La Scena Musicale

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Tafelmusik Honours the Past and Welcomes the Future with Hercules


Photo (bottom): Tafelmusik music director Jeanne Lamon receives audience accolades after performance of Hercules (foreground l. to r. Sumner Thompson, Jeanne Lamon, Allyson McHardy) All Photos: BDS Studios
Photo (top): Hercules full cast








Handel: Hercules
Jan. 19, 2012 Koerner Hall

Sumner Thompson, bar. / Hercules
Allyson McHardy, mezzo / Dejanira
Colin Balzer, ten. / Hyllus
Nathalie Paulin, sop. / Iole
Laura Pudwell, mezzo / Lichas

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir
Dancers of Atelier Ballet
Jeanne Lamon, music director
Marshall Pynkoski, stage director
Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, choreographer
Raha Javanfar, lighting designer

As Canada's premier baroque band, Tafelmusik has attracted a loyal following over the years. Well, they were out in force last Thursday for the opening of Handel's Hercules. Rather than the traditional venue of Trinity St. Paul's Centre, Tafelmusik rented the more spacious and acoustically friendly Koerner Hall, now arguably the best concert hall in Toronto. The change in venue represents a further artistic evolution of Tafelmusik, and judging from the performance and the audience response, it was a resounding success. The place was packed, a powerful testament of the loyalty of Tafelmusik audiences at a time when many organizations play to much less than full houses. The evening had a feel of a real gala, with the audience eagerly anticipating the performance, but also a post-concert announcement, but more about that later.

Hercules is technically an oratorio, but given its dramatic nature, the piece is quite viable as an opera. Here we have essentially a fully staged production complete with entrances and exits, with full costumes (minus wigs) for the principals but no sets and taking place in a concert hall. The action was enhanced by choreographed dance sequences by Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, and the deft direction of Marshall Pynkoski. Their work here bear the indelible stamp of their own company, Opera Atelier. Directorial touches that work beautifully in the Elgin can appear a little over the top in the tight confines of a concert stage - have you ever seen a more elegant janitorial staff made up of dancers carrying brooms and dustpans? The exaggerated way Hyllus (Colin Balzer) threw himself at Iole elicited some giggles from the people around me, but I am nitpicking. A more legitimate complaint was the extremely dim lighting in the first half, rendering the printed text in the program totally useless. (Perhaps somebody heard the complaints at intermission as the house light was considerably brighter in the second half)

Top vocal honours went to mezzo Allyson McHardy as Dejanira. Hers is a genuine low mezzo bordering on a lyric contralto, with a timbre that brings to mind the excellent contralto Nathalie Stutzmann, but McHardy has a stronger, more solid upper extension, a rare attribute for a low voice. Dejanira has the most music to sing, and McHardy dispatched everything with technical ease, intensity and expression. Particularly memorable was her Act 3 Scene 3 aria with its bravura passages - McHardy's performance here was a tour de force. Also noteworthy was Canadian tenor Colin Balzer, who has carved out a good career in Mozart in mostly European houses - his Don Ottavio at the recent Aix en Provence Don Giovanni was outstanding. His smooth, plangent sound was heard to advantage as Hyllus, at his best in "Let not fame the tidings spread." Reportedly under the weather, Acadian soprano and Toronto resident Nathalie Paulin overcame some initial huskiness and went on to provide her usual feminine warmth and soft-grained vocalism as Iole. Her voice blended beautifully with McHardy's, and their two duets, particularly the one in Act 3, was the highlight of the evening. While it was sad that illness forced the wonderful Quebec mezzo Mireille Lebel to cancel, we got to hear Laura Pudwell, long an OA stalwart, stepping in as a worthy replacement in the role of Lichas. The title role was taken by American baritone Sumner Thompson. Tall and imposing - he towered over Nathalie Paulin - Thompson was an impressive Hercules. His voice is a bit too light for the role and not ideally audible in the lower reaches, but overall he acquitted himself well. The smaller solo roles were expertly taken by the very fine Tafelmusik Chorus - there were only twenty-two of them, but everyone was up to the task.

The Tafelmusik Baroque Chorus under its longtime music director Jeanne Lamon played the Handel score with precision, elegance, verve and elan. It was a fitting way to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Lamon. The Company also took this occasion to announce the inauguration of its own recording label , Tafelmusik Media. After the performance, the audience was invited to remain in their seats to watch a video announcing this new initiative. Given the huge discography already in existence, launching its own label is a logical undertaking. It is important to note that it is more than a record label, as material will be available in a number of formats, presumably with future downloading capabilities. This is a most welcome news for supporters of Tafelmusik, and for lovers of the baroque repertoire in general. More information can be found on their website http://www.tafelmusik.org/index.php

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