Saturday, 6 December 2014

A Rare and Exciting Opera-in-Concert

Theme music for The Lone Ranger:  yes, of course you know the piece I mean, with its immediately-recognizable galloping rhythm.  Okay, now forget the Lone Ranger.  What you are really hearing is a March of the Swiss Soldiers incorporated as the final section of the overture of Rossini's opera Guillaume Tell ("William Tell"). 

The opera itself, based on a play by Schiller, is a very rare bird in live performance, due to its length (4 hours plus, not counting intermissions), size of the cast, the extraordinary vocal demands of the main roles, and even politics (since it is a story which glorifies defiance of legal authority!).  So I naturally couldn't pass up the chance to hear the one and only Toronto performance in the current tour of the Teatro Regio Torino from Italy, given in concert form and incorporated into the subscription series of the Toronto Symphony.  The opera was sung in an Italian translation from the original French text.

This travelling production came to Toronto complete with all singers, orchestra, and noted Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda, already familiar to Toronto Symphony audiences (I heard him conduct a hair-raising Verdi Requiem a few years back, before I began this blog).

For obvious practical reasons, this performance trimmed the score back to a still-respectable 3 1/4 hours performing time, with 2 intermissions, and even with the early 7:00pm start the show didn't finish until 10:45pm!  Fortunately for us, it was worth every minute of the time, and the performance was a great deal finer than I expected.

You see, I honestly am not much attracted to Italian opera.  The performing conventions such as the swooping and scooping, the suspicious intonation, the sobbing tone, the major pauses on stratospheric high notes, all tend to leave me cold. 

So why did I come to this event?  I came mainly because William Tell has such an interesting reputation.  It's a serious, dramatic opera by a man usually regarded as a light comedian.  It's Rossini's last opera -- after this one in 1829 he wrote no more stage music.  It's huge.  It's said to have formed an inspiration for such later composers as Berlioz and Wagner (both favourites of mine).

Trying to give a blow-by-blow account of this performance would be unnecessarily tiring for you, my faithful readers, and a good deal more than that for me!  But I can certainly affirm that this company from Italy is an operatic ensemble of uncommon quality and depth.  With just one exception, the singers all had very strong, pure voices.  Spot-on intonation was the rule rather than the exception.  Diction was clean so that, even without an Italian text in front of me, I was able to catch many of the words from both soloists and chorus.

The one singer in the company likely to be familiar to North American audiences was Angela Meade, who has appeared in several Metropolitan Opera productions including their live-to-air cinecast of Verdi's Falstaff.  The others, all from Italian or Spanish training, amply illustrated the quality that can be achieved when governments -- national, regional, and local -- give generous support to the arts! 

Sadly, Meade was also the weak link in the cast.  Obviously, this is not a case of ability when she has multiple Met engagements already on her resume!  The real problem is that the part of the romantic heroine Matilde is a thorough mix of bel canto acrobatics with the heavier spinto style.  Meade's voice is definitely a spinto soprano, with the hint of mezzo-soprano coloration that is often found in  such voices, and she got into difficulties with the rapid bel canto passagework.  This was especially noticeable in her first big romantic duet with Arnoldo (Enea Scala -- now, there's a name for an opera singer!).  After Meade negotiated the various leaps with some uncertainty of which note she was meant to land on at each jump, Scala showed her up by repeating the exact same vocal line in the next verse with stunning accuracy and precision.

Proof of this is the fact that in the later scenes, when slower, more emotional singing was required, Meade really shone as she dug into the kind of music which truly suits her powerful voice.  As for Scala, his part really reaches its dramatic heights in the 3rd and 4th acts, and he was rightly greeted with loud applause and shouts of "Bravo!' for the power of his singing in those scenes.

Baritone Luca Salsi, in the title role, displayed equal precision and significant depth of emotion.  In a staged production, this role would be a significant challenge, requiring the singer to portray a man driving his countrymen to revolt for their freedom while going through emotional hell -- but restraining his feelings to prevent him from ruining his own life and the lives of his family.  Even in this concert performance, Salsi amply captured all the emotional facets of this complex hero.

Also noteworthy was soprano Marina Bucciarelli as Tell's son, Jemmy (the one who has the apple shot off his head).  This is a role of noteworthy difficulty, with some really impressive outer-space notes, and yet it was originally written for a boy soprano -- who must have been a real wonder of the age, or of any age for that matter!  Bucciarelli sang with force and precision, and the scene where she stiffened Tell's resolve to go ahead and shoot the apple was a dramatic highlight of the evening.

The only mezzo-soprano role in the cast is that of Tell's wife, Edwige, and Anna Maria Chiuri did the part full justice.  She was especially moving in the trio with Jemmy and Matilde in the final act.

Beyond that it would be unfair to try to find the right things to say about all the other seven named parts.  All were skilled singers and gave exemplary performances of their roles.

Not the least of the attractions was the equally-precise and powerful singing of the chorus, and the intensely committed playing of the orchestra.  Not for nothing did these two bodies get some of the loudest cheers during the prolonged ovations at the end of each of the four acts.  As of course did Maestro Noseda, who deserves a world of credit for the work that went into organizing this 4-city tour and then preparing and rehearsing such a difficult, complex performance.

I might never go to hear William Tell again -- after all, it is still an Italian opera! -- but I am certainly glad I took the time to go to this concert performance and hear the culmination of Rossini's operatic career once!

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Wow. Just... Wow!

Every once in a while there comes a performance that is so involving, so breathtaking, so demanding and so rewarding on every imaginable level that critical commentary becomes almost superfluous.

I'm referring to the National Ballet's restaging of John Neumeier's full-length ballet Nijinsky, which they previously danced in March of 2013.  Alas, I missed it on that occasion so Saturday was my first encounter.  I was so entranced and captivated, in the most literal sense of the words, that I promptly bought another ticket for the closing show Sunday afternoon.

In the theatre world there is a whole long line of plays, famous and not-so-famous, about actors putting on plays.  The parallel is certainly nowhere near as common in the dance world, and this is the first ballet I ever recall encountering which is about the subject of dance and dancers in any way.

Neumeier is famous for working a lot of levels of thought into his choreography.  Sometimes, as in the other full-length Neumeier work in the National's repertoire (The Seagull, after Chekhov) the results can be difficult to grasp because the concepts are so cerebral.

Nijinsky is in another league altogether, a stunning example of dance drama where the drama is at least two-thirds below the surface.  This is not a narrative ballet about the life of Vaclav Nijinsky.  It's more of a gutsy emotional exploration of his personal relationships and his dance career, viewed through the wildly distorted lens of his rapidly collapsing sanity.

It's a key part of the work that there are a number of alternate Nijinskys appearing from time to time.  Several dancers appear in turn as some of his most famous characters including the Gold Slave from Scheherazade, the Spirit from Le Spectre de la Rose, the Harlequin from Carnaval, and Petrushka from the eponymous ballet.  There are also a couple of "shadows" who follow him in some sequences, either imitating his movements or anticipating them. 

Around him appear the key figures in his life: his parents, his elder brother (who descended into madness first), his sister Bronislava, his wife Romola, and Serge Diaghilev -- the dominating and domineering impresario/mentor/lover/Svengali figure of Nijinsky's life and career.

Actually, Nijinsky is almost two separate ballets.  The first act opens on a faithful recreation of the ballroom of the Suvretta House Hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland.  It was in this room that Nijinsky danced his final public performance on January 19, 1919.  A pianist on stage actually begins to play before the audience are seated, and accompanies the first two segments with a Chopin prelude and Schumann's Carnival Jest in Vienna.  Almost as soon as he begins to dance, the ballroom dissolves as we enter Nijinsky's mind and memories.  The bulk of the first act, swirling and colourful, explores the outward side (or perhaps it's the first stage) of his mental disintegration in the context of his famous roles.  In it we see the key moments -- his dancing with Karsavina, his first sight of Diaghilev (his erstwhile protector and patron) walking with the young and beautiful Leonid Massine on his arm, and his first encounter with Romola on the ship taking him to South America for a tour -- without Diaghilev.  The music, apart from one movement of a viola sonata by Shostakovich, consists of three of the four movements of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade.  The choreography follows the emotional arc of this lushly romantic music faithfully, with the massive climax of the final movement underlining the moment when Nijinsky snaps.  It's such a heart-rending scene that I doubt I will ever hear Scheherazade again in quite the same way.

Act II is all inward, the final stages of Nijinsky's descent, a monochromatic nightmare of endlessly repeated movements.  Here Nijinsky comes face to face with the unfaithfulness of Romola.  In what seems a choreographic vision of a delirium, he repeatedly flings aside his "shadow", a duet of extreme vehemence and violent motion.  The "shadow" in this scene is danced by the same dancer who performed the role of his brother.  The "outward" ballet in this act is the premiere of The Rite of Spring, an infamous cause of scandal in Paris which Nijinsky choreographed.  The corps de ballet in this scene appears not to be involved in the performance, but the dance-of-death of the Sacrificial Victim is unmistakable.  Tellingly, she is portrayed by his sister.  At the end, back in the ballroom, Nijinsky completes his descent into madness with the incredibly contorted and brutal dance of War, the last piece he ever performed.

To clarify, the choreography is all Neumeier, although he makes liberal use of authentic positions which are known from photographs and from the notes and reviews of Nijinsky's work.

