Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Roberto Devereux at the COC

We saw Roberto Devereux at the Four Seasons Centre last night (Tues. April 29) and, in the immortal words of Jerry Lee Lewis there was a "whole lotta shoutin' goin' on". Perhaps not actual shouting, but too close for this opera goer.

I hadn't heard or seen this opera before, but with surtitles and a familiar composer (Donizetti) working in a standard form, preparation proved to be unnecessary.

It was presented on a single set, meant to evoke the Globe Theatre. There was a large platform that occupied most of the mid-stage around which most the action took place. This forced the singers to its periphery most of the time, either on the sides or right downstage. There was, as seems usual, some singing while lying down. At one point Devereux, in a duet with Sara, for no reason I could fathom, dragged himself across the platform as if his legs didn't work. In another peculiar choice, Nottingham apparently goes on to rape his wife after the end of their duet. I could also have done without the manikins in display cases during the overture and at the end of the opera.

This is an opera in the bel canto tradition. The phrase means, literally, beautiful singing but refers to much more than that for example, evenness and clarity of sound and articulation and tasteful absence of excess. What we heard in Hercules was bel canto. Much of what we heard last night was more appropriate to Trovatore or dare I say Tosca, far too heavily influenced by the style of singing that became acceptable later in the 19th century. Donizetti may not be Rossini, but he's not Verdi either and is surely not a verismo composer.

The main culprit was the prima donna, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta. She has spectacular high notes and the ability to project her chest voice. She also has a middle voice which is not as strong. As a result, in a long descending octave scale, the top and bottom were loud while the middle didn't match. Moreover, last night at least, she wasn't able to manage the crispness and accuracy which the frequent coloratura in this repertoire demands. It simply sounded messy.

She is, however, an exceptional actress, and in the last act, when the coloratura pyrotechnics were over and the music was more dramatic, her vocal issues were no longer a problem. Indeed, she did some glorious pianissimo singing. The last scene, artificial and manipulative as it is, and made more so by this production, was truly moving and drew well deserved approval from the audience.

As the Duke of Nottingham, Baritone Russell Braun's singing in the first act suffered from similar problems. At one point, in the midst of some running passages, I actually lost track of what key he was singing in. Again, the runs were not clean and accurate while the highest notes were stentorian. I've heard him sing other repertoire beautifully and he has never sounded like that.

Tenor Leonardo Capalbo sang pretty well the taxing title role sounding like... an Italian tenor. He sings duets with both leading ladies and in ensembles besides, having to maintain a rather high tessitura throughout. He was obviously tiring by his final act scene, and no wonder.

Mezzo Allyson McHardy, as Sara, Duchess of Nottingham, came closer to bel canto than the other principal singers. Her first aria, in particular, was a breath of fresh air after Sondra Radvanovsky's. She did seem to be darkening and pushing on her lower notes as the performance went on and I wondered whether she and Braun felt the need to be louder to match the big sound Ms. Radvanovsky can produce. I think I'd like to hear McHardy as Cenorentola or Rosina in this theatre.

Allyson McHardy and Sondra Radvanovsky

Owen McCausland sang Lord Cecil nicely and Matt Boehler made some of the loveliest sounds of the evening in the few notes he had to sing as Raleigh.

The COC chorus sang well what little was asked of them and the orchestra played beautifully under conductor Corrado Ravaris.

The audience reacted rapturously at the end of the performance and I wondered whether they were wooed by the theatricality of the piece. I am more concerned with musicianship and singing and didn't stand at the end of this one.

Nonetheless, this production of Roberto Devereux should put bums in the seats. Judging by next season's offerings, heavy on the standard rep (Madama Butterfly, Falstaff, Barber of Seville, Don Giovanni) and Bluebeard's Castle, a proven hit, the company must have decided to concentrate on pot-boiling. Gotta pay the bills.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Hercules in America at the COC

I was wondering how celebrated Stage Director Peter Sellars would make three hours of Baroque opera engaging. The answer is, he couldn't.

Peter Sellars

We spent an awfully long time at the Four Seasons Centre last night (April 16) watching  the COC's production of Georg Friderick Handel's musical drama Hercules. After the first 20 minutes or so I was seriously contemplating whether I'd have to leave at the interval. A substantial number of our fellow patrons did just that.

