Yesterday we got the second recital by the song fellows of the Toronto Summer Music Festival. In the week since the first concert they have been working with mentor Soile Isokoski and it showed in the programming. There was quite a bit of Strauss and more Finnish and Swedish music than I have ever heard in such a recital. Among other things this highlighted just how difficult Strauss songs are to sing well. They are exceedingly tricky yet have to sound absolutely effortless. Three of the four sopranos on show tried. None of them succeeded completely(*). So it goes. And so to the details.
Toronto Summer Music Festival has two “apprenticeship” programmes; one for chamber musicians and one for singers and collaborative pianists. The latter is directed by Martin Katz and Steven Philcox. On Saturday afternoon in Walter Hall we got our first chance to see this year’s young artists. Eight singers and four pianists were on show. The singers were a mix of those who are well known to anyone who follows student opera in Toronto and newcomers. The pianists were all new to me.
Stefan Herheim’s 2012 production of Dvořák’s Rusalka for Brussels’ La Monnaie Theatre is predictably ambitious and complex. He takes an explicitly Freudian (by way of Lacan) view of the piece(*). The female characters are representations of male views of the female and, sometimes it seems, vice versa. It’s seen most clearly in Act 2 and I found unpacking Act 1 much easier after seeing it so I’m going to start there. We open not with bucolic, if coarse, peasants preparing for a wedding feast. We are on a street in a scruffy part of, I guess, Brussels. The gamekeeper and kitchen boy are replaced by a priest and a policeman. The traditional dismembered game animals become a female chorus, many of them nuns, with exaggerated secondary sexual characteristics. There is, essentially, an orgy. Clearly the human world that Rusalka cannot enter is about sex in its most physical aspects not meaty Central European banquet platters! Rusalka and the Foreign Princess are dressed and wigged identically. They are quite freely interchanged. Lines that are canonically addressed to one are addressed to the other and so forth. It’s pretty clear that each represents, albeit imperfectly, the Prince’s ideal woman. Rusalka is the unattainable feminine ideal; flawed in that she cannot engage in fully satisfying sexual activity. The foreign Princess is sexually satisfying but falls short precisely by not being unattainable. Some less clear male duality is suggested by the appearance of the Vodnik dressed as the Prince. It just gets weirder from there with the ballet of nuns, prostitutes, fish, squid and heaven knows what else spilling over into the auditorium while the Prince and Foreign Princess watch from a box and Rusalka and the Vodnik get caught up in the action. At the conclusion of the act it’s Rusalka not the Princess that he begs for help.
French operetta is notoriously difficult to get right. The genre treacherously combines a kind of humour that doesn’t always translate well in time or language, difficult music to sing and a need to be as “naughty” as the original seemed without being crass. It’s a huge credit to Michael Patrick Albano and his student cast that they pretty much pulled off all of that last night with their new production of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld. One could nit pick details (I shall) but overall it was a well paced show with some good singing and acting and it was genuinely funny. Unsurprisingly the audience lapped it up. Continue reading
Opera Atelier’s production of (mostly) Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas opened last night at the Elgin. I say “(mostly) Purcell” because director Marshall Pynkowski had decided to add a Prologue. As he explained in his introductory remarks nobody reads Virgil’s Aeneid anymore so it was necessary to play out the back story in a prologue. I find this pretty patronising. It’s not a particularly convoluted story and I would have thought that the gist of the story is well enough known to most opera goers and, you know, some of us have read the Aeneid. Besides, even without detailed knowledge of the back story there’s nothing remotely hard to understand. FWIW the dumbing down carried over into the surtitles with, for example, “Anchises” rendered as “his father”. Anyway we got a prologue spoken by Irene Poole while the orchestra played other Purcell airs followed by a bit of extraneous ballet and poor Chris Enns (Aeneas) and Wallis Giunta (Dido) running around making the stock baroque “woe is me” gesture. I guess it made the piece (plus Marshall’s speech) long enough to justify an intermission, which was taken after what is usually Act 2 Scene 1, but the prologue was neither necessary nor welcome and I think the ensuing intermission was an unnecessary break in the flow of the action.
Yesterday afternoon I went to see the UoT Opera program’s show Brush Up Your Shakespeare. It was substantially the same as the program they gave six months ago in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre so I ‘m just going to comment on changes of one kind or another.
There were a few extra numbers. Danika Lorèn sang the Poison Aria from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. It’s an interesting voice. There’s lots of power but maybe isn’t quite fully under control yet. Still, easier to refine a powerful basic instrument than get anywhere with a small one. One to watch. William Ford sang Macduff’s O figli mie! from Verdi’s Macbeth. That’s a pretty bold call for a student and he wasn’t bad at all. This time we also got a sort of catalogue raisonnée of the program from director Michael Patrick Albano with contextual information on each number.
And so is Michael Albano’s new production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore which opened last night at the MacMillan Theatre. It’s been a long time since the UoT Opera Division did G&S but it was worth the wait. Fred Perruzza’s straight forward unit set was really brought to life by a fast paced and lively production. From the very beginning of the overture we had members of the crew cavorting and dancing (Choreographer Anna Theodosakis) in a manner perhaps owing more to Broadway than D’Oyly Carte and the better for it! The set, a quarter deck with a gallery, provided cabin doors and traps in the deck for characters to come and go (including conductor Sandra Horst appearing from “below” to take her bow). And of coming and going and dancing there was plenty. There were some more than decent dancers in the chorus too.