Saturday, October 29, 2016

Evocative, confronting and a knock-out vocal beauty: Canadian Opera Company's Ariodante in Toronto

Canadian Opera Company's new and exhilarating production of Handel's Ariodante (1735) comes with a curiously evocative and confronting adaptation by British director Richard Jones, over three hours of radiant Baroque music and knock-out vocal beauty to accompany it.

A scene from Canadian Opera Company's Ariodante
Jones pulls Ariodante's story of love, honour and deception out of its royal Medieval Scotland setting and drags the audience into his mid-20th century Hebridean island adaptation as voyeurs of a small, idiosyncratic community. It's an isolated place steeped in puritanical religious stringencies in which Jones emphasises harshness and injustices explicitly, one where women serve their men, abuse goes unpunished and a 'priest' can do what the heck he likes.

Removing the royal titles of the original, Ariodante is a working class scrubber in love with Ginevra, daughter of the island's governor (the King of Scotland in Handel's original). They have his blessing to marry but the insidious Polinesso desires Ginevra (in Jones's version he's disguised as a visiting priest) and dupes the home helper Dalinda, who pines for him, into disguising herself as Ginevra. Bragging to Ariodante that Ginevra loves him, he sets up the trap that reveals Ginevra (the disguised Dalinda) accepting him into her bedroom in order to prove his point. The repercussions are immediate.

Drawing much attention to Polinesso, Jones shifts dramatic weight to the villainy and, though Polinesso's priestly disguise creates some ambiguity in the drama, at the very least, it acts to generate the blind trust a community has in religious cloth.

Alice Coote as Ariodante
The action occurs across three distinct rooms of a rudimentary cabin - bedroom, communal/dining area and kitchen. Adding interest, invisible walls and doors respectively separate the action and guide character movements. Resembling an entrenched working class world one might encounter in a Lars von Trier movie, a chilling edginess pervades this remote society that British set and costume designer Ultz and lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin have created.

Jones tears this 'opera seria' drama apart successfully and balances gravity with lighter relief. Sometimes the two share the same moment with some scenes so confronting, including Polinesso's rape of Dalinda, that they're almost too hard to watch. Then, where ballet would close each of the three acts, not only does Lucy Burge's choreographed Scottish dancing effectively convey the tightness of community, but the clever and stunning use of puppets entertainingly make comment on the what-ifs or what-will-be within the story.

Most expertly handled is the way Jones consistently employs pronounced theatricality and gently choreographed slow-motion drama to extend, enliven and interpret the text, marvellously connecting the action to the lengthy repetition of lines in the A-B-A Baroque 'da capo' ternary form.

One after another, Handel's arias unleash their glory from a strong cast led by four women of magnanimous talent, two in trouser roles.

Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote leaps from strength to strength as a virile yet sensitive and laddish Ariodante, drawing on resources from which only the best can do. In the voice there is lightness, power, beauty and a fleshy coloratura but, most astoundingly, a perfectly employed and descriptive rough-and-ready contrast to reflect Ariodante's working class status. The moment we see Dalinda thrown wildly about Ginevra's bedroom by Polinesso, and Ariodante stands disbelievingly outside assuming it's Ginevra, Coote brilliantly imparts Act II's "Tu preparati a morire" with immeasurable suffering and haunting pity.

Johanness Weisser, Jane Archibald and Alice Coote
As Ginevra, Jane Archibald is a radiant stage presence, depicting her with hopefulness and singing her with pathos. Sweet daintiness and angry outburst are treated with equal aplomb in a voice that displays great control and that rises to clean top notes. The great tragedy of being condemned by her father as a whore is whipped into one of many vocal highlights and riveting theatre in Act II's "Il mio crudel martoro".

Varduhi Abrahamyan slips between two personas, one the sometimes Rossini-like comical buffo character of Don Alonso as the 'priest', the other with a believable egocentric machismo she portrays as the vile Polinesso. The most clearly enunciated of the principals, Abrahamyan's warmth of tone and appealing flickering vibrato resonate with strength.

