Monday, May 21, 2018

Anna Bolena at the COC

Yesterday afternoon (May 20, 2018) we went to see Anna Bolena performed by the Canadian Opera Company at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto.

We included this opera in our package with some trepidation. As I wrote then, we weren’t very impressed with Diva Sondra Radvanovsky in Roberto Devereux and went to see Norma with the second cast to avoid hearing her again. 

Anna Bolena, however, was an opera I was anxious to see. I was a COC chorister in 1984 when Dame Joan Sutherland sang the leading role with James Morris as her Enrico and Judith Forst as Giovanna Seymour. It was a stellar cast and a memorable production. I wondered how much my memory of those performances would affect my perception of this one.

Very little, it turns out. I didn’t even remember the chorus numbers (which I had obviously memorized) although much of Anna’s music came back to me as La Radvanovsky sang it. Her voice and interpretation were so different from Sutherland’s that my remembrance of those long ago performances mattered not at all.

Sondra Radvanovsky

The Sondra Radvanovsky we heard four years ago seems to have been a different singer than the one we heard yesterday. Maybe she has since spent some time with her teacher. Maybe she was just having a bad day then.

Anna Bolena is a long and dramatic sing in the midst of a very long opera. But Radvanovsky had it well in hand. Some of her singing in the opening scene was a little under pitch especially when she wasn’t singing full out but all of this disappeared once she was properly warmed up. The coloratura was crisp and clear. Her highest notes really are almost unbelievably loud and beautiful. She’s also a very fine actor which just adds to the overall effect. The Mad Scene was very effective and full of touching details.

American Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn played and sang a wonderful Enrico. As a singer he is absolutely rock solid, fearless even. He has the bright placement of a baritone on top and the buzz of a real bass on his lower notes. He’s also a really good actor, which is critical in portraying this despicable character. He even brought that to the curtain call, gesturing to the audience to continue applauding him.

Keri Alkema, as Giovanna, matched Radvanovsky and Van Horn well in their respective duets. She’s not the actor that either of them is and seemed a little wooden compared to them on stage. She has a big, beautiful voice but has a rather wider vibrato than is ideal for in this music as it sometimes obscured the clarity of the fast moving coloratura passages.

Bruce Sledge, who has, in common with the other principals, a long, successful international career, is also not as convincing an actor as Radvanovsky or Van Horn but sang Percy’s high and demanding music nearly flawlessly.

Allyson McHardy, who sang with Radvanovsky in the aforementioned Roberto Devereux four years ago, sang the page Smeton. This role, really a contralto one, provides a really contrast to the two leading ladies who, in this performance, switched-off the high part in this duet. She portrayed convincingly a very young and foolish young man and sang his music, which has little of the pyrotechniques of the other two women’s music, very well.

Jonathan Johnson sang and acted capably as Enrico’s minion, Hervey.

It was great to see and hear my U of T Opera Division classmate Thomas Goerz as Rochefort, Anna’s brother. He sang this part very nicely and acted notably especially after being tortured in the penultimate scene.

The set is interesting, a kind of semi-cirular rotunda with two galleries high above the stage. The sections on the stage are on wheels and, by pushing them about, one is able to give a variety of looks. The costumes are colourful, period appropriate and effective.

Conductor Corrado Rovaris held the whole performance together, keeping the orchestra with the singers who sometimes need some flexibility in Bel Canto operas like this one. The chorus and orchestra were impeccable as usual. The women’s chorus in the second act, sung from galleries high above the stage, was especially beautiful.

The direction was generally adequate aside from a couple of notably cringe-worthy moments: One when Percy, for no understandable reason, throws Anna on her bed and apparently sets about raping her, mercifully interupted by Smeton, and, later, a tug-of-war between Anna and Enrico with their daughter, Elizabeth, as the rope.

Including Elizabeth, as a character in this opera is, I suppose, dramatically interesting. But Donizetti’s librettist didn’t and seems implausible that a child of three would have been present in such scenes. Incidentally, the yawning extra who played Elizabeth looked to be about 10 years old.

In any event, there a couple of performances of this show left on May 24 and 26.

If you’re interested in Bel Canto opera this production is as good as any you are likely to see anywhere in the world and you won’t have to brave Pearson Airport to see it. 

Monday, May 14, 2018

Bernstein at the HPO: Guest Column

I attended the final concert of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra ’17-’18 season on Saturday May 12th. Upon entering the hall I was excited to see the First Ontario Concert Hall stage completely filled with chairs and stands, promising a big sound. 

The program of XXth and XXIst century music was in no way avant-garde nor challenging (not like the delightful surprise of an Elliot Carter encore from Conrad Tao on April 19th!) 

The opening piece, Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo, includes the famous Hoedown. Using American folk tunes, Aaron Copland followed exactly the pre-existing Agnes De Mille choreography and omitted one section from the ballet when compiling the concert version into the form of a symphony. It is a Pops concert staple.

The centre piece of the evening was the world premiere of Ronald Royer’s Dances with Percussion for timpani, drum set and orchestra, commissioned by Ernest and Laura Porthouse and dedicated to long-time HPO timpanist Jean Norman Iadeluca to celebrate his 70th birthday. Porthouse and Iadeluca have played together for years, including 560 duo performances! Contemporary music is always an attraction for me, and I frequently wish any new piece would be played twice, to really hear it. 

