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Festival Focus – Luminato Festival, Toronto, Canada

29 June 2012, Toronto, Canada

Theory of light: 'Einstein on the Beach'
Theory of light: 'Einstein on the Beach'(Photo: Lucie Jansch)

A scene from 'Laura's Cow'
A scene from 'Laura's Cow'(Photo: Michael Cooper)

Report by Karyl Charna Lynn

As the Luminato festival entered its 6th season, it began a new chapter with welcoming a new artistic director, Jorn Weisbrodt, who believes the Festival should include all artistic fields, where artists and intellectuals join together in cross-cultural performances and dialogue, as well as making the festival an integral part of Toronto itself.

Although the theme this year was Anglo-centric, the commemoration of the bicentennial of the Anglo-American War of 1812, the Festival itself was cosmopolitan and encompassed all aspects of the visual and performing arts: from Glass’s epic Einstein on the Beach to the world premiere of Laura’s Cow; from the play La Belle et la Bête: A Contemporary Retelling, which combined holographic 3D animals, scenery and actors with live ones, to Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company. Music also came from many genres, spanning the gamut from a marathon piano recital by Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear, who played all 32 Beethoven sonatas in one (long) day to a Rufus Wainwright concert at Windscape, Luminato’s artfully transformed hub in Toronto’s Pecaut Square where thousands flocked for his and many other free outdoor concerts. The Royal Ontario Museum offered Jorinde Voight’s ink drawing interpretations of Beethoven’s sonatas, while the Art Gallery of Ontario exhibited a rare collection of Picasso’s paintings from the artist’s personal collection. Showcasing the Festival’s theme was an innovative exhibition in Fort York called The Encampment, which retold the personal toll of the War of 1812. Literary discussions, movies, magic shows, and ‘1000 Tastes of Toronto’ culinary delights in the Distillery Historic District rounded off the gamut of activities.

The two operatic offerings couldn’t have been more diverse: Glass’ four-and-a-half hour Einstein on the Beach, part of the composer’s 75th birthday celebration world tour, juxtaposed with a new children’s opera, Laura’s Cow by Errol Gay and Michael Albano. Based on an historical event from the Anglo-American War of 1812, which was the last time America attacked Canada, Laura's Cow follows the story of Laura Secord (the wife of a Canadian solider wounded in battle) who walked 32km to warn the British of an impending American attack. That simple deed, which led to the defeat of the American forces, defined the future and changed the course of history. Legend has it she passed through enemy lines with her cow, giving the impression of doing domestic chores. In the opera, the cow – a talking cow – became Laura’s conscience.

Taking place in a black box theater inside a former power plant, the opera opened in a classroom where the children were taught about Laura’s historic deed, which then unfolded amidst cleverly executed child-like sets denoting the different locations of Laura’s journey. A narrator tied the various threads of the opera together by periodically explaining the historic events. Spoken dialogue alternated with melodic singing and expressive musical chords, painting the atmosphere and expressing the character’s moods, which ranged from rumbling and threatening to lyrical and soothing. There was humour too: the talking cow emerged from an authentic reproduction of one, initially singing ‘moo, moo’ in a melodic and seductive manner; and beavers built a dam following instructions from a book, Dam Building for Dummies. The talking animals also warned that ‘humans don’t listen’, until Laura did, when her cow sang ‘you have a chance to change the world around us’.   

Anyone expecting to see Einstein amidst sun, sand, and surf at Einstein on the Beach, which inaugurated Luminato, was in for a big surprise. Except for a couple of photos of Einstein, and a violinist (Jennifer Koh) who was seated at the front of the stage wearing a big, bushy, white wig, Einstein was nowhere else to be seen. He was not the main attraction. It was his concepts of time, travel, space, distance, and movement that were. They were transformed into metaphoric images drawn from his life’s interests: light, a space machine, nuclear reactor, trains, airplanes, and ending with a bus that propelled the opera, along with themes of technical progress and nuclear annihilation.

Although called an opera at its premiere in 1976, none of the elements one associates with that art form are present in Einstein. There is no storyline, climax, or denouement, and not even any singing – unless you count endless repetition of numbers singing. Instead, it is a parade of theatre, dance, and vignette visualizations of Einstein’s concepts, seen in a series of tableaux joined together by ‘knee plays’ or intermezzos.

In this revival of Robert Wilson's original 1976 production, one tableaux showed a formally dressed couple standing on a train for an entire moon cycle, which ended with the women pointing a gun at her companion. In another, a rectangular white light slowly moved from horizontal to vertical position, while the orchestra endlessly repeated the same few notes. There were courtroom scenes, a fairly-tale like creature in a modern tower, a spaceship machine with pulsating lights, and frenzied repetitive dancing that went on too long. Temporary moments of fascination punctuated interminable stretches of tedium. Some loved it; others walked out and didn’t return. It was avant garde in 1976. Today, sections appeared dated, others still relevant. Yet it is still an experience, and a unique way to express Einstein’s contribution to mankind.
 
