La Scena Musicale

Friday, 22 July 2011

Athleticism and Wit: Les 7 doigts de la main's Cabaret 2011

By Sabreena Chandra

Twisting, tossing, contorting, unravelling... not enough words can describe the tremendousness of this spectacle.

Cabaret 2011, performed by Les 7 doigts de la main and directed by Isabelle Chassée and Sébastien Soldevila, gave us as many hold-your-breath moments as ‘Ouuus’ and ‘Ahhhs.’ 

The show consisted of an annoying yet humourous stage director (played by Sébastien Soldevila) trying to put together a Cabaret show. This angle gave the audience an interesting perspective on show staging. The entertainers persevered to astonish the stage director by doing trapeze tricks; jumping off and landing on a plank the width of an arm; soaring through stacked high hoops; twirling and whirling in an aerial silks act... It was an evening filled with athleticism, flexibility, strength, sassy and witty performers, brilliant musicians and an audience in absolute awe of the performance. Although the stage director was not flabbergasted by the acts, the audience certainly was. Who would have thought a simple teeter-totter and hula-hoop could be part of something so extraordinary.

At the Olympia theatre until July 23.

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Thursday, 21 July 2011

Les débuts modestes du Festival Opéra de Québec

Par Julie Berardino 

Le très attendu Festival Opéra de Québec se déroulera cet été (du 25 juillet au 6 août) à  Québec avec une version modeste du Rossignol et autres fables de Stravinsky et de la Flûte enchantée de Mozart. Tel que prévu, Robert Lepage, originaire de Québec, sera à l’honneur dans la production qu’offre sa compagnie Ex Machina de l’opéra de Stravinsky, qui fut créée par le Canadian Opera Company et a récemment complété une tournée à New York.

La production amène chanteurs et marionnettiste à évoluer dans un grand bassin d’eau sur scène (salle Louis-Fréchette du Grand Théâtre de Québec) alors que l’orchestre jour derrière celui-ci. La structure complexe a bénéficié de la majeure partie du budget de 1.7$ millions du festival, dont 775 000$ proviennent de fonds publics municipaux et provinciaux. D’après Grégoire Legendre, directeur général du festival, la vente de billets générera pour sa part 600 000$. Le directeur artistique du COC, Johannes Debus, sera au pupitre. 

L’intemporel opéra de Mozart sera présenté dans une réduction pour piano de Peter Brook, une version qui a fait la tournée de l’Europe et de l’Amérique du Nord sous l’éloge de la critique. La production inclut le ténor Canadien Antonio Figueroa dans le rôle de Tamino et se tiendra dans la salle Octave-Crémazie, qui accueille 550 personnes. 

Ce festival d’une durée de deux semaines inclura également l’événement extérieur du 30 juillet mettant en vedette la soprano Marie-Josée Lord, de Québec, et le ténor Marc Hervieux, ainsi que 4 autres programmations. 

Legendre espère présenter plus d’opéras au cours des prochaines années, incluant les propres productions du festival. Une nouvelle production prévue de La Flûte enchantée a dû être annulée à cause de restrictions budgétaires. Aussi, compte tenu de son horaire chargé, la participation de Robert Lepage n’est pas assurée chaque année. 

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Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Letter From Munich 2011: Der Rosenkavalier

Lucy Crowe (Sophie) and Sophie Koch (Octavian) taking their bows;
Anja Harteros (Marschallin) waves to an adoring audience;
Group Bow (l. to r.) Heiki Grotzinger, Martin Gantner, Sophie Koch, Anja Harteros, Florian Fischer, Lucy Crowe, Peter Rose

by Joseph K. So

Bayerische Staatsoper Nationaltheater 19 July 2011
Anja Harteros (Marschallin)
Sophie Koch (Octavian)
Lucy Crowe (Sophie)
Peter Rose (Ochs)
Martin Gantner (Faninal)
Piotr Beczala (Sanger)
Heike Grotzinger (Annina)
Ulrich Ress (Valzacchi)
Ingrid Kaiserfeld (Marianne)
Florian Fischer (Mohammed)
Constantin Trinks, conductor

