art.
In a few days the Toronto Serbian Film Festival will present a film of political surrealism that surpasses the stellar heights of Monty Python absurdities. It is a real life story of a Canadian actor who played a detective in the American TV series “Tropical Heat”. The series was a failure and discontinued after its third season. The only place it was shown with success was Serbia. At the time the series was released, the country was under international sanctions, its entire population condemned, imprisoned to slow and humiliating starvation. “Tropical Heat” was the only connection with the world outside the walls of isolation showing the world of sandy beaches, a dashing pony-tail detective, and his many babes. “Tropical Heat” was the only foreign TV series shown, over and over again. In a collective despair and in futile civil protest against Milosevic regime, the “Tropical Heat” detective Nick Slaughter became the epitome of the protest. Rhyming slogans appeared seeking presidential candidacy for the fictional character Nick Slaughter. Years later the Canadian actor who played the role of detective Nick Slaughter found himself forgotten, unemployed and in debt, living in the basement of his parents’ house back home in Canada, unaware of his fame at the other end of the world until one day…
His teenage son comes and tells him: “Dad, Nick Slaughter has 17 thousand fans on Facebook. They are all from Serbia”. The actor Rob Stewart wastes no time on imponderables: “Parents’ basement or Serbia? The film “Slaughter Nick for President”, directed by Rob Stewart will be shown this fall at the Toronto Serbian Film Festival. Let’s see how Nick Slaughter deals with the impossible real-life story.

Some events are good for tabloids; some life-stories are tabloids themselves. Maybe a good story to commission for the Royal Opera House would be about a lawsuit launched in a speed-of-light manner guarding the right to privacy of a newly minted young princess sunbathing topless on the terrace of, so cliché, a château in France. The word “grotesque” was already employed in exaggerated PR statements so my unsolicited advice to the Royal Opera House is: commission an operetta. Now.

Carmen directed by Calixto Bieito

August 6, 2012

During the last two weeks of June and early July, 2012, the legendary Teatro la Fenice di Venezia, was the stage for Carmen by Calixto Bieito. It was a first-class performance With a great cast of singers. Yet performing the same role in a densely packed schedule takes its toll. From the peaks of  Act One to the closing scene there were moments that somehow felt lacking in energy. Nothing went wrong.  It is just a personal impression  that  even the most provocative production from the top artists, if repeated over many days in a short period, carries a risk of coming across as routine. Or, it may be the effect of the broader context of a magnificent city, once vibrant with its own authentic life which today caters to a global tourist fantasy.   

photo by Hans-Jorg Michel

photo by Hans-Jörg Michel

In the title role was mezzo-soprano Beatrice Uria Monzon. Born in France , and educated there as a singer, in France,  Ms. Monzon performed her first Carmen almost 20 years ago.  Her Carmen today is an attractive, liberated woman, mature yet youthfully  foolish, inhabiting her body with surrendering abandon, confident in her natural beauty. Her Carmen needs no hair-styling, and her cloths are ordinary, more hiding  than revealing , allowing the sex appeal of her Carmen to come across subdued, yet powerful. Her singing  described as a “dark golden” voice,  was most electrifying in Act One.   

Aleksander Vinogradov as Escamillo rose to  stardom by reaching the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre at the age of 21. His presence on many of the main opera stages of the world has been received with praise and recognition.  The richness, clarity and depth of his voice infused his Escamillo with remarkable liveliness.

For Stefano Secco it was a début in the role of Don José. This young tenor from Milan is in the  fourth year of his international career. Before discovering his vocal talent he played drums. In 1995 he won the Competition for Young Opera Singers of Europe. This spring he was greeted by a Seattle opera audience in the role of Pinkerton. 

Ekaterina Bakanova, another young singer from Russia, appeared as Micaëla.  At the age of 28 she is capturing the attention of European critics and audiences as a rising soprano star. The Italian press praised her enthusiastically for this role.    

The première of this Carmen was in Barcelona two years ago. Whether it is the plot of Don Giovanni, Aida, or Carmen, Calixto Bieito finds the way to frame the story in images and contexts of the distressed contemporary world.

