Saturday, 28 October 2017

Pilgrimage to the Celestial City

Top Ten lists are a risky business in any field of the arts.  I could write you a top ten list of my favourite operas today, and then might write a rather different one next year.  But there are a few works that will usually hold a place on that list for me.

One of them I first heard in a recording in 1973 or 1974.  Since then, I have listened to my copy of that first recording many times, yet it has never worn out its welcome.  I refer to The Pilgrim's Progress by Ralph Vaughan Williams.  You can read more about this marvellous work, its laborious gestation, checkered performance history, and my own feelings about the music in this blog post:  A Pageant of Rare Beauty and Power

Professional performances of this opera remain rare, and I had all but given up hope of ever seeing it staged.  But last spring I got wind of a production coming up in a most unusual venue, and this week I travelled down to Cape Cod in Massachusetts and, at long last, got to see The Pilgrim's Progress in a fully staged performance -- which I believe is only the third or fourth time the work has been staged in North America.

The performance took place in the Church of the Transfiguration, the headquarters church of an ecumenical Christian religious community and its choir, Gloriae Dei Cantores.  The church was built less than 20 years ago in the style of a Roman basilica, a long arcaded nave without transepts.  The audience seating was arranged down one side of the nave on risers, while the three stage platforms occupied the other side -- with the orchestra seated in the arcaded side aisle behind the stage.  The stage backdrop consisted of three huge screens on which still and animated scenic projections created a vivid sense of time and place.  The inherent peril of this layout was mitigated by placing three video screens on the wall behind the audience so that the singers could see the conductor -- on camera!

It was absolutely worth the apparently makeshift nature of this layout, because the acoustics of the church are glorious -- not least, the sound of the orchestra soaring clearly through the arcades above the stage to expand into the main nave.

I'm starting with the orchestra, because its role is so critical.  This is one of the most symphonic operas since Wagner, with preludes and interludes in many places in the score.  There are numerous examples of fully symphonic writing in counterpoint with the singers (it's not just "accompaniment"), and the score is also dotted with those lovely instrumental solo lines so beloved of the composer.  All of it came through with absolute clarity, played under the skilled direction of James E. Jordan.

Next, I have to jump to the critical contribution of stage director Danielle Dwyer and the Elements Theater Company.  This opera is like a pageant, and like any big pageant it has big crowd scenes.  Dwyer crafted ingenious solutions to creating "crowd" effects on the stage platforms, which were, in actual fact, not very deep.  She also ensured that each member of a crowd scene had a distinct personality, look, and style that were his/hers alone.  None of this got in the way of clear, balanced, and strong singing from the chorus in those same scenes and many others.  The most spectacular of these crowd scenes was the lengthy, vigorous, and colourful scene in Vanity Fair, but the Doleful Creatures surrounding Apollyon ran it a close second.

There was much excellent singing and acting from all members of the huge cast, but hard as it is, I do have to confine my remarks to a few standout performances.  Paul Scholten began and ended the performance as John Bunyan, singing firmly and steadily, and created a nicely contrasting gentler impression as Watchful, the Porter of the House Beautiful.  John E. Orduña made an equally firm and characterful Evangelist (the only character besides the Pilgrim and Bunyan who appears more than once).  Br. Richard Cragg was clear and strong as the Interpreter of the House Beautiful.  These three then joined in a beautifully blended trio as the three Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains -- a magical scene.

Eleni Calenos sang beautifully as the Branch Bearer, and her voiced soared ethereally as the psalm-singing Bird of the Delectable Mountains.  Sadly, in the latter role she was positioned somewhere a bit too far behind the scenes and hard to hear over the voices of the three Shepherds -- but when we could hear her, the sound was magnificent.

Doug Jones sang the high tenor aria of Lord Lechery with great gusto and precision, no mean feat as the music soars and swoops all over the map, with plenty of rhythmic tricks to boot.  His trio with the two prostitutes, Madam Wanton (Martha Guth) and Madam Bubble (Kathryn Leemhuis) was a riot of insinuations and suggestive looks and gestures.

Andrew Nolen sang powerfully as Lord Hate-Good, the judge who presides over the kangaroo-court trial of the Pilgrim.  His earlier contribution as the evil Apollyon was also good, but harder to hear because of the powerful cries of the Chorus of Doleful Creatures -- a rare instance where the staging got a bit out of hand.  Given Apollyon's threatening appearance, having his voice amplified would not have been out of place.

Aaron Sheehan and Sr. Estelle Cole created just the right sort of genteel comedy as Mister and Madam By-Ends, with their self-aware strutting and preening about the stage.

