Saturday, 27 May 2017

A Celebration Finale and an Appreciation

As the title indicates, this is going to be a two-part post -- although "two posts in one" might be a better description.

This week's mainstage concerts at the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra mark the official end of Edwin Outwater's 10-year tenure as Music Director.  Not surprisingly, his final appearance in this role has been conceived on a grand and festive scale.  The orchestra was joined by both the Grand Philharmonic Choir and the Amadeus Choir of Greater Toronto, as well as many extra players to fill up the orchestral ranks for the large-scale main works.

The concert opened with a short work by Canadian composer Richard Reed Parry, well-known for his work in the band Arcade Fire, but by no means confined to that one ensemble.  Parry composed the piece to mark Edwin's finale, and called it Fanfare but it bore no resemblance at all to the traditional idea of a fanfare.  In a scant three minutes it encompassed two sound worlds: the first rather turbulent and unsettled, the second more quiet and meditative.

The orchestra and choirs then moved immediately into the large-scale Harmonium by American composer John Adams.  This three-movement work has been called "a choral symphony in all but name," but I beg to differ.  Even though there are three distinct movements, and sung texts from poets John Donne (in the first) and Emily Dickinson, I was left with the distinct impression that Harmonium is really a series of soundscapes on a giant scale.

Adams wrote Harmonium with one foot firmly planted in the world of the minimalist music of the 1970s and 1980s, and the result is fascinating to listen to -- once.  It's an incredibly busy piece, with thousands upon thousands of notes pouring out from both instruments and singers.  As with many of the more strict minimalist composers, much of this activity consists of small musical cells and brief motives endlessly repeated.  The texts too undergo similar treatment, to such an extent that Adams arguably did not so much set the poems to music as use the words to create stylized vocalizations.

The problem here lay in the venue.  Much as the Centre in the Square has been praised for its warm acoustic, it's really at its best in works for smaller orchestras or ensembles.  To accommodate the nearly 300 performers, the boxes which provide acoustic backdrop had to be pushed almost to the rear of the stage, opening up a huge chunk of the upper reaches of the hall and lengthening the time of reverberation considerably.  What then came out was a warm-sounding carpet of soft-grained sound, in which almost no individual notes -- or words -- could be detected.  It's likely that a clearer sound picture would have emerged in a hall optimally designed for such large forces.

Certainly we could see the string players furiously sawing away, and conductor Outwater's hands beating time vigorously.  But if you closed your eyes you might just as well have been listening to a single long chord in which this or that note changed occasionally, altering the colour.  As sound it was fascinating and beautiful.  As music, it left much to be desired.

The exception was the second movement, in which the upper strings remained silent and other instruments and voices were used in smaller groupings.  Here, the propelling motives became more audible and the text could be more clearly discerned. 

It's been many years since I have heard a live performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 1.  During that time lapse the music has taken on a deeper emotional significance for me.  For my husband, Massi, this was his favourite of all the Mahler symphonies.  Although we enjoyed many fine concerts during our years together, the opportunity to hear Mahler's First never arose for us before he died from cancer in 2013.  So for me, this concert became a time of recollection tinged with regret.  I'm sure, though, that Massi would have enjoyed every second of the performance -- so I was honoured to enjoy it for both of us.

Since the normal strength of the KWSO is 49 players, and Mahler's epic work calls for over a hundred, serious reinforcement is essential.  In particular, Mahler called for quadruple winds and 7 horns (the orchestra's regular roster has the normal double woodwinds and 4 horns of the mid-nineteenth century) and then asked for 3 more horn players to join in on the final pages of the last movement (the three extra horns were omitted this week).  And as if this many horns weren't enough, Mahler even called for the horn players to stand up during those final bars so that the maximum volume of sound could be clearly heard!  With so many extras in the brass and winds, equal reinforcement of the string sections to maintain balance is also necessary.

Outwater had a strong grasp of the entire score, its subtleties (yes, Mahler can be subtle!) and its treacherous spots, and held his interpretation together firmly all the way through the work.  Not least impressive was the unanimity of the orchestral playing in a situation where over half the musicians were not regular members of the ensemble.  The numerous tempo changes throughout the symphony were all cleanly negotiated.  Some were a bit on the abrupt side for my liking, but only once did the shift really get pushed too far.

The offstage military fanfares in the long introduction to the first movement were suitably distanced and yet well integrated into the musical canvas of shimmering strings and bird calls.  The eventual emergence of the first main theme (from the composer's earlier Songs of a Wayfarer cycle) came in with a delightful swagger.  The remainder of the movement unfolded organically right up to the jokey final chords.

The second movement took off with a swing, yet still at a true ländler tempo, capturing the march-like tone of the music yet never losing the essential lilting character of the dance.  The central episode relaxed easily and gently by way of comparison and the ending worked up a fine rush and forward impetus, reflecting Mahler's original title for the piece which was Under Full Sail.

Mahler definitely staked his turf as a musical explorer of "things that go bump in the night" with the third movement funeral march.  Of all the odd things, it's a modified rondo whose main theme is a canon based loosely on the folk tune Brüder Martin (better known here as Frère Jacques), and the tune is first given out in its entirety by the solo double bass (Ian Whitman in fine form).  As other instruments join in one by one, their points of entry into the theme are varied in a way that keeps pushing the grotesquerie of the music into the foreground.

Even more grotesque is the bizarre contrast, in the episodes, of traditional Yiddish klezmer music, which reminds us that Mahler himself was Jewish by birth although he converted to Christianity for professional reasons (it was a style of music that he never revisited in his later symphonies).  Strange in another, more remorseless way was the gentle, reminiscent playing of the "Farewell" theme from the Wayfarer cycle at the heart of the movement.  Conductor and orchestra alike relished all the odd sound combinations that result when you just let this music be itself and don't try to "correct" it or make it sound "nicer."  The one problem was the sudden and huge acceleration in tempo into the brief final recurrence of the klezmer music.  Yes, it's marked to go faster, but this was the one place where I felt Outwater far overplayed his hand.

