Category: COC

COC Book Club: Promising?

I received an email in my inbox recently announcing the launch of the COC book club – essentially a book recommendation combined with an internet forum and (perhaps?) a soupcon of scholarly discussion. In preparation for the upcoming Maria Stuarda, the chosen book is Philippa Gregory’s The Other Queen.

I’m the type of person who always carries a book in her purse, and recently gave up a semi-lucrative job in order to spend more time reading and talking about books, so this looks like an excellent opportunity to combine two of my favourite pastimes. Since I’m also taking a course in 16th century literature, perhaps this will help me understand the period a little better. I intend to participate vigorously on the COC forums.

It does worry me somewhat that the Amazon reviews of the book are almost universally negative. If it helps me deepen my understanding of the opera, I’ll give it a chance. And there’s no way it could be a worse slog than Pamela.

Otello: In Which I Try to Get Past my Dislike of Verdi

Yesterday, on Feb 19th, I dug the tickets I won at Opera 101 about a month ago and headed for Otello with boyfriend in tow. It was a first for me – I’ve never seen Otello on stage before.

With a couple of exceptions – namely Rigoletto, which is a masterpiece – I have a tough time really getting into Verdi. For me, he represents a sort of nadir when it comes to things I look for in an operatic work. He is too late for Mozartian stylish wit, too early for Wagnerian grandeur; lacking in lightness and humour, and also lacking the throbbing romantic excess of verismo. His operas are littered with patches of glory, but an eveningfull of Verdi sometimes feels humourless, sexless, and bland to me. Despite his admiration for Shakespeare, he also seemed to have a weakness for colossally dumb plots. His characters are frequently one-dimensional. I like the French and Russian repertoire from the 19th century better than most of the Italian stuff, but a lot of people smarter and more knowledgeable than me esteem Verdi above all, so what can I say?

With that disclosure out of the way, I’ll say that my experience of Otello last night was very pleasurable but not particularly memorable. Clifton Forbis as Otello was vocally impressive despite some rough patches early on. Overall I wish he’d been a stronger stage presence, and that the direction was a little more imaginative. Tiziana Caruso’s voice as Desdemona was clear, full, and sumptuous, and the Willow Song/Ave Maria combination in the fourth act was one of the highlights of the evening. The Act III finale, along with Cassio’s dream, were also musical standouts. The sets and costumes were dominated by the color red, perhaps to signify passion/blood? The apple tree in Act II was an interesting touch, seemingly meant to evoke a serpent-in-the-garden-of-Eden mood. Otherwise, things felt a bit stiff.

I will say, however, that the “ancora un bacio” moment at the end is a certain tearjerker.

Here’s what other people thought:

Canoe JAM!: “Powerful, Complex”

Globe and Mail: “The best of this production happens in the pit”

The Varsity (University of Toronto): “Did not meet the standard set by the COC’s brillant productions both this season and in the past”

Eye Weekly: “the production is “grand” in all the wrong ways and, what is worse, emotionally uninvolving”

NOW! Magazine: “It’s as definitive a production of Verdi’s late masterpiece as we’re likely to see in a while”

National Post: “This was a no-nonsense evening of great drama and good singing”

La Scena Musicale: “This production won’t make you jump out of your seat, but not every production is meant to do that”

Toronto Star: “Clifton Forbis, as Otello, still has ringing high notes when he gives them a good push, but otherwise his voice is shaky and colourless”

The COC’s Carmen: Review and Thoughts

If you live in a city with an opera company, you’ll never have long to wait before you have an opportunity to see Carmen. And usually, that’s a good thing. There’s a reason why Carmen enjoys such unwavering popularity: dynamite scene follows catchy tune follows dynamite scene, there are very few lulls in the action, the sexual undercurrent (overcurrent?) is potent, and Carmen herself is one of the most formidable characters in the repertoire.

Also, its depiction of male-female relationships is a lot closer to how we as modern audiences understand them. The love from first sight until death yours forever most beautiful woman in the world I’ll kill myself if I can’t be with you attitude that characterizes a lot of the operatic repertoire – Verdi, I’m looking at you – can seem naive and one-dimensional to an audience accustomed to more complex relationships. Carmen, however, gives us a “love story” where passions ebb and flow; where lovers are alternately kind, cruel, and manipulative; where sex is a concrete and foreground presence rather than a subtext; where love comes into conflict with career and family and it isn’t immediately obvious that love should come first. I was struck for the first time by a moment in the last act where Carmen tells Escamillo that she loves him more than she’s ever loved any other man. It’s possible she tells that to all the men, of course. But that the librettist didn’t even bother to pretend that Don Jose was Carmen’s grand amour, that her most passionate romance might be with a minor character, struck me as key to what makes Carmen so different from other operas.