The opening of  Act One introduces a drunken man, long past his prime, sporting a thick golden chain and a wife-beater under his white suit, draws the attention of the audience by imitating a magician’s  trick stacking a red silk scarf in his fist. Instead of the illusionist’s effect, he exclaims: “L’amor és com la mort”       

Calixto Bieito carries on the story of extreme emotions in his merciless way without an aim to please the senses or portray passion with the usual colour.  Carmen’s  theme of love and death takes place in a void, barren space where only two relatively fixed structures exist: a flagpole and a telephone booth.   

Long before Mercedes-Benz cars were introduced to the stages of opera houses, this brand of car rose to the level of a status symbol of wealth and success. It was particularly favoured among dictators, high-end criminals and gypsies. Mercedes became a substitute for a gold tooth. So in Act Two the tavern, as indicated in the libretto, is another barren outdoor space to which Carmen, her friends and the officers gather arriving in a dusty Mercedes.  Plastic folding chairs, an artificial Christmas tree, and cases of beer are drawn from the trunk to recreate the gathering environment for communities rising around the milestones set up by flagpoles and telephone booths.

In Act Three the ominous silhouette of a giant black bull against the night sky hovers over a makeshift flea market of contraband merchandise. Such places can be seen today where beaten-up Mercedes of questionable provenance congregate under the newly designed flags on the flagpoles.    

The cheering crowd saluting the arrival of celebrated toreador Escamillo, revived the energy lost around the fleet of Mercedes in Act Three. It was a high point of this performance. It lasted long enough to allow for reflection about all cheering crowds, whether their joy is directed to a movie star arriving on Oscar night in Hollywood, a favourite soccer team, or a statesman attending a military parade. All cheering crowds have in common a joy projected outside. Like any other joy originating from illusion it fails to take root in the heart, leaving only a vague, dry picture in one’s memory lacking in flavour of liveliness once felt as real.      

What feels frightfully real is a bankrupt world that Calixto Bieito re-creates on the stage. It feels as a scandalous truth of the state of humanity today.

No saviour from up high delivers

May 14, 2012

Jane Archibald as Semele and William Burden as Jupiter

The last opera of this season at the Canadian Opera Company, Semele by Georg Frideric Handle, is also the most noteworthy production of this season. It brings a fresh breeze of new sensibility and goes to say that the interpretational possibilities of myths are limitless.  

The director and set designer Zheng Huan told the ancient myth of Semele on three parallel planes. During the overture a muted subtitled documentary tells the story of a tragedy which took place in an abandoned temple located in a small remote town in China. In recent times the temple served for grain storage. After this use was abandoned, the inhabitants decided to let the poorest family use the temple as their home. The parents of a mentally disturbed bachelor hoped that with this new home their son would have better chances to marry. He married, but soon thereafter became consumed by jealousy and murdered his wife. The criminal trial resulted in a death sentence and he died before the firing squad. In this true story Zheng Huan recognized a parallel with the ancient myth. The god Jupiter, fell  in love with a Thebian princess, the mortal Semele. When Jupiter’s wife discovered the adultery of her husband she tricked Semele into challenging Jupiter to promise her that he would appear before her not merely as a human, but in all his godly splendour.

When a mortal woman pokes at a god to show his true nature, she gets burned to death as a collateral damage. Semele is certainly not the only princess who found her premature and sudden demise when seeking “no less than all in full excess”.

This production abounds with stunning visual effects. The actual original wooden temple seen in the documentary is the centrepiece of the stage. The explicit  portrayal of the pleasures of physical love include, horny donkey, and choreography inspired by  figurae veneris, or the Kama Sutra. Yet there is nothing distasteful, and the spirit of joy and pleasure prevails. Those who felt offended by display of  physical love may be reminded that the purpose of theatre is not to conform with particular taste, but to be a sandbox for playfulness and thinking out of the box.

The third layer of the story is only hinted at by questioning the wisdom of mortals when they get dangerously close to the gods.  The audience is left to ponder about the director’s message choosing to end this opera with the chorus’s humming the Internationale, the hymn of collective consciousness. As if Zheng Huan reminds us: “no saviour from up high delivers”. The self-reliance and self-awareness would better serve unhappy humanity, rather than unrealistic ambitions aimed at the sphere out of their reach. Apart from the gods of ancient myths and contemporary religions, there are also mortals who rule the world as if they were gods. Different but no lesser dangers await mortals in challenging the powers of those self-proclaimed gods, as well of those mortals who usurp the status of gods.

