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(Centre, L - R) Jean-François Lapointe as Marquis de la Force, Isabel Bayrakdarian as Blanche de la Force and Frédéric Antoun as Chevalier de la Force [Photo by Michael Cooper courtesy of Canadian Opera Company]
30 May 2013

Toronto’s Triple Success

If a recent trio of musically superlative performances at Canadian Opera Company is indicative of their norm, the casting director should get a hefty bonus.

Toronto’s Triple Success

A review by James Sohre

Above: (Centre, L - R) Jean-François Lapointe as Marquis de la Force, Isabel Bayrakdarian as Blanche de la Force and Frédéric Antoun as Chevalier de la Force

Photos by Michael Cooper courtesy of Canadian Opera Company


Without exception, the operas were brilliantly cast, singing was of the highest international standard, promising performers from the Young Artists program made significant contributions, and the orchestra played superbly. Whatever is being done to nurture and develop the musical roster could be bottled and sold to many another company. Would that COC had been as thoroughly judicious with their practitioners of stagecraft, especially since all three productions were known commodities, but let’s begin with the plusses, shall we?

Director Robert Carsen’s Dialogue des Carmelites is a wondrous blend of highly theatrical stage pictures and deeply moving interpersonal relationships. His masterful uses of the chorus and a large gang of supers contributed to a magnificent overall effect. He was ably abetted by his Associate Director Didier Kersten, and by an exceptional design team of Michael Levine (sets); Falk Bauer (costumes); and Jean Kalman (lighting).

Mr. Levine’s Big Gray Box of a modular set was a marvel of understatement. With great economy, the back and sides could fly up to reveal ominous mobs, or simply to allow extras to bring on the few well-chosen set pieces necessary to create the proper environment for each scene. The shifting visuals included peasants crossing from one side of the stage to the other as they littered the space with the revolutions’ detritus, nuns placing worktables, or townspeople setting altar railings. The effect of Herr Bauer’s character-specific costumes cannot be over-praised, witness the luxurious, red and gold aristocratic suit for the Marquis de la Force, complemented by a vibrant blue for the Chevalier. What volumes the attire spoke as Mr. Carsen had the two surrounded and isolated by a huge mob of scrappily clad peasants in the opening “dialogue.” No less important was Mr. Kalman’s moody lighting design, here recreated by Cor van den Brink. The plot was all hot cross-lighting and brilliant pools of specials, successfully pinpointing the action and important plot points amid threatening shadows.

I shall not soon forget the burial of the Old Prioress, whose corpse is discovered isolated on the floor center stage, covered with a white sheet as the second half of the performance began. However, at close of the scene, Blanche removes the cloth to show us that the ‘corpse’ was really only suggested by carefully considered floral groupings, the reveal of which now brought us uninterrupted into the garden. Stunning. Later, when the nuns were in prison Carsen magically evoked the garden imagery again as he had the nuns rise from a prostrate mound into a tight lighting special, kneeling up in divergent directions with faces to heaven as though they were buds searching out the sunlight. Chilling.

For the famous execution scene, Robert successfully tore a page from Peter Sellars’ playbook, and had the symmetrically spaced group perform a somewhat semaphoric “dance” until each was executed, at which point each slowly folded down flat onto the stage and spread their arms “cross-like.” Perhaps this was an hommage to the breath-taking opening of John Dexter’s celebrated Met production, but whatever the inspiration, it was unutterably moving.

COC Music Director Johannes Debus helmed an electrifying musico-dramatic performance. There was not a beat that was not charged with emotional weight or propulsive motion. Even moments of comparative repose, like the great set piece for the New Prioress, were rife with subtext and theatrical truth. The splendid orchestra outdid themselves on this occasion, whether hurling out searing dissonances, trumpeting assembled masses into the action onstage, or melting our hearts with poignant solo and ensemble playing of caressing delicacy. Maestro Debus elicited the most haunting, affecting rendition of Poulenc’s masterpiece I have ever heard, gut-wrenching yet radiantly redemptive. And best of all, Johannes inspired a well-matched cast to true greatness.

