Tagged: Carla Huhtanen

Orlando/Lunaire Review: Intriguing but Unsatisfying

Orlando/Lunaire To paraphrase the fine gentlemen from The Awl, a lot of tartar builds up around opera’s conventions and repertoire, and regular efforts need to be made to scrape it away. Orlando/Lunaire, the product of a collaboration between the Classical Music Consort and Opera Erratica, represents just such an attempt. Even the location was unusual for an opera – far, far away from the Four Seasons Centre, in an industrial shed, in a neighborhood on the tantalizing edge of gentrification. The audience consisted both of tweedy academics and mustachioed hipsters.

The central concept is not unlike a wine-and-cheese pairing – but rather than epoisses with Burgundy, Schoenberg’s masterpiece Pierrot Lunaire is paired with Handel’s Orlando. Segments from Lunaire alternate with arias from Orlando, with soprano Carla Huhtanen and countertenor Scott Belluz trading singing duties with one another. The writeup promised nuanced emotion, video projections, and gender ambiguity. Sounds fascinating on paper.

There was a lot to enjoy in the execution – first and foremost the vocal performances, which were full of beauty and sensitivity. Huhtanen brought a vaudevillian sure-footed theatricality to her numbers, while Belluz remained enticingly aloof. I also enjoyed the “surtitles”, a mishmash of words projected on the screen. Sometimes they projected the text in its original language and sometimes a translation; sometimes the words formed coherent fragments and sometimes they were scattered all over the screen; sometimes they corresponded to the words being sung, and sometimes not. I’m a fan of theatrical productions that do interesting things with text-as-art, and this fit the bill.

However, I was unsure what it was meant to add up to in the end. The “mashup” element never extended beyond simple alternation, making little effort to combine the two styles into something new. The various characters played by Huhtanen and Belluz were never clearly distinguishable from each other, and the two singers rarely engaged in any kind of dramatic interaction. While I’m sure the pieces were chosen in order to create interesting pairings (there’s that wine/cheese word again) and follow some kind of emotional arc, most of this was entirely over my head – I was never sure about the reasoning for the placement of the Handel arias inside the framework of Pierrot Lunaire. The dramatic action was almost entirely static save for a few very abstract symbolic gestures. And, while the gender ambiguity of both singers was admirably conveyed through makeup and nightmarish yet sexy baroque-inflected costumes, I was supremely irritated by the frequent presence of a 10-foot-tall, headless, naked female torso projected onto the screen during several of Belluz’s arias. This torso was (as if anyone could expect otherwise) slim, smooth-skinned, large-breasted, passive, and attractively-lit – the opposite of provocative, just in case we needed to be reminded what desire consists of. Boneriffic.

Here are some other opinions:

Eye Weekly: “Their oeuvre is a mystical mash-up of contrasting eras, languages and musical genres, and — surprisingly — it works.”

NOW Magazine: “the evening is a marvel of nuanced emotion, unexpected visuals and splendid music-making.”

Toronto Star: “At its opening performance on Sunday evening, the experimental staging was not perfect, but sheer imagination and two fantastic singers turned it into a memorable, intellectually provocative two hours.”

Globe and Mail: “But I did come away desiring a complete performance of Orlando and a complete performance of Pierrot lunaire on decently separate occasions. The mashup told me less about Handel and Schoenberg and more about the feverish fancies of Young than I need to know.”

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!

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.”