All of this second act is set to a complete performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11 "The Year 1905".  Overtly about the St. Petersburg Massacre of that year, the symphony is at least as likely to be about the Stalinist terror.  It contains long stretches of nearly immobile, icy cold music which absolutely suit the nightmare visions on stage.  The final eruption of energy is matched exactly by the lengthy coda of the final movement, which is entitled The Tocsin ("alarm bell").  Outwardly the most un-dance-like music you could imagine, but such a perfect fit to Neumeier's astonishing vision that no other music is imaginable in its place.  This massive score, by the way, was played with immense passion and power by the National Ballet Orchestra, the only full-time ballet orchestra in Canada, and a top-notch ensemble by any standard.  Kudos to guest conductor Ormsby Wilkins for leading the orchestra throughout this powerful programme of music.

Apart from the hotel set, the ballet is performed in a box of black curtains, but with the striking addition of a bright white floor.  This was an inspired touch, as it not only highlighted the power of the choreography but also avoided the usual difficulty of the box of blacks in which the curtains combined with a dark floor swallow all the light you can throw on them, still leaving the stage looking dark and dim.

Now, the performers.  Since I took in the piece twice, I got to see two different performers in almost all the key roles.  Sonia Rodriguez and Xiao Nan Yu alternated as Romola, and both were magnificent in a very difficult role.  Chelsy Meiss and Jenna Savella alternated as Bronislava, Nijinsky's sister, and herself a fine dancer.  Both also appeared to great effect as the young woman in Jeux and as the Chosen Virgin in The Rite of Spring.  Savella generated an extra edge of sheer madness in that sequence which was especially gripping.  Piotr Stanczyk and Evan McKie were both strong as Diaghilev, with McKie finding just that little bit more of the man icily absorbed in his own wonderful self.  Elena Lobsanova and Sonia Rodriguez were both excellent in multiple appearances as Tamara Karsavina, the leading dancer who partnered Nijinsky in many of his most famous roles.

Among the alternate Nijinskys, there were some true standout performances.  Keiichi Hirano, always known for his high leaps, did spectacular work as both the Gold Slave and the Faun.  Naoya Ebe was especially good as the Spirit of the Rose.  And Jonathan Renna, in both performances, was outstanding as Petruschka, exactly capturing the mechanically entrapped feeling of the fairground puppet dancing on strings.

At the Saturday matinee, Nijinsky himself (the main Nijinsky, that is) was danced by Skylar Campbell.  On Sunday the role was given to Guillaume Cote.  Both did excellent work.  Both these dancers captured the lightning-fast changes of mood and emotion required, and both reached the requisite peak of frantic activity in the final War sequence.  I think Cote has an advantage simply by virtue of being older and having more years of life experience to draw on when creating such a vastly complex character.  But in the end, I found Campbell less convincing for a rather unfair reason.  He just looks too young -- far younger than he actually is.  His boyish face and head of wildly curling hair make him look almost like a pre-teenager, and his frustration at the snapping point in Act I had a look of schoolboy petulance about it.  Perhaps the only solution to this would be a carefully fitted wig and heavier makeup to age him.  And it's unfortunate because he undoubtedly gave his all and deserved every bit of applause he got.

Speaking of giving it your all: that is what I sensed all the dancers were doing on Sunday, that being the final performance of the run.  For whatever reason, the whole show seemed to fly at a higher energy level, and veer closer to the edge at times, almost like a flirtation with the real fate of Nijinsky.  Certainly very rewarding for the audience!  But that is true of the entire work.  Rest assured, here is one full-length modern ballet which survives repetition extremely well, an artwork of stature that deserves to be revived regularly. 

Friday, 21 November 2014

A Pair of Fifths

Last season, the Toronto Symphony under guest conductor Thomas Dausgaard gave a memorable performance of Nielsen's Symphony # 3 in harness with Beethoven's Violin Concerto.  I gave this concert a two-thumbs-up review (you can read it here: A Repertory Staple and a Canadian Rarity ).  At this program there was also a printed notice that the series of Beethoven and Nielsen would continue this year, with the same conductor and with pianist Jan Lisiecki playing three of the five Beethoven piano concertos.

So last night I attended the concert which paired the Symphony # 5 of Nielsen with the Piano Concerto # 5 ("Emperor") of Beethoven.  All my remarks last year about the appropriate relationship between these two composers still hold true today.  And the partnership of Dausgaard with the TSO was still memorable in this most unusual symphony.  Dausgaard and Lisiecki, as expected, struck sparks with Beethoven left, right, and centre.

Since the Nielsen symphony is so little-known here, I want to direct you to my blog post about that work before going on to discuss the performance:  A Symphony Like No Other.
The concert opened very appropriately with the overture to Don Giovanni by Mozart.  This was a big-orchestra performance (and none the worse for that), and very much more than just an also-ran in the evening as a whole.  The opening "statue music" is one of the most Romantic and powerful things Mozart ever wrote, which perfectly justified its placing in this program.  Dausgaard and the orchestra played it with appropriately hair-raising intensity, and then followed with a slightly hectic but still tightly integrated reading of the jovial allegro.  The overture normally ends on a dominant chord, upon which the curtain rises and the music flows straight away into the opening aria of the opera.  For this concert, the alternative "tailored" concert ending was used.

Next we got the Beethoven concerto.  This, of course, is a true repertoire "standard", and one where many music lovers know and love the sound at least of every note in the score.  But still, there's nothing quite like a live performance to wake you up to features of music that you might not hear if you weren't really concentrating.

(Yes, I admit it -- I do listen to classical music as a background to other activities.  Mea culpa....)

What struck me was that the long first movement, so grand and dramatic, is mainly grand and dramatic for the orchestra.  A very large percentage of the pianist's contribution is quieter, more meditative, occasionally even dreamlike.  I think maybe my perceptions were clouded by the overwhelming memory of the dramatic opening cadenza-introduction -- but it proves to be very much the exception to the rule.  I've had occasion to write about the impressive musicianship of Jan Lisiecki before, so I won't trouble to say it all again.  But for me, one moment on the piano stood out -- the famous passage of parallel rising and falling octave scales in the middle of the development.  It's marked to be loud, and some pianists make that an excuse to become thunderous.  But this is not Rachmaninoff, not even Brahms, and if the scales are too loud the fascinating bassoon counter-melody will be lost.  Lisiecki began loudly, but scaled his tone back after the first few notes and the bassoon line came through loud and clear.  I also liked the way the coda was built very naturally and organically by conductor and soloist, the crescendo sounding not the least bit "interpreted" but completely integral.

The lyrical slow movement too was simply beautiful, as it must be because like so many of Beethoven's slow movements, the music is beautifully simple.  The transition to the finale without break sounded exactly like the performers were holding their collective breath (and I'm sure they do!) but when the lightning stroke shot out and the rondo began, it was a bit too fast for comfort.  It should be rapid, energetic, lively and life enhancing -- but not hectic, and there were several times when it felt like a hectic scramble to the finish line.  Worse, there were a few spots where it sounded like the soloist and orchestra were getting away from each other in the race.  It wasn't blatantly obvious, it certainly didn't fall apart, but it did take a bit of the shine off the beauty of the two earlier movements.

But cheers all around were certainly well merited, and Lisiecki's playing of a Chopin waltz as encore was lovely, beautifully light and airy, and letting the acoustics of the hall do the work of carrying the sound outwards.

The Nielsen Fifth Symphony was magnificent.  Right from the get-go, it was obvious that the orchestra had the work firmly in their sights.  Dausgaard is a rather "minimalist" conductor whose beat sometimes seems to stop altogether, but he plainly had no trouble keeping the orchestra together in the most wayward passages.  The noble melody that arises during the first movement and leads to a triumphant climax was marked by magnificent horn playing.  The snare drummer gave the wildest, most anarchic account I've ever heard of the famous improvisation ("as if at all costs he wants to stop the progress of the orchestra" as Nielsen said), with positively hair-raising results.  The woodwinds were screaming as wildly as in any of the most extreme passages in Mahler, giving a true feeling of desperation to the struggles of the aspiring melody.  The offstage drumming at the end began loudly but faded slowly right down to the edge of audibility with magnificent control.

The second movement sounds rather confused at the opening (by the composer's intention), but the composer's favourite triple-time asserted itself clearly soon enough.  Dausgaard led the orchestra in a magnificent account of the fiendish fugue, with the different continuation after each entry of the fugue subject clearly delineated.  The second, slower fugue is played by strings with sordines, and sounded as otherworldly and remote as I have ever heard in recordings.  The final triumph was beautifully built up and the timpani rallentando at the end perfectly controlled.  Definitely a performance to remember!

Saturday, 15 November 2014

A Gripping Dance Melodrama

When I was young, I was given a record that contained a piece of music which I loved at first hearing.  It was a beautiful, arching melody with a kind of deep sadness built right into every note.  The name of the piece was "Elegie" which conveyed nothing to me at the time.

The other night I saw that flowing, lyrical theme given ideal expression in movement during the first act of Kenneth MacMillan's ballet Manon, staged by the National Ballet of Canada.  For the doomed love of Manon and Des Grieux there could hardly be a better musical equivalent -- romantic passion mingled with a foreshadowing of loss. 

Manon is actually a fascinating work, to me, because it sits right at the junction point between the classical and modern dance worlds, and the choreographic arc of the piece represents the efforts of its creator to bring ballet out of its tight little classical mould and grow it into a broader language of expressive movement.

