All Time Coloratura

COC Book Club: Promising?

Posted in COC by cToronto on February 25, 2010

I received an email in my inbox recently announcing the launch of the COC book club – essentially a book recommendation combined with an internet forum and (perhaps?) a soupcon of scholarly discussion. In preparation for the upcoming Maria Stuarda, the chosen book is Philippa Gregory’s The Other Queen.

I’m the type of person who always carries a book in her purse, and recently gave up a semi-lucrative job in order to spend more time reading and talking about books, so this looks like an excellent opportunity to combine two of my favourite pastimes. Since I’m also taking a course in 16th century literature, perhaps this will help me understand the period a little better. I intend to participate vigorously on the COC forums.

It does worry me somewhat that the Amazon reviews of the book are almost universally negative. If it helps me deepen my understanding of the opera, I’ll give it a chance. And there’s no way it could be a worse slog than Pamela.

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

Posted in COC by cToronto on February 20, 2010

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”

Today in…Overselling?

Posted in Weirdness by cToronto on February 18, 2010

Via Parterre Box. Presented without comment.

And yes, there is a website.

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Five Operas with a Disturbing Perspective on Love

Posted in Thoughts on Opera by cToronto on February 15, 2010

This post is in honour of the day after Valentine’s day, when discounted heart-boxed candy is snatched up by drugstore vultures and lovers wake up with hangovers from last night’s mediocre champagne and lacklustre sex. Here are five operas with strange, ugly, disturbing warts on the face of their romanticism.

1. Jenufa

Laca loves Jenufa, but she’s in love with the handsomer Steva. Laca solves the issue by slashing Jenufa’s face so Steva won’t want her any more. Sure enough, it works! Steva soon leaves Jenufa despite having knocked her up, and one drowned baby later, Jenufa and Laca are married in an ending meant to be redemptive.

2. Cosi fan Tutte

We’re told right at the beginning that any woman will be unfaithful to her man if given the opportunity and a sufficiently compelling prospect, and the remainder of the opera is spent proving this hypothesis. Why do Guglielmo and Ferrando work so strenuously to inflict cruelty on their loved ones, not to mention lose their own wager? All in service of the pursuit of Truth, dear reader.

3. Turandot

Calaf sees Turandot and immediately is stricken senseless by love, despite the fact that she’s determined not to marry, and in the habit of publicly executing her suitors. He even prefers the bloodthirsty princess to Liu, the representative of Innocent Womanhood whose sole plot function is to martyr herself for a love that isn’t returned and barely noticed (see below).

Calaf and Turandot’s eventual love scene is tinged with rape-like overtones. Turandot’s capitulation comes with these words:

o stranger, when you came,
I felt with anguish
the irresistible thrill
of this greatest of all sicknesses.
How many have I seen die for me!
And I despised them; but I feared you!

4. The Magic Flute

True love can only be fully attained through a series of initiation rites. The first: don’t speak to any woman, even your beloved, even if she threatens to kill herself. The second: play your magic flute while walking through water and fire. It also comes with some helpful life lessons.

Men: women are out to get you. Be afraid.

Women: submit to the judgement of your men.

5. La Gioconda

Consider the decisions made by various characters in the opera:

  • If your heartthrob nobleman-in-disguise loves another woman, consider stabbing her to death. Unless it turns out she saved your mom’s life a while ago; in that case you should actually go to unreasonable lengths to not only save her life but set her up with your man in a gesture of self-sacrifice. Before you kill yourself, of course.
  • If you discover your wife has been cheating on you, insist that she poison herself. Then hand her some poison and leave her alone to drink it. Certainly her suicide will go as planned, right?
  • If you’re discovered conducting a tryst on your boat with another man’s wife, the best thing to do is set your boat on fire.

Wine and Cheese with Opera Atelier

Posted in Opera Atelier by cToronto on February 14, 2010

I’ve just returned from Opera Atelier’s subscriber event toasting the upcoming 25th anniversary season. Since I attended the event alone, there was little for me to do at first besides renew my subscription, consume the consumables, and slink around suspiciously. But the afternoon took a turn for the delightful when the performances began, featuring two scenes (one vocal and one ballet) from The Marriage of Figaro.

