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.