I put it that way because the first scenes of Manon are so close to the classical ballet tradition in movement, in the composition of stage pictures, in the use of mime as an aid to story telling.  The first great pas de deux of the lovers is set to that gorgeous Elegie, and paints a romantic vision of ideal love in almost purely classical terms.

But as the ballet progresses, the modern side of MacMillan's style comes more and more to the forefront.  Leads and corps de ballet alike show increasingly edgy, even spiky, movement, with the elegance and grace of the first scenes receding into the background.  By the time the final scenes arrive, with the death of Manon in the arms of Des Grieux in a swamp in Louisiana, the language is all modern -- the dance expressing a primal scream of desperation, lost hope, and heartbreak.

This sweeping transformation, and the story it helps to tell, are all set to music by Jules Massenet, who in fact composed an operatic setting of the same story by the same title, Manon.  As with Cranko's Onegin, set to a score by Tchaikovsky, here we get a score comprised of works by the same composer as the opera without using any of the themes from the opera. 

The story of Manon looks head-on at the predatory world of wealthy men and their elegant courtesans, with each one seeking to manipulate the situation for all they can get out of it.  In this world, power relationships are all that matter, and money is power -- but so is sex.  Manon is being tossed casually into this world by her family, represented by her brother, Lescaut -- presumably because she is no longer a virgin and therefore not marriageable.  But fate throws her into the path of Des Grieux, a young student, and they fall passionately in love.  The wealthy Monsieur Guillot de Morfontaine desires Manon, and she accedes to her brother's scheme to use Manon as the bait to bilk the wealthy man of his money.  Lescaut is killed in a scuffle, Manon arrested and sent to Louisiana (along with Des Grieux) because she is a prostitute.  The Gaoler (jailer) who violates Manon is killed by Des Grieux, they flee together into the wilderness, and there she dies in his arms.

Hardly the most likable characters, are they?  And yet, the combination of music and dance together draws us into the story, until we feel sorry even for Lescaut, and certainly for the two lovers. 

In the performance I saw, Manon was danced by Greta Hodgkinson -- an ideal choice for this role, as much at home in the classical lyricism of Act I as in the seductive come-hither of Act II or the vehemence and violence of Act III.  Her partner as Des Grieux was guest artist Marcelo Gomes.  The final pas de deux ending in Manon's death was a breathtaking display of virtuoso movement combined with powerful acting and expression in the face from both of these artists.

Her brother, Lescaut, was portrayed with real panache by Jack Bertinshaw.  His role provides one of the few moments of comic relief in the entire piece.  In Act II, Lescaut becomes seriously drunk during a party at the Hotel Particulier operated by Madame (a brothel, of course, but a very high-class one).  His drunken dance has some very tricky choreography, rendered that much more difficult by the need for the dancer to seem on the very edge of falling over.  Indeed, he actually does fall over a few times.  And, unless I am very much mistaken, near the beginning of this dance I saw him give the only belch that I am aware of being choreographed into any ballet I have attended!  Bertinshaw made it all very amusing, and perfectly let the audience's guard down in preparation for the ensuing fight scene in which Lescaut gets shot.

There's a sizable role for one courtesan, danced by Tanya Howard with plenty of flash and flair.  This party scene also includes a very amusing pas de deux for two of Madame's other courtesans, locked in a vehement battle for the front row, place of honour, maximum attention from all present.  This little comic duet, by the way, leads to one serious miscalculation in the choreography.  The battle continues into a full-fledged fight upstage, which has to be broken up.  Since the main action is being played downstage at the same time, I found that the fight pulled my focus right away from what the principal characters were doing.  Having both going on at the same time was just too much of a good thing.  Madame herself was very effectively played by Stephanie Hutchison.  In a massively piled silver-blonde wig and sweeping black gown, Hutchison managed to project perfectly the veneer of sweeping aristocratic dignity which never completely concealed the wily gold-digger underneath it.

In the final act, McGee Maddox gave a powerful performance in his few minutes onstage as the Gaoler, face and bearing alike projecting the brutality of the man, a brutality shown to the ultimate degree during his scene with Manon.

No question about it, Manon is not always an easy or pleasant ballet to watch, but for me it was certainly gripping.  I was particularly intrigued by the apparent summary of classic-to-modern transition contained within the evolving choreography of the work, from Act I to Act III.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

"The Dream" Is Alive!

I've been waiting for this week's Toronto Symphony concert for half a lifetime -- literally!

The last time the TSO performed Elgar's magnificent masterpiece, The Dream of Gerontius was in 1985 in Sir Andrew Davis' final season as the orchestra's music director.  They had performed it the previous decade in his first season as music director.  I was there on both occasions, and was so taken with the first performance in the 1970s that I rushed out to the lobby at intermission and bought a second ticket for 2 nights later!

If you are not familiar with this masterpiece (and it is most certainly no less than that) you can read about it here on my rare classical music blog:  Visions and Dreams

Well, this year, I am going twice again, but it's a little more "planned".  I got the motivation when the TSO put up a special half-price offer which included this program.  So I had tickets for both Thursday and Saturday nights.

Interesting side note: the concert was originally to feature Ben Heppner in the large title role, but he retired from singing suddenly in the spring.  His replacement is an Australian tenor named Stuart Skelton.  By an interesting coincidence, a brand-new recording of Gerontius featuring Skelton and conducted by Sir Andrew Davis has just been released in the last few weeks on Chandos Records.  As Davis is now regarded as one of the greatest living interpreters of Elgar's music, this was a do-not-miss for me and I was listening to it in the car on the way into Toronto!  However, this week's performance is under the direction of current TSO music director, Peter Oundjian.

This work is such a rarity in North America that it's almost shocking by comparison to see how many performances and how many recordings it receives in the U.K., its home turf.  Here in Toronto, sadly, there were many seats left vacant.  Years ago, when my father sat on committees with members of the Symphony board, I recall him telling me that many TSO subscribers expressed unwillingness to go to any concert that involved singing.

Definitely it's their loss, because Elgar's orchestra does far more than just accompany the singers!  Indeed, Elgar developed and adapted Wagner's leitmotiv theory thoroughly into his musical language and the result is a something of a cross between a choral symphony and a concert opera -- although not precisely like either of those concepts.  The point here is that the orchestra has a strong independent role of its own to play, and isn't just trailing behind choir and soloists on the leash. 

The lengthy, free-form orchestral prelude introduces a number of significant motives which will recur in varying guises throughout the work.  It's mainly soft music (although it does rise to one resplendent climax) and there's a great deal of subtle detail in the sophisticated orchestration.  Conductor Peter Oundjian, here and throughout the evening, led the music on with a firm grasp of its nature but without ever rushing or dragging.  The muted strings in particular had a fine sheen that set the standard for the performance as a whole.  And this quality of playing continued throughout.

Right from his first notes, it was plain that tenor Stuart Skelton had the measure of the role of Gerontius in full.  He encompassed the part's wide vocal and emotional range with no apparent sense of strain, with always clear diction, and with an obvious commitment to the meaning of the text.  The lion's share of Part One belongs to Gerontius, and Skelton gave a near-definitive performance of this lengthy and gripping death scene.  Nor did he lose ground by any means in Part Two, from his quiet questioning of the Angel to his heart-stricken cry of "Take me away, and in the lowest deeps there let me be" -- to mention only two highlights.

The Angel was sung by mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers, a singer with long experience of the score.  She too has recorded the work, under conductor Vernon Handley.  It's interesting that in the text Gerontius says "I will address him" (my emphasis) and yet all devotees of this music have become so used to the woman's voice in the role that we think of the Angel as "her"!  As a result, it seems quite natural that the part should be sung in a consoling , caring manner, with more than a touch of the maternal about it.  These characteristics Wyn-Rogers achieved in full, while singing with clarity and maintaining searing accuracy in the numerous high leaps dotted throughout her part.  As with Skelton's Gerontius, this was a performance to treasure.

Bass John Relyea has the shortest, but in some ways the nastiest, job of any of the soloists.  His two arias, as the Priest in Part One, and as the Angel of the Agony in Part Two, lie in very different vocal ranges and any singer tackling both roles almost inevitably has trouble with one.  I sensed that Relyea was strained and uncomfortable as the Priest.  It didn't help matters that conductor Oundjian had seen fit to put him in the organ loft, above the choir, thereby forcing him to try to shout down both choir and orchestra in order to be heard.  The difference was clear in Part Two when he joined the other soloists at the front of the stage.  It was obvious that he is indeed a basso, the appropriate range for the Angel of the Agony, and his singing was more comfortable for that reason as well as for not having to force the tone to be heard.  This solo is a tricky piece, full of chromatic chords and key shifts, and Relyea gave it with the perfect mix of subtlety and power in turn.

The Amadeus Choir and Elmer Iseler Singers, as ever, sang with magnificent firm tone and great interpretive insight.  Sadly, this ensemble simply is not big enough for the late Romantic orchestra plus organ that Elgar used.  Lacking another 40 or so voices, the situation might have been improved by arranging the choir in three rows in the centre of the choir loft, concentrating the sound more, instead of spreading them thinly in two rows right around the entire length of the loft.  In the louder passages they could not always be heard clearly over the orchestra (the Demons' Chorus was a particular casualty), although their singing in many of the soft passages was quiet and magical.  Thankfully, in the final climax of the hymn "Praise to the Holiest", the choir was clearly audible along with the orchestra.  This passage, which keeps accelerating faster and faster and finally bursts into 1-beat-to-the-bar while continuing to gain speed, was beautifully controlled and shaped by Maestro Oundjian.

