Dec 26, 2016

Darling George

photo via
I have known and loved the music of George Michael for almost as long as I have known and loved opera. The sound of that creamy tenor has been as omnipresent in my life as the sounds of Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti. It was strange, and strangely satisfying, to see the idol of my youth aging and growing as an artist, cultivating his talents while expanding his range, repertoire, and sound with quiet determination.

The grimness of 2016 intensified with news of his passing on Christmas Day. I learned the news as I imagine many others did, on Facebook, noticing the update, "RIP to the best pop star of my life" from music writer Maura Johnston. I didn't need to click on the link she'd posted to realize, with an awful sinking feeling, who she was referring to. Maura and I share a deep, abiding love of George and his music; we had traded tweets and notes about it over the years, and I had even contributed a piece to her magazine about that passion, which became part of a multi-issue, George-Michael-focused release. Maura has penned a perfect tribute for TIME and another, more personal piece for The Guardian; the latter is filled with smile-worthy memories and brilliant observations, this one striking so many recognizable chords:
While I was initially drawn in by Ridgeley’s cheekbones, I stuck around through Wham!’s breakup, and Michael’s eventual solo career, because the songs were thrilling, spinning like tops perched on a ledge, ready to fly off in another direction at any moment. Michael displayed reverence for all the right things – compositional craft, searing vocals, kindness, writing pop songs to make the world feel, briefly, like everything was OK – while also feeling ambivalent toward the aspects of his job that distracted from them.
I can't be sure, but I suspect I am the only classical writer who contributed both to that all-George issue of Maura, and to Torontoist, in the form of a live concert review — which strikes me as funny and quite delightful, especially since one of George's most memorable concerts in the last decade happened at the Palais Garnier. Indeed, George (it feels strange for me to call him anything else, though I never got the opportunity to meet him) was the first contemporary artist to play the historic opera house, and, all things considered, he seemed eminently suited to it, not only because of his then-recent Symphonica release, but because his deep and continuous cultivation of musicality, music history, the ever-changing pop idiom, and his place as an older artist.

(photo: Caroline True, via)
As a current opera writer with a pop-loving past, I tend to live in multiple sonic worlds that embrace rock, funk, R&B, hiphop and country right alongside classical. My current work and the way I've grown to listen and pay attention to performance and voice have opened the door for a broader appreciation of the musical gifts George Michael offered over his almost four decades of output. That magical tenor of his was far more agile, sensitive, and expressive than has been sometimes been acknowledged; over the years I've heard it called "flat," "bland," "too smooth" and "devoid of emotion." Such criticism always struck me as facile at best, and snobbish at worst; they pointed to a kind of passive-aggressive whisper of, "that music isn't real music" and "he isn't a real musician." As a teen, I'd hurriedly point out he played all the instruments on Faith and even did the backing vocals; it wasn't vanity, I said, it was talent, an intentional exercise in creative control. What is "real" music anyway?! There are any number of overwhelming examples to point to that might explode such a ridiculous accusation, but more potent than all of them was the live experience.

My first big stadium concert experience was attending the gargantuan Faith tour in the late 1980s. Outside of hearing my favorite singer with tens of thousands of other cheering fans (I recall it being overwhelming at times), hearing that voice, live, was  —and there's no other way to say it — life-changing. Even amidst tends of thousands of screaming teens, with amplification and effects, that voice was incredible; it swung, it swooped, it mewled, it roared. Having seen Pavarotti and Domingo live at the Met as a teenager, I knew the effect a beautiful voice could have — on me, and on others. I didn't understand technique back then, and I didn't fully appreciate what I was hearing, but listening back to both his live and album material now, as an adult, I am, more than ever, struck by the myriad of ways George could shape and bend his sound, to say nothing of the length and power of his vibrato to make a sound that glistened, floated, soared, or roared, cut, slashed; George did it all, with class, style, and elegance. He wasn't a screamer, and he didn't feel the need to be. In an era where "soft" was equated with weakness, and "sensuous" with vulgarity, he became the object of ridicule. Throughout my high school years, when being out wasn't even an option, he was laughed at, his music met with eyerolls; George wasn't "macho" enough for many of my fellow students to like (or at least admit they liked) —but it was always the lack of screaming, the lack of roughness or aggression that I liked.

