Second Opera Season Duo
This time presentations of the coupled operas did not cause quite such a clash, as the first pair did. Salome and the Journey to Reims were not just different in genre, but especially in the public’s and critic’s favour. The second duo offered by the Canadian Opera Company was less controversial by far.
Boris Godunov by Modest Mussorgsky is not an often-performed opera in Canada. Last it was produced by the COC in 1986. Since then the Russian immigrant population has grown by leaps and bounds in these regions and demand for more Russian fare with it.
Opening night was heavy with anticipation and no one was disappointed. Gidon Saks, bass-baritone, as the tormented ruler performed admiringly well. His amazing and rich voice carried through the Hummingbird Centre effortlessly and almost overwhelmed the listener with pure emotion. Even unsentimental onlookers were seen to reach for their hankies. But all performers excelled in this production of some of Russia’s darkest hours. Mussorgsky’s music weaves a heavy, rich tapestry of events and emotion, descriptive without action, singing, sets and costumes. The music itself is bigger than life and with all the trappings of a full production an audience walks away almost as though it has been in battle for freedom itself.
Even without any knowledge of Russian history the tremendous oppression levelled at the people comes across the footlights through ingenuous mass scenes, choruses and symbolic fences, walls and amazing lighting. Set designer Hildegard Bechtler, famous for her work in opera, film and theatre in all of Europe and elsewhere on the big stages of the world created this set. In its simplicity it still offers all the detail of an ornate complex culture, ornate in its extremes and shocking in its barrenness.
Boris Godunov, the opera, does not ask for a female touch, other than perhaps the compassion inherent in a female psyche, but director Denni Sayers handled this huge work with all the sensitivity it requires. Pomp and glory, hopelessness and the beginning of a new dawn all got the same sure touch. Her scenes are not vague, they are decisive. In mass scenes, when people move like waves across the stage, or in smaller ensemble scenes the emphasis is always on forwarding the story with well measured tempi. Then and now, there and here became intimately interwoven. This of course was well underscored by the conducting of Richard Bradshaw.
Handel’s Julius Caesar in Egypt, the second of the duo, turned out to be much lighter fare and also much more fun, starting with the set, which originated, it appears, in Florida. It was a geometric marvel in primary colours, reminiscent of building blocks from a child’s toy box. A German living in England, writing an Italian opera, what a mixture. Each aria was like a hit and that is how it was treated in Toronto. An uneducated audience applauded after every aria, or followed a claque, disrupting a rather well known and therefore uninteresting story, not even historically correct. Thus it appeared that the whole concept dragged its feet a bit, despite some really extraordinary vocal acrobatics.
Pant and skirt roles have been switched according to various traditions and are always good for some interesting speculation and conversation.
The world-renowned contralto Ewa Podles sang a beautiful Caesar, but brought too many curves to the role that the modernized costume could not camouflage. The costumes were a bit disturbing anyway because they did not consistently follow through in a theme. They were not totally any period, but a hotchpotch of styles, that did not necessarily make sense. If traditional costume would have indicated the traditional in a specific role, and other period styling an approach to the character reminiscent or typical for that other time, then one could understand what it all means. But in this case the significances were not clear-cut.
Nevertheless the performance was entertaining, even if it appeared a bit too longish.
We find that the program brochure gives great insight into the works that are being presented. A great deal can be learned that way. We do wish however, that the public is not only educated in the history of the work and the artists, but perhaps needs a bit of reminding of other protocol, not to say basic opera going manners.
Many of us regret that opening night is no longer a gala with wonderful wardrobes enhancing a festive occasion, paying homage to artists, who try to give their very best. Getting dressed is part of the experience; it makes it special. It is afterall not exactly like going to the movies. And astoundingly, I have seen better wardrobe on opening nights at the movies.
The other faux pas of course is the incessant applause, which is disruptive to the flow of the work and makes the artists efforts even harder to accomplish and to appreciate. An occasional spontaneous applause can be very rewarding under extremely unusual circumstances, but what transpired at this opera is simply bad manners.
Other annoying habits are arriving late and then expecting a whole row to get up during the performance, and while doing so facing the people you pass with your back. But here management is to blame; they should not let people in after the performance has started.
All these things signify a lack of respect for the art and
artists, which still represent some of mankind’s best treasures.
Opera York Gala
The annual gala of opera York, this year under the direction of its new artistic director Mark DuBois, was an absolute smash hit. Around 450 hundred people attended the fancy dinner, listened to fabulous singing, and participated in a silent auction with amazing donations. And then there was Canada’s icon Maureen Forrester…To do this justice we are reserving the report for our next issue. Stay tuned…
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