I have one other quibble.  I would have liked to see the tenor given a solo bow at the end.  For the sheer scale and difficulty of the part, I have trouble finding any comparison in the concert repertoire except for the Evangelist roles in the Bach Passions, and I certainly feel that any tenor who tackles Gerontius is entitled to this specific recognition.

With this outstanding team of singers and players, Peter Oundjian has scored a notable success in his presentation of The Dream of Gerontius.   I look forward to hearing it again on Saturday!

Footnote:  Saturday Night's Performance

First, there was a much fuller house and a more responsive audience.  Good!

Second, this audience heeded Maestro Oundjian's upraised hand bidding them to keep silence for a few moments at the end of each part before applauding.  Thursday night, we had an enthusiastic applause-leader who wanted everyone in the hall to know that he or she knew exactly when the piece was over.  Glad the applause-leader didn't make a return date the same way as I did.

Third, I was even more impressed than on Thursday with the subtle shifts of tempo and tone built into almost every page of the score.  Peter Oundjian deserves a world of credit for holding this lengthy and complex work together while still allowing it necessary room to flex and breathe.

Fourth, the choir was much more audible during the ferocious, furious Demons' Chorus this time -- a major and most necessary improvement.

And finally, at the end of the concert, Maestro Oundjian called each of the soloists to the stage individually to take a bow.  Last came tenor Stuart Skelton, and he was rightly and properly greeted with a storm of cheering from all parts of the hall.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Magic Shadows

Toronto's Opera Atelier has become world-renowned for the lavish period productions of operas of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which the company stages.  Never before, though, has Opera Atelier produced an opera by Handel.  There was a staging a few years back of Acis and Galatea, but that is an English-language "masque", a different and much lighter form of entertainment than the traditional Italian opera seria which was Handel's specialty.

The new production of Alcina has remedied that lack in spades.  Purists may object that the opera has been somewhat cut, but the cuts in no way marred the main line of what is still a crowded plot.  Certainly all the dances (the best-known music of the opera) and the main arias were left intact.

This piece about a sorceress and her illusory realm of beauty created out of what is in reality a desert demands scenic spectacle.  Opera Atelier's resident set designer, Gerard Gauci, has always delivered that quality in full measure.  But this time he has outdone himself, and in a very modern way that -- surprisingly -- works well with the concept of a "period" performance.

Like all Handel operas, Alcina opens with a lengthy overture in several movements.  In Handel's day, the patrons took advantage of the overture to continue flirting with attractive neighbours in the audience, send notes and gifts to the neighbouring boxes, chatter about the latest gossip around town and the like.  Gauci took a different tack.  The curtain rose on the bare stage of the Elgin Theatre, with the dancers of Atelier Ballet stretching and warming up on the sides.  As the dance moved into the stage, and the sumptuously-costumed Alcina herself entered the magic kingdom gradually rose and came into view around them.

With the aid of modern video technology directed by Ben Shirinian, Gauci was able to depict the way that Alcina's magic realm is actually composed of the souls of her dead lovers, transformed into rocks, trees, buildings, waterfalls, and mountains.  The resulting effect drew a noticeable gasp from the audience the first time it appeared, and continued adding depth and dimension to the subsequent scenes of the show.

This was a brave leap forward, and for me it definitely worked!

There are six singing principals in the cast, and all six were excellently matched to their roles.  Singing Handel requires a definite lightness and agility to negotiate the lengthy runs and complex ornaments, and it's not something that all opera singers can or should do!  All six, too, are fine actors as well as singers.  Thankfully, the farcical overacting which sometimes mars Opera Atelier productions was kept under control this time.

Start with the two women who are required to play men's roles.  Ruggiero, a Crusader knight, is portrayed by Allyson McHardy (mezzo-soprano) with verve and aplomb.  Her voice, solid and steady at all times, well suited the character (which was originally sung in the 1700s by a castrato!).

Wallis Giunta sang the role of Ruggiero's lady love, Bradamante.  She arrives in Alcina's magic kingdom disguised as her own brother, searching for Ruggiero.  She also is a mezzo-soprano, but her voice has quite a distinctive quality different from McHardy, so the two contrasted well in their duets.

Morgana, the companion sorceress to Alcina, was sung by soprano Mireille Asselin.  In the libretto, she comes across as flighty, flirtatious, and self-centred.  Asselin captured that quality perfectly in both her singing and her acting.  Her constant attempts to seduce the lovely "man" Bradamante become a little tedious, and perhaps her approaches could have been staged to build up more slowly over the course of the piece.

Bass-baritone Olivier LaQuerre did fine work as Bradamante's companion, Melisso. 

Tenor Krešimir Špicer made a really good character out of Morgana's lover, Oronte.  This is the closest thing the opera possesses to a genuinely comic character.  Špicer made the most of the comedy in his acting, while vocally capturing the other mixture of emotions.

I've left the title character for last because, for me, Meghan Lindsay (soprano) as Alcina was the star of the show.  She has some of the longest and most challenging arias, and has to display the largest range of emotions of any of the characters.  Handel's particular gift, as a composer of opera seria, was his uncanny ability to portray the emotional life of his characters in his music, and with the sorceress Alcina he succeeded beyond all measure.  Alcina, you would expect, would be the villain of the piece.  But Handel and Lindsay have made her such a sympathetic character that in the end you regret her downfall and death.

When Alcina dies her magical illusory kingdom also vanishes.  The production achieved this result by the simple means of having the set disassemble to return us to the bare stage of the opening, with the lifeless body of Alcina appearing on the floor in the centre of the final dance.

Atelier Ballet's dancers are a key component of every Opera Atelier production.  Here, the dancing was kept simple and graceful for the most part.  There are several orchestral dances in the score, and dancers also appeared during the choruses and (sparingly) in some of the arias.  The men had the tougher assignments here, having to depict the tortured, imprisoned souls of Alcina's lovers both live and on the filmed video projections.  Then, with a rapid switch, they had to resume the role of onstage partners for the ladies of the ballet.

There are only three choruses in this opera, but the Tafelmusik Choir was excellent as always.  Likewise the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, although it seems a shame to reduce them to merely a footnote at the end of a review.  Fortunately, more can be said.  Several of the orchestra members moved to different locations at key moments.  Two arias were highlighted by the cellist (in one) and the violinist (in the other) descending from the stage flies on a large platform with an ornamental harpsichord!  A theorbo player likewise appeared in one of the stage-side boxes, as did the two horn players who take part only in Ruggiero's martial aria in the last act.

The entire performance, as always, rested securely upon the conducting of David Fallis.

All in all, Opera Atelier with Alcina have presented one of their finest efforts, a performance in which all aspects of singing, acting, dance, and staging have combined together to terrific effect.  It's a long show (3 hours) but never once did I feel the urge to glance at my watch!

Performances continue until November 1, so if you have a chance you should catch this one!

Sunday, 12 October 2014

An Outrageous Evening of Farce

This post finds me in London, England, attending a play on the West End for the first time in about 15 years!  This production is on stage now at the Duchess Theatre.

The Play That Goes Wrong
by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Burke and Henry Shields
Staged by Mischief Theatre Company

This script is a collective piece written by 3 of the 8 cast members.  If you are familiar with Michael Frayn's now-classic farce Noises Off you will have a bit of an idea of the tone of this show.  Transfer the play from professional to community theatre, remake it into a terrible murder mystery, toss in every stereotype of bad "church-basement" acting and staging that you can imagine, push the resulting mix of disaster and mayhem far past the bounds of probability, and you've got the idea.  The comparison to Noises Off is bound to occur to anyone familiar with that play.  This one begins at the stage of disintegration which is reached in the third act of Noises Off, and continues downhill from there.

Is it great theatre?  No, but it is great fun if you can take off your critic's hat long enough to start laughing.  I certainly could!  And I did enjoy the evening a great deal!

The show begins even before the show begins, so to speak.  As we were enjoying a drink in the bar, two cast members who portray the stage crew were roaming around, looking for a dog that was supposed to appear in the show and had escaped.  The hunt for the missing dog also continued during the intermission.  As well, the stage crew invited a member of the audience up on stage to help hold the mantel in place while it was being fixed.  All this, remember, even before the "official" curtain time was reached!  At 7:00 the "director" appears and gives a horrible parody of a community theatre director's welcome speech.

The ensuing performance is so awful that it becomes funny.  There's nothing more fascinating than watching a company of skilled professionals doing as badly as possible what they have trained themselves for years to do well.  Everyone in the company has to strike ridiculously "theatrical" poses, mispronounce words, mug shamelessly for laughs, look for friends out front, and so on.  The "stage manager", sitting on a steel catwalk up on the wall to the right of the auditorium, gets caught texting and misses a cue.  The "director" actually appears as a character, and proves to be just as inept on stage as his actors.  Set pieces, drop, fall, jam, and even collapse.

The most derivative part of the script is the moment when the crew girl has to go on for the female lead, and then another accident happens and the stage manager has to go on for the crew girl.  What happens then veers wildly back into more manic and original territory.

The skill with which the 8 performers and their real director navigate the treacherous hazards of this slapstick show is certainly admirable!

