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Interview: Singing Bach’s St. Matthew Passion In Berlin

Passion Cantus Domus

Performers at the Cantus Domus presentation of St. Matthew Passion in Berlin take bows. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Easter Weekend inspires reflections on awakenings, growth, a sense of the new and fresh emerging at last. There are a number of works within classical music that deal directly with Easter, Handel’s Messiah being perhaps the most famous (programming it over the Christmas season is forever a pet peeve), but just as equally Bach’s Passions, which are widely presented and performed in halls across Europe in the weeks and months leading up to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.

During a trip to Berlin earlier this month, I attended a very special performance of St. Matthew Passion, one which asked something more than solitary contemplation; rather, the Baroque work conjured unique meditations on the convergence of heaven and earth, sound and silence, spirit and flesh, through the act of actually singing it. Cantus Domus, a choral group based in Berlin who specialize in conceptual presentations, have a number of illustrious performances under their belts, performing an array of repertoire that spans from the Renaissance to today.  Formed in 1996, the group has performed works by Bizet, Mahler, Mendelssohn, and Bach, and have also enjoyed numerous appearances at the annual German open-air music fest Haldern Pop Festival. Lets you think they only work within the classical idiom, think again: Cantus Domus have collaborated with a good number of contemporary music artists including Bon Iver, The Slow Show, and most famously, Damien Rice. For the recent presentation of St. Matthew Passion, they worked with renowned period instrument troupe Capella Vitalis Berlin, creating a community event in which the act of singing became a salute to its original presentation, as well as a beautiful way of fusing theatricality with spirituality.

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Johann Sebastian Bach, aged 61, in a famous portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann. (Photo via)

The Passion, written in 1727, was, as conductor and musicologist  Joshua Rifkin rightly notes, “the longest and most elaborate work that (Bach) ever composed. It would appear that he saw significant phase of his life drawing to a close and took the occasion to produce a work that would synthesise and surpass all that he had previously done in the realm of liturgical music.” It only began to gain in popularity a full eight decades after Bach’s death (in 1750), thanks to the efforts of a young Felix Mendelssohn, who presented the work in Berlin in 1829. It is one of numerous sacred pieces Bach wrote during his lengthy tenure as director of religious music at Thomaskirsche (St. Thomas Church) in Leipzig. Based on the Gospel of Matthew, Bach worked with poet Christian Friedrich Henrici (known as Picander) for the libretto, which explores the final days of Jesus, ending with Christ’s burial. It features a fascinating interplay of musical writing between four soloists (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) and orchestra which features, among many creative  musical choices, two lead violins in the string section. “The St. Matthew Passion, the final glory of one of the most productive periods in Bach’s life,” writes Rifkin, “holds a special place in his artistic legacy.”

At the end of February, Cantus Domus held a public rehearsal before the main event, which I attended one cold, bright Saturday morning. This was, I quickly realized, more than a jovial sing-a-long; these were serious music-lovers from every walk of life engaging in what was clearly perceived as an act of commitment and consecration. The act of singing, with a roomful of strangers, in a language I don’t speak, reading music — an act I had long believed to be a thing I wasn’t smart enough to do with any real talent — was a deeply moving one. The formal performance one week later magnified this feeling; sitting in Wisniewski’s wonderfully intimate chamber hall,  encircled by ever-mobile performers and an enthralled public, the music was a communal prayer; the voices of those beside, behind, and around me created transcendence which defies easy description. The strong vibrations of breaths and voices through seats, floors, hands, paper… was strange, shocking, beautiful, and the overall experience was and remains one of the most precious and profound ones of my life.

score St. Matthew Passion

The cover to a special edition of the score to St. Matthew Passion. (Score / photo: Bärenreiter)

I spoke with two people from Cantus Domus earlier this month in Berlin. Ralf Sochaczewsky is conductor and Artistic Director of Cantus Domus; he has a long list of credits to his name in both the classical and contemporary music worlds, including gigs with the Komische Oper, the Bolshoi Theater, the London Philharmonic, and the Konzerthaus Berlin Orchestra. Carolin Rindfleisch is a member of the Cantus Domus board and a singer herself; she came up with the presentation concept for St. Matthew Passion here and was its dramaturge. We had a wide-ranging chat just before rehearsals about the work, its influences, and why presenting it, with a full score but without tricks or gimmicks, opens the door to something very special.

Where did the idea come from to do an interactive performance of  the St. Matthew Passion?

Caroline: We’ve done something like this before, with the St. John Passion in 2014. When Bach wrote the Passions, people knew the chorales very, very well — they were part of daily life; people knew the texts by heart, the melodies by heart. They were musical elements that brought everyone together. Even though people didn’t sing it, they were involved immediately because they knew it so well, and it’s something which is hard to recreate nowadays because most people don’t have this kind of religious involvement or knowledge of texts or melodies with such immediacy anymore. So if you invite them to rehearse with you, and to sing them during the concert, we hope to create the same kind of involvement, which was the original purpose of the chorales.

St. Matthew Passion Bach

A page from the score of St. Matthew Passion in Bach’s own hand. (Photo: via)

This music is associated with a very sacred time on the Christian calendar. What’s it like to bring it into secular world now?

Carolin: I think the focus might shift a bit. Our lives are not focused so much on religion, it’s not part of our daily lives that much — but the story behind (this work) has so many different levels and dimensions, and so many different things people can relate to, even if they can’t relate to the religious aspect of it. It’s also a story of how groups and individuals relate to each other, how people treat each other, how relationships between individuals develop, and what problems there may be. There are so many levels people can relate to. If you ask people to sing the chorales with you, then they have to relate in a different way to the piece — they have to position themselves. If you say something out loud, you can’t distance yourself from it that much anymore, you have to think, “How does this relate to me? What am I singing here?” If you only listen, it’s much easier to cut yourself off from a part that doesn’t agree with your worldview — but if you say it loud yourself, you have to think, “What is my position within this piece?”

Singing is such an intimate act that makes some people self-conscious — they think, “I can’t sing!” and moreover, “I can’t possibly sing Bach!”

Ralf: You will!

What do you think the audience gets out of these kinds of experiences? 

Ralf: We did a similar (singing) project four years ago with the St. John Passion, and what the audience told us after the concert was that they were deeply involved. One woman told me that her relationship to her religion changed because of the reflection and the meditation while singing — it touched her so deeply in a way she couldn’t believe. So I think maybe many people will experience this at a deep level of feeling and believing.

Carolin: It’s not “Look at me singing!” — and even if you don’t want to sing yourself, if people are sitting all around you participating it creates an atmosphere where you can’t but relate to it in a way.

St. Matthew's Passion score

A portion of the program from the Cantus Domus presentation of St. Matthew Passion in Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

How do you keep the drama within the score? Is it important?

Ralf: Absolutely. I think the person of Judas is maybe the most interesting part in this Passion. When you perform it you have to find a position about the guilt of Judas: is he maybe a hero? Is he maybe the Edward Snowden of this? What the music says and what the libretto says is a bit ambivalent. So we will try to find a solution to make later what Judas means to us, but…

Carolin: The Passions have a lot of changing places, between intimacy and public life. You can make the public experience those different atmospheres by how close you get to them or how much you concentrate the action into one corner, or spread it into all over, especially in the Philharmonie Chamber Music Hall — it’s such a nice room. You have the stage and the places where the audience sits, but you also have places you can position soloists at different corners of the room, and make visible how close or how far they are, and how they relate to each other, and what’s really powerful about working with a choir scenically onstage is that if even thirty or, say, sixty people do a very tiny little thing at the same time, it’s incredibly powerful but still subtle. You don’t have to have someone tearing his heart out…

Declaiming?

Carolin: Exactly, but you have sixty people that maybe do a specific gesture at the same time, and the whole focus shifts into another direction, and this is giving little guiding posts to where the action moves in the room, so we move very little, but the action shifts and the focus shifts in the room, and this can be a really interesting way of preserving the drama while not really acting.

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The Philharmonie Chamber Hall is encircled by performers at the close of Cantus Domus’s St. Matthew Passion in Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Ralf: We just have small hints! Also you find interesting things in the music. For example, the opening of the second part is text from the Song of Solomon, sung by the choir: “Where has my Jesus gone?” The outer part is relating to Petrus, so you have a quite direct connotation it’s Petrus who’s talking. But in the earlier version (of the work) it was sung by the bass soloist, the aria section that is, which is related to Judas, which is interesting. I think it was meant by Bach, in the early version, that it’s Judas who sings, “Where has my Jesus gone?” And the chorus sings the Song of Solomon, it’s a very intimate and like … a love song. In many places in the bible, it’s said Judas was the most beloved of Jesus, and I think this is something which is really interesting in the relationship between Jesus and Judas, which gives a different color to this man, who in our perception is a very bad man.

Song of Solomon Passion

A portion of St. Matthew Passion. (Text via)

We even have the term “the Judas kiss” because of it.

Ralf: Yes but even this kiss, it’s still a kiss!

… which some believe is the ultimate betrayal of intimacy.

