Category: COC

Bohème and Me: 12 Things

I couldn’t possibly write anything grown-up about La Bohème, which I’ll be seeing tonight at the Canadian Opera Company. Like many of the operas I loved before becoming sophisticated, the music is more like a part of my body than anything I experience with my mind. So, I give you my personal history with it, in the form of a list of trivialities.

1. Bohème was my first “favourite opera,” the first opera that really sunk its manipulative little hooks into my teenage brain. I got there through a “best of opera” compilation that included Che gelida manina. The operas I loved back then remind me now of taking the bus to the mall and having a lot of feelings.

2. The part I still love the most is the first 20 minutes or so, with the friends grumbling, celebrating, and carousing before Mimi shows up. The first couple of bars promise that exciting things are about to happen.

aside: Carreras sure was handsome back then.

3. The part I put on opera mixtapes, however, was the Mimi/Marcello bit from Act III.

4. I couldn’t afford to buy opera box sets (and wouldn’t buy “highlights” discs on principle) so I got them out from the library instead. The recording I learned the music from featured Renata Scotto and Gianni Poggi. Later, looking it up in the Penguin Guide, I discovered that it’s considered to be rather dreadful. I eventually bought myself a cheapo set featuring Miriam Gauci. It was unsatisfying.

5. Tonight will be my fifth live Bohème, I think. This is the quintessential date-night opera, but I’ve always attended alone. The same will be true tonight.

6. My first was at Edmonton Opera in 1999, and I cried, of course. After I became a full-blown opera lover, my mother became a member of the opera guild, primarily for my benefit. It mostly meant I could hang around backstage with her before and after the performance (one chorus member taught us how to correctly pronounce the word latte). I also had good access to posters. After that first Bohème, I took a poster to the Mimi’s dressing room to have it signed. Her name was Monique Pagé, she was French-Canadian, and she was very kind to me.

7. My second Bohème, in 2005, was an accident. I had just moved to Toronto, wanted to Take Advantage of the Cultural Offerings, and fixed my intentions on a string quartet performance. My path took me past the COC’s erstwhile venue on Front Street, and on my way to the chamber music someone called out: “want some opera tickets?” Turned out I did. After some mild haggling I gave him $25 for an orchestra-level seat, perhaps too much given that the performance had already started. The ushers were kind enough to let me in during Act I to stand in the back. I was bored of Bohème by then, but I still cried at the end.

8. Against the Grain Theatre’s version had a modernized libretto that included the phrase: “the first chance I get, I’ll make an appointment for some manscaping.” That’s the main line from Joel’s libretto that I remember. I still cried at the end.

9. Bohème was a supremely comforting opera for me as someone on the cusp of adulthood. It’s about young artists in the big city! They don’t have money or success, but they are full of energy. They eat, drink, and carouse; they fold themselves into the bustle of the city; they form deep and close friendships; they embark on exhilarating romances. And they work on their art. Those were all things I wanted for myself. The prospect of dying of TB wasn’t a concern.

10. I’ve met people who never really grow out of the things they loved when they were young; whatever movies and albums blew their mind at age 16 are on their top five lists for all time. Perhaps all of us are like this at heart, but for anyone aspiring to connoisseurship it’s imperative to develop and discard.

11. There are so many reasons for an advanced opera-lover to discard Bohème: its postcard nostalgia, its cold and cloying manipulations, the fact that it’s comfort food for your aunties and a cash cow for opera companies who churn out plush productions in soft colours season after season. If you go to the opera with any regularity, Bohème’s popularity will virtually ensure that you soon tire of it.

12. Even so. When I think of how many great operas are dull or straight-up incoherent in patches, how many attempt sweetness and fail, how many depict love in a way that seems mechanical and foreign, or don’t make me cry in the sad scenes, it’s hard to see Bohème as anything other than a masterwork. It is precisely what it needs to be.

Operatoonity and Other News

Gale of Operatoonity has posted an interview with me in which I discuss the Canadian Opera Company’s hopes for the new blog, Parlando. If you’re interested in what I’ve been doing in the opera world lately, go check it out.

