All Time Coloratura

Sometimes Blogs Lead to Good Things

Posted in COC, Thoughts on Opera, Weirdness by cToronto on July 3, 2010

So, back in January, I finally started an opera blog after many years of thinking about it. I was a bit insecure about this endeavour, and wasn’t quite sure how I’d fit into the online opera world, but went ahead with it anyway. I wasn’t really sure what would come of it, but I thought at least it would lead me to learn interesting things. My first post ever was about an Opera 101 event hosted by the Canadian Opera Company.

Then I wrote a post about Opera Atelier and that led to volunteering for them and making some new and wonderful opera friends. I encountered other interesting bloggers. I felt like writing All Time Coloratura was making my life better in some very direct ways.

Then, when the Canadian Opera Company announced a job opening for a Social and Interactive Media Coordinator, I took the plunge and applied, thinking that even if I didn’t get hired it would be a chance to meet people at the COC and perhaps raise my own profile. Last week they offered me the job. My work will involve maintaining a blog, managing the COC’s presence on various social networks, and cultivating relationships with other people in the online opera community.

It’s possible, I suppose, that I could have been hired without the blog, but I’m sure that it would have been considerably more difficult to make my case without being able to point to All Time Coloratura. So, thank you to everyone who stopped by, linked to me, left a comment, or encouraged me to keep writing. I honestly feel as though I’ve become part of a real community.

I start working for the COC a couple of weeks from now. I intend to keep blogging here, in a non-official capacity. Some aspects of the blog may need to change given the change in my circumstances – particularly the coverage of COC productions – but I hope you all keep reading. And, if you have any thoughts on how an opera company can engage its audience online in a way that’s warm, exciting, and innovative, please get in touch with me (alltimecoloratura at gmail)! Actually, get in touch with me even if it’s just to introduce yourself. Talking about opera on the internet will soon be what I get up in the morning to do.

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The COC’s Holländer: How Does it Compare?

Posted in COC by cToronto on May 14, 2010

Only three weeks after seeing Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer at the Metropolitan Opera, I have just returned from the Canadian Opera Company’s take on the same. And I must say that even without A-lister Deborah Voigt, I much preferred the COC’s quirky, at times frustrating, modernist approach.

Christopher Alden’s production, though “avant-garde”, dates from 1996 (in 1996 I was in Jr. High, obsessed with Gene Kelly, and still hadn’t seen my first “real” opera – now I’m pushing 30). Its central conceit is in setting the opera in a nightmarish, expressionist version of 1930’s Germany, with the Dutchman and his crew in striped prison garb and the armband-wearing chorus moving as a mechanized, hyper-conforming mass. Considering the fascist taint that Wagner’s work has carried since the Nazi era, this is not just a thought experiment but a deeply provocative attempt to interrogate the opera’s subtext. There’s no question that the society we see in Holländer is a rigid and labour-centred one, where the Dutchman (the outcast) and Senta (the rebel) serve to make the other characters seem soulless, superficial and reactionary. The best illustrations of this came during the spinning song, where the chorus of women, seated in rows, performed mechanical movements in perfect unison; and the dueling choruses in Scene III, where the Dutchman’s shadowy crew is imprisoned under the stage while the men above stomp their feet. A thoughtful account of the original 1996 production – and the problems inherent in using Nazi images for theatrical ends – can be found on the COC’s website. I didn’t find it too crass or needlessly disrespectful, especially considering that these issues are impossible to avoid in productions of Wagner.

And, as a coda to my disappointment with the Tosca Leap that ended the Met’s production, I’ll say (without spoilers) that Alden’s alternate ending is so effective and so appropriate that I found myself wondering why Wagner didn’t write it that way himself.

Performances were top-flight all around, especially Evgeny Nikitin as the Dutchman. His voice is clear and forceful, never woolly or growly, sounding almost like a tenor in the higher range and robust in the lower. He also had a wonderful physicality in the role, playing a broken man rather than a romantic hero. In the pit, new Artistic Director Johannes Debus conducted with insight and color. I can’t find fault with this production musically, although there were a few strains and glitches here and there.