Ralf: I’m not sure that this is the only way of interpreting this kiss. Bernard of Clairvaux, a very important clerical figure and one of the most important mystics, preached about the Song of Solomon, especially the symbol of the kiss, and many texts in the Passion from the chorales go back to Clairvaux. There’s a close net of mysticism in (the Song of Solomon). So the Judas kiss, in a way, when you look at it from the point of view of Clairvaux and directly after that, within this Solomonic love song, it means something different.

Caravaggio Christ painting

“The Taking of Christ”, Caravaggio, 1602. (Photo: National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin)

I’ve always found inclusion of portions of the Song of Solomon sends a message about the links between spirituality, sensuality, intimacy, and meditation — things that can get lost because of the tendency to present spiritual experience within a strictly defined religious framework.

Ralf: If you look deeper into (St. Matthew Passion) you will find real human beings who existed in the 18th century, and who exist in the same way today. And Judas needs to betray him, otherwise the story couldn’t work: no cross, no Christianity. It’s clear Judas has to do it, in a way, it’s fate. But on the other hand, you have the people and they do not understand, they condemn him, many people condemn. It’s a really interesting relationship. Also, Petrus is a very modern person, he’s very strong, a powerful man, but in the important moment, he’s very weak and he has fear, and he does not know how to behave. He’s uncertain what to do, which we all recognize. So this is the aim of our performance, that you understand while singing and reflecting, reflecting while singing, that you are Petrus… maybe you are also Judas…  maybe you are also Pilatus, who washes his hands like, ”I have nothing to do with this.”

Through singing, you taking these human dimensions and complexities into your own body. Do you think you ask a lot of your audiences?

Carolin: Yes, we know we do, but I think it’s a really good thing to do. You don’t have to do it all the time, there are performances that are more relaxed and have a more loose connection to the audience, but it’s refreshing to ask an audience to commit.

berlin philharmonie kammermusiksaal

The interior of the Philharmonie Chamber Music Hall, Berlin. (Photo: Heribert Schindler, via)

 

It’s unique to find a presentation of a Baroque work that asks its audience to have a direct relationship with both the score and its spiritual subtext without feeling the need to use tricks or gimmicks.

Caroline: There’s a point which is really important for us as a choir: we have the feeling that with every project we do we grow a little, because we demand something we haven’t done before or haven’t done in this exact way. And this is something you can offer to audience as well in this fashion: you demand a lot of them. But if you, as an audience member, are willing to commit to it, it gives you something you hadn’t experienced before.

My Favorite Things From 2017

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At the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Before my most recent trip to Berlin for my birthday in earlier this month, I quickly jotted down a few music events that stood out to me without thinking too hard about the whys or wherefores. There have been so many special moments, and it’s hard to squish them into a list, let alone words and descriptions, and sometimes too much analysis not only muddles decent reflection but kills the joy of remembrance.

Many year-end “favorites” lists that show up this time of year tend to be steeped in memories and sentiment, and music is the best and most direct avenue to both. As music writer Tim Sommer points out in his own year-end feature, “no art form is as connected to our memory and our senses as music. Although music appears to exist primarily in just one of the senses, in fact it spreads to all of them, creating a connection with everything we were seeing, touching, smelling, and thinking.”

So much of my life is made up of lists — for packing, for groceries, for trips, and for stories to chase and features to finish. If I could write a list of feelings throughout the year the way I quickly wrote out my list of music experiences, how would it read? Disappointment might feature largely, but so would wonder. With a second near-solo Xmas Day under my belt, a lot of time has been spent in remembrance, on events recent and not, and on people new and old, near and far, present and not. In returning to my music list, muddling through the sometimes sticky waters of sentiment and memory, and ruminating on the ease of my choices, I’ve come to realize that wonder is the ribbon tying everything together. It’s a quality I fully realize can’t be forced, but can, perhaps, arise out of the right set of conditions. It logically follows then, that next year I hope to be writing this list from Europe. (You read that correctly.) Until then, please enjoy, and feel free to add your own favorites in the comments.

faust opera wallonie

The cast of “La damnation de Faust” take bows at the Opera Royal de Wallonie (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

1. La damnation de Faust, Opéra Royal de Wallonie; Liège, January.

Though I have loved the work of Berlioz for years, never have I heard it so vividly and lovingly brought to life as here, in the beautiful, ornate opera house of lovely Liège. American tenor Paul Groves, currently onstage at the Met in The Merry Widow (my interview with him here), turned his Faust strongly away from tormented-hero cliches and into something recognizably (and touchingly) human; his chemistry with Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s Mephistopheles was warm, watchable, and quietly splendid. (More here.) Together with Director Ruggero Raimondi’s thoughtful production and strong orchestral vision from Music Director Patrick Davin, this was one of the best ways to start the musical new year.

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Lilian Farahani, Donato Di Stefano, and Anicio Zorzi Giustianini in “Il matrimonio segreto”. (Photo: Opera National de Lorraine)

2. Il matrimonio segreto, Opéra national de Lorraine; Nancy, February.

Conductor Sascha Goetzel led a vivacious reading of Cimarosa’s frothy and very Mozartean score (on the day of its 225th birthday, when I attended) in this fun production of the 1792 opera by Cordula Däuper in Nancy’s sumptuous opera house. Standouts included tenor Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani as the lovestruck Paulino, baritone Riccarado Novaro as seeming-fop Conte Robinson, and jovial baritone Donato Di Stefano as the bumbling Signor Geronimo. They, along with the entire cast, skillfully used Sophie du Vinage’s zany costumes and Ralph Zeger’s comical dollhouse sets to wondrous effect, embodying the very best sitcom stars with boundless energy and zesty, charismatic stage presences to match. This was “Three’s Company” 18th century style, complete with beautiful music and cartoon costumes — and it was fantastic.

Goerke Schager Wagner

Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde and Andreas Schager as Siegfried in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of “Gotterdammerung.” (Photo: Michael Cooper)

3. Götterdämmerung, Canadian Opera Company; Toronto, February.

Christine Goerke, who sang the role of Brünnhilde in this modern production, is one of the very great singers of our era, and you should run, not walk, if she’s performing in your town. This lady (my interview with her is here) understands, at a deep level, what makes Wagner  (and music) exciting, affecting, and fiercely human. If ever you’ve said ‘I don’t like Wagner” or “I don’t understand opera” or “Opera is boring,”  she is the person who will guide you to a place that may change your mind. This was her third turn in Toronto singing as part of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and with each performance, including the one last winter, her Brünnhilde grew ever more alive and vivid. Goerke is truly a gifted vocalist and a great performer, and in this final instalment of the immense Ring Cycle, she infused every scene she was in with an earthy, robust presence. In a word: magic.

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The set of Willy Decker’s “La traviata” at the Met in New York. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

4. La traviata, Metropolitan Opera; NYC, March.

I have seen this opera many, many times in my opera-going life, but never have I seen one with more unusual characterizations. It forced a rethink of every single trope I had taken for granted. Alfredo, the male lead, was not a lovelorn romantic figure, but an obsessive weirdo bordering on abusive. Tenor Michael Fabiano captured every nuance of the character with magnetic clarity, and he was matched here, beautifully, by baritone Thomas Hampson, whose Giorgio was desperate, mean, and possibly more abusive than his son. It was a remarkably theatrical approach, and it was gripping to watch the two interact with Sonya Yoncheva’s sad, exhausted Violetta, a woman so desperately at the end of her rope she overlooks the character flaws of the men who constantly surround her. I had my reservations of Willy Decker’s production overall (more here) but I loved the central performances, and still think of them with awe.

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Colin Ainsworth and Peggy Kriha Dye in “Medea” at Opera Atelier. (Photo: Bruce Zinger)

5. Medea, Opera Atelier; Toronto, April.

As with La traviata, the strength of the performances in Medea are seared into my memory. (My review here.) Tenor Colin Ainsworth embodied the wayward husband character with bravado, his Jason conniving, sexy, sensuous, and highly manipulative, always managing to say the right thing while shamelessly doing wrong, less a libidinous cartoon than a recognizably entitled man brought low by the slow-boiling rage of Peggy Kriha Dye’s titular sorceress. Their scenes together sizzled with an intense love-hate chemistry that so clearly reminded one of the all-too-human basis of mythology; these characters of yore may have odd names and be entangled in crazy-seeming stories, but Atelier’s production of the Charpentier work, for all its beautiful design elements, offered an important reminder that the human heart is a very messy and frequently painful place.