(gif via)
The fact he was also blessed with good looks, great style, and a clear need to move to a beat helped. When acts like New Kids on the Block and Milli Vanilli cropped up, I curled my nose. How were they more acceptable (or even better) than George? Aside from their music holding no appeal, respective choreography seemed forced and joyless; by comparison, George's hip-shaking, arm-waving, and bum-wiggling seemed fun, sexy, and frankly, familiar. He seemed like he'd be so much fun to go out dancing with. Also, I couldn't listen to either Kids or Vanilli for very long; those voices were, to my ears, not good.  I'd been so spoiled. The way George had performed Black Cherry's classic "Play That Funky Music" live, for instance (as part of the Faith tour), was saucy, playful, and very funky, with all of the original's bounce intact, but a keen awareness of pace and rhythm. It was deeply musical and fun and smart and... you could dance to it! The combination was intoxicating, and remained so, through many decades.

However, the past few years deepened my appreciation of his vocal gifts. George had a warm, wheaty timbre he could expertly wield to accommodate any number of styles, including classic ballads, soul, funk, rock. His skill with balladry was on full display in the astonishing "One More Try" from Faith; he lived the words of that song, lovingly infusing each one with a profound, personal meaning that makes listening to it almost unbearably personal. The halting quality in his voice as he sings "stranger" and then "feet" in the second verse, then the sharp, biting contrast with singing "danger" and "heat" in the second couplet, reveals a world of heartbreak and thwarted hope that colored so much of his later work. It was one of George's most famously soulful moments, and I feel, one of his most operatic.

(photo: 10awesome.com via)
Similarly, many will recall his soaring performance of Queen's "Somebody To Love" in 1992. Who else could have realistically stepped into the shoes of the great, opera-leaning Freddie Mercury, and done such a bang-up job? He wasn't Freddie — but he didn't aim to be. "I work hard," he declares at the start of the second verse, improvising a higher melodic line and threading it in with the main melody. Simultaneously buoyed by a monstrously wonderful backing choir and a regal authority, his was the performance everyone remembered from that tribute concert. (It was lovely to come across a video recently showing David Bowie smiling at that rehearsal.) Near the song's end, George soars into a smooth if equally impassioned falsetto with the ease and grace Mercury excelled at, bringing a raw vulnerability to a raucous, jaunty rock and roll classic.

Years before this performance, he'd caused shock with "I Want Your Sex" but I suspect it wasn't solely the title or song's content that caused controversy. The way George sings it is just deeply, deliciously dirty. His is a throaty, pushed kind of growl, one cleverly combined with whispers, shouts, and whimpers. One of the supreme pleasures of re-listening to the entirety of Faith over the last few months has been how nicely the material, and this song in particular, translates into adulthood. We (us fans) all merrily sang along to "I Want Your Sex" as teens, screamed it back at its creator live, winked and giggled and may have done some theatrical pelvic thrusts on the dance floor on Club Med vacations, but hearing it as a woman, the reaction is (for me at least) less outward, and more quietly confident, a seduction delivered in slow smiles, eyebrow raises, lingering stares. The subtleties of the song — and they are myriad! — reveal themselves in George's exquisite vocals, which are brilliantly contrasted by the repeated, organ grinder-esque synth lines and a squishy, pumping rhythm. The simplicity of the arrangement echoes that other perfect synth masterpiece, "Everything She Wants" but contains its direct opposite in experiences, while holding the same musical tension and intensity. Near the song's close, as his own backing vocals provide a rhythmic, staccato-like declamation filled with a sort of hip-thrusting jubilance ("Hua, SEX!"), George's knowing vocal punctuates the line:

I'm not your father
I'm not your brother
Talk to your sister
I am a lover


These lines are delivered as statements, full stops, declarations; the confidence of the vocal is breathtaking, to say nothing of the beautiful howl that erupts at the end of that, followed by a carefully-pitched, descending moan. Every time I hear it now I think of Camille Saint-Saëns's famous "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix" from the opera Samson et Dalila — each being, for me, a delicious, potion of desire, fever, seduction, even romance — a fervent paean to being alive, a shiny talisman against despair.

