TIFF Movies 2016 – Best and Worst

Saw 21 films, almost all of them enjoyable. Due to a broken neck, (I kid you not), caused by a very bad fall in early August, I had to construct a list of films where I didn’t have to switch theatres during the day. I also needed decent access because of my walker, so there are more big-budget English language movies than I would usually choose. My directors were largely women, although that was happenstance and not design. By coincidence, I also happened to see the top three People’s Choice Award films (La La Land, Lion, and Queen of Katwe) which is a first for me.

tiff-2016Top of the LineA United Kingdom (UK – Interracial marriage of future king of Bechuanaland (now Botswana) and British government’s relentless campaign against the couple).

Very Strong Heaven Will Wait (France – teenage girls being radicalized into jehadis), Aquarius (Brazil – the great Sonia Braga as a woman fighting against developers trying to evict her), In Between (Israel/France – travails of three young Arab women living in Tel Aviv), Christine (USA – news anchor in Florida who committed suicide on air), Burn Your Maps (USA – a little boy who thinks he’s Mongolian), Safari (Austria – droll exposé documentary of big game hunters).

Most Artistic/Cinema As ArtBrimstone (Netherlands et.al. – incest and revenge in the american old west).

Most PeculiarSalt and Fire (Germany et.al. – kidnapped research scientist abandoned in the Bolivian salt flats with two blind Indian children – Werner Herzog strikes again).

Bottom of the Gene PoolLa La Land (USA – a derivative, unoriginal, predictable attempt at a movie musical with insipid score and routine performances – won the People’s Choice Award proving that you can fool some of the people some of the time).

The Rest of My TIFF Films 2016 – The Rehearsal (New Zealand), Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces (Egypt), Their Finest (UK), In Dubious Battle (USA), The Exception (UK), The Secret Scripture (Ireland), Loving (USA), Lion (Australia), Queen of Katwe (Uganda/South Africa), Strange Weather (USA), Mascots (USA).

Paula’s Picks and Pans

Featured Events in P&P: Fall for Dance North, Sony Centre International Dance Series

Fall for Dance North

Upstart festival, new last year, ecstatic response from the crowds. All seats at the Sony Centre just $15. Best dance bargin in town. Three distinct programs. Oct. 5, 6 and 7.

Fall For Dance North features world premiere festival commissions by Natasha Bakht (Canada) and champion ballroom dance duo Maria Shalvarova and Alon Gilin (Canada), in addition to performances by Aszure Barton & Artists (USA/Canada), Company Wang Ramirez (France), Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (USA), Les Grands Ballets Canadiens De Montréal (Canada), Peter Chu & Anne Plamondon (Canada), Shumka (Canada), Throwdown Collective (Canada) and Lua Shayenne and Company (Canada). Tickets. www.sonycentre.ca.

Sony Centre International Dance Series.

Three outstanding companies. Not to be missed. Thanks goodness the Sony Centre is back in the dance game.

Nov. 9. Nederlands Dans Theater returns for the first time in seven years. Features two thrilling works by husband and wife Sol Leon and Paul Lightfoot, and one by Canada’s own Crystal Pite.
Jan. 14. Batsheva Dance Company is back for the second time in five years with a potpourri of works by provocateur choreographer Ohad Naharin.
May 11 and 12. Eifman Ballet St. Petersburg celebrates its 40th anniversary with
a third visit to Toronto since 2013, this time presenting Red Giselle. Boris Eifman goes for the jugular when it comes to narrative ballet. Delicious melodrama writ large.

Dance Theatre Review – Adelheid/Theatre Centre – what it’s like

strauss1The best way to describe choreographer Heidi Strauss’ latest work, what it’s like, is a stream of consciousness about brotherhood. The totality of the piece is brotherhood looked at from very personal relationships to the larger metaphor of a world in chaos. Three charismatic male dancers – Michael Caldwell, Luke Garwood and Naishi Wang (who are listed as co-creators) – move on a random journey with the audience literally following them through their travels. They laugh, challenge, one-up, pretend fight, play games – men will be boys, so to speak – but they also morph into very serious and dangerous situations. Risk is a big factor in brotherhood, it would seem.