Also, this weekend I’ll be attending Orlando/Lunaire (here’s the listing at She Does the City). The description makes it look unusual and intriguing:

Orlando Lunaire is an underground cabaret opera that will bring music, video projections, and avant garde fashion…to a west end industrial storage shed. Mixing the Handel’s baroque opera Orlando and Shoenberg’s atonal masterpiece Pierrott Lunaire, (for those of you who have never taken any 20th century music classes, this one is quite something.) and with costumes designed by Heidi Ackerman, this promises to be a truly unique and stunning event.

Carla Huhtanen, whose Susanna I recently enjoyed at Opera Atelier, will be performing. Watch for a review!

I’m Blogging with the COC

If you’ve been disappointed in the relatively low posting volume here at All Time Coloratura in the last couple of weeks, fear not – I am now commandeering not one but two opera blogs.

Parlando, a blog for the Canadian Opera Company, went live this morning. I’ll be blogging there about all things COC. I hope you click over and take a look! There you’ll be able to see some of the behind-the-scenes items that I didn’t have access to as a civilian blogger, and if you’re local to Toronto, it will help you stay informed about the multiplicity of events coming up.

In the meantime, here’s another fun video.

Sometimes Blogs Lead to Good Things

So, back in January, I finally started an opera blog after many years of thinking about it. I was a bit insecure about this endeavour, and wasn’t quite sure how I’d fit into the online opera world, but went ahead with it anyway. I wasn’t really sure what would come of it, but I thought at least it would lead me to learn interesting things. My first post ever was about an Opera 101 event hosted by the Canadian Opera Company.

Then I wrote a post about Opera Atelier and that led to volunteering for them and making some new and wonderful opera friends. I encountered other interesting bloggers. I felt like writing All Time Coloratura was making my life better in some very direct ways.

Then, when the Canadian Opera Company announced a job opening for a Social and Interactive Media Coordinator, I took the plunge and applied, thinking that even if I didn’t get hired it would be a chance to meet people at the COC and perhaps raise my own profile. Last week they offered me the job. My work will involve maintaining a blog, managing the COC’s presence on various social networks, and cultivating relationships with other people in the online opera community.

It’s possible, I suppose, that I could have been hired without the blog, but I’m sure that it would have been considerably more difficult to make my case without being able to point to All Time Coloratura. So, thank you to everyone who stopped by, linked to me, left a comment, or encouraged me to keep writing. I honestly feel as though I’ve become part of a real community.

I start working for the COC a couple of weeks from now. I intend to keep blogging here, in a non-official capacity. Some aspects of the blog may need to change given the change in my circumstances – particularly the coverage of COC productions – but I hope you all keep reading. And, if you have any thoughts on how an opera company can engage its audience online in a way that’s warm, exciting, and innovative, please get in touch with me (alltimecoloratura at gmail)! Actually, get in touch with me even if it’s just to introduce yourself. Talking about opera on the internet will soon be what I get up in the morning to do.

I’m Already Getting Excited About Sondra Radvanovsky

I recently spent some time getting more familiar with the COC’s upcoming season. When it was first announced several months ago, I was most excited about the prospect of seeing Nixon in China and Ariadne auf Naxos. Upon doing some more digging, however, Aida is now in the running for my “most anticipated” list – and the reason is that I will be seeing Sondra Radvanovsky in action.

She’s been getting quite a bit of buzz in the internet opera community. The New York Times has been full of praise for her “gleaming, silvery voice” in recital and her “intensely expressive and musically honest performance” in Il Trovatore last year, which was enough to pique my interest. Widely-read Milan-based blog Opera Chic said of Radvanovsky that “she’s one of the best sopranos rocking 19th century Italian opera today, scoring bulletproof reviews from every venue she visits”.  Then, a few days ago, my favourite opera blog Parterre Box reviewed her new recital disc, and suggested that of today’s Verdi sopranos, Radvanovsky is the most likely to become “legendary”. The review, by Valmont, is full of praise:

But what really excites me about her singing is its uniqueness. I love when you hear a singer and know, after only a few bars, who that special timbre belongs to — think of the list in the first paragraph. That is indeed the definition of  “memorable,” and Ms. Radvanovsky’s voice is memorable to say the least. The earthy, smoky, almost husky middle and lower voice blossom into a powerful and shining upper register with a golden color over which she has wonderful control.

