La Scena Musicale

Friday, 23 September 2011

COC Opens Season with Deeply Moving Iphigenia in Tauris

Top: Russell Braun (Orestes) and Joseph Kaiser (Pylades) (Photo: Michael Cooper)
Middle:Dancers in Act 1 Iphigenia in Tauris (Photo: Michael Cooper)
Bottom: Susan Graham as Iphigenia in COC's Iphigenia in Tauris (Photo: John Currid)

Gluck: Iphigenia in Tauris
Susan Graham (Iphigenie)
Russell Braun (Orestes)
Joseph Kaiser (Pylades)
Mark Doss (Thoas)
Lauren Segal (Diana)
COC Orchestra and Chorus
Pablo Heras-Casado, conductor
Robert Carsen, director/lighting designer
Peter Van Praet, lighting designer
Sandra Horst, chorus master

Four Seasons Centre, Sept. 22, 7:30 p.m. 2011

by Joseph K. So

At the end of the COC season opening Iphigenia in Tauris on Thursday, a good number of audience members spontaneously rose to their feet cheering, a response that grew within a few seconds to a complete standing ovation from virtually the whole audience. It was gratifying to see the enthusiastic reception of a "concept production" by the essentially conservative Toronto audience. This Iphigenie clearly shows that the Toronto audience is ready and willing to accept and appreciate a creative re-imagining as long as it's logical, coherent, and most of all, one that serves the composer and the music. With this production, Carsen brings into clear relief that one doesn't need opulent scenery or super-realism to capture one's imagination.

Like Carsen's Orfeo which was arguably the gem of the 2010-11 COC season, this Iphigenie eschews the trappings of grand opera, instead focusing on the emotional core of the work. It's a tale of love, death, loyalty, and self sacrifice, with a famously dysfunctional family serving as the backstory. Given its unrelenting darkness, Carsen's approach is austere and barren, with an overwhelming use of black colour interspersed with streaks of red indicate violence or blood. The stage is empty except for the three walls, with the names of the three principals - Iphigenie, Agamemnon, and Clytemnestre - written in white chalk. At one point, Orestes is scrawled in red on the stage floor. The chorus sings from the pit while a group of supernumeraries (dancers) inhabit the stage, mimicking the movements of the principals. The women are costumed in long, black, flowing dresses with the men in black shirts and trousers, not unlike what musicians would wear in a concert performance. A very significant element of this production is the use of lighting, often in such a way that casts ominous shadows on the walls. In fact, the aesthetic of Iphigenie strongly echoes the Carsen production of Ariadne auf Naxos in Munich which I saw twice in the last three years. Given that both shows were premiered within a year or two of each other, it's understandable that Carsen recycled some of his ideas.

With a production that plumbs the depths of the human psyche, it is essential to have capable singing actors who bring to their roles not just beauty of voice but strong dramatic presence. In this respect, COC could not have assembled a better cast. Susan Graham is the definitive Iphigenie of our time, having sung it to great acclaim in many important venues including the Met, Covent Garden, and Paris. Her luminous high mezzo, capable of a wide range of colours, was a pleasure on opening night. As Orestes, Canadian Russell Braun sang with extraordinary dramatic intensity and vocal abandon, his warm and expressive baritone conveying touching pathos. I have seen Braun plenty of times on stage, both in opera and in recitals. To be sure, his performance here reaffirms him as one of the very best singing actors in front of the public today. Joseph Kaiser, last heard in Toronto ten long years ago when he was a baritone in the COC Ensemble, was a clarion voiced and totally believable Pylades. The two men are physically rather alike and their voices blended beautifully. Incidentally, many productions of Iphigenie, notably Opera Atelier's a few years back and the famous Glimmerglass-Francesca Zambello production starring Nathan Gunn and William Burden back in the late 1990's, have a certain gay sensibility in the relationship between the two men, something that is totally absent in the Carsen production. As Diana, former Ensemble mezzo Lauren Segal took full advantage of her very brief moments to shine. If there was a weak link, it was the rough-voiced Thoas of American Mark Doss, but even that was in character.

The highly choreographed Carsen staging places extraordinary physical demands on the singers, and particularly on the corp of dancers, who were well rehearsed and up to the task on opening night. The set design with the three walls helps propel the sound forward towards the auditorium, making everyone sound big even when singing upstage. If one were to quibble, this production must be seen from a relatively central position in the house, as much of the important action is obstructed for those sitting at the extreme sides. The COC orchestra with its modern instruments, rich strings and vibrant brass isn't really a baroque band, but visiting Spanish maestro Pablo Heras-Casado was able to draw authentic sounds from the pit. The invisible chorus gets the short end of the stick in this production, but they sang beautifully nevertheless under concert master Sandra Horst. Given the high artistic values and its stellar cast, this production of Iphigenie is surely the envy of many opera companies around the world. Sadly, there were many empty seats on opening night. Hopefully with favourable word of mouth in the press, Torontonians who value the operatic art form and are interested in artistic excellence will go to see this show - it's just about as good as it gets.