The second performance of Semele at the Canadian Opera Company was received well by the audience. Rinaldo Alessandrini, a visiting conductor from Italy, led the orchestra with confidence and enthusiasm leading those who were alarmed by the creative interventions to surrender to the beauty of the music and singing alone. Jane Archibald as Semele is a rising star. Her technique and attention to the orchestra resulted in a perfect synchronicity inspiring the conductor to join the audience applauding her.  

Jane Archibald as Semele and William Burden as Jupiter

The staging and regie of Semele is unorthodox and thought-provoking. But isn’t art that very language that constantly seeks to expand the boundaries of expression? The history of art abounds with examples of enraged critics screaming their scorching invective at the artists who dare to let their creative impulses say anything beyond the established convention.

The Canadian Opera Company should be proud for bringing this production to its stage.

Adultery and treachery

May 7, 2012

 

Catherine Malfitano

Since 2005, Catherine Malfitano, an accomplished American soprano, has ventured to become an accomplished opera director as well. The Toronto opera house this season hosted Ms. Malfitano’s staging of two one-act operas: A Florentine Tragedy, by the Viennese composer Zemlinsky, and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. Both operas are produced by the same creative team: Ms. Malfitano as director, Mr. Wilson Chin as set designer, Sir Andrew Davis as conductor, and Ms. Terese Wadden as costume designer. 

 

Both operas premiered about the same time 1917/1918 and they both take place in the city of Florence.

A Florentine Tragedy is a marriage triangle story. A wealthy merchant’s wife, bored and lonely, enjoys the attention of a Florentine nobleman and politician, sung by Mr. Alan Held. When a cuckolded husband finds his wife with another man in his home, he knows that “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us”. Towards the inevitable tragedy the husband pretends that the visitor of his wife may be a buyer of his merchandise, or maybe a buyer of his house, or a suitor for his wife. The exchange escalates and the pretense of who is who in this charade falls away. The husband kills the seducer as the only remaining option. The curtain draws over the husband and wife embracing each other in a newly discovered affection wrapped in luxurious drapery in an image resembling the “Kiss” by Gustav Klimt.

The set design of A Florentine Tragedy goes for conventional solutions giving excessively large space to the city. Such a solution took away the focus and energy from the interaction among 3 protagonists of this opera. Even without any visual elements Zemlinsky’s score is rich enough to seize and hold the attention. On occasions the orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis swept over Michael Köning’s singing the role of Guido Bardi, Prince of Florence. It is possibly a deliberate choice to give a “voice” to this character by sweeping over his voice.

Gianni Schicchi hit the right note, in set design, in costumes, in the synchronized, effortless flow of the comic elements.  Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi has at its core a different type of illicit conduct. The inspiration for this libretto comes from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Apparently Gianni Schicchi is a historical character in an incident of fraud and treachery belonging to the 9th circle of Hell. The story takes place among socially lower circles than those in A Florentine Tragedy. A wealthy old bachelor just died. Rumour has it that he made a will leaving all to a monastery. His relatives gather to concoct a will which would leave his wealth to them. For that purpose they find Gianni Schicchi, a scumbag who knows how to “fix” things of such a nature. Impersonating the testator he dictates his last will to a notary. But alas, while impersonating the dead man, Gianni Schicchi bequeaths a considerable chunk of the testator’s  wealth to himself. The testator’s greedy relatives are outsmarted by a crook bigger and bolder. They fear legal reprisal, and poetic justice is not done.

It was a pleasant night at the opera for light entertainment. In the Directors’ Notes, Ms. Malfitano explains: “The themes of these two operas offer us a kaleidoscope of human behavior that all of us can identify with. [Some may beg to differ.] …These are familiar characters that permit us to admit that we too have erred in similar ways, or at the very least have contemplated such temptations.”

By espousing a light and conciliatory position Ms. Malfitano may inadvertently argue that ,mutatis mutandis, the Italian President’s  adulterous adventures with an underaged prostitute is a mere evolution of the intrinsic eternal frailties of human nature about which nothing can be done.

