This review first appeared in the print edition of Opera Canada.
Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain, which premiered at Santa Fe in 2015, is an example of what seems to be becoming the standard American formula for new opera. It takes a story from a best selling book that has already been made into a Hollywood film and turns it into an opera. Add to that that it’s a melodrama set in the currently fashionable Civil War South. Melodramatic it certainly is. Within five minutes Owens (Robert Pomakov) has been stabbed and buried alive and his son (Adrian Kramer) bound, gagged and dragged off to the army. A little later our hero, a Confederate deserter played by Nathan Gunn, rescues Laura (Andrea Nūnez) from being thrown from a cliff by her preacher boyfriend (Roger Honeywell). He ends up as part of a heap of chained together corpses. This production is rough on Canadian singers. There’s much more in the same vein with summary executions, baby torture, a choir of dead soldiers and the hero dying with the last shot of the piece. All of this is spun around the romance between the hero, Inman, and his classy but clueless girlfriend Ada (Isabel Leonard) who is busy dodging the attentions of the creepy and repulsive Teague (Jay Hunter-Morris) with the help of the sassy but practical Ruby (Emily Fons).
Claus Guth’s production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, first seen at Salzburg in 2006, opened last night at the COC. I was curious to see how it would be received because, while by no means an extreme production by European standards, it’s well beyond the 1970s aesthetic beloved by sections of the Toronto audience. The aesthetic is Northern European; a Strindberg play or a Bergmann film perhaps. It’s monochromatic, quite slow and focusses on the darker side of the characters’ psyches. It’s the antithesis of Figaro as Feydeau farce. There’s also a non-canonical character, Cherubim. He’s a winged doppelganger of Cherubino and seems to be a cross between Cupid and Puck. Pretty much omnipresent he manipulates scenes and characters though with a power that falls well short of absolute. Perhaps the whole production is best summed up in the final ensemble. Cherubim visits each couple in turn and is brusquely rejected. Only Cherubino is still subject to his power and that seems to have become destructive. Perhaps the message is “Now we are married forget this love nonsense and let us get back to our drab lives of quiet despair”.
I’ve seen Robert Pomakov and the Gryphon Trio perform together a few times now and it’s always interesting. Today’s lunchtime concert in the RBA was no exception. Four of Mozart’s concert arias for bass and orchestra, arranged for string trio by Bohdana Frolyak, were interspersed with movements of Heather Schmidt’s Lunar Reflections; a 2008 piece commissioned by the Gryphons inspired by the moon in different seasons of the year. It was stimulating. The concert arias (K.432, K.513, K.512 and K.612) all showcase the bass voice with tectonic low notes and plenty of opportunity for virtuosity. I think they suited Robert pretty well. He’s perhaps not the most subtle of singers but he’s exciting (and loud!) and the trio accompaniment provided so much more than piano alone could.
The Schmidt piece was also enjoyable. It’s fairly approachable and the five movements are quite varied. The first two; Blue Moon and Pink Moon, are quite lyrical, even lush in a slightly post romantic sort of way then comes Wolf Moon which is in an altogether darker place; slower, louder and more dissonant with lots of work for the low notes on the cello. Snow Moon continues in a slower, somewhat dissonant vein but is much lighter textured and the piece concludes quite violently with the aggressive and abrasive Thunder Moon which puts serious demands on all three players but especially the piano. Unsurprisingly, I feel I’ve probably not done this piece justice. I find I need to hear work of this kind more than once to fully appreciate it.
There are a number of interesting concerts and performances this week. Tuesday sees the graduate students of the UoT Opera Division in cabaret at the Tranzac Club. It’s at 7.30pm and it’s free. The beer at the Tranzac is better than it used to be so should be a decent night out and if you don’t like it the NAGS are performing in the other room, alas without Neil Sorbie. Earlier in the day there’s a noon hour concert in the RBA featuring Bob Pomakov and the Gryphon Trio (also free). The program features works by Mozart and Heather Schmidt.
The Canadian Opera Company has just announced the 2015/16 season line up for the free lunchtime concert series in Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. Now under the curatorship of Claire Morley there’s the usual incredible array of chamber music, dance, piano, jazz and world music as as well as, of course, the vocal series.
So what was I most impressed with on the opera and related scene in in 2013?
Big house opera
The COC had a pretty good twelve months. I enjoyed everything I saw except, maybe, Lucia di Lammermoor. Making a choice between Christopher Alden’s probing La Clemenza di Tito, the searing opening night of Peter Sellars’ Tristan und Isolde; the night when I really “got” why people fly across oceans to see this piece, Robert Carsen’s spare and intensely moving Dialogues des Carmélites or Tony Dean Griffey’s intense and lyrical portrayal of the title character in Peter Grimes is beyond me. So, I shall be intensely disloyal to my home company and name as my pick in this category the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Die Frau ohne Schatten. Wernicke’s production is pure magic and Anna Schwanewilms was a revelation.
Yesterday’s lunch time concert featured bass Robert Pomakov accompanied by members of the Gryphom Trio. The programme kicked off with two songs by Glinka with Bob accompanied by Roman Borys on cello and Jamie Parker on piano. The first piece was called Lullaby but it’s hard to imagine anyone sleeping through Bob’s powerful rendering. The second piece, Doubt, showcased some lovely playing by Borys.
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.
The best bargain of the Toronto music season is the free lunchtime concert series at the Four Seasons Centre. The 2013/14 line up was announced today. Opera and vocal highlights include recitals by Sir Thomas Allen (Songs of the Sea, which sounds rather excellent), Simone Osborne, Robert Pomakov with The Gryphon Trio, Tracey Dahl, Russell Braun and Paul Appleby. Somewhat off the beaten track, there will be a performance of Gagliano’s La Dafne by Capella Intima and the Toronto Continuo Collective and the Canadian Art Song project will be premiering a new commission by a Canadian composer. There will also be the usual (and very popular) sessions from the COC Ensemble Studio (including two Britten themed concerts), the students of the University of Toronto opera division and the young artists of the Atelier lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal.
For the less vocally inclined there is also a full line up of piano, chamber music, world music, jazz and dance. Here’s the full PDF brochure.
Back to Koerner Hall last night for a concert of chamber music and art song. Anchoring the show were the Gryphon Trio. They kicked off with the Debussy Piano Trio in G Major. This was an enjoyable and compact piece with a very playful second movement. Then came what was, for me, the main reason for going, Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death. For this the Gryphons were joined by Toronto bass Robert Pomakov. He was excellent. Obviously completely at home singing in Russian he produced a nuanced reading of text and music. His acting with the voice was exemplary and no extraneous physical acting was required. His control of dynamics was exemplary. He has a really big voice which he deployed as appropriate but he was also capable of floating a lovely pianissimo. Accompaniment from the Gryphons was also well up to par. There are some interesting instrumental lines including making the cello go about as low as a cello can to match the bass voice. Continue reading →