My major frustration was in certain elements of the staging. The set is an enormous box tilted on an angle, with a spiral staircase leading up through the “ceiling”. Because my seats are in the highest balcony, the very top of the staircase was obstructed from my view – and it was from this staircase that a lot of key lines were delivered. The acoustics suffered as much as the sightlines, and this really took away from my enjoyment of these scenes, especially considering that placing the singers a few more steps down would have solved the issue. The Met’s staging had exactly this problem, except this time I was in standing room. The Dutchman entered from a giant ladder that reached up to the ceiling, and Die Frist ist Um was sung almost entirely from the uppermost portion – which I couldn’t see at all, save for a shoe and part of a cloak, due to the balcony overhang. Considering that, again, this could have been solved by having him come down the ladder a little further, I have to wonder whether the directors don’t think about how their stagings will look to people in the cheap seats, or whether they just don’t care (since, after all, I only paid $30 for my seat and it looks just fine for the people who paid $300). Last fall’s The Nightingale was a huge offender in this regard, so much that it almost completely destroyed my enjoyment of the work. Does anyone have any thoughts on why this happens, especially when it’s not caused by any structural issues with the seat? I expect visibility problems on the sidelines, but not when I’m dead-centre in the balcony.

Other reviews:

National Post: “None of this is really worth the exegesis. The music is what counts. Best to take in one of the repeats as an opera in concert.”

Toronto Star: “Had everyone simply stood onstage, the experience would have been more satisfying than seeing director Christopher Alden turn the Dutchman into a B-movie zombie who stumbles and staggers as he searches for the next wall to bang into.”

NOW Magazine: “The Canadian Opera Company’s revival of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman is one of the most exciting productions in town”

Epoch Times: “The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman was like going to see a Leaf’s game and watching them lose—a familiar feeling for Toronto hockey fans. You love the sport, you want to be there and have it all work and it just doesn’t.”

John Coulbourn: “And so it all ends in a bit of an artistic draw, for while , finally, THE FLYING DUTCHMAN impresses on many levels, it only ever really soars on the wings of its music.”

Classical 963 FM:”Despite the craziness on stage, the drama of Wagner’s thrilling score shines throughout. Kudos to maestro Debus and his orchestra and singers.”

Mooney on Theatre: “The Canadian Opera Company’s (COC’s) production of Richard Wagner’s famous opera The Flying Dutchman, now playing at The Four Seasons Centre For The Performing Arts, is very beautiful and certainly well worth seeing.”

Getting to Know You: Idomeneo at Glyndebourne, 1964

Posted in Album Reviews, COC by cToronto on May 4, 2010

[Full Disclosure: Naxos has provided me with a promotional copy of this recording]

Cover of the Glyndebourne release of Idomeneo, 1964

First things first: I’d like to direct your attention to the cover art for this recording. That is a sea monster for the ages, the sea monster of my B-movie dreams. Right down to its strangely limp tentacled appendages and its dripping, jagged-toothed maw.

Here is where I reveal my inadequacy as a lover of Mozart opera: I am largely unfamiliar with Idomeneo. I remember a televised production from perhaps five years ago that featured Japan-inspired sets and costumes, but otherwise this is my first encounter with this opera, one of Mozart’s earliest successes. Since the COC’s production opens May 9th, I thought I’d use this album discussion as an opportunity to familiarize myself with it. I made liberal use of The COC’s Listening Guide to quickly familiarize myself with the key arias and ensembles.

Listening to this recording without following along with the libretto, it’s immediately identifiable as a Mozart opera. Though the conventions of Opera Seria are firmly in place and the musical gestures are rather more grandiose than in his celebrated comedies, the lightness, agility, and fineness of detail I associate with Mozart’s music is very much in evidence. I always especially enjoy Mozart’s ensemble pieces, and Pria di Partir, O Dio! is an outstanding example.

Usually what winds up endearing me the most to a given Mozart opera isn’t the big set-piece arias, but rather the small moments, maybe lasting only four bars or so, that command my attention, turn my head, and then disappear as quickly as they arose. Idomeneo is full of them – just now the interesting chord changes near the end of Popoli, A Voi, and when I first started listening, the lovely descending scales in Ilia’s first aria, Padre, germani, addio!

