LooseTEA’s Carmen

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.


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Four Seasons of Mother Russia

Off Centre Music Salon’s opening concert of the season featured a largely Russian, largely 19th century program.  There were plenty of songs by Glinka, Tchaikovsky and the like sung by an interestingly contrasted mix of Ilana Zarankin, Joni Henson and Ryan Harper with Inna Perkis and Boris Zarankin accompanying.  It was good to hear Joni in this program in the warm acoustic of Trinity St. Paul’s.  I think I’ve mostly heard her in the RBA which is notoriously hard on dramatic sopranos.  Here the combination of the acoustic and Russian vowel sounds resulted in a very pleasing richness of tone rather than stridency.  She also blended well with Harper’s very tenorish tenor and made an interesting contrast with the much lighter, brighter Zarankin.  Nice work all round.


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Jealousy, rage, love and fear

It’s a curious thing how some works get over recorded and others are almost entirely neglected.  For example, there’s only one video recording of Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper and that a 1931 film that omits huge chunks of the stage work.  It’s inspiration fares little better.  There’s only one video recording of The Beggar’s Opera by Johann Pepusch and John Gay.  It’s a 1963 BBC TV production of Benjamin Britten’s reworking of the piece for the English Opera Group based on a stage production by Colin Graham. [ETA: There are actually two other versions; a 1953 movie version with Lawrence Olivier and a 1980s version with Roger Daltrey and John Eliot Gardiner].

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Paramore shall welcome woe

Various thoughts about the Channel 4 film of Britten’s Owen Wingrave led to me seeking out the original BBC TV version from 1970, now available on DVD.  It’s extremely interesting and worthwhile.  Britten himself conducts and the cast includes many of the people involved in the first productions of many other Britten operas.  They include Peter Pears (General Wingrave/Narrator), John Shirley-Quirk (Coyle), Benjamin Luxon (Owen), Janet Baker (Kate), Heather Harper Mrs.Coyle) and Jennifer Vyvyan (Mrs. Julian).  The quality of the music making is superb and I found myself constantly surprised and delighted by details brought out by Britten supported by the excellent English Chamber Orchestra.  At the same time, the fluent and idiomatic singing pointed up the excellence of Myfanwy Piper’s libretto.  This really is Britten at his best.

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Another transladaptation

Cassandra Warner

Cassandra Warner

There’s another indie opera company in town; Loose Tea Music Theatre.  They are going to be putting on a crowd source funded transladaptation of Carmen called La tragédie de Carmen at Buddies in Bad Times on September the 6th, 7th and 8th.  Details of the show are here and the crowd source funding page is here.  This is no amateur effort.  It’s directed by Alaina Viau who has worked at the ROH.  The title role will be sung by Cassandra Warner, last seen in Opera Atelier’s Magic Flute, and the Don José is Ryan Harper, previously a Rodolfo for Against the Grain’s Tranzac La Bohème.

This was brought to my attention by Lisa Faieta who has a new blog, Soprano vs. the World.  Check it out!


The ur Grimes

In 1969 the BBC’s new Director of Music and recording producer of genius, John Culshaw, contrived to align the heavens to permit the recording and broadcast for television of Britten’s Peter Grimes with Peter Pears in the title role and Britten conducting. What’s more it was recorded on a stage set (at The Maltings) with the orchestra in the same room as the singers who sang ‘live’. So, unusually for the time there was neither a double studio set up nor a studio audio recording that was lip synched to the stage performance. There’s a great little essay in the DVD booklet that explains how this all came to pass.

All that said, it’s a 1969 TV broadcast and I expected it to be of largely historic interest. I didn’t expect to get completely sucked in which is what happened. The design and production is very literal. The Boar is a pub. Grimes’ hut is a hut and so on. The people of the Borough are dressed in a range of working class clothes of sometime in the 19th century. They don’t look like a flock of crows on a telephone wire. Oddly, this makes their conformity all the more telling. The direction is a collaboration between Joan Cross who, we are told, directed the singers and Brian Large (who must have been about twelve at the time) who directed the cameras. As you would expect for a 1969 TV production there are lots of close ups which is fine as there was no “house view” here. The orchestral interludes are played out to either abstract patterns (which sometimes look a bit like those gel slides popular in discos of the period) and continuity shots. We don’t see the orchestra or, worse, a heavily perspiring conductor. It’s all straightforward but effective. There are some interesting interpretative nuances. For example in the storm scene in the pub I’ve never seen Grimes’ otherness so well brought out. Also, it’s absolutely starkly clear that Ellen and Balstrode have given up on Peter during Act 2 Scene 1 but he persists most compellingly in his hope until the ‘prentice falls at the end of the act. Pears’ reading of the part at this point is so hopeful that I had to go back and check that the bit where he accuses the boy of betraying him hadn’t been cut.

The performances are mostly strong. Pears’ Grimes is what it is. It’s beautifully sung and the lyrical passages like “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades” are gorgeous. It’s not totally convincing though. When he punches Ellen it comes out of nowhere. This dreamy, haunted Grimes just doesn’t have the violent side that the Borough and, ultimately Ellen, see. Heather Harper’s Ellen is gorgeous. She sounds younger and sweeter than in the later Vickers recording. Bryan Drake’s Balstrode is well sung but he’s more of the Borough and less the more broadly travelled and worldly wise character than others make of him. Both Gregory Dempsey as Bob Boles and Elizabeth Bainbridge as Auntie are more delineated than is often the case and Ann Robson gives a decidedly sinister Mrs. Sedley. Other supporting roles are perfectly adequate. Britten conducts the LSO and gives, especially, in the interludes, an even more taut and compelling reading than on the audio recording with the ROH Orchestra ten years earlier. This, for sure, is definitive.

