Edmonton Classical Music

A comprehensive calendar of classical music concerts being presented in Edmonton, Alberta, and reviews of those concerts.

Author: Mark Morris (page 1 of 8)

Julliard String Quartet concert cancelled

The much anticipated visit of the Julliard String Quartet, who were due to play at McDougal United Church on Monday March 19th, in an Edmonton Chamber Music Concert, has sadly been cancelled due to the illness of one of the members of the quartet.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra 2019 – 2020 season

The Edmonton Symphony orchestra has announced its 2019 – 2020 season. It is notable for the large number of works by women composers.

Below is a list of the works being played in the season, organized by composer but divided up into categories (symphonies, concertos, orchestral works, choral), and showing the soloist(s) (if any), the conductor, and the date of the concert. Readers have found this useful in the past.

 

 

 

 

Composer Work Artist Conductor Date
Symphony, etc.
Grażyna Bacewicz Sinfonietta Daniel Raiskin Jan 10 & 11
Beethoven Symphony No.2 José-Luis Gomez Apr 19
Symphony No.3 Eroica Daniel Raiskin Jan 10 & 11
Berlioz Symphonie fantastique Jean-Marie Zeitouni Oct 4 & 6
Brahms Symphony No.4 Alexander Prior May 22 & 23
Bruckner Symphony No.7 Alexander Prior June 4 & 6
Dvořák Symphony No.7 Michael Stern Nov 14 & 16
Symphony No.9 From the New World Robert Bernhardt Aug 30
Guilmant Organ Symphony Rashaan Allwood Sara Jobin Nov 24
Mozart Symphony No.29 William Eddins Oct 29
Symphony No.41 Jupiter Alexander Shelley Jan 23 & 25
Nielsen Symphony No.4 Inextinguishable Alexander Prior Mar 6 & 7
Prokofiev Symphony No.2 Alexander Prior Feb 22
Schubert Symphony No.4 Tragic José-Luis Gomez April 24 & 25
Shostakovich Symphony No.11 ‘The Year 1905’ Alexander Prior Nov 1 and 2
Concertos, etc
Beethoven Piano Concerto No.4 Bernd Glemser Alexander Prior June 6
Brahms Violin Concerto Blake Pouliot Robert Bernhardt Aug 30
Britten Cello Symphony Stéphane Tétreault Alexander Shelley Jan 25
Chausson Poème for Violin Laura Veeze Jean-Marie Zeitouni Oct 5
Chopin Piano Concerto No.1 Charles Richard-Hamelin Daniel Raiskin Jan 10 and 11
Debussy Rapsodie for saxophone Jess Gillam José-Luis Gomez April 22, 24 & 25
Dvořák Romance in F minor Robert Uchida Sara Jobin Nov 24
da Falla Nights in the Gardens of Spain Angela Cheng William Eddins Oct 10
Haydn Cello Concerto No.1 Stéphane Tétreault Alexander Shelley Jan 23
Divertimento Stéphane Tétreault Alexander Shelley Jan 23
Korngold Cello Concerto Stéphane Tétreault Robert Bernhardt Jan 16
