Is Iago a nihilist?

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.

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Tosca at the COC

Paul Curran’s production of Tosca, seen in 2008 and 2012, opened at the COC yesterday afternoon.  It didn’t feel like a routine revival production of a warhorse.  In fact it felt much fresher and focussed than last time around.  Perhaps Mr. Curran, who is again directing, found some new insights or, more likely, the chemistry between the principals is better this time.  The result is a very satisfactory show.

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Gluck à l’outrance

Gluck’s Alceste is not as well known as Orfeo ed Eurydice or the Iphigénie operas but in some ways it’s an even better example of what Gluck meant by “reform”.  It’s simple, restrained and elegant.  The plot has some similarities with Orfeo.  The good king of Thessaly, Admète, is doomed to die unless someone else volunteers in his place.  Naturally enough, this being opera, his wife Alceste volunteers.  There is much dignified lamenting.  She descends to Hades.  Husband and wife reproach each other for their selfishness in being the one to die.  Hercules shows up and, in gratitude for earlier hospitality, saves the day.  There is (dignified) rejoicing.  It;s an easy score to listen to with plenty of good tunes but no blockbuster, memorable, numbers.

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COC’s Fledermaus succeeds on several levels

Christopher Alden’s recent productions in Toronto; Rigoletto and Der Fliegender Holländer, were controversial, rather cerebral affairs that delighted his fans but tended to puzzle, and even infuriate, the more conservative critics and opera goers.  His Die Fledermaus, which opened last night at the Four Seasons Centre, has something for everybody.  There are two main threads uniting the three acts.  The first is the piece as an allegory of Austrian bourgeois society from an insecure pre WW1 period through a period of unbridled hedonism in the 1920s to the beginnings of Fascism.  The second is a much more explicit depiction of Falke as the ringmaster of the whole circus.  He goes from manipulative Freudian psychiatrist in Act 1 to Orlofsky’s confidante in Act 2 to, bat costumed, sitting astride the giant watch that hangs above the stage; the only character aloof from the takeover of the drama by the sinisterly Fascistic Frosch. All this is strung together by prefiguring later elements in earlier scenes.  In Act 1 the party goers from Act 2 invade the scene via the fractured wall of Rosalinde’s bedroom as Gabriel imagines the delights to come.  A silent but frenetic Frosch appears on stage at various points in the first two acts although his identity isn’t apparent until the coup de theâtre that carries us into Act 3.  Additionally Alden does not shy away from bat imagery, including it’s darker overtones.  There are bat shadows on the backdrop during the overture, Falke first appears as a Dracula look alike, the ‘ballet’ are batgirls and we close out with Falke, again dressed as a bat, overseeing the denouement.  There’s a lot going on  and I shall be very happy to see this again and delve deeper (a recurrent theme with Alden productions).  Continue reading

Sneak preview of Die Fledermaus

Female chorus member – Sketch: Constance Hoffman

There’s an event on in Toronto this weekend called “CultureDays”.  The COC’s contribution last night was an open orchestra dress rehearsal of Christopher Alden’s new production of Die Fledermaus preceded by a talk in the Richard Bradshaw Auditorium by set designer Allen Moyer and costume designer Constance Hoffman moderated by the CBC’s Brent Bambury.  The event was “first come, first served” and restricted to 500 tickets so we decided to be early.  Doors opened at 1815 for a 1830 talk so the plan was to meet the lemur at the opera house at 1700, grab a bite to eat and then join the line-up.  I got there early as I was through at work and preferred to sit in the sunshine at the Four Seasons Centre rather than at my desk so I got there around 1615.  There was already a line up!  By the time the lemur showed up just before 1700 there was quite a line up so we changed plan and the lemur went off to fetch burritos to eat in the line.  Just as well as they ended up turning people away.  Continue reading

Orgasm and murder

Martin Kušej’s 2006 production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District for De Nederlandse Opera is occasionally puzzling but mostly brilliant.  The performance, with a strong cast centering on Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Katerina, inspired conducting from Mariss Jansons and consistent excellence from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the pit and the Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera on stage is unbeatable.  Combine that with decent video direction and superb audio-visual quality and the Opus Arte Blu-ray package becomes very attractive indeed.