And yet in all that beauty, Ms. Radvanovsky can find a vicious anger, as seen in a passage many sopranos under-emphasized, the  “Maledizione!” at the end of “Pace, pace.” The ringing top edges on madness, and all sense of time and beat falls away into a desperate curse.

This prompted me to check her out for myself on YouTube. Listening to this clip made reminded me of the recordings that helped Verdi “click” for me – the Price/Cossotto/Milnes Trovatore and Forza recordings that turn the material’s trashiness into something glorious.

I never thought I’d be getting this excited about a production of Aida - as an opera, it doesn’t crack my top 20 – but aside from that brief time in NYC, I’m used to only being able to see the buzzed-about singers in expensive recital tours rather than mainstage productions. A vocal instructor here in Toronto told me a few years ago that she never bothered with the COC since the Met is only a short flight away. Now it’s payback: a few of the Parterre Box commenters suggest that Radvanovsky’s Aida will be worth making a special trip into Toronto!

Review: Maria Stuarda at the COC

In general, I’m not a fan of the bel canto repertoire. The musical language is heavily simplified (lots of oom-pah-pahing in the orchestra), the arias sometimes sound like copies of each other, and the plots can get bogged down by their own historical weight. So, I went into Maria Stuarda expecting to enjoy it, but only mildly. It’s one of Donizetti’s B-list operas (the A-listers being Lucia, Don Pasquale, and La fille du regiment) and mostly treated as a vehicle for dueling divas.

To say I was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement. I felt, for the first time, that I understood what people like about this repertoire. Turns out that, when the divas are grand and glorious enough, being a diva vehicle is one of the best things an opera can be.

Serena Farnocchia has a big, beautiful sumptuous voice and she manipulates it expertly, delivering full-throated high notes and sustained pianissimo phrases as required. Her performance is the main reason to see this. Not quite as mind-blowing but still first class is Alexandrina Pedatchanska, whose voice is brighter and harder-edged, but who is entirely convincing as Queen Elizabeth I. Their performances both crackle and sizzle, and when they take the stage, following the plot and keeping up with the surtitles comes second to reveling in their presence.

Many critics (as you can see below) took issue with the sets and direction. I enjoyed the postmodern theatre-within-a-theatre setting and the stylized Tudor costumes, although the wooden drawbridges did look rather unstable. But I mostly stopped caring about those things – I was really only interested in listening to these women sing.

Other Opinions:

Toronto Star: “The magnetic power of opera comes from great music, searing drama and purposeful direction. All are present and accounted for. Prepare to be dazzled.”

Globe and Mail: “For all Donizetti’s humdrum manufacture, big-guitar orchestral accompaniments and assembly-line melodies, he does provide each of his five leading characters with juicy vocal opportunities which only require singers capable of taking them.The strength of the Canadian Opera Company’s current production is that its directors have realized this and have engaged five dandy singers – not a weak or a poorly cast one among them.”

NOW Magazine: “The COC production is the first fully staged Canadian production of Maria Stuarda; too bad all the show’s elements aren’t equally strong.”

Eye Weekly: “The COC has neglected the bel canto repertoire, to which Maria Stuarda belongs, for far too long. Let’s hope that, in future, the company can find directors able to make these operas not merely showcases for vocal acrobatics but fully engaging stories as well. ”

Canoe JAM!: “It’s easy to forgive opera for being historically suspect, but only its superb music makes it possible to forgive it, albeit somewhat grudgingly, for being sloppy theatre.”

Opera Toronto: “There is a great potential for staging this opera but the production efforts were spread thin instead of focusing on the core actors in this drama. The attempt at Shakespearean theatre did not convey an intelligible message, if any.  The lack of coordination in volume between the stage and the pit from time to time suffocated the voices of the singers.”

Halton Arts Review: “The staging was simple and effective, the acting excellent and well detailed, and the music was a joy to hear”

ConcertoNet.com: “The COC’s production of Maria Stuarda, borrowed from Dallas Opera, is both visually and musically a class act.”

James Karas Reviews: “Director Stephen Lawless made the singers lounge on the steps of the raised stage a bit too often, I thought. But this is bel canto and you have to let the singers get their notes out instead of worrying about plot and such minutiae as acting.”