What we don't see or hear anything of is the private lives of the hopelessly inept people portraying these cardboard characters.  In Noises Off the show is really about the characters of the actors, not of the parts they are playing in the hopelessly bad farce Nothing On.  I think the biggest weakness of The Play That Goes Wrong lies in the fact that this script simply shows you the performance, start to finish, of The Murder at Haversham Manor.  The crucial "middle layer", so to speak, the lives of the members of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, is utterly omitted from the script.  Result: the entire show becomes simply a gigantic caricature, and thus is simply two-dimensional.

Energetic?  Absolutely.  Funny?  Definitely -- but just once.  Staying power?  Frankly, I doubt it.  I will be very surprised if this show ever achieves the world-wide classic status which Noises Off rightly enjoys.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Beethoven Nine at Roy Thomson Hall

This marks the third time since I began this blog that I have reported on a performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, the famous "Choral" Symphony.  Along the way I had to miss two more, one last year at Roy Thomson Hall and one this summer at the Festival of the Sound.  It says much for the power and universal appeal of this work that, even after the contributions of Berlioz, Liszt, Mahler, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Havergal Brian, and others, to the literature of symphony with chorus, this work is still known everywhere as the "Choral" Symphony.  

If you want to read and make comparisons, another concert review can be found here:

A Fine Nine

And then there's this review of my favourite DVD version of a truly historic live concert:

Concert For New Year's Eve -- Sort Of

It's not the season opener for the orchestra, but it is my first TSO concert of the season.  I have always been a fan of major works for orchestra, chorus and soloists -- and this one in particular.  Indeed, I actually had the privilege of singing the Ninth twice during my short tenure as a member of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir back in the 1970s.   There's one interesting offshoot of that experience.  As a baritone, I was always seated immediately adjacent to the string bass section of the orchestra, and it's impossible to miss the hard work they have to do in a couple of passages of the scherzo.  To this day, when I listen to the symphony, I hear the string bass parts in that movement sticking out like a sore thumb.  And at a live performance, I automatically find myself looking at them during those passages without even meaning or intending to do so!

And if all that isn't enough, the concert opened with a substantial bonus:  Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which is actually a piano concerto in all but name.

So: how was the concert?  Well, for starters, Music Director Peter Oundjian did something that I have only seen done previously by guest conductors with this orchestra: he adopted the European style of seating the first and second violins to the left and right of the conductor respectively.  This was the standard layout for most of the nineteenth century, so it's a safe bet that all the great Romantic masters wrote their orchestral music with such a layout in mind.  And the proof is definitely there -- in passages where the two violin sections alternate notes or phrases with each other.  With this seating layout, there's a definite stereo dimension that would be lacking in the North American configuration.

The Rachmaninoff Rhapsody was marvellous, in a very unusual way.  "Subtlety" and "finesse" are not words usually associated with Rachmaninoff's music, but these qualities do in fact exist in plenty in this score, and the entire team realized that and gave it shape and form in sound.  Pianist Daniil Trifonov (making his TSO debut) played much of the work more quietly than many pianists, but with his powerful technical skills he was able to play much more incisively than many, which more than made up the difference.  It was actually a refreshing change to hear the work played by an artist who commands more than two volume settings ("Loud" and "Louder").  Oundjian kept the orchestra well in scale, and only once allowed Rachmaninoff's heavy-duty orchestral writing to swamp the pianist completely.

The Beethoven was far more impressive than the last time I heard Oundjian conduct it (almost a decade ago).  The first and third movements were taken at flowing tempo, without undue haste but also without dragging the anchors.  If that third slow movement at first seemed too rapid, it was well within bounds.  Oundjian more than compensated by not pushing and pulling the tempo nearly as much as some better-known conductors, and that gave the orchestral movements uncommon unity.  The solo horn part in the slow movement was delivered with rich, velvety tone and great assurance.

By way of contrast, the scherzo movement was taken at a slightly more relaxed pace than one often hears.  If it wasn't as fierce or ferocious as some performances, it certainly had energy to spare, and a clarity that can go missing at higher speeds.  The tricky acceleration from the scherzo to the trio went off without a hitch.

The same could not be said about the equally dangerous opening of the finale.  There was a brief scramble to get everyone on the same beat, only a second or two, but noticeable.  After that, things went much better through the variations for orchestra (again, at a more relaxed speed than often heard). 

Tyler Duncan opened the vocal part of the work in a way that really made my ears go up.  True, he had a rather heavy vibrato (perhaps forcing the tone?), but I have never heard the words of the opening baritone solo delivered with such a strong sense of the meaning of the text!  Soprano Jessica Rivera and tenor David Pomeroy both mastered their parts with clarity, diction, and verve.  Mezzo-soprano Andrea Ludwig had trouble making herself heard along with the other three, but sounded equally fine when she was audible -- perhaps hers is a more chamber-scaled voice.  Pomeroy's account of the march variation was as neat and accurate as any I have heard -- and that's saying a lot!  Many famous tenors have come to grief on the big leaps in that solo!

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir reconfirmed their long reputation for choral excellence with powerful singing, and no sense of strain even in some of the cruelly high passages Beethoven wrote.  Since the last time I heard them at Roy Thomson Hall, the choir has adopted a mixed seating layout instead of sitting in voice sections.  This has advantages and drawbacks.  Certainly the sound in full-choir passages is more blended, and comes across more powerfully.  Oddly, though, the reverse is true any time one section sings alone -- especially when it's a section entry.  Then the sound comes across thinner than before, as you no longer get the emphatic hit from one direction of the compass!  It's all a matter of swings and roundabouts, really.

Taken overall, a very good performance of Beethoven's late masterpiece.  Mind you, it wasn't the best one I've ever heard -- that would have to be one of the times I sang in it, of course!

Ever-Fresh and Always Timely Comedy

by Moliere
Verse translation by Richard Wilbur
Presented by Soulpepper Theatre
Directed by László Marton

The French playwright Moliere is famed as one of the truly great authors of comedy in the entire history of the theatre.  Among his plays, Tartuffe is one of the best, and one of the most popular too.  I find this curious because the script totally skewers one of the great sacred cows -- religious belief and practice -- by showing how it all too often descends into arrant and arrogant hypocrisy.  Moliere's blunt take on this kind of false piety led to the church hierarchy banning the play when it was first performed.  I also wonder if observant followers of religion see themselves in this play or laugh at what seem like portraits of hypocrites known to them.  At any rate, the play is always timely because smooth operators who manipulate our emotions for their own ends are always with us, even when religious belief isn't the cloak they choose behind which to conceal their schemes.

This production used the now-classic verse translation into English by Richard Wilbur.  It's odd that normally I don't like plays written in rhyming verse (I've become very tired of A Midsummer Night's Dream, to name one) but in this case I don't mind.  Wilbur's versification flows easily and naturally, and his choices of rhyme are both clever and unforced.  It's a very suitable feeling for a play which was originally written also in rhyming verse.

The one feature of the play that always jars me a little is the officer's laudatory speech about King Louis XIV.  Moliere actually wrote himself into a trap here, a trap in which the villain had so thoroughly won the entire contest that only a royal or divine deus ex machina could get him and his characters out of the mess they were in.  But of course the play was written for court performance, and any artist preparing new work for such a powerful ruler would have to know for certain which side of the bread ought to be buttered!

Director László Marton has chosen to stage the play in modern dress and a very plain set, using a style close to farce.  That in itself is no bad thing -- the script certainly isn't period-specific.  But even with that being so, the opening is a rather confusing choice.  The actors come on and dress themselves with costumes and wigs out of the period of Louis XIV, taken from two large costume racks.  These are then wheeled off, the final pieces of furniture and walls are rolled into position, and the play begins -- but in modern clothes.  The period clothes and wigs are never used, although the costume racks make a brief re-appearance.  This all seemed pointless to me.

The only other directorial choice that bothered me was the frequent ascent of the actors into full-out screaming.  Problem: it's unintelligible.  It might be argued that the emotion counts far more than the actual words of the text, but even if we allow that it's just plain unpleasant.  This needed to be tamed just a little, bringing the screaming down far enough that the words could still be heard.  That's a fine line to judge, but in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre (a rather intimate space) there is really no excuse for words getting lost in the shuffle in any way.

Well, what of the actors?  As is predictable with Soulpepper, you get a strong cast with some familiar faces and a number of less-familiar.

Among the former group, Raquel Duffy was splendid in the role of Elmire until the end of the seduction scene when she started getting into screaming mode.  Oliver Dennis did fine work as Orgon, the credulous deceived man.  His anger when he turned on his son Damis was credible because it didn't go over the edge -- just skirted it.  Gregory Prest made a strong Cléante,  An open, honest facial expression carries this character far, and that -- together with a caring manner that didn't preclude strength of persuasion were all there in Prest's performance.  In the smaller role of M. Loyal, the bailiff, William Webster was masterful in his turn-on-a-dime switches between coaxing gentleness and forceful dominance.

Diego Matamoros brought the house down as the hypocritical Tartuffe, and with good reason.  His smooth delivery of the two-faced lines of the part was a delight, as was his physical activity in the table scene, darting rapidly from place to place to look for spies.

