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.

 

 

 

 

 

Opera Review – Canadian Opera Company Winter Season – A Tale of Two Visions (Mozart’s Così fan tutte and Verdi’s A Masked Ball)

This is the age of the auteur opera director. With the endlessly 13-14-E-01-MC-D-1372repeating standard repertoire a fact of opera life, companies are now searching for productions that give a fresh take on the classics. New opera, of course, is always going to be fresh.

Thus, directors and their visions are what drive opera productions these days. The COC’s winter season provides a textbook case of what works and what doesn’t.

Canadian director Atom Egoyan has done a superb job in finding a fascinating entree into Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Since the heart of the opera is an experiment – Can women be faithful to their lovers? – why not set the opera in an actual modern day science lab with Don Alfonso as the teacher. The chorus is on stage for most of the opera as the Don’s eager beaver students, following the main action carrying their clipboards for note-taking. Debra Hanson’s school uniforms are delightful. In keeping with the educational motif, fencing outfits are substituted for soldiers’ uniforms.

The metaphor that anchors Egoyan’s vision is the butterfly which clearly represents freedom. The science lab, however, is festooned with giant pins to pierce the butterflies and render them into specimens. Hanson’s fabulous set includes gorgeous hanging butterflies to keep the concept in front of our eyes. The question before us is: just how much freedom is allotted to lovers, or should they be pinned by their obligations?

Egoyan also makes prominent use of the famous painting by Frida Kahlo – Two Fridas – that shows both the heartbreak and the warm glow of love. Egoyan and Hanson have also added whimsy. When the fiancés are sailing away, students provide a slow parade of ships balanced on their heads – a sop to 18th century fashion. There is also a podium whenever a character has a great pronouncement to make.

The chorus of students also helps out in the direction of the solo singers. They hold them down, they hold them up, they help them dress, they manage props – all in an effort to make the experiment work – all, as it were, in the cause of science. The entire opera is filled with delicious visual details that support the science experiment.

In the final analysis, this is a production that works, because everything hangs together. Opera companies around the world should be lining up to showcase this very clever and beautifully conceived Così fan tutte.

Every time I attend a Johannes Debus performance, my admiration grows. The conductor 13-14-E-01-MC-D-0164finds nuances in every crook and cranny of the score. His tempi are always perfect, even though his slow times present challenges of breath control to the singers. His judicious pauses are downright risky, but also exciting. In short, he gives the listener complete satisfaction. As for his players, the obbligato work was superb. The use of the pianoforte for the recitatives added to the richness of the sound.

The performance i attended featured the COC Ensemble singers which provided an embarrassment of riches, giving us eight lovers instead of four.

The first act Fiordiligi, soprano Aviva Fortunata, has a big, soaring voice of infinite spinto coloratura possibilities. Is there a Lucia, or even a Brunhilde in her far future? She absolutely nailed her big aria Come Scoglio. In contrast, the second act’s Sasha Djihanian is much more of a true lyric soprano who can pull her nuanced voice back into sotto voce with ease. Her coloratura is not the most facile, but the musky quality of her voice emits an exotic sound.

Mezzo-soprano Charlotte Burrage, the Act 1 Dorabella, is blessed with a seductive lyric voice of great clarity of tone, overlying hearty expression. Act 2’s Danielle MacMillan has a bright sound and beautiful legato phrasing with spinto qualities that speak to heavier roles in the future. It is a surprisingly big voice at this early stage of a career.

The Ferrandos were two quite different tenors. Act 1’s Andrew Haji has an expressive voice as smooth as silk, replete with Italianate sob. It is a beautiful light sound blessed with an even legato flow. Act 2’s Owen McCausland displayed some breathiness in his high notes, but he took great risks in pulling his voice back. It is a strong lyric sound that commands the ear and speaks of a deeper and darker future.