Wednesday, 21 September 2011

This Week in Toronto (Sept. 19 - 25)

American mezzo Susan Graham makes her COC debut in the title role of Iphigenia in Tauris

Now that the warm and sunny days of the 2011 summer are but a distant memory, we can look forward to an equally spectacular fall season of delectable musical events. The Canadian Opera Company opens its fall season with Gluck's Iphigenia in Tauris, more familiarly known as Iphigenie en Tauride. It is led by American mezzo Susan Graham in one of her signature roles. Appearing with her are two of the best Canadian singers of today - baritone Russell Braun as Orestes and tenor Joseph Kaiser as Pylades. Braun has sung this role on a number of occasions, including opposite the Iphigenie of Graham in the Paris Opera production. Kaiser is making his role debut in Toronto. Spanish maestro Pablo Heras-Casado, who made a splash when he conducted Nixon in China last season, returns to the Company. It is directed by Canadian Robert Carsen in a production already played to great acclaim in Chicago, San Francisco, Covent Garden and Madrid. Much like his Orfeo seen here last May, Carsen's austere and aesthetically dark approach is devoid of the trappings of grand opera, focusing instead on the emotional core of the work. It promises to be a riveting evening at the opera. Opening night is Thursday Sept. 22 at 7:30, with the second performance, a matinee, on Sept. 25 at 2 p.m. The COC Free Noon Hour Concert Series at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre also begins this week, with a Meet the Young Artists Show featuring the 2011-12 edition of the COC Ensemble Studio. Four new artists join the Ensemble this year - mezzo Mireille Asselin, bass-baritone Phillipe Sly, intern coach Jenna Douglas, and pianist Timothy Cheung. Remember to show up an hour ahead for a seat.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra starts it season with a Shakespeare-themed concert, pairing Tchaikovsky's Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture with the world premiere of Larysa Kuzmenko's Behold the Night, a piece for children's chorus and orchestra, with text from A Midsummer Night's Dream. The famed Canadian Shakespearean actor Christopher Plummer narrates the text in Walton's arrangement of Henry V. TSO music director Peter Oundjian is at the helm, leading the Toronto Children's Chorus and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Two performances - Thurs. Sept. 22 and Sat. Sept. 24, 7:30 pm at Roy Thomson Hall.

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, Canada's premiere period band, presents Music Fit for a King, a program of Lully, Babelon and Philidor. Four performances at Trinity-St. Paul's Centre, on Sept. 21, 22, 24, 25.

An intriguing event this week is the return of Canadian cellist Ofra Harnoy to the concert stage, after a hiatus of ten years. She will appear with pianist Anton Kuerti in the season opener of the Mooredale Concert's 23rd season on Sunday, September 25, 3:15 p.m. at Walter Hall, University of Toronto. This will be the first time these two artists perform together. On the program is Bach's Suite No. 3 for unaccompanied cello, Beethoven's Cello Sonata in A Major, Op. 69 and Franck's Cello Sonata. Details and ticket info at


Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Nagano & OSM Show off New Hall with Towering Turangalîla

by Paul E. Robinson

Tchaikovsky (orch.Glazunov): Méditation in D minor Op.42 No.1Glazunov: Violin Concerto in A minor Op. 82Messiaen: Turangalîla-SymphonieJoshua Bell: violinAngela Hewitt: pianoJean Laurendeau: ondes martenotOrchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM): Kent Nagano, conductor
La Maison symphonique
Place des Arts
Montréal, Quebec
September 13, 2011
Ever since its premiere in 1949, audiences have been moved and thrilled by Olivier Messiaens massive Turangalîla Symphony. More than 60 years later, it remains an extraordinarily original and peculiar piece. Montreal has heard it before - Charles Dutoit championed the piece in 2000 at Place des Arts. Kent Nagano has a special relationship with the composer and his music, and conducted this latest performance with both love and authority. The OSM responded with spectacular playing.

La Maison symphonique, the new home for OSM and others, including OSM’s rival, the Orchestre Métropolitain (still led by Philadelphia-bound Yannick Nezet-Seguin) opened last week with OSM performances of the Beethoven Ninth. The following week the OSM gave us the Turangalîla Symphony, an apt choice to really test the hall’s ability to handle both great masses of sound and a vast range of instrumental colours.