But then comes soprano Ambur Braid's formidable performance as Dalinda, one you can't help but hold your breadth and lose yourself in. To make sense of her character, Jones seems to want to make her gullible, simple-minded and deeply affected by a victimised past. Braid gives all this with frightful pain as she ill-thinkingly pursues the love of a brutish sado-masochist. Cowering on the sidelines in her apron, Braid's rich and fulsome mezzo-soprano poignantly imbues Dalinda with a nobility that seems to beg respect. Before the jubilation of Act I's finale, Braid showcases a fluttering and acrobatic coloratura amongst a marvellous field of colour, contour and shade as she sings of her love for Polinesso in "Il primo ardor" with the audience no doubt wishing they could knock some sense into her.

Tall, handsome and kilted, Johannes Weisser exudes overall good-mannered governance as the 'King of Scotland', bar when dragging his wrongly accused daughter before the community to shame her. Weisser doesn't look quite old enough to convince as Ginevra's father but he comes with pleasing oaky toned richness and a robustly centred voice that travels with greatest ease to the lowest range.

Jane Archibald, Ambur Braid, Varduhi Abrahamyan
In love with Dalinda, Owen McCausland's Lurcanio is convincingly forthright and there's impressive resonant power and clarity to his brawny bass-baritone if but a tendency to overexert. A small chorus of 12 snake through the cabin, contributing strong in voice as well as dancing and delightfully acting as puppeteers.

The list of highlights are extensive but, unlike a few daft patrons who departed after Act II, Act III reaches breathtaking heights with three thrilling consecutive arias. First comes Coote's "Cieca notte" (Ariodante) as she makes dazzling register shifts while displaying seemingly immense laryngeal pleasure. Next, Braid's fireball coloratura sets alight "Neghittosi or voi che fate?" (Dalinda) and Abrahamyan follows with an impassioned, smooth and confident "Dover, giustizia, amor" (Polinesso).

Handel's score took a moment to translate into its exhilarating potential under conductor Johannes Debus's command, but it eventually rose and comfortably cruised alongside the quality on stage. Apart from some wobbly brass peering through, the COC Orchestra showed their stamina with evenness of playing.

In presenting Handel's Ariodante, COC not only shows off the beauty of Baroque music in full bloom with a superlative cast, they also give it modem theatrical relevance in a fresh and insightful interpretation.

Canadian Opera Company
Four Seasons Performing Arts Centre, Toronto
Until 4th November

Production photos: Michael Cooper

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Janáček's The Makropulos Case lucidly told and brilliantly sung at San Francisco Opera

From director Olivier Tambosi, San Francisco Opera's revival production of Leoš Janáček's penultimate opera, The Makropulos Case, creates a clever juxtaposition of lucidly unfolding drama set in a sunless and mainly monotone world. Appreciatively sung in Czech with English supertitles, in it, a stream of convincing characters brilliantly take their position in one of opera's outer-orbital stories.

Imagine given the opportunity to live through centuries of change in secret without growing old. It might be a highly desirable proposition. But in 1585 Elina Makropulos had no such choice when her alchemist father, Hieronymus Makropulos, was ordered to test a potion on her at the request of Emperor Rudolph II in order to extend his life.

Charles Workman , Nadja Michael and Dale Travis
More than 300 years later, after copious identities and forever an escapee, her contemporary incarnation, Emilia Marty, is facing the final curtain unless she can find the formula to extend her life another 300 years. As luck would have it, she hears of the generations-spanning case of Gregor vs. Prus over rights to a disputed estate she was once a part of that she insists a will exists for and a sealed envelope she is desperate to retrieve.

It sounds like the beginnings of a dark fairytale but what we get from Janáček is an exciting, potent and mature psycho-drama that nudges realism. Premiered in 1926, the story's eccentricity is masterfully played out in Janáček's highly expressive and musically conversant score and natural flowing libretto that clearly reflects the writing of Karel Čapek's play written a few years earlier. Tambosi commendably mines it for gesturally large effects together with the exact amount of lighter moments of relief that are inextricably bonded to the score.

