I went to Roy Thomson Hall last night to hear an all Vaughan Williams program conducted by Peter Oundjian. It’s not really my thing but there was a fine quartet of soloists lined up for the Serenade to Music.
Things got going with the Fantasia on “Greensleeves” which was perfectly OK if a bit hackneyed. There was a decent account of the Concerto for Oboe and Strings with Sarah Jeffrey as the soloist. Then there was the Serenade. For some reason the soloists were lined up with the choir (the Elmer Iseler singers) behind the orchestra. The result was sonic mush and textual porridge. I caught exactly one word of the text; “stratagems” for what it’s worth. The rest was not recognisable as English, let alone understandable. And, of course, it was too dark to read the supplied text. This despite soloists; Carla Huhtanen, Emily D’Angelo, Lawrence Wiliford and Tyler Duncan, who are consistently excellent with text. This is becoming very annoying. As often as not when I go to see the TSO do vocal works the soloists are either inaudible or incomprehensible. I know the hall is difficult but the performance of the Ryan Requiem last week showed that it is possible to showcase singers. I think it’s really unfair to audiences and singers alike. Anyway, I was so fed up that I left at the interval.
Sometimes it takes some time away from home to be able to see things clearly again. That’s rather how I felt about last night’s Messiah performed by Tafelmusik at Koerner Hall. In the last few years I’ve seen choreographed and fully staged versions, the Andrew Davis version with sleigh bells and whoopee cushions and Soundstreams eclectic Electric Messiah, all of which helped bring a conventional small scale performance with period instruments into focus.
Soundstreams’ Electric Messiah, now billed as “annual”, opened last night at a packed Drake Underground. It’s substantially reworked from last year’s show though structurally it’s similar in that the same arias are sung by the same singers in the same order with similar linking sections. The differences though are notable. The space is configured differently with more conventional seating which makes it feel more like a concert than a happening, though there’s still lots of movement and action happening in different parts of the space. The electro-acoustic orchestra is gone; replaced by keyboards. John Gzowski and his electric guitar are up on stage rather than tucked away in an alcove. The linking choral sections have been remixed and the influence of Adam Scime on that is clear. It’s still a very interesting show and well worth seeing but I enjoyed it rather less than last year.
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.
I find it somewhat ironic that while “traditionalists” want to return to the opera house experience of the 1950s, there are younger, more radical, groups that look more to the opera audience experience of the 1750s. The argument goes “Young people don’t come to the opera house because of the experience. It’s a stuffy crowd. You have to sit still and quiet for hours in the hushed, darkened auditorium. You can’t get trashed, just maybe a glass of wine at the interval if you are lucky”. Thank you Mahler and Wagner with your Holy Temple of the Arts! Whatever happened to going to the opera house to hang out with your friends, play cards and bonk that rather cute countess in the discretely dark recesses of her box?
Soundstreams’ high concept show Electric Messiah opened at the Drake Underground last night. So what is Electric Messiah? It’s a potent mix of Handel/Jennens, four exceptional singers from varied backgrounds, electronics, turntable artists and electric guitars. It’s “staged” in the round in a dive bar with the audience and artists mixed up all over the place. Curator Kyle Brenders, dramaturg Ashlie Corcoran and lighting designer Patrick Lavender have created something that’s weird and dynamic and exciting and, just occasionally, a bit self indulgent and I really enjoyed it. Probably my biggest complaint would be that it’s too short at around an hour.
Shelter; music by Juliet Palmer, libretto by Julie Salverson, has been ten years in the making. It premiered in Edmonton a couple of years ago, finally, got its Toronto premiere at the Berkeley Street Theatre last night under the auspices of Tapestry. It’s a complex and eclectic piece dealing with what it is to be human in a nuclear age. There are two parallel plots which intersect in a way that makes dramatic sense but violate conventional notions of synchronicity. This is, after all, a piece rooted in post Einsteinian physics. The first concerns Austrian Jewish physicist Lise Meintner, one of the discoverers of nuclear fission. She has been forced into exile by the Anschluss and is seen here refusing to work on the Manhattan project. The second plot concerns a highly stereotypical 1950s American couple Thomas and Claire who meet at a social, marry and quickly produce a child; Hope. Their “American Dream” is shattered when it turns out that the baby glows! Fast forward 21 years and Hope is demanding her freedom in a world from which she has thus far been sheltered. Reenter Meintner, engaged by Thomas to be Hope’s tutor, and still obsessing about the Manhattan project. The final twist comes with the arrival of the Pilot, in WW2 Army Air Corps uniform, who uses a Geiger counter to find his prey. He fails to convince Meintner to change her mind but does persuade Hope to fulfill her destiny as He pilots the Enola Gay to 31,000 feet and a clear sky. It’s weird, disturbing and powerful.