La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Ariadne Revisited: May 3 2011

Adrianne Pieczonka (Prima Donna) and Richard Stilwell (Music Master) in Prologue of Canadian Opera Company's Ariadne auf Naxos (Photo: Michael Cooper)















by Joseph K. So

Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos

Four Seasons Centre, May 3, 2011
Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis
Canadian Opera Company Orchestra
Stage Director: Neil Armfield
Set & Costume Designer: Dale Ferguson

Adrianne Pieczonka (Ariadne/Prima Donna)
Richard Margison (Bacchus/Tenor)
Alice Coote (Komponist)
Jane Archibald (Zerbinetta)
Richard Stilwell (Music Master)
Thomas Hauff (Major Domo)
John Easterlin (Dancing Master/Brighella)
Adrian Kramer (Wigmaster)
Doug McNaughton (Lackey)
Roger Honeywell (Officer)
Simone Osborne (Naiad)
Lauren Segal (Dryad)
Teiya Kasahara (Echo)
Peter Barrett (Harlequin)
Michael Uloth (Truffaldino)
Christopher Enns (Scaramuccio)

As a self-professed Strauss Nut, there are a few operas that I can't seem to get enough of, and Ariadne auf Naxos is one of them. I was introduced to this gem thirty years ago by Father Owen Lee, then professor of classics at St. Michael's College of U of T. It has become, together with Die Frau ohne Schatten, two of my very favourite operas. These two works have in common stories that operate on many levels of meaning - psychological, personal, relational, and spiritual. They appeal to the senses and to the intellect. In the many Ariadne productions I've seen over the years - good, bad or indifferent, I was invariably moved by the power of the music at some point in the course of the evening - such is the genius of Richard Strauss. And when one is fortunate enough to encounter an Ariadne of such high musical values as the current COC revival, what's not to love?

Forced to miss opening night after having caught a cold from her daughter, Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka bounced back quickly to sing on May 3, the second of the eight-performance run. Ariadne is a role full of musical and dramatic contrasts and represents a real challenge for the soprano. In the Prologue she is the diva with her nose in the air; in the Opera she is transformed into a tragic figure, an abandoned woman, lonely and bereft, wishing for death. The Prima Donna only has a few lines to sing in the Prologue and must make her impression mostly through acting. Pieczonka was every inch the haughty diva, funny but not over-the-top. In the Prologue, both the soprano and tenor are one-dimensional characters - it's in the Opera that the two leads get to shine. Pieczonka's full lyric soprano is ideally suited to Ariadne, and there was much to enjoy in her luminous performance. Other than a somewhat cautious approach to the high pianissimos in "Ein schoenes war", there was no sign of indisposition, the voice ringing out securely with its trademark gleaming tone. The high B in the opening of "Es gibt ein Reich" was glorious. She threw herself into the role and sang a moving final duet with tenor Richard Margison (Bacchus). Like on opening night, Margison was again in stentorian voice, singing with burnished tone and giving unstintingly in the extended duet that lasted almost 25 minutes.

Soprano Jane Archibald sang a delightful "Grossmachtige Prinzessin," hitting those high E's with ease while doing all the extra stage business for herself and the comedians - if only the audience for once would hold their applause until the end! British mezzo Alice Coote offered a passionate and creamy-voiced Komponist, if just a touch too manic in her stage manner. To be sure there are plenty of comic moments in the Prologue, but Armfield's staging is just too slapstick - for example, is it really necessary in the Vorspiel to have Harlequin (well sung and gamely acted by baritone Peter Barrett) figuratively playing a dog and urinating on the leg of the Officer (Roger Honeywell) within 30 seconds of the curtain going up? Many reviewers have commented on the strangely distressed look of the sets for the Opera, but it no longer bothers me - maybe as a friend suggested, "Der reichste Mann in Wien must have been on a strict budget!" Ever the consummate Straussian, Sir Andrew Davis led the COC forces with a knowing hand. Except for a few shaky moments from the horns, the orchestra was in top form, with the strings and woodwinds sounding particularly full and luscious.