Medtner Piano Concerto No.2 Charles Richard-Hamelin Alexander Prior May 22 & 23
Mendelssohn Concert Piece for Two Clarinets Julianne Scott,
Robert Spady
William Eddins
Piano Concerto No.2 Danae Dörken William Eddins
Violin Concerto Andrew Wan Michael Stern Nov 14
Mozart Piano Concerto No.23 Angela Cheng Jean-Marie Zeitouni Mar 28
Prokofiev Violin Concerto No.2 Alice Lee Alexander Prior Jan 19
Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.4 Boris Giltburg Alexander Prior Nov 1
Rimsky-Korsakov Capriccio espagnole Eric Buchmann William Eddins Oct 10
Clara Schumann Piano Concerto Angela Cheng Jean-Marie Zeitouni Mar 26
Sibelius Violin Concerto Robert Uchida Alexander Prior Mar 6 & 7
Tchaikovsky Andante cantabile & Pezzo capriccioso Rafael Hoekman Alexander Prior Jan 19
Piano Concerto No.1 Bernd Glemser Alexander Prior June 4
Violin Concerto Bella Hristova Michael Stern Nov 16
Torelli Trumpet Concerto Frédéric Payant José-Luis Gomez April 19
Villa-Lobos Fantasia for saxophone and orchestra Jess Gillam José-Luis Gomez April 24 & 25
Orchestral
Adams Grand Pianola Music Alexander Prior Nov 29 and 30
Barber Overture to The School for Scandal Alexander Prior Jan 16
Bernstein ‘Symphonic Dances” from West Side Story Alexander Prior Jan 16 & 19
Chabrier España William Eddins Oct 10
Anna Clyne This Midnight Hour Michael Stern Nov 16
Copland Fanfare for the Common Man Alexander Prior Jan 16
Lincoln Portrait D.T. Baker Alexander Prior Jan 16
Elgar Enigma Variations Alexander Prior Nov 30
John Estacio I Lost My Talk Jean-Marie Zeitouni Oct 6
Vivian Fung A Child’s Dream of Toys Alexander Prior June 6
Hanson Merry Mount: Suite Alexander Prior Jan 16 & 19
Jennifer Higdon blue cathedral José-Luis Gomez April 24 & 25
Liszt St Francis: Sermon to the Birds & Les Préludes Jean-Marie Zeitouni Mar 26 & 28
Nicole Lizée La terre a des maux Samian Alexander Prior Nov 29 & 30
Life After Dark Alexander Prior Jan 19
Alexina Louie Music for a Celebration Jean-Marie Zeitouni Oct 6
Michael Massey Two Rivers William Eddins Oct 29
Missy Mazzoli River Rouge Transfiguration Alexander Prior Nov 1 & 2, Jan 16
McPherson Triune Sara Jobin Nov 24
Jocelyn Morlock My Name is Amanda Todd Alexander Shelley Jan 25
Moxart Overture Don Giovanni Jean-Marie Zeitouni Mar 26
Overture The Marriage of Figaro Alexander Shelley Jan 23
Kaija Saariaho Ciel d’hiver Alexander Prior Mar 6 & 7
Robert Schumann Manfred Overture Michael Stern Nov 14
Tanya Tagaq Qiksaaktuq Christine Duncan Feb 22
Wagner Overture Tannhäuser Jean-Marie Zeitouni Mar 26 & 28
Webern Passacaglia Alexander Prior Feb 22
Choral
Handel Messiah Daniel, Haji, Mahon, Woodley

