Review – Don Giovanni (Vancouver Opera)

Vancouver Opera’s third opera in the 2013-14 season was Mozart’s perennially popular Don Giovanni – hardly the most daring of choices, but one that is popular and never fails to please. As it turns out, the opening night performance on March 1st exceeded all expectations, with world-class musical values (from an all-Canadian cast) and clever, fast-paced production.

The production, directed by Kelly Robinson and co-produced with Canada’s Banff Centre, dealt exceptionally well with the episodic nature of da Ponte’s libretto. Featuring a two-tiered unit set with 3 panels and 2 staircases, Bob Bonniol’s highly realistic projections seamlessly transitioned from street to ballroom to bedroom as necessary. The only projection misstep was a series of amorphous red blobs highly reminiscent of Rorschach tests in the final scene. They eventually evolved into giant statues, but it was more puzzling than dramatic. As a result, the visual element of the evening was dazzling, colourful, and never lagged – sadly slightly undermined by Robinson’s rather generalized characterizations. A real shame, considering the fact that I’ve seen every member of the cast act marvelously.

As a result, it was difficult for Daniel Okulitch to make the impact that the role calls for. Switching between a bitter alcoholic and a narcissistic aristocrat without much motivation, Okulitch nevertheless impressed with his nimble, elegant singing. Particularly impressive was his ‘Deh vieni alla finestra’, ornamented beautifully and sung in the softest pianissimo imaginable. As his servant Leporello, Stephen Hegedus impressed in his big aria – more importantly, he made the most out of his extensive recitatives with Don Giovanni. Rachel Fenlon and Aaron Durand made a vivacious, youthful pair as Zerlina and Masetto, both making the most of their arias. Krisztina Szabo’s high mezzo is ideal for Donna Elvira, and her commitment and intensity were outstanding. Her ‘Mi tradi’ (sung in the soprano key) was not only perfectly sung but also demented in the best way.

Best of all, however, were Colin Ainsworth and Erin Wall as Don Ottavio and Donna Anna. Well-known for his experience in Lully and Rameau’s haute-contre roles, Ottavio’s wide range and floridity did not seem to tax him in the slightest. Though his ‘Il mio tesoro’ was impressive, it was his stunning ‘Dalla sua pace’ that won the audience over. Erin Wall has made Donna Anna something of a calling-card role – her even, flexible voice encompasses all of the role’s demands from the wide-ranging leaps of ‘Or sai chi l’onore’ to the floated high notes and coloratura of ‘Non mi dir’. Not only that, she gives a stunningly intense portrayal and had the audience pinned to their seats during her dramatic recitatives in act 1.

Stuart Bedford led the Vancouver Opera Orchestra in a polished, elegant account of the score, and balance and ensemble were exemplary considering the set featured a walkway extending in front of the pit. This exact walkway, however, resulted in a somewhat muted orchestral sound. Overall a highly enjoyable evening at the opera, worth seeing mainly for the uniformly excellent cast.

Review: Tara Erraught and Jonathan Ware in Dvorak, Respighi, Brahms, Wolf, Handel, and Rossini

Many who follow the opera world will have heard of Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught’s fast rise to stardom – replacing Vesselina Kasarova as Romeo in a high profile new production of I Capuleti e I Montecchi in Munich, quickly followed by debuts as Rosina, Angelina, and Hansel in Vienna and Munich. It turns out that she’s as accomplished a recitalist as opera singer, with charm and musicality to burn. She explained to the audience that her programme was based on storytelling, and she certainly has that critical ability to communicate with the audience.

The recital opened with Dvorak’s op. 82 songs, performed in a slightly different order (Frühling, Die Stickerin, Laßt mich allein, and Am Bache). This was a surprisingly intense beginning to the recital, with a highly moving ‘Laßt mich allein’ forming the heart of the set. It was immediately apparent that Erraught will certainly develop into more than a lyric coloratura – she has a large, round voice, which will eventually develop into a full lyric or even some lighter dramatic roles. This was followed by three songs by Respighi. Largely mood-based, these songs allowed pianist Jonathan Ware to show off his considerable musical skills as well. Particularly effective was a suitably suspenseful and creepy account of ‘Nebbie’. The first half of the recital finished off with Brahms’ op. 103 Zigeunerlieder, and it was in these songs that Erraught really shone. Partnered by Ware’s dazzling playing, she truly relaxed into the music, and a great deal of fun was had by all.

