The opening concert of the 21C festival featured an all Osvaldo Golijov programme presented by Against the Grain Theatre. It was preceded by a very informative conversation between Joel Ivany and the composer. My main takeaway from that is that Golijov writes for people not instruments. If the people he has in mind for a piece play a certain combination of instruments that’s what he will write for and if circumstances demand it he will readily make changes. We saw that last night when cantor Alex Stein was unable to perform in K’vakaret (for cantor and string quartet) and Juan Gabriel Olivares stepped in on clarinet instead.
Yesterday’s lunchtime concert in the RBA was a song recital with an Oriental(ist) theme by polyglot soprano Miriam Khalil and pianist Topher Mokrzewski. It kicked off with the two Suleika songs by Schubert to texts by Marianne von Willimer. For my taste Miriam’s voice and treatment of the songs was decidedly on the dramatic side. It was interesting and there’s no doubting the commitment but it’s not my favourite way to hear Schubert. It was all uphill from there though. Ravel’s Shéherazade; Debussy inspired music to texts by Tristan Klingsor, was given an equally dramatic treatment, and Miriam is very dramatic in both voice and body language, but here it worked for me, especially the passionate invocation of the invented East in Asie.
I was fortunate, back in November 2016, to be at the Aga Khan Museum when Miriam Khalil gave an extraordinary performance of Osvaldo Golijov’s Ayre. Good news! It was recorded and is now available as the inaugural release on the new Against the Grain label. It loses little in its translation to disk. I think the power, beyond the work itself, comes from Miriam’s intensity and grasp of the various idioms involved. As the man himself says “No one owns this piece in the way that Miriam Khalil does. It is as if she was born to sing it”. Certainly it sounds quite different from the original recording with Dawn Upshaw. The recording itself is clean and clear and does the performance justice. Osvaldo’s introductory speech is included as a bonus.
Ayre is available digitally on iTunes (C$9.99) and Google Play, and physical CDs will be sold in retail shops in Toronto, online via the AtG website, and at all upcoming 18/19 season performances by Against the Grain Theatre.
There is also a digital booklet (including texts and translations and useful historical/background material) available on the AtG website.
Against the Grain Theatre have announced an ambitious 2018/19 season. There are two main stage shows. The first is Bound, which had a first workshop outing in December 2017. It’s still a work-in-progress but there have been significant developments. Kevin Lau has been commissioned to inject his contemporary themes, music and ideas into the original music by Handel. Instead of piano there will be a chamber orchestra led by AtG Music Director Topher Mokrzewski with digital sound artist Acote. The cast will include soprano Miriam Khalil, countertenor David Trudgen, tenor Andrew Haji, and baritone Justin Welsh. This workshop will be presented in Longboat Hall at The Great Hall (1087 Queen Street West) on November 19th, 20th and 21st, 2018. For me, the acid test will be whether the dramaturgy and the text has been tightened up.
Against the Grain Theatre’s latest production, Ayre, continues their run of innovative, site specific shows. This time it was a presentation of four works by Argentinian Jewish composer Osvaldo Golijov at the Ismaili Centre; part of the Aga Khan complex on Wynford Drive. The “appetisers” were three short works presented in three of the public spaces of the Centre. Yiddishbbuk, for string quartet (Jennifer Murphy, Barry Shiffman, Laila Zakzook, Drew Comstock), was inspired by apocryphal psalms and is a fractured piece employing a lot of extended techniques to create a three movement work “in the mode of Babylonic Lamentations”. Lua Descolorida, with Adanya Dunn as soprano soloist, sets a 19th century text in Gallego. It’s a folksy, Arab inflected piece over a kind of string “ground” with pizzicato cello. Short but rather beautiful. For Tenebrae the quartet was joined by clarinetist Brad Cherwin and soprano Ellen McAteer. It’s a beautiful piece with a melismatic vocal line culminating with multiple repeats of the single word “Jerusalem”.
A bunch of announcements today; most of them from Against the Grain Theatre. The big one I suppose is the announcement of a formal arrangement with the COC which sees a two year “company in residence” arrangement whereby AtG will be based at the COC’s Front Street offices and where COC execs will mentor their AtG equivalents. The relationship has been going on for a while so it’s not terribly surprising that they have decided to shack up together.
There a quite a few operas that are too short to make up a full evening’s entertainment. Most of these are one acters but there’s the occasional on that’s not such as Dido and Aeneas. In any event they pose the problem of what to combine with what. For example, I’ve seen Gianni Schicchi paired with Zemlinsky’s A Florentine Tragedy, Rachmaninov’s The Miserly Knight and even with Salome as well as with its original partners in Il Trittico. I suppose there are a few almost canonical combinations like Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung but mostly I think the shorter works get neglected because it is hard to find good combinations that make aesthetic sense and are marketable. So that’s my question for today; what combination of shorter operas would you like to see at your local opera emporium?
My contribution would be Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and Golijov’s Ainadamar. I’ve never seen either staged and both interest me musically a lot.
As 2011 draws to a close I got to thinking about which, if any, “new” operas might survive infancy (for the survival rate of new operas seems to be roughly comparable to newborns in an 18th century foundlings hospital). My knowledge of new opera isn’t comprehensive and it’s biased to the English speaking world. Is it my imagination or is there a major split in this area between continental Europe and the angloverse? Or is there simply not much new work being produced on the Continent? Anyway here’s a far from complete list of operas that premiered in 2000 or after and my thoughts on their likely longevity.
John Adams Doctor Atomic 2005. Not Adams’ best work in my opinion. The libretto is pretty awful but there are some good orchestral lines and it’s a great subject. It probably has a future because it’s by Adams.
Harrison Birtwistle Minotaur 2008. Early days but the equally good (IMO) Gawain never got any traction. It’s also a pretty uncompromisingly atonal approach to a classical subject in a world where “tabloid opera” seems to be the thing. It’s probably undeservedly doomed though the fact that a really good video recording is available may help it.
Thomas Adès Tempest 2009. Already scheduled for the Met with a starry cast so has good survival chances.
Marc Anthony Turnage Anna Nicole 2011. I hate it but it fits the contemporary Zeitgeist.
Oswaldo Golijov Ainadamar 2003. A brilliant score but I bet it’s a bugger to stage. Probably doomed.
Jake Heggie Dead Man Walking 2000. This is well established in the US and has, crucially, been performed a few times outside the angloverse. Probably a survivor.
Kaija Saariaho L’Amour de Loin 2000. One of only two non English language opera on the list. Seems to have traction in both Europe and North America. Survivor?