Tagged: Handel

The Handel Singing Competition

I am Canadian, and I am under 30 years of age, and I have been known to sing on occasion. To sing Handel even. But I will not be applying for the Classical Music Consort’s Handel Singing Competition, because I don’t sing very well. Perhaps all these qualifications (Canadian, under 30, sings Handel) apply to you except for that last one (sings poorly)? In that case, you should probably apply.

The Classical Music Consort has been involved in a lot of neat things in Toronto, and for non-applicants like myself the competition will probably be very interesting to attend. It will be part of an overall Handel festival taking place from May 3rd to 8th and featuring a performance of Handel’s first oratorio, Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno.

Review of Opera Atelier’s Acis and Galatea

Opera Atelier's Acis and Galatea
Photo: Bruce Zinger / Mireille Asselin & Thomas Macleay / Handel's Acis and Galatea

First, I have to admit that I came to Acis and Galatea last night with a clouded mind. Over the last month I’ve done a lot of thinking about performance tradition, the boundaries of style, and the question of who, precisely, owns the “meaning” of an opera (the correct answer, for my money, is “no one,” not even the composer, but there are many who believe otherwise). Acis and Galatea, like all Opera Atelier productions, is produced in a very specific and highly stylized way that attempts in some ways to evoke the performance conventions of the period in which it was composed.

Of course, “period accuracy” is a slippery goal and part of Opera Atelier’s genius lies in carefully choosing which aspects of Baroque and 18th century performance to preserve and which to dispense with. Co-Artistic Director Marshall Pynkoski nodded to this notion in his opening remarks, telling the audience that while they started out as a company “obsessed with period style”, that they’ve come to believe in the adage that “style is not the bull’s-eye; style is what you use to take aim.” I would like to hear more from him about how he sees his aims as having changed – where the bull’s-eye is now – and in what areas they’ve chosen to sacrifice period authenticity in favour of a different vision.

I can make guesses about this to some extent. Part of what makes Opera Atelier productions so visually unique – and what, perhaps, I love about them the most – is the very precise and stylized stage movements of the performers, meant to imitate the style of gestural acting characteristic of the Baroque. The singers pose as though for paintings, each arm movement and head tilt suggesting emotion while maximizing their beauty. And a commitment to visual beauty is always on display: not only in the prominence of ballet and the soft lighting but in the casting of young, slim, and attractive singers clothed in very revealing costumes. This last item pushes OA productions to the heights of sensual deliciousness while giving ammo to critics who sometimes dismiss them as lightweight and vulgar (the display of male beauty, in particular, seems to reliably ruffle feathers).

So, where does Acis and Galatea fit in to all this? I wouldn’t call it lightweight, but it is certainly light – light as a balloon that threatens every minute to blow away but always, to overwork the metaphor, bobs merrily along at the end of its string. All of the aforementioned OA hallmarks are present, meaning that the production is beautiful to look at and staged with deftness and intelligence. As I noted in an earlier DVD review, A&G isn’t always an easy work to like. While a lot of operas might be described as dramatically static, Acis and Galatea is static in the extreme. There are perhaps two or three actual plot events and they’re clustered near the end. The rest plays almost like a song cycle or collection of arias rather than a drama.

In this production the vast spaces are filled with dancing (much more prominent in the first half than the second) and comedy. The choice to play Polyphemus for laughs is an interesting one, and I’m not entirely sure that it works. While it does enliven the drama, it does wind up robbing the finale of some of its gravitas. Both director and tenor Lawrence Wiliford deserve kudos for making the character of Damon make sense as a participant in the drama, and all the actors on stage display a charming vulnerability.

In conclusion? Think of it as a series of tableaux, both musical and visual, and enjoy all the beauty on display. Any attempt to inject more drama into Acis and Galatea would have popped the balloon.

Acis And Galatea Final from Douglas Brown on Vimeo.

Other opinions:

Globe and Mail:”The four singers were for the most part exemplary, headed by the consummately brilliant and nimble tenor Lawrence Wiliford as the Ariel-like Damon”

Toronto Star: “Saturday night’s opening performance of George Frideric Handel’s sweet pastoral Acis and Galatea merged excellent musicianship, fine stagecraft and a keen sense of movement.”

Mooney on Theatre: “This is the kind of opera that anyone could see and enjoy.”

Art & Culture Maven: “It’s a thoroughly enjoyable evening of Baroque Opera to continue the company’s longstanding legacy.”

James Karas Reviews: “this is a superb production in period style that is worth seeing more than once. By happenstance, I saw it twice and enjoyed it even more the second time.”

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.”

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.

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.