No such difficulties attended the turbulent dramatics of the finale.  The opening explosion went off like a rocket and the main march theme was both fast and powerfully heavy in its tread.  Orchestra and conductor made the most of the giant-size dynamic contrasts throughout the movement.  The slow buildup to the eruption of the main theme in its major-key form was beautifully paced.  Even in the loudest climaxes, the clarity of the playing was stunning.  I was amused to note that there was no particular dynamic benefit when the 7 horns leaped to their feet, as directed, in the final pages.  None was needed.  The entire performance of the symphony cohered magnificently, and the grand peroration of brasses and percussion capped the entire edifice with absolute grandeur.


The programme booklet contained appreciative comments about retiring music director Edwin Outwater from several members of the orchestra.  I want to add my own personal words of appreciation for a most unusual musician.

Edwin Outwater is definitely a musician's conductor rather than an audience's conductor.  By this I mean that his beat, always completely clear and precise, is delivered in a simple and understated pattern with no outsize gyrations or gymnastics such as some conductors use.  He doesn't even use a baton, but his hands -- in the same underplayed manner -- are always at work shaping the music.  In no sense is he showy or flashy, but he always demonstrates a clear command of the music at hand.

The range of music he has presented is much wider than might be expected, and there's never any indication that he's just going through the motions.  He plainly knows and understands all the works he leads, shaping them with a long view rather than as a disconnected series of effects, and finessing their difficulties in such a way as to make the course of the music seem both easy and inevitable.

What Outwater has done most successfully is to build on the orchestra's strengths while at the same time building on his audience's strengths too.  Like many another small-city orchestra, the KWSO often needs to programme the staples of the repertoire, from Beethoven and Mozart to Brahms and Tchaikovsky.  While the main anchor work of each concert rarely strays beyond the territory of the well-known, there's hardly a concert that goes by without some contemporary work and composer being introduced to the audience (this week's concert was plainly no exception).  In presenting these more adventurous choices, Outwater has taught his listeners to approach the music of our time in a more open-minded way, and to value its qualities.  In the process, he's given exposure to many fine young composers, including many (but not limited to) Canadians.

Not only among contemporary pieces, but equally among the great masters of past centuries, he's demonstrated strong advocacy for some of the rarely heard works found in every composer's workbench.  Unusual soloists, too, leaven the traditional mix of instrumentalists and singers.  These collaborations have likewise enriched the musical world of Kitchener-Waterloo.  

I've managed to attend quite a few KWSO concerts under Edwin Outwater's guiding hands since I relocated to southern Ontario in 2010, and it's been a most rewarding experience.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Theatre Ontario Festival: Powerhouse Drama

This article is a re-review of a show which I previously saw at the QUONTA (northeastern Ontario) festival in March.  As such, it concentrates on the differences and changes in the show and in my reactions to it.  To read the original review from March, go here:  Tough to Love

by Damien Atkins
Presented by Sault Theatre Workshop
Representing QUONTA Drama Region

Even on a second viewing, this production of Lucy remains an extraordinarily gripping experience.  It can also be disquieting and disturbing -- certainly not a light evening of entertainment, but just as certainly the play is thought-provoking.

I also want to pin a blanket caveat onto my observations of differences.  In Timmins I was seated in the very front row of a very high, large auditorium.  In Ottawa, we had a somewhat lower auditorium in a more conventional shape, and I was seated about 2/3 of the way back.  Many of the differences in my perception of the show might be due to that difference in seat location and change in venue.

As well, there was a significant casting change: Mark Daniher, who played the small but significant role of Gavin, was not available for this re-staging and his place was taken in Ottawa by Marc Beaudette.  So let's begin right there.  This change brought both gains and losses.  Beaudette was, I felt, much stronger and clearer in presenting the vocal side of Gavin's character, but seemed at a bit of a loss as to what to do on the physical side.  Occasionally, he fell into the disconcerting mannerism of twisting back and forth on the spot.  The biggest gain came in the final climactic scene when his direct accusation to Vivian -- "You left her!" -- came rocketing out loud and clear where it was formerly submerged in the general uproar.

In the central role of Lucy, Calista Jones certainly developed extra dimensions in her portrayal.  Formerly, I felt she operated on two different levels: external and internal.  Now, her handling of the text and of her emotions took on more shades of meaning and intensity, added more levels and dimensions to the character, and drew even more audience sympathy to her than the first time I saw the show.  The unique, total immersion quality of her performance was more than remarkable in a young performer taking on a first stage role.

It's really hard to balance the role of Lucy's mother, Vivian.  As written, it invites -- almost demands -- a progressive descent into over-the-top hysteria.  I did feel that Catherina Warren's performance on this stage went a little too far past the delicate point of balance, and went there a little too early in the play, making it harder for her to raise the stakes in the final climactic confrontation as she absolutely must do.  BUT -- when she did break, collapse, and weep as she apologized to Lucy, and then held her, she touched a level of emotional truth and depth that she didn't quite reach the last time.

Shame on me, for needing an adjudicator to point out to me how Wendylynn Levoskin as Julia (Vivian's research assistant) kept playing scenes in profile, facing directly towards the wings in order to meet Vivian head-on as one might in real life.  Right there is the key issue with this role, even though Levoskin has a good grasp of the nature of the character and of the difficulties of relating to an employer with such an unusual personality.

Michael Haggerman as Morris, the therapist, remained -- as before -- more convincing in the physical side of the character than in the vocal.  His most effective and believable moments, then, were those where he turned his attention from Vivian (the parent) to Lucy herself (the patient).

More so than in March, the play resonated with me as a plea -- a demand -- that each of us re-examine how we react to and treat people among us who are "different" in any way.  Do we demand of them that they meet some particular norm or do we leave them free to be who they are?  The ending also left me wondering what would happen in another ten years to Vivian, and especially to Lucy.  Playwright Damien Atkins has left all sorts of open-ended thoughts to us, and the great strength of this production -- in spite of some major issues -- is that it has captured the dramatic intensity of the script and also succeeded in leaving those open ends for us to ponder in our own ways, and in our own good time.

