There’s been a lot of talk recently about whether or not it’s legit to change text, music or dramaturgy for problem operas like Madama Butterfly. I get pretty frustrated by this because it happens all the time in Europe, especially in the German speaking countries, a fact which seems to escape the notice of many involved in this debate. Usually it’s the dramaturgy that gets changed. Changes to the music are rare indeed and, traditional playing with operetta dialogue aside, the libretto usually doesn’t change. And, of course it’s not just “problem operas” that get the treatment. Today I’m going to write about a “concept” production of Weber’s Der Freischütz recorded at the Vienna State Opera in 2018.
François Girard’s Siegfried, a revival of his 2006 production, opened last night at the COC. Despite using the same basic set concept as Atom Egoyan’s Die Walküre, Girard’s Siegfried, has a rather different look and feel. The fragments of Valhalla and the remains of Yggdrassil are still there but they are supplemented in imaginative fashion by a corps of supers and acrobats who play a key role in shaping the scenes. For example, in the opening scene we have Yggdrassil festooned with bodies, as if some enormous shrike were in residence. Some of these are dummies and some aerialists who come into the drama at key points. The flames in Siegfried’s forge are human arms. Acrobats make a very effective Fafner in the Niedhöhle scene and the flames around Brünnhilde’s rock are human too. Most of the characters are dressed in sort of white pyjamas which makes for a very monochromatic effect on the mostly dark stage. The one visual incongruity is the “bear” who is present, tied to Yggdrassil, throughout Act 1. Frankly it looks less like a bear than John Tomlinson after a night on the tiles. Still, all in all, the production is effective without being especially revelatory.
It was back to the Four Seasons Centre last night for a second look at the COC’s Peter Grimes. This time Ben Heppner was singing the titled role as scheduled. Everything else was much the same as opening night and so I’ll just focus on the differences between Tony Dean-Griffey and Ben. In many ways their interpretations are similar. They both come across as “gentle giants”; alienated and outside Borough society but not really “brutal and coarse” as the libretto has it. In both cases the violence offered to Ellen in Act 2 seems to come from nowhere. The big difference, it seems to me, is that Dean Griffey has the voice to sing that interpretation. He can float the high notes in Now the Great Bear and Pleiades and What Harbour Shelters Peace in the disturbing and otherwordly manner of a Pears or a Langridge. Perhaps Heppner once had that quality but if he did it has gone. What Heppner does have is great acting powers. The prologue and the final scene were nuanced and compelling and worth the price of admission. In between he had his moments but he clearly isn’t over the problems that kept him out of opening night and there were a couple of quite jaw dropping moments in the scene in his hut. None of this stopped the Four Seasons crowd from giving him a rapturous reception.
Photo: Michael Cooper courtesy of the COC
Peter Grimes remains a great show with brilliance from the orchestra and chorus, a very fine Balstrode from Alan Held and strong performances from the other soloists. I’m glad I saw the show with both tenors and I would certainly recommend it highly with either. There are four more performances between now and October 26th.
Readers of this blog will likely know that Peter Grimes is a very special opera for me. I’ve watched it live and on recordings a lot. I think about it a lot troo so the chance to see it live is rather special. It’s even more special when it’s done as well as at the Four Seasons Centre last night in the opening performance of a new run of Neil Armfield’s much travelled production, revived here by Denni Sayers.
It will come as no secret to regular readers that I am something of a Peter Grimes completist. Until recently this blog was probably the only place one could find detailed reviews of all the available video recordings of that great work. Now the recent La Scala production has been released on Blu-ray and I am no longer complete. Fear not though, the disk is in the mail as they say and the divine order will shortly be restored.
In other Grimes news, the Aldeburgh Festival is staging the work on the beach. The estimable Chris Gillett, Horace Adams both there and at La Scala, is blogging about it in his usual inimitable style. In some ways I really wish I could go but I know that coast. Even on a good day the wind will freeze one’s soft bits off. Definitely a challenging place to perform or even watch opera. It’s also just off the A12 and I still have the after effects of 24 stitches on my face from a rather unfortunate encounter on that highway in my youth. I shall patiently await Ben Heppner, Alan Held, Ileana Montalbetti et al at the Four Seasons Centre in the fall.
After seeing Peter Sellars on Monday night I decided that (a) I had to see Ben Heppner as Tristan and (b) I couldn’t wait until next Friday when I have tickets to see Michael Baba in the role. So, I skipped out of the office yesterday morning and with a little help (thanks Sergey!) scored a standing room ticket for last night’s opening. (At $12 for nearly five hours music this was a remarkable bargain!). I’m back at my desk on five hours sleep and I’m still in shock. This will go down in legend.
