Carmen at Bregenz

One has to recalibrate when reviewing productions from the lake stage at Bregenz.  The challenges for set designer and director are very different from designing/directing in a conventional theatre.  There’s an interview with Es Devlin on the disk of the 2017 production of Bizet’s Carmen that explains the issues very well but broadly it’s a question of creating a single, giant set that can be used throughout the opera and which makes a statement that integrates the work with the environment of the Bodensee.  The challenge for the director, as well, as the usual ones, is to communicate the characters and story when they are rather dwarfed by the setting.  S/he also has to figure out how to fit the lake itself into the story.  I think Devlin and director, Kasper Holten, manage this remarkably well.

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Faccio’s Amleto

Franco Faccio’s 1865 work Amleto disappeared from the opera repertoire after the disastrous opening night of its 1871 revival at La Scala only to be “rediscovered” in recent years and featured at the 2016 Bregenz Festival.  It was Faccio’s second, and last opera, though he enjoyed a career as a conductor, that included eighteen years as Music Director at La Scala before being institutionalized due to the effects of syphilis.  So, one naturally asks, is it any good?  The answer is an emphatic “yes”.  It’s not only good but seems quite advanced for an Italian opera of that date.  It’s closer in spirit to Puccini than bel canto.  Indeed the soliloquy Essere o non essere sounds curiously like E lucevan le stelle.  It’s similar to later Verdi and, indeed, Puccini in that it’s through sung with recitative like passages and set piece arias and ensemble numbers and it’s more conventionally tonal than its contemporary Tristan und Isolde.  Arguably the orchestral writing is more interesting than that for voice (Ophelia’s funeral march is very fine) and certainly the weakest parts are the ensembles.  It’s probably also fair to say that there is no big hummable melody.  Still, Faccio was twenty five when he wrote it and there aren’t many better operas by twenty five year olds.

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Carmen again

We were back at the COC last night for the first performance of Carmen by the alternative cast.  (First cast review) As so often seems to be the case with these double cast shows it felt almost like a different production.  The biggest differences are produced by the new Don José, David Pomeroy, and the new Carmen, Clémentine Margaine.  Pomeroy is a very decent singer but he doesn’t have the ease, power and bloom of Russell Thomas.  What he does have is vastly superior acting chops.  His Don José is a believably complex human being.  We can see his decline from rather boring and provincially stuck up into despair(1).  It’s palpable.  Margaine’s Carmen is a similar story.  Her voice isn’t as big or dark as Anita Rashvelishvili(2) but she’s much more physical on stage.  Further, Pomeroy and Margaine are much more credible as a couple.  The net result is the drama that was rather missing in the first two acts on Sunday.  The price is not hearing two absolutely incredibly beautiful voices.


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Carmen in Cuba?

I caught the second performance of the current run of Carmen at the COC this afternoon.  It’s a revival of the production previously seen in 2010 but with, we are told, debuting director Joel Ivany being given some freedom to change things up a bit.  Obviously he was mostly constrained to use the existing sets and costumes which, for reasons that escape me, transplants the piece to 1940s Cuba which was, as far as I know, markedly short of both gypsies and bull fights but there you go.  Actually it matters scarcely at all because both sets and costumes are generic scruffy Hispanic and could be anywhere from Leon to Lima.  For the first two acts too the blocking and Personenregie is pretty standard too.  It’s all really down to the chemistry between the singers and the quality of the acting and neither is anything to write home about.  It says a lot when Frasquita is scene stealing.  Fortunately it livens up a lot after the interval.  The third act is atmospheric and Micaëla’s aria is deeply touching and for the first time I felt genuine emotion.  It gets even better after that with a really effective use of the whole auditorium for the parade which had much of the audience clapping along and a clever stage set up for the crowd during the final confrontation scene.  I don’t think it’s a production for the ages but it’s better than merely serviceable and I’ve seen much worse Carmens.  And, frankly, it’s simply not realistic to expect one of the season’s cash cows to push the envelope very far.


