Saturday, 26 March 2016

Germany, Russia and France with the Cheng²Duo

Last Sunday, I was in Port Hope, Ontario, for a concert given by the Cheng²Duo.  I have heard this sister-brother partnership several times before, as my faithful readers will know.

This concert marked my first visit to the Capitol Theatre in Port Hope.  Like many cities and towns, Port Hope has successfully rescued and repurposed a classic old vaudeville-era downtown movie house into a well equipped modern concert and theatre facility.  The space is quite remarkable in appearance, with quasi-medieval stone walls along the sides and an arched ceiling dotted with lights like a starry sky overhead.  Acoustically it's surprisingly good for an old movie house.  Louder sounds expand beautifully towards the rear of the hall but quieter sounds tend to get lost as the space is rather wide in relation to its length.

This program was a 50/50 split for me.  The works on the first half were ones I had not heard before in live performance.  The second half was a repeat of the repertoire I heard the Cheng²Duo perform last summer in Parry Sound.

Since both Bryan and Silvie Cheng plainly enjoy chatting up their audience both during and after a performance, I was impressed by how much more assured and natural their introductions to various works are sounding.  They've plainly found the comfort zone for this kind of audience interaction, which is becoming more common and is plainly welcomed and enjoyed by most concertgoers.

The concert opened with Beethoven's Variations on "Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen".  The name may not ring a bell, but the tune certainly will with most music lovers.  This is one of two sets of variations which Beethoven composed, based on melodies from Mozart's comedo-dramatic fable The Magic Flute.  Quite sensibly, Beethoven mainly confined himself to a quasi-Mozartean style of writing in this music.  With the exception of the penultimate variation, the stormy and vehement Beethoven so familiar to us all is notably absent.

Silvie Cheng therefore confined her playing to an appropriately lighter scale of tone on the piano, without letting it become too precious and delicate.  This allowed Bryan Cheng to find all kinds of interesting light and shade in the cello part.  Together, they captured the feeling of a joyful sunny day which is so much a part of this music.  At the same time, that next-to-last variation was properly emphatic and aggressive without getting too far out of scale from the rest of the piece.  I love these pieces, and was only sorry they didn't go on to play the other set of variations too!

The larger work in the first half was the op. 40 sonata for cello and piano by Shostakovich.  I confess I am mainly familiar with this Russian master's symphonies, where any lyrical section is usually laden with darkness and doubt, albeit melodious.  Here, though, in this relatively early work, we got a strong strain of melody less stained by fear or uncertainty.  Of course, Shostakovich never wrote any work without throwing in a generous dose of acerbic discords, but even those were somewhat dampened down by the prevailing stream of melody -- especially in the slower first and third movements.  In these movements, both players gave us a beautiful legato with true singing tone.  The contrasting faster movements, # 2 and 4, bounced and danced along in characteristic folk rhythms, and here both Silvie and Bryan allowed a stronger, almost savage element to creep in -- entirely apropos in this composer's music.

After the intermission, the Cheng²Duo gave us a selection of the French music which will appear on their first recording, due out in October from the Audite label.

They began with a set of three pieces by Gabriel Fauré.  Although not conceived as a set, these three short works travel very well together.  First was an arrangement of Après un rêve, an early Fauré mélodie or art song.  Bryan Cheng's cello line here very aptly approximated the sound of a human voice singing the song.  Next came the Sicilienne, a pastoral dance from Fauré's music for a stage production of Pelléas et Mélisande.  On the final repetition of the rising and turning melody, Bryan Cheng added the sordine (mute) on the cello but then played through several bars a little too quietly for the expansive space of the Capitol Theatre.  It was the only balance difficulty I noticed.

The last of the set was the Élégie, Op. 24.  As the title suggests, the music breathes an air of mourning but this performance even reached towards anger for a few moments -- and that emotion, too, is part of the mourning experience for many people.

The programme concluded with César Franck's Sonata in A Major, in the cello arrangement by Jules Delsart.  This is truly one of the great masterpieces in the repertoire from the nineteenth century.  It's long been a favourite of mine, and I welcomed the chance to hear the Cheng²Duo perform it once again.  Perhaps as a result of their recording studio experience, their reading this time seemed to have a stronger sense of overall unity about it.  The music flowed naturally within each movement, and also from one movement to the next.  The third movement (Recitativo-fantasia) was especially notable for keeping that organic sense of flow through the numerous pauses.  Balance throughout was impeccable, even in the heaviest passages for the piano or the passages where the cello dropped down into the lower register.  Without isolating this or that detail, I would simply say that the end of the work came far too soon, and I wasn't sure where the time had gone.

I'm eagerly awaiting that premiere recording when it arrives!

Saturday, 19 March 2016

A Dramatic Symphony in Motion

For a couple of centuries, the art of the ballet was dependent on music that was pretty, decorative, and on the whole fairly anonymous.  That pattern shifted decisively in the nineteenth century, and the music became both more symphonic in sound and more closely structured as well.  This new trend began with Adolphe Adam's Giselle, which pioneered the use of leitmotifs in dance music.  Following on his work came Leo Delibes with Coppelia and Sylvia.  Delibes in turn greatly inspired Tchaikovsky, whose three great symphonic ballets are the true cornerstones of today's classic ballet repertoire.  Tchaikovsky had more than one successor in Russia, around the turn of the twentieth century -- notable among them Glazunov.  There was also Stravinsky, to be sure, but his famous ballet scores have held the stage more decisively in the concert hall than in the dance theatre.  Indeed, Stravinsky effectively conceded in later years that The Rite of Spring was much more effective as a concert work than as a ballet.

In the twentieth century the art form shifted decisively again, as did so many art forms.  Rawer-edged concepts and sounds intruded.  Ballets generally became shorter works, and narrative or story ballet was discarded in favour of the abstract by many artists.  More and more ballets used music which had not originally been written for the ballet.

The twentieth century did, however, bring forth one final inheritor of Tchaikovsky's mantle as composer of first-rate symphonic ballet music of real substance which became even more glorious when paired with dance.  That man was Sergei Prokofiev.

Prokofiev's two most popular ballets are both mature works.  By the time he came to compose Romeo and Juliet (1935), his earlier, more acerbic style had been subsumed into a post-Romantic vocabulary of great flexibility.  The acidic modern harmonies are still there, but they are subordinated to the more tonal structure of the music and the dramatic needs of the story to be told.

The other notable shift in emphasis is that the drama dominates the entire score.  Unlike all his great predecessors, Prokofiev made no concession to the old tradition of the divertissement, the assortment of pretty dances which stopped the show to entertain audiences with all their favourite dancers getting featured turns.  The few lighter moments in this score serve, every one, to set the scene for the next dramatic advance of the story.  This is true dance drama, with a vengeance.

The dark quality of the music is created largely by the emphasis on the bass instruments, especially the bassoons, trombones, and tuba.  The unique sound of Prokofiev in this ballet is unmistakable.