A footnote:  As usual, I avoided attending the detailed adjudications because my own thoughts on the productions were not yet firm enough to avoid being "modified" as I heard what the adjudicator had to say.  But I wholeheartedly agreed with her decision to award Calista Jones with an award as "Outstanding Newcomer" of the Festival (there were several).  And I definitely noted how the applause and cheers for Jones went on longer, and louder, than for any other award except Best Production.  Plainly, the participants and audience at the Awards Ceremony also agreed with the adjudicator about the truly remarkable quality of her performance.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Theatre Ontario Festival: Human Comedy

I'm sure some of my most faithful followers were wondering why I hadn't reviewed the first two shows in this year's Theatre Ontario Festival.  The simple answer is that I didn't get to them.  But I am in Ottawa now, so here's my review of the third show.

Outside Mullingar
by John Patrick Shanley
Presented by Toronto Irish Players
Representing the ACT-CO Region

The best comedies, in the classic sense, are those plays which invite us to laugh at the characters on stage while at the same time ruefully recognizing ourselves, or aspects of ourselves, in them.  That's an excellent description of Outside Mullingar.

The script depicts four contrasted characters: the stubborn and determined Rosemary Muldoon, and her mother, world-weary and compassionate Aoife, and (in the house next door) cranky old Tony Reilly and his introverted son Anthony.  The ingredients from which the plot is compounded lead to some surprisingly amusing situations.  One point of reference that kept popping into my head was Bernard Shaw's famous dictum:  "Woman is the pursuer and the disposer; man, the pursued and the disposed of." 

The set used a bare frame outline of a house and a barn, the house (a kitchen) finished with a back counter, an old electric stove, and a wood burning stove off to one side.  A simple table with two chairs, and a larger armchair, completed the picture.  The curious thing for me was a nagging feeling that I had seen the set before, probably due to the fact that there are only so many things you can do when creating a fashionable framework-styled set for a house!

The back wall of the stage was a cyclorama which highlighted the actors beautifully.  My one major bone to pick with the visual aspect of the show was the incredible number of lighting changes playing across that backdrop.  At first intriguing, the frequent shifts of all the colours of the lighting grew intrusive and then downright annoying as the often-blatant shifts kept yanking focus away from the actors.  Sometimes, in a very human play like this, simply lighting the action is a better choice than playing around with a fancy, complex lighting plot.

Among the four characters on stage, Barbara Taylor as Aoife Muldoon did fine work in moving through a whole series of vivid and contrasting emotional states while holding steadily to the physicality of the older woman dying of an unnamed illness.  

As her daughter, Rosemary, Elaine O'Neal portrayed a woman full of vigour and energy, with a strong impatient streak running through her.  Although a brief programme note referred to her as introverted and eccentric, what I got was extroverted and eccentric.  The interpretation still worked well with the script, except for one scene -- the one where she talks about wanting to commit suicide.  Due to her apparently healthy and energetic temperament, this came out at first as sounding like teasing or manipulation directed at Anthony.  It took me several minutes to realize that she actually meant it.

Dermot Walsh as cranky old Tony Reilly certainly got the cranky part clear, and the stubbornness that went with it.  What was less clear was the actual words of his speeches.  Whether because of the speed at which he spoke, or a lack of truly clear diction (or both), it was often difficult to pick up more than two or three out of every ten words he said.  There was one scene in Act 1 where Rosemary was arguing with him, and because she was moving around behind him, her words also vanished for a minute or so into the great beyond. 

Chris Irving gave a strongly emotional performance as Tony's son, Anthony.  His unwillingness to stand up to his father determined his every moment in Act 1.  Most moving of all was the moment when he finally cracked and let his feelings, telling Tony that he didn't really love the farm as much as he said her did.  In Act 2, his comic timing paid off time and again during the entire scene which was, in effect, a prolonged mating dance with Rosemary.  In fact, the four members of the cast all created splendid examples of perfectly timed payoff lines.

Director Harvey Levkoe created a whole series of fine stage pictures, with the most magnificent of all being the last scene of Act 1, a touchingly lovely portrait of two children bidding their respective parents farewell in quite different ways.  Another was the opening sequence of Act 2, in which Anthony crossed back and forth from side to side of the stage lugging a milk can, a crate, and other farming odds and ends, changing his coat or sweater at the end of each cross, while Rosemary, from her kitchen, watched him working through an imaginary front window.  Perfect way to underline the lapse of four years between the two acts.

While I got some good hearty laughs out of this delightful script and the fine performance by this company, the laughter for me kept getting leavened with those rueful little smiles that we get on our faces when we realize that the play is actually holding up a mirror to us, and we are willingly gazing into it.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Mozart's Crowning Glory

As I've said before, I feel that Don Giovanni is Mozart's supreme masterpiece for the operatic stage, and also one of that handful of works (including the 20th and 24th piano concerti, the Requiem, and the 40th and 41st symphonies) in which he came closest to breaking through into the romantic era.

Don Giovanni is titled as a dramma giocoso, and the Italian meaning is palpable even to those without much training in the language.  Exactly what it means as a genre is less easy to define, but in Mozart's work we definitely see the mixture of seriousness and levity, with moods alternating at lightning-fast speed in some sequences.  We also see the connection of the two extremes, as his own levity becomes one of the key forces dragging Don Giovanni to his hellish end.

The extraordinary thing about this opera, and the aspect which I believe lifts it to the position of Mozart's best, is the remarkable number of different approaches that can be taken to almost all of the main characters in the drama.  It's the biggest reason why Don Giovanni is always worth seeing again.  Even more than in most operas, you will never see the same opera twice because the story can be so strongly coloured by playing with the dynamics of the characters.  The commentator who called it "this endlessly invigorating drama" certainly hit the nail on the head!

This Metropolitan Opera production marks the fourth staging of Don Giovanni which I've seen in the last decade.  And be it clear, I do mean four quite separate and distinct productions.  Two were at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, one was by Opera Atelier (also in Toronto), and now this one.