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Matsuev en récital demain soir

Par Lucie Renaud 


 Soliste invité de l’Orchestre du Mariinsky sous Gergiev l’année dernière, il avait renversé public et critique dans son Troisième de Rachmaninov. Sous ses doigts, le redoutable concerto semblait d’une facilité désarmante, le pianiste transcendant littéralement les difficultés pour extraire de cette œuvre pyrotechnique une trame lyrique et même poétique, ses pianissimos plongeant l’auditeur dans un ravissement total. En rappel, Denis Matsuev avait opté pour la paraphrase virtuose du Barbier de Séville de Ginzburg (qu’on retrouve d’ailleurs sur son album Tribute to Horowitz), flamboyante, à la frontière (jamais franchie pourtant) du cabotinage, qu’il avait mâtiné de quelques clins d’œil personnels non dénués d’un certain humour. 

Nous le découvrirons cette fois autre, dans un récital « à l’ancienne » qui comprend deux pierres angulaires du répertoire, l’« Appassionata » de Beethoven (enregistrée à ses débuts) et la Deuxième Sonate de Rachmaninov. Souhaitons qu’il sache démontrer sa subtilité dans la Sonate opus 142 de Schubert en début de programme. Il en jettera assurément plein la vue avec sa Méphisto-Valse (Matsuev reste l’un des rares pianistes d’aujourd’hui capable d’occulter la dimension tapageuse de ces pages) et réservera sans doute un petit bonbon ou deux aux amateurs en bis. Une grande soirée de piano en perspective!

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Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Pierre-Laurent Aimard Delivered A Rare Treat at Koerner Hall

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

For whatever reason, Pierre-Laurent Aimard failed to attract a full house at Toronto’s Koerner Hall. Those who didn’t show missed out on a profoundly moving recital.

The gifted French pianist seemed oblivious to the half-full concert hall and delivered a rare treat for an appreciative crowd on May 1.

In celebration of the 200th birthday anniversary of Franz Liszt this year, Aimard shed a definitive new light on the Hungarian pianist and composer by pairing three works from his final years with three unrelated works by others in the first half of the program.

The audience was asked to refrain from clapping in between pieces as the pianist played  them straight through in this order: La lugubre gondola, S.200, No. 1, Wagner’s Eine Sonate fur das Album von Frau M.W., WWV85, Nuages gris, S.199, Berg’s Piano Sonata in B minor, Op. 1, Unstern! Sinistre, disastro, S.208 and Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 9 in F major, Op. 68 “Black Mass”.

Aimard played the entire first half with music, reading glasses and a page turner to boot. His pedal work was rich and exquisitely manoeuvred. He played everything with such care and tenderness that the dark, sometimes repressive harmonic exploration of these works was vividly imaginative. The spiralling music sounded serenely beautiful despite a general feeling of doom.

With little to no distinct break between La lugubre gondola — written while Liszt was a guest of Wagner’s in Venice in 1882 — and Wagner’s one-movement sonata dedicated to the woman who inspired Tristan und Isolde, the two pieces blended into one another in structure, style and sonority.

Aimard took extra time for the hall to fall absolutely still before starting Nuages gris (Grey Clouds). This piece was the perfect setup to Berg’s B-minor sonata in every way, even though the Berg — arguably the best-known piece in this first half of the program — came across slightly ambiguous in direction and struggled to breakthrough in climax.

In Unstern! Sinistre, disastro (Dark Star! Sinister, Disaster) and Scriabin’s “Black Mass” sonata, Aimard showed off his impressive fiery fingers, leaving no doubt as to where the music was headed toward and taking the listeners through a meandering of dream-like landscape with dexterity that few others can compete with.

Aimard returned to the second half of the program with Liszt’s daunting B-minor sonata. Playing from memory with glasses off, and again deliberately taking his time for complete silence, he stormed through the complex music with killer octaves and nimble control of tones, relaxing the tensions masterfully in the lyrical sections. A master of sound and what each innuendo could live to be, Aimard’s Liszt was impressively modest, but showy nevertheless.

A standing ovation was called for and given, but there was no encore.