The Guglielmo of baritone Cameron McPhail (Act 1) sported a romantic sound that kept 13-14-E-01-MC-D-1077growing stronger throughout the act. It is, at the moment, a light lyric baritone, pleasing in tone. Baritone Clarence Frazer (Act 2) is definitely on his way to the Verdi/Puccini repertoire. He has a powerful, robust voice with a gruffness of expression so identified with that fach. He does, however, have to make sure that what is gruff does not turn woofy and obscure pitch.

The Don Alfonso (bass-baritone Gordon Bintner) and Despina (soprano Claire de Sévigné) were a constant in both acts. Bintner is, of course, too young for the role, but he has a complete mastery and ease of stagecraft. His, like many low voices early in their career, is a sound in progress. It is even, pleasant, and expressive, but in want of the well-developed heartiness to come. His career should be stellar. Sévigné is a coloratura soprano with bite. Her voice may have the quick mercury of her fach, but nonetheless, it produces a sound that is much more than feather light, and therefore, more interesting.

Which takes us to A Masked Ball. Mercifully the music elementsare strong because the production is the quintessence of Eurotrash. In the case of opera, Eurotrash 13-14-04-MC-D-0681encapsulates theatrical visions that add nothing to the music because they are lost in the creators’ own distorted assessment of their own intellectual acumen. Eurotrash holds the audience captive as the creators subjugate the hapless patrons with a confused parade of metaphor and symbolism. The good thing about Eurotash is that sooner or later it will end. (It’s not just Europe that produces artistic crimes. In Canada, I call these infuriating productions Canajunk.)

This particular production was created for Staatsoper Unter den Linden Berlin by the talentless team of co-directors Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito. Their collaborators who executed their vision are set designer Barbara Ehnes and costume designer Anja Rabes. All parities should be put in chains and made to attend Così fan tutte (see above).

There are two versions of A Masked Ball, one that depicts the assassination of the Swedish King Gustav 111 at a masked ball in 1792, and one set in pre-revolution Boston in 1690 where governor Riccardo replaces the king. The shift to the New World was to placate the censors who deemed the king’s murder was too close in time to 1857 when Verdi wrote the opera. Wieler and Morabito have elected to do the Boston version, updating America to around 1960.

The single set is the ballroom of the Arvedson Palace Hotel. (The directors are being cutesy here because Arvedson is the name of the fortuneteller in the Swedish version.) The glaring pink and white tables and chairs look like an ice cream parlour. There are also theatre seats that don’t face the ballroom stage, a bar in the far corner, and a balcony walkway above. What this hotel ballroom has to do with the story is anybody’s guess. In their program notes, the co-directors justify their vision with key words like civil rights, youth culture, the fragility of identity and so on. None of these ideas, however, translate to the stage.

Here is just a short litany of the horrors that Wieler and Morabito have inflicted upon us, all of which denudes the power of Verdi’s magnificent music.

Riccardo and the men of the chorus disguise themselves for the trip to the fortuneteller by rolling up their pant legs, taking off their jackets, and loosening their ties. They just look plain dumb. The fortuneteller Ulrica is inexplicably blind. While the orchestra plays the menacing music that accompanies Amelia gathering the special herb beneath the gallows that will make her stop loving Riccardo, the lights of the chandeliers are blazing. Where’s the scary midnight darkness? As for the two hanging bodies in a ballroom…And let us not forget that vegetation, aka gallows hill, is depicted as trees and branches under glass as the ballroom pillars light up from the inside.

Renato, the close friend who kills Riccardo, conducts his important scenes in his pajamas 13-14-04-MC-D-1453and bathrobe. In fact, at one point, the entire male chorus is in pajamas. The page Oscar has been turned into a brat who shows up at the masked ball in the dead swan dress Icelandic singer Björk wore to the Academy Awards in 2001. Incidentally, there are hardly any masks at the masked ball. All in all, the costumes are a disaster, particularly Amelia’s various pantsuits which make her look dowdy and years older than she is supposed to be.

