Saturday, 25 April 2015

The Triumph and Tragedy of Music

Two weeks ago I attended the Opera Atelier production of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice in the version arranged by Hector Berlioz (oooh, am I ever being bad, putting off my review for two entire weeks!). 

For me this work is a pointed reminder of the central role of the ancient legend of Orpheus in the creation of the art form we know as opera today.  The very oldest opera to have survived to the present day (originally staged in 1600) was Jacopo Peri's Euridice.  Seven years later, Claudio Monteverdi gave the nascent genre a huge lift and kick forward with his Orfeo ed Euridice, a magnificent work that still stands up very well and is often staged in modern theatres.  This mythic tale of the ability of music to sway even the implacable hearts of the gods is a perfect metaphor for the ongoing role of fine music, singing, and dance in enriching the lives of audiences no less than those of the performers.

And so we come to the work of Christoph Willibald Gluck, who composed his Orfeo ed Euridice in 1761-72.  Gluck had long since tired of the ageing and fossilized conventions of the Italian opera seria and opera buffa.  His aim was nothing less than a total reformation of the art form, which would take power away from the singers and redistribute it between the music and the text (by which he understood to include the dramatic situations exposed and developed in the sung text).  How successfully he achieved his aim can be judged by the fact that Orfeo ed Euridice has never really disappeared from the repertory in the 250 years since its first performance!

But there are other issues.  Gluck moved to Paris not long after completing Orfeo, and he adapted the opera for the Parisian stage by re-setting the (originally) castrato role of Orpheus for a haut-contre (a very high tenor voice).  Gluck also added three ballets (including two of the most famous passages, the orchestral Dance of the Blessed Spirits and Dance of the Furies) to satisfy Parisian taste for ballet and lots of it!  By the 1800s the accepted standard for tuning had shifted upwards to a higher pitch, and the haut-contre part had become impracticable.  When Berlioz was commissioned to prepare a new version for presentation in Paris, he shifted the title role to a female mezzo-soprano and also incorporated certain features of the original version which he considered superior to the Paris version.  Largely because of the lack of suitable castrati and haut-contres in modern times, the Berlioz edition has necessarily become the most common version currently performed.

Good luck trying to sort all of that out!

Anyway, in earlier years Opera Atelier has presented  both the Vienna (Italian) and Paris (French) versions of the opera, and now has completed the triad with this staging of the Berlioz edition.  And that's the production which is the subject of this review.

I have to confess that Gluck's revolutionary score, in and of itself, leaves me cold.  The music is pleasant, easy on the ear, and melodious, but rather plain and bland.  Gluck successfully dispensed with the thrilling vocal fireworks of the old opera seria, but the language of music had to develop much further to become capable of expressing the dramatic qualities inherent in his material.  As it is, the Dance of the Furies, with its heavily accented clashing semitones, is the most intensely dramatic passage of the entire piece.  Among the sung portions, only the duet of Orpheus and Eurydice in the Middle World (in Act III) approaches the same level of intensity.

But now at last to look at the production itself.  The settings were remarkable for the darkness of colouring, as Opera Atelier's productions frequently tilt towards brighter colours and lighting.  While still well lit, there was a feeling of heaviness induced by these dark settings that was entirely appropriate to the production.  Michelle Ramsay's lighting designs made effective use of highlights on certain features within these predominantly dark spaces.

Choreography was most critical in this work as there are only three singing roles: Orpheus (mezzo-soprano), Eurydice and Amour (both sopranos).  All other characters in the story are portrayed by the ballet.  Choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse-Zingg has fused elements of both centuries represented by this version to fine effect.  Her dances for the Furies, for Pluto and Proserpina, and for the Blessed Spirits of the Elysian Fields were all filled with character representation.  The artists of Atelier Ballet are past masters at this kind of dramatic choreography, and at the art of maintaining the sweeping, graceful lines of period ballet while still expressing the personality of the characters they represent.

The grand finale, a celebratory ballet, was full of life and energy and brought the work to a suitably upbeat conclusion.

Now, I can hear some of my readers wondering about that:  "Upbeat conclusion???"  Yes.  Gluck refused to end the story tragically, so the god Amour (Eros or Cupid, if you prefer) announces to Orpheus after he laments the second death of Eurydice that she will return to life again as a reward for his constancy and the depth of his love.  At this point, understandably, the story segues into that vigorous closing dance sequence.

The role of Orpheus is a demanding one, requiring a great range of vocal and emotional expression within a fairly simple and plain musical structure.  Mireille Lebel's firm mezzo-soprano voice and expressive face contributed equally to a memorable performance, with the lament over the dead Eurydice in Act III a haunting and moving climax.

Peggy Kriha Dye's clear soprano made for a fine Eurydice.  Always a fine actor as well, she proved magnificent in the scene in the Middle World, where her pleas and entreaties for Orpheus to speak to her could easily have gone over the top into bathos and parody.  Restraint here paid huge dividends for the character, and for the power of the scene as a whole.

Amour was sung by soprano Meghan Lindsay.  From her first appearance in Act I as dea ex machina, she sang and moved with an alert, playful expression and manner that gave her character a subtle comic tilt without the need for over-the-top comic "Acting".  A fine performance of a tricky role that could be hard to place accurately.

The work of the Tafelmusik orchestra, playing this time with period appropriate nineteenth-century instruments and bows, was especially noteworthy.  Conductor David Fallis had a wonderful sense of just how much was enough in the matter of tempi -- for instance, the Dance of the Furies was played at a suitably brisk pace, but not so fast that the rushing scalic figures were blurred or distorted in any way.  The playing of harpist Julia Seager-Scott on a period instrument in the central song of Orpheus in Hades was a highlight.