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This Week in Toronto (May 2 - 8)

Countertenor Lawrence Zazzo (photo courtesy of www.lawrencezazzo.com)

















The third production in the Canadian Opera Company's Spring Season opens on Sunday May 8th with a Baroque favourite, Gluck's enduring Orfeo ed Euridice. This production comes from the Lyric Opera of Chicago directed by Canadian Robert Carsen. In the title role is the sensational American countertenor Lawrence Zazzo who was Oberon in COC's A Midsummer Night's Dream two seasons ago. He has one of the most beautiful countertenor voices around. The Euridice is Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian. Meanwhile, performances of La cenerentola and Ariadne auf Naxos continue this week. The Rossini is enormously entertaining with the fabulous Ramiro of American Lawrence Brownlee, and the luscious-toned Angelina of Elizabeth DeShong. I saw the opening night of Ariadne, and sadly soprano Adrianne Pieczonka was indisposed. However we got a chance to hear the terrific voice of dramatic soprano Amber Wagner as Ariadne. Let's hope Pieczonka is well enough to sing the second performance. The Rossini is on stage Saturday May 7 at 4:30 pm, and the Strauss on Tuesday May 3 at 7:30 pm. For information and tickets, go to http://coc.ca/Home.aspx

Speaking of Adrianne Pieczonka, she will be giving an all-German Liederabend at Koerner Hall on Saturday May 7 at 8 pm. On the program are songs by Schubert, Strauss, and Wagner's Wesendonck-lieder. The Met's Brian Zeger is the collaborative pianist. Pieczonka previously gave the same recital in Quebec last summer, now we Torontonians will get to experience it. Not to be missed! http://performance.rcmusic.ca/

As if the presence of the many divas and divos at the COC is not enough, we are lucky to have Finnish soprano Karita Mattila making one of her rare visits to Toronto. She is soprano soloist in Toronto Symphony Orchestra's two concerts this week. The centerpiece is Sibelius' Luonnotar, Op. 70. Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, whose L'amour de loin will be seen at the COC next season, will be in Toronto for the Canadian premiere of her composition Laterna Magica. She has also written a piece for Mattila - Mirage for soprano, cello and orchestra. Cellist Anssi Karttunen is the soloist in Bloch's Schelomo, "Hebraic Rhapsody" for Cello and Orchestra. Rounding out the evening is Ravel's every-exciting La Valse. Finnish maestro Hinnu Lintu conducts. This is a rare opportunity to hear one of the greatest sopranos in front of the public today and is not to be missed. http://tso.ca/Concerts-And-Tickets/Events/2010-2011-Season/Finlands-Finest.aspx

One of Canada's finest baritones, Brett Polegato, will give a very interesting recital, Songs for a New World, as part of the COC Vocal Series on May 4 5:30 pm at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. On the program are songs by Schumann, Schubert, Vaughan-Williams, Ravel, Quilter and Finzi. Liz Upchurch is at the piano. Polegato is currently wowing audiences as Dandini in the COC La cenerentola, and now you have a chance to hear him free of charge! Be sure to line up at least 45 minutes ahead of time for a seat. You can download the program by clicking http://tso.ca/Concerts-And-Tickets/Events/2010-2011-Season/Finlands-Finest.aspx


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Sunday, 1 May 2011

Ariadne Returns Triumphant to the COC






















top: Jane Archibald (Zerbinetta) and Comedians
mid: Alice Coote (Komponist)
bottom: Richard Margison (Bacchus) and Amber Wagner (Ariadne)
Photo credit: Michael Cooper






by Joseph K. So

Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos
Four Seasons Centre, April 30, 2011
Conductor: Andrew Davis
Canadian Opera Company Orchestra
Stage Director: Neil Armfield
Set & Costume Designer: Dale Ferguson

Amber Wagner (Ariadne/Prima Donna)
Richard Margison (Bacchus/Tenor)
Alice Coote (Komponist)
Jane Archibald (Zerbinetta)
Richard Stilwell (Music Master)
Thomas Hauff (Major Domo)
John Easterlin (Dancing Master/Brighella)
Simone Osborne (Naiad)
Lauren Segal (Dryad)
Teiya Kasahara (Echo)
Peter Barrett (Harlequin)
Michael Uloth (Truffaldino)
Christopher Enns (Scaramuccio)


