The Pleasures of Opera on Vinyl

Many of us are familiar with the vinyl fetishism that is gaining ground among rock, pop, & jazz enthusiasts. These days every self-respecting Brooklynite mp3 blogger owns a suitcase turntable (which can now be purchased from Urban Outfitters), and a lot of new indie releases include a vinyl option. Deep into the iPod age, it turns out that many people still want a medium with pretty packaging: something that they can hold in their hands, organize on a shelf, and dig through bins for. While sales of just about everything music-related are plummeting, the LP is actually clawing its way back up.

Classical and opera seems to have remained largely immune to this trend, with fans choosing to mostly buy recordings on CD or electronically, even though we opera-heads arguably have much more compelling reasons to stick to the old medium. The downsides of electronic formats for opera are vast and much discussed. In addition to vague claims of loss of “warmth” with digital formats, there’s the issue of fragmentation: while the iTunes world urges us to abandon the album and instead shuffle through an ever-changing playlist of 4-minute favourites, opera benefits from being listened to all the way through, in the intended order. And let’s not get started on the best way to deal with all those recitative tracks.

If you are lucky enough to live near good record stores (Toronto is particularly blessed in this aspect), it’s well worth taking the time to dig through their bins. What opera you find is likely to be extremely cheap once, I found a complete Deutsche Grammophon box set of Die Zauberflote in pristine condition, complete with fat, glossy libretto, for $3. I found the Leontyne Price Tosca and a lovely Contes D’Hoffmann languishing in a bargain bin. My Springsteen-loving boyfriend, used to record store rock sections that have been picked to the bones by hipsters and collectors, was jealous of the quality of recordings available. If you’re patient and willing to sift through the bins at the back of the store (in a lot of places, the classical stuff just winds up in a section called “bargain” along with Nana Mouskouri), you’re almost certain to be rewarded.

Granted, there are some downsides. New opera releases rarely come out on vinyl, so the things you’ll find tend to date from the 80’s and earlier. You have to turn over the record a lot more frequently than you’d have to change a CD. But the vast selection of first-rate recordings for rock-bottom prices, as well as the pleasure of beautiful packaging and big libretti in a reasonable font size, makes it worth pulling that old record player out of your parents’ basement.        

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!

People Who Like Opera

Last Thursday, Robert Thicknesse of The Guardian published a piece highly critical of opera and opera culture. Though he has long been an opera lover, he says, he’s been finding it difficult to keep the faith in the face of what he perceives as the elitist nature of the form.

You hardly need me to tell you that opera is pretty stupid. Ask the audience: plenty of them will tell you the same, if you can get them to wake up. Is there any other form of entertainment so frequented by people who do not like it? This notion – that opera is not actually all that much fun – is hardly new; that’s why it comes all dollied up in red velvet, snobbery, fancy dress and vats of alcohol, sops to the considerable sections of the audience who are there for reasons not associated with aesthetic pleasure, the socially ambitious, the conspicuous spenders, those trying to beguile clients or spouses or potential mistresses.

I have indeed met people whose enjoyment of opera was transparently a product of their class aspirations, and people who are attracted to the opera more because of the atmosphere of red velvet, snobbery, and fancy dress than because of the music (usually this viewpoint has been informed by movies and TV, and they are sorely disappointed when they attend an actual opera). But Thicknesse’s description really isn’t my experience of the “opera crowd” at all. When I think about the people I know who regularly attend the opera, few of them fit into this stereotype. So in response to this essay, I’ll talk about what “the opera crowd” means to me.

***

My mother dated an opera singer in her youth and watched the performances from the wings. She always, always cries at the end of Madama Butterfly and La Boheme. When I started getting seriously into opera, she usually watched the opera videos I rented with me. She loves Ben Heppner over all tenors, even though she doesn’t like Wagner.

***

My Grade 12 History teacher was “the cool teacher”, full of facts and a fantastic storyteller, with a strange and much-parodied-by-students way of shaking his hips while writing on the blackboard. He described opera as one of his great passions, and told us he’d been attending the opera for over 20 years. He liked Aida but hated Lucia di Lammermoor, and said he was the only person in his rock climbing group who listened to opera on his walkman while scaling walls.

***

I made a mix tape (back when these were actually cassette tapes) for a girl in high school who was growing into a good friend, who introduced me to the cool kids and invited me to parties. She played on the volleyball team and wore peasant blouses. The tape I made her had opera on one side, and instrumental classical on the other side, and I remember it being very heavy on Puccini. She told me that she loved it and listened to it constantly, as she fell asleep at night and when she woke up in the morning. She wrote me detailed notes on her response to each track and asked for more tapes, which I happily made. She loved the sound of the soprano voice.