It was also by far the most traditional staging I have ever seen.  In a previous review (Anti-Romantic Version of the First Romantic Opera), I zeroed in on the weaknesses of a modern "psychological" production, with quick references backwards to another that was a bit more traditional until it came time for the Don to die.  Both, in their different ways, made complete nonsense of the words and music.

Let's be completely clear: I do not demand or require that an opera be staged as it was when first performed, but whatever conceits the director presents on stage absolutely should not swear at the music and the sung text.

So, to this Metropolitan Opera staging, a revival of a production by Michael Grandage which premiered in 2011.  But of course the Met's history with this opera goes much farther back in time, a point made clear by the laconic note on the programme that this was the Metropolitan's 564th performance of Don Giovanni.  Just let that number sink in for a moment.

Christopher Oram's set at first appeared a bit like overkill, with three stories of apartment balconies stretching right across the stage.  However, as soon as the unit separated into two, moving independently back and to the sides and revealing more units behind, the flexibility of the concept began to appear -- and the set continued to reveal more and more possible uses and configurations as the performance progressed.  Not the least of the advantages was the fact that all scene changes could take place on the roll (literally) with no need to ever stop or lower a curtain, or turn the lights down, during either of the two long acts.

Before the performance, a stage announcement was made that Mariusz Kwiecien was going to go on in the role of Don Giovanni in spite of fighting a cold.  However, after the long first act, another announcement informed us that the rest of the performance was to be given by another singer, whose name, alas, I did not catch.  Kwiecien made a powerful impression in the first act, in spite of his vocal trials, and wore the role with complete assurance and a thoroughly rakish disposition.  The replacement singer was considerably taller, which would give him a dominating position, but he was also (not surprisingly) a little more tentative in the physical demands of the role.  His voice had a brighter tone colour.  The serenade Deh' vieni a la fenestra had a kind of textbook feel to it as he was still settling in, but by the banquet scene he had thoroughly gotten into the role and his confrontation with the Commendatore was intense and dramatic indeed.

Erwin Schrott made a splendid Leporello, singing with great panache and notable accuracy in Madamina, il catalogo è questo, and making the most of his comic opportunities throughout the evening.  He certainly had the physicality of the role down pat, drawing plenty of laughs from the audience in the scene where he impersonates the Don to Donna Elvira.

As Donna Anna, Angela Meade dominated the stage every time she sang.  Her voice is large and powerful, and occasionally lacked the flexibility ideally wanted to deal with Mozart's more rapid lines.  But even aside from the voice, she  presented Donna Anna as a thoroughly masterful and dominant personality, demanding where other Annas might plead, and issuing orders where others might suggest.

Marina Rebeka as Donna Elvira was not Meade's equal in sheer force, but sang throughout with both purity of tone and precision.  Her take on Donna Elvira was less neurotic than we sometimes see, certainly less pathetic, and less likely to be walked over in the long term.  This more definite personality accorded well with Rebeka's clear and precise singing.

Matthew Polenzani sang fervently as Don Ottavio, and gave his character a tinge of the pathos that was missing from the women.  Il mio tesoro was a vocal highlight of the evening, as much for an unusual subtlety of interpretation as for the gorgeous high notes.

The role of Masetto was taken by Jeongcheol Cha, and he gave a fine performance, with dramatic intensity well to the fore in his encounters with  Don Giovanni.  As Zerlina, Isabel Leonard's singing was sweet and clear at all times.  These two made an uncommonly good thing out of the scenes in which they try to make up their quarrel, with Cha playing up Masetto's sulks while Leonard gave Zerlina's pleading in Batti, batti, o bel Masetto a nice comic touch of sassiness.  This approach punctured any suspicion that she was crawling back to Masetto on his terms -- far from it!

Štefan Kocán presented a powerful Commendatore, pointing his words in the banquet scene to great dramatic effect.

The entire performance rested securely on the conducting of Plácido Domingo.  It's ironic that after he sang professionally as a tenor for so many decades, I should finally get to see him in a live performance where he didn't sing at all!  But of course he is thoroughly familiar with Mozart's score, and led the orchestra throughout the evening with a minimum of intrusive or disruptive "interpretation."  Particularly fine was the absolute integration between orchestra and singer in Il mio tesoro, where the gentle rubato set the seal on a magnificent reading of the music.  The descent to hell was dramatically powerful, pointing the way forward to romanticism without actually trying to get there prematurely.  My one bone to pick is that once again, the full three beats of rest between the two great chords of the statue music were not fully observed.

This was a great finish to an exciting week of opera and musical theatre in New York.  I'm already laying plans for my next expedition!

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Vienna's Opera

Now, why would I assert that, out of all the thousands of operas composed, it is Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss which is "Vienna's opera?"  True, it was set by composer and librettist in Vienna, in the 1700s, and has been very frequently performed in Vienna, but that's not the reason.

No, the reason arises from the central scene which gives the opera its title: the presentation of a silver rose by a young nobleman to a young woman as a tribute from the older nobleman who wishes to marry her.  The centrality of this opera to Vienna's concept of itself is attested by the simple fact that many older Viennese, years after the time of its premiere at the Court Opera (1912), would recall memories of the era when such a ritual was a recognized social custom of the nobility.  The only problem is that those memories are all hogwash; the presentation of the silver rose was a total fabrication of the librettist!  This amusing side-story shows how thoroughly Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal created a magical, idealized, "city of dreams" which ended up becoming many Viennese people's vision of their own city. 

But Der Rosenkavalier has remained popular in Vienna and elsewhere for many other excellent reasons.  It's a well-constructed comic opera, with amusing moments but also deeper nostalgic undertones that evoke emotional responses in many people, especially those who are moving towards the far side of middle age (like me, for instance).  The lush, late-romantic score entices the ear, and the main parts provide especially fine opportunities for three contrasted female singers.  The frequent and anachronistic recourse to waltz rhythms is sure to appeal.  And it would be a hard heart indeed that wouldn't be touched by the gorgeous trio and following duet which end the work.

This brand-new production, directed by Robert Carsen, with sets by Paul Steinberg and costumes by Brigitte Reifenstuel, moves the opera forward from the 1740s to the year in which it was premiered in Dresden -- 1911.  Overall this does no great violence to the social structure which underpins so much of the work.

