Elena Tsallagova and Sandra Horst entertained the crowd in the RBA yesterday with a flower themed recital of French and Russian songs. It was a very well chosen selection that allowed Ms. Tsallagova to display her versatility. From Debussy’s quite operatic Rondel chinois, where she showed a lot of power for a young lyric soprano, through the varied moods of Bizet’s Feuilles d’album where by turns she was dramatic, sombre and very playful. Throughout she was extremely demonstrative while managing excellent phrasing and impeccable French. She has an interesting range of colours too, from extremely bright through to quite covered and dark and she’s not afraid to use them. Actually, the way she threw herself into the material I don’t think she is afraid of much!
Last night LooseTEA Theatre presented a work-in-progress version of their reimagined Carmen. Director and librettist Alaina Viau promised a “a radically envisioned” Carmen and she wasn’t kidding. Apart from the fact that Ricardo (Escamilio) and John Anderson (Don José) are rivals for Carmen’s affections and there’s a woman, Michaela, with a prior attachment to John and, of course, that John kills Carmen there’s not a whole lot left of Mérimée’s story. We are in Toronto. John is a vet suffering from PTSD who has left his wife (Michaela) and kids. Carmen manages a bar but is about to open her own place with the help of investment banker Ricardo. She comes across as an everyday working girl rather than someone whose life is a serial process of picking up and discarding men. Episodes that fit the big numbers of the score are quite cleverly crafted together to weave a narrative that works but rather relies on John’s PTSD to explain the two murders. Woven into the opera are videos by Darren Bryant that contain some of the characters’ back stories. Music is a mix of a conventional keyboard reduction played by Natasha Fransblow and live electronics from sound artist SlowPitchSound. The use of electronics brings a grittiness that feels like an essential way of undermining the “prettiness” of the score. Running around 55 minutes all told it feels a bit episodic and I hope (and expect) that the final version will seem more continuous. Certainly there’s already more than just the basis for a very interesting piece of music theatre.
Hearing Anita Rachvelishvili sing Carmen on the main stage of the Four Seasons Centre, it was obvious that she had a huge voice with really interesting colours. The full scope only became apparent to me hearing her in recital in the RBA today. It’s an extraordinary instrument that can go from a very delicate pianissimo to very loud indeed without any obvious change in quality. There’s no steeliness or squalliness as the volume ramps up. Just the same colours and rich tone. A blow by blow account of a concert that included music in Georgian by Tabidze, Russian by Rachmaninov, French by Fauré and Spanish by de Falla seems superfluous. There was delicacy. There was drama. There was humour. There was playfulness. All in less than an hour. And to cap it off there were encores; Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix from Samson et Delilah and, perhaps inevitably, the Seguidilla from Carmen. Stephen Hargreaves was at the piano. One wonders if he actually lives at the hall. He covered a wide range of material from the delicate to the impressively percussive with his customary skill.
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.
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.
We were back at the COC last night for the first performance of Carmen by the alternative cast. (First cast review) As so often seems to be the case with these double cast shows it felt almost like a different production. The biggest differences are produced by the new Don José, David Pomeroy, and the new Carmen, Clémentine Margaine. Pomeroy is a very decent singer but he doesn’t have the ease, power and bloom of Russell Thomas. What he does have is vastly superior acting chops. His Don José is a believably complex human being. We can see his decline from rather boring and provincially stuck up into despair(1). It’s palpable. Margaine’s Carmen is a similar story. Her voice isn’t as big or dark as Anita Rashvelishvili(2) but she’s much more physical on stage. Further, Pomeroy and Margaine are much more credible as a couple. The net result is the drama that was rather missing in the first two acts on Sunday. The price is not hearing two absolutely incredibly beautiful voices.
I caught the second performance of the current run of Carmen at the COC this afternoon. It’s a revival of the production previously seen in 2010 but with, we are told, debuting director Joel Ivany being given some freedom to change things up a bit. Obviously he was mostly constrained to use the existing sets and costumes which, for reasons that escape me, transplants the piece to 1940s Cuba which was, as far as I know, markedly short of both gypsies and bull fights but there you go. Actually it matters scarcely at all because both sets and costumes are generic scruffy Hispanic and could be anywhere from Leon to Lima. For the first two acts too the blocking and Personenregie is pretty standard too. It’s all really down to the chemistry between the singers and the quality of the acting and neither is anything to write home about. It says a lot when Frasquita is scene stealing. Fortunately it livens up a lot after the interval. The third act is atmospheric and Micaëla’s aria is deeply touching and for the first time I felt genuine emotion. It gets even better after that with a really effective use of the whole auditorium for the parade which had much of the audience clapping along and a clever stage set up for the crowd during the final confrontation scene. I don’t think it’s a production for the ages but it’s better than merely serviceable and I’ve seen much worse Carmens. And, frankly, it’s simply not realistic to expect one of the season’s cash cows to push the envelope very far.