I'm reminded of Rossini's opinion of Wagner's operas, that he, "has good moments, but awful quarters of hours". Yes, yes, I went to university too, and I know all about Da Capo arias, but when the B section comes around for the second or third reiteration, it's time for some judicious cuts. One doesn't have to omit whole arias, just some of the repeats. After a couple of hearings, we've got the idea. This production could have come in under two and half hours and nothing, nothing would have been lost.

Much of the music was really wonderful. Hearing this unfamiliar work I was reminded of how truly brilliant a composer Handel was. So much variety with limited means. The orchestra, under Harry Bicket played beautifully bringing nuance and detail to the score. Sandra Horst's chorus was sensational, but more about them later.

Peter Sellars staging included quite a lot of lying on the stage while singing amongst a whole lot of musically unmotivated movement.  That's hardly surprising as one has to give the soloists and their stage companions something to do during the many solo arias. You can't really have them just stand (or sit) there. (This opera has only arias and choruses, no solo ensembles at all).

Some of the acting was naturalistic, some stylized. At one point, for example, Iöle put her arms around Dejanira's neck from behind making a snaking gesture with her hands (mirroring the snake mentioned in the text). Then she did it again when the music repeated. Then she did it again when the music repeated. I'm sure you get the idea.

As for the singers, Alice Coote as Dejanira was marvellous and I feel privileged to have heard and seen her again. She has a prodigious technique and acting skills to match.

Alice Coote

Soprano Lucy Crowe, as Iöle,  was also really first-rate, performing most of her first aria in an orange prison jumpsuit with a bag over her head. She mostly sang in the bel canto fashion as she would in other operatic repertoire but sometimes sang longer notes with a straight tone in the (probably erroneous) early music manner. I look forward to hearing her again, in different repertoire.

Lucy Crowe

I've been speculating as to why Counter-tenor David Daniels was cast as Lichas, as Handel chose a contralto. It might be to avoid having two mezzos in the cast. He sang well enough, his voice disappearing on the lower notes as falsetto singers' do. He was very effective acting and singing his last aria describing Hercules dying ordeal.

On the basis of his first act arias, I wasn't very impressed with Tenor Richard Croft's Hyllus. Then, in the second act, he sang a more lyric one with a higher tessitura and we got to hear his lovely Mozartean tenor. He is a very fine singer. I'm sorry now I didn't hear his Ferrando in Così fan Tutte in January. Why he spent the entire opera hobbling about on crutches was never made clear.

Ironically, Hercules is the shortest role in the opera. Bass-baritone Eric Owens was physically imposing but never produced the booming sounds I had hoped for. He also had to perform his final aria lying on his back, upstage, sometimes barking out the music, singing and dying theatrically.

Eric Owens

In some ways the COC chorus were the stars of the show. Sellars' approach to staging their pieces was unusual, to say the least. They performed choreographed gestures, in the manner of a children's choir, fitted to the text. Some of them were like Sign Language, others more like semaphore. In the contrapuntal passages they all did the movements with their own section, so sopranos, altos, tenors and basses all moved at the same time as their part, but differently from the other three. For the most part, I thought it looked silly. It didn't, however, detract from the excellent singing, so meticulously rehearsed. That being said, surely their performance of the Jealousy chorus at the end of the second act, motions and all, was the highlight of the night.

The chorus reaches skyward
Well, it's Roberto Devereux next. I wonder what surprises the COC has planned for that one?

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Karl Jenkins' Stabat Mater with a Cast of Hundreds

I went last night to hear a mixed program presented by the Mohawk College Community Choir who were joined by members of Fanshawe Chorus London (both conducted by U of T DMA candidate David Holler) and the Redeemer University College Sinfonia (led by Music Department Head Paul Thorlakson). The featured work, which was played after a short first half, was Karl Jenkins' Stabat Mater featuring mezzo-soprano Jennifer Enns-Modolo.

The concert took place at West Highland Baptist Church on the West Mountain in Hamilton. The sanctuary, while not as big as it appears from the street, must seat 1200 people in a fan-shaped arrangement of padded pews on two levels. The acoustic, probably designed with microphoned speakers and an amplified Praise Band in mind, was very dry and not well suited to choral singing.