I'm going into all of this in such great detail, because (like the Tchaikovsky masterworks) Prokofiev's music for Romeo and Juliet needs to be treated by the choreographer as a completely equal partner with his/her ideas and with the actions of the dancers in unfolding the tale.

The classic interpretation in Western Europe and the Americas for many years was John Cranko's 1962 version for the Stuttgart Ballet.  The National Ballet of Canada danced this version for many years, to great audience acclaim.  In 2011, the National celebrated its sixtieth anniversary with the world premiere of a brand-new version, set on the company by choreographer Alexei Ratmansky.

All of which finally brings me around to this week's staging in Toronto.  It's only the second time I've had the opportunity of seeing the Ratmansky version on stage.  Ratmansky is considered the leading choreographer working within the classical tradition today, while still making powerful and effective use of modern dance idioms to strengthen and diversify his dance vocabulary.  His staging of this eternal love story is much more closely linked to the specific text of the play than Cranko's version, fine as that was in many respects.

The role of Juliet is perhaps the greatest role in the repertoire as a test of the ballerina's abilities as a dance actor.  Elena Lobsanova was well-nigh perfect as the childish, playful Juliet of the first scenes.  By the end of the story she grew into a commandingly tragic woman, the impish grin on her face replaced with deeply-etched lines and desperate, wildly staring eyes.  Throughout the evening, she managed to make Ratmansky's trickiest steps look both easy and natural, no mean achievement.

As Romeo, we had Guillaume Cote.  He's in his element in this kind of expressive, emotive role.  Cote appeared first as a romantic dreamer, off in a world all his own.  His performance in the final scene of Act 2, the duel and death of Tybalt, was stunning -- powerful, hard-edged, the polar opposite of his first appearance.

As a couple, these two were wonderful -- ardent, emotional, moving together in the most natural way that perfectly underlined the rightness of their love, in spite of all obstacles.

Piotr Stanczyk was a magnificent Mercutio -- the mercurial trickster to the life, lightning-quick in all his scenes.  His several playful pas de trois with Romeo and Benvolio (Robert Stephen) in the opening scenes were delightful.  The choreography for his duel with Tybalt is even reminiscent of the famous comic duelling scene in Danny Kaye's 1950s film The Court Jester.  Stanczyk certainly exuded that same level of mocking confidence as he kept egging Tybalt on.

Jonathan Renna performed the role of Tybalt with a level of rage barely kept in check that made him seem like a volcano always on the point of erupting.  Face like granite, hard-edged abrupt movements, tension you could always feel defined the man, even when he was standing stock-still upstage during Mercutio's dying dance.

In the play, Juliet's nurse creates a good part of what comedy there is.  Lorna Geddes has long specialized in these kinds of comic character roles, and she certainly does the part justice -- as far as I could tell.  There's the rub: her costume is Richard Hudson's one serious miscalculation.  All in white, it's put together somewhat like a traditional nun's habit but with multiple extra layers, so that she balloons up like the Michelin man.  Geddes has a marvellously expressive face and can do fantastically comical things with her arms and legs, but the entire physical aspect of her performance was muffled up in that ridiculous swath of white material.  Pity.

Ratmansky pulls no punches about the dark, dangerous, patriarchal society of Verona in the 1400s.  The famous Dance of the Knights, which opens the ball scene, appeared in Cranko's production as a ceremonious, courtly dance for the company.  Here, Ratmansky takes his cue from the deep, heavily punched brass chords of the music.  The dance is handed back to the knights, who strut and turn proudly, flourishing and even clashing their swords.  The women, meanwhile, watch from the sidelines until the gentler central interlude appears.

The street battles still use some stylized flourishes with swords, but some honest high-voltage clashes as well.  There's a much stronger feeling of actual fighting here than we ever got in Cranko's version.

Lord Capulet was portrayed by Etienne Lavigne as a disagreeably overbearing nobleman, most concerned with reputation and wealth, who treats his daughter and wife as mere counters in his money house.  When he flings Juliet to the floor and then strikes her down again in Act 3, we're worlds away from the modern notions of what fatherhood ought to be like.  I heard a couple of gasps in the audience at that moment.

Excellent work throughout came from the corps de ballet, in various roles: knights and courtiers, peasants dancing in the streets, commedia dell'arte mimes, bridesmaids, a pair of heavily made-up prostitutes, and so on.

The seal on the whole performance was set by the commanding playing of the National Ballet's own orchestra, under music director David Briskin.  

Prokofiev and Shakespeare would both, I think, have been pleased.

WODL Festival 2016 # 5: Powerful Variations

This is the final review of plays in this year's Western Ontario Drama League Festival.  As always, the Festival experience has delivered a fascinating assortment of scripts, including one premiere and one of a play in rewrites.

This Festival marked the final adjudication by Ron Cameron-Lewis.  The affection held for him by community theatre practitioners across Ontario was amply demonstrated by a lengthy and loud standing ovation after his on-stage public adjudication last night.

33 Variations
Written by Moises Kaufman
Directed by Henri Canino
Presented by Theatre Sarnia

My regular readers will recall that I reviewed this production in detail after seeing it in Sarnia last month.  You can read that review here:  

At this time, then, I do not need to write a full-throttle review which would just retread old ground.  However, there are a few changes worth mentioning, and my reactions to seeing the show a second time.

Because the stage in Woodstock is much lower in height, the screens which carried the various projected backdrops had to be hung much lower.  Certainly it didn't interfere with their important role in the show.

Unfortunately, the original pianist (Dan Sonier) was unable to participate in the remount of the production.  His replacement, Cy Giacomin, also did splendid work in bringing isolated bits and pieces of the diabolical Diabelli Variations to life.  A bit tentative at first, he definitely hit his stride by the amazing scene where he plays the culminating fugue as Beethoven talks through his process of composing this extraordinary movement.

I had mentioned the questionable use of a Gloria in excelsis which was not the version from the Missa Solemnis.  (It matters, because publisher Diabelli is actually looking at the score of the Missa Solemnis as that music is played on the sound system.)  This had been corrected, and the rip-roaring opening of the Gloria definitely gave Diabelli (Ralph D'Alessandro) a stronger motivation for the look of astounded joy which slowly spread over his expressive face.

During that intensely moving scene where the assorted characters start singing the Kyrie eleison from the Missa Solemnis, was the piano playing before?  I couldn't remember, but I suspect it was as the underpinning gave security to the singers -- and certainly, the music is to be sung accompanied.

The first act proceeded much the same as before.  In the second act, I sensed a definite heightening of intensity on the part of all the performers, an even greater immediacy and urgency.  Not a huge difference, but a notable one.  

It was a matter of extra "edge" in key moments like the one where Katherine (Audrey Hummelen) says to Gertie (Andrea Hughes Coleman), "You're not a friend!  You're a kind acquaintance."  Gertie's proud, wounded exit brought tears to my eyes.

Moments earlier, Clara (Claire Ross) finds out what her mother's dying wishes are -- the wrong way.  Her succeeding speech is written as a series of questions, and Ross quite naturally asks them with each question finishing on an upturn.  In this particular moment, I think the power would be heightened if she ignored the question marks and hammered her questions home as statements, without the upturn.  