As a lawyer and a notary Yours Truly will not be breaking any news by saying that in the contemporary affairs of fraud and treachery the Gianni Schicchis of today have grown  firm roots in positions of  trust and power and need not look too hard in finding an accomplice in a lawyer, notary, accountant or  court official to sweep under the rug or suffocate in a procedural dead end, fraud and treachery of any magnitude.  

From time to time hell breaks loose and some big wig has to have his head chopped off, merely  to pay lip service, and show how after all  right prevails. Then when the dust settles , humankind may safely resume  its collective sleep, for which Ms. Malfitano’s artistic credo is a fine lullaby.

 

The Tales of Hoffmann /Les contes d’ Hoffmann

April 20, 2012

Andriana Chuchman as Olympia, Steven Cole as Cochenille and Michael Barrett as Spalanzani in the Canadian Opera Company production of The Tales of Hoffmann, 2012.

Ιn Toronto, on April 15, 2012, was the second performance of the Les contes  d’ Hoffmann, an opera with a prologue, three acts and an epilogue by Jacques Offenbach, with a libretto in French. It is a third derivative of the original, the stories by E.T. A.  Hoffman. ( E.T.A. is not to be confused with the Basque terrorist organization).Two French writers, Michel Carré  and Jules Barbier, were inspired by E.T.A. Hoffman’s stories and wrote a play, which was not very successful when it was staged. Thirty years later Jules Barbier modified the play into an opera libretto. According to the prevailing opinion The Tales of Hoffman is an opera, rather than operetta, of which Hoffmann wrote many.  

According to Henry W. Simon’s “100 Great Operas and Their Stories” the E.T.A. Hoffmann was a German composer, lawyer, author, literary critic, and caricaturist. His name at birth was Ernest Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann, which reads rather as E.T.W. Hoffmann.  He became so delighted by Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, that he changed his third name from Wilhelm to Amadeus and so became E.T.A. Hoffman. He is the author of three stories on which each of the three acts of this Offenbach’s opera. The stories were originally titled as The Sandman, New Year’s Eve Adventure and Councilor Crespel. The barcarolle in   Act 3 is an operatic evergreen, if such a category exists, and its sublime rendition can be found on YouTube with Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanča.

It is admirable for a French-naturalized German Jew to compose a hit song associated with the Venetian gondoliers and their songs. There could hardly be anything closer to Venetian gondoliers than the associative power of this song in Act 3. Offenbach lived in Paris, where he had years of career as a cellist in an orchestra. His entrepreneurial spirit soared and there was a time when he managed 3 opera houses in Paris. The core of the repertoire was operetta, which was popular at the time.  Offenbach wrote about a hundred operettas, and only one opera—The Tales of Hoffmann. The popularity of Offenbach made the way for his place in many books on opera even though he composed only one such. A highbrow authority, Sir Denis Foreman, did not find Offenbach qualified to have a separate entry. In his almost 1000-page-long book titled “A Night at the Opera” there are only two cursory references to Offenbach, neither of which speaks about his creative work as a composer. They are about his business as an opera house manager and the wholesale purchaser of the best librettos in the niche market of light-opera scripts. The end of Offenbach’s life suffered the misfortunes, an unsuccessful tour to the USA, and the dwindling of his opera management business so that he had to shut down his third theatre. He did not live to see the premiere of Les contes d’Hoffmann.

The COC’s production of The Tales of Hoffmann bears the expressiveness of the time it was conceived. The program says that this is a production of Vlaamse Opera last seen at the COC in 24 years ago. It has as its centrepiece an early 19th-century relationship between a man and a woman. The staging follows the narrative of the libretto. It is executed correctly. No attempt was made to explore the potentials of this libretto beyond its face value.

Ms. Andriana Chuchman, a Canadian singer from Winnipeg. As Olympia Ms. Chuchman was cute and sang her difficult coloratura aria with ease.