I Coristi

William Eddins Dec 6, 7, & 8

 

 

 

 

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Sibelius Festival concluded

Image result for Akseli Gallen Kallela Cloud Towers

Akseli Gallen-Kallela – Pilvi tornit (Cloud Towers, 1904)

Jean Sibelius

Tapiola, Op.112
The Tempest, Op.109
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op.43

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Alexander Prior

Winspear
Saturday, March 9, 2019


The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s Sibelius Festival ended, as it should, not with the quiet glaze of a northern Finnish sun over icy wastes – that was left to the first half of the closing concert – but with the life-affirming splendour of the final chords of the Second Symphony. It was also the most consistently satisfying concert in a festival that has shown the orchestra and its Chief Conductor – and, no doubt, for many audience members, the composer – in a new light, and it was enthusiastically received.

The concert opened with Sibelius’ last tone-poem, Tapiola, written in 1926 when he was 60. Inspired by the story of the King of the Forest, Tapio, from the Kalevala, Sibelius gave no detailed explanation of any program, but just an indication of what it evokes:

“Wide-spread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests, ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams; within them dwells the Forest’s mighty God, and wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.” (English version from the English language edition of the score)

This was a superlative performance, one of the best in the Festival, confirming that Prior is a Sibelius conductor to be reckoned with. Tapiola is very much music of shades and layers – regularly surging up from the leaf mould of the forest floor, with bass colours (such as that of the contra-bassoon) emphasized. This entirely suits Prior’s approach, as again he graduated the dynamics in sections of the orchestra to bring out those different layers (as he also did in the Symphony No.2 later in the concert). He treated it very much as a 20th-century work, with its fleeting touches of polytonality, in its unsettled harmonies, in the tense chatter of some of the massed violin writing – indeed, he found here the tension that was a bit subdued in the earlier concerts. His approach really works, and at the end I heard from the audience member behind me a fully deserved but involuntary sotto voce “Wow!”

It was followed by Prior’s own selection of 11 movements from the 19 in total found in the two Tempest suites, also written in 1926. He omitted the overture, and instead opened with the sparse Northern landscape painting of the ‘Oak Tree’ – here was decidedly a Tempest of a northern island, somewhere twixt the Faroes and the Åland Islands, without a vestige of a Caribbean surf, or indeed, a Mediterranean sun. Four more joyful movements followed, but even Caliban’s song is a kind of Hebridean dance with exotic tinges. Ariel’s song led us back to misty landscapes, and to the sense of resignation that somehow permeates the suite. The storm was next, but this is a storm of bitter cold winds and ice in the rigging, of fog horns in the brass – the kind of storm that one might associate more with Pullman’s Golden Compass than the start of Shakespeare’s play. Two more dance-like movements followed, culminating in an ending that reverted to the quiet northern landscape of the beginning. This, too, is music that looks towards the modern as much as back to the Romantics – Rautavaara is one of the inheritors, and there is even a Khachaturian-like moment in the Intrada that leads into the Berceuse (Suite No.1 VII). The performance was a winning one, with a tremendous but remorseless, controlled storm, and a very sensible placement of the harp right at the front and side of the stage, to allow the instrument to sing out in two of the movements.

These two late works both contrasted and complimented each other, and were a reminder that in the first Finnish performance of Tapiola it was paired with the overture to The Tempest, followed by Sibelius’ final symphony, the Seventh. Here, though, the Festival ended with his most popular symphony, the Second. The orchestra had clearly got the measure of what Prior was looking for in his interpretation, especially in those layered dynamics (this is where extra rehearsal pays such dividends). For he concentrated on the shape of the symphony, crisp and with no sentimentality in the opening movement, and a very slow build-up dynamically in the second movement. The virtues of this performance were the very deliberate and even tempi – those with a Romantic leaning might have wished for more flashy accelerandi, rallentandi, and crescendi, but that remorseless deliberation seemed to me to show the unfolding of the symphony a new, and very effective, light. It was almost as if the symphony were in one whole movement, rather than four. This makes sense, as those four movements share the organic growth of germ material, and similar contrasts of mood, and the difference in tone between them is not nearly as marked as in many symphonies. And to that committed playing from the orchestra – one marvelous cello moment from Rafael Hoekman, and wonderfully Russian-sounding trumpet tone from Robin Doyon, so appropriate for this work – and this was a compelling performance.

And so the isle was now empty of those sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. The thousand twangling instruments had ceased their humming, and the Festival was over.

Perhaps ‘Festival’ is a little too strong a word,  in spite of the various Finnish activities in the foyer. I do hope it is the progenitor of similar program planning, concentrating on one composer (or perhaps a particular country) in the future – certainly it seemed to go down well with the audiences. But if so, why not extend it to truly create a festival that could become a feature in this city of festivals? It wouldn’t take much to get together with the Edmonton Recital Society and the Chamber Music Society to have associated concerts during the festival period, nor would it take much to get some a contemporary art from the region concerned (an exhibition of contemporary Finnish art would have been really interesting here, and it’s not that difficult to tap into a country’s cultural affairs to arrange such things). And it wouldn’t take that much to organize an academic conference to go with it. The result would then be a true festival, and, what’s more, one that would give the orchestra and the city international attention in a cultural area that hasn’t yet received an international gaze.

