Malmö might not seem the most obvious place to record Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande but in 2016 the opera there assembled a mostly French cast and two young French rising stars; Maxime Pascal as conductor and Benjamin Lazar as director. The result is interesting, rather good and very French.
I was at a really rather nicely programmed recital at Rosedale Presbyterian yesterday afternoon. Rachel Andrist, who played piano throughout, had lined up a really interesting selection of singers. Some were known to me, some were new. Some were fresh out of college and some had quite a bit of experience. The programme was in two halves. In the first half each of the six singers got to do two or three songs while in part two there were some opera numbers and some seasonal stuff arranged for various combinations of voices.
One has to recalibrate when reviewing productions from the lake stage at Bregenz. The challenges for set designer and director are very different from designing/directing in a conventional theatre. There’s an interview with Es Devlin on the disk of the 2017 production of Bizet’s Carmen that explains the issues very well but broadly it’s a question of creating a single, giant set that can be used throughout the opera and which makes a statement that integrates the work with the environment of the Bodensee. The challenge for the director, as well, as the usual ones, is to communicate the characters and story when they are rather dwarfed by the setting. S/he also has to figure out how to fit the lake itself into the story. I think Devlin and director, Kasper Holten, manage this remarkably well.
Thomas Hampson and Renée Fleming teamed up for Strauss’ Arabella at the 2014 Salzburg Osterfestspiel. The production is directed by Florentine Klepper and it’s set late 19th/early 20th century and is conventional in many ways though there are a few interesting touches. There may be more than a few but video director Brian Large focusses quite relentlessly on the singers 99% of the time so it’s hard to tell. I noticed a few things. The hotel set in Act 1 is multi-room but it’s very rare that we see other than the room the principal action is in so who knows what might have been going on. There’s a use of body doubles during the Act 2 duet to create a sort of “portrait” of Mandryka and Arabella that broods over the stage for the rest of the act. The fortune teller reappears with the “trouble” card during the “key” scene. The whole Fiakermilli episode is difficult to interpret because the video gives such a fragmentary view of it. There’s certainly a couple of suggestive giant dolls. Otherwise this scene just comes off as pretty crude and lame. I suspect that there may be much going on here that isn’t on the video. This all tends to reinforce the weaknesses of the second half of Act 2 and the start of Act 3 which certainly are not Strauss and von Hofmannsthal’s best work.
Today’s lunchtime recital in the RBA was really quite exceptional. Simone McIntosh and Stéphane Mayer offered up a really well chosen program and executed it extremely well. Grieg’s Sechs Lieder is a lovely and varied setting of six German texts. Poulenc’s Banalités sets texts by Apollinaire in a way that reflects their essential weirdness. Berg’s Sieben frühe Lieder are as good examples as one can get of how the Second Vienna School, despite its scary reputation, is really all about lush and approachable and the closing set of Frank Bridge songs showed that he was a heck of a lot more than Britten’s composition teacher.
Soundstreams Electric Messiah 3 opened last night at the Drake Underground. Some things have changed from last year. There’s no chorus, the soloists are new, the instrumentation has changed. There’s now a harpsichord (Christopher Bagan) and an electric organ (Jeff McLeod) for instance. Some things are the same. There’s still extensive use of electric guitar (John Gzowski). Dancer Lybido and DJ SlowPitchSound are still there, as is Adam Scime as music director and electro-acoustical wizard. There’s still a mobile phone schtick. It feels both familiar and quite different.
The four new soloists each bring something of themselves to the piece. A kilted Jonathan MacArthur (getting ready for Yaksmas perhaps?) sings partly, and very beautifully, in Scots Gaelic. Adanya Dunn brings a fresh sound and Bulgarian. Elizabeth Shepherd brings jazz, French and a really effective “lounge jazz” He was despised accompanying herself on organ. Justin Welsh adds some Afro-Canadian touches. Most of the numbers are shared between the singers; moving and singing from different parts of the small space. This is exemplified by the opening Comfort ye, begun by Jonathan in Gaelic with singer and language and location constantly shifting. With no chorus, there’s much more space (and it’s easier to see). The visual and aural textures seem cleaner. The unconventional combination of instruments and electronics works really well. There’s enough Handel there but also much else to think about and enjoy.
Sometimes curiosity just gets the better of me. I rather enjoyed Toronto Operetta Theatre’s production of Oscar Straus’ The Chocolate Soldier so I was prepared to take a look at the 1955 made for TV version directed by Max Liebman. I probably shouldn’t have bothered. There’s so much weird here. First off the plot is changed out of all recognition, besides being cut down to 77 minutes. Nothing much is left apart from the basic idea of the heroine Nadine falling for the Swiss soldier who is chased into her bedroom rather than her bumptious fiancé Alexius. His escape and return are replaced with a silly impersonation of a visiting general and a farcical court martial. In mucking about with the plot most of the humour and essentially all the satire is lost leaving just a very silly and dated Broadway style romcom.