Opera Movie: When I Rise, featuring Barbara Smith Conrad

Tonight I had the good fortune to attend the Canadian premiere of When I Rise, screened here as part of Hot Docs, the documentary film festival held annually here in Toronto. It chronicles the ascent of African-American mezzo Barbara Smith Conrad after a particularly ugly racist incident at the very beginning of her career.

The film tells the story of how, after being cast as Dido (opposite a white Aeneas) in a student production of Dido and Aeneas, she inadvertently became a target for racist, segregationist anger in 50′s-era Texas. The interracial casting drew the ire of the Texas state legislature, who threatened to withdraw funding from the university if the performance went ahead as planned. Conrad was pulled and a white singer was cast in her place, but when the incident drew the attention of The New York Times and other national media, famous calypso singer Harry Belafonte took her under his wing and ultimately helped her establish her illustrious operatic career. Conrad went on to perform at the NYCO, the Metropolitan Opera, Vienna, Hamburg, and other major houses.

The filmmakers understandably chose to focus on the narrative of civil rights, injustice and forgiveness rather than the specifics of Conrad’s artistry and exploits in the opera world. However, there’s plenty for the opera lover to enjoy, including clips from Don Carlos, glimpses of Conrad’s vocal workshops, and a montage featuring some spectacular headdresses. It’s also a slice of operatic history that is often neglected – an interesting depiction of the way African-American singers formed their own operatic tradition, going back to Marian Anderson, within the confines of what is typically a very Eurocentric art form.

Those of you in Toronto have one more chance to see the film this weekend at Hot Docs, on Sunday at 4:00 PM at the Cumberland. Until then (or if you can’t make it), enjoy this interview of Barbara Smith Conrad from SXSW 2010:

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.

On The Countess

Photo: Bruce Zinger / Artists: Peggy Kriha Dye & Wallis Giunta. Courtesy of Opera Atelier.
Photo: Bruce Zinger / Artists: Peggy Kriha Dye & Wallis Giunta. Courtesy of Opera Atelier.

Last night I had the opportunity to see Acts III and IV of Opera Atelier’s The Marriage of Figaro after volunteering at the subscription renewal tables. I realized that even if I only ever wrote about The Marriage of Figaro on this blog, I’d probably never run out of material. And soon, of course, I will be writing about other operas (next up: Idomeneo) but I’d really like to linger a little longer on this subject.

The way I see it, one’s concept of Figaro – what kind of opera is it? What’s important about it? What does it have to say? – really hinges on the figure of La Contessa. Even within the confines of this single opera, she’s an incredibly complex character, and when you expand your frame of reference to include the other two plays in Beaumarchais’ trilogy and the operas they inspired (the first of which – The Barber of Seville – is very familiar to opera fans, the third – The Guilty Mother – much less so), things get even more interesting.

How does she fit within the paradigm of lighthearted-but-politically-and-emotionally-charged farce? First, she is undeniably a full participant in the comedy. To treat her as the “straight man”, at a regal remove from the hijinks, is to do her a disservice. In The Barber of Seville, she’s as much an engineer as Figaro of the comedic schemes; The moment when she produces the letter Figaro has just been urging her to write (Un biglietto? … Eccolo qua) is possibly my favourite moment in that opera. In The Marriage of Figaro, Figaro himself is pretty ineffectual and it’s the great lady herself who ultimately brings her husband in line. In the scenes with Cherubino she sparkles with mischief, an intelligent, worldly woman who knows exactly how to torment a naive young boy.

On the other hand, in The Marriage of Figaro she’s the only character who seems to be experiencing any sort of long-term anguish (apart from sexual frustration). Figaro’s feelings of betrayal in Act IV, while genuine and movingly expressed, are short-lived and based on a misunderstanding that is easily resolved. For the Countess, however, both of her arias (Porgi, amor and Dove sono) are sorrowful, expressing profound disillusionment with love and marital happiness. They are also absolutely necessary to the drama, and must be taken seriously if Contessa, perdonothe opera’s final moment of forgiveness and reconciliation - is to have any emotional impact whatsoever.

