CD Review – Still Falls the Rain (Nicholas Phan et al.)

In addition to the Verdi and Wagner bicentenaries, 2013 also marks the 100th birthday of Benjamin Britten. Although Britten’s operas are nowhere near as popular as those of Verdi and Wagner, many have nonetheless become part of the standard repertoire. I don’t know Britten’s music very well, apart from his Violin Concerto, and I figured that there was no better time to learn than this year. As Peter Pears seems to be rather polarizing, I decided to start with Nicholas Phan’s newest Britten recording, centred around the composer’s collaborations with various artists. I started out a Britten novice, and came out a fan an hour later – surely a testament to the quality of this recording!

One thing that I’ve often heard about Britten’s music is that it can be academic and rather bloodless – on this recording, at least, that is definitely not the case. The Fifth Canticle for tenor and harp, for instance, is almost shockingly graphic. The text, by TS Eliot, is rather vague on its own, but Britten’s music makes its meaning very clear. Also on the album is his Third Canticle for piano, horn, and tenor, based on a poem by Edith Sitwell. Sitwell’s powerful poem speaks of the bombings in London during WWII, and Britten enhances the emotion by alternating the tenor stanzas with horn solos. When the tenor and horn finally come together it’s incredibly powerful, reflecting the hope of Sitwell’s poetry. It’s not a short piece, around 11 minutes, but it never drags thanks to the intense performance from Phan, pianist Myra Huang, horn player (hornist? horner?) Jennifer Montone, and above all Britten’s skill in building up the emotional tension. Originally written as a stand-alone piece, Britten later made it the centrepiece of an arrangement featuring other poetry by Sitwell. Some is set to music, although much shorter in length, and others are simply text – actor Alan Cumming provides the ultimate luxury casting for these readings. All of the poems are similar in tone and atmosphere, and as a result further heighten the emotion of the Third Canticle and forms a wonderfully coherent work.

The other major piece on the album is his late “A Birthday Hansel”, which has nothing to do with the fairy tale. Rather, it’s a song cycle accompanied by harp, based on poems by Robbie Burns. The songs are lively and direct, reminiscent of folk music, but the range of the voice and harp are fully exploited to create a dazzlingly wide range of colours and moods. The rest of the CD is composed of Britten’s folksong arrangements, accompanied by either voice or harp. To me, these were what tipped me into the Britten fandom – simple, melodic songs that I grew up with (the one British element in my otherwise westcoast upbringing) with often unexpected and always interesting harmonies. Opera singers often tend to have difficulties with folksongs – what do you do with those simple melodies? Do you go for Schubertian word painting, or do you add verismo-esque effects to add emotion? Thankfully, Phan knows better and simply performs the music. Besides, his vocal and intellectual skills speak for themselves, with his incredible diction worth singling out. I’ve already mentioned Jennifer Montone’s beautiful playing, but the recording also features harpist Sivan Magen and pianist Myra Huang. As with all good chamber musicians, you never feel that they are simply ‘following’ the voice – instead, they are musical equals and brilliant performers in their own right.

As a whole, it’s a wonderful, varied recital that was a great introduction to Britten’s vocal music. Although I have no point of reference, all of the musicians (and one actor) were excellent, and it was an unusually involving recording – not really something to listen to as background music! Apologies, by the way, for my less-than-brilliant insights into the music – I usually try to only review recordings where I know the music/style reasonably well, but I thought it would be interesting to document my thoughts on Britten throughout his centennial year. Onto those operas now…

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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.

The arts vs. the rest: why arts education is necessary

In light of proposed cuts in arts funding around the world, people everywhere have been promoting the importance of the arts. Arts education, in particular, is an issue that has become a veritable battleground for politicians, educators, and celebrities alike. In many ways, the cuts to arts funding seems to be completely logical; should we be training more ballerinas and painters than doctors and engineers? Unfortunately, it’s not as black-and-white as this. There’s been a lot written about the correlation between arts education and overall cognitive thinking, and nearly just as much has been written to disprove that. In this frenzy of scientific discoveries and refutes, I feel that we’re ignoring the main point – why does everything have to be about science?