The images that are evoked through the organic movement physicality swing from stark reality to allegory. For example, we first see them lying on the floor, heads almost touching in a most intimate way, having a lark trying to win at word games. Later in the performance, they use volunteers from the audience to manipulate their bodies as if they were puppets. These ungainly physical patterns, that began with laughter, then become the diktat when the men move on their own. They are lemmings heading over the cliff at someone else’s command. There is no linear plot. Rather, the audience is swept away on a tide of imagination, and the joy of the piece is being constantly surprised by what comes next in the parade of fanciful vignettes. Over time the men develop key personality traits which seem to carry on throughout in various guises, which makes for interesting personality dynamics. Garwood is the heavy, Caldwell is the provocateur, and Wang is the endearing goofuss.

strauss2what it’s like was developed through a residency at the Theatre Centre, and the work certainly shows the loving care that can arise out of a gradual process of development and exploration. Strauss and her design collaborators have divided up the stage and backstage area into different spaces, almost like corners of the mind. Curtains go up, and curtains come down, in the most unexpected ways. The last setting created with criss-crossing laser lights is absolutely both magical and scary. The use of space is outstanding.

Strauss has worked with a gilt-edged design team –Julie Fox (scenic designer), Jeremy Mimnagh (sound and projection), Simon Rossiter (lighting), Alana Elmer (costumes) – with esteemed vocal coach Fides Krucker thrown in for good measure. The production/theatrical values are top of the line. As for her performers, they are at once charming and infuriating.

The best way to enjoy the work is to let oneself be carried away on the flood. One should leave their reason and logic at the door along with their bags and shoes (the audience is naked, as it were). what it’s like is meant to be experienced, and when the audience emerges at the end, and confronts their possessions individually wrapped in plastic, like evidence bags, and piled in the centre of the room, it is both chaotic and familiar – like the world we live in. The time for analysis is later.

strauss3Perhaps the most interesting feature is that a female choreographer has taken on exploring a male perspective. Strauss says in her program notes that the piece arose out of her desire to try to make sense of the world. “So what is it about brotherhood?” she asks. Judging from what it’s like, she discovered that brotherhood is both warmth and war.

So Heidi, when are we going to get sisterhood?

what it’s like, choreographed by Heidi Strauss, continues at The Theatre Centre until Oct. 2.



Opera Review – Canadian Opera Company/Rossini’s Maometto II

Maometto3-GB-85For bel canto fanatics, (among which number I count myself), the COC production of Rossini’s Maometto II (1820) will be nirvana. For others, the composer’s florid musical style, expressed through non-stop ornamentation, will seem like coloratura torture, and, not surprisingly, there were a significant number of early departures who did not come back after the intermission. Tant pis to them.

Rossini wrote far more opera seria than he did opera buffa, although it is the latter for which he is known. Yet, it is his opera seria that laid the groundwork for the bel canto composers who followed, with Bellini, Donizetti and early Verdi being the most famous. Rossini’s opera seria abound with orchestral accompanied recitatives, massive choruses, and a never-ending fund of principal singer ensembles be they duets, trios, quartets or larger. If the music of Maometto II sounds familiar, you probably own the old LP of L’assedio di Corinto (The Siege of Corinth) starring Beverly Sills, which was Rossini’s 1826 revised version of Maometto II for Paris – Le siege de Corinthe – in its Italian libretto.

This COC production, which originated at the Santa Fe Opera in 2012, is a new critical edition, and most importantly, the first performance of the original Maometto II since Teatro San Carlo premiered the work in Naples in 1820. In other words, Maometto II is opera history writ large, and this is what opera aficionados live for: the staging of rarities. Please Alexander Neef, give us more.