Another moment that had me in tears came when Clara slowly -- more slowly than last time? -- pulled her mother's arm around her in the final scenes.  This action came slowly, but naturally and tenderly, and that one moment of mother-daughter closeness had incredible intensity.

The strengths I discussed before were all still there, and the performance as a whole definitely has gained power with additional work.

I think that some of this year's awards are already bespoken.

Friday, 18 March 2016

WODL Festival 2016 # 4: Not Such a Lucky Number

Note:  Do not go looking for a missing post # 3.
I skipped the night of the 3rd show and went to Toronto
to see my nephew dancing with the National Ballet.

That post will be ready in a day or two.  And on we go with WODL!

This is the review of the fourth-night show at the Western Ontario Drama League community theatre festival.  Unlike many festivals I have attended, this one has tilted very heavily towards comedy and this show was no exception.

Whole Lotto Love
Written by Kevin Arthur Land
Directed by Matthew R. Willson
Presented by Simcoe Little Theatre

With the production of Whole Lotto Love, I've once again landed in a dilemma: the difficulty of giving a fair review of a production when the script rubs me thoroughly the wrong way.

Kevin Arthur Land is an experienced playwright, with numerous scripts and performances to his credit.  This particular script, though, I would have to rate as a near-disaster.  My opinion, by the way, was shared by five other people with whom I discussed the show.

The play is a two-hander.  The basic problem is that the female character, Lenore, is so actively mean and nasty and disagreeable throughout the first act that I could not feel any sympathy or connection with her, nor even care to know any more about her.  She's the kind of person that I avoid as much as possible in real life.  Sarcastic one-liners and putdowns are a common mode of expression today, but they are almost Lenore's only mode of expression.  The first few slams and jabs are funny, but then I found the the rest of the first act increasingly unfunny and indeed tedious.

The tilt of the writing is so pronounced that her former husband, Dwight, appears as practically an angel by comparison, and he certainly isn't free of faults!

The second act did make both characters seem increasingly human and real, but the overwhelming impression I was left with at the end was that Dwight was a fool to ever marry Lenore, and even more of a fool to try to win her back after a 10-month separation.

That feeling was strongest for me when Dwight revealed to us that he was unable to father children because of a painfully low sperm count, and her only reply was, "I don't know why that's such a big deal!" -- or other words to that effect.  That line, for me, was totally unbelievable.  Lenore might be a nasty piece of work but I couldn't believe she was that stupid -- certainly she wasn't played as stupid by Deanna Stevens.

Well, enough about the script.  Let's get to the production.

The set was a simple box set with an upstage door, a stage right door, and a stage left window.  The walls were painted in a disagreeable and dreary yellow.  There was a large sofabed centre stage, and a few other pieces of furniture.  Every available inch of space was covered with litter, junk, and piled up this, that or the other.  As soon as we entered the hall, the stage was brightly lit and Dwight (played by Kym Wyatt McKenzie) was already roaming around the room, looking at things, fidgeting with things, aiming the remote control at an imaginary TV on the fourth wall, walking in and out of the kitchen through the swinging door, etc.  It's certainly not uncommon to have an actor appear before the lights go down and the show begins, but to have him onstage for the entire period of the preset was both unusual and clever.

Once the show proper began, it was no time at all before Lenore arrived and the fat was in the fire.  It was a clever touch to have the opening dialogue conducted through the apartment's intercom.  Lenore's sole reason for returning is to try to find and take the $31.2 million winning lottery ticket from their regular string of numbers that they played every week during their marriage.  Stevens had a whole range of sideways glances, little hesitations, and the like, which conveyed clearly to the audience that Lenore was very much a scheming manipulator.  At key moments when Dwight left the apartment briefly she spoke on the phone with Micky, her new partner, and with her mother, and in each case put on an entirely different voice and manner than she used with Dwight.  If you have to play a scheming manipulator, Stevens certainly showed how well it could be done.  She faithfully brought to life the nasty piece of work which the playwright gave her as a character.

McKenzie, as Dwight, found a whole different range of notes to play.  He occasionally let her provoke him into a sharp retort of his own, but more often found the way to undercut Lenore with a smooth little compliment that took the wind momentarily out of her sails.  

McKenzie also allowed the realization to grow slowly on the audience that he was fully aware of what Lenore was seeking.  This was a matter of subtle little touches of voice and face.  Certainly he wasn't sending us semaphore signals!

At the beginning of Act 2 there was a very long blackout before the lights came up.  This sort of lengthy pause could easily lose the audience, so it was a risky choice.  The payoff came when the lights did come up and we saw Dwight and Lenore all tucked up together in the unfolded sofabed.  It hadn't been unfolded when the lights went down.  Kudos for a smooth job of resetting the sofa without giving the game away with loud bangs and thumps!

Kudos, too, for the actors successfully showing us different sides of their characters in a completely natural manner which professionals might well envy.  

From this point on, the stakes were raised higher by both actors as the characters' real vulnerabilities began to come out, one by one.

Dwight's best moment in the second act was his perfect comic timing when he asked Lenore about Micky.  Lenore's sudden silent double-take in the middle of her sentence was equally fine.

Both were purely natural -- and purely human -- during the climactic revelation of the place where the lottery win was hiding all the time that Lenore had been searching for it -- a lovely moment.

The ending was pure My Fair Lady, where the woman tells the man she doesn't need him and she leaves -- only to sneak back in and surprise him moments later.  But there was one final comic touch, with another exchange of speeches through the intercom (as at the beginning), and it got some of the biggest laughs of the evening.  

So in the end, the actors were able to go quite a way to redeem a script that threatened to sink them.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

WODL Festival 2016 # 2: The King in Comedy

This is the second in a series of reviews of the plays presented at this year's Western Ontario Drama League Festival.

All the King's Women
Written by Luigi Jannuzzi
Directed by Sue Perkins
Presented by London Community Players

I'm continually being surprised by the ongoing popularity of Elvis Presley -- and not just among those of us who are old enough (*shudder*) to remember him!  His remarkable life and career has been frequently described, analyzed, picked over, and pulled apart in all the media you can think of.  And here he comes in a play!  Oddly enough, considering the sadness of the man's story, this is a very funny play.  But as the title makes clear, the play is not about Elvis himself but about his adoring fans -- mainly female.  And, of course, when people are in the grip of an obsession (as so many of Presley's fans were -- and are!), it's easy to have gleeful fun at their expense.

But that raises the question: when does this kind of merriment spill over into bullying?  Mocking other people, as the current election campaign in the USA makes painfully clear, can become terrible rather than funny almost before we know it's happening.  The play, as we saw it, skilfully avoided that level of excess -- and the credit for this sensitivity goes equally to the playwright and to the company.

The single biggest challenge in this show is the need for a unifying element beyond the script's obsession with Elvis.  Jannuzzi's script is structured as a series of independent monologues and playlets -- each with its own title and different cast of characters.  The script has each scene prefaced by a reading of news headlines of the day, to help fix the time and place.  A staging note: I quickly became annoyed by the microphone being carried on and off by each news reader, every single time.  It was always (with one exception) being used in the same place. 

