It’s becoming a habit. For the fifth time this season I went back to take a second look at a COC production. This time it was Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. We were in our usual seats at the front of the Orchestra Ring rather than at the back of Ring 3 where I was on opening night. I still didn’t notice any real issues of orchestra/singer balance, which had been complained of by some reviewers. Maybe it was an issue towards the front of the Orchestra where the press tend to be?
Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites is a strange and compelling piece. Dramatically it is very “slow burn” with a narrative arc that builds over almost two hours to a final scene of searing intensity. Without that final scene the piece would have no reason but it justifies all and only one “fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils” could possibly leave the theatre unmoved. It’s not just moving, done well it’s emotionally devastating. And that’s the state I left the Four Seasons Centre in last night after a near perfect performance of Robert Carsen’s extraordinary production.
David Alden chooses to set his production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, currently playing at Canadian Opera, in Victorian Scotland in a rather decayed country house. It’s all set up as classic Gothic schtick. The angle is that Lucia herself is very young and is being sexually abused by her brother Enrico. OK, I don’t have a problem with that. It’s a better solution than the idea that women are all just inherently unstable and liable to go from shrinking violet to shrieking murderess at the drop of a forged letter. So, it’s an interesting idea but it poses real problems about the nature of her relationship with her “fiance” Edgardo. If he’s the hero of this thing what is he doing having a clandestine relationship with a girl who’s not yet out of the schoolroom? (We can tell this by how she’s dressed). This is a major Victorian taboo. Respectable men don’t go after girls until they are “out”. Are we then to see Edgardo as as a big a cad as Enrico? Maybe. The trouble with that concept is then why do we care what happens to him? Edgardo kills himself. Goodbye paedophile creep. So what! So bottom line, I can take the groping and the creepiness that some critics have complained about but I wonder what Alden is really trying to tell us about the piece.
It comes as no surprise that an opera by Atom Egoyan comes across as somewhat cinematic but it’s hard not to use the term of his production of Richard Strauss’ Salome at Canadian Opera Company. It’s quite a spare production. There’s a raked stage; the raised end providing a sort of dungeon for Jochanaan and the back and side walls used for projections, especially of a giant mouth prophesying (shades of Big Brother here) and shadow puppets. Costumes are simple and in shades of red, white and green. The concept is based on the idea that Salome is a very young girl who has a history of sexual abuse at the hands of Herod that explains her “monstrousness”. It’s most vividly explored during the dance of the seven veils where Salome rises above the stage on a swing and her robes form a scrim on which a video is projected. It starts with a very young girl in a garden and gets progressively darker until it finishes up with today’s Salome being raped by her stepfather’s entourage. Fittingly, the opera ends with Herod himself strangling Salome, perhaps more to silence her than out of disgust.
Last night saw the final performance of the COC’s run of La clemenza di Tito. I had seen the Ensemble Studio performance a couple of weeks ago and really enjoyed it but had some questions and reservations about the production. Last night many of those issues were resolved. It seemed more closely directed and the characterizations were more fully rehearsed. A good example of this would be Michael Schade’s intensely neurotic Tito which was central to the concept. Many things make sense if one sees Tito as being in love with an idea of himself. In this context his betrayal by Sesto is particularly hurtful because it implies that his closest confidante isn’t buying it and his “clemency” is necessary to restore his faith in his own self-projection. This Tito gives Robert Gleadow’s Publio space and reason to be more than the dutiful, rather thick plod. He’s the one who has seen through Tito but must “play the game”. His final, rather sharp, exchanges with Vitellia suggest a genuine capacity for malevolence. This is, after all, an Imperial Court, where by definition life is dangerous and nothing what it seems.
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.