To opera fans, one of the most eagerly awaited events of the COC Spring Season is the return of Ariadne auf Naxos after an absence of sixteen years. Ariadne contains some of the most inspired music composed by Richard Strauss, and it is arguably the masterpiece among the many happy collaborations between Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. A connoisseur's opera, Ariadne weaves its magic slowly - it grows on the listener with each encounter, whether live or on recordings. While ostensibly a comedy, it's actually an opera with serious philosophical undertones, one where the many juxtapositions underscore the irony of the human condition. To really "get" this opera, it helps to go beyond the superficial comedy and to ponder Strauss and Hofmannsthal's philosophical musings on the duality of the sacred and the profane that is so much part of life. Front and center is the contrast (and tension) between the heiliger Kunst of the "serious music" as represented by the idealistic Composer in the form of his Ariadne and the low-brow Commedia dell'arte of Zerbinetta and Company. Ariadne, the haughty prima donna in the Prologue becomes the tragic, bereft woman wishing for death in the Opera. She and Zerbinetta represent the two polar opposites of the eternal feminine, the contrast between fidelity and constancy of the goddess Ariadne and the fickleness and free love of Zerbinetta.

A truly satisfying production of Ariadne should strike a delicate balance between the comedic elements and the deeper meanings of the work. That said, productions these days seem to resort to broad comedy for some reason. For example, the 1995 Tom Diamond production was heavy on laughs. The Robert Carsen production I saw three years ago in Munich was an exception. In the current COC production from Welsh National Opera, director Neil Armfield has given the piece a rather over-the-top comic treatment. Based on the many audible belly laughs over the shenanigans of the comedians on opening night, the audience had a good time. Amusing? Yes, but in my mind rather short on profundity. Set and costume designer Dale Ferguson has updated the action to vaguely modern times. The Prologue is a study in backstage realism, but the set for the Opera itself is puzzling - very drab, with torn scenery and muted colours, a far cry from the opulence that one would expect in the home of "the richest man in Vienna." Unfortunately this quirk in the concept is not explained in the Director's Note in the program.

Whatever reservation one may have in the production itself, the opening night performance was marked by very fine singing. I was looking forward to revisiting the sublime Ariadne of Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka from Munich in July 2008. So it was a huge disappointment that she was indisposed and unable to sing. In her place was up and coming American soprano Amber Wagner, who has made a name for herself since winning the Met Auditions in 2007. Ms. Wagner's soprano is remarkable - a beautiful, true jugendliche dramatischer combining a rich and full lower register with a thrilling top, up to a resplendent high B in Ariadne's "Es gibt ein Reich". It's a very different voice than Pieczonka's full lyric which is a a more slender instrument but capable of more chiaroscuro and a beautifully floated high pianissimo. Wagner's voice with its torrents of sound is a little reminiscent of Eileen Farrell and Helen Traubel, impressively rich but lacking the ultimate delicacy and vulnerability. It's like red or white wine - chacun a son gout! Generously figured, Amber moved quite well and interacted believably with the Bacchus of Canadian tenor Richard Margison, returning to the COC after an absence of many years. Bacchus is such a treacherous sing that many tenors have come to grief in this role over the years - perhaps it's true that Strauss hated tenors! Margison has the volume and the stamina for this taxing though short role, offering up a powerful, vital, burly sound, only marred by the occasional slow vibrato in long held top notes.

Nova Scotian coloratura soprano Jane Archibald was a scintillating Zerbinetta, with excellent coloratura and an alluring stage presence - not too many high sopranos can trill on the E in alt! British mezzo Alice Coote was a passionate, impetuous Komponist, singing with creamy tone - let's hope she comes back in the future. Richard Stilwell, in his prime a leading baritone and now at 68 a highly esteemed character singer, gave us a warmly human Music Master. Among the comedians, the standout was baritone Peter Barrett as a mellifluous Harlequin. Also noteworthy was a very strong trio of Nymphs (Simone Osborne, Lauren Segal and Teiya Kasahara). Special mention must go to American tenor John Easterlin as the best sung Dancing Master/Brighella I've heard. Sir Andrew Davis made his very belated COC debut with this show. Unbelievably it has taken three decades since his arrival in Toronto for this debut, but better late than never! He led the COC Orchestra in a poised and eloquent reading. Let's hope this is the first of many collaborations between the COC and Sir Andrew. And let's wish a speedy recovery to soprano Adrianne Pieczonka so Canadian opera lovers will get to hear her in one of her signature roles. Performances continue on May 3, 12, 15, 18, 21, 27, and 29. http://coc.ca/Home.aspx

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