A couple of weeks ago I wrote a preview for Peepshow which opened last night at Campbell House. Summarizing crudely, the idea was to present a show that broke down some of the barriers of formality that make the opera house intimidating and so open up the genre to a different kind of audience. So did Peepshow do that? The answer has to be “to some extent”. There were four shows in four rooms and in an ideal world they would have each played at intervals throughout the evening and people would have been able to drop in and out as they chose. The geography of Campbell House simply doesn’t make that possible. It’s a 19th century house with stairs and corridors and fairly small rooms with mostly “do not touch” furniture. Each room will only hold a dozen, in a couple of cases perhaps twenty people, in comfort levels ranging from OK to excruciating. This means that audience members must be assigned to specific performances, rounded up and herded to their allotted place at the right time; or as close to it as possible as it always takes longer to herd an opera audience than anyone imagines. And no drinks in the performance rooms. Once in, for an admittedly only fifteen minute show, you are as stuck as in a performance of Parsifal at Bayreuth. In other words, rather than a fluid experience it’s a series of chunks of more or less traditional concert hall broken up by some socializing at the bar.
Lunchtime saw the annual concert featuring visiting members of the Atelier lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal. It turned into something of a Donizettifest. First up was soprano Cécile Muhire with Adina’s aria Prendi, per me sei libero. This was quite competently sung though she seemed very nervous. The nerves seemed to vanish though when she was joined by her Nemorino, Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure, for the duet when he tries the elixir. One of the things that has always struck me about the Ensemble Studio is how quickly it teaches singers to have stage presence. J-P was a very funny, rather drunk, Nemorino and his swagger seemed to rub off on Cécile who looked much more at home in this number.
Yesterday’s recital in the RBA was given by soprano Simone Osborne and the very busy pianist Stephen Hargreaves. The program began with three Mozart songs that I was not familiar with; Oiseaux, si tous les ans, Dans un bois solitaire and An Chloe. They were unfamiliar to me but Mozartian in a pleasing, intimate way; very much songs rather than concert arias. They got a clean, rather dramatic reading with real feeling from both parties. Next came the Ariettes oubliées of Debussy. Here we have texts by Verlaine of a mostly languorous ecstasy variety with a complex, very impressionistic piano part. Indeed they really do sound like pieces composed by someone who prefers writing for the piano and Stephen brought out their somewhat ethereal qualities nicely. Still the soprano gets to spin some very beautiful languorously ecstatic lines and there’s even one piece; Chevaux de bois, where the mood changes and the singer can have some fun. Which Simone did.
It was my first time seeing Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel live and my expectations were high. They were met, possibly exceeded, but not perhaps in the way I expected.The singing was brilliant across a wide spectrum of moods and genres (I’ll come back to that) but what really stood out was the man’s rapport with the audience which was extraordinary. It’s really hard to describe but let me try with just one example. It’s that thorny issue of people applauding for ages in the middle of sets. The usual approach is to have some functionary come out and announce that “Herr Poffel-Woffel respectfully (huh) asks that the audience not applaud until the end of the set because he believes it spoils the atmosphere”. Bryn’s approach was to wait for the first time it happened, gently shh the audience and announce “I don’t mind at all if you applaud every song but we’ll all get a home a lot earlier if you wait until the end of the set”. There was a lot of that kind of thing and it seemed quite natural and not at all stagey.
Clémentine Margaine prowled the RBA like an exotic and rather dangerous feline. A total stage animal, she created a stunning series of female personae, from the virginal to the very much not, to bring to life a well curated selection of Spanish and French pieces. She started with the 7 Canciones populares Españoles of de Falla which set the tone as they communicate a wide variety moods and temperaments in a very short space of time. Each little song was fully invested with its own drama. And her eyes. Incredible! Granados’ La maja dolorosa followed. By this point I was really beginning to understand why Ms. Margaine is so sought after. It’s a big, dark, sexy voice. I would probably have realised the sheer size of the voice more on Wednesday if I hadn’t been comparing her to the absolutely enormous sound of Anita Rashvelishvili. It’s a wonderfully expressive instrument perhaps lacking a really strong upward extension but, overall, lovely to listen to.
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.