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.
After a week of nostalgia wallowing in ancient “productions” from the met and the COC it’s back to Regietheater with a vengeance for the 100th DVD review on this blog. The subject is Martin Kušej’s Salzburg production of Don Giovanni which premiered in 2002 but was recorded in 2006 as part of the M22 project.
For a start there’s nothing giocoso about this dramma. It’s a very bleak and complex production with lots of ideas; some of which work and some of which are more problematic, and it’s provoked more discussion at the Kitten Kondo than just about any other recording we’ve watched recently. Rather than write a 3000 word review I’m going to write a normal length review and follow it up with one or more posts on aspects of the production that seem particularly worth exploring. Continue reading
So this has to be the weirdest opera related thing I’ve seen in a while. It’s a 2005 CBC production of eight very short comic operas (the whole thing only lasts an hour) going through the stages of a relationship from Attraction to Starting Over via Marriage and Murder. The characters are mostly played by actors lip-synching while someone else sings. The music is by Alexina Louie and the libretto by Canadian comic, Dan Redican. Each piece is introduced by Redican as a mad toast scientist and the cast includes some of the best known names in Canadian theatre and opera including Colm Fiore, Isabel Bayrakdarian and Russell Braun. It sounds like a great idea but unfortunately it’s pretty ordinary. The music is mostly dull but it livens up a bit when it’s more obviously pastiche. The humour is a bit lame though the piece about a woman slicing her husband’s head off then disembowelling and liquidizing him for leaving the toilet seat up has its moments; especially her acquittal by an all female jury. Also you get to hear Isabel Bayrakdarian sing about kitty litter and Russell Braun do a version of Der Hölle Rache.
All in all, it’s as Canadian as moose jokes and about as funny.
I guess Serse gets performed as often as any Handel opera but there only appears to be one DVD version in the original Italian available. It’s a 2000 production from the Dresdner Musikfestspiele. Michael Hampe directs a cast of, then, fairly young singers, few of them familiar to me. Christophe Rousset conducts Les Talens Lyriques and the Ludwigshafener Theaterchor. It’s a really good DVD. The costumes and sets, by Carlo Tommasi, are a sort of mid 19th century European with “exotic” touches. There’s a consistent palette of black, white, grey and silver with a little deep blue and cream intruding. It’s all very elegant. The direction is more than competent. The relationships between characters are explored and Sandrine Piau, as Atalanta gets to exploit her considerable comic talents. To cap it all off we get a few, very apt, pyrotechnic surprises right at the end.
The singing is uniformly excellent. Paula Rasmussen, a mezzo, is cast in the castrato title role. It’s a role where personally I’d prefer a David Daniels or a Lawrence Zazzo but she manages to look and sound masculine enough. The same is true for Ann Hallenberg as “his” brother Arsamene; a genuine mezzo role. Patricia Bardon sings Amastre, Serse’s discarded lover who spends 9/10 of the opera disguised as a man. Ms Bardon manages the difficult feat of acting a woman pretending to be a man convincingly which is obviously quite different from a woman acting a man. I won’t try and describe the singing performances individually because I would just end up using “stylish” way too much. These are all thoroughly idiomatic Handel performances with tasteful decoration, lovely legato and accurate coloratura. The two sisters Romilda and Atalanta are played by sopranos Isobel Bayrakdarian and Sandrine Piau. It was a real pleasure to be reminded of what a fine Handelian Bayrakdarian was right at the start of her career. Her singing is just gorgeous. Piau is great too. She has great comic timing in a role that really needs it and she also gets the most coloratura fireworks which she handles very well indeed. The guys who play guys are Marcello Lippi as girls’ father, Ariodate, and Matteo Peirone as the servant, Elviro. These are both essentially buffo roles and both men are well up to them. I don’t think I’ve heard M.Rousset and his Les Talens Lyriques before but they are as good a Baroque band as I have come across. The chorus doesn’t have much to do but it does fine with what it does have. All in all, it’s very satisfying musically and dramatically.
Direction for TV/DVD is by Philip Behrens and it’s OK. There aren’t too many intrusive close ups though it’s a 4:3 picture so some of that is a bit inevitable. Picture quality is pretty typical of TV to VD productions. Sound options are PCM stereo or Dolby 5.1. The surround version sounded very good. There are no extras on the disk and the documentation is pretty basic. It’s a Euroarts production.
There’s a ten minute trailer up on Youtube that gives a really pretty good idea of what to expect though it’s a bit short on comedy and there’s no Sandrine Piau. Here it is.
And here’s some Sandrine Piau.
