My review is now up at Bachtrack.
Photo credit: Michael Cooper
My review is now up at Bachtrack.
Photo credit: Michael Cooper
Yesterday’s lunchtime concert in the RBA was the last for the year in the vocal series and featured members of the Ensemble Studio. Rachael Kerr was scheduled to do about half the accompanying but illness prevented her from playing so some hasty reprogramming meant that what we got differed somewhat from the printed programme but it was still a very well put together effort.
The COC 2019/20 season was revealed last night at the Four Seasons Centre. I liked the set up this time. A brief introduction from Alexander Neef, an overture and then a well scripted narrative, read by William Webster, describing the works in turn within the theme of “Once Upon A Time”, with a performance of one number from each opera. And so, what do we get:
Puccini – Turandot – September 28th to October 27th 2019 – 9 performances.
This is the Robert Wilson production from Madrid. Tamara Wilson and Marjorie Owens share the title role with Sergey Skorokhodov and Kamen Chanev as Calaf and Joyce El-Khoury/Vanessa Vasquez as Liu. Carlo Rizzi conducts. I’m not a huge fan of Wilson’s elegant but static productions but I could see it working for Turandot. I’m told the usual Alfano completion will be used.
Lauren Margison gave us Liu’s aria. Continue reading
The 6th in the annual series of fundraisers for St. Mike’s ICU in memory of Elizabeth Krehm took place at Christ Church, Deer Park last night. Once again Evan Mitchell had assembled a fine orchestra of volunteers and Elizabeth’s sister, Rachel, sang. The orchestra book ended the program with the overture from Hänsel und Gretel and Brahm’s 4th Symphony; the latter a very red blooded account indeed with the brass and woodwinds getting a workout. The main interest though was the premier of Come Closer: Songs on Texts by Elizabeth Krehm. The texts are drawn from selections of Elizabeth’s writing, from Grade 2 to near the end of her short life, selected by Rachel. The music is by Ryan Trew. They are really quite evocative texts, showing a surprising emotional depth. The settings are apt; steering a middle ground between artsy and schmaltzy, and Rachel sang with real feeling. It was a loving and lovely act of remembrance.
The Glenn Gould School’s fall opera production this year is Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel given in Brent Krysa’s English language, highly condensed version, originally created for the COC Ensemble Studio School Tour. It really is condensed. There’s no chorus and it comes in at just over the hour mark. The main plot elements are retained but I think quite a bit of the darkness, and most of the religiosity, are gone, though the latter isn’t eliminated entirely. After all, the Evening Prayer and the final chorus are musical highlights and pretty much have to be there. It doesn’t leave any room for the director to explore ideas like child abuse or addiction and pretty much forces, for better or worse, a straightforward emphasis on the basic story.
It’s pretty Grimm in Toronto these days. Friday will see the 500th performance of Dean Burry’s 1999 opera for children The Brothers Grimm. Now, 500 performances for any recent opera is pretty remarkable. 500 performances for a Canadian work is extraordinary. Anyway, in the lead up to Friday there are a number of events scheduled including a concert yesterday lunchtime in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre with a Grimm theme.
Eric Domville introduced the music. He gave us a disquisition on the Grimm brothers, philology, the Great German Dictionary, folk tales and the oral tradition, his childhood, Romanticism as a reaction to Enlightenment, the plot of several folk tales in their English, French and German incarnations and a potted summary of the cultural, political and religious state of Germany in the mid 19th century. It was perhaps just a teeny bit more than one resally needed to explain three arias from Hansel and Gretel and one from Königskinder. Continue reading
The Royal Opera House’s 2008 production of Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel makes no concessions to the idea that this is a sort of operatic Nutcracker to be staged for the kiddies at Christmas. Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser’s production is firmly in the grim, and Grimm, tradition of central European folk tales and it’s sung in German.