***

When I’d outgrown Opera for Dummies and other introductory opera books, I started gleaning knowledge from online discussion groups, principally rec.music.opera. The most vocal members (in memory, anyway) were New Yorkers who spent a lot of time collecting bootleg recordings and reminiscing about The Old Days. They had the most vicious, creatively-worded flamewars I have ever encountered on the internet (which is actually pretty impressive), they were generally not rich people, and they loved opera with a fiery intensity. Splinter groups started forming on Yahoo groups, which were a bit less homogenous/nasty (with particular fondness I remember “Gay Opera Punks”, “Opera Dykes”, and “The Parlour of Opera Lovers”). They were full of young people who weren’t from NYC. They even included some teenaged girls who felt about Eugene Onegin the way some girls feel about Edward Cullen.

***

I worked during university at a ladies’ shoe store, staffed in large part by immigrants from Europe, some of whom had worked there ten years or more and had cultivated a loyal clientele. One of my favourite co-workers was Hungarian. She wore a pixie cut and heavy eyeshadow, and was always debating whether or not she could allow herself a muffin from the Treats kiosk in the food court. Though she never said anything about it to me, other co-workers told me that her family had escaped from behind the iron curtain on the pretext of a vacation, leaving all their possessions behind in Hungary. She said she didn’t miss Hungary at all, but that she deeply missed going to the opera. She had given up trying to take her husband to the opera in Canada, because he always fell asleep. She loved Tosca and Edith Piaf.

***

The man who taught my Modern Poetry class in University last year is an opera lover. The first day of class he wore a t-shirt that read “Pure Hell” in pink lettering. He is the only person I have seen successfully wear a pink tie/pink shirt combination. He never explicitly told us in class that he loves opera, but it is obvious – he lingered lovingly over the lines in T.S. Eliot that allude to The Ring Cycle, never failed to mention when a poet had also written an opera libretto, tried to recruit students into making use of the cheap tickets available from the English department, and organized screenings from his opera DVD collection. He made terrible, terrible jokes in class (sample: “Let’s get Wasted!” for The Waste Land), even in the weeks following the death of his mother that year. He admired Robert Lapage.

***

My friend Heather, who regular readers will remember as a contributor, is a graduate student who was once in the army and is now getting her PhD in 18th Century English Literature. Opera tickets are sometimes difficult for her to afford, but that doesn’t stop her from taking a chance on difficult or unfamiliar works. When she lived in Toronto (as she will again soon), we would attend together, both of us in the cheap seats in the fifth ring, and booze it up after the performance. Sometimes we listened to opera while working together at her apartment. She was the person who first took me to Opera Atelier.

***

For me, the stereotypical “opera crowd” includes a lot of teachers and academic types, music students, and retirees who probably didn’t listen to opera in their youth but are now interested in delving into a different kind of musical experience. At the end of La Traviata I usually hear sniffles all around me. Whenever I try to go see the Met movie telecasts they’re usually sold out, despite the plebian multiplex setting and proximity to screenings of Iron Man 2 or whatever. Sometimes I experience opera burnout, but not because I think everyone in the audience is a social climber or an idiot. Because, in truth, most of them aren’t.

UPDATE, 6:40 PM: Why not make this into a collaborative effort? In the comments, post a description of someone you know who really likes opera, and who does not fit the description of “the socially ambitious, the conspicuous spenders, those trying to beguile clients or spouses or potential mistresses”.

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.”

DVD Review: Acis and Galatea, Royal Opera House, Opus Arte

Opus Arte's Acis and Galatea
DVD Cover for Acis and Galatea, Opus Arte

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

Since Opera Atelier will be producing Acis and Galatea this fall (see some rehearsal footage here), and since I’ve only listened to the music a few times without becoming familiar with it as a stage work, I was quite excited to see this performance on DVD. I’m happy to report that it’s enchanting, and has contributed greatly to my understanding of the opera.

Acis and Galatea is full of achingly beautiful music, but even the most cursory investigation into its history reveals that it presents a number of genre and performance problems. It exists in multiple versions, spanning multiple musico-theatrical (is that a word?) genres. It was originally written as a not-quite-opera – a masque or serenata, where a series of arias are linked by a narrative thread but missing any stage direction or recitative. In a serenata, the songs are sung in sequence but not acted out on stage. Later the work was adapted as a longer, more fully-staged opera.