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Dmitri Hvorostovsky as part of Trio Magnifico. (Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov / Show One Productions)

6. Trio Magnifico, Toronto; April.

The concert marked both the Canadian debut of soprano Anna Netrebko and tenor Yusif Eyvazov, as well as the final Canadian appearance of baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. (My tribute to Dima here; my interview with Netrebko and Eyvazov here.) With the Canadian Opera Company orchestra led by Jager Bigiamini, the famed trio performed a Russian-heavy program that also featured several standard opera favorites, including Hvorostovsky’s anguished, heart-rending performance in a scene from Rigoletto. People can (and have) roll(ed) eyes that it was a concert about frippery and hype, that it lacked substance and/or deep artistry; everyone is entitled to such opinions. But for me, it was a concert where music became very real, where hearts were shamelessly worn on sleeves (and fancy dresses), and where the electric thrill of world-renowned voices was finally felt in a city that had waited too long for such a large-scale opera event. Bravo (and more of this, please).

konzerthaus berlin

At the Konzerthaus Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

7. Herbert Blomstedt with the Vienna Philharmonic and Kit Armstrong, soloist; Konzerthaus Berlin, May.

Armstrong gave a beautiful, loving reading of Beethoven’s famous Third Piano Concerto, in a program that also featured Bruckner’s Fourth symphony. This concert was part of a series of programs dedicated to (and saluting the work of) pianist Alfred Brendel, and there was, I think, no better way to pay homage. The American artist didn’t pound the crap out of the keys or show off his Mad Finger Skillz the way some young soloists are prone to doing; rather, in perfect harmony with Blomstedt’s delicate direction of a creamy (if highly textured) Vienna Phil, Armstrong coaxed the gentle splendour out of  the fiendishly deceptive work with kindness, gentleness, and a profound sense of poetry. The focus was always very squarely on the music, as the audience at Konzerthaus so expertly proved with their careful, intense listening and, at the concert’s end, continuous applause and (rare for Berlin) standing ovation.

poppea komische

The cast of “Die Krönung der Poppea” take bows. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce.)

8. Die Krönung der Poppea / Ball im Savoy Komische Oper Berlin, May.

If you’ve spent any time around me this year, chances are very good you’ve heard me rapturously talk about this, and probably more than once. To be plain: this updated version of The Coronation of Poppea was one of the best experiences in my entire opera-going life. Monteverdi’s score was infused with creative, modern, character-focused touches, thanks to Elena Kats Chernin’s ingenious instrumentations, and Katrin Lea Tag’s sexy, sparse design, together with Barry Kosky’s seriously smart direction, confidently underlined every bit of timeliness inherent to the work. This was sex, blood, murder, madness, power, set to repeat, and to a bang-up smashing soundtrack. The Komische Oper’s easy pairing of what could be called “high classical” works (like those by Monteverdi) with fun, frothy pieces like Weimar Republic operettas (i.e. a sassy, very funny production of Paul Abraham’s Ball at the Savoy, featuring the great Dagmar Manzel) highlighted the eclectic, culturally diverse performing arts scene in the Berlin opera world. This is a company (my write-up on them here) that understands the role both opera and operetta play in a healthy music ecosystem, and they do both with incredible style and smarts.

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The cast of “Der Rosenkavalier” take bows at the Metropolitan Opera. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

9. Der Rosenkavalier, Metropolitan Opera; NYC, May.

Not only did this mark a goodbye (of sorts, maybe) for soprano Renée Fleming, it was also one of the most satisfying productions that has graced the Met stage in a very long while. Robert Carsen balanced every element with grace and panache, placing the story (about genteel Viennese in a battle of hearts and minds, of sorts) in a pre-WW1 setting, giving both the narrative and infusing its cast of characters with poignancy. The chemistry between Fleming and Elīna Garanča, in the pants role of Octavian, was gripping, magical, and very palpable. (More of my thoughts here.) We don’t have to guess at Octavian’s fate here; it isn’t, as so many productions might have you believe, happily-ever-after. Never has stripping the saccharine veneer off Viennese finery been more satisfying, or dare I say, beautiful.

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Marcelo Puente as Cavaradossi and Adrianne Pieczonka as Tosca in the Canadian Opera Company production of Tosca, 2017. (Photo: Michael Cooper)

10. Tosca, Canadian Opera Company; Toronto, May.

Mesmerizing stage presence, an imposing physique, a luscious tenor sound – this production could have well been called “Mario” for the heat Marcelo Puente brought to it. (My interview with him here.) The Argentinian tenor exuded star power in waves, even as he maintained perfect vocal control and demonstrated a deep respect for Puccini’s buttery score, his rendering of the famous “E lucevan le stelle” a clear cry out of spiritual and emotional darkness, dramatically rich as it was vocally fulsome. The chemistry Puente shared with leading lady Adrianne Pieczonka was notable for its casual ease; this was a Tosca and Mario who were clearly friends as well as lovers, something refreshing in an opera usually overstuffed with giant romantic gestures that don’t always feel sincere. This did.

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Vladimir Spivakov and Hibla Gerzmava with the Moscow Virtuosi in Toronto. (Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov for Show One Productions)

11. Hibla Gerzmava in concert, Roy Thomson Hall; Toronto, June.

Despite some apparent throat issues, Gerzmava gave a beautiful concert with the Moscow Virtuosi, providing a splendid introduction for Canadians unfamiliar with the soprano’s incredible range and repertoire. (My review here.) What struck me watching Gerzmava live was how easily she moved between modes: diva, philosopher, dreamer. Some opera performers have one mode, which they only slightly alter between pieces and roles, and that’s fine too — every artist is a little bit different, an they do what works best for them, in the moment and for the long term — but Gerzmava melted into every single thing she sang, one moment teasing Virtuosi performers, the next, falling beautifully into a French aria. Her clear commitment to the variety of chosen repertoire was matched by a quicksilver tone and a gracious stage presence that made me keen to see her live onstage again soon.

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RIAS Kammerchor at St. Hedwig’s. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

12. Berliner Festspiele; September.

Autumn saw a quick if very busy trip to the German capital to cover concerts and performances at the annual arts event for Opera Canada magazine (published in their next edition in early 2018). A standout from the Fest includes the RIAS Kammerchor, led by Justin Doyle. Together with period instrument ensemble Capella de la Torre, the choir marked the 500th birthday of opera forefather Claudio Monteverdi by performing a series of day-spanning concerts at both the historic St. Hedwig’s Cathedral and the modern Boulez Hall; the contrast was stark and beautiful, and very haunting. (My review here.) Also memorable was the Korean Gyeonggi Philharmonic Orchestra, who offered a program chalk-full of works by Isang Yun, a Korea-born German composer whose 100th birthday year was being marked with events throughout the Festspiele. The Konzerthaus audience at the Sunday morning concert responded with incredible passion and offered beautifully careful listening as conductor Shiyeon Sung led her very elastic orchestra on a very gripping sonic journey.

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Roberto de Candia as Falstaff in Parma. (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

13. Falstaff, Teatro Regio di Parma; October.

Go outside the Teatro Regio and into the streets of Parma, and I guarantee you would have found any of the characters featured in Jacopo Spirei’s smart production of Verdi’s classic, based on the (in)famous Shakespeare character. (My interview with Spirei here.) This was a presentation that got every element right, from design to blocking to performances, while leaving great respect for the challenging if fiercely sparky score. Roberto de Candia was brilliant as the titular Falstaff — not a fun-loving-fat-man cliche, but a vulgarian bordering on loathsome, who was only redeemed by the strength and grace of the women around him. This wasn’t merry old England but dirty old Blighty and it was brilliant — and a troupe of English travellers I met at intermission heartily agreed, adding it was the best thing they’d seen at the Festival Verdi this year. (I agree.) I really hope this production travels to North America at some point; it has so much to say, and says it in such a smart, and frequently funny way.

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Dominik Köninger with the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

14. Dominik Köninger in recital with the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin, Kammermusiksaal der Philharmonie Berlin; Berlin, October.

In seeing Die Krönung der Poppea, I wrote that the German baritone delivered a “snarling, sexy, utterly magnetic performance” as Nero, an observation perhaps made more poignant for it being one of the few darker roles he has done. Köninger is, as he told me over the course of a subsequent interview (link), usually cast in what could be considered good-guy roles like Papageno, Orpheus, Figaro, and lately, Pelléas. Perhaps he should consider adding more villains — or at least more darkly tormented figures. Köninger’s propensity and talent for deep, dark, yearning repertoire was shown to full effect in a concert given just before Halloween at the Philharmonie’s Chamber Concert Hall with the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin. Titled “Totentanz” (or “Death Dance”), the program was a smart, carefully curated mix of Grieg, Purcell, Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Schubert, and Mahler; it also featured gripping instrumental selections and abridged scores from various films (including Psycho), rearranged for strings. This was a concert that transcended the corny, faux-scary Halloween tropes and went straight to the heart – of darkness, isolation, longing, claustrophobia, sadness, desolation — and showcased Koninger’s coppery-toned baritone. Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I am lost to the world”) and selections from Schubert’s Winterreise were true highlights, performed with exquisite soulfulness. Forget the good guys!

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“Nabucco” at Deutsche Oper Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

15. Nabucco, Deutsche Opera; Berlin, November.

People who know opera have lots of opinions about this work (it’s too long; it’s never done right; it’s too narratively meandering) but everyone, opera fan or not, knows the famous Hebrew Chorus (“Va pensiero”). Unquestionably, that’s just what some of the Deutsche Oper crowd was there to hear this past November, holding collective breath until it unfurled, note by majestic note, under the careful baton of conductor Roberto Rizzi Brignoli. Still, there was an overall curiosity and appreciation of the intriguing staging and strong singing. The audience was confronted with an uncomfortably familiar world where deep polarization was sewn by the brutality of fervent nationalism and intolerant religiosity. This spicy timeliness was underlined by Anna Smirnova’s magnetic performance as Abigaille, Nabucco’s doomed daughter. Director Keith Warner denied audiences the sentimental mood (and ending) which is sometimes presented in productions, instead presenting a world where tenderness is rare, and highly dangerous. The “walls” of Tilo Steffens’s immense set shut before the doomed Abigaille at the close; there was no forgiveness for her trespasses. It was a devastating, disturbing, and frankly, fantastic conclusion to a challenging production of a work too often soaked in sentimentality and star power.