After three Regietheater treatments (Ariadne, Don Giovanni, Rusalka) in a row, I was ready for a change of pace. Last evening's production of Der Rosenkavalier was likely the oldest in the repertoire of the Bavarian State Opera - it premiered way back in 1972! Next year this Otto Schenk-Jurgen Rose production will be forty years old, a lot older than the Marschallin herself! And I would think it has been very busy during that time given it is a staple of the standard repertoire in German houses. Well, after 39 years of heavy use, the sets are looking a bit tired now, particularly Act One, with a rather faded quality to the walls and the ceiling. Act Two, the grand ballroom of Herr Faninal where the Presentation of the Rose takes place, remains impressive. It even drew a round of applause from a few in the audience last evening, a sort of practice one rarely encounters in European houses with their sophisticated audiences. (If you want to see the sets in its pristine glory, seek out the DVD dated from the late 70's, conducted by Carlos Kleiber, starring Dame Gwyneth Jones, Brigitte Fassbaender and Lucia Popp) The stage direction now appears rather dated and predictable, a bit of an anachronism in an era of Regietheater. I had a chat with a few local fans of a certain age, and they all expressed the opinion that this Rosenkavalier is one of the very few traditional productions left at the Bavarian State Opera, and they'd loathe to see it replaced by anything modern. In any case, it's nice once in awhile to be reminded of the past, doubly delightful when the musical values were as high as last evening's.

The chief pleasure last night was the singing and the orchestra under up-and-coming German conductor Constantin Trinks. In the title role was French mezzo Sophie Koch in one of her signature roles. She combined a creamy high mezzo with a certain understated passion in her acting. She had good chemistry with the Marschallin, here sung by German soprano Anja Harteros who has recently added this role to her growing repertoire. I'm used to more mature sopranos singing this role, so Harteros seems a bit young. But it's important to remember that the character of the Feldmarschallin is only supposed to be around 35 in the opera, a little "old" to have children in that era but not too old to have some fun! Harteros' portrayal had a good mixture of youthfulness and dignity. Vocally she was glorious, floating a beautiful high pianissimo on the word "Rosen" at the end of Act One and an equally gorgeous high B flat at the beginning of the Final Trio. For me, the revelation was British soprano Lucy Crowe, whom I had not heard before. She was simply delightful as Sophie - very spunky and genuinely funny in Act Two, her very mobile face expressing a myriad of emotions. Vocally, her surprisingly large and lovely high lyric soprano, with a certain "peaches and cream" quality, was a real pleasure. As the veteran of the cast, British bass Peter Rose acted and sang Ochs with wonderfully warm and mellow tone, and his portrayal free of exaggeration and vulgarity. Among the supporting roles, I was most impressed with the Faninal of Martin Gantner who sang beautifully the words "Ein ernster Tag, ein grosser Tag, ein Ehren tag, ein heiliger Tag" that opens Act Two. And of course one mustn't forget the great Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, who had plenty of voice left for a brilliant "Di rigori Amato" after a strenuous sing the night before as the Prince in Rusalka.

Judging by this performance, German conductor Constantin Trinks rightly belongs to the elite group of young conductors destined for greatness. He brought out fully the elegance and lyricism of the score without resorting to sentimentality. The orchestra must know this piece so well that the musicians can play it in their sleep - the sound coming out of the pit was wonderful - full, rich, and refulgent. All in all, it was a memorable night at the opera.


Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Letter From Munich 2011: Rusalka

Rusalka curtain call (l. to r. Piotr Beczala, Kristine Opolais, Tomas Hanus, Alan Held, Nadia Krasteva)
Rusalka (soprano Kristine Opolais) in her watery environment. Photo: Bavarian State Opera

by Joseph K. So

Munich Opera Festival, July 18, 2011
Kristine Opolais, Rusalka
Piotr Beczala, Prince
Alan Held, Water Goblin
Janina Baechle, Jezibaba
Nadia krasteva, Foreign Princess
Ulrich Ress, Forester
Tara Erraught, Kitchen Boy
Tomas Hanus, conductor

This Munich production of Rusalka generated a great deal of discussion at its premiere in October 2010. It was unlike any Rusalka one would have seen in the past, to put it mildly. Austrian director Martin Kusej has an unrelentingly dark take on the "Czech national fairy tale", a label used by several of my Czech music friends. Incidentally they were outraged by the Rusalka borrowed from Theater Erfurt the COC staged two seasons ago. I shudder to think what they would have thought of the Munich production!