The Mohawk College Community Choir and Fanshawe Chorus London, both sizeable amateur groups, certainly benefited from being combined. As I discovered conducting school groups, unless you're leading the Vienna Choir Boys, a bigger choir is always better.

Redeemer University College Sinfonia is a mixed group which includes community orchestra players, Redeemer Music students, some high school players and a few professional coach-instructors.

They opened with Eclogue by Gerald Finzi, a work for piano and strings. Paul Thorlakson played the solo part very nicely. It's a very understated piece and the style of this most characteristically English composer was evident throughout.  In most student and amateur orchestras, strings, first violins in particular, face the most difficulty with challenging passages and tuning. Here they played surprisingly well as, indeed, they did throughout the concert.

 Johannes Brahms' Nänie, a short piece for four-part chorus and small orchestra, followed. The unforgiving acoustic sometimes revealed some unpleasant sounds from amongst the numerous sopranos, especially on the highest notes. The tenors, the most vulnerable section in amateur groups, fared better.

After the interval, the choirs and Jennifer Enns-Modolo, accompanied by a full Romantic orchestra, including 5 percussionists, performed the Jenkins' Stabat Mater. This composer has had success, first as a jazzman, then in composing advertising themes. He turned to concert music and his mass The Armed Man was a huge classical hit in 2008 on Deutsche Gramophon no less. Here's his best known music, Palladio, adapted from a De Beers Diamond ad.

The choirs sang pretty well although the choral parts didn't seem to be very demanding. The orchestra also coped capably with the music and, again, the strings played much better than I'd expected.

Jennifer Enns-Modolo sang her solo passages beautifully, the almost unaccompanied Incantation in particular. After this quiet movement, she demonstrated a big sound, especially in lower passages, when pitted against the choirs and full orchestra.

I didn't like the piece itself very much. Jenkins' confuses repetitions, with added flourishes and rising dynamics, for variation. Several of the movements could do with considerable pruning as the same musical themes returned, again and again. And the Mother did Weep, in particular, seemed interminable. The big tutti movements, especially the concluding Paradisi Gloria, included short sections that are repeated, over and over again, louder and louder, in a symphony of bombast, all accompanied by tympani, bass drum and two floor toms banging out the beat. Our ears were grateful for the dry acoustic there!

Considering the number of performances this work is getting, lots of influential musicians must like this sort of thing. Last night's audience jumped to their feet at the work's conclusion. But, to be clear, it doesn't employ the type of repetition used in Musical Minimalism. This is something far simpler and familiar from film scores where the primary interest is on the screen. Goodness knows, the time was long past for New Music to abandon the absence of an underlying pulse, but there must be a subtler and more interesting way to achieve it than music like this.

Paradisi Gloria: Final Movement of Karl Jenkins' Stabat Mater

Friday, April 4, 2014

Michael Kamen: A very talented guy

I've been watching (on Blue-Ray) the 2001 miniseries Band of Brothers which follows Easy Company of the American 101st Airborne Division from D-Day to the end of World War II. I've been struck by the elegant way the scoring of the series was handled by composer Michael Kamen.

Kamen, who died in 2003 at the age of 55 was a major league talent who was enormously successful in many musical endeavours. While attending the New York High School of Music and Art he formed the rock/classical fusion band the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble. He later attended Julliard and was a protégé of the incomparable Leonard Bernstein.

Michael Kamen became a go-to arranger and composer of popular music. He arranged the music and conducted the National Philharmonic Orchestra on the recording of Eric Clapton's 24 Nights. He wrote Bryan Adam's Oscar-winning song Everything I do (I Do for You). I think his arrangement is largely responsible for the success of the Eurythmics hit Here Comes the Rain Again.


Kamen wrote the scores of a couple of dozen Hollywood films including the Lethal Weapon series, Mr. Holland's Opus and X-Men.

We are used to insistent, pulsing music beneath the action scenes in films. There is little of that in Band of Brothers. The battle scenes, full of the sounds of gun-shots, explosions and warriors yelling play without accompaniment. Music often plays instead during introspective scenes and in descriptive passages devoid of dialogue. With eight different directors working on the series, the decision to score the series this way must have been made jointly by the composer and executive producers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. 

Here is the main theme music for the series. If you'd like to hear more, I've also linked to a recording of the two Band of Brothers suites. The music is played by the London Metropolitan Orchestra, Michael Kamen conducting, of course.