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Katrin Wundsam and Elsa Dreisig as Hänsel and Gretel at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin. (Photograph: Monika Rittershaus)

16. Hänsel & Gretel, Staatsoper Unter Den Linden; Berlin, December.

Director Achim Freyer is known for his vivid designs, painterly approach, and almost cartoon-like visual sense, and I was very curious as to what he’d do with the beloved (and widely produced holiday standard) Hänsel und Gretel. No sooner did the music begin and I found myself utterly besotted by the whimsical effect in the famous Humperdinck work. The lost pair were rendered as living dolls, complete with giant eyes (which performers cleverly moved with well-placed levers) and charming, child-like gestures. The Gingerbread Witch didn’t have an actual face, but rather, an enormous, beckoning finger as a sort of stand-in “nose” (complete with a long, red fingernail) , a coffee pot “head,” and various bits and bites of food and goodies making up the rest (think Pizza The Hut, but with less gross factor and far more style). Together with Freyer’s captivatingly creative design, wonderful performances (including tenor Jürgen Sacher as the very campy witch), and strong orchestral coloring (thanks to conductor Sebastian Weigle), the essential tension of the original Grimm fairy tale (abundance vs. poverty) was underlined in large, small, and entirely unmissable ways. It was also special to have this opera be my first experience in the gorgeously renovated Berlin State Opera theatre  — talk about a delicious birthday treat!

Berlin Thielemann

Christian Thielemann and the Berlin Philharmonic with the Rundfunkchor Berlin and soloists. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

17. Christian Thielemann with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Rundfunkchor Berlin, Philharmonie Berlin, December.

I’m being perfectly honest when I write that conductor Christian Thielemann scares me — perhaps it’s the intensity, or that he reminds me of a few too many scowling band leaders from my high school days. Whatever the case, he didn’t need to smile or be cuddly to lead an astounding Berlin Phil through a non-stop, barn-burner performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. Thielemann missed no chances to do the boom-bang version of Beethoven, but he also took time — lots of it — exploring, dare I say, the work’s many luxurious, foreplay-like moments (which sounds bizarre, since it is formally a religious piece, but!). The careful leanings into phrasing, the pregnant pauses, the fine drawing-out of vocal lines tenderly at one moment and whittling away strings and percussions into nothingness at others… some performances leave you (me) breathless, and this was one. When he held the rich, pregnant silence at the end, for several moments, no one in the Philharmonie breathed, or dared to; Thielemann has that effect. It was a very special and memorable way to experience the music of Beethoven at the Philharmonie for the first time — and again, was a special gift for my birthday week in Berlin.

18. Märchen im Grand Hotel (Fairy Tales from the Grand Hotel), Komische Oper Berlin, December.

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Talya Liebermann and Tom Erik Lie in “Märchen im Grand Hotel” at Komische Oper Berlin, 2017. (Photo: Robert-Recker.de)

Despite my lacking linguistic facility in German (which I intend to rectify in 2018), the production, with fantastically energetic conducting by Music Director Adam Benzwi, was totally understandable with its themes of sacrifice, acceptance, and change being the only constants in life. The assorted cast of animated characters were brought to vivid life by a dedicated ensemble dressed to the nines, with voices to match; soprano Talya Lieberman and baritone Tom Erik Lie were special standouts for capturing such lovely delicacy in their numbers. Another Grand Hotel-themed musical (the Tony Award-winning 1989 version) is being presented this coming season at the Shaw Festival (in southern Ontario), and I’m planning on a longer feature about this work’s various iterations in 2018, the staying power of Baum’s novel, and what it means for us in the here and now. Please stay tuned? More music adventures are afoot, though hopefully “close to home” will have a different meaning at this time next year.

Jordan de Souza: Connecting Music “In A More Real Way”

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Conductor Jordan de Souza (Photo: Brent Calis)

Conductor Jordan de Souza is one of classical music’s best ambassadors.

The conductor, who celebrates his 30th birthday next year, has been making waves for years abroad, as well as in his home and native land. Originally a graduate of the prestigious St. Michael’s Choir School, a semi-private Roman Catholic boys’ school in Toronto, de Souza studied organ performance at McGill University and was conducting (at Montreal’s Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul) when he was a teenager. Jordan has worked with the Canadian Opera Company, Opéra de Montréal, Houston Grand Opera, and the Accademia Filarmonica Romana, to name a few. He’s also worked with the National Ballet of Canada. As Conductor in Residence with Tapestry Opera (a Canadian company which specializes exclusively in new works), he’s worked on a number of contemporary projects, and was Music Director for the company’s critically-lauded opera adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s short story Rocking Horse Winner last year. This past summer he made his debut at the prestigious Bregenz Festival in Austria, leading the Vienna Symphony (Wiener Symphoniker) in Bizet’s famous Carmen.

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Scene from Komische Oper Berlin’s production of Pelléas et Mélisande (Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

The start of the 2017-2018 season this past September saw him formally become Kapellmeister of the Komische Oper Berlin. Regular readers will know I am a big fan of the work of their work for many reasons, among them a fresh, lively approach to staging and a smart, creative approach to scores. Most recently KOB received raves for their presentation of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, which opened in mid-October, with Jordan ‘s conducting work receiving many plaudits; one review noted he let “the impressionism of the late-romantic score flourish.”(For my interview with the production’s Pelléas, go here.) Jordan is also conducting Petrushka / L’Enfant et les Sortilèges (Stravinsky and Ravel respectively) this season, which is a presentation done with visionary British company 1927 Productions (and one which I loved when I attended its opening in January) as well as Tchaikovsky’s Jewgeni Onegin, both running in repertory.

As you’ll hear, Jordan is an artist very much dedicated to not only his work, but to the art form as a whole, Whether it’s exploring aspects of Pelléas with Komische Oper Intendant (boss) Barry Kosky and various ensemble members, parsing the meaning of the word “Kapellmeister” for the average (non-classical) person, sharing observations on European and North American cultural climates, or musing why Berlin is, as he puts it, “an embarrassment of riches” – all these things point very clearly at a person who believes in music, at a deep level, and is excited by its possibilities, both inside and outside the theatre.

brandenburg berlin

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

I spoke with Jordan during a recent trip Berlin, which occurred at the end of a challenging trip to Italy. We met in the canteen of the KOB, so you’ll hear the sounds of various KOB staff grabbing their pre-performance snacks and dinners in the background. There’s a sense of the normalcy of classical arts in Berlin which I so utterly love. Classical music in the city is not some weird thing utterly removed from quotidian experience; rather, it’s simply part of the fabric of every day life. Eat; drink; concert. Expect a piece soon about my Berlin sojourn, and the many cultural goodies within those six days; meeting Jordan de Souza was certainly one of them. I look forward to experiencing more of his live work soon.

Travels In Italy: Dolce e brutto

San Michele Arcangelo, the church where Verdi was baptized and was later an organist. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Two weeks ago I was touring the lands of opera composer Giuseppe Verdi in Emilia Romagna, northern Italy: the place he was born and raised, the splendid home of his benefactor, the lush gardens he would walk through. Those were the good parts.

Any sentimentality or indeed, romanticism, which so many feel in traveling to Italy, has been largely scrubbed out; never, in all of my travels, I felt more aware of my status — my vulnerability — as a woman. While there are finger-waggers who will tut-tut with inevitable “you should haves” and well-meaning “if only you hads” (instincts I find frustratingly passive-aggressive if not outright patronizing)  I stand by the validity of my reactions, deeply aware of the various costs of singledom as a woman, the frequently taken-for-granted privilege of coupledom, and the need to accept the wildly different realities of each, particularly within the wider context of travel experiences. I got to see a part of Italy very few people get to see, a unique experience to be sure, but one that comes with a bitter recognition in realizing that my only return to the country will be as either part of a tour, or for quick excursions to very specific places, namely Teatro Comunale di Bologna, the Teatro Municipale in Reggio Emilia, and of course, Teatro alla Scala in Milan.

A rose on the property of Villa Verdi. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

In retrospect, I wonder what Verdi, a man who felt such a clear kinship with the so-called “common man,” would have made of my experiences in his country as a woman in the 21st century. Would he have been appalled, I wonder, by the cat-calls, the leering, the begging? Being a solo woman traveler opened the door to an ugly jarful of assumptions, which led to harrowing experiences: theft, harassment, manipulation, and (as was the depressingly repeated case in so many restaurants), being totally ignored. What would Verdi have made of it all? What would he have made of my wrists being grabbed by a older woman wanting money? Or waiters running to serve amorous couples but consistently ignoring my inquiries about a missing lunch and requests for another glass of Lambrusco? Or of personal items being stolen from an abode? What of the forced kissing and repeated fondling after accepting help with luggage?  What am I to make of these experiences? Are they operatic? Is it “Italy being Italy” ? Should I not be bothered? Was it my fault? Did I somehow “ask for it?” Did I deserve it because I was alone?