And most of all, Richard K. Pugsley as the Pilgrim.  This is a daunting role, to say the least -- on stage in every scene, and frequently singing in counterpoint to orchestral playing that goes its own way.  As well, the Pilgrim has to take an inner, emotional journey as wide in scope and as full of twists and turns as his outward physical journey.  Pugsley clearly portrayed all of those varying emotional states, his face and body always in tune with the voice, and with everything that was happening around him.

His finest moment came right where it needs to come, in the long aria of Act 3, Scene 2, where he finds himself locked in prison, remembers that he carries the Key of Promise, and escapes outside to the starry night.  His soaring phrases as he contemplated the star filled sky were intense and moving indeed.

So was the scene of the Pilgrim's arrival at the gates of heaven, with the onstage and offstage choruses singing antiphonally in near-perfect balance.

Aside from a couple of textual alterations and some instances of odd diction, plus one or two other points already mentioned, this was a deeply-felt and carefully planned and prepared staging of this challenging opera.  Beautifully sung and expertly performed -- I was more than amply rewarded for the time, effort and cost of travelling to Orleans, MA, to see it.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

The Irreplaceable Maureen Forrester: A Personal Tribute

In attending the Toronto Symphony's "Tribute to Maureen Forrester"
this week, I found myself taking another nostalgic trip down memory lane,
and feeling a real need to write my own personal appreciation of
this remarkable musician and her peerless art. 

So I've decided that, henceforth, I will also allow myself to write the
occasional essay on this blog which is not a review of a performance.
 
You could call it "broadening my base" (except that my "base" or
fundament is far broader than I would ideally like it to be already!).

I only met Maureen Forrester face to face on one occasion, but she was a performer who made it very easy to feel as if we, her audience, were her friends.  Hers was a strongly communicative art.  After some thought, I've come to the conclusion that, somehow, she managed to shift the edge of her personal space from the front of the stage to the back of the hall the moment she began to sing.  At the numerous live performances of hers which I attended, that special aura never failed to materialize -- and I haven't encountered too many other performing artists in my lifetime who could muster that kind of personal communication.

Maureen's career took off in a big way after Bruno Walter personally selected her to sing in his New York performances and recording of the Mahler Symphony No. 2 (the "Resurrection" Symphony).  That was in 1958, when I was 4 years old.  Since Walter had shared a close personal and professional friendship with Mahler himself, being coached by and performing under Walter's direction was like accessing a direct line to the composer, a line long since become inaccessible in our latter day.  On the strength of that one performance, Forrester instantly became world-renowned as one of the greatest of Mahler interpreters.  That was no exaggeration.

A decade later when I began developing a strong interest in Mahler's music, I acquired a copy of that legendary recording.  I still have it in my collection.  The sound is a bit grainy by modern standards, the bigger climaxes have had to be damped down in the recording process, but the music still comes across with great clarity -- and that definitely describes the unmistakable sound of Maureen's voice arising out of the stillness at the beginning of the fourth movement.

I had to wait about 4 more years, but at last I got the chance to hear her sing that symphony live at Massey Hall, under the direction of Andrew Davis.  My subscription seat was right down in the third row of the ground level, and left of the aisle  -- directly facing the spot where most soloists sit and stand in a concert.  When she began to sing the Urlicht fourth movement, her voice was so quiet and inward that it seemed impossible anyone behind me could hear her -- but I knew perfectly well they could.  I can never forget the airborne "lift" of the sound as she leaped up an octave on the word "Himmel" ("heaven") and her voice took wing.  And it was a clean lift -- no scooping or sliding up to the note.  Pure magic.

During those same high school and college years, I also heard her sing the Third Symphony of Mahler and then the miraculous Das Lied von der Erde.  I can't recall if she actually sang from a score in the hour-long Das Lied, but I've never forgotten the long sustained closing notes, as she sang more and more quietly, in an absolutely steady voice, with one hand slowly lifting farther into the air in front of her at each reiteration of the word ewig ("ever").  I was captivated.

I also heard Maureen singing Bach, Handel, and several other composers during those years, and she was just as memorable every time.

My one and only face-to-face encounter with her came in the spring of 1978, when I was singing in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (one unforgettable season).  We were performing a concert of two rare and fantastic pieces, the Spring Symphony by Benjamin Britten and the Te Deum by Hector Berlioz.  Maureen was one of the soloists in the Britten, and excellent as ever.  At the intermission, she unexpectedly appeared in the choir's "green room", a cavernous space under the stage of Massey Hall.  Immediately she was swarmed by choristers hoping to get her autograph -- myself included.

I've never forgotten what happened next.  After signing six or seven programmes, she looked around, and said, "What am I doing?  I didn't come down here to do this! (pause) But I LOVE IT!"  And instantly, she seized another programme and carried right on as before.  I still have that autograph tucked away in a safe place.

