Monday, 28 April 2014

Striking Sparks Out of Classical Myth

Opera Atelier's second production of the season is a revival and "completion" of Persée by Lully, a work which the company has performed twice before.  I say completion, because it was in this third production that designer Gerard Gauci finally completed all of the complex and elaborate set pieces he had previously imagined for this work.

Persée was originally staged in 1682 at the Palais-Royale in Paris, frequently performed after that to great acclaim and then remounted for the official opening of the Opéra-Royal at Versailles in 1770, on the occasion of the wedding of Marie-Antoinette to the Dauphin, the future King Louis XVI.  This is all worth mentioning, because the work was plainly written to be staged on a royal budget as a splendid spectacle: frequent and lavish set changes, spectacular effects (not least of which are two deus ex machina sequences) and a large cast.  All these resources were devoted to staging a mythical story which displays all the typical soap-opera complexities of the old classic Greek and Roman myths.

Much of the story is unfamiliar to many people today, apart from the famous myth of the Gorgon Medusa and the clever way in which Perseus overcomes her, strikes off her head, and then puts it to a better use.  This happens in the 3rd of the opera's 5 acts.

Given the early date (1682) this piece definitely predates the arrival in France of the operatic structure of recitative and aria which had evolved in Italy.  Lully, himself of Italian birth, eschewed the Italian style in his works.  The French opera of the seventeenth century could better be described as an "opera-ballet".  Solo singers representing the characters sing their dialogue and their inward reflections in a kind of extended flowing recitative, which occasionally bursts out into sustained melody that blends the concept of the aria within the recitative.  An offstage chorus contributes more ceremonial public utterances, and ballet dancers on stage contribute to the action as well as populating the crowd scenes.

In Opera Atelier's staging, this is a very dark opera.  It's certainly a dark and frightening story (but more on that in a minute), but here the darkness extends to the sets, costumes, and -- to some extent -- the lighting.  The set is framed by elaborate curtain legs of red with gold decoration, but the red is dark and the gold is dim, not bright certainly.  The women's voluminous dresses are in what could be bright colours but each one appears to be overlaid by a dark sheer material which dampens the colour down and dims the overall effect.  Luxurious this production certainly is, but not nearly as bright and vibrantly coloured as some other excursions from this company!

The darkest, and most eye-catching set by far is the cavern of the Gorgons in Act III.  That's ironic, because here and here only we encounter undoubted comedy.  Opera Atelier is well-known for wanting to up the comic ante in virtually all their shows, but I wonder if the comedic note was struck as forcefully for the French court?  Whatever the case, with the parts of Méduse (Medusa) and her sisters assigned to a baritone, a bass, and a tenor, the audience cannot but laugh as Méduse sings of how beautiful she used to be.  The laughs, of course, were accentuated when the three men in question began preening and prancing about the stage in a style I would have to call "high camp".

Musically, the production was most remarkable for the creation of a "double" continuo group, one on each end of the orchestra pit, to assist the frequent use of the downstage corners by the singers.  As was customary in the time of Lully, the theorbo or bass lute played a substantial part in each continuo group, adding piquant sonorities not usually heard in later Baroque music.  As ever, the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chorus contributed clean, crisp playing and singing under the sensitive direction of conductor David Fallis.

Many of the soloists were favourites of the Opera Atelier audience, and with good reason.  This company tends to use young singers, but they are definitely masters of their art, and the quality of performance is always remarkable.  Highlights for me were the impressive dramatic quality of the Queen, Cassiope, as performed by soprano Carla Huhtanen.  I've seen her a number of times in comic soubrette roles, so it was a pleasure to hear her stretch herself to great effect in a more serious vein.  In the pivotal role of Mérope, the Queen's sister, soprano Peggy Kriha Dye encompassed a huge range of emotional displays with singing of great beauty and clarity. 