In any terrible situation (or series of them), there are always minuscule shards of light, and it’s these shards I have to pick through now, with the benefit of hindsight. I will always remember the free shot of espresso provided by a friendly woman in a bustling shop in Parma; the plate of sandwiches set before me in a cafe by another woman who gave me a knowing nod when she saw I was alone; the warm, expressive tone of my tour guide at Villa Verdi (the composer’s primary residence for many decades), as I struggled in my limited Italian to understand her every detail. All of us were above a certain age, all of us perhaps had some shared understanding we couldn’t articulate. I remember these moments, cherish them, and I’ve taken a friend’s advice to try and focus on good things, like these moments, and the ones provided via music and history.

Roberto de Candia as Falstaff (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

Jacopo Spirei’s Falstaff was my favorite production, and I don’t write that purely because I interviewed him about it before I left. Smart, funny, timely, and with a marvellously human lead performance by Roberto de Candia, the production (presented at the Teatro Regio di Parma as part of this year’s edition of Festival Verdi) was a true standout, and I wasn’t alone in that reaction, as chats with members of a refreshingly friendly British tour group revealed. Spirei placed the action in a familiar present, and filled the scene with very familiar people. De Candia played Falstaff as a kind of slobbish everyman, notably lacking the cutesy quality so common to characterizations. Instead, he was a kind of bar pig whom no one wanted to spend much time around — women especially; Falstaff wasn’t cuddly and harmless, he was slovenly and horrible. Only through his spectacular humiliation did he becomes semi-tolerable. The production made it abundantly clear that a character like Falstaff must be brought low in order to be raised once more, not as the phoenix, but as more of a messy pigeon who pecks around rotting porticos, and has to be kept in line with brooms and hoses every now and again.

Portrait of Verdi by Giuseppe Boldini, 1866.

I thought of Sir John Falstaff when I went to Villa Verdi some days later, because, as with Spirei’s magnificent production, I was being allowed to glimpse a vivid humanity which lives beneath an image. The house is located just outside the town of Busseto, roughly 40-odd kilometres north of Parma. Verdi supervised its construction, and, together with lady love (and soprano) Giuseppina Streponi, moved in in 1851. The house contains a number of mementos, as one might expect, all carefully and lovingly displayed.

Observing the bed in which Verdi died in 1901 (which had been shipped from the Grand Hotel in Milan) and various personal effects (including letters, knick-knacks, and the top hat and scarf he wears in Boldini’s famous portrait), a portrait of a good man dedicated to music and the people he loved emerges. It sounds hokey, but somehow, it wasn’t — but it was odd to walk around the living quarters of someone whose music was the soundtrack of large swaths of my life, to say nothing of my mother’s; it was ordinary and yet not, simple and yet grand, intimate and epic, all at once. Two pianos on which Verdi composed his works (early and later) were there, a clear case covering their keys. I stared at those pianos, longing to touch them. (No photos are allowed inside the house, alas.) I couldn’t rip my eyes off the second instrument on which he had composed Aida; this epic of the opera world, this contentious, difficult piece, with clashing ideologies and a gorgeously intimate subtext about loving the wrong person in the wrong time, “Celeste Aida” and the so-called “Triumphal March” — all that was done on the simple, upright piano sitting before me.

Gelling those reactions with the personal effects (to say nothing of the little section on Wagner) was surreal but also beautiful. I wish I could have had a few moments to stand in that room and take it all in, quietly, thoughtfully; it was one of the rare times during my travels in Italy that I actually wanted to be alone.

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The exterior of Villa Verdi. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

A more fulsome piece about my visit to Villa Verdi and the town of Busseto is set to appear in a future edition of  Opera Canada magazine, but at this website, expect a piece (soon) about a very unique version of Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) presented in Reggio Emilia, which featured members of the Berlin Philharmonic and Italian entertainer Elio. Mozart’s opera has been on my mind a lot lately, because it is, as Komische Oper head honcho Barry Kosky rightly has noted, a work infused with a deep loneliness, and that quality is one which haunted me throughout Italy. Perhaps it was the absence of my mother, the social isolation that comes with being an independent woman of certain means, an overall disappointment… whatever the case: I am happy to have seen and experienced the things I did in Italy — and it will take a lot to get me to return.

Dominik Köninger: “Everything comes in its time”

Baritone Dominik Köninger / Photo: Tom Schweigert

So many things struck me the first time I saw Dominik Köninger perform live. Watching him, one senses an innate musicality combined with a natural confidence and stage presence. No wonder he’s a rising star in opera.

A native of Heidelberg, Dominik was a member of the International Opera Studios at Hamburg State Opera in 2007; from 2010-2011 he was a member of the Bavarian State Opera. In 2011 he won First Prize in the Wigmore Hall / Kohn Foundation International Song Competition and was also a Recipient of the Wigmore Hall / Independent Opera Voice Fellowship. He has performed at the Stuttgart State Opera, the Theater an der Wien, the Volksoper Wien (Vienna), the Deutsche Oper Berlin, and the New National Theater Tokyo, to name a few. In 2012, he became a member of the ensemble of the Komische Oper Berlin (or KOB; I’m a fan of their work), and has performed works by Offenbach, Gluck, HandelMonteverdi, Rossini, Puccini, Mozart, as well as Oscar Straus. He’s also done extensive festival work, tours, recitals, orchestral appearances, and recordings. This season sees him in five KOB productions, as well as performances at the Opéra-Comique, Paris and a tour to Japan in the spring. “Hektisch” seems too mild a word to describe it all.

Dominik Köninger (Nero) and Alma Sadé (Poppea). Photo: Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de

We spoke this past spring just after I’d seen his riveting performance in Die krönung der Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) as the corrupt Emperor Nero. Not only did composer Elena Kats-Chernin’s creative reworking complement the beauty and majesty of Monteverdi’s original (elements of folk, tango, and jazz were perfect), the performances, together with Kosky’s sexy direction, made it into something for the 21st century. Poppea‘s portrait of a rotting, decadent world was presented with every bit of panache, beauty, and flair one would expect from the company, but ugliness was not avoided. (The deaths of both Seneca and Octavia inspired audible gasps from the audience.) Nero, while written for a much higher voice type, perfectly suited Dominik’s baritone; he shaped the words beautifully, layered vowels with beautiful textures, modulating his coppery baritone to handle the score’s difficult runs and recitatives (recits) with complete confidence.

Dominik Köninger (Pelléas) and Nadja Mchantaf (Mélisande) / Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Debussy’s Pelléas is a perfect vocal fit, having been written for what’s known as a baryton-martin, a range that falls between the traditional tenor and baritone. Considerably more modern than Monteverdi but no less difficult (some argue it is one of the most challenging roles in the baritone repertoire), the 1902 opera, based on Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck’s play, revolves around a troubling love triangle and has been described by Sir Simon Rattle as “one of the saddest and most upsetting operas ever written.”

This Sunday (October 15th) Dominik makes his role debut as the ill-fated character in Pelléas et Mélisande, in a debut production for KOB (a co-production with Nationaltheater Mannheim), conducted by Jordan de Souza and directed by Barry Kosky, who recently noted that the psychological landscape of the work reminds him of Edgar Allen Poe. The production also features soprano Nadja Mchantaf as  Mélisande and baritone Günter Papendell (whose Don Giovanni I so enjoyed this past spring) as the jealous Golaud. Along with Debussy, Dominik will also be performing at the end of this month with the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin at the Chamber Hall of the Philharmonie Berlin in a special Halloween-flavoured program that includes works by Schubert, Purcell, Grieg, and Saint-Saëns.

Photo: Jan Windzus Photography

A beautiful voice alone is enough for some, but blending the art forms integral to opera in a way that fits score and production, and connects with the audience, while casually carrying an innate, sparkling star presence — that’s the stuff I find truly exciting, and what makes me run to the opera house, over and over. As you’ll see, this is one direct singer; he likes to be challenged by new material but has no time for social media. (Don’t expect a Facebook page anytime soon.) He likes old work but has every curiosity for new stuff. He’s fine with the “barihunk” label but refuses the pressure that comes with technology. Dominik Köninger is, quite simply, his own man.

What’s it like to prepare for concerts versus opera?

That’s a good question. It depends on the role. A full recital is much more demanding than an opera. Let’s take Le nozze di Figaro: you’re on stage half of it or even less, and so it’s demanding of course, because you have to keep up the energy and all that. But to do a recital, I would say, the longer the better for preparation — a year at least. Sometimes it goes faster. You only have this one shot, this one-and-a-half hour block of time and you want to present everything you have in your mind, and the better you rehearse it, the better you can get it out there.

… and it’s just you. It’s just a series of solos.

All eyes just on you. All ears just on you.

Just people carefully listening.

