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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A second look at Hercules

Hercules21Back to the Four Seasons Centre last night for a second look at Peter Sellars’ production of Handel’s Hercules.  This time we were sitting lower down in the house, in the front, left of the orchestra ring.  As predicted the set wasn’t as effective as when seen from higher up but in some ways the lighting effects were more successful.  Given the house’s acoustic properties favour the rings I’d say this is definitely one to see from somewhere other than the orchestra.

What did I particularly notice compared to opening night?  First off, Richard Croft.  I think I was so wrapped up in Lucy Crowe and Eric Owen’s singing the first time around that I almost failed to notice what a fine performance he gave.  His voice is very mature for a tenor now but he’s a terrific interpreter of text and has flawless technique.  His intensity remains remarkable.  And the schtick with the crutches?  It turns out he recently had hip surgery.

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Sellars does it again

There’s a unit set; some marble flags, a few broken columns surrounding  a “fire pit”.  Even this is stripped down for much of Act 2 which takes place on the stage apron in front of a plain curtain.  There are five singers, a chorus and an orchestra.  That, plus Peter Sellars, is all it takes to produce an extraordinary piece of music drama.

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Best of 2013

So what was I most impressed with on the opera and related scene in in 2013?

Big house opera

frau1The 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.

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Staging Handel’s oratorios

Ambur Braid and Chris EnnsI’ve been watching a few staged versions of Handel oratorios recently and I’ve come to the conclusion that, in general, I prefer them to his Italian operas.  It’s not just that they have really good plots they are also musically much more interesting than the operas.  For the stage Handel stuck pretty firmly to the conventions of opera seriaDa capo aria succeeds da capo aria and only occasionally does a chorus or a duet break out and that bit is often the musical highlight of the piece, to my mind at least.  Think of Io t’abbraccio in Rodelinda; surely the highlight of the whole work.  In the oratorios Handel seems to feel much freer to use multiple forms and, of course, he writes magnificent choruses.  Continue reading

Theodora redux

Peter Sellars’ 1996 Glyndebourne production of Handel’s Theodora just gets better with every viewing. I utterly retract my original view that the music isn’t Handel at his finest. It’s very good indeed and the production and performances on this disk are fantastic. Despite not being the best recording ever (though the recent Blu-ray release is an improvement) it remains a “must see” for any fan of Baroque opera or challenging music theatre.

What makes it so compelling? I think it’s two factors. The first is the production. The contemporary American setting works with very little violence to the libretto or music and yet speaks directly to very contemporary concerns. It’s particularly effective that current reality is inverted with respect to mainstream Christianity. Added to this are some extraordinarily intense performances led by the late Lorraine Hunt as Irene, the leader of the Christians. “As with rosy steps the morn” and “Lord to thee, each night and day” bring me out in goosebumps every time. The chemistry between David Daniels and Richard Croft is also palpable and Dawn Upshaw could hardly be bettered in the title role. Even Christine Schäfer in the only competing recording doesn’t come close.

One of the notes I made while watching this the other night reads “anybody not moved by this is an emotional cripple”. It’s a fair summary.


Love is stronger than death

The 1996 Glyndebourne Theodora, featuring Dawn Upshaw as Theodora and David Daniels as DidymusPeter Sellar’s production of Handel’s Theodora has long been one of my favourite video recordings of opera.  It’s brilliant in so many ways and I don’t think I’ve ever made it through the whole thing without tearing up. It’s now been remastered from the original tape and reissued on Blu-ray.  The video and sound quality are distinctly better than previous DVD releases though not, inevitably, in the same class as the best modern recordings.  It’s also still a depressingly bare bones release with no extras and minimal documentation but don’t let that put you off.

My original review is here.  I thought about rewriting it but for the most part I stand by my original comments.  The only judgement I’d change is that, on greater experience, I do think this is one of Handel’s best works.

Back to Tristan

Last night the lemur and I braved the biggest snow storm in several years to catch Tristan und Isolde at the Four Seasons Centre.  It was the same production I saw last Tuesday but with Michael Baba and Margaret Jane Wray replacing Ben Heppner and Melanie Diener in the title roles.  I was also sitting at the front of the Orchestra Ring which is a very different sight line than the back of Ring 3.  There’s no way to avoid saying this, it was hugely disappointing and especially so as it was the first time the lemur had seen the show and I had been talking it up excitedly since Tuesday.  Baba and Wray sounded underpowered and under-rehearsed.  The big Act 2 duet, O sink’ hernieder, Nacht der Liebe, that had left me literally shaking on Tuesday merely left me shaking my head.  What had been a glorious, transcendent, hypnotic wave of sound had turned to mush.  It was a relief when Franz-Josef Selig, King Marke, took over.  At last we got some Wagnerian singing of style and class.  Act 3 wasn’t much better.  To be fair, the rest of the cast was just as good as on opening night and the orchestra deservedly got the loudest and longest applause of the night.  But Tristan und Isolde needs, as Isolde points out, Tristan and Isolde.

Tristan und Isolde - 0013 - Credit Chris Hutcheson

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Death, the Universe and Everything

Last night Peter Sellars, in town directing Tristan und Isolde at the COC, made an appearance at the Toronto Reference Library.  It was billed as an interview with The Star‘s Richard Ouzounian but bar a couple of questions at the end and a brief set up by Ouzounian it was pretty much a 75 minute monologue by Sellars.  Like the man himself it was fascinating but very hard to pin down.


Peter Sellars at the Four Seasons Centre last week (CBC)

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Upcoming events

sellarsThere a couple or three things coming up in Toronto that might be of interest to readers.

On Sunday 27th January at 2pm Russell Braun and Rihab Chaieb are giving a recital of German songs in the Glenn Gould Studio.  Tickets are $60 but only $25 for under 25s.

The following evening Peter Sellars is giving a talk on his production of Tristan und Isolde at the Toronto Reference Library.  This one is free but ticketed.  Tickets are available from the TPL website.

And in free RBA noon concert news, on 24th January Sasha Djihanian and Cameron McPhail with pianists Timothy Cheung and Jenna Douglas are offering up Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées and Schumann’s Dichterliebe.