To organize such a festival, a longer lead time is needed (two or three years), and co-operation between various organizations (such as the Art Gallery of Alberta and other musical organizations on the city, and a university for the conference). Both are possible, and to have such cross-organizational co-operation, rather than the rather cliquey solitudes we have at the moment, would make such a festival worthwhile even before the music started.

Let’s go for it.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Sibelius Festival continued

Hannu Lukin: Taivas Aukeaa (The Sky will Open)
Hannu Lukin: Taivas Aukeaa (The Sky will Open)


Jean Sibelius:

·         Karelia Suite, Op.11
·         Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47: 1st movement – Allegro moderato

·         Kuolema, Op.44 

o   Valse triste

o   Scene with Cranes

·         Orchestral songs

o   Illalle’ (“To Evening”), Op.17 No. 6

o   ‘Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote’ (“The girl returned from meeting her lover”), Op.37 No. 5

o   Svarta rosor’ (“Black Roses”), Op.36 No. 1

o   Se’n har jag ej frågat mera’ (“Then I questioned no further”), Op.17 No. 1

·         trad. Folk tune

·         Suite for Violin and Strings, Op.117

·         Finlandia

Ragnhild Hemsing, violin
Whitney Leigh Sloan, soprano
Kokopelli and Òran Choirs
Richard Eaton Singers
Conducted by Alexander Prior

Winspear
Thursday, February 28th, 2019


Jean Sibelius:

  • Karelia Suite, Op.11
  • Kuolema, Op.44 No. 2: Scene with Cranes
  • Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
Ragnhild Hemsing, violin
Conducted by Alexander Prior
Winspear
Friday March 1st, 2019

After a stirring opening concert on Friday February 22nd (repeated the following evening), the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s Sibelius Festival continued with another related pair of concerts on Thursday February 28 and on St. David’s Day (Wales’ national day, duly noted by conductor Alexander Prior in his opening remarks), Friday March 1.

One of the most notable elements of the two concerts was the contrast in audiences (relatively large for both evenings). The first, longer, concert, billed in the orchestra’s Lighter Classics series, started later (8 pm), and went on considerably longer. Its audience was older, and considerably noisier, more of which later on. Friday’s concert started earlier (7.30 pm), was shorter (around an hour with no intermission), with a much younger audience, one of the most attentive (and quiet) that I have experienced in the Winspear.

Now, Friday’s tickets were commendably cheap (the most expensive was $35), and there was the added bonus of a free drink with the ticket, as well as a Scotch tasting courtesy of Sherbrook Liquor (which, if you haven’t discovered it, is the place in Edmonton to buy craft beer, and has permanent discounts for seniors – and, no, I wasn’t paid for this endorsement!). Nonetheless, this new formula is clearly working – the ESO is drawing in a much younger audience, quite a few of whom will have been at their first ESO concert, so long may it continue.

The Lighter Classics concert reminded me of those late Victorian concert programs that had a little bit of everything, here including just the first movement of the Violin Concerto. This is a practice I personally dislike, even if the opening movement of the Sibelius is so wide-ranging it almost stands on its own. But only almost, and Sibelius didn’t write it to played on its own. That movement is about 17 minutes long – the other two combined are only about 15, so why not just play the whole thing?

One the other hand, the inclusion of four of Sibelius’ songs was an unexpected piece of programming. Op.17 No.1 was orchestrated by Sibelius himself (in 1903), but Op.35 No.5 and the famous ‘Black Roses’ (Op.36, No.1) had been, we were told, especially orchestrated for this concert by John Estacio. Very well orchestrated they were, too, with a sympathetic sense of colour and sweep, and unassumingly true to the Sibelius idiom. The little touch of harp and cymbals in the otherwise string orchestration of ‘Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote’, for example, was just right. The final song in the set (Op.17, No.1) wasn’t orchestrated by Sibelius, so I presume this was an Estacio orchestration, too.