Co-Artistic Director Marshall Pynkoski discussed Opera Atelier’s decision to perform Figaro in English, an issue he has previously discussed on the OA blog. Their production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail took a similar approach, with the dialog in English and the arias in German. I think it’s certainly true that surtitles harm the comedy – the mismatched timing of the singer’s delivery and the appearance of the surtitle often results in jokes that don’t quite work, especially in patter songs. The only downside of performing comedy in translation – and one of the fundamental difficulties of opera as a form, in my opinion – is that the words, when sung in operatic style, can often be difficult to make out. I’ve seen productions that try to solve this issue by performing in English translation and also providing surtitles, which can have the effect of highlighting the problem rather than resolving it. Perhaps this will be less of an issue in the intimate Elgin Theatre, where subtleties of vocal inflection (not to mention facial movements) are much easier to pick up.

I was also very pleased to have the opportunity to briefly meet both Marshall Pynkoski himself and the stylish Nancy Hitzig, the Manager of Education and Marketing who left a very kind comment on my last entry. My fledgling blog has a tiny readership, but already it’s making being an opera lover even more interesting!

Gods Bless Opera Atelier

Posted in Opera Atelier by cToronto on February 8, 2010

Opera Atelier’s 2010-2011 season – their 25th – features two operas I have never seen or heard, and know almost nothing about: Handel’s Acis and Galatea and Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. This is a good thing – it shows they don’t feel the need to shore up ticket sales by mounting something comfortingly familiar, and it gives me the chance to see two operas I might otherwise ignore if not for their efforts.

Let’s look at the blurbs for these:

Acis and Galatea, Handel’s ravishing pastorale, depicts Ovid’s tale of the water nymph Galatea and her doomed love for the Arcadian shepherd Acis.  The opera weaves together a story of startling sensuality and tragedy blended with an ironic sense of humour – told through some of Handel’s most sublime music.

and

In Mozart’s lifetime, La Clemenza di Tito was considered “his most perfect work.” It enjoyed enormous success in Vienna, Prague, Berlin, Naples, St. Petersburg, Paris and London. Opera Atelier’s proud to present a sumptuous new production which will mark the opera’s North American premiere on period instruments.

Desperate intrigues, unrequited love and heart stopping reversals of fortune punctuate this thrilling story taken directly from Roman history, in which the Roman aristocrat, Vitellia plots the assassination of Titus – Emperor of Rome.

Yes, this sounds intriguing. But I must confess that a big – perhaps over-large – part of my affection for OA comes from their advertising photography. Just click over to the page for La Clemenza di Tito and gaze for a while at that Vanity Fair-esque banner. How sexy! How witty! How stylish! I want to hang it on my wall.

Click over to their photos page for other equally-impressive images.

The COC’s Carmen: Review and Thoughts

Posted in COC, Thoughts on Opera by cToronto on February 6, 2010

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.

What Should I Wear to the Opera?

Posted in Thoughts on Opera by cToronto on February 2, 2010
Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman"

No, you will not see people dressed like this at the opera.

What should you wear to the opera?

The short answer, is, of course, wear whatever you like. Inhabit any part of the denim/tuxedo spectrum of dressiness. No outfit will result in you being turned away at the door that wouldn’t also get you turned away from, say, Sears (disclaimer: I am, of course, writing from my experience of Canadian, American, and the odd European opera houses. It is quite possible that what I have to say does not apply in Singapore or Russia, for example).

That said, what you really want to know is, what should you wear so you won’t look out of place? What are the limits of underdressing and overdressing?

The truth is that any modest effort to look nice – such as for a religious service, or the wedding of someone you don’t know very well, or a friend’s small dinner party – is more than sufficient. There will be very few ballgowns or tuxedos on display. Most people will be a little bit dressed up. Some will be very dressed up, but a roughly equal number will be dressed casually. Any energy spent worrying about your outfit is wasted energy.

Some people – especially women, I find –  are a bit disappointed by this. They imagine the opera as an opportunity for glamour and grandeur, like in The Age of Innocence or Pretty Woman. They’re itching to pull their long sparkly gowns and/or white ties out of the closet. And then they arrive, matching evening bag and all, to see a lot of people who look like their mothers’ friends dressed for dinner theatre.

Don’t be disappointed! There’s enough intimidation and snobbery in the opera world that we can afford to dispense with this particular layer of it. If you become an opera buff and make attending a habit, it will be a relief to know that you can come to the theatre straight from the office or the dentist, and have no one look at your outfit with contempt (well, most of the time).

If you have time to prepare, enjoy yourself a little. Opera nights are when I pull out the feathered hairpieces, the tulip skirts, the brooches and shawls – things that are fun to wear but would look a little silly at work or in class. I put on more makeup than usual. But my floor-length strapless graduation dress, thankfully, stays in the closet.