(photo via)
And this, in the end, is George Michael's catalogue to me. I haven't even mentioned the many beautiful collaborations he did with favorite artists — Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, and many others — or the sparkling cover versions he did of of songs new and old. His music (whether it's specifically his, or music he has made especially his own) isn't so much a tie to a rosy, cozy pat as it is a flowing river connecting that past with a harsher present, and ever-shifting future. He was magic, he was opera, he was a legend, but he was also defiantly, utterly himself — and in that act, he whispered, moaned, shouted, crooned, and pleaded, with that magical voice of his, for me to be myself. We never got to go dancing (something I'd dreamed of as a teen) and I never got to shake his hand (something I dreamed of as an adult) but he showed me how to listen for the beat, to create my own steps, to choose my own partners, and to walk off if things weren't working. I owe him so much. We all do. George, you have been loved.



Dec 18, 2016

Playing Favorites

(Michael Cooper / COC)
2016 has been a terrible year. Between the loss of great cultural figures, a dramatically changing political landscape around the globe, and wars that feel tragically endless, it's been a tough year for many to navigate, accept, or even survive.

However, I keep being struck by the strange reality that it's been, on a strictly personal level, a really great year — especially when compared to my 2015, a year that was filled with loss, trauma, and horrible disappointments. 2016 was a year of discovery, delight, wonder. Sometimes it was hard to gel the beauty on a micro level with the hideousness on a macro one, but, to quote William Congreve, "music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak." I saw a lot of great stuff this year; rocks were softened, oaks were bent, breasts were soothed — when not heaving in awe, a la Dangerous Liasons, that is.

Culturally, this was a good year in so many ways, but it was equally notable for being the first full music season I've experienced without my mother. I feel like she was with me throughout many, if not all of my travels, near and far, through good times and sad times and everything in between. I saw her make faces at some things, throw back her head and laugh at others, and clasp her hands in delight at yet more.

In the spirit of those hand-clasping moments, I present to you some of my favorite live music things from 2016. I confess I wasn't actually planning to write about any of this; considering I write about and review music for a living, I want some of my own music-going to stay private and personal, free from analysis or too much thought, to live purely in a world of experience. I've found, however, that trying to turn off my critic's brain is impossible. My mother would frequently admonish me, after a night of the opera and discussion, for "thinking too much." I'm certainly guilty of this in more than the arena of music, but, I've learned over the last year to absorb more and analyze less, while still firmly embracing my thinky side; context matters, and insight is never a bad thing. I plan to continue cultivating my music love into 2017 and beyond, as you might guess.

Without further ado, here are my favorites from the year that was.

(Michael Cooper / COC)
1. Siegfried, Canadian Opera Company; January

Richard Wagner's epic work, written between 1856 and 1871, is the third part in the composer's sprawling four-work Ring Cycle. Remounted by the COC (from a 2006 production) as a kind of surrealist nightmare, director Francois Girard dramatized elements inherent within the complex score to eye-catching effect. With tenor Stefan Vinke as a hero free of macho qualities but still very much in the throes of petulant youth, his was a performance that moved between lost, amiable, and enlightened, with the vocal agility to match. Michael Levine's vivid stage design featured, in its first act, a tangle of branches rising above the hero's head, a kind of physicalized thought bubble; later, a fiery hole with undulating hands housed the angry dwarf Alberich (a stentorian Christopher Purves), while Fafner, the giant-turned dragon, was staged with a pyramid of men and some very great choreography (by Donna Feore) and clever, intuitive lighting (by David Finn).

These elements, together with a unique "tree" threaded with bodies in its stark branches, and white-clad figures bathed and swaying in red light, produced an incredible vision of hellfire, damnation, temptation, and salvation. Wagner's musicality was seamlessly integrated with the Ring's inherent theatricality, and, together with some inspired singing (Vinke's duet with Christine Goerke's spitfire Brunnhilde was truly magical),  worked to produce a hauntingly beautiful vision of Wagner's mythological world.

(Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera)
2. Manon Lescaut, Metropolitan Opera; February

This production is included purely for the singing; I found Richard Eyre's production silly and filled with what the New York Times rightly termed "troubling questions." But Roberto Alagna, as des Grieux, and Kristin Opolais, in the title role, made music magic, the French tenor showing particular skill as he quickly substituted for an ill Jonas Kaufmann. Despite being ill with a cold himself on the day I attended, his was a thrilling, vivid performance, beautifully complemented by a luscious rendering of the score, thanks to Maestro Fabio Luisi. The women around me may've been sighing over Jonas's absence, but to my ears, Alagna's sonorous tenor was perfectly suited to Puccini's rich-as-fudge score, and it was a treat to experience such an exquisite pairing, so beautifully executed.

Opolais, who'd already sung Manon opposite Kaufmann at the Royal Opera in 2014, brought an anguished drama to the role, and she and Alagna shared an electrifying chemistry, one that carried through (indeed, paraded over) Eyre's bizarre staging. As New York Classical Review's Eric C. Simpson noted, "When left alone, the principal actors were in fact able to carve stunningly real portrayals." This was one of those special performances with such incredible lead performances, and conducted with such a charismatic mix of passion and majesty,  I actually forgot the dire production — at least for a while. Impressive.

(Michael Cooper / COC)
3. Maometto II, Canadian Opera Company; April

Italian bass baritone Luca Pisaroni channelled silent film star Rudolph Valentino in a remount of a 2012 production from Santa Fe Opera. Director David Alden made effective used of the carefully wielded elements of dance and design (including a strong, expressionist-influenced color palette by designer Jon Morrell) to bring Rossini's 1820 opera to vivid, stunning life. The title character's dramatic entrance (which happens no less than fifty minutes into the opera) was impressively cinematic, and certainly a strong announcement of things to come in terms of Alden's passionate approach to the material, to say nothing of the performers.

This was some of the finest singing I've ever heard at the Four Seasons Centre, bar none. Pisaroni's full, rich bass baritone, his careful, loving attention to detail and controlled, luscious vibrato was matched by soprano Leah Crocetto's Anna, who nimbly showcased a vivid coloratura as well as sweet timbre with a firm undertone that's perfectly suited to the various shades of the character. Mezzo soprano Elizabeth DeShong, in the trouser role of Calbo was, in a word, shattering; the sustained applause at the end of her aria convincing Anna's father of her innocence deserved every hearty "bravo" it received. David Laera's sensuous choreography, especially the sinewy, swirling bellydancer who featured in the production's second half, made for a gorgeous opera experience.

(Darryl Block)
4. A Little Too Cozy, Toronto; May

Against the Grain Theatre lived up to their name, going entirely... well, against the classical music grain in presenting Mozart's Cosi fan tutte as a reality TV dating show, in an actual TV studio. The company, known for their unorthodox presentations of classical works, transformed the opera and its rather silly libretto into something relevant, smart, funny, and even moving. Was it Mozart? Was it opera? Yes and yes — and it was brilliant. Phone use and hashtags (#TeamDora, for instance) were actively encouraged throughout the performance. Seamless integration, between new and old, classical and contemporary, is AtG's speciality, and they're leading the way in reinterpreting opera for the 21st century in Canada.

It wasn't only the premise that reeked of forward-thinking, risk-taking innovation; the actual performances were fun, knowing, and awfully familiar. Cairan Ryan's smarmy game-show-host Donald L. Fonzo (Don Alfonso), did a charming buffo baritone, and was complemented by a very engaging, social-media-knowingness from the ensemble, comprised of tenor Aaron Shepppard (Fernando), baritone Clarence Frazer (Elmo), soprano Shantell Przbylo (Felicity), mezzo soprano Rihab Chaieb (Dora), and soprano Caitlin Wood (Despina). Smart, engaging, fun — A Little Too Cozy epitomized all the things indie opera is nudging grand opera toward, slowly if surely.

(my photo)
5. Filarmonica della Scala, Salzburg Festival; August

Riccardo Chailly led a masterful performance from the Filarmonica that only moved past the workmanlike and into the poetic in the event's second half. Cherubini's Overture in G Major and Symphony in D Major were, to my ears, strangely lacking in momentum and buoyancy; it was good, but not great, and certainly not what I expect from Chailly, whose work I've enjoyed (and seen) for many years. But, with Verdi's divertissement of "Les Quatre Saisons" (the Four Seasons) ballet music from Les Vepres siciliennes (the pre-1861 version, later Italianized), the orchestra came alive, delivering a poetic performance that caught the small, quiet corners of the piece, and shone a gentle light that gradually became a shining beacon. The choice of placing the overture to Rossini's Guillaume Tell at the program's end was inspired too, with the famous piece providing a bouncy, boisterous close, if not conclusion, to the evening; the encore was an utterly thrilling performance of the overture to I Vespri Siciliani. I confess to sitting on the edge of my seat throughout its entirety.