The result is that, when presented as an opera as in this performance, it’s difficult to overcome its static nature. Arias are abundant but scenes with plot development are sparse, so it takes a long time for things to happen and the narrative arc is weak.

This production from the Royal Opera House attempts to overcome this lack of dramatic action by adding it back in the form of dance. The vast majority of arias are accompanied by dancing, which creates visual interest while the singers are mostly stationary. The dancing is really one of the highlights of the DVD – it’s in a style that, to my untrained eye, incorporates elements of classical ballet and modern dance. Arabesques mingle with hip-swinging and shoulder-rolling, the ballet dancers are clad in bodysuits matching the color of their skin, and their movements are always fluid, undulating, and sensual. I found the choreography hypnotic and always beautiful to look at.

The sets are sparse, presumably to make room for the dancing, and the costumes of the singers are interestingly modern. Acis dresses just like my high school crush and has pretty much the same haircut; the chorus reminds me of my coworkers; and Polyphemus, with his beard, belt, and belly, would look right at home playing guitar in a Brooklyn indie-rock band. I found this rather charming.

Danielle de Niese is an excellent Galatea, vocally assured and a charismatic stage presence. At one point in the opera she even performs an extended ballet sequence – and, though clearly not a ballerina, is graceful and convincing. Charles Workman as Acis is physically stuffer but vocally robust and agile. And the performance really springs to life with the entrance of Matthew Rose as Polyphemus, who dominates the stage – allowing for the fact that he has more dramatic possibilities to exploit, as the only character in the opera who actually does anything. That said, I would have liked better articulation of the passagework from all three principals, who sometimes handled the runs with breathiness.

Included with the DVD is a booklet explaining the performance history of Acis and Galatea, which helps explain the genre weirdness. Sound and picture quality is excellent (puzzlingly to this non-audiophile, there is a surround-sound option), and the subtitles are carefully placed so as to be unobtrusive. It’s available for purchase on Amazon.

Events for Opera Lovers at Luminato

Opera season in Toronto is winding down, with only a few more performances left to go for Idomeneo and Maria Stuarda, both of which I will be attending this coming week. But do not despair! Here are three opera-related events at the Luminato festival in June to tide you over:

The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer – starring John Malkovich

This event is “part theatre, part opera, part concert”, with Malkovich playing the part of a real-life serial killer, Jack Unterweger. Here’s part of the blurb from the Luminato website:

Stage and screen star John Malkovich reincarnates this deadly Don Juan – a man as outwardly charming as he was brilliantly manipulative – while two sopranos, their soaring voices blending with the music of the Orchester Wiener Akademie in arias by Haydn, Mozart, Vivaldi and others, represent the women in Unterweger’s life: the mother who abandoned him and the victims of his murderous obsession.

Serial killer stories, especially when sexualized as they frequently are, tend to be upsetting to me – I haven’t got the stomach for gruesome details. However, the combination of the opera angle and celebrity wattage might lure me into the theatre this time.

Prima Donna – composed by Rufus Wainwright

Rufus Wainwright has been working operatic references into his cabaret-style songs for a while, and now he’s tried his hand at writing a full-length, full-blown opera. The story as described has echoes of Sunset Boulevard: famed opera singer of yesteryear, long in retirement, plans a comeback and falls in love with a younger man. The wikipedia entry explains that it was originally intended to be a collaboration with the Metropolitan Opera, but that they parted ways after disagreeing on whether the libretto should be in French or English (the Met wanted English, Wainwright insisted on French).

I’ve long had a soft spot for Rufus Wainwright, and was disappointed to see Prima Donna generally disliked by critics (although critics from outside the opera world seem to have been kinder). Wainwright’s response to the reviews isn’t all that compelling – whoever said that opera shouldn’t be entertaining? – but at the very least Prima Donna sounds like an interesting take on what a postmodern opera could be. Musical and textual references to other beloved operas are apparently abundant, so there should be lots of pleasant “aha” moments in store for those who know their stuff. I am definitely planning on seeing this one.

Dark Star Requiem – co-produced by Tapestry New Opera

Technically this is an oratorio and not an opera. But opera-lovers should still be paying attention: this is co-produced by Tapestry New Opera, which has been developing and promoting new operatic works in Toronto for over twenty years. The oratorio takes on the weighty topic of AIDS and its history, and “interlaces such topics as ecology, myth, politics, and family”.