I’d only seen Tristan und Isolde once before, in a disastrous MetHD broadcast, which had been so irritating that the music left little impression. Other times I’d attempted it on DVD I couldn’t get past the nothinghappensness of it. Last night I finally got it. In Sellars’ production not much happens on stage. The singers, in non descript monochrome outfits, come and go or stand around in square light spots. They gesture in characteristically Sellarian fashion but it’s almost classic “park and bark”. But, and it’s a huge but, behind them there is a giant screen on which videos by Bill Viola play more or less continuously and through them he evokes time and place and we see the inner journeys of the characters. It’s really hard to describe but it works brilliantly. To counterpoint the long meditative sections, when there is action it often happens off stage. The chorus sing off stage from various parts of the house and characters, too, appear on the orchestra apron or high up in the Rings. These action moments are often accompanied by lighting that encompasses the auditorium and implicates us in the action (but not the dark inner journey of Tristan and Isolde). It’s great. (1)
Last night I saw the Canadian Opera Company’s double bill of Zemlinsky’s A Florentine Tragedy and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. I had a pretty good idea what to expect having attended the dress rehearsal a couple of weeks ago. I said then that I thought that there was something in this show for everyone, even the most traditionalist, and I would still hold to that view if I hadn’t read the very silly review by Arthur Kaptainis in the National Post. Apparently there are people who can’t cope with a simple change of time setting and there are editors who let them write for real newspapers. It’s very puzzling. So let’s just say something for anyone with a smidgeon of imagination or dramatic instinct. Continue reading →
It’s Spring in Toronto. The Canadian Opera Company has three productions in rehearsal and load ins and set building have started once more at the Four Seasons Centre. Here’s my take on what’s coming up.
Offenbach – Tales of Hoffmann April 10th to May 14th
This is a house debut for British director Lee Blakeley who brings his production previously seen at Vlaamse Opera. The production looks on the face of it fairly conventional but word from the rehearsal studio is that it’s fairly “out there”. The casting is a typical mix of “A list” talent, local favourites and Ensemble Studio members. Probably the biggest draw is local boy John Relyea who is playing the four villains. American tenor Russell Thomas sings the title role. The four main female roles will be sung by Andriana Chuchman, Erin Wall, Keri Alkema and Lauren Segal; all familiar faces to Toronto audiences. Johannes Debus conducts. More information.
Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel was one of the earlier “Live in HD” broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera and has been out on DVD for some time. The newness of the concept is immediately apparent in Renée Fleming’s almost awed tone as she introduces the work. She certainly sounds more blasé these days. Hansel and Gretel, given here in David Pountney’s English translation is an odd work. The libretto is much more than a Disney fairy tale. There is poverty, hunger, drunkenness, threats of beatings and murder. There is also a layer of religious sentimentality so thick it could only be 19th century and German. The score is astonishingly heavyweight given the subject matter. Humperdinck worked with Wagner and that is very, very apparent in this piece.
Unsurprisingly, modern directors have tended to emphasize the darker side of the work and Richard Jones is no exception. Hunger is the driving force here and each act is set in a kitchen. A poor peasant cottage in Act 1, a dream like banquetting facility in Act 2 and the Witch’s nightmarish cake factory cum kitchen in Act 3. Much food is thrown around and smeared over people. It’s pretty succesful as a concept if a bit one dimensional.
The performances are spectacular and based on some serious luxury casting. Alice Coote and Christine Schäfer as Hansel and Gretel are terrific, especially Schäfer. It’s a wonder to me that a beautiful and elegant woman like her can do grubby so well but she nails it every time (Cherubino in Salzburg, Lulu at Glyndebourne) and this is no exception. Alan Held is a booming father; as big in voice as he is in stature. Rosalind Plowright doesn’t sing prettily but she is utterly convincing as the depressed, shrewish, drug addled mother. Then there is the much missed Philip Langridge camping it up as the Witch. He’s like an incredibly messy Julia Child on speed. He’s hilarious. Sasha Cooke plays the Sandman and Lisette Oropesa plays the Dew Fairy complete with washing up joke. Vladimir Jurowski conducts the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra as if he was conducting The Ring and they play beautifully for him. The very well drilled Met Children’s Chorus also get a look in in the final scenes. Overall, the performance has a high degree of integrity and very high musical values. It’s a good bet for this work which I still can’t really bring myself to like.
Technically this is what you would expect from a Met “Live in HD”. No video director is credited (so far as I can tell) but it’s got about the usual quota of super close ups, including a completely gratuitous foot shot, which is actually a bit odd as the sets for Acts 1 and 2 are basically confined to a thirty foot cube so it would be easy to encompass the whole picture. The picture quality is good, not stunning, DVD standard. The DTS 5.1 soundtrack is excellent and is particularly good at bringing out the very precise orchestral playing. There is also LPCM stereo. It has the usual HD Broadcast extras. There are English, French, German, Spanish and Italian subtitles. The documentation (English only) includes track listings, a synopsis and a short essay. There is additional information in English, French and German in a PDF on the disc itself.