The second half opened with six of Hugo Wolf’s famous Mörike-lieder. Here she and Ware displayed a talent for switching moods quickly, from the lighthearted ‘Er ist’s’ straight to the agonies of ‘Das verlassene Mågdlein’. Best among the Wolf set was a sparkling and appropriately animated ‘Nixe Binsefuß’, which was in perfect accordance with Ware’s playing. The recital ended with three arias, two by Handel and one by Rossini. First was an absolutely astonishing performance of Ariodante’s ‘Dopo Notte’. Sung with incredible accuracy and musicality, the aria exhibited her even registers and impeccable technique to its fullest. More importantly, it was a brilliant showcase for her communicative skills, as Ariodante’s exuberance was absolutely infectious. Also worth noting was Ware’s playing, which could not have been bettered by any orchestra. Immediately following it with the popular ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ was a rather bold choice – it was slightly too fast for my taste, but again was highly musical and showed off Erraught’s pianissimos very nicely. In this aria, as with the previous one, the ornamentation was appropriate and expressive. The recital ended, of course, with Rossini’s ‘Una Voce Poco Fa’. The touchstone of every mezzo-soprano recital, Erraught’s technique and charm allowed her to stand above the rest. She’s also a natural comedian, and the slightest gesture was enough to send the audience into gales of laughter. It’s arguable whether Rosina is supposed to be quite so funny at that point, but both she was clearly enjoying herself greatly. The audience was delighted, of course, and Erraught performed two encores: a wonderfully understated Danny Boy, and a dazzling ‘Nacqui all’affanno…Non piu mesta’ from Rossini’s La Cenerentola. Both displayed the uniformly high musical and vocal levels present throughout the evening.

Pianist Jonathan Ware played sensitively throughout, and though of course the Brahms and Wolf lieder are hardly easy pieces, the programme was truly designed to allow Erraught to shine. This wide-ranging programme would be challenging for any artist, but her stunning technique, musical maturity, and evident joy in performing are reminiscent of (dare I say it?) a certain other lyric coloratura mezzo of Irish origin. Of course, Tara Erraught is very much her own artist, and it will be thrilling to see her career grow.

Live Review – The Pirates of Penzance (Vancouver Opera)

To be honest, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this opera. To me, Gilbert and Sullivan always seemed like archaic museum pieces – pretty if unmemorable music, and nice vignettes of life in Victorian England. Although G&S still play a role in contemporary British culture, what relevance could this opera have to me, an audience member born 115 years after its premiere and living nearly halfway across the world? It ended up being an evening that was both thought-provoking in its (shockingly relevant!) satire and also highly entertaining.

(c) Tim Matheson

Although Gilbert is famed for his witty yet biting mockery of Victorian society, I had no idea that Sullivan was equally skilled as a musical satirist. The men’s choruses were rather Verdian, Major-General Stanley’s famous aria could rival any Donizetti patter song, and Mabel’s entrance aria came somewhere between the perkiness of Juliette’s “Je veux vivre” and the sheer vocal exhibitions of Marguerite de Valois’ “O Beau Pays”. More brilliant still was how Gilbert and Sullivan combined music and text to evoke popular operatic conventions of the time – Stanley’s second act ballad was basically an exaggerated German lied, and it was absolutely hysterical to hear Mabel and Frederic singing their big love duet to the words of “Fa la la la”. Though the music never sounds simply derivative or plagiarized, the score is absolutely littered with tiny little musical references, and I have no doubt I will discover more of them as I get older.

None of this would have come through, however, if the cast wasn’t uniformly so strong. It’s always tricky to find the right balance between operatic voices and excellent actors – too much emphasis on the former, and the performance becomes overly serious. Too much emphasis on the latter, and the singing becomes vaguely embarrassing. Thankfully, Vancouver Opera carefully picked a cast of young, attractive singers who where nevertheless up to the demands of the very physical production. The two exceptions were, of course, the venerable Judith Forst as Ruth and the Shakesperean actor Christopher Gaze as Major-General Stanley. After Suzuki with Renata Scotto, the secondary role of Ruth might seem like a bit of an anticlimax (although the program noted that she will be returning to the Met next season in Nico Muhly’s ‘Two Boys’), but she clearly enjoyed herself in the part. For a singer in her late 60s, her voice is very well preserved, with only a slight wobble in the highest notes. Otherwise, she was subtle but effective Ruth, resisting the urge to overdo it and presenting a well-rounded, touching character. Similarly, Christopher Gaze turned Stanley from a doddering old relic into a sympathetic man who is slowly losing his daughters. His acting skill was not surprising, given his recent brilliant performances in roles as diverse as King Lear and Falstaff, but also showed considerable musical skill. Although he is not an operatic singer and often resorted to a sort of speech-singing, he clearly knew the music well and had no issues in the rather complex ensembles.