Among the men, Olivier Duquerre sang powerfully as the King, Céphée, and was appropriately different as Méduse, with a more mincing tone quality.  Baritone Vasil Garvanliev, another Opera Atelier veteran, sang crisply and cleanly in the many rapid counterpoint passages assigned to the villainous Phinée.  Tenor Christopher Enns, making his Opera Atelier debut, sang with ringing tone and emotional sense in the title role of Persée which is actually not a very large part compared to some of the others.

Due to the divine intervention of the goddess Venus (sung divinely by soprano Meghan Lindsay from her descending cloud bank), the story finally reaches its appointed happy ending, in the only scene where the setting and costumes become notably lighter-toned.  After all the dramatic contortions of the previous four acts, I was finally reminded of a famous line from Oscar Wilde:  "The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily.  That is what fiction means."

Persée was a splendid production and performance of a dramatic work of substance and power.  I wish the company the best of travels as they proceed to the Opéra-Royal in Versailles.  There, in a few weeks, they will perform the piece for the first time in that setting since it was staged to open the theatre 244 years ago!

Toi, toi, toi!

Sunday, 20 April 2014

A Grand Easter Concert!

Okay, the Toronto Symphony's Saturday night performance wasn't precisely an "Easter concert", but two of the three works certainly had roots in the Christian tradition.  The guest conductor this evening was Russian conductor, Andrey Boreyko.  And for the third time this year (the two other occasions being the OSM with Kent Nagano and the TSO with Thomas Dausgaard) I saw the orchestra seated according to the old European tradition, with first violins to the conductor's left and second violins to the conductor's right.  It's worth recalling that most of the great Romantic and post-Romantic composers planned their works for an orchestra seated in just this way, so the gains in following this seating plan are considerable.  The second violins are better balanced with the firsts, and their parts (often lower in the harmony) come through much more clearly.  Also better realized are the occasions when a composer creates a stereophonic effect by tossing musical ideas back and forth between the two violin sections.

The first work was the glorious Russian Easter Festival Overture by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.  Amazing as it may seem, the orchestra last played this work just 11 months ago, and did a fantastic job.  Tonight's version, in the hands of a Russian conductor, topped last year's by just that little margin.  It was a question of subtlety of detail, with Boreyko's left hand gently shaping and ever-so-slightly emphasising key points in phrases, especially in the quieter opening.  You never forgot that these melodic lines, although sandwiched into regular rhythmic patterns as much as possible, actually originated as freely-chanted prayers without strict metre (in the Russian Orthodox Church).  The other key point of Boreyko's success was that he kept just a little extra in reserve for the final pages, both in energy and in volume, so that the overture properly reached its climax in the final coda.

Following this came L'Ascension, a cycle of four meditations for orchestra by Olivier Messiaen, one of the most unique and interesting (to me) of twentieth-century composers.  It's an early work, conceived for orchestra, and later re-arranged for organ (Messiaen's own instrument).  I had never heard it before, but from the very first chords I would have known it was Messiaen's work even if I hadn't looked in the programme.  I've never heard any other composer who sounds precisely like him: slow-moving, even hypnotic, with strange chords shifting and drifting from one to another, occasionally coalescing into an unmistakable major triad.  Melodic figures with rapidly-turning notes resemble birdsong -- and that's no coincidence because birdsong was indeed one of the composer's major sources of material.

The first movement is a slow-moving prayer for brass and a few winds.  The second has all the winds together in a unison melody with birdsong figures, that repeats itself regularly while the strings move independently around it.  The third movement begins as a rollicking celebratory scherzo, a little too vigorous to be precisely dance-like, and culminates in a grand slow hymn of praise.  The finale returns to the sublime mood of the opening, but now written entirely for the strings.  The growing power of this prayer culminates in an almost visual ascent into the heavens which is suddenly cut short at its highest point.  Messiaen was a devout Catholic, albeit a very mystical one, and I suspect this was probably conceived as a musical equivalent of the moment of the Ascension as described in the Bible, when Christ was taken up into the heavens and suddenly vanished into a cloud. 