And yet, my favourite performance of the entire cast came from among the younger, less known actors.  As the maid, Dorine, Oyin Oladejo had a much bigger role than usually assigned to servant characters, and she made the most of every moment of it.  Voice, gesture, facial expression, all were employed to show exactly what she thought of the idiotic antics of her social superiors at the same time that she was earnestly hunting for ways to help them out.  I'm sure we will hear more from this gifted actor!

Colin Palangio as Damis did a fine job with a difficult, rather two-dimensional character.  However, I wonder why the costume designer Victoria Wallace thought fit to dress him like he'd just come in from visiting a gay leather bar.  Katherine Gauthier as Mariane, his sister, was the one serious misfire among the major roles.  She played Mariane as about twenty going on twelve, and that sloped rapidly downwards when she got angry until she was throwing a four-year-old toddler tantrum right on stage.  Not funny, just embarrassing.

Well, it's one of the perils of tackling such a well-known classic that many people will arrive in the theatre with some preconceived idea of how the piece ought to be done.  I'm not arguing for too much statuesque, classical gravity here, or for relying solely on text with no action, but I did feel that this production went too far in the other direction at times.  Certainly it was funny, and I laughed a great deal, but there were times when the words "less is more" were popping into my mind at some of the excesses on the stage.  Definitely entertaining, but by no means the last word on this play.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Shaw Festival 2014 # 4: The Man Sadly Disarmed

My final show at the Shaw Festival for this year is another dear old favourite, Bernard Shaw's comedy Arms and the Man.  This is (I think) the fourth time I have seen the play staged.  Sadly, it came off as a rather weak entry.

Let me qualify that right away: it wasn't a bad performance.  At a theatre festival such as Shaw there is no such thing.  Directors, actors, designers and technicians all operate to the highest professional standards and thus every show is certainly a good one.  And there's the rub.  In reviewing plays at such theatres, it becomes easier to be hyper-critical about flaws that might pass unnoticed in less stellar company.

The script in the final act contains two key pieces of dialogue which in retrospect define the entire character of Raina Petkoff, the young woman at the heart of the story.  One is when she and the Swiss mercenary soldier, Captain Bluntschli, discuss her "noble attitude and thrilling voice" which she puts on to good effect when it suits her.  The other is where Bluntschli states that he thinks she is a schoolgirl of 17 years, and she contemptuously replies that he should learn to tell the difference between a schoolgirl of 17 and a woman of 23.

I take the trouble to mention these two script portions precisely because Kate Besworth, who played the role of Raina, and director Morris Panych, absolutely ignored them.  This Raina is a flappy, fluttery, frantic blonde schoolgirl whose voice rises to a screech far too often.  There is no sign at all of any kind of noble attitude, and the voice is never thrilling -- only grating.  This serious misfire is made more noticeable by the fact that her mother, Catherine (Laurie Paton), and her fiance, Sergius (Martin Happer), both get the noble attitude and thrilling voice exactly right, on cue, as needed.

It matters because the pretensions of so-called "civilised" people are one of the main targets Shaw aims his satirical skewers at in this script, and Raina is the main vehicle of those pretensions.  When she doesn't conform to the description of her in the script, a large part of the fun in the show disappears altogether.

Having said that, I then have to turn around and say that I very much enjoyed the way Besworth played her opening scene with Bluntschli (Graeme Somerville) where he climbs into her bedroom when being chased by his enemies.  The tone between the two of them is just right in this scene.  It's later in the play that Besworth goes over the top in quite the wrong way.  Somerville is an excellent Bluntschli -- reasonable, rational, calm and collected at all times -- even when he decides to surrender to his foes.

Laurie Paton is particularly excellent in the second act, as she describes her "civilised" way of life, complete with a new electric bell to summon the servants.  Martin Happer plays as good a Sergius as I have ever seen -- a dashing figure of romance with a commanding voice and enormous physical presence on stage.

Norman Browning is near-perfect as Raina's father, Paul.  In one scene, his wife (Catherine) says, "You would only splutter at them."  And Browning does splutter, and fume, and fuss, quite uselessly.  It's a fine reading of one of Shaw's most incompetent male characters.

The other bit of casting that worried me was having Claire Jullien as Louka, the maid.  The way the part is written (and it is a good part), Louka comes off most often as a young girl full of beans and vinegar.  Jullien quite sensibly played her as an older woman, thirty-something perhaps, ready to make her break and move on and up in the world.  It tipped the whole dynamic of her scenes in an unexpected direction but the choice worked very well.

I did grow a bit tired of Peter Krantz as Nicola, the servant who fancies himself engaged to Louka, but that's just because I don't much care for his slow, deep voice or his standard hurt-bloodhound facial expression.  He certainly did the part justice.

Designer Ken MacDonald's set was a gigantic cuckoo clock.  In the first two acts it's exterior could just as easily have been a mountain chalet, which is after all what a classic cuckoo clock represents.  But in Act 3 the clock was turned around, and we saw its interior, complete with giant-sized gears and wheels which revolved noisily whenever anyone opened the central doors.  I know, it was kitschy, it was cutesy, but it was funny and it certainly made people laugh (including me).  I can recall one occasion when the doors opened but the clock didn't do its thing, and I wondered if that was a glitch or intentional.

Charlotte Dean's costumes all suited the play, the place and the period (the 1880s in Bulgaria) ideally -- with one glaring exception.  Paul Petkoff's housecoat was a beautifully well-worn full-length dressing gown, obviously long loved and long lived it, but was that really the sort of garment that Raina and Catherine would have given Bluntschli in which to make his getaway?

Now, please don't get me wrong.  As I said before, this was (like all productions at the Shaw) a good, entertaining, and definitely funny show.  It's just sad to reflect that it could have been so much better with more attention to the words of the text from all involved.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Shaw Festival 2014 # 3: Powerful Marriage of Comedy and Tragedy

It intrigues me that the two great classic Irish playwrights, John Millington Synge and Sean O'Casey, complemented each other so neatly in their choice of subjects and settings.  Synge's most famous plays chronicle the rural life of the Irish countryfolk, while O'Casey's great works dig deep into the lives of the working poor of Dublin.

The Shaw production of O'Casey's classic drama, Juno and the Paycock, was as powerful as one could ask, a fitting tribute to one of the greats of the world of drama -- and to the terrible fates of the men and women he wrote into this play.

O'Casey himself insisted that laughter must be used to knock down things as they are, so better things can grow in their place.  It's of a piece with this belief that the most unnerving scenes in this play are interwoven with the most comical ones, and that the last word of the script is comic and not tragic.

The Shaw's Artistic Director, Jackie Maxwell, directed this play herself and her Director's Note was a heartfelt examination of connections between the world of the play in the 1920s and the city of Belfast where she later grew up during "the Troubles".

With the aid of a simple but evocative set by designer Peter Hartwell, the tenements of Dublin came to life on the stage.  The series of suspended windows above the walls, leaning over the room (and lit with varying degrees and colours of light) emphasized the crowded, cramped conditions of life in the poor districts.

The women become the heroes of the play, with the men -- both seen and unseen -- not perhaps the villains but certainly the source of much of the misery that pervades life.  Jim Mezon as Captain Boyle and Benedict Campbell as his sidekick Joxer Daly typified the irresponsibility of men who were drinkers first and workers a long way second, or not at all.  Their scenes provide the comedy of the piece, both verbal and physical, and Mezon and Campbell did fine work in playing off each other.  Charlie Gallant as Johnny showed another kind of irresponsibility, that of the young who recklessly commit their lives to the service of one idea or another without fully understanding the consequences of what they preach.  Fear and terror were etched on his face right from the beginning, before we fully found out the causes, and stayed that way throughout.

Against these thoughtless men O'Casey contrasts the women.  Mary Boyle and her mother, Juno, work hard to bring in what little money the household can earn.  Juno in particular struggles to hold her family together, not just financially, but as a family.  It's a struggle she's destined to lose, the specific tragic fate of so many Irish women known to the writer.  In the end, Johnny suffers the fate of execution at the hands of the violent activists, while Juno and Mary must set out to make a new home for themselves elsewhere, leaving the Captain and Joxer to fend for themselves.

In this tragic denouement, the two women emerge as the two most powerful presences on the stage.  Marla McLean brings great dignity and quiet strength to her portrayal of the disgraced daughter, pregnant out of wedlock.  Mary Haney's performance of Juno is full of life and energy throughout the play, a vivid portrayal of a woman caught between opposing forces but refusing to be crushed or beaten down.  Haney rose to heights that were simply beyond praise in her final scene, her repetition of Mrs. Tancred's earlier lament for the death of her son.  This speech, halting, with heart-breaking pauses, was delivered in absolute pin-drop silence as the whole audience were drawn deeply into her sorrow.

Although the enemy is totally different, and the two writers were totally different too, Juno Boyle here definitely touches hands with Maurya in Riders to the Sea by Synge.  The poetry and music of the English language as spoken by the Irish reaches its apex in these two magnificent death laments.

Juno and the Paycock will never be a popular play, but it's certainly a powerful drama, and the Shaw company with Maxwell directing gave it a powerful performance that will be long remembered.

Shaw Festival 2014 # 2: Jollity and Mirth (?)

When an author describes his play as "a farcical comedy", the audience has a pretty good idea what to expect.  There will be complications in plenty, but none that cannot be resolved in time for a light-hearted ending.  Farce demands a certain level of desperation in the characters to really make the plot spin as wildly as it should.  Comedy requires that we can recognize some aspect or aspects of ourselves in the characters so that our laughter will be infused with just that note of rueful recognition essential to good comedic theatre.