What gorgeous songs they are! He is one of the best of the northern song writers, emotionally involved in the texts, veering more to the dramatic art song than lieder, and perhaps it is only the language demands (Swedish or Finnish) that prevents them being heard more often.

The young Edmonton soprano Whitney Leigh Sloan, who continues both to develop and to impress, started off a little subdued, but then really began to express the drama in the songs – she has an enviable range, full at the top when she opens out, and rich at the bottom – both exemplified in Op.37 No.5. She’s also understands how to phrase vocal lines that more follow patterns of speech, as here (making me wonder when she might tackle Janáček).

These attractive performances made me want more, and rather regret that Sibelius’s masterpiece in the genre, Luonnotar, wasn’t included in the festival. Thursday’s concert did, though, end with a very effective well-kept secret. Prior’s interpretation of Finlandia was as expected – strong, clear lines, a concentration on colour, clarity, and detail, and an orchestral placement that emphasized those virtues, with the horns and brass at opposite sides of the stage, playing across to each other, and the percussion centre back.

However, towards the end of the piece, in came from the back of the auditorium a large chorus, who stood in the aisles to join in – in Finnish and from memory – for the choral version of what is Finland’s national music. It was a rousing way to end the concert, and must have produced a lump in the throat and tears in the eyes for any Finn in the audience.

Also very welcome was a rare appearance of a very late Sibelius work, the Suite for Violin and Strings, Op.117. This was Sibelius’ last orchestral work, and was requested by his American publisher. When that publisher rejected it, he wrote across the manuscript “Not to be published”, and it wasn’t performed until 1990.

It is an engaging and rather unexpected little suite, evoking the countryside in spring and summer, without the larger landscape canvas we associate with the composer. In the first two movements, the violin is essentially the first among equals, and the first (‘Country Scenery’) does indeed sound rather American, shades of Copland, perhaps, with its sense of dance. The second (‘Evening in Spring’) is rather lovely and whimsical, and could so easily be by an English composer (the chamber music of Bax springs to mind), reminding one of the close association (and mutual admiration) between Sibelius and some of the major contemporary English composers. The final movement, ‘In the Summer’, though, is quite simply Sibelius’ Flight of the Bumblebee, a virtuoso running dance on the violin with suitably pizzicato strings.

Ellen Thesleff ‘The Violin Player’ (1896)

The violinist was the Norwegian Ragnhild Hemsing, here making her Canadian debut. She is equally at home with a classical violin and a folk instrument, having studied both from early childhood. In Thursday’s concert she played some Norwegian folk music on a hardanger fiddle, the traditional Norwegian folk instrument. Beautifully decked in mother-of-pearl on the fingerboard and with a dragon’s head as the scroll at the top of the pegboard, the instrument has four sympathetic strings for resonance underneath the normal four playing strings.

Some of that folk knowledge coloured her interpretation of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, to good effect, especially in the main cadenza of the first movement. On the Thursday, her performance of that movement was a little soulless, but Friday’s – a performance of the complete concerto – was richer in hue, more emotionally involved.

Prior again secured clarity and layered dynamics from the ESO, and if there was the occasional glitch – there were a couple of moments when Hemsing was a little wayward in tempi, and the horns couldn’t quite play down to her very soft playing at the end of the second movement – that end of the second movement was magically peaceful, full of hope, and in the final movement Hemsing again brought out the folk connections in Sibelius’ writing.

Thursday’s concert included both Valse Triste and its accompanying movement (not nearly so often heard), ‘Scenes with Cranes’: together they make Kuolema, Op.44. I had written of the opening concert in the Festival that the orchestra had achieved some really soft playing, but I hadn’t then heard them in Valse Triste, for here Prior went for a performance of dynamic contrasts, with a ghostly tone rather than the more mawkish, frenzied build-up that is often heard. Wonderful soft playing, but it had to compete with a very noisy audience, whose shuffling and dropping of programs and other sundry noises around me were actually louder at one point than the music.