I can imagine some traditionalists reacting vehemently to the depiction of Faninal as an arms dealer with a house full of handguns and artillery cannons (no shots are fired on stage, by the way), but Act I certainly presents a traditional staging and a very handsome one.  The depth of the Met's stage is revealed in Act 1 when the doors of the bedroom are opened to reveal an antechamber and another door opening into a further room beyond that.  The walls are decorated with the sort of giant-size family portraits and the like that would be hung in such an aristocratic palace, all set against a backdrop of deep red damask.

Traditionalists might well be scandalized again by the third act, which broadens the comedy considerably by taking the action from a country inn of doubtful propriety to an out-and-out brothel -- but a very high-toned one such as a Baron might well frequent.  Thus, quite sensibly, the main room is a gorgeously tacky parody of the Marschallin's bedroom in Act One, with the family portraits supplanted by lush paintings of erotic import.

Although Der Rosenkavalier is, like many comic works, an ensemble piece, the heart and soul of this performance for most of the audience was the performance of the role of the Marschallin by Renee Fleming.  Last week's run was her final appearance in this role -- and something of a minor panic ensued when one media writer made it sound like her final appearance on stage in any role.  You need not look any further than that one article for the reason why all the performances this month were completely sold out!

Fleming certainly didn't disappoint her fans.  Her portrayal of this complex and deeply human character had it all: the stately aristocrat, the thoughtful philosophic woman, the lover, the disciplined and disciplining princess, all beautifully balanced and touched in with nuances of acting and singing alike.  The voice, still sounding wonderfully youthful, soared in the high passages and caressed in the quieter moments.  Most moving of all, for me, was the way that she nearly did make time stand still with her inward, reflective description of stopping the clocks in the middle of the night.  Not for nothing has Fleming been considered one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest exponent of the Marschallin in the last two decades.

In the breeches role of her much younger lover, Octavian, Count Rofrano, we had mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča.  Her firm voice was a great asset as she set out to portray that staple of comic stereotypes, the woman pretending to be a man who then pretends to be a woman.  Garanča's voice and stage acting alike portrayed the journey of the love-struck boy who becomes a man when he begins to love a woman of his own age rather than one old enough to be his mother.  The contrast was enormous when Garanča then appeared as a prostitute dressed in frilly unmentionables in the final act.  Her assumption of the country-bumpkin accent of the supposed maid, "Mariandl," was convincingly rustic and still completely clear.  She then provided a firm, characterful foundation in the soaring ecstasy of the great trio.

Another young singer to watch is soprano Erin Morley, as Faninal's daughter Sophie.  While her lighter soprano blended beautifully with Fleming and Garanča in that marvellous trio, it was her convincing stage presence, her acting, that truly stuck in my mind.  Like many of the younger generations of opera singers, Morley has left the old stand-and-deliver school of opera performance outside the door in the dumpster.  More intriguing, to my mind, was the toughness and incisiveness of her portrayal of the character.  This Sophie is no shrinking violet, either dramatically or vocally.  She knows exactly what she wants and what she has to do to get it, and heaven help the person who stands in her way.

Baritone Günther Groissböck proved a splendid choice for this production's new-look version of the boorish Baron Ochs von Lerchenau.  As the commanding office of a troop of soldiers, Ochs presented himself with military bearing.  His social bumptiousness transformed into ninth-degree machismo, and the physical clumsiness sometimes shown in this character was nowhere to be seen.  The visual look of the character, from floppy forelock to mustache, strongly suggested a certain Austrian corporal of the World War One period, one Adolf Hitler.  In this scheme, Groissböck's lighter-toned baritone proved to be ideal, banishing all thoughts of a heavy-weight, overbearing lout.  Unlike many an Ochs (the name, by the way, means "ox"), he was quite capable of waltzing gracefully, and his singing matched that, both nimble and strong at all times.

Markus Brück as Faninal gave a vocal performance in which justifiable anger often seemed to be turning into childish petulance.  In itself this is a good thing for the character, but his physical performance remained very much more mature and the vocal temperament didn't always match the appearance.    

Among the lesser parts, one of the most memorable was the Italian Singer, a role delivered with great matinee-idol fervour by Matthew Polenzani.  In a classic example of "only the greatest dare to take liberties," Polenzani skewed the Singer's fervent love song by singing with the kind of overblown style that passes for "cultured" on late night TV, the internet, and in Las Vegas.  Delightful as his "American Idol" performance was, it gained half of its comic value from the swooning attention of all the women present each time he fired up the song.

In the small but important roles of the two Italian "Intriguers," Alan Oke as Valzacchi and Helene Schneiderman as Annina made a splendid comic team.  Their voices were well-matched for size and tone colour, definitely helpful in roles which so often travel as a pair.  By contrast with the Singer, these two relatively underplayed their hands, letting subtle touches take the place of bold, brassy gestures.  The one exception was Annina's presentation of the letter from "Mariandl" to Ochs -- a scene which definitely benefits from a more over-the-top comic presentation.  Schneiderman then did a fine job of varying her vocal tone in her Act 3 appearance as the supposed wife of Ochs.

Conductor Sebastian Weigle did a first-class job of holding together and shaping a score which, simple as it sometimes sounds, is one of the more fiendish jobs regularly presented to opera-house orchestras.  I particularly enjoyed the relaxed, echt-Viennese lilt which he brought to the waltz fragments that pepper the work.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Officially Mind Blown

"Come from away" -- a traditional Newfoundland expression
used to describe a person not born in Newfoundland.

This is going to be a short review because there isn't really anything to say except, "The show totally blew my mind."  I laughed.  I cried.  And I left the theatre reminded of some things that are easily forgotten in the rush and bustle of everyday activity.

Come From Away can best be described as a theatrical kaleidoscope.  The show has tremendous energy.  It hits the ground running and continues at that level of energy for an hour and forty minutes, no intermission.  I've never, never felt such a time span pass so quickly in a theatre.