Although Luminato is only a half a decade old, it has already made its mark as a cutting edge, avant garde festival poised to enter the ranks of those top-notch international festivals that not only offer new and rarely performed operas, but a myriad of other unusual and stimulating art forms.

Next year’s Luminato Festival runs from 14 to 23 June 2013.


Les Troyens at Covent Garden

26 June 2012, London, UK

Histrionics to perfection: Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandre
Histrionics to perfection: Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandre(Photo: Bill Cooper)

Review by Francis Muzzu

The Royal Opera has undertaken the Olympian task of performing Les Troyens as part of this year's London 2012 Festival. Designer Es Devlin could do worse than transfer her stunning Trojan horse to the Olympic Closing Ceremony, which she is also designing: a flaming mesh of weaponry, it certainly has the scale and dramatic impact required.  It also means that everyone else involved has to work hard to stay in the picture.  The chorus certainly does, on top form throughout, and Antonio Pappano’s conducting, structured and tensile, ensures that the orchestra matches them.

Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Cassandre has the histrionics to perfection, but without quite the matching glamour of tone.  Eva-Maria Westbroek enjoys more vocal refulgence, but her Didon tended to the maternal rather than regal.  Bryan Hymel, unenviably substituting for Jonas Kaufmann as Enée, offers less theatricality but a voice that thrills more as it ascends.  A solid supporting cast offered much to enjoy though sometimes lacked direction from David McVicar – at times the more intimate moments lost a sense of focus.

Les Troyens runs at Covent Garden until 11 July.

 

World Premiere – Slaying the Dragon at Center City Opera Theater

19 June 2012, Philadelphia, US

Scenes from 'Slaying the Dragon'
Scenes from 'Slaying the Dragon'

(Photos: Center City Opera Theater)

Review by Karyl Charna Lynn

Many recent American operas have been fictionalised accounts based on true stories, which if they hadn’t actually happened would have been impossible to believe. Slaying the Dragon is one of them. Dealing with hate and violence, redemption and forgiveness, it also shows how forgiving is not always possible and how evil is not always apparent.

The story revolves around Larry Trapp, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Nebraska, who in 1991 discovered that a Jewish family (the Weissers) had moved into town and began his usual virulent anti-Semitic and racist threats – similar to those he had spewed on other minorities. But the Weissers, rather than cowering or fighting back, turned the other cheek. As Trapp succumbed to the ravages of diabetes and was spurned by the KKK, the Weissers offered to take care of him. So moved was Trapp by their kindness, he renounced his virulent racial and anti-Semitic tirades and converted to Judaism. Based on the book, Not By the Sword, Ellen Frankel’s libretto is a fictionalized account of Larry Trapp’s transformation, known in the opera as Jerry Krieg.

Set against a backdrop evoking the ruins of the World Trade Center after the September 11th bombings, symbolizing the world’s destructive forces, the opera offered some chilling scenes. For example, after Krieg’s induction as the Grand Dragon, when the attendees pulled off their white pointed hoods to reveal normal mums talking on cell phones to their kids; or when a Holocaust surivivor refused to offer forgiveness to the newly-converted Krieg, instead showed him her arm etched with concentration camp numbers. But there were also long stretches of banality and redundancy like the repetitiveness of the chorus, and a gospel preacher leading a reluctant audience in a sing-along that seemed endless. The problem was with the scenes that jumped from gut-wrenching revulsion and shocking obscene rawness of Krieg and his Skinhead henchmen to the preachy goodness of the Jewish family, without delving into why each character had such a temperament. The explanation of Krieg’s hate, that he was abused as a child, came across as too simplistic for such a profoundly moving conversion: as Act I ended he was poised to kill the Jewish family, yet by the end of act two, he had renounced all hate groups, apologized to everyone he had offended, and had converted to Judaism, which was, very effectively juxtaposed with the induction of a new Grand Dragon.

The music sounded like an aural rendition of a patchwork quilt with each pattern a different size, shape, texture and colour, with the array of musical styles echoing the diversity of characters: from Jerry Krieg’s Grand Dragon to the newly arrived Jewish couple, Michael and Vera Goodman; from the skinheads Viper and Nighthawk to the Reverend Ava Gray; from the Asian Giet Long to the Holocaust survivor, Ester Zikorn. The melodic score at times sounded more like a movie soundtrack, especially with the abundant spoken dialogue and the unusual fusion of sounds – including gospel songs distilled from Hebrew melodies. Nevertheless, despite its lyrical character, the music was very much 21st century, sung by a well rehearsed cast and crisply conducted by maestro Andrew Kurtz.