The rest of the cast was very comfortable with the understated style and clear diction required for Gilbert and Sullivan, something which is unfortunately not true for many opera singers. As the main character, tenor Roger Honeywell struck a fine balance between Frederic’s attractive romantic personality and his seemingly idiotic sense of duty. His singing was always sensitive, although he did allow himself a few ringing high notes – I was not at all surprised to find that his repertoire also includes Cavaradossi and Don Jose. As his love interest Mabel, soprano Rachel Fenlon was ideal for the ingenue qualities of the role. Like any good soubrette, Mabel has to twirl and prance relentlessly while singing exclusively in coloratura, and Fenlon thankfully brought a startlingly rich voice to a rather twittery role. As the pirate king and his second-in-command, baritones Aaron St. Clair Nicholson and Aaron Durand were wonderful both as singers and actors and brought a wonderful physicality to their roles, and bass Giles Tomkins was hilarious as the incompetent police sergeant. Jonathan Darlington conducted the orchestra with sensitivity as well as great virtuosity, and the chorus and orchestra always sounded fully involved in what can’t be their most challenging assignments of the season.

Although I’ve often said that I’m not a fan of overly traditional productions, I think Vancouver Opera made the right choice. Of course, this was helped by Christopher Gaze’s detailed and sophisticated direction – any production should be about people, not sets or costumes. Although there were many elements of slapstick, the whole production was genuinely funny and I never once had that sinking feeling associated with a gag gone embarrassingly wrong. Upon entering the auditorium and seeing the red curtain with projections of the original poster and old-fashioned footlights, the audience knew exactly what the physical production would be like. The cardboard sets were almost ironically flimsy, wobbling and shaking every time somebody walked past. However, the costumes and sets were appropriate to period performance aesthetics, and seemed like an impertinent nod to the many traditionalists among opera fans. Still, the set was unexpectedly beautiful at times – the foggy silhouette of the gothic ruins against the starry sky was a stunning effect.

So much of Gilbert and Sullivan is based in the past – this character was based on that real-life person, and that line was a reference to this famous political speech, and so on. However, for every reference that a modern audience no longer understands, another achieves new levels of relevance that would not have been present 100 years ago. The general themes of duty, hypocrisy, class, and incompetent police still remain applicable to modern society, and the opera will no doubt remain as relevant and entertaining to the next generations of operagoers.

Radio Review – The Tempest (Metropolitan Opera)

Since its London premiere in 2004, Thomas Adès’ The Tempest has become one of the most-performed operas written in the last decade. Although it is most well-known primarily for Ariel’s cruelly high tessitura, it is in fact a beautiful, unique, and accessible work. Unlike many other modern operatic composers, Adès is familiar with the voice and as a result, the vocal line rarely feels awkward or unsingable (Ariel, of course, being the exception). Meredith Oakes’ libretto has been unfairly criticized for altering too much of the the play – the original play is very long and wordy, and Oakes efficiently conveys the sometimes complex storyline. Personally, I don’t think The Tempest is Shakespeare’s best work – the plot is rushed in parts, and few of the characters are sympathetic. For me, the strength of the play lies in Shakespeare’s poetic and often evocative lines, and the opera mostly eliminates that.

Adès music is perhaps more comparable to Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles than other operas premiered recently. As such, there are some very lyrical scenes such as Miranda and Ferdinand’s duet or Caliban’s aria, both in act 2. Isabel Leonard and Alek Shrader make a very convincing pair of lovers, and (perhaps intentionally) occasionally seemed to dropped in to the opera from Romeo et Juliette or some other late romantic opera. Unfortunately, Alan Oke’s Caliban was not quite as beautiful. Adès chose to cast Caliban as a tenor instead of the more obvious baritone or bass, and gives him some great music, including a duet with Prospero, his big aria, and the last few lines of the opera. Clearly, Adès does not conform to the traditional idea of of Caliban as a crude monster, but Oke’s dark and sometimes gravelly voice didn’t convey Caliban’s multifacetedness. I’m hardly the biggest fan of Ian Bostridge, the first Caliban, but his very British tenor fit the role well.