Adjudicator Ron Cameron-Lewis shared with us some portions of a letter written by the author to the director.  She had asked for permission to have the news headlines read live on stage rather than as a recorded voice-over, and he willingly allowed her to do that.  He also provided her with one additional monologue, which he said she was free to use -- or not -- as she wished.  Many playwrights are jealously protective of their babies, which is perfectly understandable, so this level of flexibility and trust in the performers is a rarity indeed!

The other unifying element is the stage set, designed by Mark Mooney.  A cyclorama backdrop is decorated with half a dozen photos of Elvis at different stages of his career.  Three square risers of three different heights are set at a 45-degree angle to the audience.  The risers are painted all in black, with staves of Presley songs running around their sides in white.  I managed to pick out the melody of "Hound Dog" on one of them.  Props and furniture are moved on and off, but this base set ties the whole collection of vignettes securely together, while creating a variety of effective playing areas.

The lighting of the stage was subtle and mostly effective, although there was one annoying dark spot downstage right in an area that several of the monologue performers needed to use.  In retrospect, the Festival motto of "Find Your Light" must have seemed more than a little ironic to those actors!

The biggest challenge of this show comes in the wardrobe and makeup departments.  There are seven cast members, playing thirty different characters, spread across seven distinct time periods.  Getting all the costumes, hairstyles, and makeup styles right for this kind of a historical pageant must have involved thousands of niggling little choices and decisions.  It's very much to the credit of these artists that their work never drew attention to itself, simply taking the audience where we needed to go and keeping us firmly lodged there throughout each scene.

I wish I could review the work of every single performer as every single character, but that would take me far too long!  However, here are a few of my highlights.  

First scene: Catharine Sullivan was wonderful as Marion, the hardware-store sales clerk in Tupelo, Mississippi, who sold Elvis his first guitar when he was eleven.  Her constant shifting back and forth between her calmly professional salesperson voice and her more active and emotional recalling of the guitar sale worked like a charm.

Robin Rundle Drake's monologue in the third scene, about meeting Elvis in the produce department at 3:00 am, was memorable for the sheer sensual power of her recounting the event.  So intense was her description of the cascading fruit off the display falling all over her that I expected her at any moment to say, "So I awoke, and behold, it was a dream" or something of that sort.  

The comedy honours of the evening unquestionably went to the three staff members on the White House phone system in When Nixon Met Elvis.  Mary Jane Walzak was splendid as Alice, the head operator, who thankfully neither looked nor sounded like Ernestine.  Ruth Korchuk as secretary Beth had the most piercing shriek, and Catharine Sullivan as secretary Cathy had the most wonderful variety of facial expressions as she described what she could see through the open door of the Oval Office.  A highlight was the moment when it became clear that Elvis had entered the building, and all three women almost unconsciously began primping!  The whole scene was total hilarity, right from the get-go, and the obvious comparison to the telephone song Going Steady in the film of Bye Bye Birdie was doubly apt because that show itself was inspired by "The King".

Ashley Grech was wonderful as Sherrie in the monologue about becoming a walk-on backup singer at Notre Dame University.  Her prize moment was her perfectly timed, dripping-with-sarcasm, pay-off line to her recently-ex boyfriend at the very end of the scene.  (Note: this was the "additional monologue" to which I referred above).

More hilarity ensued with the antics of Ruth Korchuk and Robin Rundle Drake as the two car salespeople in the Pink Cadillacs and God scene.  As each one tried to outdo the other, the poor dealership manager (played by Stephen Flindall) simply got more and more bemused at their antics.  I suspect most men never could understand what it was about Elvis that drove women wild -- and these two certainly were wild with the sales pitches they were concocting!

An unexpectedly humble and humane note was then struck by Mary Jane Walzak as Gertrude, the private security guard at Graceland, after Elvis' death.  She was just recognizable as the same actor who had played that over-the-top telephone operator, but in this totally different character she created a whole world of kindness and thoughtfulness with a few deft touches of face and voice.  A jewel of a performance.

I hate to say it, but I wish the play had ended there, with that lovely and touching vignette.  The final scene, Leaving Graceland -- which is set in "today" -- was the great weak link of the script.  The performers did their best with the material, but it really only has the one running gag to hold it up -- the gag about all the other staff desperately searching for wilder and wilder items of Elvis memorabilia when their best sales clerk, Leslie, announces that she is quitting.  It got more and more tedious, and less and less funny.  Left to themselves, Leslie and Eddie (her Elvis-impersonator boyfriend, played by Stephen Flindall) might have built up a better scene between the two of them, but the constant interruptions destroyed their chances of doing that.

The cast members did sterling work throughout the performance in mastering the different accents required for the various scenes and locations.  

Sue Perkins directed this complex and rollicking show with a very deft hand.  Only once did I feel sold short by the staging, and that was in the terribly cramped set-up of The Censor and the King, with three characters and two animal carry cases all crammed onto one of the three risers.  The idea of three secretaries from three different offices being almost in each other's laps seemed both unlikely and uncomfortable.  The single-riser idea worked much better in Warhol Explains Art to Elvis because the three women in that scene were all colleagues and used to working with each other -- so their physical closeness was more believable.

Perkins deserves special praise for the tightly-orchestrated White House phone scene, with its frequent fast shifts of tone and intercut dialogues among the three women.

Heartfelt thanks to the entire company from London Community Players for sharing this hilarious and insightful show with us!

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

WODL Festival 2016 # 1: An Uproarious Suburban House Party

This is the first of a set of reviews of plays entered in this year's WODL (Western Ontario Drama League) community theatre festival.  There are five entrants in all, although I shall (with regret) be missing the third one in the sequence due to a conflicting engagement.  

Suburban Standoff
Written and Directed by Michael Grant
Presented by Elmira Theatre Company

In recent years, it's become more and more common to find new plays by local authors being entered in community festivals.  As I myself have had the experience of directing a play I wrote for a festival, I applaud Michael Grant for having the nerve to tackle this dual role.  I know only too well from experience that the playwright doesn't like tinkering with the script, even when the director can see that it has to be done!  

The story unfolds during a single evening in Hank and Nancy's living room.  They are a retired couple, and Nancy is actively enjoying retirement while Hank is stubbornly disenjoying it in every way possible.  At first glance, it looks and sounds like a very tedious scenario, with Hank dumping cold water on Nancy's every suggestion for him to become more active.  But then, there comes a knock on the door and Ty and Candy come into their lives with a bang -- and the fat is in the fire.

Grant's script here shows a remarkable level of skill as the retirees proceed to undercut every possible response you would normally expect from two older people who suddenly find a much younger man pointing a gun at their heads.  

From this point on, the twists and turns just got wilder, and Grant and company had the entire full house rocking in an uproar of laughter.

