Thursday, October 22, 2015

La Traviata at the COC

We attended the Canadian Opera Company performance of Verdi’s La Traviata on Wednesday (Oct. 21) evening at the Four Season Centre in Toronto. We saw the First Cast including Russian soprano Ekaterina Siurina, American tenor Charles Castronovo, and his countryman baritone Quinn Kelsey.

It was an ultimately successful performance although hardly without its faults, vocal and dramatic.

I have a long personal history with this opera having performed bits of Alfredo in concert, sung in the COC chorus in two different productions, witnessed several other performances as an audience member, and then prepared and conducted a bowdlerized version with children (!) singing some of the solo music and choruses. For all that I never understood what an unhappy and finally cathartic story this is until seeing this production.

La Traviata literally means “the lost woman”, but might more properly be translated as “the fallen woman” and, as was made clear through this Arin Arbus directed production, Violetta Valery is doomed from the opening curtain both by her moral turpitude and her failing health. In spite of living the high life of a Parisian courtesan, she is friendless and without family. When she moves out of Paris to live, in sin, with young Alfredo Germont, his father finds them and pleads with her to shame his family no further. She agrees and leaves Alfredo without telling him why. Back in Paris, he humiliates her and himself in public and in the presence of his father. Finally, after the misunderstandings are cleared up and all is forgiven, within minutes of her lover’s return, she dies.

Ekaterina Siurina has made a career of lighter soprano roles (i.e. Susanna, Gilda) than this one. Her first act was surprisingly under-sung and even dramatically under-involved. None of her high notes rang in the hall. She was sometimes covered by the orchestra even though the conductor kept them down. The Sempre Libera must be sung with abandon and wasn’t. With a lighter voice I expected the interpolated Eb at the end, but she didn’t sing it. 

Elkaterina Siurina

At the time, I feared she simply hadn’t the voice to sing this role. It was pleasant, but not convincing. But by the end of the performance it was clear she was simply being too careful. The role of Violetta gets progressively more dramatic as the opera goes on and the most dramatic singing is near the end, three hours on. Beginning in the second act she was much better, dramatically and vocally, and assuredly communicated Violetta’s suffering. She is going to have to figure out how to bring that intensity to all three acts.

Her real life husband, tenor Charles Castronovo is more baritonal and mature sounding than most Alfredos. He simply overwhelmed Siurina, at times, in their first act duet. In later acts, their voices matched much better. This production includes the usually-cut cabaletta following a fine rendition of Dei Miei Bollenti Spiriti and he sang it beautifully except for an ill-advised final high C.

Baritone Quinn Kelsey has the right voice for Germont. He has ringing high notes and the gravitas necessary to bring off the role. He sang a lovely Di Provenza il mar and the following cabaletta which I had never heard before. He does have some inconsistency in his sound, holding some shorter notes without vibrato, then releasing and opening on the longer ones. This was less evident later in there opera, presumably when he was better warmed-up.

Smaller roles were capably handled by James Westman (Baron Douphol) who sings Germont in the other cast, Lauren Segal (Flora), Charles Sy (Gastone), Aviva Fortunata (Annina), Robert Gleadow (Dr. Grenvil).

Second Act Party Scene

Marco Guidarini conducted the big orchestra (including a cimbasso) which was was excellent as usual as was Sandra Horst’s chorus. There were some dancers in the Gypsy and Matador scene and I have no idea what relationship their performance had to the singing. There must had been a sub-text to which we were not privy.

This very traditional production is beautiful and a fine musical rendering of Verdi’s masterfully dramatic score. It convincingly conveyed the pathos of Violetta’s character and situation. I recommend it.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Vox Metropolis and Buster Keaton

in Hamilton last spring, Vox Metropolis presented their newly composed soundtrack to Sherlock Jr., while the 1924 Buster Keaton film played and a short second half of varied repertoire.

I missed that one, so I went Saturday (Oct. 4) to Maple Grove United Church in Oakville to hear another presentation of a similar program.The Hamilton based classical and crossover trio group, composed of pianist David Jones, flautist Sara Traficante and cellist Kirk Starkey, are in the midst of a Southern Ontario tour. They are all multi-instrumentalists.

Buster Keaton was an actor/director who made a series of very successful silent comedic films in the 1920s of which Sherlock Jr. is one. This movie is short on plot but filled with truly amazing stunts and effects. Keaton conceived, planned and executed all of his own stunts, many of them truly death defying. It’s amazing he survived. He fractured his neck doing one of the stunts in Sherlock Jr. and, apparently didn’t notice.

Silent films were originally accompanied by a pianist or organist who watched the screen and played music from a standard set of memorized  pieces whose mood fit the action. Sometimes music was improvised to suit the scene.

Modern film scores are composed after the movie has been cut, that is when it is nearly finished. This score is of the modern sort.

The music, by David Jones, is as ecclectic as any piece you are likely to hear. It ranges from ascending passages of diminished seventh chords, exactly as you might have heard from a theatre pianist or organist 90 years ago, to an original waltz tune, some very jazzy passages, a nod to musical modernism with some quartal harmony, all neatly stiched together into a coherent whole.

There was considerable “Mickey Mouse-ing”, the technique in which the music moves in sync with the action on the screen. Anyone who has every watched Wile E. Coyote and The Roadrunner will know what I mean. 

Jones played piano and two different organs. Starkey played cello and guitar. Traficante played flute and performed the sound effects (train whistles, for example), although she plays alto saxophone in another of their concerts. All of this added variety to the texture.

You are not usually intended to be aware of movie music. It plays in the background and supports the film. This is a little different with the performers in plain view in front of the film. I’ll admit to losing track of the music sometimes while laughing at Keaton, but that’s what is supposed to happen with film music.

The second half started with a two movement Haydn trio. The music took off at breakneck speed and I was reminded of what accomplished performers these three musicians are. Each played briliantly in the familiar idiom of the European International Style which was ubiquitous in the second half of the 18th century.

They followed with Jones’ arrangement of Over the Rainbow, more properly a jazz fantasy. What a beautiful piece it is, taking this familiar, simple song and turning it on its head through changing metres and variation!

They finished the concert with a transcription/arrangement of Chick Correa’s Spain. Jones displayed his awesome jazz credentials, Starkey and Traficante keeping pace. The latter encouraged the audience to sing back the pianist’s phrases in the last section, involving everyone in the performance.

Vox Metropolis keeps innovating in yet another genre, pop music. You can hear them in this video accompanying Yer Yard, in Tunnel to the Reservoir.

I’d encourage readers to find the trio on Facebook and get out to hear them (and watch a film) when they come to a venue near you. Bring your kids.