After I moved away from Toronto later that year, I did not get to hear her singing live as often, but I collected a number of different recordings of her singing in both lieder and concert works.  And then, in 1984, Maureen Forrester was cast to sing the role of the Queen of the Fairies in Iolanthe at the Stratford Festival.  This, for me, was a do-not-miss event.  Iolanthe is my absolute favourite of all the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.  I'd been in a youth choir production in my Toronto days, playing the role of the pompous Lord Mountararat.  The thought of a good dose of Stratford G&S shenanigans with Maureen Forrester appearing in it was irresistible!

So was the show, when I got to see it.  The antics she got up to, with dancing, singing, dialogue with face and gestures creating raunchy innuendoes, sailing across the flies on a trapeze, and riding in on a wagon dressed like Britannia, complete with spear, helmet and breastplate -- all of it had me in stitches.  Later on it was shown on CBC TV and I laughed myself silly at her, all over again.  And then I acquired the show from the Stratford Festival gift shop, on DVD, and now I can have a good hearty laugh any time I feel like it just by skipping straight to her rapturous ode, O, Knowlton Nash.

And through it all, that unique voice -- rich, deep, pure, never thick or plummy or veiled in any way, a real contralto and still the finest I have ever heard singing live.  I've listened to many great singers performing Mahler, live or in recordings, but for me the altos (Mahler's favourite voice type) divide into just two groups:  [1]  Maureen Forrester (2) Everyone else.  And that's how I will always remember Maureen -- as the true "voice of Gustav Mahler."

Toronto Symphony 2017-2018 # 3: In Honour of Maureen

This week's Toronto Symphony concerts were designed as a tribute to the great Canadian contralto, Maureen Forrester.  Like the previous tribute to Glenn Gould, this programme had a master of ceremonies to give spoken introductions -- this time, renowned singer and broadcaster Ben Heppner.

The programme began with a work specifically commissioned for this occasion.  This was a song cycle for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, L'Aube ("The Dawn") composed by Howard Shore to poems by Elizabeth Cotnoir.  This 15-minute work created a much larger effect, partly because of the wide thematic scope of the poetry -- effectively a musical portrait of the natural world in which we live, shot through with imagery reflecting the traditions of the First Nations.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who recalls Shore's scores for the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit  films that the music is written in a harmonically conservative, post-Romantic idiom.  Larger melodies contrasted or alternated with shorter ostinato figures.  The singer, Susan Platts, had passages where she sang melodically, and others where the text was declaimed in more dramatic fashion, almost operatic.  The five movements were all in moderate to slow tempo.  Beautiful singing and evocative orchestral writing went hand in hand together.  This work drew enthusiastic applause and should certainly be more widely heard.

After the intermission, the larger work was Gustav Mahler's unique masterpiece, Das Lied von der Erde ("The Song of the Earth").  With this late and monumental creation, Mahler burst the bounds of the traditional song cycle as much as Beethoven had done nearly a century earlier to the symphony with his epic Ninth.  The six movements of Das Lied are a sequence of "songs" for tenor and contralto alternating, but the total work lasts for an hour or more and the final contralto song, Der Abschied ("The Farewell"), takes a half-hour all by itself.

Effectively, Mahler had created a new genre of music -- and recognized that fact himself, when he called Das Lied his "symphony of songs."  Other composers followed his lead in creating song-symphonies (notably Zemlinsky and Shostakovich).

The last time I heard Das Lied von der Erde performed by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra was back in the fall of 1974, and -- no surprise -- Maureen Forrester was the contralto soloist.  It was one of her signature works throughout her long career.  That's 43 years ago, and a long time to wait, but since then I have heard it done twice when the National Ballet of Canada has staged Kenneth MacMillan's ballet Song of the Earth.  In the second staging, the alto soloist was Susan Platts, who also sang the role in this week's concerts.

The tenor role was taken this week by Michael Schade, who has a long and distinguished career on several continents, in both opera and concert work, to his credit.  Schade is famed mainly as a Mozartean singer, and I was curious to see how he would sound with the much heavier orchestral textures of the late-Romantic giant orchestra used by Mahler.

The first song requires the most heroic tone, but contrasting with gentler singing in quieter passages, and Schade nailed the numerous high notes with no trouble -- although I sensed that he was pushing the sound for all he was worth in the louder passages.  He was much more comfortable and at ease with the lighter, chamber-like instrumental textures of the third and fifth songs.  The fifth song, "The Drunkard in Spring," drew his finest singing of the evening, and the playful expression on his face grew into a roguish wink at the final note as he snapped his score shut.

Mezzo-soprano Susan Platts has a dark, rich colour to her voice which is ideally suited to this work (especially to the second and sixth songs).  She has performed it many times and recorded it twice.  In the fourth song, the central section describing the young men on horseback galloped through at breakneck speed, as it should, and the text began to vanish a little in the hectic rush as she strained to get all the words out -- a common problem for almost all singers.