Much has been written about how the stage director re-framed the story to reflect the infamous Austrian child sex abuse case of Josef Fritzl who kept his daughter in a cellar for years where she was subjected to his abuse. When I first read about the Kusej production last year, I couldn't help but felt that to re-imagine an idyllic fairy tale into such a horrific story is either a stroke of creative genius or the product of an extraordinarily macabre mind, or both. Could something like this possibly work? Most of the critiques I read after its premiere were mixed, although there were also some very positive reviews, so I was anxious to see for myself. The only Kusej I'm familiar with is his gritty and uncompromising yet brilliant Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk starring the great Eva-Maria Westbroek. While the sordid story of the Shostakovich is ripe for the Kusej decontructionist treatment, would it work on something like Rusalka?

While Kusej was largely faithful to the original version of the Shostakovich opera, he has taken major liberties in Rusalka. The Water Goblin is now Rusalka's father, and the witch Jezibaba her mother. They live in an upstairs world complete with a huge painted backdrop of beautiful mountains and a serene lake, while Rusalka and her sisters are confined to the leaky, dark dungeon underneath. Her Song to the Moon is sung embracing a plastic globe lamp. She is subjected to periodic sexual abuse by the Water Goblin. Rusalka longs for freedom and Jezibaba releases her but on condition that she is mute, giving her a pair of red shoes in which Rusalka can barely walk. She falls in love with the shallow Prince who dumps her for the Foreign Princess. I find the above scenario rather convoluted, and it gets more so in Act 3 when the Water Goblin inexplicably kills the Gamekeeper and is hauled away by the police. Rusalka and her sister-victims are put in a psychiatric ward. The unfaithful Prince returns to look for Rusalka and stabs himself.

I will comment more on the production later, but my take on the music first. It's always a pleasure to write about the musical side of things at the Munich Opera. Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais became an overnight sensation as a result of this production. Last evening, it was clear why. She is an extraordinary singing actor, willing to stretch herself vocally and dramatically. The withdrawal of Nina Stemme meant Opolais assumed a dream role. She has since triumphed as Cio Cio San at Covent Garden. The voice was pushed by the demands of the role, but it didn't break. Her portrayal was completely riveting. Piotr Beczala was an excellent Prince, singing with a more robust sound than Klaus Florian Vogt last year (as revealed in the commercial DVD) Beczala has lost quite a bit of weight, and he looks great. Perhaps he doesn't equal the matinee idol sex appeal of Vogt, but I'd gladly give up a bit of that for his more complete vocalism. Alan Held, replacing last year's Gunther Groissbock, sang impressively as the Water Goblin. Janina Baechle was a strong voiced Jezibaba, while Nadia Krasteva looked vampish with her plunging neckline as the Foreign Princess. She sang with steely tone and coped well except for a few pushed top notes in a role meant for a dramatic soprano. Czech conductor Tomas Hanus lavished care on the score - the sound coming out of the pit was so gorgeous that it created a disconnect with what was happening on stage.

In fact it was one of the more depressing evenings I have spent in the opera house. In a documentary accompanying the commercial release of the DVD, it was pointed out that European fairy tales are really quite dark and violent. I've often wondered if these fairy tales - like Hansel und Gretel, Koenigskinder etc. aren't meant to scare children! No wonder some stage directors like Kusej look at the underside of these fairy tales to reveal a deeper meaning. But this can run into problems too. To my ears, the evocative score of Dvorak, tinged with sadness to be sure, is at odds with Kusej's intentions. On a certain level this production works - the callous human behaviour towards creatures they don't understand, the destruction of nature and the environment, for example are important and cogent issues underscored in this production. But to skin a deer onstage and the macabre dance of the women with dead deers I find heavy-handed and are there for shock value. The linking of the story to the Fritzl case leaves too many holes - not to speak of wholesale changes - in the story. While Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk maybe ideal for this sort of radical re-imagining, I don't feel it worked nearly as well in Rusalka. It's daring, audacious, striking, provocative, but is it coherent and will it be enduring? Only time will tell.