Chailly is a fascinating figure to watch, his statesmanlike demeanor barely concealing a blazing fire, one he beams into orchestra members who spit it back in short controlled bursts or long, lean lines. I'd love to hear the Filarmonica play an evening of overtures; not only do they tell stories with their singing instruments, they conjure deep emotional states that move past the verbal and into the realm of the transcendent, rather like another orchestra...

(my photo)
7. Berlin Philharmonic, Toronto; November

... yes, this one. The famed Berlin Phil embarked on a tour through North America this past autumn, showcasing the work of Mahler, Schoenberg, Webern, Boulez, Berg, and Brahms. Sir Simon Rattle was particularly interested in drawing sonic connections between them all, and he did a marvellous job of that, and much more, on the night I attended, with a program featuring Boulez' Éclat and Mahler's Symphony No.7. With just fifteen players, Boulez' sparse if powerful work showcased the various reverberations of the instruments being used (especially piano) and the complex, nuanced harmonies therein. Intricate attention was paid to color and shape, with Rattle coaxing a quietly intoxicating drama that revealed its composer to be the logical inheritor of Mahler's sonic explorations.

Like the Boulez, Mahler's 7th makes use of the guitar and mandolin, though with very different effect. This was bold, passionate playing from musicians clearly happy to be there and clearly in love with the work and their conductor, who managed to seamlessly connect the six movements of Mahler's notoriously lengthy work into one perfect, poetic thought. Seriously, you had to be there. Vunderbar.

(my photo)
6. Stefano Bollani, at Koerner Hall  / with the TSO and Gianandrea Noseda; November

The Italian jazz pianist moved easily and confidently between the worlds of classical and jazz during his visit to the city last month, interspersing appearances playing Ravel's famed Piano Concerto in G with an evening of jazz (original compositions and more) at Koerner Hall. Musicality positively oozes from this man; his improvised introduction to the Ravel with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (clearly unnerving to much of the Toronto audience) was full of characteristic playfulness and verve, while his loose interpretation of the Ravel brought all the whimsy and joy and pure musical curiosity that can sometimes go missing (or not be fully committed to) with more formal classical music performers. His connection with Noseda was also unmistakable, and it was fun to watch the two silently communicating, an invisible if entirely recognizable current of energy running between them. In addition to the playful Ravel, Bollani also performed a beautiful, improvised solo version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" as an encore.

 Experiencing Bollani do jazz one night and classical the next, I sensed a beautiful kind of sonic continuum and again, an unmistakable joy in simply making beautiful sounds. Amen and bravo, Stefano! Torna presto!

(my photo)
8. Macbeth, Los Angeles Opera; October

Many people have suggested at some point or another that Placido Domingo might want to consider retiring. Yet when all the elements are in place (as with Nabucco, currently on at the Met), there's just something undeniably powerful about the tenor-turned-baritone; when he turns it on... the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. I went to Macbeth not expecting to be moved; I went for more sentimental reasons, to see a living legend who I had not seen live since 1993, at the Met in Verdi's Stiffelio. The times I'd heard him as a baritone (so-called "baritenor") I'd not been terribly impressed... and yet I found myself won over. Despite the layers of makeup and wigging, Domingo used his age and experience to fuel his characterization, and though the voice is grainy, it is still powerful, resonant, and undeniably exciting. His Scottish king wasn't a sullen brat at all, but a capable, smart army man who resented been passed over one too many times. His scenes, particularly with a wonderfully fiery Ekaterina Semenchuk as Lady Macbeth, were filled with rage, regret, and finally even, remorse. This was very special, and very worth the trip to LA Opera. I'll be back.