This play in fact is a fine example of the "borderline case", the script which stubbornly refuses to drop into one of the "conventional" categories of plays.  To do this play successfully, you have to cultivate a rapid-fire rate of dialogue which is more often found in farce, short lines all but overlapping for very long passages of the script.  But farce is usually driven by a far higher level of physical activity (they're called "door-slamming farces" for a reason), and apart from two scenes the humour here tends much more to the verbal.  Also, it has aptly been said, by the great British author John Mortimer, that farce is tragedy played at 130 rpms.  But Suburban Standoff has only one tragedy in it, and we don't even find out what that is until 3/4 of the way through the show.  

The best approach?  Forget the categories!  Call it a comedy, play it like a farce, full speed ahead, and damn the torpedoes!  And that's exactly what Grant and company did.

The set, designed by Phil Dietrich, was plainly designed to fit onto a wide, shallow stage with low headroom.  The back wall of the living room had some intriguing angles to break it up, and an arched alcove leading to the front door which gave a nice sense of depth to a set.  There was also a cheated staircase leading ostensibly to the upper floor, but the cheat simply didn't work for me.  The stairs were so close to the alcove that the alcove ceiling would have had to be dropped and angled to make room for the stairs above -- and that would have cut off the window.  Nor could the stairs have turned aside by 90 degrees just out of our sight, because that was the house's exterior wall.  I wish I knew why the designer chose not to put the staircase leading off into the stage left wing instead of pointing it at the centre of the back wall.  My only other thought on the set was that the bookcase was too damn neat and half-empty for a pair of retirees.

Lighting was very effective, especially the single tight spot on the framed case of medals on the mantel.  That was the last light to go out at the blackout before each act and certainly drew our attention to the medals.  Later, we found out why.

Tom Bolton turned in a good strong performance as Hank, the retired special forces soldier.  His face typically wore a deadpan, expressionless look which added considerable punch to his lines (he gets most of the really great reversals in the script).  His manner, always brisk without usually sounding precisely military, kept us all guessing about exactly what career he had retired from.

Chris Grose was splendid in the role of Nancy, the retired housewife who looks conventional and turns out to be anything but.  She made excellent use of all registers of her speaking voice, from a deep bark to a lightweight almost-little-girl.  She generated plenty of laughs with her knack for physical business, such as sitting down on Hank's chair.  If nothing else, she deserves the Pedal-to-the-Metal Award for her astounding, outrageous, and courageous performance in the dancing scene that ends Act 1!  But that was only one aspect of a diverse and totally believable character.

Brandon Maxwell did fine work as the young-tough-wannabe home invader, Ty.  He had a good range of facial expressions in varying degrees of bewilderment as his victims kept on subverting his grand plan and refusing to be intimidated.  His finest moment came in the transition when the tough guy crumbled to reveal the sorrowful older brother of the unseen victim in his life tragedy, his younger brother Jake.

At this point, though, Maxwell had a bit of trouble sustaining the character believably.  He has to play that grief for quite a long spell.  I couldn't help feeling that, point made, the script could have moved on a little more quickly at this time.  It was really only one of two spots where I was feeling the urge to swing the proverbial blue pencil (the other was the detailed explanation of the apparent deus ex machina ending of the plot).

Jaime Doucet had some fine moments as Ty's sidekick, Candy.  Her portrayal had something of the airhead, something of the femme fatale, something of the mother-in-training, and something of the young rebel, all mixed in.  Doucet's expressive face worked to particularly fine effect in the dance scene and after her nasty little misadventure in the garden at the end.

This rip-roaring night of comedy definitely got WODL Festival 2016 off to a fine flying start!

Duets for Choir and Piano

For those not familiar, the John Laing Singers is the name of a small chamber choir based in Dundas, just outside Hamilton, Ontario.  This group of 24 voices presents several concerts in a series every year.  In this particular concert, the programme was built around a very interesting theme.  The works presented were all selected with an eye to the piano parts being of equal significance with the choral parts.  In other words, none of this music could really be referred to as "choir accompanied by piano."  Plainly, then, the role of pianist was of prime importance in this particular concert.

The programme opened with an evergreen staple which I've had the pleasure of singing several times myself: the so-called Hallelujah chorus from the oratorio Christus am Olberge ("Christ on the Mount of Olives") by Beethoven.  I say "so-called" because the original German text, while unquestionably a hymn of praise to God, does not include the word "hallelujah" in any of its variant forms -- that is only found in the standard English-translation version most often sung today.  It scans exactly to the four note dotted motif originally set by Beethoven to the words "Welten, singen" ("Worlds, sing").

The choir produced a suitably massive sound in the opening slow chordal passage, and then followed with a lighter, clearer tone in the ensuing fugue.  The final cadence was both energetic and majestic.

The concert continued with choral part-songs by Schubert and Rossini, both delightful in their different styles.

The first of two major works was a world premiere: Five Middle English Love Songs by Canadian composer Bonnie Penfound.  The Middle English texts were provided in full in the booklet, with the modern English equivalent words of some of the more abstruse words and obscure spellings.   Some words such as wyfe were obvious enough, at least to me, but others such as hende ("fair, lovely") and unnethe ("hardly, scarcely") made the translations essential!  Also intriguing to me, and a useful lesson to those pedants who would assert the "correct" spelling at all times, was the use of "than" in the same sense as the modern "then".  Oh, yes, "flour" meant a blossom.

Well, what of the music?  Penfound's music included a nice variety of styles for the five songs, as well as a short but amusing piano interlude after # 3 -- inspired by a picture of a mating goat in a medieval bestiary!  There was a tinge of melancholy in many of the melodic lines and harmonies that was entirely suited to this poetry where love is so often depicted as unattainable.  The music of the final poem was lighter and more dance-like in character, suiting the satirical lyrics praising the beauty of a woman who is in fact very ugly!  The first and last songs featured additional rhythm added by a hand-held frame drum.  The choir's diction in this unusual text was very clear at all times, making it possible to follow the sense of the words with no difficulty.  All in all, a delightful, intriguing, and indeed provocative work!

After the intermission, there followed two short works by contemporary composers.  First was Eric Whitacre's setting of an e e cummings poem, Little Man (in a Hurry).  I've never been much impressed by such of Whitacre's music as I have heard before.  In this case, though, he managed to produce a perfect tone painting of the scene suggested by the poem.  The cut-up fragments of verse were aptly paired with similar cut-up and intercut fragments of melody, and the piece made use of tone clusters on the piano as well as in the voices.  The virtuosity and precision of the choir in this work was notable.

Then came O Guiding Night by Roderick Williams.  I've heard and been impressed by Williams as a singer (baritone) but this was the first time I had heard of him as a composer.  Again, modern means were here placed at the service of the text, in this case a lyric and mystic poem of great beauty.

Then, a complete shift and change of mood.  The final work on the concert was the first set, Op. 52, of the Liebeslieder Walzer ("Love Song Waltzes") by Brahms.  These pieces were originally composed for vocal quartet and piano 4-hands.  In that form, they are challenging enough that performances with chorus are now more common -- although some choirs will still use solo voices in certain numbers of the set.  Here, they were sung by the choir throughout.