Why I’ve Stopped Looking for “The Best”

In opera, as in many things, there’s sometimes an obsession with the idea of “the best”. Is the best live opera to be found in North America or Europe? Was Maria Callas the best Tosca, and was Corelli the best Radames? Is Verdi’s early work his best, or his later? Is there any point in recording another Rosenkavalier, or will the Schwartzkopf one always be best?

I think the opera lover can benefit enormously from setting aside attempts to define “the best”.

Here’s an example: I have a friend who is a devoted opera lover, full of intelligence and enthusiasm. His opera DVD collection is massive. And he works in New York City, where first-class opera and world-famous singers can be seen almost any night of the week. And yet, he rarely goes. The last time I asked him (which was admittedly a while ago), he told me he hadn’t been to the Metropolitan Opera at all since moving to the area.

I was stunned. I couldn’t understand why he never went to the Met when it was right on his doorstep. The explanation he gave me was that he wouldn’t be able to enjoy it unless he had really good seats, and the really good seats at the Met cost hundreds of dollars. Family circle? I asked. Standing room? But he wasn’t having any of it. It was the best, or nothing.

It’s true that as you get more familiar with an art form and come to recognize what separates the acceptable from the exquisite, standards are bound to rise as the flaws become more obvious. Also, the nature of internet discussion encourages writers to try to stake a claim, and defining things according to a strict standard – either by proclaiming something to be “the best” or insisting that it falls short of it – is an easy way to set oneself apart.

Here, I’ll do it now: The Metropolitan Opera in New York is widely considered to be the best opera company in the world. But I don’t remember any Met performance as fondly as Les Contes D’Hoffmann at the Edmonton Opera. Ruggero Raimondi probably wasn’t “the best” Scarpia, but even if Gobbi could be resurrected, be-wigged, and restored to glory, I’d still listen to my Raimondi recording. Debates about “who sang it better” are almost always, as Holly Golightly might put it, a thumping bore.

I hope I am never the kind of opera-goer who is unable to enjoy a student production, or a cheap seat at the theatre, or an interesting singer whose high notes are wobbly. Opera itself is beautifully flawed, and sometimes an interesting flaw is better food for thought than the clearest high note.

A Sneak Peak at Acis and Galatea; or, YouTube commenters are (sometimes) prudes

Last summer I attended a performance of the American Ballet Theater’s Romeo and Juliet, and wound up sitting next to someone active in the dance world. My ticket was for standing room, but she plucked me from purgatory and gave me a spare ticket to a much better seat next to hers (“you look like a dance person”, was her explanation for picking me over the other standees). She seemed rather disappointed upon finding out I was an opera person instead of a dance person, and explained to me that she didn’t really enjoy going to the opera because the singers don’t move properly on stage.

Available on YouTube is some rehearsal footage of a scene from Opera Atelier’s upcoming production of Acis and Galatea. Thomas Macleay as Acis sings “Love in her eyes sits playing” to his Galatea while the voice of co-Artistic Director Marshall Pynkoski is heard in the background giving him directions. Both of the company’s Artistic Directors come from the dance world, and the detailed attention to movement evident in this clip makes me wonder if they share my ticket benefactress’ frustration with conventional opera direction.

What caught my attention the most in this clip are the abundant gestures of physical affection. Acis and Galatea embrace, kiss, and caress each others’ face and hair during the aria. Many stage opera couples, though meant to be passionately in love, do little more than hold hands with the occasional side hug for duets. A singer playing Carmen might make a few theatrical gestures meant to signify lust, but these tend to be unconvincing (Don José typically just sits there). And if the love story is unconvincing, the opera often loses a lot of its steam.

Some, apparently, prefer things that way. I was surprised to find a mini-controversy in the comment thread for this clip, instigated by one Miss Cecchetti:

Oh yes, the breast-groping and french kissing is very baroque theatre isn’t it?

Mind you it surprises me seeing Pynkoski set this much physical contact on a male-female couple. He usually reserves that for the male-male couples, as in their production of Iphigenie.

This seems like sheer prudishness (not to mention blatant homophobia) to me – this scene, and what I recall from Iphigenie, would be rated PG at most. As for period accuracy, while my knowledge is admittedly spotty, the 18th-century plays I’ve encountered have generally been on the bawdy side and classical mythology is riddled with debauchery of all varieties.

I went googling around and dug up an old interview with Pynkoski wherein he talks about the importance of movement and emotion in his opera direction. I recommend reading it – it gives a lot of clues to why OA’s productions consistently seem so different from most opera I’ve seen, and how they manage to seem vivid and new despite the period stylings. It opens up a very different path for Making Opera Relevant, one that I think is just as viable as putting everyone in leather trenchcoats.

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.”