Here's the link to the piece in the Hamilton Spectator re: The Duet Club's Women of Song and their seasonal concert at which they will première my new piece Winter Reverie.
Thursday, November 23, 2023
Monday, October 2, 2023
I went to see the COC’s Fidelio production yesterday afternoon. I took the GO train to Union Station, accompanying most the the crowd who headed to the Rogers Centre for the final Blue Jays season game.
I should say, at the outset, that I enjoyed the show a lot and even though I’d read a review was surprised by the production. I’d encourage anyone, opera fan or not, to get down to the Four Seasons Centre before Fidelio closes.
We’d PRVed a European production of the opera which I watched about a month ago. It was recorded from the Mezzo network so there were no subtitles but I found a synopsis of the opera on line easily enough. It was traditional, period production and a decent introduction to a staged version of the opera which I had only known previously through excerpts and the overtures.
There are good reasons Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, is not produced as often as one might expect with the composer being so high in the pantheon of “classical” composers. The story is a combination of domestic comedy and high melodrama involving truly horrifying torture and murder. The ingenue is unbelievably naive and gormless. The villain is a raving monster. Other operas, however, are more often performed even though they have similar shortcomings.
The problem with Fidelio is that its composer was not a man of the theatre. Many of the numbers in this singspiel are structured like instrumental pieces. Beethoven’s forms are often based upon exposition, repetition and variation. I can imagine the composer playing his music over on the piano and recognizing that, formally, whole sections of the arias and ensembles needed to be repeated. We accept this, expect it, in concert music.
The problem is that once the text has been covered once or perhaps repeated a couple of times for emphasis its dramatic purpose has been served. However in this opera, even though the theatrical role of the text has already played out, Beethoven’s music hasn’t finished so the music carries on to its formal conclusion.
Stage director Johannes Debus deals with this inherent problem with Fidelio effectively. The set is a huge, square two-level building on a turntable that rotates the sides and back turning to face the stage providing, in effect, four different sets. Moreover, a scene can be playing out above while the music’s drama happens below.
Debus’ jail is a busy place. There are other staff in the office that is the set of most of the first act and they get on with their jobs while the principals play their parts. When the music becomes repetitive there’s other stuff going on elsewhere on the stage, something else to look at while listening to the beautiful music. Only in the second act, set in the dungeon, is all still elsewhere on the stage.
The opera opens with the young tenor (and office manager in this production) repeatedly begging his boss’s daughter, the ingenue, to marrying him. She also works in the office and refuses his appeals over and over again. We learn later in the scene that it isn’t that she doesn’t like him but rather that she likes her father’s assistant better and would rather marry him.
I expected the ingenue to be a soubrette soprano and the tenor a light lyric but both Anna-Sophie Neher and Josh Lovell have bigger voices than that. Once we encounter the leading singers soprano Miina-Liisa Värelà and tenor Clay Hilley the casting becomes clear. They are both Wagnerian singers with big voices. Värelà has sung Ortrud and Sieglinde. Hilley has sung Siegfried at Bayreuth.
Since there is lots of ensemble singing in Fidelio and all of the voices have to be able to balance those of the leading singers. A regular soubrette or light lyric tenor would be inaudible.
The singers were uniformly excellent. Johannes Martin Kränzle plays an almost cartoonishly evil Don Pizzaro, spot-lit, standing alone on the edge of a staircase on the outside of the stage in a white shirt and tie, raving and singing up a storm.
The big chorus was very impressive and, with the addition of numerous supernumeraries, filled the stage in the crowd scenes. There are also big TVs in the set, projections and effects that bathe the players and sometimes the audience in light.
There are five more performance. https://my.coc.ca/overview/2066
Wednesday, December 16, 2020
My wife and I watched a production of Aida from the Grande Théatre de Genève last week and I have been recalling music from the opera ever since. It is not the worst ear-worm one could have.
I first encountered Aida in a piano-vocal score when I was a student at Althouse College at Western University. I took the score of the opera, which I didn’t know at all, into a room with a piano and discovered that the tenor had an aria within a few pages of the opening of Act I. I banged it out on the piano and sang the opening recitative. Then I tried the aria which wasn’t too hard until it was. I didn’t realize that Radames is a very demanding role even for those who have the specific kind of voice for which Verdi was writing. It was a long time before I fooled around with the aria Celeste Aida again.
I did see two acts of Aida at the Arena di Verona some years later. I remember the tenor broke one of the Bbs in the aria and there were animals in the Triumphal scene. It started to rain mid-way through and, since I was supposed to sing in a competition a few days later, I went back to my hotel and slept.
Indeed it was about a year later that I actually had to sing music from the opera. I was in a production of Il Trovatore at the O’Keefe Centre as a chorister with the Canadian Opera Company. They decided to do a gala concert in which Birgit Nilsson was to be the guest artist. They also decided to do a concert rendition of the Triumphal Scene contracting the principal singers from Trovatore, which was in production at the same time, to sing the solos. I don’t remember how much of it we sang but I think it must only have been the opening which includes the famous march. I do remember being unhappy at having to learn so much music for a single performance especially since we we not paid extra for the concert since we were already under contract. The high point of the concert was Nilsson singing Dich, teure Halle, from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, near the end. It was damned impressive and the only time I ever heard her sing live.
|The Triumphal March in Sarasota Opera’s production of Verdi’s AIDA. (Photo: Rod-Millington)|
So I wasn’t looking forward Aida when it was scheduled the next year. There is a lot of chorus singing in Aida. indeed, there’s a lot of everything in Aida: Melodrama, big voices, an orchestra with extra brass and plenty of incidental music for ballet. Much to my surprise I enjoyed the production enormously. There were extra choristers to sing the prisoners and a bang-up cast including soprano Leona Mitchell and the marvellous mezzo Livia Budai as Amneris.