The Met assembled a truly starry group of courtiers – William Burden as Alonso, Toby Spence as Antonio, John Del Carlo as Gonzalo, and Iestyn Davies as Trinculo. William Burden’s exceptional voice was a delight to hear in such a small role, and Toby Spence was delightfully clever and manipulative without ever falling into parody. Iestyn Davies, Kevin Burdette, and Alan Oke were hilarious in their two short trios – the few moments of mirth in an otherwise serious opera. As the dazzling Ariel, Audrey Luna sang her punishing role as well as one could imagine, and her crystalline voice conveyed the character’s non-human aspect very well.

The only cast member reprising his role from the 2004 premiere was Simon Keenlyside’s Prospero (Toby Spence was the first Ferdinand). Keenlyside is famous for his excellent acting skills, and Prospero is yet another role he adds to his arsenal of Shakespearean characters he’s portrayed. Compared to his 2007 performance, which was recorded by EMI, he has improved both vocally and interpretively. His voice has grown larger and darker as well, which lends a greater sense of authority to the character. Adès Prospero is more emotionally volatile than his Shakespearean counterpart, and while Keenlyside’s interpretation is less overtly emotional, it has become smoother and more subtle.

This performance marked Adès Met debut as a conductor as well as a composer, and he proved that he is nearly as skilled at both. The Met orchestra played his demanding music with clarity but always with a full sound, and the prelude to act 3 and the opening tempest scene were thrilling. The chorus also sang their few scenes elegantly with admirably clear diction.

Peter Gelb seems to value new operas more than his predecessors, and it is rumoured that the Met will see new productions of operas by Nico Muhly and Osvaldo Golijov in the near future. If they are presented with the same musical attention as this recent performance of Adès’ The Tempest, we have a lot to look forward to indeed.

Live Review – La Bohème (Vancouver Opera)

Vancouver Opera opened their 2012-2013 season Saturday with Puccini’s ever-popular La Bohème. Not the most creative or thought-provoking choice, perhaps, but there’s no denying that it attracts audiences – the house was nearly sold out, and there were a higher-than-average number of young people attending. VO has been marketing the opera quite aggressively, with ads all over buses, bus stops, and Youtube. I personally was more interested in the cast than the opera – in my 10 years of listening to opera, I’m sure I’ve listened to at least 25 versions of the opera. However, this was my first time seeing the opera live, and I was totally unprepared for the impact the performance had on me.

(c) Vancouver Opera

It helped that Vancouver Opera had assembled a young, attractive cast who was fully capable of singing Puccini’s deceptively simple music. I believe that La Bohème only works well with a young cast. Unless the singers are phenomenal actors or have something interesting to say about the character, watching more mature singers in the lead roles can be vaguely embarrassing. At the same time, the roles are quite heavy – the traditional light-lyric Mimis, Rodolfos, and Musettas can have issues projecting above the orchestra. Thankfully, Vancouver’s cast had the best of both worlds. All of the lead roles were sung by young singers with large voices that will likely develop into heavier repertoire. Our Mimi, for example, also has Donna Elvira and Nedda in her repertoire.

Yesterday night marked tenor Jason Slayden’s international debut. I had seen him in Seattle Opera’s Attila last January, but to be honest, I didn’t pay too much attention to Uldino. However, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to hear him again, because he has a lovely, elegant tone and is a fantastic actor. His Rodolfo was always sensitive and detailed, and his diction was particularly good. I particularly appreciated his unusually complex portrayal of the character – his Rodolfo is not just the dreamy poet, but also the fun roommate and the emotionally abusive boyfriend. As a result, the love affair seemed real, as opposed to a romanticized idea of young love. His ‘Che gelida manina’ was refreshingly realistic and conversational, and was dramatically as well as musically interesting.

Of course, it would be hard not to fall in love with Marianne Fiset’s Mimi. As I’ve mentioned before, she has a full lyric soprano, so she has no issue with being heard in the ensembles in act 2 and the quartet in act 4. However, she is equally adept at singing softly, and in fact took some shocking risks with pianissimo singing that ultimately paid off. The whole first section of ‘Donde lieta’ was sung very quietly and conversationally, and she later allowed her voice to swell into ‘se vuoi serbarla a ricordo d’amor’. It was a stunning effect, which she later repeated with ‘Sono andati’, sung pianissimo with minimal vibrato. Of course, these dynamics are fairly common, but I’ve never heard anybody else do them so well without sounding calculated. Also of note was her strong lower register – many sopranos disappear in the lower phrases in act 3, but she could always be heard.