Kušej’s Konzept really turns on two ideas; the exploration of sex, violence and power or, as he puts it, orgasm and murder, and the universality of the piece which causes Kušej to downplay the Russianness of the piece.  The set, pretty much throughout, consists of two elements a well lit glass “cage” and, surrounding it, a peripheral region of dark and dirt.  Katerina is trapped in the glass cage.  Her meaningless bourgeois existence is symbolised by more shoes than Imelda Marcos ever owned.  Most of the violence takes place in the peripheral area.  The scene where Aksinya is raped is played out in a sea of mud.  It is quite revolting and rightly so.  It also features one of the finest pieces of operatic singing and acting in extreme conditions I have ever seen and Carole Wilson, the Aksinya, really deserves some kind of medal.  The somewhat less violent but no less intense sex scene between Katerina and Sergei is played out on a strobe lit stage.  It brilliantly avoids the impossibility of portraying realistic sex on stage while letting the very explicit music tell the story.

The extreme acting continues through a bloody flogging scene and a brilliant drunk scene where Alexandre Kravets, as the Shabby Peasant, staggers around all over the place before finding Zinovy’s body and hauling it off to the police station.  Those who know the work well will realise that this involves a departure from what the libretto is telling us.  I didn’t find it problematic.  There’s a similar, perhaps larger, issue in Act 4 which is set in a prison not an overnight rest stop on the march to Siberia.  There’s no material rationae for Sonyetka to want Katerina’s stockings but perhaps the power to humiliate is even more convincing as a motivation than a simple desire to keep warm.  There’s no river and no suicide.  In this version the convicts hang Katarina with her own stockings.  It’s not what the libretto is saying but it is dramatically powerful.  All up, I felt Kušej’s Konzept and his realisation of it were very powerful and true to the spirit of the piece.

The individual performances are excellent.  Clearly, everyone concerned is totally committed to bringing off this production.  Eva-Maria Westbroek is really impressive.  At the beginning she oozes anger and sexual frustration, at the end, despair.  She sings brilliantly throughout.  She’s very well supported by Christopher Ventris as Sergei  He oozes sexual menace and arrogance.  Vladimir Vaneev is appropriately brutal, coarse and lecherous as the patriarch Boris.  Besides Carole Wilson and Kravets there are excellent performances from Lani Poulson as Sonyetka, Alexander Vassiliev as the Priest and Nikita Storojev as the Chief of Police.  Ludovit Ludha does a pretty decent job in making something interesting out of the rather thankless role of Zinovy.

I can’t imagine a better reading of the score than Janson’s or more idiomatic and incisive playing than the Concertgebouw provide.  If you have heard this orchestra play Shostakovich symphonies you wil know what to expect.  It’s quite thrilling and fully justifies Kušej and Jansons’ decision to play the interludes in front of a blank curtain.  The chorus sings splendidly despite some extreme acting demands.

The video direction by Thomas Grimm is OK.  We get enough to see, most of the time, what Kušej is up to although are were many occasions when he has the camera in way too close and some of the camera angles are a bit odd.  In the interludes he chooses to focus on Jansons who is extremely energetic!  It’s not the best video direction ever but it’s better than the typical Large or Halvarson production.

Technical quality is a s good as it gets which is about par for Opus Arte Blu-ray.  The picture is 16:9 1080i and crystal clear.  The sound is extremely vivid PCM 5.0 (there’s also a PCM stereo option) although there are times when I think the voices are balanced a little further forward than they should be.  There are subtitles in English, French, Italian, Dutch, German and Spanish. Extras include a synopsis, a cast gallery and a one hour “making of” documentary by Reiner Moritz.  It’s pretty much essential viewing for this production.  The trilingual booklet includes a track listing, a historical essay and short notes by the director.

I still don’t have a way of doing screen caps from Blu-ray so, in lieu, here’s a Youtube clip.  It includes the Aksinya rape scene which gives a pretty good idea of the overall commitment involved in this production.  It is, quite emphatically, not safe for work.