There’s no shortage of pandemic inspired music out there but I figured I wanted something that more closely evoked the sheer madness of life in Ontario right now. So, I turned to a 1969 piece by my fellow Manc Peter Maxwell Davies. It’s his Eight Songs for a Mad King inspired by that nutty old Hanoverian George III. The genesis of the piece is quite complex. It involves a music box, once owned by the king but by 1968 in the possession of the historian Steven Runciman. Once used by the king in an attempt to teach bullfinches to sing, it provides the inspiration for the eight “tunes” that make up the Eight Songs. The libretto is largely drawn from the king’s own words and other contemporary sources.
Theatre Gargantua’s production of Michael Gordon Spence’s The Wager, which opened last night at Theatre Passe Muraille takes as its starting point Alfred Russell Wallace’s (the other natural selection guy) bet with a Flat Earther to prove that the Earth is round. He does do, of course. Or at least to the satisfaction of any reasonable person but merely succeeds in provoking a storm of personal abuse and insults from the Flat Earther. All of which tends to prove the old adage that arguing with a crackpot is like wrestling with a pig. You get covered in s**t and the pig enjoys it.
I managed to catch the fourth performance of the COC’s current run of Verdi’s Otello last night. It’s a David Alden production that first aired at ENO and it’s a very dark take on an already dark story. It’s set maybe circa 1900 and the sets are stark but the lighting is dramatic with lots of contrasts and giant moving shadows. The overall Zeitgeist seems to be of a society that has seen too much war; a sort of collective PTSD. This comes over in a number of ways. The scenes that usually lighten things up a bit; the victory celebrations in Act 1, the children and flowers in Act 2, don’t here. In fact they are downright creepy. There’s also a female dancer, used rather as Christopher Alden used Monterone’s daughter in Rigoletto, who clearly doesn’t expect good things from returning soldiers.
This just in:
The fall season will open with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin in the Carsen production as predicted yesterday. The (pleasant) surprise is that Gordon Bintner will sing the title role. Joyce El-Khoury sings Tatiana and Joseph Kaiser is Lensky. Johannes Debus conducts.
I’ve tried several times in the past to watch the DVD recording of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole and never made it past the second scene, which is revolting and, I still think, rather patronising. This time though I made it all the way through and I think, taken as a whole, this is a pretty impressive piece with a clever libretto and some real musical depth. It’s also, in the true and technical sense, a tragedy, and a very operatic one at that.
Back to the Four Seasons Centre last night for a second look at Norma. This time with Elza van den Heever singing the title role. Van den Heever has a more conventional voice than Sondra Radvanovsky. It’s perhaps not as dramatic and distinct but it’s an accurate, flexible instrument with plenty of colours and big enough for the role. She’s also every bit as good as an actress so I don’t think the production suffers from losing its “headliner”. Russell Thomas impressed again. He’s so much better as Pollione than he was as Don José. The acting is convincing and he really gets the chance to let rip here with what is a truly glorious tenor voice. All the obvious comparisons suggest and are not ridiculous. Isabel Leonard was also very fine last night and the duets with van den Heever were perhaps the highlight of the show. Hat tip too to Charles Sy who never sounded out of place even when Thomas was singing all guns blazing, It’s only two years since he was singing in a student production of HMS Pinafore.
Kevin Newbury’s production of Bellini’s Norma at the COC (co-pro with San Francisco, Chicago and the Liceu) is perhaps best described as serviceable. I have seen various rather desperate efforts made to draw deep meaning from it but I really don’t think there is any. That said, it looks pretty decent and is efficient. The single set allows seamless transitions between scenes which is a huge plus. So, what does it look like? It’s basically a sort of cross between a barn and a temple with a back wall that can raised or moved out of the way to expose the druids’ sacred forest. There’s also a sort of two level cart thing which characters ascend when they have something especially important to sing. Costumes were said to have been inspired by Game of Thrones; animal skins, leather, tattoos (which actually don’t really read except up very close), flowing robes. Norma herself appears to be styled, somewhat oddly, on a Klingon drag queen. The lighting is effective and there are some effective pyrotechnics at the end. All in all a pretty good frame for the story and the singing.
American tenor Russell Thomas, currently singing Don José in the COC’s Carmen, gave the lunchtime recital in the RBA yesterday. The main item on the program was Schumann’s Dichterliebe; a setting of sixteen poems by Heinrich Heine and one of the great test pieces of the classic German lieder repertoire. It was a red-blooded, operatic account. Purists might think too much so but I enjoyed the sheer power and beauty of it, even at the expense of the (incredibly wonderful) text not getting the sort of attention it might get from someone like Ian Bostridge. There was plenty of variation of tone and colour, some real virtuosity and even some humour in, for example, Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen but the the most impressive and striking thing was the ability to effortlessly project a lot of rather beautiful sound. Liz Upchurch’s accompaniment was very much in synch emotionally and musically.
I caught the second performance of the current run of Carmen at the COC this afternoon. It’s a revival of the production previously seen in 2010 but with, we are told, debuting director Joel Ivany being given some freedom to change things up a bit. Obviously he was mostly constrained to use the existing sets and costumes which, for reasons that escape me, transplants the piece to 1940s Cuba which was, as far as I know, markedly short of both gypsies and bull fights but there you go. Actually it matters scarcely at all because both sets and costumes are generic scruffy Hispanic and could be anywhere from Leon to Lima. For the first two acts too the blocking and Personenregie is pretty standard too. It’s all really down to the chemistry between the singers and the quality of the acting and neither is anything to write home about. It says a lot when Frasquita is scene stealing. Fortunately it livens up a lot after the interval. The third act is atmospheric and Micaëla’s aria is deeply touching and for the first time I felt genuine emotion. It gets even better after that with a really effective use of the whole auditorium for the parade which had much of the audience clapping along and a clever stage set up for the crowd during the final confrontation scene. I don’t think it’s a production for the ages but it’s better than merely serviceable and I’ve seen much worse Carmens. And, frankly, it’s simply not realistic to expect one of the season’s cash cows to push the envelope very far.
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.