A sturdy and colourful overture guides us through landscapes that could easily depict shifting historical moods to take the observer to the opening scene. In his San Francisco Opera debut, conductor Mikhail Tatarnikov gave the work multi-faceted life and extracted interest and clarity from all sections of the pit. Tatarnikov provided generous space for his singers and the draft for emotion that resulted in an inseparable and symbiotic relationship throughout.

Nadja Michael as Emilia Marty
But the work's success hinges on the performance of the woman at the centre of this affair who is rarely off stage. Slim, streamlined and seductive as she slinks about her domain, German soprano Nadja Michael is a scorching dynamo as the minx-like and spiked-blonde-haired Emilia Marty or E.M., the initials she uses for every one of her previous identities. Michael takes little time to establish her authority over men and her command of the stage. At her youthful 337 years of age, Emilia has mastered a few techniques, including operatic star quality as a singer, so mounting the attorney's desk or hurling insults is all part of the power she exerts.

But life has become numb for Emilia and the cold and uncaring self-interested woman eventually boils over with pitiable emotive force as she realises she has lost life's meaning. Michael encapsulates the steely coldness and later impassioned Emilia with remarkable force in a performance that makes its case against immortality. Michael showed not only unfaltering staying power, but her dark volcanic soprano intensified right through to Emilia's final melodramatic collapse.

Despite her dominance, Michael never shredded her strong surrounding cast. Handsome, tall and smooth-acting as Albert Gregor, Charles Workman easily falls into Emilia's grasp and complements this authoritative figure with passionately charged vocal muscularity, technical dexterity and sharp emotive turns.

Scene from Act III, The Makropulos Case 
Stephen Powell's broad and earthy baritone adds vocal weight to his middle-aged, stout and dignified Baron Jaroslav Prus. As the case lawyer Dr. Kolenatý, Dale Travis imprints a solid presence but with a similar earthy vocal quality and stage presence as Powell, the pair are presumably more indiscernible the further the audience is distant.

Joel Sorensen opens vocal proceedings strongly as the diligent but mildly dithering Vitek, Dr. Kolenatý's clerk, with his fine, piercing and distinctive ringing tenor. As his geeky daughter Kristina, second-year Adler Fellow, rich and fulsome soprano Julie Adams gives a charming performance as she swoons over her opera idol Emilia. Continuing a character list with few degrees of separation, Kristina's affable boyfriend Janek, the son of Prus, is sung with polish by tenor Brenton Ryan and Matthew O'Neill clearly looks and sings like he's been given a second shot at life after distracting proceedings as the aged and wiry Count Hauk-Sendorf.

Frank Philipp Schlössmann's generally black and white monotone set and costume designs and Duane Schuler's subdued lighting appropriately reflect the numbness of Emilia's life. It also effectively masks its 20th century setting well. A revolve presents the opera's three acts with real-time moving forward on a large clock. But the striking opening set, depicting Dr. Kolenatý's office in an exaggerated litter and height of books and papers, isn't repeated with the same flair in subsequent acts but there's no overall damage done.

The chance to see The Makropulos Case doesn't come often but San Francisco Opera have gladly revived it after just six years. Seeing it once for Nadja Michael's performance alone is worth it  but second time around you'll find there's so much more you'll discover.

San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
Until 29th October

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

Sunday, October 16, 2016

A fervently sung and simmering dark Macbeth at LA Opera

It's difficult to overlook how a living great, who has carved out a long and illustrious operatic career, impacts the experience of a performance but Plácido Domingo has that effect. This performance of director Darko Tresnjak's LA Opera production of Verdi's Macbeth, the composer's first setting of a Shakespearean drama and the company's first, was sold out for a very good reason.

"Kindness, respect and honour will not grace my old age. They will not utter sweet words over my tomb. A curse will be my only epitaph".

So sings Domingo as Macbeth in "Pietà, rispetto, amore", Act IV's final big aria, as he learns that the English-backed Scottish insurgents are advancing. It is the most compelling and deeply moving moment of Domingo's performance as he utters words of which are antithesis to his legendary operatic status.

As Athanaël in LA Opera's 2013 production of Thaïs, Domingo impressed but here the indefatigable septuagenerian transcends even that. Domingo is not only remarkable for his vocal richness and staying power, he's an exemplary actor who portrays the dramatic conviction and understanding of both his character and music.