All of this was played with great concentration (essential) and equal intensity (equally essential) by all sections of the orchestra, carefully guided by Boreyko who clearly had the measure of this score.  For both this piece and the Russian Easter, Boreyko quite rightly called for applause to acknowledge the numerous splendid solo contributions by members of the orchestra.

After the intermission we had the Brahms Piano Concerto # 1, with Helene Grimaud as soloist.  Yes, this is such a monumental work that it usually occupies the principal spot in any concert where it is performed -- not least because the audience is apt to be exhausted after listening to this intensely dramatic and powerful work.  Sir Donald Tovey described it as "a classical concerto of unprecedented tragic power" and that really says it all.

Tovey also commented astutely that it isn't necessary to force the tone in the thunderous opening.  He was right.  The first pages, for orchestra alone, are so hair-raising that the audience will probably feel overwhelmed even if the music is played no louder than a mezzo-forte.  So it was unfortunate that Boreyko gave the orchestra its head in the opening bars -- too much timpani altogether, and some really ugly tone from the brass sections. 

Things got dicey again when Grimaud made her first entrance.  The piano's first utterance is not dramatic at all, but starts out as a gentle, almost pathetic melody that only gradually works back up to the fury of the main theme.  Grimaud chose to treat this as if it were a solo work, with pronounced rubato alternately hastening and slowing the tempo.  The problem: the orchestra has to punctuate her melodic lines with occasional chords, and Boreyko and the players were having a lot of trouble placing those chords and staying together on them.  I wonder if Grimaud got carried away in the moment and played it very differently from what she had done in previous rehearsals and performances?  It conveyed that effect.

As that stormy first movement proceeded, the concerto came together much better.  Both soloist and orchestra settled into the music a little more securely, and the high-intensity coda created the right sensation of breathless excitement combined with overwhelming power.

The second movement starts out as a gentle prayer-like melody in the strings.  Brahms actually inscribed the words Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini ("Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord") under this melody.  The strings, which have become one of the glories of the Toronto orchestra, sang this beautiful hymn with a silky tone that was a true delight.  As the movement proceeds, both piano and orchestra have to awaken by degrees to a mood of almost anger, but then quietly relax again back into the prayerful mood of the opening.  The various stages were all finely scaled, conductor and soloist in unanimity, and the quiet gentle ending was shaped with the softest possible tone.

Grimaud immediately erupted into the dramatic finale, almost too abruptly perhaps, although it did save a pause of 30-40 seconds while everyone in the audience coughed (the cold and flu season apparently being not quite over yet!).  By this time, the concerto was completely under control from all the performers.  It still had the character of a fierce wild animal, as is entirely appropriate, but no longer was there the sense that it had gotten away altogether.  The contrasting episodes in particular were beautifully shaped.  The final recurrence of the main rondo theme and the coda were magnificent, and the instant standing ovation which ensued was entirely merited. 

Sunday, 13 April 2014

A Showpiece Concert

Last night's Toronto Symphony concert featured a work that is often cited as a showpiece for the excellence of an orchestra's players, as well as one that is a real (albeit not obvious) test of the musicianship of a pianist.

Before those two works, though, the concert began with a modern work, Vivian Fung's Aqua, composed in 2012.  The composer intended it as a musical representation of the award-winning Aqua Tower skyscraper in Chicago.  In common with much contemporary music, this consisted of some very attractive and winning sounds that (for my money) didn't really go anywhere or do anything.  The orchestra played with the necessary range from subtlety to a climactic roar.  With the exception of 2 short passages, each lasting only a few seconds, this 5-minute work had no discernible rhythm at all unless you watched conductor Peter Oundjian faithfully beating time.  My personal preference is for music that has distinct rhythm and a sense of movement to it.

