Saturday, October 26, 2013

Interview with singer and actor Reid Spencer

Here's a link to my recent interview with Reid Spencer with whom I worked during my time in the chorus of the Canadian Opera Company. He's a fascinating fellow to talk to, especially for someone, like me, who has an interest in singing and the various form of musical theatre, which includes opera. Little of that discussion made it into this piece, however, which is intended for a much more general audience.

None the less, there's lots of interesting biographical information and the url of his website through which those who'd be interested in studying privately with him, or otherwise contacting him, can get in touch.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Falstaff at Opera Hamilton

I went to see Verdi's comic masterpiece, Falstaff, on Tuesday night. The buzz from the Spec columnist and online blogs was that it was a great show, but I'm sceptical and wasn't sure, based on my experience with other OH productions, what to expect.

John Fanning with Falstaff padding

What I got was a wonderful theatrical and musical experience. In this smallish theatre with a thirty-one piece orchestra the opera came off almost as a chamber piece from near the middle of Row E.

I was disappointed to see such a sparse crowd, especially since OH continues to make tickets to these Tuesday performances available for $30 on WagJag. There are two more performances (Thursday, Oct. 24 and Saturday the 26th) and if there's any possibility of getting to one of them I'd encourage you enthusiastically, but you won't get in for 30 bucks.

Falstaff is pronouncedly unlike any of Verdi's other operas. Verdi took a 16 year break after Aida, wrote Otello and then didn't write Falstaff until 6 years after that, at the age of 80. I wonder what Verdi had been listening to which resulted in the extraordinary solo ensemble writing which is so different from that of his other operas.

The principal demand in staging this opera, is to move the singers around on stage and provide interesting things for them to do while, at the same time, positioning them such that they can always see the conductor because so much of the music is complex and moves so quickly. The men's and the women's parts are often written as two teams in the numerous ensembles, sometimes scooting along simultaneously in different metres. It's quite possible to solve the problem with a static staging in which the players find their mark and stand on it. That was not the case last night.

Allison Grant's staging was detailed and followed, for the most part, Boris Godovsky's axiom that the movement in opera should proceed from the rhythm and structure of the music. There was lots of appropriate comic stage business but I didn't find that it distracted from the singing.The performers were always in sync which tells me that the stage director understood this challenge.

This is an ensemble piece and the ensemble singing was impressive. Moreover, the casting was appropriate both from a physical and vocal standpoint, and the voices complemented one another.

I didn't much like the spartan set which reminded me of community theatre. It got tiresome to see fully costumed people hiding behind parts of the set and laundry on a line. On the other hand, the entire production would probably fit in a box van. It is usually better to budget for really good singers and instrumentalists than elaborate sets.

Dundas baritone John Fanning sang the fat knight. He's got a big baritone voice and has sung the Dutchman in Der fliegende Höllander which is usually cast with a bass-baritone so that tells you something. He's sung Wotan in the Das Ring des Niebelungen, Mandryka In Strauss's Arabella (at the Met) and the villains in Les Contes de Hoffman among numerous other leading roles in major houses. Fanning had a really good night showing lots of different colours and dynamics in his singing and his top notes became freer as the evening went on.

James Westman, as Ford/Fontana, provided an excellent foil to Fanning's Falstaff. We last heard him at OH as Conte de Luna in Trovatore and I wondered whether there'd be sufficient contrast between his baritone voice and Fanning's. Fanning, the older singer who's sung lots of big German roles, has a broader, more mature sound and Westman's voice seems positively lyric in contrast. Excellent casting by David Speers and his team.

Soprano Lynn Fortin anchored the women's ensemble and was excellent both in her vocalizations and acting. It's a peculiar fact that neither Alice Ford or Meg Page (sung capably by Ariana Chris) has neither an aria nor a substantial duet to sing. This didn't prevent Fortin from holding the stage and the audience's attention in her scenes.

Lynne McMurtry expertly handled the role of Dame Quickly. James McClennan was an aptly blustering and vocally strong Dr. Caius. Jon Paul Décosse (Pistola) and Jeremy Blossey (Bardolfo) both sang excellently and played the characters broadly with lots of comic interplay.

Sasha Dijihanian was a delightful Nanetta singing some ravishing sustained high notes in her duets with tenor Theo Lebow as Fenton. He's a pretty feisty singer and I was pleased to hear his ringing top notes sounding every bit the Italian tenor.