J. B. Priestley wrote many serious, idea-rich plays during his career, but his 1938 "Yorkshire farcical comedy" When We Are Married has always been one of his most popular.  And no wonder!  Priestley creates a rich assortment of varying personalities, brings them all together into a single house on a single night, and then -- with a single letter read aloud -- tosses the whole assembly into thoroughly funny comic mayhem.

Like most comedic plays, When We Are Married is a very definite period piece.  Unlike many of the genre it does not date too badly.  This is largely because the mainspring of the action is the fear (among the 6 main characters) that their deep dark secrets will be exposed, and their dirty laundry aired in public.  Who among us can honestly say that he or she wouldn't suffer from similar fears?  And so we can all relate to the terror of the Helliwells, the Parkers, and the Soppitts even if the specific cause of their fears holds no terror for us today!

I make the point that this play is a period piece precisely because the Shaw Festival's production ignored the period in presenting the visual and sound aspects of the play.  Instead of going back to the Yorkshire town of Clecklewyke in the years just before World War One, the designers have effectively set the play in 1938, the year when it was first performed.  But Priestley was quite specific in his intentions: the events take place on the 25th anniversary of three couples who were married, all at the same time, in the 1880s.

The reason why this matters is crucial.  The letter which sets the whole party on its ear is an announcement that the parson who married them 25 years earlier was not legally qualified to do so, and therefore none of the three couples are properly married!  This news would only raise a few eyebrows in 1938, what with King Edward VIII having lived so openly with his divorced mistress Mrs. Simpson just a couple of years earlier (before he abdicated and married her).  Even in the early 1920s the old social strictures were starting to vanish, and by 1938 they were largely dead except among people old enough to remember Edwardian times.

Also, a well-off Yorkshire household in, say, 1911, wouldn't be decorated in the height of London fashion of that era.  It would be thoroughly Victorian and old-fashioned by such standards.  Albert Parker rubs the point in repeatedly with his ranting about wanting "no swank and lah-di-dah",  So the set, in beautiful Art Deco, the costumes in similar style, and the 30s-era music used between scenes, grated intolerably on me.  The one genuinely Victorian-looking piece on the stage, the piano stool, looked completely out of place.

I can think of one practical reason why the designers (Ken MacDonald on set and Sue LePage on costumes) and director (Joseph Ziegler) connived in such a poor choice.  The shorter dresses used allowed the women to move about more quickly, an admitted advantage in the frantic moments.  But then, half the fun of doing the piece in genuine period clothes is seeing the dignity and pomposity of the characters, characteristics which are clearly present and emphasized in the text.

Well, enough of that,  The actual performance was a delight from start to finish, thanks to a strong ensemble cast with many of the Shaw's best people, and the brisk pace which they and the director brought to the piece.  Curiously, the author introduces a whole raft of minor characters first, before bringing in the principals.  Jennifer Dzialoszynski had wonderful presence and comic timing as the maid, Ruby Birtle, who gets far more laughs than a maid is usually allowed.  Her recital of the lengthy high tea menu in the first scene was hilarious.  Charlie Gallant was excellent as Gerald Forbes, the young chapel organist who reads the letter that throws the fat into the fire.  Mary Haney gave a wonderful account of the drunken charwoman, Mrs. Northrop, who gleefully and maliciously spreads the good news around town.

And then, we come to the three main couples.  Joseph and Maria Helliwell (Thom Marriott and Claire Jullien) are the solid and respectable hosts of the party.  Jullien was especially good in the scene where she threatens to leave for Blackpool.  Meek Herbert Soppitt and his overbearing wife Clara were finely played by Patrick Galligan and Kate Hennig.  The scene where he finally snaps and puts her in her place was hilarious.  Patrick McManus and Catherine McGregor were first-rate as the over-pompous Albert Parker and his quiet wife Annie.  The scene where she neatly dismantles him, line by line and inch by inch, is one of the funniest scenes of verbal comedy that I know and these two did it with style and superb comic timing from both.

A final word of praise for the beautifully-played scene in which the drunken newspaper photographer Henry Ormonroyd (Peter Krantz) and his lady-love Lottie Grady (Fiona Byrne) untie the tangled knot of the story.  This was played with subtlety and some truly gentle grace notes, a beautiful and touching contrast to everything that had gone before.

I have to admit that I probably laughed louder and longer than many of the people in the audience, largely because I know and love this play so well.  But make no mistake: the laughter was long, loud, and hearty right from the first minute of the show onwards.  The cast and director certainly did not put a foot wrong in their performance.  And probably, only a director/actor who is also a trained historian would get so wound up about the visual aspects of the show being wrong-footed!  (I plead guilty to the lesser offence!).

In the ways that count most, this production of When We Are Married is a total delight and a definite must-see!

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Shaw Festival 2014 # 1: Advanced Thinking -- Where Does It Get Us?

This season's production of Bernard Shaw's The Philanderer marks the first time the Shaw Festival has staged the work with the original (discarded) third act and without the third act as published.

The Philanderer was Shaw's second play, and the one in which he found his voice as a playwright.  I've commented before about the times when Shaw the political pamphleteer takes over from Shaw the dramatist, and how those passages are generally deadly in the theatre.  His first play, Widowers' Houses is heavily beset by that flaw.  But in The Philanderer the pamphleteer is content to let his ideas bubble to the surface as an integral part of the relationships among the principal characters, and the play is all the better for it.  Mind you, it's certainly easier to do that when the principle ideas of the piece have to do with a key relationship issue: the morality (or otherwise) of the institution of marriage and the laws which enshrine it into society.  Much of the comedy (and it is funny) arises from Shaw's favourite device of throwing you the reverse of what would "normally" be expected in any situation.

It's also a kind of early study for many later Shaw plays, presenting a scenario in which a man who prides himself on his "advanced ideas" struggles to avoid being pinned down to either one of two very strong-willed women -- one quite conventional, and the other anything but.  For additional amusement, there are the fathers of the two women -- again, with one coming across as totally conventional and the other seeming so on the surface but rather different underneath.

The performance opens in silhouetted lighting with loud noises of sexual ecstasy proceeding from the stage.  The stage direction in the script reads, "A lady and gentleman are making love to one another."  Of course the phrase carried other connotations in Shaw's time from the ones it carries today.  In other plays this kind of modern interpretation might be disastrous.  But here it totally makes sense, since the entire first act of The Philanderer arose out of an unpleasant experience connected with a passionate love affair which Shaw had.  Not only that, but it's abundantly apparent from the script that Shaw's characters aren't very honourable in their relations (to use another olde-world phrase!).

Designer Sue LePage's set is a handsome drawing room in a well-to-do home, but not heavily overdecorated -- which is a sensible choice, given what is to happen.  Between Acts 1 and 2 a song about smoking (a complete social no-no for women of the day) is performed by a man dressed and bearded as Henrik Ibsen, flanked by two women in mannish dress.  This device plays off all kinds of ideas thrown out in the coming act.  But it also allows the three main units of the drawing room to be uncoupled, rotated, and relinked behind the singers to form the equally handsome set of the Ibsen Club's library.  After the intermission, the curtain rises on the dining room of Dr. Paramore's house, 4 years later, and the backdrop is now a mere skeleton of the units that formed the first 2 sets.  Very suggestive.  Also suggestive are the overturned chairs that litter the floor.  Not only suggestive, they are also annoying as everyone studiously avoids noticing them or mentioning them or even becoming aware of them until -- finally -- someone picks one up, dusts it off, and sits down on it.  Those chairs are annoying not least because I kept wondering when someone was going to do something with or about them!  Talk about pulling focus.

That was the one serious flaw in the otherwise admirable staging of the piece.  Director Lisa Peterson obviously has a flair for the stage picture, and used it to the full.  The pace of the show was excellent, too, running smoothly and fluently without overspeeding.  Only once or twice were lines lost when a character inopportunely moved or turned while speaking.

The central trio of characters are the first to appear.  Grace Tranfield (played by Marla McLean) and Leonard Charteris (played by Gord Rand) are the couple making love as the lights aren't coming up.  Late as the hour may be, they are all too soon joined by Julia Craven (Moya O'Connell), another of Leonard's amours, and the fat is in the fire.  These three actors delivered excellent performances of three characters who are, at the heart, stubborn and selfish to a fault.  One of the tricks to making this play work at all is the need to keep all three of them sympathetic, and this the company certainly accomplished.  O'Connell in particular executed a whole series of rapid physical movements to prevent Rand escaping her, to great comic effect.  This whole scene was played right on the edge of "too much", but only once did I get the feeling that it went over the edge and then the feeling was only momentary.

With the arrival of the two fathers, the central group was completed.  Reliable as ever, Michael Ball played Joseph Cuthbertson, the drama critic, neatly centred on the tightrope between his staunch principles and his failure to live by them.  Ric Reid was marvellous as Colonel Daniel Craven, the mustache-blowing old sol-jah of the Empi-ah to the life.  One of the greatest comic highlights of the show was the moment in the last act when these two men, coming at the situation from opposite directions of thought, suddenly realized that they had arrived at the same idea and walked off together, echoing each other like Tweedledum and Tweedledee!

