Last night’s Toronto Summer Music concert at the Church of the redeemer was headlined by Daniel Taylor, Charles Daniels and Steven Philcox but, somewhat to my surprise, also featured multiple fellows from both the art song and chamber music programmes.
The “headliners” kicked things off with Britten’s canticle Abraham and Isaac, based on one of the Chester Mystery Plays. I thought I knew this piece but soon realised I was confusing it with the setting of Owen’s The Parable of the Old Man and the Young in the War Requiem! It’s an interesting piece with a very medieval Catholic take on an Old Testament story. It was performed here with the delicacy and attention to detail I’d expect from these performers.
Yesterday the lemur and I ventured out to Roy Thomson Hall for Tafelmusik’s Singalong Messiah. I did this with some trepidation. There were reasons for this. First, I’m not a great sight reader; I sorta, kinda get by but I’m much more comfortable in the middle of a group of better singers that I can key off. But there’s the rub, I’m a tenor. I did this gig before in 2003 and there were like a million sopranos and seven tenors. See first point. It ain’t happening.(*). Finally, I had been fighting a cold/cough all week and feared that my voice would be better suited to Aristophanes than Handel. Fools tread boldly etc.
David Fallis’ last show after 28 years as Artistic Director of the Toronto Consort is, perhaps appropriately, the earliest opera in the repertoire; Monteverdi’s Orfeo. The first performance of three was last night at Trinity St. Paul’s. It’s a concert performance with surtitles and some interesting orchestration. The expected strings and woodwinds are supplemented here by the sackbuts and cornettos of Montreal based La Rose des Vents as well as triple harp and an assortment of keyboards including, I think, two different organs. Continue reading →
This review first appeared in the print edition of Opera Canada.
Peter-Anthony Togni’s Responsio is sub-titled “A contemporary response to Guillaume de Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame” and that is exactly what it is. It weaves sections of Machaut’s 14th century mass with sections designated “Response one”, “response two” etc. which are a kind of commentary on Machaut’s music. What’s really interesting though is the way Togni arranges the source material. It’s scored for soprano, mezzo, two tenors and bass clarinet. The use of high voices seems to emphasise the originality of Machaud’s music, which must have sounded pretty radical to its original audience, and facilitates him somewhat twisting and shaping the vocal line to bring out some fairly weird rhythms and harmonies. So unmediaeval did some of these textures sound that I went off in search of the source material. There’s no doubt that Togni has arranged to bring out the strangeness but it is very much there in Machaut’s original score. Then alongside the vocals there is the bass clarinet which, part scored, part improvised provides a rather compelling, even disturbing commentary in a more obviously contemporary vein. The Gloria and the Hosanna sections in particular juxtapose the vocals, already making the familiar words of the mass seem strange, with an insinuating clarinet line in ways that are almost physically jarring. It is a piece of great originality; beautiful, thought provoking and even weird, and quite fascinating.
Last night the UoT’s early Music program presented Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in the chapel at Trinity College. It was a bit of a strange experience. The work was semi-staged with dancers doubling Dido and Aeneas and a few extra as “chorus dancers”. With a twelve person chorus and all the soloists plus the small band this made for a lot of people in the space. Trinity College Chapel is long, narrow and high with traditional pew seating and a minimally raised platform for the altar. All of which meant that only the first few rows and , maybe, people on the aisle had much of a view of anything.
There’s a unit set; some marble flags, a few broken columns surrounding a “fire pit”. Even this is stripped down for much of Act 2 which takes place on the stage apron in front of a plain curtain. There are five singers, a chorus and an orchestra. That, plus Peter Sellars, is all it takes to produce an extraordinary piece of music drama.
Peter Sellars’ 1996 Glyndebourne production of Handel’s Theodora just gets better with every viewing. I utterly retract my original view that the music isn’t Handel at his finest. It’s very good indeed and the production and performances on this disk are fantastic. Despite not being the best recording ever (though the recent Blu-ray release is an improvement) it remains a “must see” for any fan of Baroque opera or challenging music theatre.
What makes it so compelling? I think it’s two factors. The first is the production. The contemporary American setting works with very little violence to the libretto or music and yet speaks directly to very contemporary concerns. It’s particularly effective that current reality is inverted with respect to mainstream Christianity. Added to this are some extraordinarily intense performances led by the late Lorraine Hunt as Irene, the leader of the Christians. “As with rosy steps the morn” and “Lord to thee, each night and day” bring me out in goosebumps every time. The chemistry between David Daniels and Richard Croft is also palpable and Dawn Upshaw could hardly be bettered in the title role. Even Christine Schäfer in the only competing recording doesn’t come close.
One of the notes I made while watching this the other night reads “anybody not moved by this is an emotional cripple”. It’s a fair summary.