Local favorites figured prominently in three of the leads. Isabel Bayrakdarian brought uncommonly fine insights to the conflicted Blanche. Her clearly projected soprano may have lost a bit (but only a bit) of the ethereal sheen I experienced with her Melisande a few years ago, but Ms. B. traded it for a mature presence and penetrating thrust that mined all the dramatic potential of the role. I cannot believe I have missed ever hearing the acclaimed soprano Adrianne Pieczonka before, but her Mme. Lidoine was a revelation. Ms. P. lavished the New Prioress with a mellifluous spinto that was evenly, lusciously produced throughout the range. Hers is a major vocal talent.

Veteran Judith Forst offered a beautifully judged Mme. De Croissy, as mesmerizing an Old Prioress as you are likely to encounter. She not only knows every subtlety of the role but also, Ms. Forst’s powerful mezzo is happily still abundantly fresh, and cleanly produced with clarion delivery. Her every phrase is knowingly delivered like the pro she is. For her efforts, Judith arguably scored the evening’s most heartfelt ovation. Hélène Guilmette proved another of the show’s highlights as a radiant Constance. Ms. Guilmette’s warm, substantial soprano has an engaging youthful glow to be sure, but also boasts an underlying mettle that brings more than an ounce of starch to the usual Pollyanna. Irina Mishura brought a searing delivery and fierce commitment to Mother Marie, and was a fine complement to the other, more controlled vocal portraits. But Ms. Mishura might watch pushing her sizable mezzo to such volumes at high pitches that it instills a slight wobble.

In the featured men’s roles, Frédéric Antoun discovered much variety and motivation in the Chevalier de la Force. His beautifully rounded characterization impressed as he paired it with his smooth, secure, polished tenor. Jean-François Lapointe used his noble baritone and regal bearing to good end as the Marquis de la Force. And the important part of the Chaplain was sympathetically served by Michael Colvin‘s reliable tenor.

But Carmelites conquered all before it as a sum total of its considerable parts, and could serve as a model of what miracles can happen when everything and everyone goes thrillingly right. I had similar high hopes for David Alden’s intriguing concept for Lucia di Lammermoor. Mr. Alden set the action in a crumbling Victorian mansion/sanatorium. His research had discovered that in the period, such hospitals actually had auditoria with theatrical stages upon which hysterical patients might ‘act up’ for morbidly curious onlookers. This historic fascination with compromised lives and coping with adversity is not unlike popular fascination with say, The Biggest Loser, or So You Think You Can Dance. (“Oh, what a terrible tragedy, what a horrible time you have had, I can’t bear to hear it. But tell us some more.”)

There is no question that there is great dramatic potential in this proposition for an exploration of Lucia. Unfortunately, this good theory proved to be ineffective theatre since the team didn’t quite mine it correctly. Indeed, when first we meet Lucia, somewhat comatose and propped up sitting on the “stage,” for Regnava nel silenzio, she already seems unbalanced. Make that Beyond the Valley of Unbalanced. So where can she go from there? Remember the film The Shining when Jack Nicholson was obviously unhinged from the git-go? Well, similarly, from her first loopy appearance we would not have been at all surprised if Lucy had suddenly wielded an axe, chopped a door down, and intoned “Heeeeeeere’s Johnny.” (Or “Giovanni,” if you’re a purist.)

Edgardo-and-Lucia.gifStephen Costello as Edgardo and Anna Christy as Lucia

Then there was Enrico’s unrelenting malevolence. Alden unquestionably presented some provocative scenarios involving bondage, physical abuse and incest but they would have been all the more absorbing had they had been delivered with a modicum of restraint. The presentation of Enrico as diabolically evil was carried through to his contempt for Edgardo, as evidenced by his wringing his neck in the final bars just “to make sure” he is dead. (Can you spell “sledgehammer,” David?) At least Edgardo is allowed to react to this poor treatment (well, except when he’s dead, of course). Poor Lucia doesn’t even resist being tied to a bed, react to being hurled to the ground, or protest as her brother paws her private parts.