Brahms achieved an astonishing variety within the bounds of a collection of 18 pieces in unvarying 3/4 time signature, none lasting longer than 3 minutes.  There are gentle lyrical melodies, upbeat traditional waltzes, gracious landler rhythms, and above all the furiously energetic # 11, Nein, es is nicht auszukommen mit dem Leuten (just trying saying that  three times quickly!).  So one of the most desirable characteristics in interpreting the Liebeslieder is a varying range of tempo to suit the character of the pieces.

The choir sang beautifully, and achieved particularly fine blend in the numbers sung by one voice only.  If I had my druthers, I would have wished for more variety of tempo change from one number to the next, and a little less emphatic holding-up or pausing within some numbers.  Those big juicy pauses on an upbeat sound very characteristically Austrian, to be sure, but they do pose problems of coordination between conductor, choir, and 2 pianists, and things got a bit loosened up once or twice as a result.  The faster waltzes were the most successful overall.  What can I say?  I do have to be a little picky once in a while!

Paul Thorlakson contributed magnificently in the many complex and challenging piano parts throughout the programme.  His role was critical in a concert where all the works were chosen with the major role for the piano well in mind.  Timothy Lo joined him in the Brahms, and the balance between the pianists here was exemplary.

Conductor Roger Bergs was most successful in leading the choir and pianists through such a varied and challenging programme.  This concert certainly was a success, as well as being thoroughly enjoyable.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Two Classics and a Send-Up

Some of the most memorable performances at the National Ballet are the ones where the company gives a programme of two or three or four short works, in contrasting styles and settings.  These "mixed programmes" have, over the years, introduced a number of new works which people still talk about years later.  Generally, they comprise works from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries rather than older pieces.

In this mixed programme, two of the three ballets were created by George Balanchine.  Since Balanchine is regarded as one of the truly great choreographers of the last century, his works can now fairly be regarded as "classics."  Balanchine's art is significant in fusing together the graceful expressivity of classical dance with the rawer-edged possibilities of modern dance.

The truly unique feature of Balanchine's work, and the biggest reason I respond so positively to it, is his insistence that the music is the heart of the matter.  Not for him the idea of music as "accompaniment" to dance!  Balanchine used to tell his dancers to become or even to be the music, and would say, time and again, that the rehearsal pianist or the orchestral conductor was the most important person in the room.

Balanchine rarely created narrative ballet, so his works -- including the two we saw today -- are truly an interpretation of the music in physical movement.  Since both of these works are set to twentieth-century scores, the style appropriately tilts away from the purer classicism of such works as Symphony in C and into a more angular idiom.  It can aptly be described as "classical positions with one body part turned in an unexpected direction."

The Four Temperaments, set to a commissioned score by Paul Hindemith, explores the expressive possibilities of a body of dancers in plain tights and leotards dancing on a bare stage in front of a plainly-lit cyclorama backdrop.  Sounds boring when you put it like that -- but don't bet your shirt on that.  Hindemith's music starts with an introduction that lays out three main themes, then explores in a series of variations on those themes the medieval idea of the four humours or temperaments of humanity: melancholic, sanguinic, phlegmatic and choleric.  Balanchine sets the various sections of the work for an ever-shifting array of soloists and small ensembles.

I've seen it performed several times over the years, and one moment I always remember is what I think of as the "Egyptian" position: a group of female dancers in line ahead with one leg extended on pointe, the other foot flat on the floor, and one arm held straight out in front with the elbow bent and the palm turned up.  Looks for all the world like an Egyptian tomb painting!  But there are so many wonderful moments in this piece: the drooping end of each phrase by a solo man in Melancholic (*Conflict of Interest Alert: yep, my nephew Robert again!*), the intriguing duet of Sanguinic, danced with aplomb by Jenna Savella and McGee Maddox, the fascinating solo in Phlegmatic, danced by Brendan Saye, and the fire-eating Choleric solo of Alexandra MacDonald.

Just as a by-the-way note, all of the soloists in all the casts of The Four Temperaments -- with one lone exception -- were making their debuts in these roles.

Second piece up is simply entitled Rubies.  It's the second segment of a full-length triptych called Jewels, which the National Ballet has staged in the past (the first time in 2000).  Framed between the more classical elegance of Emeralds and Diamonds, the jazzy style of Rubies can seem very modern indeed.  But when it's taken like this, on its own, you can appreciate how this work too makes use of the principle of classical positions with one body part (or more!) out of place.

The music is a Capriccio for piano and orchestra by Stravinsky.  That title suggests whimsy or playfulness (think of the English word "caprice"), and this ballet does indeed have a playful, joyous atmosphere about it.

He wrote it between 1926 and 1929, during his neoclassical period.  His music at this time eschewed the blatant modernism of The Rite of Spring and The Wedding in favour of a style rooted in the courtly music of the eighteenth century, but liberally spiced with modern harmonies.  While this flavour is discernible in the Capriccio, the work is equally influenced by the rising new musical stylings and rhythms of jazz.  For me, it is this jazzy quality which Balanchine's choreography especially captures.

The music was composed by Stravinsky for the unusual ensemble of winds, brass, percussion and piano.  Part of the sense of fun in this Capriccio comes from Stravinsky's use of his unusual orchestra, and in particular from the prominence given to the bassoons and the tuba.

Once again we have a bare stage, but the costumes now are brilliant red with reflective materials, flashing sequins, and gems everywhere, not least on the eye-catching headpieces.  Unquestionably one of the most sparkling of Balanchine's ballets that I've seen, from a visual standpoint.

Rubies uses a sizable ensemble: a corps of eight women and four men, and three soloists: a male-female couple, and an additional female referred to as the "Tall Woman" because the impact of her part depends on her height!  At the start, they are all lined up in a statuesque half circle, but it takes no time at all for the formation to dissolve as the dancers begin moving around the stage.  Several of the women have to strike a most unusual position where they have to stop on pointe, but with both knees angled out to one side and the upper body twisted in the opposite direction.  For me, that is the quintessential Rubies moment.

I've been told that Balanchine was notorious for pushing his dancers to do things that seemed as if they were utterly impossible, and that position strikes me as an excellent example!

Rubies is in fact full of sudden stops, dramatic vignettes that last only a second -- just as long as whichever corresponding emphasis in the music they reflect.

In this performance, Heather Ogden and Guillaume Cote were predictably excellent as the lead couple, while Hannah Fischer impressed in her debut as the Tall Woman -- and not just because of her height!

The concluding movement of Rubies rises to a dizzying whirl of activity, with groups of dancers flying in all directions at top speed.  The company certainly achieved that effect in full measure.

The final work on the program was Alexander Ekman's Cacti.  No surprise, given that this is a very recent work (2013), to find that Cacti is pure modernism in contrast to the classical-tinged-with-modern fusions of Balanchine.  But it's also something much more.

The music is a patchwork quilt of soundscapes, snippets of classical masterpieces, and more.  An early part of the ballet is also "accompanied" by a recorded speech which gradually takes on the tone and dimensions of a particularly philosophical, wordy, pompous, and finally annoying dance critic (not the least bit like me, of course -- hee hee!).