Even Don José fits in with conventional modern ideas of the kind of man who would murder his ex in a jealous rage: shy, repressed, fraught relationship with his mother, low-ranking in the world, and generally a bit of a loser with masculinity issues. The Freudian angle on the Act I José/Michaela love scene practically spins itself: It starts with parle-moi de ma mère and the culminating kiss is spoken of by both parties as “a kiss from mom”. Carmen seems to be his first real brush with adult sexuality, and it soon turns out he’s in over his head. I was wondering during the production if it wouldn’t be more interesting if instead of Michaela (who is vapid as a love interest and too obvious a foil), José’s mom was actually a character; but then she’d have to be a contralto and what’s an opera without a soprano role?

Now to the COC production itself. This is the third time I’ve seen Carmen on stage, and the second time I’ve seen this particular production (apparently I’ve been going to the COC long enough now to see old productions come around again). With operas I’ve seen a couple of times before, what I look for in a production is whether it reveals something new about the opera. And this production passed the test, mostly due to leading lady Rinat Shaham. She’s got a sumptuous voice and strong stage presence, and also cleavage. Previous Carmens have disappointed me in the second half of Act II – the scenes between Carmen and Don José at Lilas Pastia’s – but she managed to pull off the blend of lust, cunning, anger, and exhilaration that the scene demands. After seeing one review complaining that her portrayal was “tawdry”, I was a little worried that the production would cheat by giving us signifiers of sexiness like bayonet-humping and lap dancing rather than the real deal. There’s a difference between pulling reality-tv-inspired look-how-hottt-I-am moves and conveying actual desire. I was impressed by how well Shaham managed to radiate sexuality without sacrificing the strength and dignity of the character.

Bryan Hymel was less impressive as Don José, and his voice had a nasal, fluttering quality that was unappealing to me. But he managed to generate considerable vocal force at the key moments. Paul Gay as Escamillo could have stood to be a bit more alpha-male.

The setting was updated to sometime in the early 20th century (the 30′s?) but honestly, the difference amounted to a costume update and was generally inconsequential. The production lacked visual interest; but I tend to prefer more highly stylized productions over those that go for realism.

One detail I particularly liked was in the final scene. Carmen, after having been thrown to the floor, throws Jose’s ring at him; and it’s the moment when he’s supposed to finally lose it and stab her. But this time, he didn’t. He backed off, turned away from her, put his hands in his head. After a moment, Carmen gave a relieved little laugh – all that bluster for nothing – and calmly got back on her feet, brushed herself off, and headed for the door. Of course she didn’t make it back outside. Cheap horror-movie trick? Sure. But it jolted me out of my expectations of how that scene is supposed to play out, and that’s the kind of thing that makes a third run-around with Carmen worthwhile.

Carmen Review Roundup

I won’t be seeing the COC’s Carmen until Friday the 5th. To make sure I go in with as many preconceived ideas about it as possible, here are some reviews:

Toronto Star:

Rinat Shaham is cheerful for someone who has just been thrown into an operatic fire – the Canadian Opera Company’s current Carmen, which runs to Feb. 27.

Then again, fire is what the New Yorker is all about. The dusky timbred mezzo soprano is a popular choice for the title role of a hot-blooded gypsy temptress because she is the whole package.

Big, flexible voice? Check. Sultry looks? Yup. Flashing brown eyes? Got it. She can even dance.

These are substantial gifts for a Toronto production that is musically strong, but visually tepid.

JAM!:

To be certain, mezzo soprano Rinat Shaham sounds the part and even looks it as well — so much so that a few of Francois St-Aubin’s full-speed-ahead-and-watch-those-torpedoes costumes could most definitely be considered lily gilding.

But what director Justin Way fails to grasp in this wooden and too-often self-conscious staging is that, in much the same way as water never has to try to be wet, Carmen as written never has to try to be sexy. And in insisting Shaham wrap and writhe herself around poles and straddle chairs to seduce tenor Byan Hymel’s lugubrious Don Jose and bass baritone Paul Gay’s wooden Escamillo, is a little like using an atom bomb to kill a mosquito.

The Globe and Mail:

Israeli mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham was a stunning Carmen – to see, to hear, to experience dramatically. New Orleans tenor Bryan Hymel turned in a passionate and thrillingly sung Don José. Canadian soprano Jessica Muirhead was a persuasive and touching Micaela. The three, beautifully abetted by the COC orchestra under Scottish conductor Rory Macdonald and the COC chorus trained by Sandra Horst, provided a stirring central musico-dramatic core, which sustained us through this astonishing, beautiful and still-upsetting work.

COC’s Alexander Neef Interviewed in Opera News

Here’s an interesting Opera News interview with the COC’s General Director, Alexander Neef. The article takes particular note of his youth, suggesting it might help him attract younger audiences to opera (was he the one responsible for choosing the hipper-than-thou Drake Hotel to host the Opera 101 night a few weeks ago?).

Of particular interest is his praise for the openness of Toronto opera audiences:

What’s really interesting about the public here — and this is something I like a lot — is that people are very open to things that they didn’t know before, and they give you a chance to convince them that it’s actually good to do it. They just come in, sit down and build an opinion. They’re not opinionated before they come in. It gives us a lot of freedom in programming. Last season, our ’08–09 season, consisted of War and Peace, Don Giovanni, Fidelio, Rusalka, Bohème, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Simon Boccanegra. Apart from War and Peace, which was everybody’s favorite, we got the most feedback for Rusalka and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Those were the productions and pieces that everybody really got excited about. I thought that was really interesting.