That’s why I love it. You really can communicate much better with the people, you can look at them, smile at them — or not — and you can see how they react.

It’s a more intimate relationship with your audience.

Yes, and I really miss that, and I’m happy to be coming back to it.

Günter Papendell (Golaud) and Dominik Köninger (Pelléas) / Photo: Monika Rittershaus

And you’re singing Pelléas as well.

This is my absolute dream role since I was 21.

What’s that like to prepare for something that’s been your dream for so long?

Difficult, to be honest. On the one hand I’m already familiar with it, because I sung parts of it in university but … on the other hand you have so many expectations of yourself, and this means pressure. So you have to release the pressure a little bit. It’s actually not so much a vocal issue, it’s more of a brain issue. I just need to stay relaxed. I’m really looking forward to it.

Is French opera something you enjoy?

I think it fits quite well to my type of voice. You know the lighter, higher-placed baritone, not the deep booming sound, that’s not me. French music is beautiful. I love it and I love the language. It’s my favorite language to sing in. I would love to sing Mercutio in Roméo et Juliette . This sounds cocky to say, but sometimes you discover that your soul —this means the combination of your soul and voice and all that — is predisposed to certain composers. Like, when I start a new Mahler song for example, I feel like I am already there. There’s still lots to improve of course, but it’s just… there, and it’s the same for Debussy songs and Fauré songs, it’s just there. That music goes into my voice so much quicker.

Dominik Köninger with Dagmar Manzel in “Die Perlen der Cleopatra” (The Pearls of Cleopatra) / Photo: Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de

Owing to live streaming and the Live in HD series, many singers feel they have to look perfect — what is that like to deal with?

That’s the reality today. That’s the thing. The better you look, the better you sing, the better you sell.

And you are on Barihunks.

This is really flattering, I have to say.  I was and am always flattered when I read things about me. Those guys are ripped!

Keeping in shape is important for singers, though.

I feel better singing when I’m fitter, of course. I have great respect for older singers who can still produce all that sound and stay through a whole Tristan, or whatever they sing. I need to do just a little bit of sports to sing better.

What about after a performance?

I want to go home and watch “House of Cards”!

Do you ever see other productions?

When I was in Amsterdam this past spring, what I did was a bit crazy. I had a day off and nobody was there with me, so I enjoyed my time and went, on the first nice spring day — it was the end of March, really nice weather, at 2pm in the afternoon — I went to see Wozzeck at the opera. Really dark, really depressing, but good singers… great singers.

So many things are live-streamed these days. Does being filmed ever make you self-conscious?

If I started to think about all that onstage, I would be even more tense, so no. Somehow I manage to make myself free of it. I don’t think about how many people are watching and “Can they see into my mouth?” or whatever.

L-R: Günter Papendell (Golaud) Dominik Köninger (Pelléas), Nadja Mchantaf (Mélisande) / Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Is this why you’re not on social media?

I’m not interested. I have my family, I have my friends — there’s enough going on in my life. I’m always loyal to my friends, I write them on Whatsapp or message or call, but it’s enough. Sometimes people say to me, “If you were on Facebook, maybe your career would’ve been much better!” I’m like, “Or not!” It’s not my thing.

But being part of the Komische ensemble is pretty good, isn’t it?

This is how you see it, it’s how I see it, some people see it differently, and some need to sing in Vienna and LA and Moscow.

And you might do that anyway.

Yes, everything comes in its time.

Spirei Stages Falstaff In Parma

Roberto de Candia as Falstaff (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

Every time I hear about an opera based on a play, my antenna goes up.

I was a theatre writer before I was an opera writer, and a theatre performer and aficionado before all of that. In my youth I spent countless hours pouring over journals, books, and audio recordings of works by (and this is by no means a comprehensive list) Pinter, Beckett, Miller, Pirandello, Artaud, O’Casey, Orton, Moliere, and of course, Shakespeare. When my mother would take me to operas based on plays, I would always wince, thinking, “surely this won’t be as good as the original.” Ah, youth.

Living in Dublin and London allowed for many fantastic nights of theatre, with some of my favorite moments unfolding at (or being connected with) the Almeida Theatre in Islington, north London. When Jonathan Kent, whose work I had long admired, moved into opera, I was immediately intrigued. The flow between the worlds of theatre and opera has always been a natural one, of course, but owing to youthful arrogance (and more than a bit of romance around the world of theatre), I couldn’t see or appreciate it clearly. I still love theatre but whenever I go now, I find myself missing the music.

Roberto de Candia as Falstaff and Sonia Prina as Mrs. Quickly (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

Opera is, of course, a fluid art form rich in drama and rife with possibilities for presentation, something various head honchos in opera know and riff on, to frequently wondrous effect. (See: Barry Kosky’s work, especially with Komische Oper Berlin; the work of Pierre Audi and Robert Carsen;  the recent 017 Festival, courtesy Opera Phildelphia, for just a few examples.) Making opera theatrically gripping isn’t always easy, however much creativity, talent, and goodwill is extant.

When it comes to staging the work of Giuseppe Verdi, who adored the work of Shakespeare, things can get even more sticky. A director is faced with certain choices: do the stodgy Shakespeare thing, involving various shades of grey and frilly collars? Or do super-high-concept, involving surreal set pieces and bizarre effects? Listening to the music and text, together, as one unit, is of course, the director’s job. Italian director Jacopo Spirei excels in integrating drama, visuals, theatricality and music into one satisfying whole. He gets opera, he gets theatre, he gets why you might be resistant to combining them  — and he thinks you should come anyway.

I first spoke with Jacopo earlier this year when he directed Don Giovanni at the San Francisco Opera, in a remount of a work originally done by Gabriel Lavia in 2011. He’s just opened his entirely-own production of Falstaff at the Festival Verdi in Parma, Italy. Having gotten his start working with British director Graham Vick (who has a production of Stiffelio at this year’s Festival Verdi involving the audience standing and moving), I thought Spirei’s thoughts around the theatre-meets-opera issue would be very valuable.

Falstaff is based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, and involves the jocular title character, Sir John Falstaff, in various misadventures with a variety of ladies and angry husbands. Basically, Sir John’s giant ego gets him in trouble. Frequently played as a jolly big man with a beard and a rolling laugh, this famous literary character is often presented as the stuff of stage comedy, a figure we laugh with and laugh at, a bon vivant whose lust for life knows no bounds. This is fun, but I wondered if Jacopo saw something more; the photos of the production (which I will be seeing the end of this month) seem to suggest so, with a dirty Union Jack flag being used at various points, to say nothing of baritone Roberto de Candia’s dishevelled appearance and modern dress. What was Jacopo thinking as he directed this in one of Italy’s most notoriously fussy houses for opera? Find out.

How is directing an opera based on Shakespeare different?

We could say that Verdi and Shakespeare is a very happy match; whenever the two have met great art has been produced.

Roberto de Candia as Falstaff (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

Who is Sir John Falstaff? What does he have to say to us in 2017?

It’s easier to say what Falstaff is not: he’s not a moral creature, he’s not young, he’s not thin, but he has been in the past all of these things. Falstaff is a man who has known glory, wealth, poverty, defeat and survived through it all with a smile and a philosophy. He tells us how morals and honor are just words created but mankind. He’s a man who survives, who values a good glass of wine more than many words; at the same time he’s a man who represents old values in a changing society, so he’s a character that, like every human being, lives in a constant contradiction. He does not understand the modern world but also wants to participate in it, does not want to let go, wants to show that he still “has it.” I can’t think of anything more actual than that — we live in a “like” obsessed society where youth and beauty is the only value. It’s not easy being old today!!!

There is a tendency with many productions of Falstaff to emphasize the comic aspects; your production seems more serious and thoughtful. Why this approach?

The opera is funny, but not comic. It’s an opera about different stages of life, and has a strong dose of cynicism; it’s a comedy with teeth! I have approached the opera from the text, like Verdi did, so I’ve developed what’s on the page, I have researched with the cast and what we’ve discovered is what we are presenting to the audience today.

The cast of ‘Falstaff’ (Photo Roberto Ricci)

The design sense of this production is very unique: contemporary, somewhat expressionist, familiar. What were your visual influences? What was your process with designer Nikolaus Webern?

With Nikolaus we always start from the text and we discuss a lot before even starting to design. One big element  that inspired us is the weight of the protagonist that creates an imbalance in the perfect lives of Windsor’s bourgeois world, so we have worked on this loss of balance in life.

A great visual influence for me came from all the years working at Glyndebourne, so the village, the house, the pub — they’re somewhat related to those years where I was assisting Graham Vick and reviving his shows in this magical festival. You can see in the show the village of Lewes, the house of the owners of the festival and in fact. almost every single pub in the neighbourhood.

Giorgio Caoduro (Ford) in a scene from ‘Falstaff’ (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

How much did Brexit influence your direction with this work?

Funny you ask — whenever I presented the production to the cast and the theatre I said, “Falstaff at the time of Brexit.” In a way there is a relationship to what’s happening to England now, but I’ve treated it more as an example than anything else. I believe we have a lot to learn from what England is going through politically and socially. I don’t and never believed that division is the answer. In a bizarre way England is behaving like Falstaff, still thinking an Empire is possible and not accepting reality and how the world has changed. Brexit has been a very divisive subject within England and Great Britain in general.

