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.