Leonard Turnevicius: “Bulgarian soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska as Elisabetta and Italian soprano Serena Farnocchia were quite effective as Elisabetta and Maria respectively.”

Review: Idomeneo at the COC

Let’s get one thing out of the way first. Idomeneo, as an opera, is dramatically weak. It has the classic situation-not-plot problem: the situation is outlined at the beginning of the opera, every character spends a while explaining how they feel about the situation, and their occasional attempts to resolve the situation are entirely ineffectual. When the resolution arrives it involves divine intervention (a literal deus ex machina) and doesn’t quite make sense. To make things worse, Elettra – who has some stunning arias – doesn’t interact with any of the other characters and her subplot (if you can call it that) is entirely irrelevant to the rest of the story. The director might choose to throw the audience a bone by serving up an impressive sea monster, but the audience is as likely to giggle as gasp.

But Idomeneo is still Mozart operating at top form, full of musical treasures and stunning moments, and the music makes the draggy parts worth it.

The strengths and faults of the COC production mirror those of the opera itself. It’s musically splendid, jam-packed with beautiful voices and powerful singing, but visually and dramatically it’s a bit jumbled.

All the principals were in top form, especially Paul Groves as the King of Crete himself. While Isabel Bayrakdarian as Ilia and Krisztina Szabó as Idamante sang beautifully but carried themselves a little awkwardly, Groves was a charismatic and commanding stage presence while still giving a beautiful and deeply felt vocal performance. The Act III ensemble stands out in my mind as especially beautiful – truly Mozart at his best.

The staging was pretty to look at, with aquatic pinks and blues, but highly symbolic and at times opaque. The scrim showed a blank, open book with a Magritte-esque cutout revealing blue clouds; what that was meant to signify, I’m not sure. At one point, Ilia pulled a pink-hued blanket over her head (prompting snickers from the audience) and Idamante sang to a lump of textile. There was, at one point, a row of (fake) babies swaddled in black. The costumes were a strange jumble of different periods, mixing classical Greek hairstyles with modern suits and shift dresses. I could not find any “About this Production” note in my program, and the import of many of these abstract touches was beyond me.

My review comes almost at the end of Idomeneo’s COC run, so I imagine those reading this have already made up their minds. Nevertheless, for those who will be attending on Saturday, my recommendation would be to enjoy the thrilling singing and ignore the lack of a sea monster.

Other Opinions:

Canoe JAM!: “Together, de Carpentries and his team milk enough action from the stasis of the tale to keep the audience as engaged in the story being spun out by this gifted cast as we are in the music they’re making.”

National Post: “The COC orchestra did full justice to the richly symphonic score. Music alone makes this production worthwhile. Helpfully, there is more than music.”

The Globe and Mail: “The principal singers are, without any serious exception, outstanding, with virile American tenor Paul Groves’s superb Idomeneo, delectable Armenian-Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian’s elegant Ilia and the excellent Irish-Canadian tenor Michael Colvin’s blind Arbace – Idomeneo’s confidant – heading the list.”

Sound Mind (Toronto Star): “As has been the case all season, the musical standards matched those of any of the finest houses in the world.”

ConcertoNet: “Overall, this production of Mozart’s first truly mature opera is musically top notch and scenically attractive for the most part. It is a shame it falls short dramatically.”

Classical 96.3 FM: “The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Mozart’s Idomeneo is the third in a row with sublime singing and nuttier than a fruitcake staging and lighting.”

The COC’s Holländer: How Does it Compare?

Only three weeks after seeing Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer at the Metropolitan Opera, I have just returned from the Canadian Opera Company’s take on the same. And I must say that even without A-lister Deborah Voigt, I much preferred the COC’s quirky, at times frustrating, modernist approach.

