Thomas Adès’ latest opera, The Exterminating Angel, is probably his most ambitious and best to date. It received its US premiere at the Met in 2017 and was broadcast as part of the Met in HD series, subsequently being released on DVD and Blu-ray. It’s based on the surrealist 1962 Buñuel film. It’s a very strange plot. A group of more or less upper class guests attend a dinner after an opera performance. All the servants except the butler have (inexplicably) left the house. The guests seem unable to leave the room they are in nor can anyone from outside enter it. This goes on for days(??) during which the guests accuse each other of various perversions including incest and paedophilia and turn violent while still expressing delicate aristocratic sensibilities like an inability to stir one’s coffee with a teaspoon. There’s a suicide pact, a bear and several sheep involved before the “spell” to escape the room is discovered. What happens afterwards is unclear. (The opera omits the closing scenes of the film). It’s very weird and quite unsettling; Huis Clos meets Lord of the Flies?
Peter Eötvös’ 1998 opera Tri sestry is based on the Chekhov play and was recorded live at Oper Frankfurt in 2018. It takes fragments of the original Russian play and recombines them in a non-linear way to create a prologue and three “Sequences” from the points of view of Irina, Andrei and Mascha repectively. The recombination is complex enough for the accompanying booklet to contain a table mapping Chekhov’s scene order to Eötvös’. There’s no libretto in the CD package so even flipping between the (fairly detailed) synopsis and the track listing it’s hard to figure out who is singing or about what. No doubt this was much clearer when watching the stage production.
Matters are not made any easier by giving all the female roles to male singers. The sisters and Natascha are given to counter tenors while the nanny Anfisa is sung by a bass. This is fine except that a non-trivial amount of text is spoken and counter tenors sound just like any other male when speaking which further increases the difficulty of keeping things straight, especially with a cast of thirteen characters! Non-Russian speakers are unlikely to be able to follow much of the text anyway as singers sing over each other for most of the first two Sequences. It does get a bit more open and sparer in the third sequence and someone with a strong knowledge of the language will likely pick up nuances there that I missed.
Victor Davies’ The Ecstasy of Rita Joe opened last night in a production by Guillermo Silva-Marin at the Jane Mallett Theatre. It’s based on the play by George Ryga that caused a stir when it opened in Vancouver in 1967. The play was described as indirect and allusive with no clear narrative thread by the critics back then and was praised perhaps more for tackling the subject than for its intrinsic merits which were far from universally appreciated. Interestingly, as is so often the case in Canada, although rarely performed it has attained “classic” status. One word Victor Davies uses to describe the play is “expressionistic” but curiously rather than taking that as a jumping off point for the music (as Strauss and Berg did) he decides it’s an inappropriate idiom for “the lyric approach needed for the melody to unfold”. Why one needs “melody to unfold” in a disturbing tale of a young native woman’s descent into a hell of sexual abuse, alcohol, drugs, prison and, ultimately, her murder and why that melody should be couched in 1940s jazz/swing terms wasn’t obvious to me.
Not much sign of spring as we move into the second half of the month but there are some things musical to enjoy while we await the return of the sun. On March 18th at 2pm in Mazzoleni Hall there is You’re Welcome Rossini with the glamorous duo of Allyson McHardy and, the not seen often enough in Toronto, Lucia Cesaroni. This one is officially sold out but there may be rushes. Ten bucks says they do the Cat duet. Continue reading →
Remembrance is a new CD, on the Harmonia Mundi label, from the Choir of Clare College and their director Graham Ross to be released October 21st in time for poppy season. The main event is a performance of Duruflé’s Requiem given here in the composer’s organ reduction. It’s recorded in Lincoln Cathedral with its great Father Willis organ. It’s a very polished performance with a fair bit of drama. There’s some lovely singing and cello playing from mezzo Jennifer Johnston and cellist Guy Johnston in the Pie Jesu and bass Neal Davies also makes a couple of trenchant contributions. It’s not one of the most performed requiems but definitely worth a listen. Continue reading →
The latest Handel oratorio to be given the operatic treatment by Glyndebourne is Saul, which played in 2015 in a production by Australian Barrie Kosky. It’s quite a remarkable work. The libretto, as so often the work of Charles Jennens, takes considerable liberties with the version in Samuel and incorporates obvious nods to both King Lear and Macbeth as well as more contemporary events. David’s Act 3 lament on the death of Saul, for instance, clearly invokes the execution of Charles I. What emerges is a very classic tragedy. Saul, the Lord’s anointed, is driven by jealousy and insecurity deeper and deeper into madness and degradation and, ultimately, death. This is the basic narrative arc of the piece.
It was my first time seeing Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel live and my expectations were high. They were met, possibly exceeded, but not perhaps in the way I expected.The singing was brilliant across a wide spectrum of moods and genres (I’ll come back to that) but what really stood out was the man’s rapport with the audience which was extraordinary. It’s really hard to describe but let me try with just one example. It’s that thorny issue of people applauding for ages in the middle of sets. The usual approach is to have some functionary come out and announce that “Herr Poffel-Woffel respectfully (huh) asks that the audience not applaud until the end of the set because he believes it spoils the atmosphere”. Bryn’s approach was to wait for the first time it happened, gently shh the audience and announce “I don’t mind at all if you applaud every song but we’ll all get a home a lot earlier if you wait until the end of the set”. There was a lot of that kind of thing and it seemed quite natural and not at all stagey.
One probably can’t go far wrong with an adaptation of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and the operetta, Earnest,The Importance of Being by Victor Davies and Eugene Benson doesn’t. In fact it doesn’t go far from Wilde at all following the plot of the original faithfully and containing all the well known lines. It means too, of course, that it has the flaws as well as the virtues of the original. The first act can drag a bit as Wilde gets a bit too clever but t builds to a very effective second half which flies by. The duet for the girls, To Speak With Perfect Candour is probably the best number in the piece. Davies’ music too does not try to be too portentous. It’s a bit of a pot pourri of styles with, at least, big band music, classical operetta, popular song of the period and what seems to be a nod to Andrew Lloyd-Webber. It’s perfectly consistent with the text. I don’t think though that there’s a single number that one would call truly hummable.
There’s 20cm of snow on the ground and more forecast. The groundhog consensus is a long winter. So, here are a few upcoming concerts and other events that may help get you through the rest of the winter.
On February 17th mezzo Janina Baechle, violist Keith Hamm and pianist Rachel Andrist are performing works by Mahler, Brahms and Leoffler in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at noon. Also in the RBA at noon on the 19th there is the annual concert featuring artists from the Ensemble Studio and Montreal’s YAP the Atelier lyrique. And on the 24th, but at 5.30pm Barbara Hannigan and others are presenting works by Chausson and Schoenberg. All these concerts are free.
The Perfect American is the ironic title of Philip Glass’ latest opera which premiered in Madrid last year. It’s about Walt Disney and set at the end of his life looking back at his life and forward to his death. It’s a not very flattering portrait. It depicts Disney as blinkered, racist, virulently anti-Communist and, in fact, only comfortable with a sort of Leave it to Beaver America; though passionate about that.