Saturday, 23 January 2016

Funeral Rites

This week the Toronto Symphony Orchestra capped its annual Mozart mini-festival with a most unusual performance of the master's famous Requiem.  It was billed as a "semi-staged performance" and that advance billing both intrigued and slightly unnerved me.  The results, however, were certainly gripping -- on several different levels.  This is going to be one of my longer reviews, as it basically has to be three different reviews in one.  So, without further ado, let us begin.


The Music

Most people certainly know that Mozart did not live to complete the Requiem.  The completion was undertaken after his death by his pupil, Franz Xaver Sussmayr at the behest of Mozart's widow, Constanze.  Sussmayr quite possibly had the assistance of one or more others.  The first alternative version to Sussmayr's edition appeared in 1819.  However, there has been a profusion of alternative completions since the 1960s, due to the explosion in musical scholarship generally.

For this performance, the completion by American musicologist Robert D. Levin was used.  Levin based his work largely on Sussmayr's text, making amendments in places where he considered Sussmayr's work to be un-Mozartean.  In practice, this amounts in many places to thinning out the sometimes dense orchestral textures, to major modifications in the Quam olim Abrahae and Osanna fugues, and to an entirely different fugal Amen at the end of the Lacrymosa.

Does it work?  The answer, for me, has to be "sometimes".  The clarification of the orchestration was the most successful aspect of the work.  Whatever his other qualities, Mozart couldn't ever write a page of thick or crowded orchestration.  Some of Sussmayr's work unquestionably does get clogged up, and the enhanced clarity was admirable.  The rewritten fugues were effective in their places.

The Amen fugue was more problematic.  A sketch exists, in Mozart's hand, outlining the opening of the fugue, and since it is accompanied by bits of other works being written at the same time it clearly dates from 1791, the last year of Mozart's life.  The theme is a strict inversion of the opening melody of the whole work.  Fair enough grounds to consider it.  What we can never know is to what extent Sussmayr may have been privy to Mozart's spoken intentions.  Nor can we ever know what those intentions were -- since the composer's main manuscript draft for that portion of the work ends eight bars into the Lacrymosa.

Those eight bars, as drafted by Mozart, include an intensely harmonized rising scale at one note to a beat on the words Qua resurget ex favilla, judicandus homo reus.  That line all by itself stamps the music with the character of a funeral march: slow, dark, solemn, and laden with tragedy.  It's like nothing else Mozart had ever written, with one exception (and even that is a rather remote comparison): the statue music from Don Giovanni.  Sussmayr faithfully held to that ritual, funereal quality right to the end of the movement.  In the final bars he built up the tension to a thunderous conclusion, as inevitable as death itself, in which the orchestra rears up one last time in a great crescendo before sinking back down under the choir's single heartfelt cry of Amen.  It's music of awe-inspiring hieratic power.  Not only that, but the Lacrymosa (as completed by Sussmayr) plants a foot far forward into the world of emotional drama so characteristic of the coming Romantic era.

Levin's realization of the Amen fugue, although still in the minor key, takes on a jaunty, almost jolly, air, which is really undesirable after the sombre Lacrymosa.  The contrast jarred on my ear.  Levin's editorial work on the Requiem as a whole certainly bears rehearing.  But in the case of that Amen I think Sussmayr's version carries the day.  For me, Levin's Amen fugue just doesn't belong.  And I can't help wondering if Mozart had already decided that to be the case -- and had discussed his intentions for that moment with his students.


The Staging

Stage director Joel Ivany wisely focused on the ritual character of the funeral mass and attempted to reinterpret that ritual character in a restrained way that suited a concert hall.  Singers and players were uniformly clothed entirely in black.  The stage was ringed with a raised platform for the choir.  On that platform, and on the forestage, were an assortment of chairs of mixed designs, the sorts of chairs one might see in dining rooms today. 

The performance began with a quintet of players presenting the slow movement of the Clarinet Quintet, while the singers and other players came forward in a slow procession down the aisles.  The four vocal soloists came last.  They became the principal actors in the performance of the Requiem which immediately followed, taking on a series of tableau-like poses in varying places around the stage.  These poses expressed outwardly the bewildering variety of reactions to bereavement.

The choir confined themselves in the main to stylized hand gestures, although they too did some moving around -- not as much as the soloists.

This "staging" varied in its effectiveness.  Some parts were truly and deeply moving, while others were so kitschy as to become embarrassing.  Since grieving is such a unique and personal process, I'm sure that the parts that moved me probably appeared kitschy to others, and vice versa.

The most moving of all was that opening procession, in which each person brought a white card with the name of a loved one mourned, and paused to put it down on a raised dais at either side of the stage.  Every individual went through this ritual in a different way.  Some dropped the card gently.  Some bent down to place it with care.  Two or three raised the card to kiss it before placing it.  The one that most nearly broke my heart was the man who ran his fingers gently and lovingly across the name before bending down to lay the card in place. 

Lighting included coloured backlighting behind the choir and behind the seats in the loft above the stage, floodlights directed at the organ case, and spotlights on the forestage area.  This was all handled with great subtlety and was very effective.

I only wished that a notice in the programme had asked the audience not to applaud until the conclusion of the concert.  The quintet held their stance as long as they could, but of course the audience began clapping as soon as they moved to their places in the orchestra.


The Performance

The performance of the music, as far as I was concerned, was as nearly perfect as one could wish.

Starting from the opening slow movement from the Clarinet Quintet, the five front-desk players balanced off in a beautifully shaped reading, notable especially for the melting tone of principal clarinet Joaquin Valdepenas.