(Dahlia Katz)
9. Naomi's Road, Toronto; November

Tapestry Opera presented a timely vision of Joyce Kogawa's novel about her experiences growing up in an internment camp during the Second World War. Originally conceived and directed by Ann Hodges, with sets and costumes designed by Christine Reimer and built by Vancouver Opera, Tapestry Artistic Director Michael Mori's Toronto presentation presented a simple, powerful show (without intermission) in a local neighborhood location loaded with historical meaning; St. David's Anglican Church is the home of the last Japanese-Canadian Anglican parish in Toronto. The fact there was (and is) talk of internment camps in the news lately made this work all the more poignant, of course, but also brought with it an urgency that added to its quiet theatricality.

The production poetically integrated design, theme, and musicality that spoke softly if powerfully. With just one pianist and four exquisitely talented singers, including mezzo soprano Erica Iris, who made an incredible transformation from imperious older woman to girlish bully, a switch which was both vocally and theatrically thrilling. Entire worlds were created and explored with grace, economical elegance, and deep sensitivity. This was easily the most humble production I saw this year; it was also one of the most memorable and important.

(Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera)
10. L'Italiana in Algeri, Metropolitan Opera; October

Straight up, this was the most fun thing I saw this year; it had laugh-out-loud moments and a boisterous, bright Met Orchestra led by Maestro James Levine. Rossini's  comic opera revolves a kind of comic, sitcom-like face-off that masquerades about being between East and West, but is really about men and women. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's 1973 production is full of the kind of cliches that make you both laugh at their preposterousness and wince at their overuse. As New York Times classical writer Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim noted, "this battle of the sexes, framed by Rossini and his librettist as an abduction drama, may be the silliest and most stereotype-laden production in the Met’s repertory. But it’s still very funny — irresistibly so, as I found out."

I'm on the fence about whether or not some of those tacky old costumes need to go; there's a line between funny and tasteless, and I'm not sure that those those very deliberately fake-looking, hairy-Muslim-dude ones are entirely worth keeping. Sure, we can laugh because they're preposterous and tasteless, but... they're still preposterous and tasteless. They do, however, fit with the overall feel of the work itself, which is exaggerated, ridiculous, and extremely smart about presenting its true conflict as crazy comedy gold. Mezzo soprano Marianna Pizzolatti (a last-minute replacement for the ailing Elizabeth DeShong) was sprightly, funny, feisty, and highly watchable as the "Italiani" of the title, Isabella, and was beautifully complimented by a buoyant Met Orchestra under the baton of Maestro James Levine. To quote George Grella's New York Classical Review piece, they handled Rossini's bouncy score with a "crisp phrasing and a glinting sound." For all my reservations over some costume designs, I still came away from this one smiling.

(© Salzburger Festspiele / Monika Rittershaus)
11. Faust, Salzburg Festival; August

Gounod's famous 1859 opera got a modern treatment at the festival, with the immensity of the Grosses Festspielhaus being used in some marvellously creative ways by director/designer Reinhard von der Thannen. A meditation on nothingness – even the opening scene featured a neon "Rien" sign — this was an existentially-themed vision with cleverly integrated elements of commedia dell'arte and surrealism. It also featured entirely zesty onstage chemistry between tenor Piotr Bezcala (Faust) and bass baritone Ildar Abdrazakov (Mephistopheles), both in very fine voice; Beczala's silvery-toned tenor and Abdrazakov's cherry-chocolate bass not only made beautiful music together, but nicely channelled the drama within both Gounod's score and von der Thannen's vision, bringing the high-minded ideas behind the production to a recognizably human level. Still, the production itself was truly special. As philosophy professor Mirjam Schaub wisely notes in the excellent program essay,
Standing in opposition to the RIEN, of course, is a very substantial SOMETHING: the stage space. It is entirely white, impersonal, functional, open for light of all colours and at the time itself a non-colour.. [...] That the stage space of Grosses Festspielhaus is somewhat CinemaScope-like in format is a factor very congenial to von der Thannen's commanding and spatially expansive vein of fantasy. 
No kidding. I'd love to see it at the Met; I suspect it would effectively carry to anywhere in the house. The bright design scheme, creative use of white space, glittering costumes, Giorgio Madia's sinuous, kinetic choreography, combined with stellar singing and some very neat makeup effects made for a truly eye-opening and riveting Faust. Salzburg, traditional? Nein...