This afternoon I was listening to the CBC radio broadcast of the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Die Zauberflöte from earlier this year. During the interval there was an interview with Michael Schade, the Tamino, where it was pointed out that he had sung the role, in English, in the famous 1991 Opera Atelier production in Toronto and, also, that Russell Braun had sung Papageno in that show. It was the first opera I saw in Toronto, having moved here only a very short time before. I don’t recall who else was in that production and I can’t find a cast list anywhere. Certainly revivals of the production, which I also saw, weren’t quite so packed with future stars. Curiously, the very first Magic Flute I saw, at the Coliseum in August 1975, also featured future stars, then fairly unknown. Felicity Palmer sang Pamina and John Tomlinson sang one of the Men in Armour. It makes me wonder whether we were seeing any stars of the future at the COC this time. Perhaps not with the “A” cast where all the main roles were sung by well established singers but I might watch out for Wallis Giunta, a very talented mezzo, who sang one of the Three Ladies. Also singing as the alternate to Isabel Bayrakdarian as Pamina was Simone Osborne (I saw her in Ensemble Studio performance). She’s also one to watch. You can catch her as Gilda in Rigoletto at the COC starting September 30th.
Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice was written in reaction to what the composer saw as the excesses of contemporary opera seria. Out went the glitzy display numbers for star singers and extraneous ballets. In came the idea of telling a strong story simply through words and music. This “stripping down” is emphasised by Robert Carsen’s very spare production, originally created for Lyric Opera of Chicago and currently playing at the Canadian Opera Company.
Carsen gives us a slightly raked stage covered in rubble with the only “feature” being Euridice’s grave. There are no dancers. The three principals and the chorus are dressed in modern black suits or dresses with, where appropriate, white shrouds. In a few scenes pots of fire are used on stage but that’s as near as we get to colour until the very final moment. Despite the lack of dancers there’s plenty of work for the chorus who weave intricate patterns around the principals. Most of this is lit (if anything so dark can be said to be lit) so as to project shadows onto the back of the stage. It’s simple and effective. Only at the ver end, as Euridice is redeemed for the second time do we get light. It’s really effective. The stage glows and the houselights come up briefly effectively including us, the audience, in the redemption through love.
Countertenor Lawrence Zazzo sings Orfeo. It’s the crucial role. He’s on stage for virtually the whole 90 minutes and has pretty much all of the famous solos. He was very good last night. He is the ‘modern’ kind of countertenor, sounding more soprano like than say James Bowman or Alfred Deller. That worked very well for this role (though not as well for Oberon two seasons ago when a bit more “otherwordly” would have been welcome). He was very well backed up by Isabel Bayrakdarian as Euridice. It was lovely to hear her sing a role that really suits her current voice; darker and more mature than it was just a few years ago. Amore was sung by Ambur Braid. I think this role suits her voice far better than the Queen of the Night, which is what I last heard her sing on this stage. I think it was quite an inspired bit of casting because, besides the vocal suitability, Ambur is perfect as the gender fluid Amore that Carsen gives us. She looks equally good and equally convincing in a suit as in a dress. So, terrific singing and acting all round.
The chorus is crucial in this piece and didn’t disappoint. It’s a really good chorus and once again did its thing admirably, as did the orchestra The whole thing was musically held together by Harry Bicket in the pit. It’s another excellent choice for this work responds well to his cool, classical style.
So, no histrionics or emotional manipulation here, just an hour and a half of very beautiful and satisfying music theatre that had most of the audience members on their feet for the extended curtain calls. There are three more performances next week and decent tickets still available (surprisingly given the universally stellar reviews). Failing that, Mr. Carsen is back next year to direct Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride with Susan Graham and Russell Braun.
Bonus for me. I finally got to meet the very lovely and talented
Thursday night I attended the COC Studio Ensemble’s performance of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and last night lemur_catta and I were back to the see the main cast. For context, the Studio Ensemble is the COC’s training programme for young professional singers so the cast members on Thursday are mostly under 25 and I doubt that anyone outside Canada would recognize any of the names. Yet! The main cast was a typical COC cast with established international singers playing the main roles with current and former Ensemble Studio members taking the lesser parts. In both cases the full COC orchestra and chorus was used and Johannes Debus conducted.
The stage production and design was the same for both shows so let’s start there. The production concept is that the opera is being given in a temporary theatre in the garden of a Viennese aristocrat as part of the celebrations for his daughter’s name day. As things go on, the aristocratic audience and their servants are drawn in as actors in the drama. The daughter is Pamina, the father Sarastro etc. In Act 2, the stage on a stage has gone and the action plays out in the garden with hedges being rearranged at intervals to create the Temple of the Initiates etc. In keeping with the setting, costumes are more or less 18th century though decidedly Disneyfied. In particular Pamina wears a flouncy pink dress throughout and Tamino is all in white except for a teal frock coat. When they are together one almost expects animated love birds to circle around them. The Queen of the Night looks straight out of Snow White but the Three ladies look more like a post apocalyptic women biker gang or scary clones of zingerella. There are some effective touches; the animals are whimsical without being too whimsical and effective use of dancers is made in the trials scene.