Robert Carsen’s production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is as visually striking as any of his productions. It’s also one that’s done the rounds, playing in Aix and Lyon before being recorded by a strong cast at the Liceu in Barcelona in 2005. The challenge with Dream is to create visual worlds for the Fairies and the Mortals that are different but work together. Carsen and his usual design team do this very well in this case. The Fairies are given striking green and blue costumes with red gloves. The mortals mostly run to white and cream and gold and they seem to spend a lot of time in their underwear. The lighting, as always with Carsen, forms an important part of the overall design. Carsen completists will also notice certain other characteristic touches like starkly arranged furniture.
I really don’t know how many operas there are more or less based on Tasso’s story of the Christian knight Rinaldo and the Muslim sorceress Armida. Certainly there are versions by Rossini and Lully which I’ve seen. Then there’s Handel’s Rinaldo which I watched in David Alden’s production for the Bayerischer Staatsoper in 2001. Alden at least manages to avoid obvious Monty Python and the Holy Grail references which is more than either the Metropolitan Opera and Opera Atelier managed with the Rossini and the Lully. In fact Alden manages to avoid all the usual cliches of both Handel in general and this piece in particular though at the expense of giving us a version that is quite hard to interpret. The action is moved to maybe the 1950s to judge by the costumes and the Christians are decidedly wimpy and ostentatiously pious (except for the Rinaldo of David Daniels). Crucifixes, surplices and bibles crop up at odd times and in the final scene the Christian army is a line of Jesus statuettes of the kind one can pick up at Honest Ed’s or one’s friendly neighbourhood Catholic tat store. The Muslims are much earthier and in Act 1 Argante (Egilis Silins) seems to terrify the Christian trio of Goffredo (David Walker), Almirena (Deborah York)and Eustazio (Axel Köhler). Also Noëmi Nadelmann’s very sexy Armida is much earthier than Deborah York’s rather etiolated persona. Note that by casting Goffredo as a countertenor we end up with four countertenors which is more than I’ve seen on stage at one time for sure.
Whatever the overall concept, Alden does pretty much what Handel did with the original production; give us a succession of arresting visual images and effects and some very funny moments. There’s probably more flesh on display too than Handel could have got away with in 1711. There is, as the cliche would have it, never a dull moment with giant dolls dropping their pants, an army of aliens, severed limbs and a David Lynch like giant face. It all puts considerable demands on the athletic and acting abilities of the cast and here Nadelmann has the toughest time and does really, really well. Her physical acting and timing are excellent and she’s not at all hard on the eye which helps. Everybody else is pretty good too. David Daniels face, as he gets felt up by both the girls, is a picture.
Musically, the stand out is David Daniels. No surprise really. Here he sings stylishly throughout and delivers a really lovely “cara sposa, amante cara”. Nadelmann gets full marks for being accurate and musical even while acting her head off. She sings “Furie terribili!” with Argante’s head clasped between her thighs! At least for “Lascia ch’io pianga” York is stationary though in quite an awkward pose. I think she sounds a bit over challenged by some of the high passage work in act 1 but she seems to improve as things progress. As the one low voice on show Silins is a good contrast. I’ve heard more agile bass-baritones in Handel but his fairly bluff reading is appropriate to the way the part is portrayed here. Harry Bicket directs the Bavarian State Orchestra and plays continuo. No worries there.
Brian Large directed for the small screen and does his usual thing of giving us lots of close ups which is a shame as there is lots going on that we miss and it’s obvious that Alden and his designer, Paul Steinberg, have put a lot of thought into the overall composition of scenes which is mostly lost on the DVD. The DVD itself is pretty basic. It’s on the Kultur label in North America though it originated as a Euroarts release in Europe. Kultur have stuck the original two DVDs onto a single disc and while they have included the useful documentary essay Handel, the Entertainer it means the only sound option is Dolby 2.0 and the only subtitles are English. The picture (16:9 anamorphic) and sound quality is perfectly OK but not stunning. The only documentation is a chapter listing.
Handel’s Theodora was conceived and first performed as an oratorio and it was a flop. closing after three performances. I’m not sure why. It may not be Handel’s best work but it’s got some very good numbers and it’s dramatically very strong.
In 1996 Glyndebourne staged an operatic version conceived by Peter Sellars. Occasionally Mr. Sellars frustrates me but most of the time I think he’s a genius who stages some of the most thought provoking music theatre out there. This Theodora is pure genius. Sellars sets the piece in contemporary America. The President of Antioch, Valens, (Frode Olsen) is a typical American politician; a nasty mixture of imperialist bluster, bonhomie and crass consumerism and he’s well supported by a brightly clad coke can bearing heathen chorus. The Roman soldiers wear US Navy helicopter pilot uniforms. By contrast the Christians wear combinations of black and white in pretty restrained cuts and combinations. The set is mostly bare but for some giant shattered glass vases and, as needed, a few props such as a lectern, chairs and, most chillingly, the gurneys on which Theodora and Didymus are executed by lethal injection. It all works really well. Although conceived 15 years ago it could have been last week. The idea that one can’t be a “proper Roman/American” if one doesn’t adhere to the state and socially approved approved religion and the chilling, deadly self righteousness of Valens seem especially contemporary in a week that sees an IRA supporter chairing a House investigation into Muslim disloyalty.