Let me make one point clear upfront: I’m not just some fanciful arts major whining abstractly about why nobody will listen to me sing (in fact, I am fully aware why nobody wants to hear me sing). I am in fact a science major in one of the best science faculties in North America, and I am fully aware of the importance of scientific study and inquiry in today’s society. Growing up, I was always told that we could either grow up to be scientists or artists. There was no possibility of being good at both – our brains are all wired to either be creative and emotional, or logical and numerical (from a neurological perspective, this is flawed, but I’ll let that slide). Of course, being the rebellious child I was, I attempted to excel in both. I studied and performed music, derived and integrated functions, analyzed poetry, and dropped eggs from three-story buildings with equal enthusiasm. I quickly realized that there is no concrete distinction between “the arts” and “the rest”: studying the Berg violin concerto, for example, required a great deal of mathematical thought and precision, while designing an effective chemistry lab required creativity and imaginative thinking. When I applied for university, I made the decision to go into science, but knowing well that my success in science was due to the discipline, accuracy, problem solving skills, memory, and critical thinking skills that I had gained through my arts education.

I strongly believe that arts education in not only important for training up future scientists and engineers – the arts are valuable in themselves. Today, the arts are viewed as a luxury; an impractical, inferior, and inefficient form of communication, created by and (hopefully) inciting bursts of illogical emotion. It’s true that art is qualitative rather than quantitative, but sensory experiences are as valid a form of cognition as logical reasoning. In fact, the arts and the sciences share the same overarching goal: comprehension. This may sound hopelessly abstract, but just as science tries to categorize and rationalize physical phenomena, paintings, music, dance, and other forms of art are used to understand and deal with experiences. Science is a great tool, but after we have a set of facts, what can we do with them? How do we determine how to use a scientific discovery in the most constructive way possible for society? Morals and ethics are based on philosophy (often relegated to the arts faculty in universities, despite the fact that one of the highest achievements in any field – a PhD – is in fact a doctorate in philosophy), and are often based on emotional responses to past and current experiences. Hard facts in themselves are often useless; it is their value and application that can help us understand anything.

Education is a transfer of knowledge and experience with the ultimate goal of understanding – how can this be possible without the arts? Humans are not human because of their ability to make logical deductions, but to feel and express emotions. Arts education is not simply important; it is necessary, and we must do everything in our power to ensure that the arts stay in schools.

DVD Review – La Traviata (Evans, Konwitschny)

At some point last year, I decided that I wouldn’t watch or listen to another La Traviata for a long, long time. Within a short period of time, I had seen three productions (Jonathan Miller in Vancouver, Hugo de Ana in Verona, and the cinema broadcast of Richard Eyre from London), and I was frankly tired of the opera. The story seemed trite and romanticized, and the music not much better. However, a new Peter Konwitschny production from Graz seemed interesting and had gotten phenomenal reviews from a bunch of opera fans, who, like me, seemed sick of the ‘traditional’ Traviata. When I found the DVD at a great price, I caved, and I’m really glad I did. It’s a thought-provoking production, and is certainly worth seeing.

When I first saw the DVD cover, I was not particularly impressed: Violetta in a red cocktail dress, stark sets, cruel male-dominated society, blah blah blah – didn’t seem that different to the Willy Decker production from 2005. Despite the superficial similarities, the two productions could not be more different. To me, Decker’s production casts Violetta as a myth, the product of male fantasies. Thrust into a highly visible position (her red dress against the white walls), Violetta tries desperately to enjoy herself. However, that’s not possible – her happiness is only temporary, and her society quickly banishes and replaces her. Really, Decker’s interpretation of Violetta’s fall from grace isn’t much different from a more traditional production. Konwitschny’s production, on the other hand, takes a rather more pessimistic view. His production takes place in front of a series of curtains, representing society. Violetta’s red dress has the exact same pattern – unlike Decker’s more exposed, vivacious Violetta, Konwitschny makes it clear that his more jaded Violetta is very much integrated into society. This is a society that does not accept newcomers, and the chorus mercilessly taunts the outsider Alfredo. Violetta observes this cruelty, and chooses to take Alfredo’s side. During their act 1 duet, Alfredo starts pulling back the curtain, and Violetta is tantalized by this glimpse of another world.

By act 2, she has chosen to join Alfredo’s bourgeois world. Her character has been completely desexualized, and she wears what appears to be a lumberjack outfit (it’s not as bad as it sounds). However, the backdrop is still the same curtain. After Violetta’s encounter with Germont, the meaning becomes clear: Alfredo’s society is just as misogynistic and cruel as Violetta’s. The gambling scene has seemingly infinite layers of curtains – no matter what, every society can be just as cruel. As Alfredo insults Violetta in front of the assembled guests, he pulls down the curtains and the stage is covered in a mess of bodies and cloth. After the guests (and curtains) exit the stage before the final act, Violetta is left with nothing more than a pathetic little black curtain, which she clings onto during “Addio del passato”. In the final scene, that one remaining curtain pulls back, and Violetta walks into the darkness. It’s a rather difficult production to explain, but the whole concept is detailed and intelligent. Particularly thought-provoking is the direction of the chorus – in act 1, they are crude, drunk, and clearly enjoying watching the drama unfold before them. In act 2 scene 2, the lines blur between Violetta’s society and Alfredo’s society, and by the end, Alfredo, Germont, Annina, and the doctor are no different from the rest. Germont’s arrival in act 3 is through the audience, and he never goes onstage. Alfredo and the rest join him, and they abandon Violetta through the auditorium doors as she dies. The chorus/society is deliberately unpleasant, and also somewhat sickening to watch when you realize that we, the audience, are implicated as well – after all, we have been watching and enjoying the story as well.