The mid-size orchestral body played beautifully right from the opening bars of the Introit.  The unique parts for two basset horns (a kind of tenor clarinet) captured the all-important mellow quality with tone both dark and warm.  In spite of all the trombone jokes we've ever heard (there are many), the trombones played with both subtlety and beauty of tone, perfectly in keeping with the overall scale of the performance.

The forty-voice choir, drawn from the Elmer Iseler Singers and the Amadeus Choir, sang with both passion and precision.  Brought out onto the main stage, instead of beneath the overhang of the usual choir loft, the sound of this smaller body suddenly became quite adequate to fill the hall.

Conductor Bernard Labadie led the performance in what always seemed just the right tempo, neither too slow nor too fast.  The deep gravity of the Lacrymosa and the restless energy of the Domine Jesu Christe equally found the right place.  This reading was especially notable for Labadie's willingness to allow each held note and each pause it's fullest length.  The result was a performance that was in no way somnolent or slow or boring, yet still managed to be both spacious and monumental.

I've kept the best for the last: the remarkable quartet of soloists.  In keeping with the stylistic conventions also followed by Haydn and other contemporaries, Mozart allows each of the four soloists some highlighted moments but also requires the four to sing as a quartet, providing tonal contrast with passages sung by the full choir.  I don't think I have ever heard a solo quartet whose members were so beautifully matched.  All four had open, clear tone production with sparing vibrato, and the four voices blended beautifully in quartet passages.

Soprano Lydia Teuscher, making her TSO debut, soared lyrically in her solo at Te decet hymnus Deus in Zion.  Mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy sang warmly, but without the plummy tone found in so many mezzos.  Tenor Frederic Antoun produced beautiful lyrical lines in the quartet Recordare, and his Mors stupebit was magnificent.  Bass-baritone Philippe Sly was absolutely rock-steady in the notorious Tuba mirum  , a passage which has induced the shakes in some of the world's greatest singers.  And, as indicated above, all four had remarkable moments in the acting which was required of them.

Beyond any doubt, this was a performance both memorable and of the highest quality.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

The Great New Year's Bat Invasion

By tradition, the annual bat invasion always happens around the time of the New Year.  No, I'm not describing a zoological phenomenon.  I'm referring to the tradition of performing the world-famous operetta Die Fledermaus ("The Bat") by Johann Strauss Jr.  The tradition makes more sense when you realize that the original story from which the libretto derives was in fact set on New Year's Eve.

Only a couple of weeks after the target date, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony presented a semi-staged concert performance bubbling over with the essential good humour and high spirits demanded by this classic.

If the defining characteristic of operetta is that it refuses ever to take itself too seriously, then Die Fledermaus is rightly considered the quintessential operetta.  The plot is comprised of deceptions, infidelities, threats of violence, and theft, and yet the essentially playful nature of the story ensures that none of this becomes the stuff of tragedy -- and all is resolved in a happy ending, in which the blame for all the confusion is finally laid off on an excess of champagne!

Undoubtedly, the orchestra, conductor, and singers captured the frothy character of the piece more than amply.  The result was a very entertaining evening, spoken and sung entirely in English. 

The performance was "hosted" by Daniel Isengart.  His spoken introductions and narrations carried us forward through the story, replacing reams of dialogue in the original.  The cast of characters were mainly performed by younger singers, but do not mistake "younger" for "second-rate".  With one slight exception, all the singers carried their parts off with great aplomb and effective characterization.

I'd love to discuss the performance of every single soloist, but I'm going to confine myself to four that were (for me) outstanding.  First up was soprano Jennifer Taverner as Adele, the maid.  A bit staid at first, she warmed up a good deal as the evening progressed, capturing in voice and face the sassy manner of the maid who's just filling in the position while waiting for a better deal to come along.

Adam Luther, tenor, made much of the smaller role of Alfred, the Italian singer who captures Rosalinde's attention.  Even when heard from offstage, his voice soared clearly across the hall and his every word came through as well (some of the characters had more trouble with diction). 

As Rosalinde, soprano Bethany Horst sang with conviction and clarity, nailing the frequent high notes with security and accuracy.  Her acting turned much more flirtatious at the ball when she appeared as a "Hungarian countess" wearing a mask.  Her Czardas was the star turn of the evening.

The real star of the show for me was baritone Benjamin Covey as Eisenstein, the wannabe seducer who ends up as the butt of the joke.  Again, a very clear voice and good diction, and total understanding that it takes some work to make this often-sleazy operator a sympathetic character.  Covey was particularly good at getting the words out clearly in the rapid passagework.  He was notably more "sophisticated" in manner in the Act II party scene, where the chiming watch of the original was aptly replaced with a brand-new Blackberry!

All these, and the others too, joined together in first-rate teamwork to bring the operetta to brilliant life with limited staging and acting opportunities.

The chorus, too, did a great deal with their opportunities in the party scene, representing various degrees of drunkenness among the party guests with all the realism to be expected of a student chorus!

Conductor Edwin Outwater led the orchestra and singers in a sparkling performance with plenty of energy throughout.  Only in one number did I feel that he had chosen a slow tempo.  Otherwise the speeds were apt enough to move the work along without rushing. 

It's just a pity that there wasn't time to create a series of surtitle slides for use on the overhead screen.  The abbreviated dialogue was always clearly audible, but diction suffered in the singing and in one or two of the faster songs the words simply tumbled out too quickly to be heard.

But that's a minor detail.  Musically and dramatically, this was a fine evening of comical fun for the audience, and I enjoyed every minute!