(c) Vancouver Opera

Of course, Bohème requires a strong supporting cast to make it a really successful production. However, nobody would have mistaken Etienne Dupuis and Krisztina Szabo as Marcello and Musetta for anything other than lead characters. Their tempestuous affair was portrayed on equal terms with Rodolfo and Mimi’s, and served as an effective foil. In the same way, Dupuis’ vigorous Marcello contrasted well with Slayden’s more introverted Rodolfo. Like Fiset, Dupuis has a large voice, and their duet in act 3 was a highlight. It’s clear that Marcello is the emotional ‘centre’ of the group – though he has no aria, act 2 and especially act 3 revolve around him. Despite his charismatic presence, Dupuis never dominates when he’s not supposed to – his ‘Gioventù mia’ in act 2, for example, was not the usual loud reprise of ‘Quando m’en vo’, but simply an important component in the ensemble.

As Musetta, Krisztina Szabo was more than a match for Dupuis’ Marcello. I was skeptical about the casting at first – Szabo is a mezzo who I last saw as Sesto in Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. Her other roles (Strauss’ Komponist, Bartok’s Judith, Debussy’s Melisande) are consistent with those of other high lyrics, but I’ve never heard of a mezzo Musetta before. However, she had no problems with the tessitura, and in fact her darker voice suited her conception of the character very well. Many Musettas also sing Mimi, and it’s often hard to differentiate between the two voices. Obviously Szabo had no problem with Musetta’s lower phrases, but the higher notes were no issue either – Musetta is not a role that requires floated high notes anyways. In fact, she did the best diminuendo I’ve heard on the concluding B in ‘Quando m’en vo’. I heard some audience members complain that her acting was too ‘crude’, but I fail to see the problem with a Musetta that takes advantage of her physical attributes – in fact, I would argue that a good Musetta must do that.

It was great to see casting on such a high level throughout the cast. Though it’s not that large of a role, it’s important to have a good Colline – in all of the ensembles, it’s critical to have a solid bass foundation. Stephen Hegedus made the most out of the role, and for once I didn’t wish we could skip over ‘Vecchia zimarra’ straight to ‘Sono andati’. Aaron Durand, who I saw just a few months ago as Danilo in Lehar’s Merry Widow in UBC Opera, was an excellent Schaunard. I believe this was his professional debut, and it was charming to hear so many UBC students cheering him on at the end. he orchestra and chorus were very good, as usual, and conductor Leslie Dala was excellent although there were some balance issues in the first two acts. However, these were resolved by the third act and Dala proved himself to be a sensitive accompanist and collaborator throughout the rest of the opera.

Unfortunately, I can’t say that the physical production was at the same level as the performances. The sets and costumes, rented from OSTL, were very traditional and somewhat cheap-looking. It seems like staging Boheme isn’t as easy as it seems – most traditional productions look too grand, and the minimalist/symbolist productions make the story less immediate. This production was a strange combination of the two, with very traditional costumes and what looks like half of a Zeffirelli production with cardboard cutouts in the background. Particularly entertaining was the bright orange sunset backdrop to act 4 – it was a ‘tramonta’ indeed, but it certainly wasn’t very ‘bella’. However, it was easy to ignore the sets and costumes thanks to Nancy Hermiston’s detailed direction. Any hint of melodrama or stereotypical opera mime was gone, and instead replaced with subtle, natural interactions. What I found interesting was the amount of attention focused on Rodolfo, Marcello, Schaunard, and Colline – this was more a story about friendship than love. Of course, the two relationships (which are definitely not models of healthy relationships, by the way) are critical to the story, but the telling moment comes in act 4, when everyone makes some sort of sacrifice to save Mimi and support Rodolfo. In fact, the final 5 minutes was brilliantly staged – all the characters were very still, as if in shock or uncertainty, and Rodolfo’s outburst at the end was far more shocking as a result.

Also worth noting: La Boheme is often cited as the perfect opera for first-time opera goers. I never believed that to be true – it always seemed idealized and melodramatic. However, I’m starting to see how powerful and totally relatable a good production can be. I’ll be bringing a few friends to the opera for the first time next week – stay tuned!