The Tafelmusik Chamber Choir sang with their customary finesse, but also with plenty of bite in their repeated cries of "Non" in the scene where Orpheus confronts the Furies.

All in all, a very fine production of this seminal masterwork, even though I was still left with the feeling that it was on the whole a rather undramatic opera.  But that's hardly the fault of any of the many artists involved for they certainly gave it their best efforts -- as we've come to expect from every Opera Atelier production.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Ahhh, Romantic Music

Yesterday, I took in a fine concert at the Toronto Symphony -- at 2:00 in the afternoon.  It's the first time I have ever attended one of their matinee concerts, and I was sad to see how many empty seats there were throughout the hall.  But the audience certainly made up in attention and enthusiasm for what they lacked in numbers. 

The programme was a feast of Romanticism in music, with the orchestra under the direction of guest conductor James Conlon.  The programme began and ended with the well-known, and had the less-well-known sandwiched in between. 

The concert opened with the Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin by Wagner.  This is a very slow, almost meditative piece, with its opening and closing dominated by the sound of the violins playing very high up in their register, very quietly.  The orchestra's violins perfectly captured the required sound in a radiant shimmer of silvery light transmuted into music.  Equally beautiful was the string counter-melody when the brass and winds pick up the original theme.  The powerful climax brought rich, round tone from all sections of the orchestra, and then followed the wind-down back to the original violin sound and finally to the gentlest of fading pianissimos from just the two players on the first desk.  Sheer magic. 

Immediately the orchestra leaped into the Act 3 Prelude, the famous wedding celebration, and the robust tone drew the hugest contrast from the ethereal notes heard just seconds earlier.  This too was well played, ending with the tailored concert ending (since the original leads on directly into the Bridal March chorus).  That concert ending always annoys me, though.  The Prelude is all joy, celebratory through and through, but the concert ending draws in a darker theme from the tragic conclusion of the opera.  Why, I don't know.

After a pause, we next heard the Violin Concerto of Erich Korngold, composed in 1945 and premiered by Jascha Heifetz.  James Conlon, in his introductory remarks, made much of Korngold's training as a serious musician and his desire to be known as such, not just as a film composer.  Sadly, I felt that the first movement went nowhere because the opening "theme", in truth only a short little snippet, never led to any convincing growth or development.  In that respect, it was a perfect example of film music which doesn't make the transition to the concert stage properly.  As a result, the entire movement came across as a succession of beautiful sound effects that weren't related to each other.  I've no doubt that Conlon and soloist Jonathan Crow, the TSO's Concertmaster, played the piece as persuasively and beautifully as they could, but for me it simply lacked the legs to go anywhere.  The lyrical second movement was better, and the energetic, propulsive finale the best of all.  Crow's performance drew enthusiastic applause and cheers, rightly so, but the concerto itself left me unimpressed.

After the intermission, a real repertoire war-horse: the Symphony # 4 by Tchaikovsky.  For me this work has always marked the summit of Tchaikovsky's symphonic art.  Here I feel he truly solved the problems that had arisen in his first three symphonies.  Alas, I have never found either the Fifth or Sixth Symphonies nearly as interesting, and I know many will disagree with me.  At any rate, it's interesting that after nearly half a century of concert-going, this is the first time I have ever heard this symphony played live!  And, as is so often the case, I gained a new appreciation of its considerable technical challenges from the experience.

This was a good, solid, central interpretation -- no wayward tempo extravagances or excessive rubato.  The first movement started out very cleanly, but at times as it progressed the dotted rhythms began to grow muddy.  Pity, because they are the essence of the musical character in this movement.  On the other hand, Conlon managed the slow-down for the transition to the second theme perfectly each time it appeared, a very smooth carry-through with no hint of any gear shifting.  The climaxes were powerful without becoming at all harsh, an easy trap to fall into with such big music.  Special praise to the horn section for their beautifully rich and round chording in the reappearances of the motto fanfare.

The second movement brought a lovely wistful feel in the melancholy main theme.  The contrasting middle episode was well managed, so as not to become too overwhelming, and the quiet ending hung beautifully suspended in the air.

The scherzo is unique in the symphonic repertoire in that the strings play the entire movement pizzicato, without any use of the bows.  The TSO strings played with precision to burn, and at the same time with a fine sense of the playful tone of the music.  That same jollity spills over into the wind and brass writing of the trio, where the trilling woodwinds accentuated the twists and turns of the folk-like melody.  The prominent virtuoso piccolo part was especially delightful.

The energetic finale takes up the same challenge as the Second Symphony's finale -- how to build a convincing symphonic movement out of two folk melodies.  It's tough because folksongs tend to resist symphonic development, and as another writer once said, the only thing you can do is to play them again -- louder!  Here, Tchaikovsky met the challenge much more successfully than in his earlier work.  Because of the speed required, the whole becomes a bit of a challenge to the orchestra as well.  The wild scale figures at the opening sounded spot-on, but later on in the movement some of the dotted and syncopated rhythms began to get muddy again.  This was especially true of the rush to the finish line, a passage which requires only a slight acceleration to sound like a frantic race.  Here again, I felt Conlon picked the ideal speed, and the rousing ending was greeted with enthusiastic cheering from the audience.

Take it all in all, a good concert.  Excellent playing and rewarding music, even if the Korngold Concerto left something to be desired.