By the time we see her in The Marriage of Figaro, she can hear about her husband making a pass at her best friend without sobbing or flying into a rage in grand operatic style. Five years before, perhaps the first couple of times, she would have done those things. But she’s been entirely worn out. You can hear this, in Porgi, amor – the long ascending line on lascia, the let in the phrase let me die. She longs for release, relief, rest. And she still loves him!

So, how do you play the Countess? I recall seeing one Figaro on DVD a while ago that depicted her as the victim of physical abuse by the Count. This seems to me to be incorrect. Not that it wouldn’t be historically accurate – I’m sure plenty of 18th century Countesses were slapped around by their Counts – but it’s wrong for Figaro, which is first and foremost a comedy. This heavy-handed treatment seems to me to be symptomatic of the changing narrative about Mozart: starting with the early narrative of the perfect prodigy, composer of beautiful but somewhat sterile music; continuing to Shaffer’s Amadeus, the vulgar, dirty-minded boy with a direct line from God to his pen, unequal to his music; and then the current attempts to correct both of those narratives by emphasizing how hardworking and thoughtful Mozart actually was, and how much emotional richness his music actually contains. A Figaro that focuses excessively on the class and gender politics constitutes an effort to convince the audience that Mozart! Is! Serious!, and reveals the consuming fear of irrelevance that seems to continually plague the opera world.

And yes, Mozart is serious. And I’m as much in favour of ferreting out hidden subtexts as any self-respecting amateur critic must be. But, the truth is that The Marriage of Figaro really doesn’t need to be propped up the way that, say, Il Trovatore sometimes does. It works just fine on its own – marvelously, in fact. It’s funny, it has no longeurs, and it carries no problematic cultural baggage like Cosi fan Tutte or the Ring Cycle. The Countess can be sad and she can sparkle, just the way she does on the page and at the piano. And this is mostly how Opera Atelier approaches it – as a comedy that requires no gimmicks, where movement can be guided by the music and the audience doesn’t need to be browbeaten into laughing at the jokes.

I warmed up considerably to Peggy Kriha Dye’s performance upon a second viewing (although I still think Canzonetta sull’aria was way too fast). She moves with grace and agility, and is immediately believable as an astute noblewoman. During Dove sono she allowed her voice to break at strategic points, to give the impression of being on the point of tears, and the transition from sorrow to anticipated triumph was managed perfectly – with help from a few clear, very powerful high notes. She gives the impression of a great force just waiting to be unleashed. And Piu dolce io sono came, as it should, like the unfolding of a flower, or the exhale after a three-hour inhale.

An interesting choice was made in the final tableau, which showed the Countess in Cherubino’s arms with the other characters pointing and reacting with shock. This looks ahead, of course, to Beaumarchais’ third play, The Guilty Mother, that sees the Countess pregnant with Cherubino’s child after an impulsive one night stand. I like that Figaro’s “happy ending” is actually somewhat compromised – it gives me more fodder to ruminate endlessly on it.

Opera Atelier’s Marriage of Figaro – Review

Photo: Bruce Zinger / Artists: Peggy Kriha Dye & Wallis Giunta. Courtesy of Opera Atelier.

I care a lot about The Marriage of Figaro. I used to get into very heated arguments with the other classical music person in my high school, who was obsessed with Prokofiev. Mozart is bland and predictable, he said, with too narrow an emotional range. This point of view baffled and vexed me, and when I marshaled my counter-arguments in defense of Mozart’s beauty, complexity, and unparallelled understanding of drama, Figaro was never far from my mind.

In my head there is an ideal Figaro performance, composed of all the best parts of all the various incarnations I’ve heard and seen, along with the (admittedly fuzzy) images in my head. I was looking forward to this production very much, and was worried that I’d be disappointed by even minor differences from my own personal Ideal Figaro. After seeing it, it’s safe to say that this production comes closer to my ideal than any other I’ve seen, by quite a wide margin – but of course that makes the shortfalls that much more maddening.

A reasonable person can evaluate a Figaro production by roughly three criteria: First, is it funny? Second, is it sexy? Third and most important, is it beautiful?