(© Salzburger Festspiele / Monika Rittershaus)
12. Don Giovanni, Salzburg Festival; August

... which segues nicely to my final selection. Don Giovanni is one of my favorite operas, but I'd never seen a production that vaguely satisfied me. Despite the exquisite score and fascinating characters, I always tended to walk out of any and every production feeling angry, frustrated, and utterly repulsed by the title character.

Then I saw Sven-Eric Bechtolf's production at the Salzburg Festival; it was wickedly smart, truly moving, and funny. Imagine, a Don Giovanni that takes the comedy seriously — not as a pastiche or a collection of tacky, crude jokes, but rather, trusts the talents of its performers so deeply that it allows them to find their own comical moments, for themselves and with cast mates. This production was, quite simply, one of the most magical things I've ever experienced in an opera house.

(© Salzburger Festspiele / Monika Rittershaus)
Luca Pisaroni's Leporello, for instance, was equal parts Jerry Lewis and Roberto Benigni, eminently comical and yet somehow relateably human. His was both an hilarious and touching portrait of a perennial wingman who fully realizes that, while he'd love to take the pilot's seat, he is, at heart, not cut out for it. His interpretation of "Madamina, il catalogo è questo" (the so-called "catalogue aria") was the very best I have ever heard, filled with smart pauses, crisp diction, and a lively vibrato. Alain Coulombe brought cool authority and a quiet confidence to his portrayal of the Commendatore, a man clearly 180 degrees away from Giovanni, in both real and theoretical senses; he was order to the Don's chaos, a minor key to his major; a firm, brief handshake instead of a warm, lengthy hug.

Physicality was, in fact, a very big part of this production, and Layla Claire threw herself into this aspect with bravado, giving the very best interpretation of Donna Elvira I've ever seen — wounded, but not at all simpering, and every bit as passionate and complex as Carmelo Remigio's sexy Donna Anna and Valentina Nafornita's feisty Zerlina, not to mention any number of maids in Bechtolf's hotel-lobby-set production. All were agents of their own fate, each seeking a liberty (mental, emotional, particularly sexual) for themselves through the figure of this man they all want to possess, or be possessed by. It was hugely refreshing (and liberating) to finally see a Giovanni in which the women have agency, and to see not only them, but the main character freed from the their tidy, boring, cliche-ridden boxes of yore.

That theatrical approach, of course, made the title character fascinating and endearing in place of being smarmy and nauseating. It was so good to see a production — and a central performance — so firmly committed to breaking cliches while milking and gleefully mocking them at the same time. Ildebrando D'Arcangelo was, by turns, funny, sexy, hateful, annoyed, prideful, world-weary — in other words, warmly, defiantly human, which is impressive on its own, but doubly so for someone who's performed the role numerous other times in numerous other productions, but here was very much playing an idea ("Viva la liberta!"), as Bechtolf's smart program essay indicated. A key part of this characterization was, of course, vocal prowess: D'Arcangelo's is a wonderfully agile voice with watchful subtlety in its upper tones, an unforced richness in low ones, a beautifully mellifluous vibrato with a mahogany-hewed timbre, and a nuanced approach to some well-known material (his "Vieni alla finestra" was easily the most perfect I've ever heard), and... well, to return to Congreve, oak bends, rocks soften. You figure out the rest.

That's the year that was. Just to make the circle complete, Sven-Eric Bechtolf is set to direct Stefan Vinke in Siegfried at the Vienna State Opera in May. Am I going? You'll have to wait and see. That Oscar Wilde quote about temptation, so relevant to Bechtolf's Don Giovanni, could very become relevant to my life in 2017. We shall see; I am keeping an open mind, and looking forward to more adventures.

Dec 11, 2016

Looking Good

Photo by Alexandar Antonijevic

Seeing The Nutcracker in Toronto is a special treat. Not only is there the wonder of James Kudelka's sweeping choreography, Santo Loquasto's beautiful, ornate design, and Tchaikovsky's gorgeous, evocative score, the National Ballet of Canada's yearly holiday production is also an opportunity to see people in formal attire.

"It's really nice to see people dressed up," noted my companion, "you don't see it very often these days."