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Reflections on Tosca

Photo credit: Michael Cooper

The only known photograph from this production as featured in every other print or internet review I've seen.

Puccini’s Tosca is on at the Canadian Opera Company right now. It’s this years “bums on seats” production. There are fourteen performances scheduled; compared to eight for most shows. It’s double casted. It’s a conservative friendly, traditionalist production seen before just four years ago and it features hone town diva, Adrienne Pieczonka. We saw it last night and were a bit disappointed. It wasn’t the sort of show one comes out of spluttering “travesty” or “disgrace” but it wasn’t the sort of performance that gets a standing ovation and excited deconstruction on the subway home either. It felt like a revival of a traditional production. It has to be said that my reaction, while more positive than some reviews I’ve read, wasn’t shared by a large chunk of the audience who switched from their customary coughing to an extended standing ovation. From the chatter I could hear in seats around me that was largely the reaction of the “once a year” crowd so, in a very important sense, this production accomplishes what it needs to do.

Still it’s sad to come out of a performance of Tosca relatively unmoved so let me try and dissect why. Paul Curran’s production is very traditional so there’s no gimmickry to either offend or help overcome shortcomings in the singing or acting department and, of course, there’s no sense of novelty. A reasonably seasoned opera goer is, inevitably, comparing it with other Toscas. Mr. Curran’s programme notes are quite explicit about the success criteria for an enterprise of this type.

The joy and challenge of directing Tosca is not only in the glorious music and razor-sharp libretto, but ideally in workingclosely with the talents of the singers playing and fleshing out their roles. As the curtain rises it is the characters and relationships we must believe in. Characters are built bar by bar, phrase by phrase and discussion by discussion. No word is too small that it might not be the trigger for a singer to find a new angle into their character’s life or psyche, and the job of the director, I believe, is in part to help the cast explore and discover just these subtleties.

The trouble is that not much of this happened. The three principals; Adrienne Pieczonka (Floria Tosca), Carlo Ventre (Cavaradossi) and Mark Delavan (Scarpia), are all established ‘A’ list singers and sang as well as one would expect but neither their characters nor the relationships between them came fully alight. I can take my Tosca somewhat overblown but lukewarm doesn’t really cut it. Delavan is a big man with lots of physical presence but here he struck (rather odd) poses and never really exuded any sense of menace. He didn’t even seem to be that into Tosca. His physical encounters with her in Act 2 suggested that their mutual priority was not upsetting the costume shop. You could find steamier scenes in any high school parking lot. This just reinforced the aloofness of Pieczonka’s very “in control” Tosca. Vissi d’arte, though beautifully sung, came out of nowhere. This wasn’t a woman on the edge of breakdown and when she stabs Scarpia our surprise isn’t that she’s done so but that she didn’t rip his balls off with her bare hands ten minutes earlier. The less said about Ventre’s acting the better though he too sang very well indeed and E luceva qualche stella was probably the emotional highlight of the evening.

Besides fine singing there was quite a lot to like in the production. The orchestra under Paolo Carignani sounded great. I really like the atmospheric lighting plot which used light level and tone to create a variety of effects, especially in Act 1 and in Act 3, where it managed to suggest night time without being so dark one couldn’t see. The chorus both adults and children were excellent and curran creates some pleasing visual arrangements in Act 1 (nice touch where Scarpia barges out past the bishop celebrant). Unfortunately none of this really overcomes the emotional hole at the centre of the production.

I’ve heard it said, from various quarters, that the second cast of Julie Makerov in the title role and Brendan Jovanovich as Cavaradossi (Delavan sings Scarpia in all performances) may up the EQ a bit so they may actually be a better bet. Sheer curiosity may even get me to go find out.

I’m sure what I’ve written above sounds really negative. It needs context. Expectations for COC productions have been raised very high by some truly excellent efforts in recent years and so a “pretty adequate” production that would have received rave reviews ten years ago barely cuts it today. That’s the price of success.