Opera/concert season is pretty much done in the big smoke though there is the Toronto Summer Music Festival (see below). Attention moves to various more rural venues and to some seriously eclectic programming. Out in Northumberland County there’s the Westben Festival with concerts in a barn ranging fro Irish trad to Richard Margison. The highlight, for me, here would be a recital by Suzy Leblanc and Julius Drake featuring French mélodies, Strauss lieder and English songs by Christos Hatzis. That one is on July 30. Westben also has the UBC Opera Ensemble doing Carmen and, for those so inclined, a programme of Broadway tunes from the ever reliable Virginia Hatfield, Brett Polegato and James Levesque. No word on whether Brett’s cat is also performing.
Meanwhile, back in the smoke there is the Toronto Summer Music Festival which kicks off on July 16th with the Trio Pennetier Pasquier Pidoux in an all French programme. The highlights for me are the Gryphon Trio with Bob Pomakov on the 18th and Philippe Sly with Julius Drake on the 23rd.
It comes as no surprise that an opera by Atom Egoyan comes across as somewhat cinematic but it’s hard not to use the term of his production of Richard Strauss’ Salome at Canadian Opera Company. It’s quite a spare production. There’s a raked stage; the raised end providing a sort of dungeon for Jochanaan and the back and side walls used for projections, especially of a giant mouth prophesying (shades of Big Brother here) and shadow puppets. Costumes are simple and in shades of red, white and green. The concept is based on the idea that Salome is a very young girl who has a history of sexual abuse at the hands of Herod that explains her “monstrousness”. It’s most vividly explored during the dance of the seven veils where Salome rises above the stage on a swing and her robes form a scrim on which a video is projected. It starts with a very young girl in a garden and gets progressively darker until it finishes up with today’s Salome being raped by her stepfather’s entourage. Fittingly, the opera ends with Herod himself strangling Salome, perhaps more to silence her than out of disgust.
Last night’s Ariadne auf Naxos at the Four Seasons Centre was a delight. It’s a peculiar opera and clearly a section of the audience hadn’t done their homework and were rather confused. It’s in two parts. In the prologue arrangements are being made for two pieces to be performed at a big party at the home of “The richest man in Vienna”. The first is an opera seria; Ariadne in fact written by a young earnest composer and to be performed by a stereotypically haughty diva and tenor. The second is a buffo piece to be performed by the dancer Zerbinetta and her troop of Harlequins. There is much huffing and puffing by the serious opera crowd, especially the composer, about having to perform in such undignified company but the boss is the boss and money talks. The final indignity is when the Major Domo announces his master’s decision that both pieces must be presented simultaneously. Last night this was played out in modern dress on a set that faithfully, at least as I remember it, recreated the rather drab back stage areas of the Four Seasons Centre. I have no idea how many people got the joke but I thought it was funny. Alice Coote, as the composer, and Richard Stilwell, as his mentor, the music master, were excellent and everyone else contributed as needed to make for a very funny first half. It was almost, but not quite, enough to distract attention from some truly gorgeous orchestral playing by the COC Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis.
The opera proper is a classical myth based story about Ariadne being abandoned by Theseus and wishing to die on her desert island where she is accompanied only by three nymphs who comment on her condition. Ariadne’s big aria, “Es gibt ein Reich”, is all about longing for solace in death. Adrienne Pieczonka sang gorgeously and was well supported by the three nymphs; Simone Osborne, Teiya Kasahara, Lauren Segal. The orchestral playing just kept hitting the spot. All this was played out in front of a very drab backdrop with holes torn in it through which Zerbinetta and her boys were observing the action. This is where it gets weird again as first the Harlequins appear and try to cheer Ariadne up with a bit of comic singing and dancing. She is unmoved. The boys having failed, Zerbinetta herself appears and explains her views on their shared plight as women and her rather cynical philosophy of love. This happens in a coloratura aria of truly fiendish length and difficulty (“Großmächtige Prinzessin”). Jane Archibald brought it off with aplomb and brought the house down. Then it all gets serious again. Bacchus arrives (raving about having been bewitched by Circe, or not). Bacchus and Ariadne sing at each other heroically and rather at cross purposes until they realise that they have redeemed, transformed or something each other through love. Zerbinetta briefly reappears to remind everyone that “a new God always comes”. Ariadne and Bacchus get even more ecstatic, all sorts of starry things start to appear projected on the stage and backdrops, the orchestra goes nuts, and the curtain falls. It shouldn’t work. It’s Strauss and Hofmannsthal perhaps being too clever for their own good but, miraculously, it does work and the music is fabulous. When the performances are as good as last night it’s all really rather wonderful.
The audience reaction was interesting. A non trivial number of seats were empty after the interval and one couple left rather abruptly half way through the opera proper. Those who stayed were very enthusiastic. Makes me wonder what’s happening with the COC audience. Thoughts on that will form part of a season round up post I think.
We went to a lunchtime concert at the Four Seasons Centre. It was an interesting mix. The local tenor Richard Margison performed with his 19 year old daughter, Lauren, and pianist Christopher Mokrzewski. Margison is an opera singer of international stature currently singing The Tenor/Bacchus in the COCs production of Ariadne auf Naxos. Lauren, at 19, is already a well established performer and recording artist in a more popular vein. They both do crossover. Richard sang in a rock band and in folk clubs for ten years. Lauren was the youngest child ever to sing in the Canadian Opera Children’s Chorus and is currently enrolled in the Classical Vocal Performance programme at University of Toronto.
In the first half of the programme Richard powered through art songs by Scarlatti, Duparc and Beethoven and Lauren did a pretty good job with a couple of Schubert songs. She’s musical and accurate but a little tentative and underpowered, but then at her age one wouldn’t expect anything else. Then they switched to more popular rep. Richard sang a Gordon Lightfoot song, Moon River and You’ll Never Walk Alone, the latter sounding rather odd to one who used to live across the road from Anfield! There was a definite element of a battleship navigating a kayak slalom course but he did sound a bit less operatic than many singers would have done. Lauren also did a couple of similar songs plus a duet with her dad. She sounds utterly comfortable and mature way beyond her years in this rep.
In the intro to the concert we had been told that Lauren had chosen to sing Nessun Dorma at her audition for the Children’s Chorus way back so it was no surprise that Richard picked that as an encore. Calaf is one of his signature roles. He practically blew the roof off the Richard Bradshaw Auditorium. All in all, another fun, free concert.
Musical plans for the immediate future include an Ensemble Studio concert in the RBA tomorrow lunchtime, La Cenerentola at the Four Seasons Centre on Friday night and the MetHD broadcast of Die Walküre on Saturday.