This performance has been much criticized for its supposed disrespect of Verdi’s score. The performance was performed without intermission, and so any music that didn’t propel the plot forward was cut. In reality, it’s not that drastic – apart from the excision of the gypsy/matador choruses, the cuts are similar to those in a standard performance 50 years ago. Second verses are cut, as is Germont’s cabaletta. While I should feel a whole lot more offended at the cuts, I honestly can’t say I minded much – the cuts are made smoothly, and I never liked those two choruses anyways. The musical values are all at a high level anyways, so you never feel like the cuts are being made in concession to the cast or orchestra.

Marlis Petersen has my preferred voice type for Violetta – in the Moffo mode, she has a full, rather dark lyric voice with enough lightness to get through act 1. She is clearly a great musician, and it’s almost as if she learned the part exclusively from the score without listening to any other recordings of the opera. As a result, her interpretation is refreshing and unique, but always stays true to Verdi’s music. She gets through act 1 quite easily, but really shines in the later acts and has a large enough voice to sing “Alfredo, di questo core” curled up in the middle of the stage in the fetal position. Her “Addio del passato” is easily the best singing in the performance, and she ends the aria with no vibrato. It’s risky, but certainly effective and doesn’t come across as an ‘effect’. She’s also an attractive woman, and more importantly, a dedicated actress. It can’t be easy to play Violetta’s loss of dignity in such a raw way, with no pretty costumes to hide behind, but she does a very convincing job both physically and vocally.

It also can’t be easy to play Alfredo in this production – instead of the charming handsome young man, he’s portrayed as socially inept and emotionally volatile. He reacts in a very childish manner most of the time, and often comes across as pathetic rather than romantic. His primary solace is in reading, and he offers Violetta a book in act 1, which she reads with fascination. It’s unclear whether Violetta is genuinely in love with Alfredo, or whether she shares his romantic ideals. However, this is in no way a criticism of Giuseppe Varano’s singing or acting. Rather, it’s a testament to his skill in both that Alfredo’s character is delineated so clearly. His tone is quite dark, almost reminiscent of Kaufmann at times, although Varano’s voice is nowhere near as loud. Consistent with Konwitschny’s idea of the character, Varano never bawls and somehow vocally conveys Alfredo’s awkwardness without losing the line.

James Rutherford is a Wagnerian bass-baritone who has Sachs, Dutchman, Barak, and Jochanaan in his repertoire. As such, his Germont is a far cry from, say, Hvorostovsky’s elegant and sleek portrayal. Again, this is consistent with Konwitschny’s interpretation of the role. Germont is portrayed as a crude, abusive man, who brings his daughter along in act 2 with the express purpose of manipulating Violetta. Rutherford’s singing is loud and authoritative as expected, but surprisingly sings “Pura siccome un angelo” with excellent legato and subtle phrasing. Vocally and physically, his character turns out to be more sympathetic than he first appears. After a round of abusing both Violetta and his daughter, he is shocked and tries to intervene when Violetta tries to shoot herself, and ends up genuinely concerned for Violetta. It’s become popular to interpret Germont as a close-minded but fundamentally kind person, but this is definitely a valid take on the role.

Conductor Tecwyn Evans leads the orchestra, chorus, and soloists in a way that complements the spare sets and costumes. Everything is quite quick, and the emphasis is on moving the plot forward. There’s less rubato than usual, and none of the usual bombastic playing at “Amami Alfredo”. However, it would be unfair to categorize the playing as simply ‘efficient’ – it never feels rushed, and the appropriate amount of time is taken in the right places. The chorus sings very well indeed, given the amount of stage action they receive. Overall, the production is stark and intelligent but also very moving, and there is an uncommon unity between director, conductor, and singers. Definitely a contrast from the usual Victorian lampshade productions, and very much worth seeing. Also worth noting that the production is being presented by ENO in London next February with a great cast – see it if you can!

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.