For Act 1, designer Christian Fernouillet has created a claustrophobic bedroom with surfaces at odd angles in which the children (Angelika Kirschlager and Diana Damrau) play out their hunger displacement games until their angry mother (Elizabeth Connell) sends them off to forest to gather berries. The father (Thomas Allen) returns with food and this relief from hunger is played out in a scene heavy with sexual innuendo between mother and father. It’s quite creepy. Finally they realise that the children are missing and set off in search.
Act 2 starts in a classic fairy tale forest which rapidly darkens into a place of real menace. The sandman (Pumeza Matshikiza) is a strange distorted creature who puts the children to sleep. In the dream sequence the fourteen guardian angels, with animal heads, carry in a bunch of furniture, including a fireplace, to create a fireside scene of bourgeois domesticity. Two of the animal angels reveal themselves as the mother and father and give the children gifts. Inside each elaborate package is a single sandwich which is devoured with rapt concentration.
Act 3 opens with the Dew Fairy, here a pink confection played by Anita Watson, waking the children. The witch (Anja Silja), a vicious looking old woman with comedy breasts and a Zimmer frame, leaves a miniature gingerbread house for the children to explore. This transforms to the full size version with dead children hanging in a glass fronted cupboard and industrial scale ovens for the witch’s child based confectionery experiments. There is no concession whatever to comedy. The witch is scary as all hell and the scene in which she is shoved in the oven involves some serious pyrotechnics. The conventional happy ending descends into an orgy of face stuffing as the revived children fall on the cake/corpse of the witch. The production is consistent in its essential seriousness and is supported by fine acting across the board. In line with the concept nobody camps up their part. It’s all in earnest.
Musically it’s a really strong performance. Both Kirschlager and Damrau are quite excellent and work really well together. Kirschlager has quite a rich tone which blends nicely with Damrau’s cleaner sound. Thomas Allen is also really good. He’s quite chilling in the Hexenritt for example. Anja Silja’s Witch is a tour de force. She is every inch the witch/hag of nightmares without descending into cheap vocal trickery. Matshikiza sings very sweetly. Connell and Watson are quite good too but didn’t really register strongly with me. Colin Davis gets a suitably Wagnerian sound out of the orchestra and seems to balance drama and beauty very nicely. He’s well supported by the ROH orchestra, especially the brass and woodwinds, and the Tiffin Boys’ Choir and Children’s Chorus. The sheer beauty of the piece really comes out in the finale with Erlöst, befreit, für alle Zeit which manages to be gorgeous while avoiding dipping into excessive sentimentality.
The video direction of Sue Judd is good. She isn’t fixated with close ups though, since this isn’t a terribly busy production, she brings the camera in when there’s not much else to watch. There aren’t any gimmicks and it’s a good approximation to how one would watch from a decent seat which is what video directors ought to give us. The sound and picture quality are very good. It was shot in 1080i and the DVD picture is generally crisp and clear. The DTS 5.1 soundtrack is absolutely first class; vivid and with spatial depth and everything clearly located. This is also available on Blu-ray. Audio choices there are LPCM 2.0 and 5.1. Subtitle options are English, French, German, Spanish and Italian. There’s a useful “Making of” documentary, an interview with Colin Davis plus cast and synopsis material on the disks. The package includes an unusually lavish tri-lingual leaflet.
ETA 23 May 2019: I have now had a look at the Blu-ray. It is, as expected, even better from an AV point of view. The LPCM 5.1 sound track is especially good with real depth and sense of spaciousness. The stereo is not bad either but switching it to it from surround the reduction in the width and depth of the sound field is tangible. Also note that at time of writing this recording is available as part of a three disk set called Fairytale Operas that also contains the Glyndebourne Cunning Little Vixen and Jonathan Dove’s The Adventures of Pinocchio.
I hesitate to compare this Hansel und Gretel with the roughly contemporary Metropolitan Opera version. They are very different but both worthwhile in their own way.
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.