In the long, final Der Abschied, the problem goes to the opposite extreme: long-breathed, sustained vocal lines have to be sung over quiet bass pedal notes while the rest of the orchestra sits silent.  The last time I heard Platts singing the work, a tight rapid vibrato began to intrude in these passages but this week her voice was calm and smooth, holding those long, slow phrases with total control and serenity.  At the very end, her voice faded right down to the limit of audibility on the final "ewig..." without a hint of a quiver.

Maestro Peter Oundjian once again demonstrated his command of Mahlerian pacing and shaping, especially in the first movement with its regular tempo shifts and in the final movement, where tricky cross-rhythms combine the rippling of the brook with the trilling of bird song.  Balance was also near-ideal, with brass and percussion alike playing with restraint even in the dark climax of the long funeral cortege-interlude in the last song.

The entire concert was a fitting tribute to a great musical artist, created in the best way possible -- by other great artists, giving vivid and gripping performances of great music.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony 2017-2018 # 1: O Brave New World

Note:  Although the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra has appointed its new Music Director, Andrei Feher, this appointment takes effect in the fall of 2018.  For this season, then, the Orchestra is performing its concerts under guest conductors, with Feher leading at least two of the eight main stage programmes.

"O Brave New World."  Now, there's a title that could conceivably lead in more than one direction -- for example, to Tchaikovsky's concert fantasia The Tempest or to the suite of incidental music for the same play composed by Sibelius (The Tempest being the source of that famous phrase).  But, no.  It is, as many will have guessed, a reference to the last of Antonin Dvorak's nine symphonies.

However, that came at the end of the concert.  Before that, there were intriguing and delightful works both classic and modern to be heard.

After the opening O Canada, conductor Mei-Ann Chen cheerfully congratulated the audience for joining in readily, and with full vocal tone.  She then introduced us to Edmonton composer Vivian Fung's tone poem, Aqua.  It's inspired by a modern skyscraper in Chicago, the Aqua Tower, whose sculptural exterior suggest rippling waves and pools of water (google it, and look at some pictures -- it really is eye-catching!).  Fung's music comprises two main sections, and she has found some striking and beautiful musical ideas and sounds to evoke the rippling outlines of the balconies and the blue glass "pools" on the building's exterior.  

Pianist Remi Geniet next came to the stage to join the orchestra and Chen in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K.503.  The opening movement was notable for a classical crispness of execution and even texture of sound.  Such moments as the almost martial fanfare at the end of the orchestral ritornello were kept in scale, with Chen and the players remembering that this was still the work of Mozart.  Geniet's performance of the piano part was neat and nimble on the keyboard, but somewhat blurred by what I felt to be over-much use of the sustaining pedal -- creating a more lush, almost Romantic sound that was slightly at odds with the style of the orchestra.

The slow movement is notably simple and sustained in style, and here the use of the pedal was much more to point.  The orchestral playing continued to be as rewarding.

The finale brought more over-use of the pedal, and also some overly-enthusiastic playing from the orchestra which momentarily ruined the balance with the piano at a few moments.  However, all was well in the final coda and the work drew enthusiastic applause from the audience.

After the intermission, Chen again took the microphone to introduce Darren Fung's short work, Toboggan.  Obviously, many of us were wondering if Vivian Fung and Darren Fung were related!  To put it in Chen's own words, "They're both from Edmonton but they're not related.  Their mothers go to the same church, that's as close as it gets."  This brought an appreciative chuckle.

The ensuing piece was a two-minute breakneck ride for the orchestra, clearly illustrating the programme contained in the one-word title with immense verve and energy.  The piece ended amusingly, with a crashing chord for the "grand arrival" succeeded by a single plucked note from one cello.  Fung himself was present to receive the loud acclaim from the audience.

The concert then concluded with the Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95 "From the New World."  The exact wording of the title is significant.  It clearly tells us that the piece was written in the "new world" of the Americas (during Dvorak's time leading the new National Conservatory of Music in New York).  It was not, as some people suppose, meant as a tonal portrait of the new world, or (in other words) as a symphonic poem.  The influence of Longfellow's Hiawatha certainly underlay the second movement, but otherwise much of the music is as Czech as anything else the composer wrote -- once you stop listening for overt "Americanisms."

The real problem is for a performing artist to try to find something new or different to say in leading such a well-known, well-loved, frequently-heard repertoire warhorse.  Mei-Ann Chen solved the problem by the simple expedient of not trying.  She followed what the composer put in the score and let it speak for itself -- a very wise course of action.  But more on that in a minute.