Plácido Domingo as Macbeth and Ekaterina Semenchuk as Lady Macbeth
Amongst the assortment of vocal characteristics Domingo can muster, there's oil, oak and hints of onyx in his handsomely sung Macbeth who he depicts not with the cowardice that Lady Macbeth accuses him of, but a fragility and hopelessness see-sawing with determination. Aside from marginal thinning of the voice's upper range, the agile Domingo shows little sign of strain.

Alongside Domingo, soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk shares the stage with equal greatness. Together, Domingo and Semenchuk cement a truly convincing and broiling portrayal of a king and queen's desperate hold on power.

Vocally dark and solid with balsamic-like richness, Semenchuk conjures a brutally impressive brew of imperiousness, regality and vulnerability as Lady Macbeth. In a tender gesture of power-craving, she hugs the throne but also touchingly expresses great affection for her husband through subtle and affecting result. Semenchuk's power, control, range and register shifts all combine in an all-encompassing, compelling performance. Able to burst with ferocity and plunge into a firm coloratura, Semenchuk steers her character to the edge of madness in Act IV's "Una macchia è qui tuttora!" with a contrasting lightness of voice in a scene as she crisscrosses the stage that unmistakably resembles Donizetti's Mad Scene from his Lucia di Lammermoor of 1835, predating Macbeth by some 12 years.

Ekaterina Semenchuk as Lady Macbeth
They are joined by an excellent cast including steadfast, muscular and superbly controlled bass-baritone Ildebrando D'Arcangelo as Banquo (Roberto Tagliavini opened the season). Joshua Guerrero (who shared the role with Arturo Chacón Cruz ) is robust with a warm and ringing tenor as a brave Macduff and tenor Josh Wheeker shows  fruitful authority as Malcolm.

On the directorial side, not all Tresnjak's tricks pay off but the production enthrals and delves deep with psychological subtlety. Rat-tailed rodent-like body-suited witches squirm and crawl in dance, more and more brazenly stepping into seemingly haunt and overrun the Macbeth name. Oversized heads of kings cajole Macbeth under which slender-legged dancers prance and bob about. That pushes the foreboding prophesy to its limit but when the rat-like witches dance and cavort atop the cradles of seemingly charred devil-like babies whose eyes begin to glow, it draws laughs, possibly because it exceeds one's patience to understand the point of it.

Darkness is ever-lurking in Tresnjak and co-scenic designer Colin McGurk's hard-edged, steely setting featuring a three-part recessed linear edifice erected on a stepped platform with a concealed upper bridge. It's mausoleum-like weightiness becomes a perfect adjunct to the plot.

Where use of stage depth lacks, Tresnjak makes up for it with vertical interest as the rat-like witches climb the walls with the upper bridge put to good use, amongst which a chorus of dishevelled witches sing out their gnarly song. Even including both rodent-like and robed witches, Suttirat Anne Larlarb's period costumes adhere to an overall picture of masculine rule with Lady Macbeth standing out in distinguished satins.

Scene from LA Opera Macbeth
Matthew Richards's brooding lighting is cued exceptionally with the drama, creating much diversity in this one-set static construction over four acts and Sean Nieuwenhuis's projections of pagan symbols assist in demarcating the supernatural world of witches and seers.

Conducting, James Conlon revealed a thrilling tug o' war tension in the music but never did he strangle his singers. You can see and feel the undivided attention he gives to his cast as if always a micro-moment ahead, enabling him to calibrate the intensity he shapes from his musicians. The strings, in particular, vibrated with heat and intricacy and thunderous orchestral passages belted threateningly.

Finally, not laying enormous praise on the LA Opera Chorus would be unforgivable. Credit must be given to chorus director Grant Gershon for preparing the best sounding chorus I've heard here. Full of lusciously modulated harmony and vocal vigour, aided by drama that places the action on the forward stage, sound projection was faultless.

With this dark and simmering musically splendid Macbeth, LA Opera's season-opening has branded itself deeply on the record and signals an exciting year ahead.

Los Angeles Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, LA Music Centre
Until 16th October.

Production photos: Karen Almond