Technically this disc is amazingly good. The 4:3 picture is a bit soft grained but amazing for 1969 TV. The sound is “enhanced Dolby mono” and while, obviously, it doesn’t produce any width or depth it’s clear and bright. (There’s also LPCM mono but its not nearly as good). There are English, French, German and Spanish subtitles.

All in all this is so much more than “just” a historical document. In every way it’s a performance worth watching.

The other Grimes

When the Royal Opera House mounted a new production of Britten’s Peter Grimes in 1975 with Canadian heldentenor Jon Vickers in the title role it was controversial. Whatever else one could say about it Vickers’ interpretation of Grimes was very different from that of Peter Pears for whom the part was written. Britten, it was said, hated it. I saw it that summer and was pretty impressed but then seventeen year olds impress easily. I certainly never expected that the young baritone singing Ned Keene would end up as a knight and Chancellor of the university where I began my degree a few weeks later. When the production was revived in 1981 there were some significant cast changes. Norman Bailey had replaced the retired Geraint Evans as Balstrode, Philip Gelling was in for Thomas Allen as Ned Keene and one John Tomlinson had taken over as Hobson the carter. The incomparable Heather Harper remained as Ellen Orford. It’s the revival cast that was recorded and broadcast by the BBC and which is available on DVD from Kultur in the Americas and Warner Video elsewhere.

For review purposes I watched this on the commercial VHS that was available in the early 1990s. The picture will obviously be better on the DVDs though I don’t suppose it will be a whole lot better than average TV, at least on the Kultur release. The stereo sound on the tape is pretty good and unless some fancy enhancing has happened (most unlikely with Kultur) one gets OK 1980s stereo but nothing fancy.

Elijah Moshinsky’s production is dark. Dark as in low light levels as opposed to extra pessimistic. If I hadn’t seen this in the theatre I’d think it was a function of it being an old VHS recording but I clearly remember how hard it was to see much on stage even from the Orchestra Stalls. The palette is greys, blacks and browns with only the nieces permitted a splash of muted colour. It’s also period and naturalistic which works pretty well. At least we are clearly in a fishing village by the sea. In my opinion the sea matters in Peter Grimes. The music tells us that but it’s more than that. Anyone who knows the east coast generally, and Suffolk in particular, knows how land and sea and light shape everything. Don’t believe me? Go look at a Turner. When the sea vanishes from the drama it loses a certain sense of menace (one of the main weaknesses of the recent Met production). Where Moshinsky maybe misses a trick is in not making more of the orchestral interludes. It’s only in the first and last that anything happens on stage (another problem with the Met production). Moshinsky also doesn’t pull any punches in his take on the nieces. No ambiguity here. They are prostitutes. All in all, for its era, the production holds up pretty well.

Musically there’s a lot to like too. For me, the highlight is Heather Harper’s Ellen Orford. She has a gorgeous voice and acts extremely well. “Embroidery in childhood was a luxury in idleness” is poignant almost beyond belief. Forbes Robinsom makes more of Swallow than most of his rivals and most of the other minor roles are fine. Colin Davis gets some really intense playing out of the orchestra. His tempi are quite extreme. In places he’s really quick but, especially when Grimes is singing, he slows right down. I timed the short third act at eight minutes slower than Runnicles. All in all though it’s a very good piece of conducting. I have reservations about Norman Bailey’s Balstrode. Maybe the voice is too dark for the music. I’m not sure but he doesn’t dominate the stage like some of his rivals. Frankly he’s best in the spoken dialogue in Act 3 Scene 2.

Then there’s Vickers. The conventional wisdom is that Vickers gives us “brutal Grimes” as against Pears’ more lyrical version. It’s not that simple. Vickers’ Grimes is far from one dimensional. Sure he can be brutal but he can quite gentle too. His “In dreams I’ve built myself some kindlier home” is quite heartbreaking, the more so as it comes just a couple of minutes before all his dreams are dashed for good. He also comes across as quite mad and broken but not brutal in “Grimes! Steady. There you are. Nearly home.” When he is brutal, he’s very brutal and the contrast is reinforced by the voice. Most of Grimes more sympathetic music is cruelly high for Vickers and part of the pathos lies in his struggle to sing it at all (which he barely does with “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades”) whereas Grimes at his most brutal allows Vickers to unleash a power and volume quite beyond the likes of Pears or Langridge. Vickers acting is a bit odd too. He shambles at times like a rather drunk grizzly bear and at other times he strikes almost baroque poses. That aspect of his interpretation doesn’t really convince me. Still, I doubt there’s a definitive take on Grimes. It’s too great and too complex for that. I think Vickers’ take is valid and well worth watching as well as being a landmark in the development of the role.

The video/broadcast was directed by John Vernon. Considering this is television in 1981 I’m not complaining too much. It’s mostly shot in closeup but he does give us setting shots, especially when it really matters like the start of Act 3 Scene 2. The VHS doesn’t have subtitles which is a bit of a drag (though this may have been fixed on the DVD releases).

This is an important landmark in the history of productions of Peter Grimes and this recording is a useful record of that.

Here’s the Youtube version of “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades”. Note the abrupt change of volume and mood as soon as the really high passage is over.