As with his friend and promoter, Brahms, so with Dvorak: the horn choir of four players presents many of the symphony's most important moments.  Whether playing as a group, or in pairs, or with each one taking a solo part in turn, the security of the horn section is critical, as also is their balance within the group.  Apart from one false note in the first movement, the horn section's contribution throughout the symphony was beautiful, firm, balanced, and above all heart-tugging in the mysterious sequence of brass and wind chords which introduce the slow movement.

Sir Donald Tovey, one of my favourite writers on music, pointed out that those chords simply serve to take us from the E minor of the first movement to the D flat major of the second.  "But, as Dvorak is a man of genius, the explanation, like the conjuror's offer to show 'how it is done,' is more mysterious than the mystery itself."

The wind solos and duets which abound in all parts of the work were as beautifully played, with crisp articulation in the bouncing scherzo theme.  The slow movement's famous melody brought the most beguiling sounds from the cor anglais.  The flutes and clarinets were as lovely in the autumnal slow section before the final ferocious coda of the finale.

The strings produced firm tone in the outer movements and the most gentle, translucent sound in the Largo when playing with mutes.

Throughout the symphony, Mei-Ann Chen led the orchestra with a clear beat, never over-conducting, and always keeping the through line of each movement firmly in view.  This was especially notable in the finale with its tempo shifts in the final pages.  I only wished that she had taken the Largo at a slightly slower speed, giving it a little more breathing room.  Her basic tempo was at the faster limit of what could fairly be considered a largo tempo, but it left me feeling that the whole movement was a bit rushed -- not that I would want to go to the opposite extreme and drag it out interminably either.  This was also the one movement where I felt a little more give and take in the basic tempo would have been helpful.

Make no mistake, though -- I would far rather hear such a clean, well-planned performance of the New World Symphony than one in which the conductor indulges in all sorts of "interpretative" excesses, solely for the sake of doing something different with it.  

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Stratford Festival 2017 # 7: Sombre Yet Bright Romeo and Juliet

My last Stratford outing of the season -- very nearly over now -- was to see Scott Wentworth's production of Romeo and Juliet.  Some of my regular readers may be surprised to read that I have never seen the play on stage before.  Two film versions, yes, and numerous performances of Prokofiev's stunningly dramatic ballet version -- but not the original play, although I am familiar with the text.

I found this production a bit of a mixed bag.  The sombre darkness of the setting, costumes, and the play as a whole was yet relieved by some powerful performances that lit up the stage.  It's just a pity that the play as a whole didn't reach the level of its brightest lights.

For this production, the artistic team returned to the original classic configuration of Tanya Moiseiwitsch's Festival Theatre stage, all in plain dark wood as in days of yore.  Against this background, Christina Poddubiuk's black costumes (with gold trimming for the men and white highlights for the women) conspired to deepen the prevailing gloom, already apt to appear in a performance of such a tragedy.

The exceptions were notable: a pale blue dress for Juliet, a lighter white and beige for the Nurse, and variations on dull red with gold trimming for the Prince and his kinsmen, Mercutio and Paris.  All were costumed in a manner reminiscent of Cavalier or Stuart style.

Right at the outset, Sarah Dodd as the Chorus presented her opening speech in a pleasantly conversational tone (i.e., not portentous or "dramatic"), but she spoke so quietly that many of us in the rear rows had trouble hearing her.  

The spoken "Chorus" was accompanied at each entrance by a very effective counterpoint, a kind of visual chorus of four women dressed in black with hair wrapped in white turbans, each carrying an orb of lights in her hands.  These four grouped around the perimeter of the stage, or moved to other positions, not only for the Chorus but also for other key dramatic moments, especially the final scene in the vault after the deaths of Romeo and Juliet.

In the presentation of characters, this production was a bit uneven.  Juan Chioran as the Prince was certainly strong, but a bit too petulant in some moments.  Petulance was the absolute property of the Capulets, Randy Hughson and Marian Adler.  The script takes them in that direction, of course, but Hughson and Adler made themselves so thoroughly unpleasant that I had no sympathy to spare for them in the final scene.  

The roles of the Montagues are smaller, but even so I found both Jim Codrington and Kim Horsman to be more believable people than their opposite numbers, the Capulets.  What I question was the decision (directorial?) to play all four parents as elderly people suffering from mobility issues.  It almost looked as if both families had put off having children until they were in their 40s, yet Lady Capulet explicitly affirms that she was wedded and bedded at the same age as Juliet (14).  This would suggest that her biological age in the story ought not to be any higher than 28-30!

Among the younger male characters, Evan Buliung stood out for his performance as Mercutio.  The perpetual leer on his face was the perfect visual equivalent to speeches crammed with sexual metaphors, innuendoes, and outright indecencies -- in a word, raunch.  The best part of his work was a whole range of gestures to underline his meanings, gestures which largely avoided the expected or customary but still got the message across.  This aspect of his physical performance was best displayed in the Queen Mab speech.  A very imaginative approach.

