As promised, thoughts on art song recitals

gerhaherhuberThe imminent death of the art song recital is perhaps an even more prevalent trope than “opera is dying” doomandgloomery.  It reached something of a crescendo in Toronto when the Aldeburgh Connection shut up shop after thirty years.  Oddly enough there still seem to be plenty of recitals of various kinds but unquestionably there has been something of a shift away from “two dudes in tails with a piano”.

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Best of 2014

Well not so much “best of” as the good stuff that really made my year.  It was a pretty good year overall.  On the opera front there was much to like from the COC as well as notable contributions from the many smaller ensembles and opera programs.  The one that will stick longest with me was Peter Sellars’ searing staging of Handel’s Hercules at the COC.  It wasn’t a popular favourite and (predictably) upset the traditionalists but it was real theatre and proof that 250 year old works can seem frighteningly modern and relevant.  Two other COC productions featured notable bass-baritone COC debuts and really rather good looking casts.  Atom Egoyan’s slightly disturbing Cosí fan tutte not only brought Tom Allen to town but featured a gorgeous set of lovers, with Wallis Giunta and Layla Claire almost identical twins, as well as a welcome return for Tracy Dahl.  Later in the year Gerry Finley made his company debut in the title role of Verdi’s Falstaff in an incredibly detailed Robert Carsen production.  I saw it three times and I’m still pretty sure I missed stuff.

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From Severn to Somme

maltmanLast night at Walter Hall, as part of the Toronto Summer Music Festival,  Chris Maltman and Graham Johnson gave a recital that explored the experience of war through song.  It was a long and varied programme with twenty two songs in four languages commemorating most of the great empires that went to war in 1914 though many of the songs were from earlier periods.  At the core of the programme were early 20th century settings of English pastoral poems.  Butterworth’s settings of Houseman were there but, sneakily, we got Somervell’s much less well known setting of Think no more lad.  In a similar vein there were Gurney and Finzi.  The Americas were represented in a characteristically rambunctious Ives setting of a horribly jingoistic McCrae poem; He is there. McCrae may be the only well known war poet who managed to survive until 1918 without developing any sense of irony.  Beyond the English speaking world there were songs by Mussorgsky, Mahler, Fauré, Schumann, Wolf and Poulenc.

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How can peace come from so much pain?

Making a film of an opera rather than filming an opera involves interesting choices and one of the strengths of the DVD of Penny Woolcock’s film of John Adams’ and Alice Goodman’s The Death of Klinghoffer is that includes 47 minutes of Woolcock, Adams and others discussing just how one takes a rather abstractly staged opera (the original staging was, inevitably, by Peter Sellars) and turn it into an essentially naturalistic film.  Of course, naturalism will only go so far with opera but this goes a long way in that direction.  The soloists are filmed mainly on location and they sing to the camera.  The choruses, mainly backed by documentary footage, and the orchestra were recorded in the studio but the actors sing ‘live’.  The one concession to “being operatic” is having a mezzo voice one of the Palestinians though he is played by a male actor.

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Toronto Summer Music Festival

Toronto Summer Music will run from July 22 to August 12. There’s a wide variety of programming but the highlights for opera and song fans are as follows:

Sondra Radvanovsky is in concert on Thursday, July 31 at 7:30 p.m. at Koerner Hall. The programme is “favourite Italian opera arias”.. Whether it’s orchestral or piano accompaniment I don’t know.

Christopher Maltman accompanied by Graham Johnson will be at Walter Hall on Wednesday, August 6 at 7:30 p.m.with a programme titled The Soldier:  From Severn to Somme which will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War. It will include songs by Mahler, Mussorgsky, Butterworth, Ives, Finzi and Poulenc.

On Thursday, August 7 at 7:30 p.m. at Walter Hall, Peter McGillivray and pianist David Louie will join TSO principals Jonathan Crow and Etsuko Kimura (violin), Eric Nowlin (viola), David Hetherington (cello) and Yao Guang Zhai (clarinet) to perform a Viennese programme featuring Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer and Waltzes by Strauss, all in arrangements by Schoenberg and Berg.

The annual TSM Academy Art of Song Recitals will take place on Friday, August 8th (my birthday, send cake) at 12:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. at Walter Hall. These are the showcase recitals for the 12 young singers who were awarded TSM Academy scholarships and who will have prepared with French baritone François Le Roux and pianist Graham Johnson. Naturally, no programming has yet been announced.

Festival, Weekly and Flex passes ($202 -$592) are on sale as of April 3, 2014. Individual concert tickets ($20 to $99) will be on sale as of April 17, 2014. To purchase festival passes and single tickets visit www.torontosummermusic.com , call 416-408-0208 or visit the Weston Family Box Office at the Royal Conservatory of Music.

The Rape of Lucretia

Britten’s Rape of Lucretia, which premiered at Glyndebourne in 1946, is an interesting work in a number of ways.  Musically it marks a distinct break from Peter Grimes and anticipates the later operas in a number of significant ways.  It’s written for much lighter forces than Grimes; string quintet, wind quintet plus harp, percussion and piano and there’s no chorus (in the conventional sense).  It’s also not a “numbers” piece.  There are no set pieces here.  The orchestral writing is spare and somewhat dissonant with that absolute clarity that is so characteristic of Britten.  Sometimes this almost distracts from the drama on stage.

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Intense Dido and Aeneas

Deborah Warner’s entry point to Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is the, almost certainly apocryphal, story about it premiering in a girls’ boarding school.  At various points in the action we get a chorus of schoolgirls in modernish uniforms commenting silently on the action.  They are on stage during the overture, are seen in dance class during some of the dance music and queue up for the Sailor’s autograph.  It’s quite touching and adds to the pathos of the basic, simple, tragic story.  Warner also adds a prologue (the original is lost).  In Warner’s version Fiona Shaw declaims, and acts out, poems by Ovid/Ted Hughes, TS Eliot and WB Yeats.  These additions aside the piece is presented fairly straightforwardly in a sort of “stage 18th century” aesthetic.  The witch scenes are quite well handled with Hilary Summers as a quite statuesque sorceress backed up by fairly diminutive (and, for witches, quite cute) Céline Ricci and Ana Quintans.  Their first appearance is quite restrained but they go to town quite effectively in their second appearance.

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