It might be possible to read those first few sentences as slightly condescending – Toronto audiences don’t care what you put in front of them; just put it on the program and they’ll always listen politely. But it’s true that in Toronto, the seats fill up just as quickly for War and Peace as they do for La Boheme. When I was a regular attendee at Edmonton Opera, they would sometimes make an effort to mount less well-known, more challenging works, like The Rake’s Progress,  the Lapage Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung, and the homegrown Filumena. There would be plenty of empty seats in the theatre those nights, and a small exodus at intermission. Occasionally there would even be an angry letter to the newspaper accusing EO of abandoning its base.

It’s great that the COC is willing to not only include operas like War & Peace in its programming, but put its full weight and resources behind them. The three operas he mentions were indeed the most memorable for me that year.

COC’s 2010-2011 Season: Exciting!

Back when my home company was four-per-year Edmonton Opera, the formula for their season planning was pretty easy to figure out. It typically consisted of:

  1. Gilbert & Sullivan in alternate years, with Mikado, Pinafore, and Pirates in rotation
  2. One of Puccini’s “big three” (Tosca, Boheme, Butterfly) alternating with popular Verdi or equivalent cash cow (Carmen)
  3. One generally well-liked but slightly less well-known opera (L’Elisir, Hoffmann, any Mozart comedy)
  4. One “challenge” (The Rake’s Progress, Bluebeard’s Castle)

For someone just getting into opera, as I was in the late 90′s, this season setup was actually pretty good – a chance to see the classics that had taught me to love the form, plus a toe in the waters of “difficult” operas. But as I listened to more recordings and attended more performances, I started to get tired of the same-old and yearned for a little more variety. The COC’s new season appears to be a delight – out of seven operas, the only two qualifying for “cash cow” status are Aida and The Magic Flute, and those are borderline cash cows anyway next to this season’s (dull) Butterfly.

So, what’s on the list?

Aida – I’ve seen this only once on stage, at Edmonton Opera in 1999-ish (or maybe twice? I might have gone to both the dress rehearsal and the “regular” performance for this one). The production involved an enormous golden eagle under which the principals cowered. I hope elephants will factor into the COC’s take.

Death in Venice – completely unfamiliar to me. I’m not the biggest Britten fan but will be excited to see this.

The Magic Flute – possibly my very first “favourite opera”, thanks to the Classical Kids cassette tape my mom bought for me as a young’un. I would start singing the Queen of the Night’s aria at various inappropriate moments. Despite this history, I still feel slightly annoyed when I see parents bringing their young children to “real” productions of this opera. There are long stretches with no dragons,  bird catchers, or beautiful sparkly star dresses, and I’m pretty sure my 8-year-old self would have been bored.

Nixon in China – AWESOME YAY

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jr0i_4jW9w&hl=en_US&fs=1&]

La Cenerentola – meh. I went through a Rossini phase and it’s mostly over now. Still, I’m glad to see a non-Barbiere Rossini pick.

Ariadne auf Naxos – This was the first opera I saw outside of Canada, in Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu. Edita Gruberova was Zerbinetta. It was part of a backpacker-style trip to Spain with two friends. Our seats were in the highest balcony, and we could only see half of the stage. The surtitles were in Catalan and Spanish, and I had only a vague idea of the plot. Still, it remains one of my most fondly-remembered operatic experiences. Having only seen opera in the not-acoustically-rich Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton, I marveled at how the sound at the Liceu seemed to hang suspended in the air. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing this again.

Orfeo ed Euridice – I’m usually bored by baroque opera (except when Opera Atelier is responsible). Still, someone has to do it. And people seem to like Isabel Bayrakdarian.

COC’s Opera 101: No Sexy Tenors

Attendees of Tuesday’s Opera 101 event at the Drake Hotel were deprived the sight of Clifton Forbis, slated to sing Otello. Since the concertmaster, Marie Bérard, had made particular note of his attractiveness (the women in the orchestra were definitely paying attention to him, she said) it was a bit of a disappointment not to be able to judge.

Fortunately, we have the internet to help us confirm/deny his sexiness:

Clifton Forbis
Clifton Forbis, slated to play Otello at the COC

Alexander Neef was able to step in to keep the discussion going (look, he has a blog!). There were oblique hints that next season may feature I Puritani.

Although the Opera 101 events are supposedly geared to neophytes, it felt and sounded more like an evening for the fans. The Q&A revealed plenty of opera buffs in the audience. To be honest, I’m not sure what a true “beginners evening” would be like. An explanation of the plot, perhaps, with reassurance about the surtitles? Perhaps a discussion about how Verdi’s music is different from that of other popular opera composers, or why the role of Otello is uniquely demanding.