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Monday, 18 July 2011

Letter From Munich 2011: Don Giovanni

Canada Night at the Bavarian State Opera (l. to r.: Gerald Finley, Erin Wall, Joseph Kaiser, Phillip Ens)

by Joseph K. So

Mozart: Don Giovanni
Bayerische Staatsoper
July 17, 2011 6:00 pm.
Conductor: Constantin Carydis
Gerald Finley (Don Giovanni)
Phillip Ens (Commendatore)
Erin wall (Donna Anna)
Joseph Kaiser (Don Ottavio)
Veronique Gens (Donna Elvira)
Alex Esposito (Leporello)
Laura Tatulescu (Zerlina)
Levente Molnar (Massetto)

This production of Don Giovanni by stage director Stephan Kimmig premiered to divided opinions in October 2010. It's one of those shows that puts one's Regietheater quotient to the test. DG has always been fodder for the Regie approach, going back to Peter Seller's Harlem DG in the 1980s. Of course productions in recent years have been much more radical - I am thinking of the Calixto Beieto one at the Liceu, seen in all its glory on DVD. This Munich DVD topped that by a mile in terms of sensationalism. Last evening the opera house was full - of course, and the reception at the end was interspersed with mild booing for the production - par for the course. But the funny thing is, I actually enjoyed quite a lot of it. Yes, half the cast (four out of eight principals) were Canadian - that's a pleasure in itself. The conductor was hotshot Greek maestro Constantin Carydis, who gave a high energy yet refined reading of the score - he scored an "A" in my book! The orchestra sounded great, however I must say two nights in a row a horn cracked...

This infamous production is known as the "Container Don Giovanni" - a collection of shipping containers arranged in various configurations that move every which way. On the outside, one container is scrawled "Welcome to Espain"; another one has in Japanese - "The Best Mandarin Oranges!" The outsides of the containers open up completely and the insides serve as sets that tend towards grimy, garish - ok I won't mince words - ghastly. I am thinking of the wedding scene - it is in an extra long container with completely Arctic backdrop.... come to think of it, it has penguins so it must be Antarctica! At one point, Elvira and Ottavio started dancing, not with each other but with two stuffed penguins. Why? I haven't got the foggiest idea. While all this was going on, there was a pole dancer of sorts and two semi-nude female dancers making out. What have any of this got to do with Don Giovanni is a mystery. Also mysterious was the presence of an elderly man, stripped totally naked, standing stage front and centre throughout the overture, with involuntary tremors of his left arm and hand. He re-appeared in the final scene. Poor guy - I hope he got paid well....

Not meant to be totally negative as there were a few scenes that worked - the Giovanni-Leporello clothes changing scene at the beginning of Act Two was good. I also liked the Champagne Aria - it must be the first in history that Don Giovanni sings this not with a champagne flute but a meat cleaver! The final scene of the Don descending into hell began with master and servant in chef's clothing cooking - and actually eating - dinner! Not fake food but the real thing. I felt like I was watching a TV cooking show. Also interesting was the arrival of Commendatore to take Giovannni to hell. The Commendatore now looks like a Catholic priest (!), and accompanied by a dozen or so men dressed in various military and civilian costumes. The Commendatore and his entourage linked hands, as if to give him more power to conquer DG. To sum it up - many directorial touches - some humorous, some grim or macabre, a few surprising, more than a few puzzling, and finally some truly outrageous. There were an unusually large number of young people in the audience, no doubt there to see this far-out production.

As to the individual characters. This Don Giovanni is a chameleon - I've never seen so many costume and wig changes outside of a fashion show. It is sung magnificently by Canadian baritone Gerald Finley - an altogether amazing performance. Elvira is a back-packing, downtrodden young woman, beautifully played and sung by French soprano Veronique Gens. She didn't really have a high pianissimo, but she disguised it well - by singing those two high notes against a wall. Overall she was a very fine Elvira. Alex Esposito was a brilliant sidekick of a Leporello, and vocally he was fabulous, getting the second loudest ovation after Finley. Canadian soprano Erin Wall as Anna made the most of a one dimensional character, and she sang some lovely pianissimos in No mi dir. Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser has the right Mozartean timbre to his sound and he was a good partner for Wall. The pair of peasants were very good - Laura Tatulescu was an excellent Zerlina, and baritone Levante Molnar, though somewhat older and a little chubby, was a more interesting than usual Massetto. Canadian bass Phillip Ens has sung countless Commendatores in his career, and he continues to own this role. The verdict? I wouldn't want this to be the first DG for someone new to the opera, but if you want something different, or are bored with the traditional take, this production is certainly entertaining. Oh, did I forget to mention the animal carcasses hanging in one of the containers? Ummm, I will have to see the show again to catch all the nuances....