This work was interesting, especially the melodic solo timpani passages, something rarely featured. Based as it is on dances, from the Baroque to the Afro-Cuban, and with clear sections, it is very approachable. The two soloists are virtuosic players; having them at the front of the stage displayed some of the technical aspects of their playing, such as Iadeluca using both feet to tune the timpani. Other things didn’t work as well, for example the nearly-inaudible bodhrán. Overall, I enjoyed it, as the composer never fell into gimmicks but respected the musicianship of both the soloists and the orchestra.

I have heard some of the Arturo Márquez Danzón series before; it is based on Mexican dances and quite approachable; the composer doesn’t stray very far from his vernacular inspiration. The No.2 has become very popular, with Gustavo Dudamel taking it on international tours; it is also featured in the web series Mozart in the Jungle.

As for the Bernstein, it is a perennial favourite for orchestras looking to bring a Pops audience in and perhaps  have them listen to more demanding repertoire. The Symphonic Dances really show that West Side Story is as much a ballet as a musical. Orchestrated by Ramin and Kostal, who had worked on the film version, they use all the capabilities of a full complement of symphonic players. I expect we’ll hear this piece a lot this year, it being the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein.

Expanded to 73 players, the orchestra’s playing was impressive and every bit as high-quality as the smaller versions have been. Lance Ouellette was concertmaster and had just enough solo passages to display his solid playing. Les Allt provided the beautiful first flute lines and Andrew Cho shone at first clarinet. The brass sections were also impressive. The strings created both expansive phrasing and energetic rhythmical playing 
under Gemma New’s usual crystal-clear and warm conducting. It seemed obvious the orchestra was in a celebratory mood!

All that dancy music had some people bopping around in their seats, which unfortunately meant that whole rows of the concert hall were vibrating, quite an annoyance.

This was an evening of light symphonic music, excellently played but no revelation. I would enjoy concerts that would feature perhaps one of these pieces in a program of deeper works. Next season’s line-up seems very interesting, as long as the HPO management doesn’t spring unannounced surprises on the audience, perhaps well-meant but very disruptive (like the pop singer at the aforementioned April 19th concert).

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Nightingale and Other Short Tales at the COC

When I returned home from yesterday afternoon’s (May 12) performance of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables I was asked what I thought. I said I needed to think about it. I’ve done that and I have learned a valuable lesson from Robert Lepage et al.

At the outset, I knew pretty much what I was going to see and hear. The show is iconic. The water in the pit, the puppets and the rest of the gimmicks have been documented in videos and elsewhere. The “other fables” are not operatic pieces: never were and were never intended to be.

I have my prejudices, though. When I go to the opera I expect to see… opera. I don’t like it when directors reset operatic pieces in the wrong period or otherwise play with conventions. Opera directors and other opera professionals are steeped in these pieces. They know them inside-out and have seen them numerous times. They're looking to do something different than they've seen before. Subscribers only see them, even the pot-boilers, once ever few years so don't need to revisit them differently. Moreover, most resettings don't serve the story, they don't add anything to the audiences' comprehension of the drama. Sometimes, as we saw recently in the COC's Abduction, they only serve the director's personal agenda.

And an opera performance isn’t a concert. I know the difference. I attend concerts, orchestral, choral and otherwise.

The musicians are on stage in this show, behind the singers, acrobats and puppeteers. The music of the first half is nine Russian Period Stravinsky pieces only one of which, The Fox, is explicitly dramatic. They are scored for various chamber groups. So it’s essentially a concert with costumed singers standing in front of a varying group of instrumentalists, supplemented by audio visuals.

The Nightingale is an actual one act opera in three scenes. The device here is that most of the singers carry an avatar, a small puppet representing themselves. From my vantage point at the front of the Fourth Ring, however beautiful those puppets are up close, they were two small for me to see clearly. I have no doubt those sitting in the front of the orchestra had a much different experience.

As I’ve come to expect in COC productions the playing, singing and acting were exemplary. There’s a huge orchestra for The Nightingale whose orchestration ranges from full-blown to very very sparse in the manner of Stravinsky’s then contemporaries Debussy and Mahler. I especially enjoyed the women of the chorus singing the Four Russian Peasant Songs with horn quartet, some of them with their feet dangling off the front of the stage in the water. Among the solo singers Owen McCausland who sang in the quartet of men in The Fox and returned as the Fisherman in The Nightingale was outstanding, as was artist-in-residence Jane Archibald as the Nightingale herself. But really, all the singing was first-rate. We also got to see and hear clarinetist Juan Olivares, in costume, play the 3 Pieces for Solo Clarinet. 

At what conclusion have I arrived? Crabby David was all negative because the first half of the show isn’t an opera. It’s a concert. But is it? There is other stuff going on all the time. Performers do a shadow show illustrating some of the stories. Acrobats move and dance with shadow puppets behind a back-lit screen. They are real, live performers aided only by the lighting. This is theatrical. It’s not opera but it’s theatre and opera, too, is supposed to be theatre.

If it had been a concert, just a concert, would I have enjoyed the music? Certainly! Excellent performances of pieces I’m unlikely to hear otherwise? What’s not to like?

So once I let go of my prejudices and just judged this unique theatrical experience for what it was, I discovered I don’t have a problem with The Nightingale and Other Short Tales. The first half is varied, interesting and engaging. Some of what was presented in that water-filled orchestra pit in the second half was not gimmicky but beautiful, entrancing and, sometimes, frighteningly chilling. The presentation is a collection of theatrical effects which enhance the music and acting, thanks to the genius of Robert Lepage.

There are three more performances, one this very afternoon (May 13/2018) and yesterday’s performance was far from sold out.