What’s it like to direct at Festival Verdi in Parma, a city known for its strong opera opinions?

It’s an honor to be directing at this prestigious festival next to names like Vick and (Hugo) De Ana (directing Jerusalem at the Festival Verdi this year); I was thrilled at the idea of working in Verdi’s land for an audience that loves and deeply knows Verdi. I enjoyed the process, never fearing any good or bad reaction from the audience. As long as you are loyal to your vision, there’s nothing to fear.

Old World, Brand New

Philadelphia’s Academy of Music  (Photo: B. Krist)

Welcome to The Opera Queen.

The name, as you will learn in the “About Me” section, is firmly done with tongue in cheek, and in no way implies this site is about one art form alone. How could it be? Opera itself incorporates so many disciplines — music, theatre, visual art, dance, literature — and my tastes and passion are too wide to ever focus on one art form. The name actually comes from a friend who teasingly called me “the opera queen” in 2015, when I decided to more fully immerse myself in reporting on the art form following the passing of my opera-loving mother in 2015. (There’s also the fact my first and last names are frequently misspelled; theoperaqueen.com eliminates the possibility of any confusion, I hope.) The name was chosen with a playful spirit (and in the interests of clarity), though hopefully you’ll find a variety of things here, both playful and serious, vivacious and thought-provoking, joyous and contemplative.

This premiere post integrates so many of the things I believe in when it comes to culture; it is being done from Berlin, a city I seem to be visiting frequently. I was here in both January and May, each time for opera-heavy visits; this time I’m attending the Musikfest portion of annual Berliner Festspiele, (which is considerably, and wonderfully, heavy on symphonic work. (Look for a full report in a future edition of Opera Canada magazine.) Tonight I am seeing Riccardo Chailly conduct the Filarmonica della Scala, whom I saw at last year’s Salzburg Festival, with a program chalk-full of Verdi works. “It is an orchestra which is living daily with opera,” Chailly said recently.

A scene from Komsiche Oper Berlin’s “The Magic Flute”  (Photo: Robert Millard/LA Opera; (©) Copyright 2013 Robert Millard www.MillardPhotos.com)

Lots of people live that way, I think, including David Devan, General Director and President of Opera Philadelphia. A fellow Canadian who’s been with OP since the mid 2000s, Devan is the driving force behind the company’s visionary new 017 Festival, which focuses solely on contemporary work. You won’t find any Verdi at 017 — but you will find Mozart, specifically The Magic Flute, and more specifically yet, the famous Komische Oper Berlin production. Also being presented during the 017 Festival is the world premiere of We Shall Not Be Moved, by an incredible team of people: composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and director Bill T. Jones. The work explores a painful episode in Philadelphia’s history, and speaks to very timely issues of race, politics, and power. The Wake World, another world premiere (by Opera Philly’s composer-in-residence, David Hertzberg), is being presented in the famous galleries of The Barnes Foundation, and brings together the work of physician and collector Dr. Albert Barnes, and British magician and occultist Aleister Crowley, for what OP terms “a mystical world of hallucinatory vividness.”

The creators of “We Shall Not Be Moved”, L-R Daniel Bernard Roumain, Bill T. Jones, Marc Bamuthi Joseph (Photo: Dave DiRentis)

Devan’s vision is, as you will hear, wide-ranging and very inclusive; he’s worked to make an old art form, in an old and very historic city, into something entirely for and of the 21st century, while still firmly retaining all the flavour, beauty, drama, and originality of opera, in and of itself. Devan’s ideas about audiences, art, and engagement are so thoughtful, and so worth considering, not for purely administrators — but for artists, creators, and yes, arts media as well.

The Opera Queen is officially here — to entertain and delight, yes, but to make you think as well. I hope you’ll enjoy.

About Me

Why The Opera Queen?

The name for this site came out of a conversation with a non-opera-loving friend who playfully referred to me as such. Ever since, I wondered if it was a suitable name for a website, particularly given the consistent misspellings of my name through the years.

I am a freelance arts journalist with a focus on classical music and opera. The Opera Queen is short, punchy, and memorable; the name is also presented here with tongue firmly in cheek. I don’t pretend to know everything about the art form, and I don’t present myself as being able to report on it alone. I love the arts as a whole, having spent my life around, and in many cases, immersed, in them.

Having first been exposed to opera at the age of three, I have spent decades in the classical arts as both performer and writer. I gained my Grade 8 Royal Conservatory Piano Studies diploma as a child, and have been writing since my teenage years, which my work was first published in independent music zines in the 1990s. After living in Dublin and London in the late 1990s (where I worked in film and theatre), I spent time in the advertising world in the early 2000s, before returning to school to learn broadcasting; I subsequently worked in public radio (CBC), and I still spend each winter teaching radio documentary production at Seneca College in Toronto.

My passion for culture has taken me to a number of locales, including the Metropolitan Opera (NYC), the New York Philharmonic, the New York City Opera, LA Opera, the Salzburg Festival, the Vienna Philharmonic, Opera Royal de Wallonie (Belgium), Opera National de Lorraine (France), Deutsche Oper Berlin, Staatsoper Berlin, Komische Oper, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Konzerthausorchester Berlin, the Royal Danish Opera, the Dublin Philharmonic, the Filarmonica della Scala, the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music (Budapest), the London Philharmonic, and the English National Opera.

I also visit and report on the Canadian arts scene, particularly the work of Canadian Opera Company, Opera Atelier, the Calgary Opera, Tafelmusik, Soulpepper, and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, as well as Tapestry, which specializes in new opera works, and Against the Grain, who reimagine classics.

I am fascinated by the ways in which arts companies actively try to engage new audiences, and consider myself a critic, ambassador, and tour guide for the various art forms which have brought so much joy, wonder, and deep fascination to my life; it is my aim in life to demystify work which has the power to shape lives, change minds, and transform hearts. I believe in spreading genuine passion and artistic excitement for a classical culture that is, more than ever, coming alive for a new generation.

Expect interviews, features, musings on fashion and literature, and perhaps the odd recipe. After all, a balanced cultural diet is good for everyone — Opera Queen or not.

Professional Work

Speaking engagements:

  • Humber College, Journalism Program (School of Media Studies), November 2017 + March 2018.

Teaching engagements:

  • Radio documentary creation, Seneca College (Faculty of Communications), Winter Term 2015 — Present.

The Globe and Mail:

Video Interview:

Opera News Magazine (Reviews):

Finley cover

Feature interview with baritone Gerald Finley for Opera Canada magazine’s Autumn 2017 edition.

Opera Canada Magazine (Features):

Indigenous magazine cover

Feature story on Indigenous opera in Canada for Opera Canada magazine’s Winter 2018 edition.

Opera Canada (Reviews):

Archibald interview

Interview with soprano Jane Archibald for the COC 2018 Winter magazine.

Canadian Opera Company – Winter 2018 Magazine:

CBC Music:

Toronto Star — Reviews:

Toronto Star — Features:

National Post — Features:

 Audio Interviews:

Pacific Standard:

The Daily Dot:

Torontoist:

Intermission:

Hyperallergic:

Metro:

Mic:

Broadway World:

XOJane:

Digital Journal:

“You Never Get To The Bottom Of It”

L-R Erwin Schrott as Leporello, Ana Maria Martinez as Donna Elvira, Erin Wall as Donna Anna, Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Don Ottavio, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Don Giovanni. Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Is opera misunderstood?

When asked this question in 2007, British director Graham Vick said, “Yes, in that people believe they need to be educated about opera to understand it. Those who respond to it viscerally and emotionally are the ones who understand it best.”
This is something that I deeply relate to, having grown up with, and been raised by, a woman who, though not super educated about opera, responded in highly visceral, emotional ways to what she heard, so much so that on Saturday afternoons she’d stand in the middle of aisles at the local supermarket, radio earphones tilted back and nearly falling off her head, her mouth hanging open, her palms up, listening to live broadcasts from the Met, as fellow shoppers shot her dirty looks and angled their carts around her. As a teenager, I was mortified; as an adult, I understand, even if I don’t emulate my mother’s grocery store habits. (Yet.)

Vick is a director known for his experimental approach. People have strong opinions about his work; some love and whole-heartedly applaud it, others think it’s overwrought, silly, dumbed-down. While I’ve not seen any of his work live (that will change soon, I hope), I think Vick is one of those people who considers himself something of an ambassador for the art form. His ideas around the lack of empathy in modern society, the importance of involving various communities, and visceral reactions to culture ring big bells with me and the things I believe in terms of the power of art and music.