Charles Edwards’ setting, an ashen, decaying asylum becomes wearying to look at in short order, even when the director has chorus members enter the room in the first scene by crawling through the windows from outdoors. Structural and spatial inconsistencies are the order of the day, such as when Raimondo points straight forward to the audience to announce the arrival of the mad Lucy when in fact she is far upstage behind the assembled forces.

I didn’t so much mind the turbulent storm scene which found Edgardo perched on an island of cockeyed stairs center stage, and with a bare bulb light fixture and ragged drapes being maniacally buffeted by the wind. Adam Silverman’s effective lighting (and lightening) came into its own here (as recreated by Andrew Cutbush). A case was furthered that the chorus (well schooled by Sandra Horst) was a group of impassive, observant “family portraits” but then they broke illogically from their stony gawking at the wedding party only to revert to their staring when the murderous Lucia appeared.

For the most part, the gifted Brigitte Reiffenstuel contributed meaningful costume designs with the exception of the misjudged all-white suit for Arturo. The performer was way too tall and way too portly for the get-up which unfortunately suggested Baby Huey. This came to a bad end when the dispatched Arturo shared “the stage” with Lucia for the Mad Scene. When the two of them execute what amounts to a pratfall in a moment of silence (don’t ask), the effect is unintentionally comic.

And then suddenly, the graveyard effect was astounding in its effectiveness, using chairs and propped up portraits to chillingly create head stones. At last a visual that really resonates. It made me reflect anew on the great promise of the concept, and the opportunity missed. Happily, the musical side of the equation was once again stellar. Indeed, if audience response is any indication, two stars were born this day.

Edgardo is role notorious for making or breaking a promising (or even seasoned) tenor. Young Stephen Costello may have been ‘just’ at his limit at times, but what a dazzling limit it was! Mr. Costello has a wide-ranging instrument and a well-grounded technique. His tone is not in the bright, Pavarotti mode, but it is sturdy, distinctive, and mellow. Stephen was comfortably secure and full on the cruelly sustained, impassioned top. He successfully internalized the lad’s plight, and his heartfelt rendition of Tombe degli avi miei was cheered to the rafters, stopping the show with a thunderous ovation.

The audience was no less vocal about celebrating the accomplishment of Brian Mulligan, the best Enrico of my experience. His virile, vibrant baritone has real Italianate snarl and bite, and he finesses his phrases with polish and panache. Mr. Mulligan thins out his production ever so slightly to negotiate the very top, but his entire range is fluid, connected, and solid.

The lovely Anna Christy brings many gifts to bear as the doomed heroine. So let’s get this Elephant-in-the-Auditorium out of the way: Is she Joan, or Beverly, or Maria, or Edita? No. But even if she is not the larger-than-life, once-in-a-decade superstar that others have been in this role, Ms. Christy is highly effective as a womanly, accurate, limpid, affecting soprano. She is definitely not helped by confusing blocking, and the imposition of a passive face as a characterization tool. Although Anna does most everything right, the bravura seems to have been knocked out of her. This is also exacerbated by the use of the eerie glass harmonica in the Mad Scene instead of the more brilliant flute. Our soprano might consider taking more modest high note options since her sustained singing in alt tended to veer just off the pitch. But all in all, Anna Christy’s conscientious work was a solid achievement.

As Raimondo, Oren Gradus was not shy about showing off a big burly bass sound, but the pressed legato occasionally lumbers and held notes in the upper range sometimes have a tendency to spread. Mr. Gradus sympathetically wears his interpretive heart on his sleeve, but a little restraint might round out the few rough edges. Sasha Djihanian dispatched Alisa’s interjections with a clear, poised tone and added depth to the sextet. Nathaniel Peake also contributed clean, firm vocalizing as Arturo. In the pit, conductor Stephen Lord led a taut, meaningful reading that was stylistically sound and supportive of the singers. Maestro Lord clearly knows every nook and cranny of the score and elicited a wonderfully detailed performance from his instrumentalists, all the while beautifully partnering the vocalists.