That left, among the major characters, Dr. Percival Paramore (Jeff Meadows).  I'd have to re-read the play, and in particular read the original third act (which was new to me).  Was it just the actor and director, or does the script in fact turn him from an ineffectual dodderer in Act 2 into a kind of a tragic hero in Act 3?  That's how the role was played, and the change in tone was sufficiently powerful to make my eyebrows keep jumping up at the things he said, and the way he said them.

The final moments of the play, when the relationship between Leonard and Julia is brought forward once again, are powerful and (like all of Shaw's best) contain an unexpected reversal which in this performance is beautifully prepared and perfectly timed.

One other delightful comic touch must be mentioned: Kristi Frank as the Ibsen Club's page, roller skating through the Club's library in a completely dignified manner!

Take the show as a whole, it was extremely entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measure.  Definitely well worth anyone's time!

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Stratford Festival 2014 # 7: A King Like No Other

Shakespeare's history plays have never been as popular in Canada as the well-known comedies and tragedies.  Partly this is because the history underlying them is not well known to Canadians today.  But Stratford has done them all, and King John is no exception.  This marks the fifth time the Festival has staged the play, the first being in 1960.

If people today remember one fact about John, it is generally the way he was bullied by his barons into signing the Magna Carta, a document which is held to be at the root of some of our most cherished legal rights.  Curiously, this incident doesn't even appear in the play -- perhaps because those rights had not evolved in Shakespeare's day nearly as far as they now have come, and therefore the Magna Carta simply did not seem as significant a forerunner as it now does.

King John was not a good man,
He had his little ways,
And sometimes no one spoke to him
For days and days and days.

In some ways, that famous little verse by A. A. Milne seems to sum up the character of the King as he appears in Shakespeare's text.  He's depicted as a careless, slipshod sort of monarch, lacking in sound judgement and given to impulsive action without careful forethought.  This is not, perhaps, entirely unreasonable although the historic John had considerably more to him than this view suggests!

What Shakespeare's text has done is to open up some ingenious and intriguing interpretive possibilities in the minds of director Tim Carroll and his cast.  Most unusually for Stratford, this King John is a kind of darkly comical take on the way an Elizabethan audience might have experienced the play.  The ceiling of the Tom Patterson Theatre is crowded with chandeliers with burning candles, such as would have been used to light the hall for an indoor performance in Shakespeare's day.  The costumes (designed by Carolyn Smith) are Elizabethan, rather than Gothic, as audiences in Shakespeare's time always saw performances in what was (for them) "modern" dress.  The props and set dressings are a hodge-podge of everything between the 1200s and the 1500s, because research into company records has shown that Shakespeare's company had no compunction about mixing periods in this way.

Director Tim Carroll refers to this in his programme note as a "game" played with historical evidence.  Certainly there is no indication that this is "the way it was done" but it does open up interesting perspectives for the audience.

As does the casting of Tom McCamus in the title role.  McCamus is an actor very much at home with the ironic, the sarcastic, the "nudge, wink" of the aside comments and facial expressions, directed to the audience, that alter their perception of what they are seeing.  Taking this style into the role of King John certainly works much better than would be the case in many other Shakespeare histories.  But it's still a bit startling for the audience.  The history plays, when they are staged, tend to be done with great seriousness -- after all, history is a serious business, is it not?

(The author, also a historian, is tweaking the nose of his own profession here!)

King John, as played by McCamus, is perfectly summarized by one key moment.  When Cardinal Pandulph, the Pope's legate (Brian Tree) appears to pronounce the Pope's excommunication on the King, John turns around from the opposite end of the stage and gives him an airy wave of welcome, twiddling his fingers in the air as he does so!  Of course the audience laughs at his insouciance -- how could we not?

In this role the comical touch works especially well because John's true opponent in the play, his brother Geoffrey's widow Constance, is all tragedy,  The script permits her no other alternative.  And she is a perpetual, powerful presence in the drama -- a continual reminder that John may be King by right of force but that her young son, Arthur, is the King by divine right of succession.  Her speeches are heavy-duty, laden with significance.  This is a woman of great force of character, embarked on a crusade to set things right, and the role obviously demands an actor capable of great power and weight in presenting this woman.  Again, ideal casting: among all the current company, Seana McKenna best fits that description (for my money, anyway) and her performance in this role is the perfect counterweight to the lighter presentation of the King.

The third key character in the story is Philip, the Bastard.  Originally appearing as the son of Sir Robert Faulconbridge, he is quickly identified by Lady Faulconbridge as the bastard son of Richard the Lion-Heart (oldest brother of John).  King John takes Philip into his service and Philip becomes the most loyal of John's supporters throughout the play -- probably all too aware that without John's support he will become nothing and nobody.  Another large role, requiring many appearances and many shifts of tone, and again very aptly and rewardingly cast with Graham Abbey.

As a typical Shakespearean historical play, perhaps more pageant-like and less of a character study than some, this show of course requires the casting of numerous minor characters.  It should go without saying (but I'm going to say it anyway) that the minor roles were all cast from strength, as is typical of this Festival.

To keep these history plays from turning into fossilized dinosaurs, it's essential that the director maintain a high level of energy throughout.  This, combined with the unexpected elements of humour already mentioned, Tim Carroll absolutely delivered.  This King John is certainly a rewarding experience!

Oh, PS:  Thank goodness I finally got caught up on Stratford, because in 2 more days I begin my yearly binge at the Shaw Festival with 4 more plays to see this week!  (massive sigh of relief!)

Stratford Festival 2014 # 6: The Love Story for the Ages

I've always been fascinated by Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra -- what I know of it, that is, for this summer marks the first time I have ever seen it staged.  It's not the most common play on stage, not least because it requires two extraordinarily gifted actors to carry off the two lead roles, as complex and diverse (and big) a pair of roles as you can find anywhere in the theatre.  It's had something of a reputation of being disastrous for the ladies in particular.  Consider this scathing review of a Broadway production starring Tallulah Bankhead, from back in the middle of the last century:
"As Cleopatra, Miss Bankhead barged down the Nile -- and sank."

The play also fascinated me because of the sheer size of the role of Cleopatra.  Remember that in Shakespeare's day that role would have been played by a boy.  Was there a boy actor of uncommon ability and strength of character in the company when this play was written?  Was there perhaps a girl disguised as a boy? (think of Geoffrey Trease's novel Cue For Treason).  Was the role split between two or more boys?  The way the play is written, too, requires Cleopatra to appear as a woman whose character is so diverse that she looks and sounds almost like she suffers from bipolar syndrome.  This can easily descend into mere caricature if not handled with care.

So, to this production, directed on the Tom Patterson stage by Gary Griffin.  Yanna McIntosh as Cleopatra simply owned the stage, from the moment she first appeared.  She's an actor noted for both great subtlety and great power, as she's shown in other seasons.  It was all there in this performance.  She managed all the turn-on-a-dime mood shifts with the most sudden snaps from mood to mood, but kept the character completely believable and sympathetic while she flipped over from jollity and mirth to rage.  Even in the long death scene, which could easily sag or drag, she sustained remarkable intensity without going over the top into melodrama or histrionics.  It's a long play, but I still craved for more when it was over, and McIntosh's performance was the major reason.

As Antony, Geraint Wyn Davies delivered a workmanlike performance, but for me simply wasn't in the same league.  If anything, I would have liked to reverse the casting with Octavius Caesar (see below).  Wyn Davies is a little too addicted to "bluff and bluster" style, and it didn't work well through his scenes with Cleopatra, although it was well suited to his scenes with other Romans.

Octavius was played with suitable emphasis and inner strength by Ben Carlson, one of the most versatile of the current crop of strong leading actors at Stratford.  His finest moment was the restrained, moving delivery of his eulogy over the dead body of the queen at the end.  I'd love to see what the play would look like with him as Antony, simply because I've never yet seen him tackle a role that he couldn't play really well.  Wyn Davies' characteristic style would, I think, have worked better for him in Octavius.

Tom McCamus was ideal for the anti-heroic, ironic Enobarbus (an invention of Shakespeare's, by the way, not a historic character like many of the cast).  His voice and face were well-suited to the man who always lets the heroic air out of the balloon whenever the others get too pompous or elevated.

Around these four characters there swirls a large assortment of minor roles, all played with aplomb by various members of one of Canada's strongest, deepest acting companies.  Out of them I would single out Cleopatra's two ladies-in-waiting, Iras (Jennifer Mogbock) and Charmian (Sophia Walker), excellently contrasted with each other and with the queen, and very moving in the death scene.

In the restricted space of the Tom Patterson Theatre's long, narrow stage, there's no room for major set pieces or giant rolling towers of scenery.  Designer Charlotte Dean aptly evoked the ancient world with restrained touches: small piles of amphorae at the corners, and a few appropriate pieces of furniture whisked in and out as needed.  Costumes were suitably eye-catching when necessary, but not over-the-top with luxurious overkill.

Director Gary Griffin made most effective use of the front and back exits from the stage by having a new scene come on and the dialogue begin at one end before the actors of the previous scene had finished exiting at the other end.  Stage pictures were composed carefully, with an eye to the audience on all three sides of the stage, no small achievement on such a restricted platform. 

In spite of my dissatisfaction with Antony, I think this is the one play of all I have seen at Stratford this year that I might choose to revisit.  There are two reasons: one is to again revel in Yanna McIntosh's magnificent performance, and the other is to become better acquainted with the poetry of Shakespeare's text, always better heard aloud in a theatre than read in silence at home.