Christopher Alden’s production, though “avant-garde”, dates from 1996 (in 1996 I was in Jr. High, obsessed with Gene Kelly, and still hadn’t seen my first “real” opera – now I’m pushing 30). Its central conceit is in setting the opera in a nightmarish, expressionist version of 1930′s Germany, with the Dutchman and his crew in striped prison garb and the armband-wearing chorus moving as a mechanized, hyper-conforming mass. Considering the fascist taint that Wagner’s work has carried since the Nazi era, this is not just a thought experiment but a deeply provocative attempt to interrogate the opera’s subtext. There’s no question that the society we see in Holländer is a rigid and labour-centred one, where the Dutchman (the outcast) and Senta (the rebel) serve to make the other characters seem soulless, superficial and reactionary. The best illustrations of this came during the spinning song, where the chorus of women, seated in rows, performed mechanical movements in perfect unison; and the dueling choruses in Scene III, where the Dutchman’s shadowy crew is imprisoned under the stage while the men above stomp their feet. A thoughtful account of the original 1996 production – and the problems inherent in using Nazi images for theatrical ends – can be found on the COC’s website. I didn’t find it too crass or needlessly disrespectful, especially considering that these issues are impossible to avoid in productions of Wagner.

And, as a coda to my disappointment with the Tosca Leap that ended the Met’s production, I’ll say (without spoilers) that Alden’s alternate ending is so effective and so appropriate that I found myself wondering why Wagner didn’t write it that way himself.

Performances were top-flight all around, especially Evgeny Nikitin as the Dutchman. His voice is clear and forceful, never woolly or growly, sounding almost like a tenor in the higher range and robust in the lower. He also had a wonderful physicality in the role, playing a broken man rather than a romantic hero. In the pit, new Artistic Director Johannes Debus conducted with insight and color. I can’t find fault with this production musically, although there were a few strains and glitches here and there.

My major frustration was in certain elements of the staging. The set is an enormous box tilted on an angle, with a spiral staircase leading up through the “ceiling”. Because my seats are in the highest balcony, the very top of the staircase was obstructed from my view – and it was from this staircase that a lot of key lines were delivered. The acoustics suffered as much as the sightlines, and this really took away from my enjoyment of these scenes, especially considering that placing the singers a few more steps down would have solved the issue. The Met’s staging had exactly this problem, except this time I was in standing room. The Dutchman entered from a giant ladder that reached up to the ceiling, and Die Frist ist Um was sung almost entirely from the uppermost portion – which I couldn’t see at all, save for a shoe and part of a cloak, due to the balcony overhang. Considering that, again, this could have been solved by having him come down the ladder a little further, I have to wonder whether the directors don’t think about how their stagings will look to people in the cheap seats, or whether they just don’t care (since, after all, I only paid $30 for my seat and it looks just fine for the people who paid $300). Last fall’s The Nightingale was a huge offender in this regard, so much that it almost completely destroyed my enjoyment of the work. Does anyone have any thoughts on why this happens, especially when it’s not caused by any structural issues with the seat? I expect visibility problems on the sidelines, but not when I’m dead-centre in the balcony.

Other reviews:

National Post: “None of this is really worth the exegesis. The music is what counts. Best to take in one of the repeats as an opera in concert.”

Toronto Star: “Had everyone simply stood onstage, the experience would have been more satisfying than seeing director Christopher Alden turn the Dutchman into a B-movie zombie who stumbles and staggers as he searches for the next wall to bang into.”

NOW Magazine: “The Canadian Opera Company’s revival of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman is one of the most exciting productions in town”

Epoch Times: “The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman was like going to see a Leaf’s game and watching them lose—a familiar feeling for Toronto hockey fans. You love the sport, you want to be there and have it all work and it just doesn’t.”

John Coulbourn: “And so it all ends in a bit of an artistic draw, for while , finally, THE FLYING DUTCHMAN impresses on many levels, it only ever really soars on the wings of its music.”

Classical 963 FM:”Despite the craziness on stage, the drama of Wagner’s thrilling score shines throughout. Kudos to maestro Debus and his orchestra and singers.”

Mooney on Theatre: “The Canadian Opera Company’s (COC’s) production of Richard Wagner’s famous opera The Flying Dutchman, now playing at The Four Seasons Centre For The Performing Arts, is very beautiful and certainly well worth seeing.”

Getting to Know You: Idomeneo at Glyndebourne, 1964

[Full Disclosure: Naxos has provided me with a promotional copy of this recording]

Cover of the Glyndebourne release of Idomeneo, 1964

First things first: I’d like to direct your attention to the cover art for this recording. That is a sea monster for the ages, the sea monster of my B-movie dreams. Right down to its strangely limp tentacled appendages and its dripping, jagged-toothed maw.