Andrea Silvestrelli as the Commendatore
and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Don Giovanni.
Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

One of the most powerful of all opera experiences for me is Don Giovanni. The opera is, as many of my regular readers may note, something of a favorite; it is also, to return to my first question, one of the more misunderstood works in the operatic repertoire. Some productions I’ve seen I have outright despised; others I found entertaining (like Komische Oper’s zany, Herbert Fritsch-directed production), while yet others made me re-think the opera entirely, illuminating its female characters and challenging perceptions of its main character. So much of what I think powers Mozart’s great opera is, in fact, the attitudes we, as audiences, bring into the auditorium; like any great work of art, our own experiences (and social conditioning) color what we experience, but when it comes to Giovanni especially, these attitudes show themselves in some very revealing ways, expressed mainly as our reactions to Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, Zerlina, and of course, to the Don himself.

Lately Don Giovanni has been frequently produced, what with the remount of Robert Carsen’s celebrated 2011 production on La Scala with baritone Thomas Hampson (one of the noted interpreters of the role) and bass baritone Luca Pisaroni (whose performance as Leporello I so enjoyed in Salzburg last summer); Opera in Holland Park and Opera Lausanne also celebrated their respective openings over the weekend, Gran Teatre Liceu (Barcelona) has a production opening later this month, and Festival d’Aix-en-Provence has a production next month. Don Giovanni is on now through June 30th at San Francisco Opera as part of their Summer of Love program.What is it about this work that so continues to entrance and excite artists and audiences alike? Why does the story of an unrepentant Lothario and the various women he loves and men he angers (and murders) — all within the space of one day — continue to have a grip on popular imagination? How does the work (and its telling) change through time, and why?

When I heard director Jacopo Spirei was helming a remount of a 2011 San Francisco Opera production originally directed by fellow Italian Gabriele Lavia, I was immediately intrigued. Spirei has an impressive resume of directing work, mainly focused in Europe and the UK; he got his start working with Graham Vick, and I’ve been following his career closely the last little while. Having already directed the opera two times prior to this (including at Salzburg’s renowned Landestheater), Spirei comes by his theatrical approach honestly. He spent considerable time in his twenties in England, seeing a variety of dramatic and operatic works at the English National Opera, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the National Theatre. Eventually he went on to work with Vick at the celebrated Glyndebourne Festival. Spirei has since directed works at the Wexford Festival in Ireland, the Royal Danish Opera, Houston Grand Opera, the Theater an der Wien (Vienna), and Teatro Comunale di Bologna, among many others. Later this year he’ll be directing the opera Falstaff (based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor as well as scenes from Henry IV, parts 1 and 2) at the famous Festival Verdi in Parma, Italy.

Director Jacopo Spirei. Photo: Mary Marshania

In making his debut with the San Francisco Opera, Spirei had to take the work of another director, in a production from six years ago, and make it his own. In addition to wondering what that must’ve been like, I was also curious to learn his thoughts about various characters (especially the female ones) in the opera, and what it’s been like to work with artists who come with lots of prior experience in the role. Our conversation was very wide-ranging and, at times, quite intense, if equally friendly, and very lively. Spirei definitely has his opinions, but he has what I’d call the iron-hand-in-velvet-glove approach; he doesn’t hit you over the head with ideas or proclaim decrees, but rather, contextualizes artistic and musical history, with some fun contemporary corollaries, to make truly interesting suggestions. You don’t have to agree with what he says, of course, but it’s worth ruminating on, at the very least. As I wrote in a past feature, sometimes it’s nice to be presented with new ideas on something you thought you knew very well, even if, initially, it’s a bit uncomfortable.

Owing to the wide nature of our conversation, I’ve divided our chat into two sections; expect Part 2 soon. We discuss the role of so-called “tradition” in opera, bringing the art form out of the theater, and what he meant when he recently told Newsweek that “In Italy, (opera) is all about putting on a pretty picture.” For now, here’s Spirei on Don Giovanni. 

What’s it like as a director to come to a production that already exists, and to try to put your own stamp on it?I’ve never done anything like this, but it’s been fascinating, to get, somehow, the limited set of ingredients and just create a new dish, because it’s a little bit of, when you have boundaries you are forced to be a lot more creative. Sometimes the boundaries are budget, artists, all kinds of different aspects, which is incredibly fascinating and exciting. This was the real challenge, to reinvent an element already there, although the starting point (of the original) is something that intrigued me a lot.

What was the element?

The fact the mirrors were central in the original production. I find it really attractive in a way, how Giovanni is a mirror to the other characters, showing us their real sides, taking everything from them. Somehow we’ve stripped everything away, so it’s just the element and dynamic in which the characters interact with each other and Giovanni.

Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Don Giovanni. Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

You’re working with people who have a lot of experience with this work, and this character.

It’s great; it’s luxury. People come with their own luggage of experience of contributions. We’ve been working in an incredibly organic way — with (conductor) Marc (Minkowski), with Ildebrando (D’Arcangelo, who sings the lead) it’s been a great time of sharing and experiencing new material and finding new angles.

What I enjoy about working with Ildebrando is that he’s an artist who comes with a lot of experience, and a lot of expertise and knowledge, but he’s completely willing to try out new things and put himself in your hands, to experiment. It’s been really exciting to have worked someone who has been so fun. We didn’t have to do all the preliminary work; we both know the material really well, so basically a glance of the eye is enough for both of us to understand which way we’re going. It’s something I’ve never experienced in my life; with a look, he understands what you’re thinking and you can communicate with him in the same way, and then steer his performance into different directions. I’ve enjoyed that immensely.

Marc is the same. I love his approach to the tempi; it’s very refreshing, (in that) it’s very new, very contemporary, especially coming from period music. He’s an expert in that, of course — Baroque and ancient music — but he brings that freshness that conductors who come from that repertoire have. This is really exciting.

In many ways Don Giovanni feels like it belongs in the 21st century; it has so much to say about humans and relationships.

Absolutely. I’ve done Giovanni three times, in three completely different settings, time-wise, period-wise, visually as well. It’s extraordinary how much Giovanni has to give. You never get to the bottom of it. One could work on this opera forever and never get tired, though you might become obsessed, and be haunted by it! It’s a phenomenal piece to study, and like every Mozart piece, it never ceases to make us understand ourselves and the times in which we live. Giovanni is the man who is not willing to pay a price for his actions, who is completely free and without boundaries, with no morals, who pushes forward and never looks back.

Erwin Schrott as Leporello and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Don Giovanni.
Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

What you’re saying makes me wonder, is he a symbol more than an actual man?

Yes of course, absolutely.

I’ve spoken with others who insist he is, and has to be, the latter.

Not at all! The thing is, that, if anything he is an example. What he is, is not Casanova, who is an historical figure; he’s a legend, a legendary character, and in a way, he has gone through five centuries of theater and has transformed himself every time because every century has looked at this character through their own lenses. The 18th century viewed him as a man who gets punished because he doesn’t take responsibility for his actions and follows instincts; it’s not a positive example.

The 19th century adored the element of him being against everything — but “Viva la libertà” is not a hail to freedom, it’s a hail to liberty, to do whatever you want. That’s not an altogether positive value, it’s the freedom to do whatever you like, however it pleases you, no matter what consequences it has on other people, which is the boundary of freedom. As you say, my liberty finishes when yours begins; Giovanni has none of (the awareness of consequences), so of course we’re fascinated and attracted, like we’re attracted to an abyss, or a tornado.

Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Don Ottavio, with Erin Wall as Donna Anna (on screens).
Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opero

I feel like the women really define him in many ways in this opera; they’re all incredibly important.

In the story, that day in the life of Giovanni, he doesn’t even seduce anybody! The only woman who’s in love with him is one who was abandoned from another place and is chasing him. We know he has a lot of women only by the words of Leporello about the catalogue, which is a list he makes as he says, but… is it a collection? Are those numbers real? The great thing about Giovanni is deceit; he’s constantly deceiving us as much as he’s deceiving everyone else. With Anna of course, there are lots of different approaches to that (situation), but it starts with the rape…

… if you want to call it that; some directors think it’s questionable if that’s what it actually is; I’ve come to think it is, too.

It is questionable, but once you go through the music and what she says, and the dramatic tension of the music, the trauma is there. Had she not shouted, her father would have not turned up — her father (the Commendatore) would be alive; if she shut up and didn’t do anything and let Giovanni go ahead and do whatever he was doing, her father would still be alive. She does carry that guilt, no matter how conscientious or not-conscientious she is. That’s one element. Another is that Zerlina is seduced by the money; she says “yes!” the minute he tells her, “I have a villa and will marry you.”

Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Don Giovanni and Sarah Shefer as Zerlina.
Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

You can’t forget positions in this opera; he is called “Don” for a reason, after all.

Absolutely.

I get frustrated with stagings that forget that part, and ones in which the women are victimized.

What’s fascinating is the characters also change. Elvira is a victim of Leporello and the catalogue aria, and we laugh at her until she tells us, “My God, he has betrayed me with so many women” and all of a sudden, we are with her in that pain. It’s the same moment when we find out our partners had betrayed and cheated on us. It’s so incredibly raw and so close to ourselves. One cannot simplify it into victims and non-victims; each one is a character representing an element of our personality.

… while also being a real human being: complex and nuanced. 

Absolutely.

___

Here’s Part Two of our chat, in which we discuss the role of theater in a broader sense, the debate on tradition in opera presentation, and opera fashion (To dress up or not to dress up?). Enjoy!

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