Pavarotti’s presence as Idamante makes this recording of particular interest – though it also adds to the recording’s idiosyncrasies. This performance captures him at the very beginning of his career, when (as the liner notes tell us) he still hadn’t decided if a career as a football player would suit him better than one as an opera singer. The recording itself is an effective argument for his future stardom, documenting the beautiful blooming voice that was to bring him the highest name recognition of any opera singer since Caruso. Of course, Pavarotti isn’t a singer especially at home in the Mozartean repertoire, and his very Italianate Idamante has distinctly Nemorino-ish overtones. In addition, the role was originally written for a castrato, with tenor-fication coming later (I understand the COC will use a mezzo-soprano). There is equally beautiful singing from the renowned Gundula Janowitz as Ilia. Richard Lewis as Idomeneo, however, often sounds rough and unsteady, particularly in the more florid passages.

Though a live performance, the recording is blessedly free of distracting stage and audience noise, and the sound quality is excellent for a live recording from the period. Even the applause has mostly been excised, from what I can tell. The liner notes are informative, with many interesting photographs of the production included. There is a full libretto with English, French, and German translations. While perhaps too quirky to be a definitive recording for newcomers to Idomeneo, I very much enjoyed getting to know these other facets of Mozart’s music.

The recording is available for purchase from www.glyndebourne.com.

Opera 101: The Pie-Eating Contest

Posted in COC by cToronto on April 14, 2010

I just returned from the COC’s free Opera 101 event (for Der fliegende Holländer) at the Drake Hotel. There was a very interesting discussion on “interpretive/modern” productions of operas, whether opera is relevant in today’s world or whether it is a museum piece, and how to manage the unpleasant associations that are unfortunately part of Wagner’s legacy. Christopher Alden, the director of the upcoming Holländer, explained how in this (admittedly 14 year old) production he conceived of Senta as someone who, while part of the dominant social order, is obsessed with the plight of the other, the outsider, the oppressed. This seems to me to be a more interesting take than seeing her as someone wishing to be carried away by a sexy fairy-tale pirate, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this is expressed on stage. I’m also pretty sure I agree with Alden when he says that opera, while relevant, is an art form of the past (and I think that the sooner we admit this, the better).

He also related an anecdote about a production of Aida he directed in Berlin, roundly booed by the audience, wherein the triumphal procession was replaced by a pie-eating contest. It was part of his conception of Aida as being about religious fundamentalism; conductor Johannes Debus (also the COC’s music director) suggested that perhaps it would have gone over better with the Germans if it had featured curry sausages instead of pie.

I’m also quite delighted that Alden directed the audience to a youtube video of the production’s Dutchman, an extensively tattooed former Navy man named Evgeny Nikitin (Video here – embedding is disabled on this one). Be warned that it’s all in Russian. Even if you’re not Russian, the audio and visuals are worth it.

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”

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.

Carmen Review Roundup

Posted in COC by cToronto on January 31, 2010

I won’t be seeing the COC’s Carmen until Friday the 5th. To make sure I go in with as many preconceived ideas about it as possible, here are some reviews:

Toronto Star:

Rinat Shaham is cheerful for someone who has just been thrown into an operatic fire – the Canadian Opera Company’s current Carmen, which runs to Feb. 27.

Then again, fire is what the New Yorker is all about. The dusky timbred mezzo soprano is a popular choice for the title role of a hot-blooded gypsy temptress because she is the whole package.

Big, flexible voice? Check. Sultry looks? Yup. Flashing brown eyes? Got it. She can even dance.

These are substantial gifts for a Toronto production that is musically strong, but visually tepid.

JAM!:

To be certain, mezzo soprano Rinat Shaham sounds the part and even looks it as well — so much so that a few of Francois St-Aubin’s full-speed-ahead-and-watch-those-torpedoes costumes could most definitely be considered lily gilding.

But what director Justin Way fails to grasp in this wooden and too-often self-conscious staging is that, in much the same way as water never has to try to be wet, Carmen as written never has to try to be sexy. And in insisting Shaham wrap and writhe herself around poles and straddle chairs to seduce tenor Byan Hymel’s lugubrious Don Jose and bass baritone Paul Gay’s wooden Escamillo, is a little like using an atom bomb to kill a mosquito.