The most delightful part of this performance for me was the sound of the COC orchestra. Our Canadian Opera Company music director and conductor Maestro Johannes Debus spun a fine fiber of coherent sound. He dived into research and digested the flavours and influences surrounding the fact that the work was unfinished by its original author, and therefore open for exploration. In an interview with Susanne Vanstone published in the program Johannes Debus shares his first impressions: ”When I saw it for the first time I remember feeling that it was a clear counter, or anti-concept, to the megalomanic concept of Richard Wagner and his view on mankind. It couldn’t be more opposite. But I needed both Wagner and Offenbach in my life!  I’m glad that Offenbach had these extraordinary visions. He was called the Mozart des Champs-Elysees, because he has a Mozart quality that empathizes with the human soul and human being.”  It was the sound of the orchestra that night that maintained the delicate balance between humorous and sad on which this opera hinges.     

Johannes Debus

JOHANNES DEBUS

 

Love from Afar

March 16, 2012

left to right: Acrobat Antoine Marc, Russell Braun as Jaufre, acrobat Ted Sikstrom and acrobat Annie-Kim Dery (in the air) in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of Love from Afar, 2012. Conductor Johannes Debus, original production by Daniele Finzi Pasca, set designer Jean Rabasse, costume designer Kevin Pollard, and lighting designers Daniele Finzi Pasca and Alexis Bowles. Photo: Michael Cooper
Michael Cooper Photographic

The Canadian Opera Company’s final première of the winter 2012 season was Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’Amour de Loin or Love from Afar, which ran from February 2-22, 2012 at the Richard Bradshaw Theatre, the centre of the COC’s home in Toronto. It is a co-production of The Canadian Opera Company, English National Opera and Vlaamse Opera. Cirque du Soleil acrobats are accompanying each character in this production. The opera took 8 years to compose. It was first performed at the Salzburg Festival in 2000, and since then has found its way into the world and it is described in the media as the “most-produced” opera of this century. Fifty-nine-year old Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, a classmate of Esa Pekka Salonen, explains the stages of shaping up her most successful work. She looked for a story and then the story found her. It was only a few lines of poetry by the French poet Jacques Roubaud. It was an actual biography of Jaufré Rudel. In the 12th century, Rudel, a French troubadour, hears of a noblewoman Clémence living in remote Tripoli, (the same Tripoli of the late Libyan colonel, Moammar El Ghadafi; his daughter is looking for his death certificate in The Hague). The troubadour, what else, idealizes the countess Clémence in his sonnets and songs. He longs to connect with her. A pilgrim carries messages between the two of them, and he finally sets sail to meet the love of his life. During the sea voyage Rudel is tormented by doubt about how he can fall in love with someone he does not know. Upon arrival he meets Countess Clémence, only to die in her arms. This story resonates between myth and fairy tale. The process of “dressing” this story with sounds and voices took Saariaho 8 years to complete and she describes it in her own words:

“Every personality has its own music-the music of Jaufré Rudel uses parallel fifths, and the interval of the fifth is very present…this has to do, of course, with mediaeval Western music. The music of Clémence is closest to my own musical language-I use a lot of parallel orchestration, octaves, etc., which reminds us a bit of Oriental music. I wanted to create the contrasts on many levels because this opera is about different feelings, different thoughts, different atmospheres…  In this opera, I’m using electronics in such a way that they are extensions of the orchestration. I have chosen certain concrete sound material which I pass through filters tuned to the same harmony that the orchestra is playing so that it really blends with the orchestration. Some of the sounds I chose for Jaufre’s material are, for example, the sea-sound, the wind-natural noises-the white noise of nature. For Clémence, I had birds, a woman’s voice whispering some of the texts in an Occidental language, which is the language of Jaufré… Jaufré Rudel is an artist, a creator, but also a prince. He has lived a vain, somewhat superficial life and has enjoyed a certain success but comes to a point where he needs to have something more spiritual, more profound. He hears about this countess who is so beautiful and so pure and who becomes the perfect object of his love… Then there is Clémence, born in France and brought to Tripoli. She feels that this is not her country and although she cannot really remember her life in France, she is nostalgic for it. When she hears that there is somebody thinking of her, singing of her, it’s exactly what she needs to dream about life the way she would like it to be. She falls in love with the idea and with the music-since what does she know about this man? Nothing at all.”