Conductor and General Director David Speers got the most out of the orchestra and I didn't miss the big orchestra as I had in Trovatore and Rigoletto.

The new chorus master, Sabatino Vacca has solved the chorus problem, for the time being, by reducing the choir to sixteen voices. However, there's precious little chorus singing in Falstaff. Who knows what he'll do about Carmen (in April) which has a whole lot of demanding choruses?

If you've been reading these recounts you know I don't usually give such unreserved praise to opera productions. I've got to hand it to Opera Hamilton for this one, though.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Peter Grimes at the COC

We attended Tuesday night's performance of Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes, performed by the Canadian Opera Company at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto. The performance was not sold out. Indeed, the audience thinned out somewhat as the evening went on.

I'm not very fond of Britten's music (in spite of having performed quite a lot of it) and find the subject of this opera to be rather dreary. Britten adopted a kind of pan-diatonicism, gleaning his harmonic materials from the notes of his melodies and then adding polytonality (playing different streams of the texture in different keys). This results in music which is at once tonal and curiously harmonically static. To my ear, the music often doesn't have a clear tonal direction. You can hear this clearly in The Four Sea Interludes, adapted from the opera, which are a staple of the Twentieth-Century orchestral repertoire. Productions of the opera are mounted at major opera houses about as often as those other 20th Century operatic masterpieces, Poulenc's Les Dialogues Des Carmelites and Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress.

On this occasion, all three acts were played on single set (the back wall of which is brought forward on the stage at one point). The set represents a church hall with a raised proscenium stage at the back. It looks very like a church or community hall or even an elementary school gymnasium but has windowed doors and clerestory windows on both sides and skylights in the ceiling allowing for very effective lighting effects, especially during the interludes in the opera.

The director's conceit is that George Crabbe (played by Thomas Hauff), upon whose poem the libretto is based, is there on stage imagining his poem coming to life and sometimes even interacting with the characters.

Ben Heppner

Last night, Tenor Ben Heppner took the title role. He had cancelled the première and wasn't in very good voice for last night's performance either. He warmed into it as the evening went on, though, and sang pretty effectively in the second and third acts. The role is a demanding one from a dramatic point of view and his acting certainly didn't suffer from whatever vocal discomfort he was experiencing. His portrayal of Grimes mad scene in the third act was very powerful.

Ileana Montalbetti

Soprano Ileana Montalbetti was cast as Ellen Orford. According to the program notes this is her first really big role. She was a dramatically effective Ellen and sang much of the role proficiently, especially when singing alone or with the orchestra, although much of it was full out. The broad vibrato of her top notes battled with Heppner's in their first act duet and affected the tuning of the women's quartet (with Auntie and the two nieces). She possesses a fine instrument, however, and I look forward to hearing her in other repertoire where this characteristic of her vocal production will be less critical.

Alan Held

Bass-Baritone Alan Held sang and portrayed Captain Balstrode, Grimes only friend, and was the outstanding individual performer of the evening with a strong voice and excellent dramatic skills. He's done big Wagner roles in major houses and it was clear from his performance that he'd be at home there as well.

I was also impressed with Peter Barrett playing Ned Keene, although all the singers playing secondary roles (five of them COC Ensemble products) were very fine. Special mention must go to American Mezzo Judith Christin as the laudanum addled town gossip, Mrs. Sedley.

The COC orchestra, under Maestro Johannes Debus played brilliantly. There was impressive ensemble playing from the brasses and lovely playing of the many dissonant passages in the high woodwinds (there's an Eb Clarinet in the orchestra). Concertmaster Marie Bérard and Principal Cellist Bryan Epperson both took beautiful solo turns.

The real stars of the night have to be the Sandra Horst's COC chorus. There's a lot of chorus singing in this opera and, as opera choruses go, it's pretty difficult music. They gave a nuanced performance, sometimes subtle and quiet (some stunning off-stage singing), sometimes very loud and dramatic. They portrayed, to a person, the Borough itself, as a dramatic character and Grimes' real theatrical adversary.

There are five more performances, closing on Oct. 26. I encourage you to attend one of them. This is, all things considered, a wonderful production and we're not likely to see this opera performed again in Toronto any time soon.