It is a puzzle to me why COC felt the need to revive director Atom Egoyan’s take on Salome not once, but twice in its recent history. Was there really a public desire to experience this curiosity again and again? Or was it just expedient because the company owns it and well, at least Atom is Canadian?

Whatever the reason, and whatever might have once been fresh about this vision, for this viewer at least, the third time did not prove the charm. For all of its striving to be ‘different’ and trendy, Derek McLane’s set design is not only maddeningly non-specific, but (sorry) downright ugly. A large platform fills the stage, raked from right (high) to left (low), with a subterranean space (instead of a cistern) under the stage right portion. There are unattractive, non-descript high walls with openings for entrances. A swing hangs from the flies right of center and a catwalk spans the overhead front of the playing space.

But just where are we? Is it an asylum? The Mayo Clinic? A lounge at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre? A warehouse? Cirque du Soleil? The furniture gives no definitive clues, although some of Catherine Zuber’s confusing costumes lead us to believe that the Jews are white-coated doctors. Or are they inmates? Who can say? Other costumes seem out of some Hollywood Heyday, especially Herodias who looks like a mature Joan Crawford got up in a Seventies awards show gown and big hair. The Page is not a boy at all (unless “he” is cross-dressing) but is in a sort of woman’s business suit to match Narraboth’s get-up. Salome at least is in a rather non-descript timeless white schmatte.

Not trusting that Strauss knew what he was doing, Phillip Barker devised an endless display of unpleasant projections to distract us, including a repellent live close-up of Jochanaan’s mouth as he spewed his off-stage invectives. This trumped the visual of a woman’s rotting corpse that started the show. But was not as bad as the elimination of the actual ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ by substitution of a video and shadow show.

For it, a long white train gets attached to Salome’s costume as the dance music begins. The young woman sits in the swing and it becomes a trapeze that lifts her in the air until she disappears in the loft as extras spread the cloth to form a giant, stage-filling screen. A very creepy home movie is shown, I guess depicting Salome as a young contemporary girl, and implying impending sexual abuse. Then, cross fade to spotlights upstage that make a shadow of several dancers who flail and grind, enacting a scene of rape and debauchery. Oh, and some trees appear. And disappear. And re-appear. And did I mention flailing? Serge Bennathan is credited with the choreography and Clea Minaker with the shadow design. Rarely have I seen so much effort to so little truthful dramatic effect.

Did I mention that the Jews gave Herod an injection of some drug prior to this, I suppose meant to provoke this hoopla as an ‘hallunciation’? Or that Herodias kind of just got stuck on stage meandering and hovering with no real placement or motivation? She got her due, though. After the beheading is ordered and a strapping executioner curiously wobble-walks across the stage, Herodias empties a huge glass bowl of its peaches, and follows the head-chopper under the stage with not only the bowl but also her very own scimitar. She herself jubilantly emerges with head in bowl and raises it above her own head to platform level to pass it on to the Princess.

Salome_1670_COC.gifHanna Schwarz as Herodias and Erika Sunnegårdh as Salome

Salome’s final great scene is not staged particularly well, or more correctly, Michael Whitfield’s lighting design disappoints. Specific directions like the changeability of the murky moon and specifically, its illuminating ray that suddenly shows the girl in all her depravity prompting Herod to command her death, were ignored. For all the gloom and doom and quirkiness of the other design elements, the lighting was blandly vanilla. The stellar cast nevertheless made a gripping enough effect.

Erika Sunnegårdh has an ideal vocal quality for the title role. Her petite frame and enigmatic physiognomy were wedded to a pure, strong soprano that soared effortlessly above the orchestra and raised goose bumps in the final arching phrases. Her middle range is marginally less ample, and stronger enunciation of the consonants might serve her better, but there is nothing about the demanding part that eludes her total command. Hannah Schwarz made an imperiously beautiful Herodias and sang with real distinction and power, perhaps too much power. It seemed at times like the mezzo, at the end of a long and distinguished career, seemed out to prove that she still had it. Hannah, ya still got it and then some, so you could relax a little! Richard Margison sports a tenor of real quality and his appealing Herod was sung-not-barked, but it must be said his German (especially umlauts) was a but squishy at times.