Wieler and Morabito do have a couple of good ideas. They have given Riccardo a silent Jackie Kennedy clone first lady, and Amelia’s and Renato’s son is manifested by a real little boy. These silent characters are quite effective, weaving in and out of the action, particularly when Renato hands over his son to the conspirators, Tom and Samuel, as surety for his commitment to the murder plot.

The cast, thankfully, is very strong. Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka’s voice might be a little harsh on the high end, but she packs a vocal wallop of passion. Her delivery is downright exciting. American tenor Dimitri Pittas as Riccardo has an ease of high notes. He is very believable as the dandy governor with a carefree manner. More importantly, he does negotiate that big sing that is at the heart of Verdi. Renato is performed by talented British baritone Roland Wood. He can certainly play with his expression, and pump up the volume of his commanding voice when needed.

Ulrica requires a big, throaty sound and Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Manistina was born to play the all important hearty mezzo characters so beloved of Verdi. Her big juicy voice is thrilling. Oscar was originally a trouser role for a coloratura soprano. Canadian singer 13-14-04-MC-D-0786Simone Osborne is totally suited to the role with her sweet sound and feathery delivery.  Italian bass Giovanni Battista Parodi as Tom, and American bass Evan Boyer as Samuel prove to be very effective conspirators. Both are good, clear-throated singers who understand that restraint is a stronger position than melodramatic villainy. Canadian baritone Gregory Dahl shows off his robust sound in the small role of Silvano.

Conductor Stephen Lord has proven once again that he is a great dramatist, pulling out all the tension in Verdi’s music. His mastery of musical accents is superb.

I’m ending with some advice. Should this execrable Masked Ball where nothing makes sense, ever come our way again, just shut your eyes and listen to the music.

Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Canadian Opera Company, (Ensemble Studio Performance, directed by Atom Egoyan, conducted by Johannes Debus), Four Seasons Centre, Feb. 7, 2014.

Verdi’s A Masked Ball, Canadian Opera Company, (directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, conducted by Stephen Lord), Four Seasons Centre, Feb. 2 to 22, 2014.

 

Opera Review – Canadian Opera Company’s The Tales of Hoffmann

The first act of the COC’s production of The Tales of Hoffmann is worth the price of admission. English director Lee Blakeley has done such a brilliant job with Olympia (Andriana Chuchman), that we can forgive the messy Guilietta (Keri Alkema) act, and puzzling Prologue and Epilogue. His Antonia (Erin Wall) act falls somewhere in between moving and bland.

 Jacques Offenbach was primarily known as a composer of fun-filled operettas that spoofed the mid-19th century France of his day. His dream, however, was to write a grand opera. The tragedy is, Offenbach never lived to see his dream complete. He died four months before the 1881 premiere of The Tales of Hoffmann, and as a result, there are many versions of the opera. Happily, COC music director/conductor Johannes Debus includes all the great music while beefing up the part of The Muse/Nicklausse (Lauren Segal) with extra arias. Incidentally, Segal is absolutely sensational with a rich, fruity mezzo-soprano voice that will take her far. She has it all – she can both sing and act.

At times Debus cranks up the music to the point of overpowering the singers – like the Antonia act trio, and the Epilogue quartet, but he certainly embraces the grandeur of this grand opera, and he and the orchestra were bestowed cheers of appreciation by the audience.

This particular production was created for Antwerp’s Vlaamse Opera. Set designer Roni Toren has made everything out of scale. The Prologue/Epilogue take place in Hoffmann’s (Russell Thomas) tiny hovel, appropriately put on a tilt. Both the Muse and Lindorf (John Relyea) initially appear through the furniture, and are standing on the roof at the end, presumably to emphasize the surreal nature of the plot.