15-16-06-MC-D-1161I associate English conductor Harry Bicket with early opera, but Maometto II needed someone with experience handling the florid arias of Handel, for example. When you look beneath Rossini’s coloratura wall, there are subtle shifts of emphasis, of nuance, of emotion, and Bicket is able to find these in his orchestral accompaniment. No two arias are the same, but in the hands of a lesser conductor, they could have become a same-same tsunami of ornamentation. The joys of this production are the fine delineation and detail in the music. Bicket gives us what we should be hearing in Rossini’s opera seria. He presents us with the emotional drama that sweeps through the score. Bicket’s conducting and the COC Orchestra’s playing, particularly the obbligato accompaniment by specific instruments, are as good as it gets.

Three of the four principal singers are from the Santa Fe production and what a blessing that is. All of them can toss off coloratura runs with aplomb, and the ornamental heart of Rossini’s music is safe in their hands.

Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni cuts a swaggering presence on the stage. He is every inch Maometto II, the Ottoman leader who is beginning his conquest of Europe by attacking the Venetian outpost of Negroponte. Pisaroni possesses a robust but surprisingly sweet voice which works well. He needs the commanding strength when he is before his armies, but also the tenderness when confronting Anna, the daughter of the Venetian general. The two fell in love when Maometto was in disguise as a Venetian nobleman on a spy mission. To say that Pisaroni has charisma is an understatement. He seems to be moving out of Mozart and Rossini opera buffa into bel canto which is good news indeed.

American soprano Leah Crocetto and fellow American tenor Bruce Sledge are the daughter/father duo, Anna and Paolo Erisso. Erisso is the Venetian general defending Negroponte. Crocetto was a Grand Finals winner of the 2010 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and for good reason. She has a rich, clear, soaring voice that thrills the ear. She also radiates emotion in every note. What a career she has in front of her, given she can range from Donna Anna to Aida. Sledge has a bright voice as smooth as honey with no apparent strain at the top. At first, it seems a bit light to capture the Italianate cadence needed for bel canto, but surprise, surprise, Sledge can really turn on the power when needed. He does seem a bit stiff on stage, but his angry father role is pretty limited in terms of characterization.

American mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong performs the trouser role of the Venetian officer Calbo, Anna’s intended. She is just a tiny button of a singer who possesses an utterly surprising, full-bodied outpouring of sound that fills the theatre. She is also a coloratura virtuoso with solid placement and flexibility, an all-round talent to be sure. Her gorgeous voice was certainly a crowd-pleaser

15-16-06-MC-D-975American director David Alden and his director brother Christopher have been called “opera’s terrible  twins” by the Times of London. Both are known for their excess of stage business, and on more than one occasion, their over-direction steeped in symbolism has been the bane of my existence. It is David that is responsible for this production of Maometto II, aided and abetted by English designer Jon Morrell, but this time around, he has shown restraint. The production’s visual core is a curved wall from which things open up, or move around, and which are meant to surprise the eye. The stage itself has hidden levels like wells or pits. Alden uses the chorus to move props around while keeping to the beat and the mood of the music. Morrell’s period costumes are simple and direct. Happily, this Alden production does not take away from the music, nor does his stand and deliver staging impede the drama.

COC ensemble members tenor Charles Sy (Venetian nobleman Condulmiero) and tenor Aaron Sheppard (Maometto’s confidant Selimo) perform their small roles respectfully, although both have very light voices in development.

Rossini’s Maometto II, Canadian Opera Company, conducted by Harry Bicket, directed by David Alden, Four Seasons Centre, Apr. 29 to May 14.

Opera Review – Canadian Opera Company/Bizet’s Carmen

15-16-05-MC-D-0661Brilliant conducting by Italian maestro Paolo Carignani, coupled with the sensational singing of French mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine as Carmen, and the passionate delivery of Canadian tenor David Pomeroy as Don José, make the COC’s production of Bizet’s warhorse worth the price of admission.

All, however, is not perfect.