Zlatomir Moldovanski's powerful Tybalt dominated the stage, but I wanted more variety of expression, both facially and vocally.  He was a bit monotonous, although unquestionably energetic.  All one level or all one note, so to speak.

Wayne Best gave a fire-eating performance as Friar Laurence, his voice and manner telegraphing nothing of the conventional "man-of-God" one expects to see.  If anything, his Friar was more than a little too secular in manner.

Seana McKenna's Nurse was unquestionably old, rattling amiably through the same story she'd just told with no apparent inkling that she said the exact same thing just moments earlier.  Her expressive face, though, clearly betrayed the character's different shades of feeling even as that cheerful voice prattled away nonstop.  Excellent work, and a real bright light in the show.

As, for different reasons, was Juliet.  Sara Farb had no trouble sounding the tragic depths of the character in the final scenes, but it was her approach to the earlier parts of the play that worked so well for me.  Like many another fourteen year old, she could be totally mature one moment only to fly into a childish tantrum the next.  And fly off the handle she did, several times.  This was a truly adolescent Juliet, all too obviously living out the internal hormonal battles attendant on the transition from childhood to adulthood.  When she completed that journey, in the last minutes, the impact on the audience was indescribable and unmistakable.

Romeo has to go through a similar journey, and Antoine Yared was less effective than Farb only in the sense that his emotional states were painted in blazing primary colours where hers used more diversity of subtler shades.  As a result his shifts in feeling were sometimes a little more abrupt than one might ideally like to see.  One of his highlights was the balcony scene, in which he spent long moments standing in centre stage, top level, with his back to the house, looking up at Juliet as he spoke to her or listened to her.  It takes a good actor to pull off that scene with his face invisible to the audience for such long stretches.

The duel scenes were all fought at high voltage, and with plenty of fast movement around the stage, including up and down the steps.  They were among the production's most effective moments.

Among the least effective, for me, were some of the stylized, ritualistic scenes involving the visual chorus and the walking ghosts of the dead Mercutio and Tybalt.  Once or twice I caught myself thinking, "Well, isn't that clever?"  That's not really the effect desired, I'm sure.

Perhaps, then, not a truly great Romeo and Juliet -- but still a very good one, and with some truly effective performances and a heart-tugging conclusion.  

Stratford Festival 2017 # 6: Madness is the True Sanity

Back in the 1960s, the Stratford Festival performed a number of twentieth-century plays by European playwrights, in English translation.  In more recent years, this particular strain of theatre has become rare to the point of being an endangered species on Stratford's stages.  So this season's production of David Edney's new English translation of Jean Giraudoux's La Folle de Chaillot ("The Madwoman of Chaillot") is a welcome addition to the Festival's repertoire.

It's timely, too -- so timely that it's hard to believe it hasn't been staged more often of late.

And for me, there's a personal resonance.  I had an opportunity to appear in a high school production of the play back in 1972, and passed for personal reasons -- there was just too damn much going on in my life that year!  But I did go to see the show, and enjoyed very much watching a number of friends on stage in this play.

Since The Madwoman is such a rare bird, a quick synopsis is not out of place.  A Prospector discovers that Paris is sitting on a gigantic pool of oil, and conspires in a café with a President and a Baron to destroy Paris and get at the black gold.  

Their plottings are overheard by various delightful and eccentric denizens of the neighbourhood of Chaillot, most prominently the Countess Aurelie (Seana McKenna) who passes the time of day in the café daily.  Although Aurelie's own eccentricities are so marked that she is called The Madwoman of Chaillot, she is actually no fool.  She works out a plot to dispose of the conspirators without delay.  There's a hilarious mad tea party/mock trial, and the play ends with Paris returning to life after the Prospector, President, Baron, and the rest are safely locked inside a one-way secret passage in Aurelie's cellar.

No getting around it: this play is not notably realistic.  Instead, for all its comical moments, it hovers somewhere between the worlds of fable and allegory -- and this places it in the same general field as another European play staged at Stratford way back in 1981, Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Visit.  One major similarity of these two otherwise dissimilar moral tales is the use of occupations or characteristics rather than names to identify the characters -- over half of the characters in The Madwoman are labelled as The Street Singer, The Lifeguard, The Sewer Worker, and so on.

Now, although this all sounds batty beyond words when set down in black and white, the actual play is a much more gently satirical creation.  Its impact depends completely on being (for the most part) underplayed.  It most emphatically is not a farce, and that style mustn't creep in anywhere.  Well, except for a few very brief moments.  The best productions of this play will move with a lyrical, almost musical rhythm through the multiple intertwining episodes, especially in the first act.