In the acts about Hoffmann’s loves, everything is either over-large, like Antonia’s giant door, table, chair etc., or over-crowded, such as the scientific detritus of the Olympia act, or the dominating bed and physical erotic imagery of the Guilietta act. Despite the largesse and/or pinched quality of the décor, everything seems crunched together in terms of the chorus.  There doesn’t seem to be enough room. In the Guilietta act in particular, you can scarcely make out who’s singing amidst the crush of people.

Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes capture the Napoleonic era – perhaps to establish a tone of excess associated with that age. The diva Stella (Ambur Braid), Hoffmann’s love of loves, wanders forlornly through all the acts as a reminder that she is the ideal, embodying the other three loves in one. She also appears as odd-man-out in the Prologue and Epilogue. In the former, Hoffmann treats her roughly and she storms out. In the latter, she comes back the loving mistress having deserted Lindorf, one assumes. Mixed messages if ever there were.

In the final analysis, it is the singers who can make or break a Hoffmann production, and the combination of Canadian and American cast members proves to be first rate. American tenor Thomas was born to sing the French repertoire with his sweet lyric voice and effortless top. Blakeley has him mostly on his stomach writing with his quill pen, suitable for a poet, but a limited response for an operatic tenor. As a result, key moments don’t have the drama that they should, with the writing metaphor and Nicklausse’s task to win Hoffmann away from his loves for art’s sake, taken to the extreme. In the Antonia act, Hoffmann is practically invisible. In fact, Jenny Cane’s lighting is, unfortunately, over-dim throughout.

Chuchman’s performance is remarkable. She is truly an exaggerated automaton, run by electric currents. How she can still sing Olympia’s difficult coloratura aria and move her body in unbelievable robotic fashion, remains a mystery. Her Olympia also has raging hormones and it is absolutely laugh out loud when she tries to get a sexual charge out of the electric prods. Her very top may be a bit harsh (understandably so given her physical workout), but the rest of her runs and trills are marvellous. She accepts Blakeley’s challenge of movement to the extreme, and makes it her own.

Wall’s Antonia shows off her limpid, lyric soprano well, but she never really gets a chance to display her acting chops, confined as she is in the one huge chair, with the focus on Dr. Miracle, her mother (soprano Ileana Montalbetti), and father (baritone Gregory Dahl, who also does a decent job with that other hapless character, Schlémil). On the subject of the villains, bass-baritone Relyea, he of the glittering international career, has finally come home in triumph. He plays all four (Lindorf/Coppélius/Dr. Miracle/Dapertutto), and from his very first robust and mellifluous note, the audience knows they are in the presence of a commanding voice that fills the hall. He is a consummate talent and one of the most gifted young singers of his generation.

American Alkema’s richly dramatic soprano is clear and exciting, but she has been given some unattractive directing, such as rolling on the floor with Hoffmann, which reveals her beige, skin-tight panties, not the most pleasant sight. The act is so jam-packed with chorus and supernumeraries, that any movement looks contrived, even forced. As aforementioned, it is virtually impossible to see the singers, particularly their exits, an important one being the invisible departure of Guilietta and Pitichinaccio.

Character tenor Stephen Cole, playing all the sub-villains (Andrés/Cochenille/Frantz/Pitichinaccio) distinguishes himself both in bright sound and acting ability. The large cast fields other fine performances by American bass Valerian Ruminski (Luther), and tenor Michael Barrett (Spalanzani). The student duo (Nathanaël/Hermann) of Christopher Enns and Philippe Sly, display not only lusty singing, but agile gymnastic skills.

Is this a run don’t walk production? Definitely for the singing and the orchestra. The set, lighting, and some of the direction leave something to be desired.

Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, Canadian Opera Company, (featuring Russell Thomas, Lauren Segal, John Relyea, Andriana Chuchman, Erin Wall, Keri Alkema, Steven Cole, and Gregory Dahl, conducted by Johannes Debus, directed by Lee Blakeley). Four Seasons Centre, Apr. 10 to May 14, 2012