Overall, I felt the play within a play element didn’t add anything much and it didn’t take much away either. The costumes and sets were OK for the work that Die Zauberflöte is. They didn’t try too hard to be “this is srs opera” like the current ROH production equally they didn’t capture the blend of fairy tale whimsy and menace that the 2006 Salzburg production achieved. Of course, this is the personal view of a somewhat jaded opera goer who has seen the work many times. From what I heard of the audience reaction of, especially, children and first time and occasional opera goers, the whole thing was a big hit. In the overall scheme of things I’d rather a production of Die Zauberflöte helped bring a new audience to opera than made my highly enjoyable evenings into truly memorable ones.
So what about the singing? The two nights were different and had a very different vibe. The Ensemble Studio show was youthful and energetic and felt like everyone was having terrific fun. The main show cast felt like a polished performance towards the end of a longish run. None of that a surprise really.
The differences were perhaps best exemplified by the respective Taminos and Paminas. On Thursday Tamino was sung by Chris Enns who looked the part and sang heroically, giving it his all and achieved the feat of making Tamino believable and likeable. No mean feat. Last night the role was played by 46 year old Michael Schade who has sung this role 250 times in just about every house of consequence. He was immensely stylish and polished and it was almost a master class in what a Mozartian tenor should sound like but, inevitably, he lacked the freshness of Enns, who is half his age.
It wasn’t quite the same with the Paminas. Thursday gave us Simone Osborne, who is an Ensemble Studio member but is also singing four performances with the main cast. She’s right on the edge of becoming an established singer with bookings for the next year that one would expect from a rising young soprano. She sang with confidence, enough heft for the role and a very sweet youthful tone, especially in her high register. It was very affecting. Friday gave us one of the COC’s established favourites; the lovely Isabel Bayrakdarian. She sang and acted with great skill but one really wonders whether Pamina is what she should be doing these days. She has always had a big voice for a lyric soprano and it’s darkened, especially at the top end, over the years. Her website doesn’t give much information about her future plans but it will be interesting to see where she goes from here.
The other key roles are the Queen of the Night, Papageno and Sarastro. In the first of these we got the impressive young coloratura Ambur Braid on Thursday and the established Canadian Aline Kutan on Friday. Ambur looks the part in a Diana Damrauish sort of way and did a pretty good job on her two arias. If I’m being picky I’d say she nailed the high coloratura but didn’t really articulate the tricky legato runs as clearly as needed. Kutan seemed to be holding back in “O Zitt’re nicht, mein lieber Sohn” which was distinctly sonically and emotionally underwhelming though accurate. Maybe she had a bit of a cold and was saving herself for Act 2 because she gave an excellent full throttle rendition of “Der Hölle Rache”. The same may have been true of Friday’s Papageno, Rodion Pogossov, who was definitely stronger in the second act. He was good. He got the physical comedy right and went from pretty good to better than that vocally as the night went on. On Thursday we had Adrian Kramer in the role. he’s a very good comic actor and a stylish singer but sounded just a bit underpowered when heard from Ring 5 of the Four Seasons Centre. Sarastro is always going to be a problem for a young cast. Young basses with gravitas aren’t much more common than unicorns. That said, Michael Uloth was much better than I expected and did a very competent job if, inevitably, a little lighter than Fridays Mikhail Petrenko, who isn’t Rene Pape either, but sang and acted the part well.
The other parts were all perfectly adequate. On both nights The Three Ladies camped it up nicely. Maybe their ensemble was a little crisper on Friday and the physical comedy more evident on Thursday but fine differences. Both nights saw the excellence we have come to expect from the COC orchestra and chorus and Johannes Debus.
I’m glad I saw both performances. The differences were interesting and if I hadn’t gone on Thursday I would have missed Simone Osborne’s Pamina which would have been a shame. It also meant I could have a look at a performance at the Four Seasons Centre from a different angle. On Thursday I was up in Ring 5 which is definitely ice axe and crampons territory and very different from my usual seat in the Orchestra Ring. The sound up there is excellent and with opera glasses it’s OK visually. (Plus $22 ticket so who’s complaining!).
Just to finish on a sour note, I am going to commit homicide in that theatre if people don’t stop their inane chatter during the performance. Also, is it asking too much that if you have a cough you take medication and cough lozenges with you to an opera? The one drawback of a house with excellent acoustics is that every cough reverbs around the theatre and once again, the frequency and volume of coughing was bordering on the absurd.