Director Donna Feore has orchestrated a delightful team effort which understands the stylistic needs of the piece and, for the most part, achieves them.  Her experience on the Festival stage shows clearly in her effective use of the Tom Patterson's oblong arena stage, with few if any of the characters getting trapped into twisting around in circles, trying to face everyone at once.  Also, and just as unmistakable, is the gently musical feel of the text in so many scenes, a sensation which clearly reflects Feore's long experience of directing musicals.

Designer Teresa Przybylski's first act café set uses a subtle device to suggest the overhanging trees which shade all the best sidewalk cafés in Paris.  The space above the stage is hung with interlacing curved strips of lights, suggesting the strings of lights hanging in the tree branches.  In the second act, Countess Aurelie's cellar is stuffed to the brim with all kinds of antiquated furnishings, piled-up treasures, and odds and ends of all kinds.  The property manager was still busy enumerating all the pieces on a checklist as we took our seats for the second act!  Costumes varied from the proper suits for the business characters to such eccentricities as Gabrielle's vast hooped skirt, the Lifeguard's red and orange striped bodysuit, the Prospector's swirling cloak, and Josephine's regal purple dress and hat.  Kimberley Purtell's lighting designs were simple and effective, with a sickly reddish special in the offstage exit area for the magic cellar passage.

The most unmusical part of the play is the opening scene in which the President and the Baron meet, plan to set up their new corporation, and then encounter the Prospector who tells them that Paris is sitting on top of a giant pool of oil, ripe for the drilling.  This portion of the text is, no surprise, the most businesslike and prosaic of all.  Ben Carlson's signature breezy style of speech suited the casual rudeness of the President to perfection, while David Collins developed a nice hint of hesitation and need to be persuaded as the Baron.  The big weak link here was Wayne Best, whose performance as the Prospector was laced with over-the-top diction and farcical gestures and mannerisms.  It was another one of those characterizations that's funny at first and quickly becomes boring because it's so predictable.

As this plot gradually develops, the stage as gradually fills in with the multiple, diverse, quirky personalities of the Parisian street scene as envisaged by Giraudoux.  Comic highlights here, and not over the top, were the street singer of Mike Nadajewski (who only recalls the first phrase of his song, "La belle polonaise") and Gareth Potter as the by-the-book Lifeguard.  On a more human level, I was persuaded to love the simplicity of Irma, the Kitchen Girl (Mikaela Davies) and Florette, The Deaf Signer (Elizabeth Morris).

(By the way, that last is not a misprint for "Deaf Singer."  This is the earliest play I have yet encountered which includes sign language as part of the text of the play, with other characters interpreting aloud Florette's signing.  The original English translation of 1948 by Maurice Valency referred to the character as "the Deaf Mute.")

Add in a Juggler, a Flower Seller, a Shoelace Peddler, a Sewer Worker, a Ragman, a Doctor, and you can begin to see why a character identified as "The Eccentric" can pass through almost unremarked!

Michael Spencer-Davis gives a finely judged performance as Martial, the Waiter, who acts as a kind of master of ceremonies throughout the café scene -- breezy and understated.

The link connecting these dissimilar worlds is provided by Pierre (Antoine Yared), a young man who was hired by the President to blow up a building but didn't carry through his mission.  Instead, out of fear, he leaped into the river to drown himself, only to be rescued by the Lifeguard.

One of Seana McKenna's finest moments in the whole play is the lengthy speech in which Aurelie describes her morning routine, to show Pierre how beautiful life is.  She succeeds in persuading him to consider living, albeit still doubtful, but then he meets Irma and that seals the deal.  Yared was truly convincing in his wish to die, but allowed himself to thaw out by degrees under Aurelie's concern and her depiction of the beauty of life.

Seana McKenna gave another of her many outstanding performances as Aurelie.  Everything about this character, from her speech to her appearance to her movements, has to telegraph gentility and subtlety of mind.  McKenna clearly understood this, and more besides.

Earlier on, the Ragman has appeared as but one of the cast of eccentrics, but it's at this point in the play that he assumes major stature.  Scott Wentworth stepped easily and naturally into the role of the official spokesperson, persuading the others that they must explain to Aurelie exactly what danger her beloved Paris faces.

The final scene of the act, where Aurelie issues instructions to everyone, was played by McKenna with just the right tone of gentility underlain by an unquestioning assurance that she would be obeyed.

The second act introduces three more characters -- Aurelie's fellow madwomen.  Kim Horsman was a forceful, acidic Constance.  Marion Adler portrayed a querulous and uncertain Gabrielle.  And Yanna McIntosh, in a rare but rewarding foray into comedy, played the ethereal and whimsical Josephine.  The four proceed to hold a kind of "mock court trial" for the President and his associates, with the Ragman called upon to stand in for the defendants and Josephine acting as the judge.  Wentworth was especially funny here, glorying in his alter ego's own evil schemes to control all the world's money.