It would be pointless to try to detail everything that happens during this work, but it will suffice to mention a few items.  There's the checkerboard of individual square risers which serve as platforms, stages, furniture, and hiding places for the dancers.  Yes, there really are assorted cacti which appear, one per dancer.  A string quartet wander on and off the stage, playing all the while.  Visible lighting gantries rise and fall in slow motion at key moments, even forcing the dancers to duck so as not to get clobbered on the head.  Dance movements run the gamut from single body parts to entire bodies jumping up, falling down, twisting sideways, twitching, heaving, rolling -- you name it, Ekman's got it.  Just don't ask why.

Of course, as the piece progresses, you gradually realize that the whole thing is a large-scale demonstration of what modern dance can include -- and also a gigantic send-up of the modern dance world and of itself.  As the antics become sillier, including the dancers shouting, laughing, etc., the audience laughter also grows more and more raucous.  Finally, the voice returns in what can only be seen as the critic's stream of consciousness:  "Is this the end?  I think this is the end.  It has to be...  Okay, this is the end now.  Yes.  It's the end...." -- and so on and on for about 3 minutes!

Modern dance meets theatre of the absurd.

If you're going to do something like this, there's only one way to go -- full throttle, pedal to the metal, and let it rip.  And that's exactly what we got.  I sometimes think it's a pity that the fine arts of classical music, opera, and dance so often fight shy of the comedic.  A lingering feeling that comedy is a "lower" art form somehow?  That certainly isn't true!  Cacti shows just how complex farce and comedy can be to stage.  Besides, it's wonderful fun for the audience and -- I strongly suspect -- for the entire company as well.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Where No Man Should Ever Go

For the third time in its history, the National Ballet has mounted a new production of the classic Romantic ballet La Sylphide.

Note:  This is NOT to be confused with Les Sylphides, a much later work by Michel Fokine which basically sets the music of Chopin to an abstract classical dance by an ensemble and soloists.

This is certainly the best-known and most often performed of the great ballets by the gifted Danish choreographer August Bournonville.  The "Bournonville style" is indeed unique, so the use of the master's name to identify it is fully warranted.  The keynotes are graceful movement, elaborate footwork, a distinct folk element in the dances of the corps de ballet in particular, the ballon (light, floating character in the leaps) and an almost total absence of the high-energy gymnastics which characterized the later Russian school (exemplified by the work of Marius Petipa).  In this particular ballet, there are two characteristic moves repeated over and over by more than a few of the dancers: the entrechat and the grand jete.

This version has been staged for the company by the Danish choreographer Johan Kobborg.  It was originally created for the Royal Ballet in 2005.  The intriguing feature of Kobborg's version is that he has recovered and used some portions of music, with Bournonville's notes for what happens during them, that have lain unused throughout the work's recent stage history.

The music is principally by Herman Lovenskjold, with insertions by other composers.  It is agreeably tuneful, dramatically dark and intense when warranted, and notable for the beautiful use of horn chords to construct extended melodies in several places.

It's when we come to the libretto that we run smack into the Romantic character of the story.  Its roots lie in the rich trove of folklore of many lands, although the story in this case is set in Scotland (as a 3rd-generation Scots-Canadian, I am certainly not complaining!).  The basic idea can be easily related to such diverse works as Mendelssohn's concert overture The Fair Melusina, Dvorak's Rusalka, and Richard Strauss' Die Frau Ohne Schatten.  In each of these tales, a mortal man attempts to woo and win an immortal woman -- with potentially disastrous results.

I've no doubt that a book could be written, along the lines of current sociological thinking, explaining how this recurrent story line exemplifies the male maltreatment of the female, which he blames on the "fact" that she has lured and ensnared him.  I'd be inclined to agree, except for one problem.  In this particular example, the ending of the ballet makes it abundantly clear that the man is solely responsible for the sad outcome of the tale, and has no one to blame but himself.

Well, enough sociology.  Let's get right on with the actual performance.

Getting the "look" right for La Sylphide is important.  It was premiered in 1836, the height of the first great flowering of Romanticism.  Desmond Heeley's sets lovingly re-create that period.  The first act is set in a huge, dark baronial hall -- really far too grand for anything less than a Duke.  Certainly a farmer like James wouldn't live in such a palace, but in the Romantic era he could and did.  The forest of the second act doesn't look real at all, but it convincingly evokes the multi-layered style of stage setting which was common in the 1830s period when the work was first created.

Costumes, too, are evocative.  The men, of course, are in kilts.  Effie, the sensible Scots girl wears a pastel dress, another traditional look for a Scottish formal occasion.  The really critical style, though, is the long, gauzy, flaring, below-the-knees tutu for the Sylph and her sister Sylphs.  It doesn't look remotely like the more familiar stiff, flat tutu of the later Russian ballet, but it's essential here because the choreography was and is designed to make the most of the flowing lines of this particular style of tutu.  That's most noticeable when the corps de ballet, poised in pairs facing away from each other, execute an arabesque and the tutus open out into a glorious fan-shape spanning a half circle between each pair of dancers.

The title role requires not only airy, feather-light dancing but also gifts as an actress.  Svetlana Lunkina amply met the demands of the part.  Her whole stage presence had the requisite ethereal, not-quite-of-this-world quality.  Her face and manner were by turns playful, solemn, loving, mischievous, and tragic.  Right from the opening scene, her dancing was precise while seeming completely natural and organic to her.  The look of bewilderment on her face as she first felt the deadly effects of the magic scarf was a heart-tugging moment.  A memorable assumption of one of the great classic roles.

Francesco Gabriele Frola made much of the sometimes unsympathetic role of James.  (Let's face it, for a romantic hero he's a bit of a creep!)  Frola aptly depicted the man torn between his pledge to his fiancee, Effie, and his sudden infatuation with the Sylph.  He was impressive in the frequent entrechats and grand jetes, achieving a real sense of airborne lightness.

Jillian Vanstone did fine work as the jilted Effie.  In a role which doesn't allow for a great deal of actual dancing, she made the most of the opportunities she did get.  Dramatically, she was truly convincing as her dreams of marriage collapsed around her.

James' friend, Gurn, the man who actually ends up marrying Effie, is a bit of an equivocal figure.  It wouldn't be hard to cast him as the villain of the piece.  Dylan Tedaldi gave a believable portrayal of a man who is torn between loyalty to his friend and love for Effie, and who seizes opportunity when it knocks at his door.  His bewilderment at the disappearance of the Sylph in Act One was a highlight.

As the witch, Madge, Rebekah Rimsay gave a powerful performance as the woman scorned who then becomes the gleeful avenging Fury.  Actually, the glee appears right in Act One when she is telling fortunes, and predicts the tragic end of the story.  The whole fortune-telling sequence was both amusing and frightening, exactly the effect you need when the Black Arts are at work changing the story from comedy to tragedy.