Bizet’s Carmen can be a two-edged sword. Yes, the richly expressive music certainly tells you all you have to know about the story and the characters, but on the other hand, weak staging can scuttle the whole enterprise by not presenting a stage picture that equals the power of the score. For the same reason, Carmen is not an opera that can be saved by great singing and conducting alone. In other words, many Carmen productions turn out to be duds precisely because Bizet’s score is flawless.

Happily, the news about the current COC revival is mostly good, and in some cases, even great. What begins with an under-directed first act, and a ho-hum second act, becomes a stirring third act and a downright thrilling finale. I have a theory about this. The first two acts focus on Carmen, the last two on Don José. We all know that Carmen is a fiery seductive gypsy who is as tough as nails. The action writes itself. Her character never changes. It’s hard to be creative when the inevitability of the role is laid out like a road map.

On the other hand, Don José is like a loose cannon. His all-consuming jealousy creates excitement. Compared to Carmen’s certainty of conduct, Don José is a musical rogue replete with almost frightening mood swings. Thus, while Don José’s character can feed a stage director, Carmen’s character is limiting, almost stifling in terms of something new.

I also believe that the real love story is between Carmen and Escamillo. She feels a duty towards Don José because he went to prison for allowing her to escape. She even says as much in the libretto. The bond tying them together is gypsy honour, not real love, and by the beginning of the third act, Carmen is already tired of him. Great fodder for the tenor playing Don José to sink his teeth into, while Carmen sails serenely on.

15-16-05-MC-D-0511Giving young Canadian director Joel Ivany the task of staging Carmen is a smart idea. His whole background with his own company, Against the Grain Theatre, is one of breath-taking innovation. Nevertheless, even Ivany can’t rise out of the Carmen quagmire. First, he has inherited another director’s vision (updated to 1940s Cuba) with a set that confines the first act action to the lip of the stage. Fully two thirds of the stage, supposedly police headquarters, is not used. Secondly, he has fallen into the conventional trap of letting Carmen be sexy and Micaëla be bland. He misses obvious directorial clues like Manuelita’s cut face, courtesy of Carmen’s knife. Where’s the blood?

Ivany, who has proved in the past to be a very good purveyor of character, is saddled by clichés. There is no real communication between Don José and Micaëla. We never are able to trace the where and the how of Don José’s being drawn into Carmen’s snare. Suddenly, he just is, all of which makes the first act very unsatisfactory. Also there is no logic as to who carries stools on and off the stage, cigarette girls and passers-by both. When I’m noticing the movement of stools, there is a problem with the visuals. Mercifully, the second act with the lively scene at Lillas Pastia’s reprobate inn is marginally better, but everyone seems sleepwalking until Escamillo arrives.

It is in the third and fourth acts that Ivany finds his mojo. He pinpoints Don José’s troubled psyche and abject humiliation which are the cornerstone of the acts. We feel the pain (although Jason Hand’s lighting is so dark, we can scarcely see Carmen and her two friends reading their fortunetelling cards). And then, finally, a true Ivany innovation happens. The crowd waiting to go into the bullfight is gathered at the front of the stage. The hawkers come down the orchestra aisles first, followed by the cuadrilla (the bullfight parade) that includes chulos, banderilleros, matadors and picadors – building up to a frenzy, as the crowd waits for the adored torero Escamillo to appear with the now elegant Carmen at his side.

15-16-05-MC-D-0340What is so great about this staging is that the audience gets involved, totally engaged in fact, clapping to the music and even cheering with the crowd. Just the simple act of having the procession come through the audience injects such vibrancy and freshness into the mix. The pièce de resistance, however, is having a haggard, beaten Don José following the cuadrilla. When Mercédès and Frasquita warn Carmen that Don José is lurking about, she can look right out into the audience and see him. A stunning coup de théâtre.