 

Verdi's Macbeth at the Grand Theatre, Geneva

14 June 2012, Geneva, Switzerland

Christof Loy's new 'Macbeth' in Geneva
Christof Loy's new 'Macbeth' in Geneva(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

Review by Robert Thicknesse

Verdi had little interest in the subtexts of Shakespeare. (How could he, since he never read the stuff?) What he liked in the plays were ‘strong situations’, laid on with a trowel, and Macbeth in particular also provided a way out of the formal straitjacket of Italian opera: with its witches, soliloquies and scenes of supernatural horror and bloody offstage mayhem, it doesn’t lend itself to the standard scene-building routines of cavatina and cabaletta. His imagination freed and fired by those witches and especially by the glittering malevolence of Lady Macbeth, Verdi produced something whose fantasy and originality he wouldn’t match for a good decade. Shakespeare’s imagery, too, is on a different level from all other opera, and even in gutted Italian all the spooked resonances of daggers, rooky woods, dusty death and the rest come echoing through.

Christof Loy seems largely to have overcome his urge to sneer at Italian opera and now produces detailed, thoughtful and visually arresting dramas. His take on Macbeth was surprisingly classical – a vast, gloomy gothic baronial hall (Edwardian-ish), an enormous staircase vanishing into darkness at the back, the sepulchral light of a Scottish February sunset casting skeletal shadows on the wall, marvellously lit in spectral shades of grey – and it was matched by an elegant, understated orchestral performance by the Suisse Romande under Ingo Metzmacher, full of wormy inner detail, sorrow and mystery, occasionally short of melodrama but rising to thunderous climaxes in the earth-shattering act finales.

The closest to a directorial concept was that Macbeth fantasises the witches and their prophecies into being: it’s his domestics, transfigured in his fevered mind, who tell him what he wants to hear. His obsession with tearing away the veil of the future is prefigured at the beginning by a dumbshow of the sleepwalking scene, a loose scrim between the audience and Lady Macbeth slowly descending the distant stairs in a most Hitchcockian way to the melancholy prelude; bloodied bodies litter the floor, a vision of the final battle.

The show was notable for the Verdian debut of Jennifer Larmore. She has all the notes (except perhaps the final fateful D-flat) and a marvellous flashing-eyed presence, but beautiful singing was never really called for in a role that will always be copyrighted by Callas with her vocal scenery-chewing. In Larmore’s more suppressed interpretation, the hidden hysteria induced by the couple’s actions came through her jumpy, heart-in-mouth toast as she tried to jolly the banquet along, a basilisk look at her crumbling husband, and the final tranced scene where she finally became human and vulnerable.
 
The jaunty choruses of witches were energetically done by the Geneva chorus, who also put in a stunning turn as the shattered refugees from devastated Scotland. Davide Damiani was the dramatic but vocally unstable Macbeth; Christian van Horn sang Banquo, the piece’s moral weathervane, with great beauty, and Andrea Carè gave Macduff a stirring belt. The ballets Verdi added for Paris were included, not wholly successfully.

 

Verdi's Falstaff at the Royal Opera House, London

22 May 2012, London, UK

Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff
Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

Review by Francis Muzzu

Verdi's Falstaff is the Royal Opera's contribution to this summer's World Shakespeare Festival in London.   A new production by Robert Carsen (shared with La Scala and the Canadian Opera Company) it is updated to the 1950s; a second Elizabethan Age, and one of comparable social mobility to the first. 

It all works well (with the aid of some judiciously tweaked surtitles) and Paul Steinberg's oak-panelled sets look very fine indeed, as does Alice Ford's rather fabulous kitchen.  The comedy unfolds naturally and is generally unforced, and Daniele Gatti leads an equally flowing performance in the pit and is attentive to his singers.  

Ambrogio Maestri's Falstaff is rightly dominant in both presence and voice, and rules the stage; Dalibor Jenis puts up a good fight as Ford.  Mistresses Ford, Page and Quickly (respectively Ana Maria Martinez, Kai Rüütel and Marie-Nicole Lemieux) are sharply characterised and elegantly sung, though their voices are more Glyndebourne-sized; and Amanda Forsythe’s Nanetta and Joel Prieto’s Fenton sound delicious but very small-scale. 

Grab one of the few remaining tickets if you can – it’s great fun.

Robert Carsen's new production of Falstaff runs at Covent Garden until 30 May

 


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