There are some fine opportunities for the other dancers in the company too -- a pas de six and a Scots reel, and of course the dances of the corps de ballet as the Sylphs in Act Two.  All were very well done, with the reel in particular capturing the joy and energy of the wedding feast.  The work of the corps as Sylphs was very fine, again with that necessary ethereal quality.

The chance to see La Sylphide again may not come around for many a long year.  But it is one of the foundational classics of the art of the ballet, and I certainly welcomed and enjoyed the chance to see it staged this year.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

A Real Rarity -- The First Cartoon Opera, Live!

Right at the outset, I have to say, "Thank God for our schools of music."  While the commercial opera companies, eyes firmly on the bottom line, are staging La Traviata and Madame Butterfly and Carmen again and again and again and again, the students at our university faculties of music are venturing into much rarer repertoire -- with very rewarding results.

I've written about this opera in my rare music blog:  Opera Based on Newspaper Cartoons!

But last week I got my first-ever chance to take in a live performance of The Cunning Little Vixen by Leoš Janáček.  That was thanks to the Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty of Music.

The first and biggest challenge any production faces with this opera is the fact that most of the singers represent animals, birds, amphibians, even insects, while a few are humans.  How on earth do you costume this assortment of odd-sized characters?  I have to admit that this was the fascinating question I was pondering throughout dinner, while still admitting that the producers might (for budget reasons) be forced to take some shortcut.

Well.  The result -- in Brent Krysa's design -- was not in any way realistic.  But it worked -- in spades.  The characters wore mostly ordinary, off-the-rack type clothes -- but careful colour selection defined who was who.  Bright red for the vixen -- not only suits the animal type, but also ensures that the singer is always the centre of focus.  There's no colour like fire-engine red for pulling focus on stage!  The dog fox, her mate, wore a toned down maroon red in a much longer coat, with a snappy watch cap.  In fact, many of the characters were defined by headgear: black and white striped cap for the badger, woolly toque for the farm dog, fleece-lined hats with ear flaps for the humans.  The hens in the barnyard had snappy yellow tights to highlight the legs as they strutted and posed.  The mosquito definitely stood out in black leather-bar attire!

The setting too was marvellous.  An elongated arena platform with audience on three sides (the orchestra was on the fourth, behind a black scrim) was constructed entirely of what appeared to be raw white pine.  A dozen poles connected to the ceiling by sloping ropes created a stylized forest.  A slightly raised walkway curving through the space gave variety of levels.  A circular depression at one end served as a pond for the frogs, and later as a campfire for the men's drinking party.  At the other end, a big nest of pillows created the foxes' den.

The chorus were split into two parts: an offstage mixed chorus and an onstage chorus of a dozen women who appeared first forest spirits, and subsequently became hens and then baby foxes.  Their choreography was not high-intensity dancing, but more a matter of stylized poses flowing slowly from one position to another.  The hens strutted and pecked (with their arms -- very funny!).  The young foxes dashed quickly about, a good contrast.  They also turned in some of their most effective singing in the high-pitched, chattering scherzando music of the young foxes.

This onstage group, then, participated in the action -- but also served an observer role reminiscent of the chorus in the Greek theatre.  The director added a fascinating dimension to the opera with this concept.  Also, not coincidentally, the onstage chorus served to bridge over the sometimes lengthy orchestral preludes and interludes in a theatre with no proscenium curtain.  As well, they helped with the minimal but important scene changes.

I'd never really thought about it much when listening to my recording, but this is definitely an opera for the women!  Out of 23 named roles, only 7 are for male singers.  Even many of the "male" roles among the animals are taken by female voices -- for example, the dog fox is a mezzo-soprano to contrast with the brilliant soprano of the vixen.  

The entire opera was double-cast, so the cast I saw on Saturday night appeared only for that one performance (of three).  But many of the singers of smaller parts switched into other and larger roles in the alternate cast.  Principals switched into the chorus on their alternate nights.

I'd love to comment on the work of every single member of the singing cast, but with so many I will have to just touch on a few highlights.

The largest of the male roles is the role of the Gamekeeper (sometimes described elsewhere as the Forester).  It's a tenor role with some dangerously low passages thrown in for good measure.  That's a common characteristic of Janáček's music, by the way -- forcing singers to go to both extreme ends of their range.  Gary Butler sounded secure and effortless in the soaring high passages but had much more difficulty with the low portions -- and his diction wasn't clear enough to carry the words across when he was singing in that low register.  Pity, because his acting was very strong indeed.

Baritone Chad Quigley gave an effective performance as the poacher, Harasta.  With his ingratiating manner, he projected the air of a suave conman, a nice contrast to the surly Gamekeeper who was trying to catch him in the act.

Zola Magwood was appropriately aggressive in manner and voice as the Rooster.  Sydney Trotter emitted a fine comical shriek as Chocholka, the crested hen, when attacked by the Vixen.

Mezzo soprano Krista Paton was wonderful as the Fox.  She strode around with great assurance, and her singing clarified not only the words but the feelings behind them.

Soprano Sarah Dufresne gave a spectacular rendition of the central role of Vixen Sharpears.  Vocally she owned the role, equally at home in the lowest passages and in the highest soaring notes.  Her acting, too, encompassed all facets of the role: the playfulness, shrewdness, flirtation, and aggression were all there in their proper turns.  

All of these singers are people to watch if they choose to pursue music professionally!

Of all the fine moments in the staging, there were two that stood out for me.  One was the subtlety of the first flirtatious scene between the Vixen and the Fox, almost like a mating dance as they advanced, retreated and circled among the trees.  This was the vocal and physical highlight of the entire night.

The other was at the end, after Harasta killed the Vixen, when the chorus resumed their role of forest spirits.  They drew her up off the floor, gently removed her red coat to hang on a tree, and thus she became one of them.  It was a heart tugging moment as she slowly walked off the stage with the other spirits.

That bright red coat, by the way, was hanging on a tree at the beginning of the evening.  At the very end of the opera, the Little Frog leaps at the Gamekeeper and says, "My grampa once jumped in your lap" (again referring back to the beginning).  In that moment, the red coat joined the frog to become a dual symbol of the ever-turning wheel of death and new life -- a lovely underlining of the intention of the composer and librettist.

The entire opera was given in the English translation by Norman Tucker, and for the most part the text came across clearly -- or at least, enough of it did to make it possible to follow the story.  Those beastly low tessituras created problems for several of the singers!

The university orchestra played magnificently.  The little ostinato figures so prevalent in Janáček were allowed to drop down into the background so that the counter-melodies stood out the more clearly.  One or two iffy notes aside, the orchestra had a secure grasp of this terribly complex score throughout.

In a work where vocal lines often cut right across the rhythmic and harmonic sense of the orchestra, you'd better have a first-rate conductor in charge of the proceedings, and one who thoroughly understands and appreciates the composer's style.  Who better than veteran, and long-time friend of music in Kitchener-Waterloo, Raffi Armenian?  Under his secure direction the entire complex work gelled in a way that many professional companies might well envy.  

Again, thanks to the Faculty of Music at Wilfrid Laurier for this very rewarding performance of a true operatic rarity!