A very beautiful performance of ‘Scenes with Cranes’ was repeated on the Friday, where the silence and rapt attention of the audience allowed full rein to that quieter playing, complete with those atmospheric cries from the two clarinets.

For me, though, the highlight of the two concerts were the performances of the Karelia Suite, which opened both evenings. I have known and loved this work since my teens, and can safely say that if the ESO had recorded the performance of the opening Intermezzo, I would have instantly gone out and bought it, to top the many recordings of it I already have.

Thursday’s performance introduced the virtues of Prior’s interpretation. He took it a little slower than Barbirolli (a Sibelian master), with the result that it was both more lyrical and conversely more deliberate, with rollicking discipline from the orchestra. The Friday performance was not quite so deliberate, but the crescendo into the main march was ideal, and the tempi, again a little slower, made me think that this is how Sir Adrian Boult would have conducted it. At the same time the textures were cleaner, leaner, than in Karajan’s view (and I know Prior admires Karajan’s Sibelius). For me, this was the most ideal interpretation of this movement I have yet heard.

In the second movement, where on Thursday the orchestra again showed they can play a genuine ppp, the approach was lyrical, more atmospheric in Friday’s performance. The final movement was definitely more effective on the Friday, with Prior adopting what might be described as a sleigh-ride tempi (most appropriate to the Karelian landscape). Both performances showed the Edmonton Symphony at their best.

The Festival continues on Saturday, March 9. The first half consists of two late works, the incidental music to The Tempest, and the tone poem that comes closest to symphonic proportions, and to a savagery in the northern landscape, Tapiola. The Festival finishes with what is perhaps Sibelius’ most popular symphony, the Second in D major.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Sibelius Festival

Sibelius in 1940

The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra got its Sibelius mini-festival off to an authoritative start at the Winspear on Friday evening (February 22). For Mark Morris’ review of the concert, click here.

As it is very difficult to work out the full program of the Festival on the Winspear website, here is the program for the rest of the Festival. All concerts are in the Winspear, all the works are by Sibelius, and all are conducted by Alexander Prior:

Saturday February 23

  • Andante festive
  • Two Serious Melodies, Op.77
  • Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op.63
  • Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op.82

Thursday February 28 (8 pm)
Ragnhild Hemsing, violin
Whitney Leigh Sloan, soprano

  • Karelia Suite, Op.11
  • Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47: 1st mvmt – Allegro moderato
  • Kuolema, Op.44 (13’):  Valse triste and Scene with Cranes
  • Orchestral songs:
    “Illalle” (“To Evening”), Op.17 No. 6
    “Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote” (“The girl returned from meeting her lover”), Op.37 No. 5
    “Svarta rosor” (“Black Roses”), Op.36 No. 1
    “Se’n har jag ej frågat mera” (“Then I questioned no further”), Op.17 No. 1
  • trad. Folk tune
  • Suite for Violin and Strings, Op.117
  • Finlandia

Friday, March 1 (7.30 pm)
Ragnhild Hemsing, violin

  • Karelia Suite, Op.11
  • Kuolema, Op.44 No. 2: Scene with Cranes
  • Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47

Saturday, March 9 (8 pm)

  • Suite The Tempest, Op.109
  • Tapiola, Op.112
  • Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op.43

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra Sibelius Festival

The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra are devoting five concerts over two weeks to the music of Sibelius in their first mini-festival devoted to a single composer, including three of the symphonies (2, 4, and 5), many of the tone poems, the Violin Concerto, and some of the orchestral songs.

For Mark Morris’ full preview in the Edmonton Journal, click here.

