Staging art song and chamber works happens in Toronto but not a lot. Over the last few years I’ve seen interesting shows from Against the Grain, Collectif and UoT Opera among others. As it’s something I tend to enjoy I was pleased to catch the opening performance of Opera 5’s Hindemith and Shostakovich program; itself the first in a proposed series called Open Chambers.
Last night’s show featured sopranos Jacquie Woodley and Rachel Krehm with a small ensemble of Vadim Serebryany (piano), Melissa Scott (oboe), Yosuke Kawasaki (viola/violin) and Wolfram Koessel (cello). Design and direction was by Patrick Hansen. There were three works; Hindemith’s Oboe Sonata and Die Serenaden and Shostakovich’s Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok.
The performances were of a very high quality; especially given that the musicians were having to more than just stand/sit and sing/play. The songs were split between Jacquie’s quite pure, bright voice; which I have always found well suited to 20/21st century music, and Rachel Krehm’s more dramatic sound; perhaps not inappropriately as the Shostakovich was written for Vishnevskaya. The last song in each cycle was split between the two singers to good effect. Some really gorgeous playing too from the instrumentalists , especially perhaps Melissa in the opening sonata.
As to the music itself, it’s the sort of music that makes me wonder why people shy away from mid 20th century modernism. The Hindemith is intensely lyrical and very, very beautiful. The Shostakovich, too, has passages of great beauty but mixed here with something tougher and harsher but no less accessible. After all how is one to set a text like Blok’s Gamayun:
On endless waters’ smooth expanse,
By sunset clad in purple splendour,
In Delphic tone she ever sings,
But cannot spread her weakened pinions…
She prophesies the Tartar yoke,
Its course of bloody executions,
And quake, and famine, and alarm,
The righteous’ downfall, evil’s power…
In dark primeval terror wreathed,
Her countenance aflame with passion,
She speaks; and prophecies resound
Through truthful lips with bloodstains clotted!
Not a Bruchlein in sight…
Hansen’s staging was quite striking. He used two levels with minimal props; chairs, some cloth, flowers and petals and picture frames hanging here and there. The colour scheme was black, white and red with both singers in striking red dresses and long gloves. The “cast” moved and interacted in this framework; more in the sense of forming tableaux than establishing any kind of narrative but I found it interesting, rather than distracting (though for balance sake I’ll point out that my companion felt the opposite). There were a few dramatic moments, notably when Rachel became a vast red bird while singing Gamayun also some curious interplay in which Jacquie appeared to become a cello. And, yea, there were surtitles. I’ve said it before, one can’t expect an audience to read 8pt text with the lights down!
It’s quite a short show but very enjoyable and I’d highly recommend it. There are two more chances to see Open Chambers: Hindemith and Shostakovich; tomorrow night at 7.30pm or December 1st at 9pm.
Photo credits: Dahlia Katz