First, humour. I wasn’t entirely sold on the English translation, but there’s absolutely no question that using it makes the opera funnier. There’s nothing separating the audience from the jokes, the timing is never wrong, and hearing an actor deliver a joke is always much better than reading it on a surtitle. Usually Figaro’s comic scenes get an obligatory, anemic chuckle from an audience that’s expecting all the surprises; this time, the comic possibilities were exploited to the fullest and the evening was full of genuine laughs.

Another element where Opera Atelier consistently stands head and shoulders above other opera companies is in stage movement. Too often, a lumpen park-and-bark acting style makes even the freshest, most voluptuous operas seem flat and dowdy on stage. Here, every turn of the head and swing of the arm appeared to have been precisely choreographed to serve the drama. Back in January, a fascinating New York Times piece on dance in opera bemoaned how infrequently stage movement aligns with the music in operatic performance, explaining that “much of the best choreography helps us to hear the music better”. The stage movement in this production was deliciously responsive to the music, and aided the comedy considerably.

Second, sex. Truthfully, I look for this in just about every opera – Tosca, Don Giovanni, and Rosenkavailer are always a little disappointing without a generous amount of sexual tension. Opera Atelier’s promotional poster for Figaro featured a mostly-undressed, beautiful man lying supine on a bed. As expected, no problems here.

It’s in the third requirement – beauty – where I hit against those maddening slight shortcomings. My most serious complaint was with the tempi, which were consistently on the very brisk side, and sometimes felt overwhelming when combined with the frenetic action. Porgi, Amor particularly suffered from being hurried along, making the Countess seem at times more like a Real Housewife than a great lady in pain. In Acts III and IV, where the plot twists pile up quickly and relentlessly, I was longing for the moment of repose that Canzonetta sull’aria would have provided had it been given more room to breathe. Though the singing was consistently excellent – I particularly enjoyed Carla Huhtanen as Susanna and Wallis Giunta as Cherubino – the ensembles sometimes sounded a bit muddy.

I like my Countesses a little sadder and nobler than in this incarnation. I also wish that pathos had been chosen over comedy a bit more often – Figaro gives lots of opportunities to choose one or the other, and the ideal production maintains a balance of the two. However, seeing certain lines played for laughs, when I was accustomed to thinking of them as serious, expands my understanding of the opera rather than interfering with it.

These are, of course, minor complaints. This Figaro is full of interesting details and absolutely bursting with intelligence, wit, style, and vivid musicality. Even though the Figaro in my head would have lingered longer over the pauses, I suspect it will be a long time before I see anything that comes closer.

Alternative Opinions:

Eye Weekly: “OA’s new production will likely please any newcomer to this opera. Others, however, may wish Pynkoski had let the singers focus more on Mozart’s wit than on the clichés of farce.”

Toronto Star: “From the orchestra, to the singing, the staging and the costumes, here is a piece of musical theatre where nothing has been left to chance.”

The Globe and Mail: “This wonderful merging of text and music rests squarely with the talents of director Marshall Pynkoski and conductor David Fallis. The always meticulous Pynkoski has ensured that the opera is directed to within an inch of its life.”

NOW: “Opera Atelier’s not known for its subtle takes on baroque opera, but even by its standards, this new production of The Marriage Of Figaro is over-the-top broad. The only thing that’s missing is a whoopee cushion.”

Canoe – JAM!: “The Marriage of Figaro is not exactly a marriage made in heaven. But a Marriage of Figaro made by Opera Atelier can come pretty close — especially if your idea of heaven is fairly dripping with beautiful music, lavish sets and gorgeous costumes.”

Other Opinions of Holländer

Though Heather and I enjoyed Friday night’s performance of Der fliegende Holländer at the Met, the other critics (at least, the two I could find) were not terribly enamoured. Here are some other reviews:

The New York Times: “…except for the singing of Deborah Voigt, who brought steely power and lyrical elegance to her first Met Senta, the performance lacked intensity, focus and Wagnerian vocal splendor.”

Superconductor: “Mr. Uusitalo is a tall, handsome singer with a strong stage presence. However, Friday night’s performance was somewhat anemic.”

Heather and Cecily review Der fliegende Holländer!