More poetic was the scene where Pierre finds Aurelie mistaking him for her long-lost lover, Adolphe Bertaut.  Is this just a fantasy?  Or is it a dream?  Or a hallucination?  We aren't told, and don't really need to know, since both McKenna and Yared struck the note of gentle irony tinged with regret that this moment demands.

This production succeeded beautifully in transporting us to the dream-like wonders of Paris before World War Two (the play was first staged in 1944).  Not the real Paris, but Paris as it may never have actually been.  It's the idea of Paris that matters here, the ideal city of light, of laughter, of love.   It's no accident that the stage reached it's most brilliantly lit state in the final moments, after the "villains" were securely locked away, when various characters rushed in to report that the sun was shining again, people were smiling, and the birds were flying once more.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Toronto Symphony 2017-18 # 2: Life After Death

This week's concerts at Roy Thomson Hall have been highlighted by one of the few great masterpieces for choir and orchestra from the nineteenth century which has secured a continuing place in the repertoire right to the present day: Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 ("A German Requiem") by Johannes Brahms.

Ein Deutsches Requiem has been a favourite of mine ever since I was young.  In fact, a recording of it was one of the very first records I ever bought for myself, with a Christmas cheque from my aunt in Regina providing the means.  Even now, I have four recordings in my collection and hardly a month goes by that I don't pull out one of them for a listen.  I also had the privilege of singing it under Andrew Davis during my one season in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, in the fall of 1977.

This was the work whose success in 1858 definitively placed Brahms on the centre stage of the musical world that he was destined to occupy for four more decades.

The composer's use of the word "Requiem" tips us off right away that this is a work related to death and loss.  But the word is also misleading since this is in no sense an intercession for the soul of the deceased, such as we find in the Latin Requiem Mass of the Roman Catholic Church.  Brahms, through his choice of German texts from the Lutheran Bible, instead highlighted his concern for the living who remain behind.  It was aptly said by Brahms himself that he wished he could remove the word "German" and substitute "Human."

Therein lies the key clue.  Brahms was most definitely not a religious man, being perhaps best described by the words "agnostic" and "humanist."  And when we turn to his carefully selected texts, we find no liturgical purpose or intent, but a litany of consolation and comfort.  There's no doubt that the completed work represents a heartfelt response by the composer to the pain of loss, and to the undoubted power and beauty of the language.

Those characteristics clearly informed Saturday night's performance.  Under Maestro Peter Oundjian's direction, the music grew with undoubted power and beauty, but also with a classical poise and restraint that are entirely appropriate with Brahms.  Come to think of it, that statement could also describe last week's equally powerful and poised reading of the same composer's D minor piano concerto (read about that concert here: In Honour of Glenn).

Oundjian's reading was marked by careful and neatly judged shifts of tempo between the different sections of movements.  His interpretation was also notable for the careful balancing of the different parts of the orchestra.  In the first movement, the wind lines emerged with a delicacy and beauty that were admirable.  In the second movement's stark processional, the trombones led the ascent to the climax without in any way overpowering their colleagues.  The long pedal point under the fugue of the third movement was simply present, audible, but not in any way loud until the final few bars.  And so on. 

Another key point is the use of the organ.  The score is simply marked "organ ad libitum" -- in other words, use your own judgement as to when and how much to use the organ!  This is actually a fairly common indication in choral scores of the period, since these were often performed in churches. 

Many years ago, then-Music Director Gunther Herbig led a performance of Ein Deutsches Requiem in which the organ was very much present and noticeable at many points in the score.  Oundjian's approach was different, and very much in keeping with his overall sense of the work.  The organ was certainly in use, but in its quieter registers, so that as often as not it provided a useful support or underpinning without drawing attention to itself.  Only in a couple of climactic passages -- notably the endings of the third and sixth movements -- did the rich bass pedal tones truly become audible.

The same quality of restraint and poise informed all of the singing as well.  The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, in fine fettle as always, sang clearly and musically but without much resort to the two extreme ends of the dynamic range.  Thus, when the choir did go very quiet or very loud the extra intensity was easily felt.

So, too, with the two soloists.  Baritone Russell Braun gave a near-ideal performance of the baritone solos in the third and sixth movements.  His singing had more the feel of a lieder performance than of a concert.  This more inward style of singing was exactly in tune with the sensibility of the entire performance.

Erin Wall gave a lovely performance of the soprano solo in the fifth movement.  Ideally, though, this should be sung by a lighter-weight soprano.  Wall's voice is undoubtedly pure and beautiful, but the high-arched vocal lines call for a gently soaring effect.  When singing those high passages, Wall was apt to become stentorian in contrast to the work of all her colleagues.

Really, though, every moment of this performance was touched with a sense that the music had been carefully and deeply thought through.  It made for an uncommonly rewarding concert that, like all the best live performances, simply didn't last long enough.