The primo star of the evening is Maestro Carignani. This is the best conducted Carmen I have ever experienced. His marvellous detailing of the music is perfection. Even when the stage action is flagging, the music never does. For example, at the beginning of the second act, Carignani starts the music leading into the gypsy dance almost too slowly, but the build is beautiful in its construction, until finally the maestro unleashes a wild, tempestuous storm of music that must leave the singer/dancers breathless. Then there is the dramatic way Carignani brings in Carmen’s ominous death theme in the third act which highlights the way the maestro is able to isolate individual components while never losing sight of the whole. In short, Carignani’s rendering of Bizet’s score – a gift that takes the music apart while keeping it together – is one of the glories of this production.

Margaine has one of those juicy mezzo-soprano voices that commands the ear. Her output is amazingly strong throughout her whole tessitura with glorious notes both high and low. With sheer power, she sings everyone off the stage. Margaine is certainly able to play with nuance, but when she is able to go to full throttle, the mezzo-soprano delivers a knock-out punch. Her acting chops may be a little limited but she gamely puts herself through Carmen’s wiles, although one wishes she had a bit more oomph. (O, to hear Margaine in a bel canto role!)

Pomeroy is outstanding as Don José. While his first act is on the dreary side, he just grows from strength to strength throughout the opera. He is able to inject his robust Italianate tenor voice with unbelievable passion and desperation, and he doesn’t hold back when he reaches for the top. His Don José wears his heart on his sleeve, and by the end of the opera, when he is at his begging, pleading, whining worst, he is absolutely cringe worthy. In this cast, Pomeroy wins the singing/actor award.

Both Canadian soprano Karine Boucher as Micaëla and American baritone Zachary Nelson as Escamillo are a bit of a disappointment. On a good note, Boucher’s voice does not have the simpering soprano sweetness sometimes cast as Micaëla, who really does have a feisty side. Rather, her voice has an attractive smoky quality that speaks of inner fire, but her big third act aria seemed to be strained at the top and laboured everywhere else. Her non-characterization also made for a lacklustre presence. Boucher, however, is still a member of the COC Ensemble Studio, so these are early days. Ivany should have found a way to help her sharpen her character. For his part, Nelson is a terrific actor, but while he displays power at the top of his range, he lacks definition in his lower register. In comparison to the rest of the cast his voice just seems too light for the role. Escamillo needs a hearty baritone, and Nelson is not, in this production at least, a full-bodied meat and potatoes singer.

Smaller roles are deftly performed by current COC Ensemble Studio members. Mezzo-soprano Charlotte Burrage and soprano Sasha Djihanian, as Mercédès and Frasquita respectively, bring lively singing personalities to the stage. Djihanian’s clear voice soars while Burrage’s honey-coated voice soothes. On the male side, baritone Iain MacNeil as Le Dancaîre and tenor Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure as Le Remendado display robust voices in the making. MacNeil in particular, is impressive with his fine even tone and commanding sound. It will be interesting to see where his voice takes him.

Two former COC Ensemble members also grace the stage. As Zuniga, veteran bass Alain Coulombe might be showing some quavering wear and tear, but he can still give a strong performance. Baritone Peter Barrett as Moralès is well-launched in his career, particularly at the Metropolitan Opera. He doesn’t have a lot to do, but what he does sing is big and bold. He’s definitely one to watch. As usual, the COC Chorus does a marvelous job, able to sing beautifully while transforming themselves into whatever is needed, be it police or smugglers, and kudos to chorus master Sandra Horst for that. The youngsters from the Canadian Chlldren’s Opera Company always bring zest to the stage. As for the production itself, the COC has opted for the 1875 Opéra-Comique version with spoken dialogue and not the later sung recits. It makes for a tightly controlled musical journey.

And finally, memo to the audience. Listen to the music in the first act because it is superb. The production comes into its own in the next three acts, and you will be glued to your seat by the end.

Carmen by Georges Bizet, conducted by Paolo Carignani, directed by Joel Ivany, Canadian Opera Company, Four Seasons Centre, Apr. 12 to May 15.