The Globe and Mail:

Israeli mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham was a stunning Carmen – to see, to hear, to experience dramatically. New Orleans tenor Bryan Hymel turned in a passionate and thrillingly sung Don José. Canadian soprano Jessica Muirhead was a persuasive and touching Micaela. The three, beautifully abetted by the COC orchestra under Scottish conductor Rory Macdonald and the COC chorus trained by Sandra Horst, provided a stirring central musico-dramatic core, which sustained us through this astonishing, beautiful and still-upsetting work.

COC’s Alexander Neef Interviewed in Opera News

Posted in COC by cToronto on January 25, 2010

Here’s an interesting Opera News interview with the COC’s General Director, Alexander Neef. The article takes particular note of his youth, suggesting it might help him attract younger audiences to opera (was he the one responsible for choosing the hipper-than-thou Drake Hotel to host the Opera 101 night a few weeks ago?).

Of particular interest is his praise for the openness of Toronto opera audiences:

What’s really interesting about the public here — and this is something I like a lot — is that people are very open to things that they didn’t know before, and they give you a chance to convince them that it’s actually good to do it. They just come in, sit down and build an opinion. They’re not opinionated before they come in. It gives us a lot of freedom in programming. Last season, our ’08–09 season, consisted of War and Peace, Don Giovanni, Fidelio, Rusalka, Bohème, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Simon Boccanegra. Apart from War and Peace, which was everybody’s favorite, we got the most feedback for Rusalka and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Those were the productions and pieces that everybody really got excited about. I thought that was really interesting.

It might be possible to read those first few sentences as slightly condescending – Toronto audiences don’t care what you put in front of them; just put it on the program and they’ll always listen politely. But it’s true that in Toronto, the seats fill up just as quickly for War and Peace as they do for La Boheme. When I was a regular attendee at Edmonton Opera, they would sometimes make an effort to mount less well-known, more challenging works, like The Rake’s Progress,  the Lapage Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung, and the homegrown Filumena. There would be plenty of empty seats in the theatre those nights, and a small exodus at intermission. Occasionally there would even be an angry letter to the newspaper accusing EO of abandoning its base.

It’s great that the COC is willing to not only include operas like War & Peace in its programming, but put its full weight and resources behind them. The three operas he mentions were indeed the most memorable for me that year.

Some Reasons Why I Shouldn’t Blog About Opera

Posted in Thoughts on Opera by cToronto on January 21, 2010

I started an opera blog, yes, but will it be an adequate one? Rather than enumerate to myself the various things making me unqualified to write about opera and discourage myself from blogging, I thought I’d preemptively list them here and go ahead with it anyway.

1. I don’t live in a major opera center

The Canadian Opera Company is actually pretty good, with seven operas next season and high-quality productions. But I seldom have a chance to see the singers featured in Opera News.

2. I’m not obsessive about singers

In arguments about the superiority of various vocal techniques, or about which diva’s Tosca was the greatest, or which young up-and-comer is about to ruin his voice, I’m generally underpowered. I have some regret about this, but not much. Because of reason one above, I don’t often see A-list stars in performance, and I’m a lot more interested in opera-as-musical-literature (does that mean something?) anyway.

3. Some operas bore me

Most of the Bel Canto repertoire (Lucia, Norma, etc.) leaves me cold. I find Simon Boccanegra an ordeal. Same with the majority of opera seria — although Opera Atelier’s revelatory productions have been slowly changing my mind.

4. I am beginning to lose interest in genre purity

Back when Charlotte Church and Andrea Bocelli were popular and I was a teenager anxious to prove my cultural credentials, I was ready to condemn “popera” wholeheartedly. These days, I would still privately roll my eyes a bit if someone referred to Paul Potts as an “opera singer”, but don’t really see the point in guarding the gates so vigorously. A few arias sung on Oprah won’t do irreparable harm to the form. Aside from there being no need to alienate entry-level opera fans, it’s one of the least interesting things to talk about and at worst you wind up coming off like this guy. Also – Sweeney Todd on opera stages? Bring it on.

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