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Sunday, 17 July 2011

Letter From Munich 2011: Ariadne auf Naxos

Soprano Emily Magee as the new Ariadne in Munich

by Joseph K. So

It's always a pleasure to return to the beautiful Bavarian State Opera every July for the Festival. This year's program is particularly interesting for me - six evenings of five operas (Ariadne auf Naxos, Don Giovanni, Rusalka, Der Rosenkavalier, Mitridate re di Ponto) and a Michael Volle Liederabend. Last evening was Ariadne auf Naxos, which I had previously seen in its premiere three years ago at the Prinzregenten-theater. Now it has moved to the larger space of the National-theater. Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, who sang the premiere of this Robert Carsen production, was to have reprised her marvelous Ariadne, but she had to withdraw from this (as well as Elsa in Lohengrin) and return to Canada due to the passing of her mother. American soprano Emily Magee took over both roles. Also new in this revival was the Bacchus of American tenor Robert Dean Smith, who also sang this role recently at the Met. The third new cast member was the Zerbinetta of Daniela Fally. Returning was the excellent Composer of Daniela Sindram.

It's my experience that the most evocative operatic productions are also the most enduring, ones that stand up to repeated viewing. I was very impressed with the Carsen production three years ago. Seeing it a second time last evening, my original impression only strengthened. I found more nuances that I had missed previously, and I discovered new layers of meaning. To be sure, the Carsen signature is written all over it. The Canadian director probably got the inspiration of situating the opening scene in a ballet studio - as the son of Canadian ballet maven Walter Carsen, the young Carsen was probably steeped in that tradition. It was staged very naturally, in a cinema verite fashion and it worked beautifully. Another Carsen signature is the presence of extra - wordless, or should I say note-less - personages on stage that help to flesh out the drama. Very sparse staging throughout, with the occasional prop such as upright pianos during Zerbinetta's big aria. The visual clarity allows the audience to focus on the drama and the interactions of the characters. The presence of doubles seems to suggest that we are not just watching the love loss of Ariadne, but that of all womanhood. In the final scene, the men led by Bacchus on one side and Ariadne and her women on the other side coming together, the symbolism is plain to see. That, combined with the nobility of the music of the final duet, was extremely moving to me. What of the gender-bending scenes? The four comedians, some of them rather over-fed, in black dresses, or the chorus-line of lithe-bodied men camping it up behind Zerbinetta? Carsen is probably likely also poking fun at the opposing sexual agendas of men and women. I loved the jazzy, contemporary feel to the choreography, once again probably influence by contemporary ballet.

The cast last evening was very strong, really without a weak link. Magee is of course a celebrated Ariadne, having sung it elsewhere and can be seen on the dvd from Zurich. She stepped easily into this production - physically she bears quite a resemblance to Pieczonka. Vocally she was very good over all. She took a little bit of time to warm up - if her high fortissimos were a little forced in the beginning, it improved greatly midway in the Opera; and her high pianissimos in "Ein schoenes war" were lovely. Her only true weakness was the very low notes in "Es gibt ein Reich" but she can be forgiven as even a great Ariadne like Lisa Della Casa couldn't make those notes sound beautiful! Magee's comedic moments in the Prologue were understated, which is preferable as far as I am concerned. Robert Dean Smith is one of the few tenors capable of handling the high tessitura of Bacchus without strain, but occasionally he was covered by the orchestra. Coloratura soprano Daniela Fally is a voice new to me. Last evening her Zerbinetta was vocally not quite on the same level as Diana Damrau, and Fally is an equally scintillating actress. Daniela Sindram reprised her amazing Composer. Perhaps vocally she wasn't the very best I have heard - and I've heard some great ones over the years, but Sindram wins hands down as the most believable impersonating a man! I love the way Carsen's staging spills over at the beginning and the end, as well as in between the prologue and the opera, giving the proceedings a cinema verite feel. There were plenty of entrances on the side aisles of the auditorium, and the houselights were kept up a lot of the time, making the audience feel as if they were part of the action.

The reduced orchestra under Kent Nagano sounded great. I am sure this is a piece that the musicians can play in their sleep - the strings and woodwinds were sounding especially beautiful. The final duet in Nagano's hand never sounded more noble and refulgent. The production, originally designed for the Prinzregententheater, doesn't look out of place in the bigger space of the National-theater, especially with some framing on either side of the stage to reduce the width. The ovations at the end lasted more than five minutes, with the singers called back time and time again. The audience reception of Nagano was positively ecstatic - I bet the public is sorry to see him leave! All in all, a wonderfully satisfying evening at the opera.

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