On Friday evening, ATC’s New York correspondent and I enjoyed opening night of the Met’s Der fliegende Holländer, starring Deborah Voigt. We’ve decided to review it jointly, as a back-and-forth dialogue between us. Neither of us had seen Hollander before, and we loved talking about it as a work as well as about this specific performance.

CECILY: One thing that struck me is how much Senta at the beginning of the opera acts like a modern-day Twilight fan. She’s obsessed with the Dutchman’s portrait, likes to hear his story over and over again, is kinda turned on by his supernatural dark broodiness, and has fantasies of “rescuing” him from his dark fate. She’s an interesting character, isn’t she? Chaste but quivering.

HEATHER:  She is interesting for sure. I love when she sings about the legend of the Dutchman to the chorus of woman. The song is so strongly voiced…but then she swoons at the end. She is a contradiction! And *sort* of chaste.  Though it is Wagner, there was a bit of humour in the suggestion of her sexual fascination with the Dutchman. Musically, he is far sexier than her suitor Erik. His arias are blandly traditional rather than the stormily Romantic music of the Dutchman.

CECILY: You can really hear foretastes of the Ring Cycle in the Dutchman’s music, although not the sexy parts. The Dutchman was clad a bit like a Byronic hero in this particular production.

HEATHER: The Dutchman was definitely Byronic. I’m glad the Dutchman looked more like Heathcliff than Dracula. He was pretty pale though. I thought the supernatural element was done well–present, but not excessive.  I like the scene with the chorus–who are trying to persuade the sailors to party with them–and the ghostly crew of the Flying Dutchman. There was quite the visual and musical contrast between the ordinary and the unworldly in this exchange.

CECILY: Yes, the dueling choruses were a highlight for me, and it was a very visually effective (though our view was obstructed a bit from standing room). Did you find that Senta’s death moment was fluffed a bit, visually? These days I’m starting to think that after over a century of leaping Toscas, we’d be interested in something a bit more interesting than just “the jump”.

HEATHER: Fluffed up how? I agree that leaping to one’s death seems derivative (so why bother emphasizing it on stage). Tosca will always do it better! (i.e. in Italian). In some way I didn’t quite expect Senta to do it though. She’s totally obsessed with the Dutchman, but I think a tiny possibility was presented that she would choose the more staid Erik. His songs were nice.

CECILY: Mostly I was just wondering if there’s a better way to execute the final jump than the Climb To Precipice/Make Emotional Appeal/Carefully Jump Behind Set drill – something a bit more unexpected. And it’s interesting that Senta is sort of stringing Erik along – trying hard to placate him and not quite admitting, in her first scene, that she’d leave him for the Dutchman.

HEATHER: You’re right. It was kind of a boring way to do it. Not my favourite demise of a heroine either. Nothing will ever beat Adriana Lecouvreur’s death; she keeled over after sniffing poisoned violets. I think you’re right about Senta’s treatment of Erik. She is a bit conflicted there. She’s pretty set on the Dutchman though (and from first glance) What did you think of that first scene between the Dutchman and Senta?

CECILY: I like the tension in that scene – the long, long interval where no words are exchanged. Not a lot of composers would have had the guts to attempt something like that. And in this production, the lack of motion carried on for an almost agonizingly long length of time. I’d be interested to see if, in other productions, Senta and the Dutchman ever move toward each other or touch, or if they usually take the “stillness” approach.

HEATHER: A brave move indeed. Silence can be profound or awkward. I didn’t hear any giggles though. It was an arresting moment. Their lack of contact (and extended silence) seemed to suggest containment–they are each still profoundly wrapped up in the idea rather than the reality of their beloved. It is the opposite of the Erik/Senta dynamic, which is much more familiar. I generally prefer higher male voices, but I was really taken with Juha Uusital. I’ve rarely enjoyed a bass-baritone so much.

CECILY: Yes, both Uusital and Voigt were marvelous. There’s an interesting brightness in Voigt’s voice that I like – it allows her to be both powerful and girlish when the music requires it. All in all, an excellent first experience with the Dutchman – I’m looking forward to comparing this one to the COC’s version coming up this May!