With Turangalîla, La Maison symphonique emerged a winner as it easily handled the enormous volume throughout the work without distortion, and most instruments could be clearly heard in both soft and loud passages; however, from my seat in the back of the Balcony – the highest tier in the hall – the overall orchestral sound was overly bright. I was reminded of the hard-edged early digital recordings from the 1980s: plenty of clarity, but not much warmth. In spite of the wood on the walls and floors all around me and on the stage below, the sound reaching the top tier was more steely than woody. As with most halls, the sound likely varies – sometimes considerably – depending on seat location. We’ll see.

Turangalîla, with an approximate playing time of 80 minutes, is often the sole piece on a programme. Not so on this occasion. In the first half of the concert, we had violinist Joshua Bell playing music by Tchaikovsky and Glazunov. This meant not only that the evening’s programme was very long, but also that it was expensive; Bell, one of the few classical artists likely to sell out a concert these days, doesn’t come cheap, and Turangalîla, with an exceptionally large orchestra including 11 percussionists, not to mention two featured keyboard soloists, is costly to mount.

Turangalîla is an event in itself. With nearly all OSM concerts conducted by Nagano selling very well, and with listeners eager to hear the new hall, why did the OSM management combine Bell and Turangalîla in one concert? Either one on its own is very costly and the two together would be tough on any orchestra’s budget. At a time when orchestras everywhere are struggling to avoid deficits, this programming looks like utter foolishness. The irony is that the OSM almost certainly would have sold out Joshua Bell and Turangalîla in separate concerts; to combine them in one concert probably jacked up their costs inordinately, while raising hardly a dollar more in revenue.

“Turangalîla” is a made-up word from Sanscrit meaning “love song.” There are love songs in the symphony, but no explicit programme or story. What makes this piece symphonic is the recurrence and development of themes. Messiaen, in many of his works, was inspired by both bird song and Indian music. The themes in his pieces are often easily recognizable, occasionally approaching what some would call “smaltzy.”

Turangalîla is odd in its harmonies and rhythms and in its unusual sounds. It is also very difficult to play, even for a virtuoso orchestra. The OSM musicians were equal to everything the composer threw at them and played superbly. The piano part is very demanding but ultimately unrewarding for the soloist with everything else that is going on in the piece. Angela Hewitt was a surprising soloist given her reputation for Bach and Mozart, but she made a very strong impression. Québec ondes martenot specialist Jean Laurendeau, positioned at the front of the orchestra, seemed in total command of this unusual instrument.

Joshua Bell, in great form, gave Tchaikovsky and Glazunov accurate and heartfelt performances. The OSM accompanied with sensitivity and panache. Associate principal horn Denys Derome contributed some beautiful solo playing.

It will likely take time for musicians and listeners alike to accustom themselves to La Maison symphonique. As I have said already, one concert experienced from one location in the hall does not provide enough information for firm conclusions about acoustical strengths and weaknesses. My impressions of the non-acoustical features of the hall, however, are another matter.

To begin with, anyone thinking of attending a concert La Maison symphonique should know that (as of September 13) the building and its environs are by no means finished. The outdoor surroundings are still walled off by wooden hoardings, and the lobby space is still under construction, especially at the top level. On the night I attended, the few existing escalators were not in service. Unfortunately, even putting the unfinished state of the building aside, the overall concept and layout of La Maison symphonique are, in my opinion, disappointing.

The new hall is part of Place des Arts and many patrons will enter through the dark, claustrophobic passages with low ceilings linking all the theatres. The main lobby of La Maison symphonique is so small and unimaginative that I was reminded of the worst of the Soviet era public buildings. To say the hall is uninviting would be an understatement. The audience enters through purely functional glass doors and almost immediately bumps up against a purely functional staircase. The message is ‘Get in or get out but don’t hang around here. Nothing to see here. Just keep moving.’ Emergency rooms in hospitals are designed with more aesthetic flair than this new arts facility.

There are only a single staircase and a few elevators leading to all floors. Getting 2,000 people in or out in a hurry is a problem. The beechwood lobby floors look nice, but after a few Montreal winters and a thousand cups of coffee spilled on them, will they still be attractive? The lobby space on each of the upper floors is tight and Spartan.

My general impression? Most of the money may or may not have been spent getting the acoustics right. We’ll see about that. Almost no money has been spent making the lobbies friendly and interesting, nor on moving people around the building quickly and safely. I see that the architectural design is credited to Jack Diamond. Was this really the best he could do?
Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. NEW for friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, Classical Airs.
Photo by Marita

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