Alan Held was simply tremendous as the Baptist, his imposing bass-baritone ringing out with galvanizing force, yet remaining warm and pliant. Mr. Held just sounded pretty damn’ thrilling. Nathaniel Peake’s substantial lyric tenor gave pleasure as Narraboth, although perhaps not as much 'pleasure' as he was getting from the Page who gave him oral 'service' right up until he shot himself in the head. Maya Lahyani’s Page gamely did what was asked of her, and she sang with rich, ripe tone to boot. First Nazarene Craig Irvin and Second Nazarene Owen McCausland were remarkably fine, making the most of their brief scene and capturing our attention with their beautifully judged singing.

That Strauss puts extreme demands on his orchestra goes without saying and the impressive COC orchestra did not disappoint. Johannes Debus exerted admirable control and exquisite balance between pit and stage. The trade off for all that clean, controlled playing is that there seeemed a constraint on the orchestral contribution to the evening’s drama, a slight deficit of shimmer and grit. When the talented Maestro next takes on Salome, I might encourage him to lose just a bit of the “control” and surrender more completely to Strauss’s powerful effects of “shock and awe.”

James Sohre

Cast and production information:

Dialogues of the Carmelites

Marquis de la Force: Jean-François Lapointe; Chevalier de la Force: Frédéric Antoun; Blanche de la Force: Isabel Bayrakdarian; Thierry/Monsieur Javelinot: Doug McNaughton; Mme. De Croissy (First Prioress): Judith Forst; Sister Constance: Hélène Guilmette; Mother Marie: Irina Mishura; Mme. Lidoine (Second Prioress): Adrianne Pieczonka; Chaplain: Michael Colvin; Sister Mathilde: Rihab Chaieb; First Commissioner: Christopher Enns; Second Commissioner: Evan Boyer; Mother Jeanne: Megan Latham; Officer: Cameron McPhail; A Voice: Claire de Sévigné; Jailer: Peter Barrett; Conductor: Johannes Debus; Director: Robert Carsen; Associate Director: Didier Kersten; Set Design: Michael Levine; Costume Design: Falk Bauer; Lighting Design: Jean Kalman, recreated by Cor van den Brink

Lucia di Lammermoor

Normanno: Adam Luther; Enrico: Brian Mulligan; Raimondo: Oren Gradus; Lucia: Anna Christy; Alisa: Sasha Djihanian; Edgardo: Stephen Costello; Arturo: Nathaniel Peake; Conductor: Stephen Lord; Director: David Alden; Associate Director: Ian Rutherford; Set Design: Charles Edwards; Costume Design: Brigitte Reiffenstuel; Lighting Design: Adam Silverman, recreated by Andrew Cutbush; Chorus Master: Sandra Horst


Narraboth: Nathaniel Peake; Page of Herodias: Maya Lahyani; First Soldier: Evan Boyer; Second Soldier: Sam Handley; Jochanaan: Alan Held; Cappadocian: Neil Craighead; Salome: Erika Sunnegårdh; Slave: Claire de Sévigné; Herodias: Hanna Schwarz; Herod: Richard Margison; First Jew: Adrian Thompson; Second Jew: Michael Colvin; Third Jew: Michael Barrett; Fourth Jew: Adam Luther; Fifth Jew: Jeremy Milner; First Nazarene: Craig Irvin; Second Nazarene: Owen McCausland; Conductor: Johannes Debus; Director: Atom Egoyan; Set Deign: Derek McLane; Costume Design: Catherine Zuber; Lighting Design: Michael Whitfield; Projections Design: Phillip Barker; Choreographer: Serge Bennathan; Shadow Designer: Clea Minaker

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