Guest Review: New York City Opera – Partenope

[Cecily's note: this review comes courtesy of my lovely friend, Heather, who is spending the spring in NYC. With this and the possible Dutchman tomorrow, we here at ATC are engaging in a bit of blog tourism before the Toronto opera scene kicks into gear next week with Figaro]

In the first act of Partenope, the heroine of Handel’s three-act comedy is surrounded by eager suitors, who are seated as she sings and struts in pink heels around them. Dressed in a rose coloured sixties-style dress suit, the princess, like Joan from Mad Men, is playfully conscious of her appeal to the opposite sex. Sieden breezes through this difficult aria, this experienced soprano confidently hitting the astonishingly high notes in this and subsequent scenes. As the title character of this comedy set in Naples, she has a lot of singing to do. Vocally, she is plainly up to the task. Her exertions are supported by an orchestra (under the capable baton of Christian Curnyn) that sounds equally at home with this lively, perhaps a little lengthy, slice of the Baroque.

By turns, Partenope’s suitors sing about their feelings for the princess, who favours Prince Arsace for much of the opera, though she ends up with the more boyish Armido. Both heroes are countertenors (the first 1730 London production would have featured a castrato, however); the trio of suitors is rounded out by a tenor, the warlike Emilio, who desires both Partenope’s heart and land. Armido’s first aria, sweetly expressing his unrequited love for Partenope is exquisite, promising much for later solos. But the honeyed countertenor never quite reaches the same heights of beauty in later acts. Moreover, the youthful Anthony Roth Costanzo lacks the stage presence his rival (and superior) countertenor, who shines in scenes with his ex-lover, Rosemira, who disguises herself as a man after her fiancé abandons her for royalty. Tall and athletic, Stephanie Houtzeel, a solid mezzo-soprano, is hands-down the best actor in the opera. Consequently, I felt real investment in her trials as a scorned lover and incipient matchmaker (between Partenope and Armindo).

The costumes, colourful and basically modern, are neither distracting nor particularly striking. (Some part of me always hopes, however, that the characters will don the ridiculously elaborate wigs, face patches, and waistcoats of Handel’s day.) The set too is pleasant, neither lavish nor skimpy, lending a casually eighteenth-century feel to the work. Most memorably, a starry sky of lights is the backdrop to one lover’s evening song of yearning. Fire is also used to great effect, a model of the city of Naples opening to reveal an inner flame. An interesting visual motif—an orb nestled in a cube—is repeated with variation throughout the opera. Seen several times in the hands of the princess’ (unfortunately rather dull) tutor, Ormonte, this symbol reinforces the central theme of the cultivation of reason.

The director, Francisco Negrin, has several obstacles to overcome in order to make this dramatically and musically exciting to a modern audience not used to being so drenched in coloratura. Honestly, it is sometimes hard work to enjoy all of the florid arias and silly plot twists. During one of the two intermissions I overheard a lady in the restroom remarking, with a smile, on the “corny” storyline. Hence, I will refrain further summarizing the nuances of the plot, with its duels, cross-dressing, overheard conversations, etc. The story, like that of many other operas from Handel and company, is a collection of narrative stereotypes—albeit one with very likable characters. Silvio Stampiglia’s libretto, with its musty clichés, does not dull a work that overall sparkles musically. Minor quibbles with the revival production aside, I was delighted to experience such a high-quality performance of a relatively little-performed eighteenth-century opera, especially one that displays so prominently the voices of two countertenors!

Sadly, it’s over now, so you can’t enjoy it as I did. Burn.

NYC Opera Vacation – Deborah’s Dutchman

If all goes well, tomorrow night I’ll be attending the opening of the Metropolitan Opera’s Der Fliegende Holländer, in New York, starring the renowned Deborah Voigt as Senta. This is a bit of a consolation prize for my aborted trip to Berlin. A million things could go wrong between now and then (including most likely not being able to get tickets) but I’m keeping my fingers crossed. It will be interesting to compare this production to the COC’s upcoming take, which I have only heard described as “weird”.

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.

Opera Singers on Twitter

I just found Renee Fleming’s Twitter account. Can anyone think of other opera celebs (or, normal people who have interesting things to say about opera) I should be following?

(My twitter username is cecilybrenda. One day I might create a separate account for alltimecoloratura, but right now my recent posts are all about finally winning ADOM).