Tagged: review

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.”

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what other people thought:

Canoe JAM!: “Powerful, Complex”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The COC’s Carmen: Review and Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carmen Review Roundup

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

Toronto Star:

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

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

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

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

JAM!:

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

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

The Globe and Mail:

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