Here is where I reveal my inadequacy as a lover of Mozart opera: I am largely unfamiliar with Idomeneo. I remember a televised production from perhaps five years ago that featured Japan-inspired sets and costumes, but otherwise this is my first encounter with this opera, one of Mozart’s earliest successes. Since the COC’s production opens May 9th, I thought I’d use this album discussion as an opportunity to familiarize myself with it. I made liberal use of The COC’s Listening Guide to quickly familiarize myself with the key arias and ensembles.

Listening to this recording without following along with the libretto, it’s immediately identifiable as a Mozart opera. Though the conventions of Opera Seria are firmly in place and the musical gestures are rather more grandiose than in his celebrated comedies, the lightness, agility, and fineness of detail I associate with Mozart’s music is very much in evidence. I always especially enjoy Mozart’s ensemble pieces, and Pria di Partir, O Dio! is an outstanding example.

Usually what winds up endearing me the most to a given Mozart opera isn’t the big set-piece arias, but rather the small moments, maybe lasting only four bars or so, that command my attention, turn my head, and then disappear as quickly as they arose. Idomeneo is full of them – just now the interesting chord changes near the end of Popoli, A Voi, and when I first started listening, the lovely descending scales in Ilia’s first aria, Padre, germani, addio!

Pavarotti’s presence as Idamante makes this recording of particular interest – though it also adds to the recording’s idiosyncrasies. This performance captures him at the very beginning of his career, when (as the liner notes tell us) he still hadn’t decided if a career as a football player would suit him better than one as an opera singer. The recording itself is an effective argument for his future stardom, documenting the beautiful blooming voice that was to bring him the highest name recognition of any opera singer since Caruso. Of course, Pavarotti isn’t a singer especially at home in the Mozartean repertoire, and his very Italianate Idamante has distinctly Nemorino-ish overtones. In addition, the role was originally written for a castrato, with tenor-fication coming later (I understand the COC will use a mezzo-soprano). There is equally beautiful singing from the renowned Gundula Janowitz as Ilia. Richard Lewis as Idomeneo, however, often sounds rough and unsteady, particularly in the more florid passages.

Though a live performance, the recording is blessedly free of distracting stage and audience noise, and the sound quality is excellent for a live recording from the period. Even the applause has mostly been excised, from what I can tell. The liner notes are informative, with many interesting photographs of the production included. There is a full libretto with English, French, and German translations. While perhaps too quirky to be a definitive recording for newcomers to Idomeneo, I very much enjoyed getting to know these other facets of Mozart’s music.

The recording is available for purchase from www.glyndebourne.com.

Opera 101: The Pie-Eating Contest

I just returned from the COC’s free Opera 101 event (for Der fliegende Holländer) at the Drake Hotel. There was a very interesting discussion on “interpretive/modern” productions of operas, whether opera is relevant in today’s world or whether it is a museum piece, and how to manage the unpleasant associations that are unfortunately part of Wagner’s legacy. Christopher Alden, the director of the upcoming Holländer, explained how in this (admittedly 14 year old) production he conceived of Senta as someone who, while part of the dominant social order, is obsessed with the plight of the other, the outsider, the oppressed. This seems to me to be a more interesting take than seeing her as someone wishing to be carried away by a sexy fairy-tale pirate, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this is expressed on stage. I’m also pretty sure I agree with Alden when he says that opera, while relevant, is an art form of the past (and I think that the sooner we admit this, the better).

He also related an anecdote about a production of Aida he directed in Berlin, roundly booed by the audience, wherein the triumphal procession was replaced by a pie-eating contest. It was part of his conception of Aida as being about religious fundamentalism; conductor Johannes Debus (also the COC’s music director) suggested that perhaps it would have gone over better with the Germans if it had featured curry sausages instead of pie.

I’m also quite delighted that Alden directed the audience to a youtube video of the production’s Dutchman, an extensively tattooed former Navy man named Evgeny Nikitin (Video here – embedding is disabled on this one). Be warned that it’s all in Russian. Even if you’re not Russian, the audio and visuals are worth it.