The mysterious character is a Pilgrim. The voice anticipated between baritone and soprano allows flexibility in choosing male or female. Peter Selars, who first staged this opera for the Salzburg festival in 2000, plays with the ambiguity of Pilgrim’s gender. When meeting with Jaufré it is a woman dressed as a man, and when with Clémence the Pilgrim is a man dressed as woman. Possible interpretations of the Pilgrim as animus/anima, or as a reconciling neutral force necessary in any manifestation.  This score and story has been the inspiration for eight stagings within the first decade since this opera took on a life of its own.  For the director and choreographer Daniel Finzi Pasca this was the first opera assignment.

Trained as a gymnast, having his own love-from-afar experience when he fled to India to soothe his aching heart, and serving a prison term for refusing military service, Daniel Finzi Pasca qualifies as a creative reader of this subtle and seemingly simple plot. With his experience as a director and choreographer of a closing Olympic ceremony and the Cirque du Soleil’s performance, the end result is a new storytelling language which speaks through the bodies of acrobats and the souls of musicians and singers. The enchantment is completed with rich lighting, a play of shadows, and opulent costumes. His vision of Love from Afar brings in the images of fantasy, outer and inner realities, into one life in which parallel worlds exist in harmony.

Acrobats Antoine Marc, Sandrine Merette and Ted Sikstrom in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of Love from Afar, 2012.Photo: Chris Hutcheson

The end result is the opera as a piece of conceptual art, where each artistic language competes and complements in telling the story through singing, instrumental music, experimental sounds, colour, fabric and fantasy visions in which each character: Jaufré, Clemence and The Pilgrim, is accompanied by 3 acrobats. The complexity and richness of the music invites a contemplative state in which this production as previous ones is merely one of many possible readings. 

Tosca, Dusted of

February 12, 2012

Julie Makerov as Tosca in the Canadian Opera Company production 2012

For Julie Makerov as Tosca, the revival of the 2008 COC’s production, was a chance to relax in cool confidence, which made one want to cheer for her. Her Tosca is a simple, vulnerable woman in love and Ms. Makerov is  convincing yet delicate in expressing the spectrum of Tosca’s emotions, her fatal jealousy, her torment, and her agony.   The audience loved her too.

Carlo Ventre as Cavaradossi and Adrianne Pieczonka as Tosca

We welcome and congratulate the Uruguayan tenorspinto Carlo Ventre of Montevideo, a Pavarotti International Voice Competition Winner, a young and  handsome  man  with a hint of Clark Gable in his smile. Mr.   Ventre is a singer in demand today in the opera world. When Mr.  Ventre, sings one feels that he cares not if the human voice is expendable. He surrenders without hesitation.  Thank you COC for making Toronto shine again in today’s opera G-7 world.

The praise must go to our Canadian Peter Strummer as Sacristan and the humorous touches which nicely tied together Act 1.

The opera Tosca is based on the play by a French playwright Victorien Sardou. Puccini saw the play in Paris with the famous Sarah Bernhardt as Tosca and decided to make an opera. Over a period of 14 years, approximately every third year Puccini wrote a masterpiece opera, on the same theme a tragic love affair: Manon Lescaut (1893), La Boheme (1896), Tosca (1900) and Madama Butterfly (1904). In Tosca, Puccini combines the flavours of the Slavic orchestral sound l Stravinsky and the broad vocal gliding of Italian-style tenor singing with room for a sob at the end of the aria. The COC’s Tosca of four years ago is revived this season, and I watched the performance on February 5, 2012. It came across as a somewhat dusty photo album of past times of the opera productions with shooting and singing. The orchestral parts sound more suitable for PIXAR animation. The scenes of the Catholic procession demonstrate a carnival rather than a solemn spirit. Scenes with citizenry strolling in and out of the church did not come through with any particular flavour other than that of wallpaper.

The lives of two artists, Floria Tosca a popular singer, and Cavaradossi her lover and painter, become doomed to a horrible tragedy when the wheels of world politics start grinding across their simple lives. Providing a hideout to a political refugee, Cavaradossi exposes himself to a merciless pursuit by Scarpia. Then Cavaradossi is tortured, but it is Floria Tosca who cannot endure the screams of the torture from which Cavaradossi suffers. So Tosca gives away the hiding republican. She desperately tries to strike a deal with Baron Scarpia, who is in charge of the pursuit. Scarpia wants it all— Angelotti dead, Cavaradossi tortured, and Tosca in his embrace. The desperate Tosca kills Scarpia, but she cannot save  her lover. They both die.