"To create Come From Away, writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein 
collected hundreds of hours of interviews with the locals in 
Newfoundland, as well as the passengers who were stranded there 
during that fateful week.  These stories... (were) distilled into 
100 minutes, and performed by a cast of 12 representing 
nearly 16,000 people." 
                                                                                    (quote from the programme)

Yep, you read it right -- a cast of 12 performers.  But this isn't some historical drama where "numerous characters have been conflated into a few for dramatic purposes."  No: in Come From Away, each of the cast members portrays a number of different people, real people, and they shift from character to character with incredible speed while still maintaining believability.  Hence the kaleidoscope metaphor.

My credit here goes mainly to the writers who have successfully gone right to the key point in each of the dozens of actions depicted during the show, sometimes in a matter of mere seconds (or, if you prefer writers' terminology, fewer words than this sentence).  

The show is a musical, and the music -- which flows through about 80% of the show either as song, or dance, or backcloth to dialogue, is critical to the energy.  It's not especially memorable -- I didn't leave the theatre humming any tunes, but I didn't need to.

Many of the songs are written in what used to be known as "patter-song" style, with long strings of words unfolding at top speed to the tune.  If I had one little beef about the show, it was the degree of amplification used throughout which had the effect of blurring some of those words and making it hard to follow the train of thought of the character singing.

Since this is so thoroughly an ensemble show, in every sense of the word, it would be impossible and unnecessary to single out individual performances.  This cast, including on-stage musicians, worked from first to last as a team and that's how they deserve to be credited.  This show has no "leads" and definitely doesn't need them.

During those few days after September 11, 2001, a whole series of very human stories unfolded there on "the Rock" (the island of Newfoundland).  Moments of elation, moments of terror, moments of sorrow and moments of joy all coexisted side by side.  The entire event was a microcosm of human experience at its most fundamental.

The special genius of "Come From Away" is the way it captures that microcosm anew, condenses it for us, and in the process reminds us of some very important life lessons we learned at that time.

Good Sailing Weather

I'm busy this week: four consecutive nights out on the town in New York, with three shows at the Metropolitan Opera and one musical on the "off" night from the Met.  Hitting some live performances at the Metropolitan has been on my bucket list for years, and now the time has come.

The first show on my list is Wagner's Der Fliegende Hollander ("The Flying Dutchman").  Depending on which Great Expert you consult, it's either a very advanced "early" Wagner drama or the first great drama of his artistic maturity.  I tend to lean towards the second view.
Wagner published the score as a three-act opera.  But he had originally written it as a single continuous act.  To create the three-act version, he simply cut the piece into three chunks at the scene changes, with several bars of music before each break repeated after the break to restart the work.  It still gets performed this way (and was the last time I saw it staged live way back in the 1970s), but this Met production performed the work as a single continuous act, 2 hours and 20 minutes long.  The dramatic power of the story, and the momentum of events, is considerably enhanced by doing away with the two intermissions, even if it does murder the sales figures at the bar (and, for some reason, The Flying Dutchman has long been reputed as one of the best operas for generating drink sales). 

The really forward-looking feature of the score, apart from the musical continuity throughout, is found in the music written for the title character, the deathless sea captain.  His lengthy monologue in Act 1 looks forward to the Ring operas not only in musical style, but also in dramatic intensity during what is basically an extended aside to the audience.  His main theme, heard in the overture and again throughout the opera in various guises, is not much more than a simple arpeggio figure accompanied by wind-blown scales in the upper strings -- a true leitmotiv in every way.  His lengthy monologue, Die Frist ist um, weaves the variant forms of the arpeggio throughout as well as including a lengthy section making use of the leitmotiv as vocal line.

And for sheer drama, Wagner rarely equalled and never surpassed the ferocious double chorus in the third act where the brash Norwegian sailors are finally terrified into silence by the ghostly singing of the Dutchman's crew -- a truly hair-raising scene.

This opera, then, stands at a crossroads in Wagner's career, and in the history of opera.

Wagner's score makes no mention of a date, so this production (first staged in 1989) is set in the period in which the opera was first performed -- a period when iron steamships were gradually (and then more rapidly) supplanting sailing ships.  The appearance of the Dutchman's ship as a huge, iron-plated bow with a blood-red anchor chain looming over the Norwegian vessel fulfils the general intent, although at the same time it makes nonsense of the many lines in the libretto which refer to the Dutchman's sails.  It also includes a very long metal gangway reaching down out of the flies from the ship's invisible main deck overhead -- a gangway which the Dutchman uses to great effect.

So to the singing cast of six, taken in ascending order of the role's scope in the drama.

Ben Bliss as the Steersman made great play with the comic possibilities of his character, the man who manages to sing himself to sleep while on watch.  His voice, a youthful tenor of great clarity, fitted the part as well.  Definitely an up-and-coming singer to watch.

Dolora Zajick as Mary, the older nurse or companion or housekeeper or duenna -- the score never really makes clear what her part in the household may be -- was in trouble right from the get-go, constantly vanishing under the orchestra, or the chorus.  That's the way the part is written, and it needs a strong dramatic mezzo soprano to pull it off.  I wonder if Zajick may have been struggling with some throat ailment which reduced her ability to really project the sound?  The staging didn't help either, keeping her confined for her entire appearance to a slumped-over position in a wheelchair.  What we could hear of her sounded fine, but there was much that vanished.

AJ Glueckert as Erik sang with clarity to spare, and with an edge on the voice that suited the portrayal of the hunter slighted.  Glueckert presented Erik as a man who's counted his chickens before they're hatched.  Having counted on marrying Senta, he now finds himself in the unpleasant position of being told off time and time again.  Perhaps understandably, this Erik turned into a whiny spoiled brat under the provocation, which then made nonsense of his final attempt to persuade Senta that she really had sworn to be faithful to him.  In some ways, an unfortunate dramatic choice.

Franz-Josef Selig made a bluff and hearty Daland, never overplaying the lust for gold that leads him to consign his daughter to a man he's only just met.  If anything, this Daland's face lit up the instant the Dutchman mentioned marriage, creating a momentary impression that he'd been trying for a long time to get her off his hands!  A good, solid bass voice with plenty of power to spare even in the deep reaches.