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Pop Goes the Opera: Puccini Suor Angelica

Puccini: Suor Angelica


Cast
Suor Angelica                   Cristina Weiheimer
La Zia Principessa          Krista Mulbery
Suor Genovieffe             Jill Hoogewoonink
The Abbess                       Stephanie Bent
The Monitor                     Jessie MacDonald
Mistress of Novices      Molly Danko
The Nursing Sister         Julia Grigaitis
Suor Dolcina                     Carrie-Ann Hubbard
Suor Osmina                     Lydia-Ann Levesque
The Alms Sisters             Jennifer O’Donnell, Kayla Willsey, Lydia-Ann                                                    Levesque,   Ruth Wong-Miller
The Lay Sisters                Elizabeth Grigaitis, Sable Chan
The Novice                        Christina O’Dell

 Director                           Glynis Price
 Musical Director          Spencer Kryzanowski

Holy Trinity Anglican Church (101 St and 84th Avenue)

Friday, February 15


Suor Angelica, first performed at the Met in 1918, is the most sentimental of all Puccini’s operas, guaranteed to tug at the audience’s heart-strings. Its combination of the naivete and innocence of nuns, the heroine who is doing penance for having a child out of wedlock, the reported death of that child, and the suicide of the mother, is potent stuff.

It’s worth remembering, though, that it is part of a triptych of short operas, each showing a different aspect of the human condition. The work is not quite so cloying when seen against the other two operas – indeed, Puccini himself got pretty angry about them being split up. Arguably, it is not as good either dramatically or as musically as its companions, the verismo masterpiece Il tabarro and one of the best comic operas ever written¸ Gianni Schicchi. However, that very sentimentality, that combination of quasi-spirituality and tragic penance, means that is has remained the most popular of the three among the general public.

Yet it is something of an ambivalent opera. First, it reflects Puccini’s life-long and sometimes uncomfortable obsession with women in unfortunate situations. Second, the very idea – in Italian Catholic terms of the time – of a nun (who is doing penance for having a child out-of-wedlock) being forgiven in a miracle by the Virgin Mary for the mortal sin of committing suicide has its theological problems.

But then underneath all that sentimentality and slightly self-indulgent passion is, surely partly intentionally, the suggestion of social commentary. There is an anti-clerical element – the nuns, after all, are a pretty silly lot, and there is that contradiction in the suicidal ending. The idea woven into the story and exemplified by the domineering figure of the Princess, Angelica’s Aunt, of a family ruined by the scandal of a bastard child, with the outcasting of the mother, does comment on Italian social mores, however much they were to change in the aftermath of the First World War. One can, indeed, imagine the nodding heads of the more severe American matrons in the audience at its premiere, pleased at the apparent message and missing the irony.

The reviews of the premiere were generally impressed by the music, but not always about the overall effect. Here’s W. J. Henderson in the Evening Sun on Suor Angelica:  “But it is almost always metronomic, dull, drilling upon its theme with the persistence of a dentist at a tooth. There is no blood or bone to it, no strength to uphold the nun’s veiling the concept.”

A little harsh, perhaps, but Forzano’s libretto does seem a little saccharine. Nonetheless, Suor Angelica has rightly proved to be popular with both younger singers, such as undergraduate groups, and semi-amateur companies (as I can attest, having directed productions with both).  The collection of nuns provides the opportunity for a number of smaller solo roles, and, while the two main roles of Angelica and the Princess have their challenges, they are not too taxing. The relatively short length (around an hour) helps with rehearsals, and the opera works equally well in simple or complex staging. And, of course, it provides lots of opportunities for women singers.

One such semi-amateur group is Edmonton’s enterprising Pop Goes the Opera, who presented the work in Holy Trinity Anglican Church on Friday, February 15th, and are repeating it at 2 pm on Sunday, February 17th. The company – from its sponsors to its singers – is very much a local one, with some faces familiar from the chorus of the Edmonton Opera. It has already established its credentials with Cavalleria Rusticana at the 2016 Fringe, and then an excellent Pagliacci at the 2017 Fringe. If their enterprising 2018 Fringe oratorio, McCune’s Y2K Black Death Oratorio, was less successful, that was down to the material rather than the enthusiasm of the company.