Last night saw the COC Ensemble Studio’s annual main stage performance. This year it was Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito in a Christopher Alden production. It’s a somewhat quirky production that I haven’t fully digested yet and may need to wait until after seeing the main cast on the 22nd to come to a more considered view. My initial reaction is that it has a lot of interesting ideas, maybe one or two misguided ones and that the whole thing, while interesting, isn’t completely coherent. That said, Alden productions often seem more coherent second time around. And whatever I might think of the production, it didn’t distract from some very fine performances.
After seeing Peter Sellars on Monday night I decided that (a) I had to see Ben Heppner as Tristan and (b) I couldn’t wait until next Friday when I have tickets to see Michael Baba in the role. So, I skipped out of the office yesterday morning and with a little help (thanks Sergey!) scored a standing room ticket for last night’s opening. (At $12 for nearly five hours music this was a remarkable bargain!). I’m back at my desk on five hours sleep and I’m still in shock. This will go down in legend.
I’d only seen Tristan und Isolde once before, in a disastrous MetHD broadcast, which had been so irritating that the music left little impression. Other times I’d attempted it on DVD I couldn’t get past the nothinghappensness of it. Last night I finally got it. In Sellars’ production not much happens on stage. The singers, in non descript monochrome outfits, come and go or stand around in square light spots. They gesture in characteristically Sellarian fashion but it’s almost classic “park and bark”. But, and it’s a huge but, behind them there is a giant screen on which videos by Bill Viola play more or less continuously and through them he evokes time and place and we see the inner journeys of the characters. It’s really hard to describe but it works brilliantly. To counterpoint the long meditative sections, when there is action it often happens off stage. The chorus sing off stage from various parts of the house and characters, too, appear on the orchestra apron or high up in the Rings. These action moments are often accompanied by lighting that encompasses the auditorium and implicates us in the action (but not the dark inner journey of Tristan and Isolde). It’s great. (1)
I was back at the Four Seasons Centre last night for another look at the new Die Fledermaus; this time with Mireille Asselin as Adele. There were a number of things about the production that I noticed more on a second look. The most notable was the lighting (by Paul Palazzo). It’s superb. It’s atmospheric without falling into the trap of being so dark one can’t see anything. Obviously too I saw the kind of prefiguring that goes on throughout the production differently knowing where things were going to go. It’s clever and insightful without being too intrusive. I also noticed one or two bits of comic business that either passed over me on opening night or have been added since. Was the Fidelio joke there on opening night? My overall verdict hasn’t changed. It’s a funny, sexy production that can be enjoyed on many levels and one of the best things I’ve seen in ages.
So how was Mireille? She was very good and very different from Ambur Braid. Mireille is pretty much your classic soubrette; what I guess we are now calling an -ina voice. It’s not a particularly big voice but she’s accurate and musical. She’s also a very decent actress. One feels that she’d be an ideal Adele in a perfectly conventional Fledermaus. For this rather spikey, edgy version though I’d go with Ambur. Her bigger, almost abrasive, voice and her more flamboyant acting (considerably helped by her rather striking appearance) really fit this production. I’m glad I got a chance to see both of them.
Verdi’s Il Trovatore notoriously has an episodic and highly improbable plot. It’s also famously difficult to cast. Creating a compelling production and staffing it with capable singers therefore presents a formidable double challenge. The current Canadian Opera Company production gets it half right. The problem is Charles Roubaud’s much travelled production. There’s not an idea in it. It’s not surprising that the director’s programme notes run to three short paragraphs. Roubaud sets each scene in a sort of grey box of towering walls. Unfortunately each grey box is just different enough that that the curtain comes down at the end of each scene and the stage crew spend what seems like an interminable amount of time setting up the next grey box. We just aren’t used anymore to sitting quietly through interminable scene changes. We expect slicker stagecraft and in a modern opera house there’s really no excuse for this 19th century approach. Within in each grey box the grey clad cast come and go and in between mostly stand around. Blocking is perfunctory, acting superfluous and old fashioned “park and bark” the order of the day. It’s the sort of production that might have passed muster thirty years ago but really doesn’t cut it in 2012.