Amber Wagner makes a terrific dramatic soprano.  Her voice is, in a word, huge -- and she used it hugely throughout, trumpeting forcefully in all parts of her range.  For Senta, in my opinion, it would be nice to have a singer who can sound a little less mature at certain key moments -- such as the point where she asks Mary to sing the ballad of the Dutchman.  Indeed, Wagner gave the impression that she was singing in a different opera from her colleagues, so much did her voice overtop all others on the stage in sheer weight.  Not that it was an unpleasant sound, although the vibrato became a bit much in one or two passages.  She certainly nailed the numerous high notes and subsequent drops in the ballad without any sliding, and that's more than many sopranos could say!

Michael Volle as the Dutchman ruled the stage.  He has great musical and personal presence, abetted by an uncommonly expressive face which registers clearly even in the Met's immense auditorium.  In an early example of the huge demands that Wagner was often to make of his characters, the part calls for the Dutchman to appear on stage and immediately sing that huge monologue cold without so much as a how-d'you-do to warm up or sense the feel of the house.  In this production he actually makes his entrance standing on that long gangway like a fireman's ladder as it slowly swings down out of the flies. (I'd get the shakes right there!)  And he has to sing the entire monologue while still remaining on the ladder which has, as yet, not touched ground at the bottom.

It takes a member of the modern aristocracy of singing actors to pull off the scene in this manner, and Volle clearly is of that rank.  Throughout the opera, he summoned a wide variety of tone colours for different situations, always singing with spot-on intonation and crystal-clear diction -- certainly no German speakers in the audience would need the title screens for his part.  As a character, too, his Dutchman was uncompromisingly clear and dominated the stage -- especially when he stood still.  In sum, very accomplished acting and singing of a high order.  I certainly hope to hear and see him perform again soon.

Yannick Nezet-Seguin, the Met's Music Director Designate, conducted the score with great precision and managed to snare almost all the difficulties (there are one or two passages that I doubt even Wagner ever managed to get completely under control).  Tempi were almost always well-nigh ideal, allowing the drama to cross the footlights clearly. 

The one exception which made both musical and dramatic nonsense, came during Act 3 when the long span of the chorus and dance of the Norwegian sailors and girls remains firmly locked onto one speed until a brief two-bar fragment of the Dutchman's music appears when his name is mentioned -- after which the dance resumes.  When Nezet-Seguin speeded up to his Dutchman tempo at that point, it forced the chorus to go through the final verse and dance at a higher, more breathless speed -- and forfeited the possibility of a further acceleration at the beginning of the Dutch sailor's chorus, which is the place where ever recording I've ever heard places it.

Apart from that misjudgement, his mastery of the score as a whole certainly bodes well for the Met's future progress.  That Flying Dutchman definitely got my Metropolitan week off to a flying start.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Two Symphonies in One Concert

All right, I admit I am way behind the times (2 weeks) with this post but if I don't get it done now I am in real trouble -- because I am going to 4 more events in the next 4 nights!

It's not often that you get two symphonies in a single concert, and when you do it usually means that one of them is by Haydn or Mozart and so is relatively short.

Strictly speaking, the last mainstage concert at the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony didn't include two symphonies -- or did it?  There is a small group of concerti written in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which are, for all practical purposes, symphonies incorporating substantial solo parts.  These works can be described in this way because the orchestra and soloist(s) are equal partners, and both participate fully in the presentation and development of the thematic material.  Thus, these symphonic concerti stand at the opposite pole to the showy "virtuoso" concerto (much more common in the later 1800s) in which the orchestra must constantly come to a dead halt or at least play very quietly while the soloist endlessly shows off his or her technical wizardry .  Assemble a list of the symphonic concerti, and it will certainly include several of Mozart's later piano concerti, the last two piano concerti and the violin concerto by Beethoven, the four concerti by Brahms, but not very much else.

One of the last of these symphonic concerto works was the Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104 by Dvorak, and this was the culminating work of the recent concert.  But it was preceded on the programme by the shorter but no less intense Symphony No. 3 in F Minor Op. 90 by Brahms.  So there you have the two symphonies.  More on them in a moment.

This concert, like most of the K-W Symphony's mainstage events, opened with a contemporary work by a Canadian composer.  This intense dedication to presenting and nurturing the music of our time as part of their central programming is one of the KWSO's most admirable initiatives.  In this case, the work presented was evening ablution by Riho Esko Maimets, a Canadian composer now residing in Estonia.  The performance I attended was the work's world premiere.  

It was inspired by a passage in Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, but Maimets in his notes commented on the existence of ritual ablution or cleansing in most of the world's major religions, and on its central relationship to meditation or inward examination/contemplation.  The music, then, is not surprisingly very quiet for the most part and suitable to such a mindset.  What impressed me about this piece was the subtlety of the shifts from moment to moment in orchestration and in mood.  Instead of the abrupt juxtapositions used by many contemporary composers, Maimets causes his sound world to evolve and change gradually.  There is also an underlying luminescence to the sound that, combined with the harmonic choices, suggests what Debussy might have sounded like if he had lived half a century or so longer.  In any case, the music has a genuinely hypnotic quality that suits the theme outlined by the composer with his choice of title.  Very involving.

Under Music Director Edwin Outwater, the orchestra gave a very central performance of the Brahms symphony.  Clarity and precision were noteworthy.  This in itself led me to listen to the work with refreshed ears, somewhat like viewing a painting which has been cleaned after centuries of neglect.  Outwater's reading certainly pointed up the ways in which this symphony broke new ground, a fact which is easy to forget when you read the textbooks that proclaim Brahms a traditionalist.  In particular, I was forcibly reminded that neither this work nor the First contains a true scherzo.  Instead you get a kind of intermezzo, loosely related in style to some of Brahms's piano music going under the same title.  It's neither precisely slow nor fast, but does involve some interesting playing about with the main thematic material.  Nor does this symphony have a true slow movement, for the third movement -- although mournful -- is in a triple-time, like a stately dance.  And finally, the ending eschews traditional climactic imagery and substitutes instead a slower, quieter revisiting of the main themes of the symphony in what could fairly be called an epilogue.  