Glynis Price, who directed the Pagliacci, directs this Suor Angelica, and that production’s Nedda, Cristina Weiheimer, takes the lead role. Thankfully, production is sung in Italian, for although this inevitably produced some mixed standards of pronunciation, it sounds so much better in the original language, and the English surtitles are clear and comprehensive. What was missing were the orchestral colours, for the cast is accompanied by a single piano, played by Spencer Kryzanowski, who also conducted from the keyboard.

Price sensibly decided to keep the staging simple, and to make the most of the opportunities that the church offers, using almost everywhere from the back of the aisles to the altar. Setting Suor Angelica in a church is, of course, entirely appropriate, but it has its unexpected effects, particularly near the end. That ambivalence in the work comes across all the stronger, especially when Angelica sings about the mortal sin of suicide, and there is a slight sense of sacrilege, or at least dissonance, between her actions and the ecclesiastical surroundings.

The piano reduction was a very sparse one indeed. The original scoring, until the larger orchestral climaxes at the end, is admittedly very chamber-like, but it never sounds thin – Puccini goes for colour and timbre. Without much variety in those two musical elements, this piano version really needed a little more idiomatic life in the playing (and, whether it was an aural illusion or not, it seemed to be missing some obvious touches from the full score). This wasn’t entirely to the work’s disadvantage – it sounded rather 20th-century rather than late-Romantic, and it did allow any listener interested to experience the nuts and bolts of the score.

Suor Angelica is very much an ensemble opera, and the Pop Goes the Opera cast make the most of the opportunity. There are some neat little touches in the character acting among the nuns, and the singing overall is uniformly enjoyable. It is perhaps a bit invidious to single out any one particular nun from the group, but nonetheless Jill Hoogewoonink’s strong sense of character as Suor Genovieffe (she reminded me of Sister Julienne in Call the Midwife) was noteworthy.

The Principessa is played most imperiously by Krista Mulbery, looking for all the world like a stern Victorian matron – one can well believe the strength of her unsympathetic convictions – and she has a mezzo-soprano to match. Soprano Christina Weiheimer as Angelica could, I felt, have used a stronger directorial hand: her reaction to hearing of her son’s death, for example, was very tame, and one doesn’t get the full sense of her anguish at the end. She also seems to pull back a little vocally on the higher notes and at climatic moments. Nonetheless, she does fit well into the overall ensemble – in some productions she can feel like a prima among pares, while here she is definitely one of the community. She has quite clearly served her penance, and is completely undeserving of her fate.

Pop Goes the Opera make the most of the limitations of scale, venue, and of a community organization such as theirs. The result was a most enjoyable evening, that may have lacked the full colours of Puccini’s score, but nonetheless captured the essence of the work, and at the same time – due to those very limitations – threw up some interesting viewpoints on the work. It’s well worth dropping down to Holy Trinity Anglican Church for the Sunday afternoon performance.

The company has also announced that it will be doing Gianni Schicchi – a work that should suite them admirably – at the 2019 Fringe, which is excellent news. I look forward to it!

Edmonton Opera Season 2019/2020

Edmonton Opera have announced its 2019/2020 season.

The three productions will be:

Verdi’s Rigoletto (Oct. 19-25)
 Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (Feb. 1-7, 2020)
Bernstein’s Candide (March 14-20, 2020)

For details of companies and casts, and for Mark Morris’ analysis, click here (opens in a new window).

The Marriage of Figaro in Vancouver Festival Opera’s 2017 production, 
which will be seen in Edmonton Opera’s 2019/2020 season

New Music Edmonton: Timepoint Ensemble

Timepoint Ensemble

Click here to read Mark Morris’ review of Calgary’s Timepoint Ensemble, visiting Edmonton for the first time.

Holy Trinity Anglican Church
January 26, 2019

Hansel and Gretel preview

Click here to read Mark Morris’ preview in the Edmonton Journal of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel in a new Edmonton Opera production directed by Robert Herriot.

Jubilee Auditorium

Saturday February 2, 8 pm
Tuesday February 5, 7.30 pm
Friday February 8, 7.30 pm

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