There's nothing wrong with being comfortable, of course, but lately it strikes me as if the dressing-down trend that defines so much of our attire indicates a certain... lackadaisical attitude socially, one reflected in a lack of effort extended  into relationships, education, basic curiosity: "Why should I initiate anything? Why do I need to bother with that person/idea/group? Why should I put myself in such a weird place? Why not just stay... comfortable?" The basic instinct toward comfort is understandable, in so far as the responsibilities of kids/jobs/mortgages/relationships/etc. can be difficult to balance at any given time, exhausting to maintain, and devastating upon crash. But the familiarity of comfort breeds the dangerous laziness of inertia, which so often leads to intransigence. A night out at the theatre can (and does) help combat this, in that its entails the effort of moving into a space many aren't used to — but before you roll eyes, keep in mind it's an effort that should be enjoyable, an effort reflecting grace, gratitude, gentility, and class, things sorely missing in the world.

This isn't to say one needs become a full-time dandy like the ones photographer Rose Callahan documents so brilliantly in her work (impressive they may be), but simply to decry the lack of interest in formalism — in dressing up, and all it entails — in wider North American society. Attending the formal opening of The Nutcracker, and seeing mothers, fathers, grandparents, and children in formal attire was (as it is every year) a true treat, because it showed not only actual real effort on the part of patrons, it reflected a nice nod toward ritual, tradition, and yes, class. Dressing up isn't so much about wiping one's individuality out as it is underlining it in the most elegant/unique/fun possible way, and maybe even opening up your thinking in the most elegant/unique/fun possible way, too.

Photo by Bruce Zinger
Dressing up is, of course, one's own form of theatre, aiding and enhancing both the occasion and one's enjoyment of it. Attired in suit-and-tie/dress/etc, one plays a part, perhaps even a better or truer version of one's self, as Oscar Wilde might argue. The Irish writer wisely noted the relationship between appearancemasks, and human character, and it's one I tend to keep in mind, particularly at openings, though the experience begins percolating far before the curtain rises. The very process of getting ready to go out is, for me, a kind of meditation, and its own form of theatre, I suppose. I recall an interview with the performance artist Leigh Bowery some years back, where he confessed that he and his friends would sometimes do themselves up, and not go out; the act in and of itself was satisfying, its own kind of theatre. Likewise, re-defining what formal for yourself, as so many tend to do this time of year with things like festive suits and inspired costumes, is equally exciting (and fun!), demonstrating a wonderful curiosity and joie de vivre. There's not enough of either, and it's encouraging to see those instincts being expressed in fashion choices, especially at this time of year.

For many years, my dear mother used to decry the lack of dressy attire at various events we'd attend, namely the opera. This isn't to say she didn't enjoy Toronto-based company Against the Grain's casual productions — she did, immensely (though she did smart casual when attending them, a tradition I tend to continue). AtG have done an amazingly smart job of mixing high art and casual approachability, and made opera a whole lot less scary for those completely new to its unique joys. But going to see opera in a fun pub is different than seeing it in a large house; the latter needn't be scary, strange, and (horrors) uncomfortable; likewise with ballet. Going to The Nutcracker doesn't require detailed knowledge of ETA Hoffman's 1816 original work, or an in-depth interest in Tchaikovsky's music, or even familiarity with the classic Baryshnikov performance.

Along with being a callback to her younger days, when zipping up a fancy dress and putting hair up and earrings on meant more than simply "getting dressed," formal attire was for my mother (as it is for me) a way of giving back to the event artists: the musicians, performers, directors, and the designers. One look at the details of Santo Loquasto's exquisite costumes and sets, for instance, and one is awed by the care, attention, and artistry required for such work. That giant golden egg! Those delicate flower-petalled skirts! The giant, waving arms of the festooned Christmas tree! The buttons! The tassels! Those crazy chickens! Then there's the performers: Skylar Campbell's Peter is vibrantly youthful and spritely; Jillian Vanstone's Sugar Plum Fairy blends sharp technique and warm joy; Robert Stephen's Uncle Nikolai is vibrant, passionate... dare I say sexy? (Surely, it is not a bad thing.) There's the panoply of fantastical elements, too: the roller-skating bears, the dancing horse, the cancan-ing rats. Dressing up is more than a hat-tip; it's a graceful bow to the mountain of creativity on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre. See if it you can. Dress up. You'll love it.