In all of this, Outwater and the orchestra provided reliable guidance.  This score repeatedly throws the horns into prominence, and the horn section's chording was secure, rich, and warm.  Also notable was the playing of the winds in their many foot-foremost melodic sections.  All in all, a rewarding performance.

After the intermission, on to the Dvorak concerto which was indeed the longest work on the programme.  Anyone who sets out to play this work is bound to come face to face with the shadow of Mstislav Rostropovich who, through many years and a still-classic recording, identified himself with this work in a way few musicians have ever succeeded in doing with any piece (the one other example that springs to mind is another cello concerto, Elgar's, with Jacqueline du Pre as soloist).  Inevitably, then, every cellist who plays this concerto has to be aware of that long shadow stretching forth, and of the way that so many listeners will compare his or her playing of the work to Rostropovich.

Cellist Johannes Moser presented a very big-boned reading of the concerto.  With aggressive attacks in many entries, he raised the dramatic stakes higher than is often done.  Nothing wrong with that at all; it's wrong to play Dvorak as if he were all lyrical melody and genteel harmony, and this concerto certainly doesn't lack for moments of high drama.

The first movement, in a fine partnership between Moser and Outwater, laid claim to being as fully symphonic as any symphony's first movement.  The musicians achieved great power with the dramatic build-up to the recapitulation, and the orchestra's surprising but triumphant entry with the second subject created a climactic thrill.  The second movement moved easily back and forth between intense and lyrical moments, and was bound into a convincing whole.  The finale opened with an ominous treatment of the pizzicato march and then launched into a high-energy traversal of the various sections in what is, in all but name, a large-scale rondo.  As in several of his late works, Dvorak lapsed into a quiet, almost improvisatory recall of his main themes, a kind of nostalgic backwards look, before ending the piece grandly -- and the orchestra and cellist captured both the nostalgia and the grandeur.  The cheers for both soloist and orchestra at the end were well merited.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Playing With Words

Last week, for the first time in quite a while, I returned to my local Cineplex to see a live-audience telecast of a most unusual play.  Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead set the theatrical world abuzz at its premiere in the 1960s, and the current production at the Old Vic in London, commemorating the play's 50th anniversary, shows that it has lost none of its unique power or character during that time.

The staying power of this piece seems, at first blush, hard to comprehend.  After all, R & G manages to ignore many of the conventions of what makes "good theatre": plot (we all know ahead of time what's going to happen in the end), character development (the two leads are so interchangeable that even they aren't quite sure which is which), and dramatic arc (much of the play occurs in a state of stasis).  But of course, nothing is ever quite that simple and anyone who's ever tried to stage this play has found out in a hurry that the essentials are still all there -- just not obvious on the surface.

For those not familiar, R & G uses a unique device of focusing on the lives of two attendant figures in Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet, following them rather than the main characters of the Hamlet story. Stoppard inserts bits of Shakespeare's play, including fragments of scenes involving Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, at appropriate moments.  But as soon as we follow R & G "offstage" from Hamlet, so to speak, we find them living out a very different destiny of their own. The ruling puzzle of their lives is that they have no idea at all of what's going on behind their backs in what we know as Shakespeare's great tragedy.

Various people have tried to compare this play to others of the last century, most notably Waiting for Godot, but for me that doesn't work.  Any time I try to see a comparison, the differences end up overwhelming the similarities.

What's unique about Stoppard's writing in this script is the sheer verbal energy.  There are scenes where R & G play a kind of verbal tennis game.  There are speeches where the words don't seem to mean anything, tumbling all over each other every which way, until you hear them and realize that the speech is actually about images evoked by the sounds rather than by the meanings of the words.  And there are speeches which spin out in long, complex sentences to contrast with others where single words are batted rapidly back and forth.

That energy is also the keynote of the performance given by Joshua McGuire as Guildenstern and Daniel Radcliffe as Rosencrantz.  I've seen the play staged twice before, but never with such a strong mixture of speed and clarity in the delivery. This extreme energy has both good and ill results.  While it constantly sustains audience interest and involvement in the play, it tends to undercut the sheer unreality and absurdity of the piece.  It also diminishes the chilling effect of the final scenes in which R & G come face to face with their destiny, which is to die without ever having really understood what happened to them, why they have to die, or -- for that matter -- why they even lived.  All I was left with at the conclusion was a feeling of, "Oh, what a pity."  And that is a pity because the play can and should hit you a good deal harder when it goes dark in the concluding moments. Having said that, the variety of Radcliffe's and McGuire's performances was otherwise a delight.

More so than in the other productions I've seen, this one was totally dominated by the Player (played by David Haig -- imagine that, a player playing a Player!).  I've never really gotten a clear picture before of why the Player has been called a puppet master but it came across loud and clear in this production.  Haig's Player was dissolute, seedy, persuasive, insinuative, sexually suggestive, and totally compelling at all times -- both to R & G and to us.  His speaking style was set in total contrast to the speeches of R & G, with words drawled out slowly and stagily, so that every moment of the man's life became an act.  A masterly performance indeed.

The Hamlet sequences were simply staged, in a rather conventional style.  (Some productions manage to satirize Hamlet by exaggerating acting, costuming, etc., in these scenes).  Luke Mullins as Hamlet succeeded in these brief scenes in capturing something of the prince's ability to appear differently to different people.

Staging overall worked well, with tall, sweeping scrim curtains drawn across different parts of the stage at different times to conceal or reveal various acting areas.

This 50th anniversary production was strongly directed by David Leveaux.  He brought a great sense of the fun in the piece to bear on scenes that can easily become maddeningly repetitive when presented with less imagination.

Like the Shakespearean play from which it derives, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead has proven to be a durable classic of the theatre, not least because the script allows for such a variety of approaches to the material.  I don't suppose one could ever stage a definitive Hamlet or a definitive R & G are Dead -- and this certainly wasn't it.  But it was an effective and involving take on the play and the audience certainly enjoyed it.