I thought that would be the end of Aida and me but I encountered the opera again in a most unlikely way.
I was, for 13 years, the conductor-chorus master of an elementary school music program of which, incidentally, I was not the music teacher. I had agreed, in my first year, to conduct an adaptation of the opera. I was very busy learning a new job, in a new school and all the musical preparation was undertaken by the music teacher. When my baton and I arrived at the podium almost none of the participants had ever worked with a conductor before and I spent much of the dress rehearsal and the subsequent performances being ignored by almost all the performers, the eldest of whom we eleven years old.
During the instrumental music which begins the Triumphal Scene the entire student body, about 200 kids aged six to eleven years old, trooped in surrounding the audience, all in vaguely Egyptian themed costumes including one girl dressed as a pyramid. Three trumpets supplemented the piano accompaniment. I was sitting on a stool so the public could see over me. As all those children all prepared to sing, one of my own Grade Three eight boys was standing close and directly behind me. There is a long ascending scale that precedes the chorus’ first notes and as I gave the downbeat for the singing to begin he came in singing forte, right in my ear, with the correct rhythm and words but with notes which were a good fifths lower than those Verdi had written and so had nothing to do with the harmony. It was a little unnerving. The kid, incidentally, is now a commercial pilot. His job description doesn't include singing in tune. The Aida and Amneris went on to be leading lights in the Hamilton Children's Choir. The Radames eventually went to seminary and is now a Presbyterian Minister and stand-up.
When the King of Egypt asked Radames what he wanted as a reward for leading the winning army against the Ethiopians, the boy turned to the audience and announced, "I'd like to hear the Toreador Song from Carmen sung by John Fanning!" Met Opera Singer John Fanning, our special guest, stepped from the wings and sang it. He was dressed as an elephant with a rubber mask trunk which made him look more like a giant mouse.
Needless to say, the production was a hit. To be fair, most elementary school shows, regardless of their artistic merits, are considered to be entrancing by audiences made up mostly of the performers’ families.
The Grande Théatre de Genève TV production (Mezzo.TV) with which I began was pretty unconventional. It’s an important opera house, but a small one with fewer that 1000 seats. There were no animals. The chorus and orchestra were relatively small. Acrobats replaced all the dancing.
All the Egyptians were made up with a blue stripe across their eyes. The King of Egypt’s bald head was painted gold. The costumes were all over the place, stylistically. Some might have been strangely dressed ancient Egyptians but others wore glitzy quasi-nineteenth century uniforms. In the Nile Scene, Radames, in a leather jacket and dark trousers, might have walked in off the street in Geneva. Some of the female choristers wore headpieces so big they block out the view of performers standing behind them.
For all that, the staging was pretty conventional. As you would imagine in such a venue, the solo singers were all very good. The Amneris, Anna Smirnova, was sensational with huge, beautiful voice. The Amonasro, Alexey Markov also sang and acted masterfully. I'd spend big money to hear either of them sing live. The normal sized chorus did a fine job.
If you get a chance to see this production on the flat screen, take it. You can spread if out over a couple of nights as we did.
However it's produced, the Verdi's opera transcends. Nothing diminishes the power of what many regard as Verdi’s greatest opera and is my favourite of all his works.
Copyright © 2020 David S. Fawcett
Monday, December 16, 2019
We've also been making out way through Gounod's opera Faust from the Teatro Réal de Madrid. We watched the second act last night, one of the greatest acts in all of opera, with a marvellous cast of international stars.
|Edouard de Reszke as Mephistophélès|
Years ago, I suggested it as an opera to do (sort of, we always sort of did the operas) with the school program of which I was the conductor. It would have been great! The principal shot it down. It seems an opera including seduction, infanticide and a character, Mephistophélès, who is actually Satan wasn't going to fly as a kiddie opera.
So that's one devil this week.
The other turns up, surprise, surprise, in a Stephen King book.
I re-read King's masterpiece, The Stand, in the restored full length version. It seems the publisher couldn't do the book as King wrote it back in 1979. They weren't set up to manufacture such a long book. 400 pages had to go. King did the edit himself rather than let someone else do it.
Years later, they restored the passages that had been removed. In paperback it runs to 1149 pages.
I had to request it from the HPL twice as I couldn't manage to finish it in the first 3 weeks.
There are more than a dozen principal character. The plot, which begins with a terrifying, but plausible, medical disaster, ends with the battle between good and evil in the realm of magic and the supernatural.
I enjoyed it (again) but wouldn't recommend it as a place to start in King's enormous oeuvre. Carrie, maybe?
The devil in this case is The Walking Dude, Randall Flagg. As frightening a villain as anyone ever dreamt up.
Two devils in one week. Do devils always come in threes?