After an extensive re-setting of the stage, the concert continued with American pianist Richard Goode joining the orchestra in the Concerto in G Major, K.453 (# 17) of Mozart.  Goode is a musician of considerable stature; his complete cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas has been acclaimed as among the best of the best ever recorded by many critics.  He is also known for chamber music performances.  This is an essential qualification if you are going to tackle a Mozart concerto.  What you don't want is a hot-shot Klaviertiger such as the one Sir Donald Tovey once called by the euphemism "Herr Hammerfaust von Tastenbrecher"!  At the same time, this is not dainty music, so let's not go too far to the other extreme, which the reviewers of the renowned Penguin Guide describe as "the gentle clink of Dresden china".  It's equally necessary for the orchestra to get the balance right between these possible extremes.

Goode has a wonderful sense of Mozartean style and scale of tone.  His playing is clean and clear, not lacking in energy, but never overplaying either.  Use of the pedals was beautifully judged too.  The orchestra partnered with grace and verve, and again the scale of the playing was just right.  Even the rather prominent horn part didn't stick out like a sore thumb (a likely trouble spot).  Ever since Peter Oundjian came to the Toronto Symphony 10 years ago, I have always enjoyed most his excursions into the eighteenth century repertoire of Haydn and Mozart, sensing that he has a real affinity for the music of this particular era.  This concerto was as engaging as anyone could want it to be.

The second half was taken up by one of the biggest of Richard Strauss tone poems, Ein Heldenleben ("A Hero's Life").  This grandiose piece is well-understood as a kind of musical autobiography.  It's as well to remember that it was written when the composer was still only 34 years old.  Perhaps it is for this reason that the final sections, effectively depicting old age and death, seem less convincing to some listeners (although I always enjoy them!).

This was actually the first time I have ever heard the work played live, so it was interesting to compare the experience with listening to recordings.  The first thing I noticed was a characteristic Straussian fingerprint -- the presence of sweeping melodies entrusted primarily to the strings.  These the orchestra carried off magnificently.  The opening, a rushing upward arpeggio for cellos and basses, is a notorious trouble spot but was executed with perfect precision, and set the passionate tone of the entire performance instantly.  One thing Peter Oundjian has definitely achieved with the Toronto Symphony is a notable improvement in the tone and quality of the string sections.

Balance and clarity are important considerations with such a large-scale work, and for the most part all the key voices came through with no problems.  The swirling decorative passages for 2 harps in the opening section are often swamped in recordings, but were clearly audible.  I was struck by the positively Mahlerian sound of the shrill chattering woodwinds as they depicted the hero's "enemies" (read: music critics!).  Concertmaster Jonathan Crow made every single note count in the concerto-sized violin solo part which depicts the hero's wife, and indeed caught all the diverse personal traits of the beautiful, loving, maddening, shrewish Pauline de Ahna, the operatic soprano whom Strauss married. 

Even the massive battle scene was kept firmly under control -- right from the exact precision of the offstage fanfares that launch it.  Only in the closing pages did the balance disintegrate, but with the entire orchestra roaring away fortissimo this is probably an unsolvable technical problem.  Indeed, Strauss may actually have been the first composer to produce such a deliberate cacophonous uproar!

The long-lined melodies of the section depicting the hero's "Works of Peace" contain many allusions to previous Strauss works.  This whole section built up effectively to the climactic fortissimo quotation from the early tone poem, Don Juan, and here Oundjian wisely saved an extra degree of volume increase for the last chord before that peroration began.

The concluding portrayal of death features a magnificent horn solo and finally culminates in the famous "sunrise" motif from Also Sprach Zarathustra (think: 2001: A Space Odyssey).  I had never really registered the fact before that at this point the strings, so often the vehicle of this composer's lyrical ideas, fall completely silent.  The final ascent to a peak, crescendo, and diminuendo is entrusted to the brasses, and here the TSO's brass section did themselves proud, especially in the dwindling sound after that last grand outburst.  All in all, a successful and indeed passionate account of a piece that tests every section of the orchestra in turn, and that tests the conductor's ability to hold the sprawling, sectional structure of the work together.