Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Edmonton
Saturday, July 22nd
Intermezzo in A major Op.76 no. 6
Capriccio in C sharp minor Op. 76 no. 5
Sonata Reminiscenza Op. 38 no. 1 Fairy Tale in B flat minor Op. 20 no. 1 Fairy Tale in E flat major Op. 26 no. 1 Fairy Tale in F sharp minor Op. 35 no. 4
The third biennial Alberta Pianofest wrapped up on Saturday at Holy Trinity Church, with a piano recital by one of Edmonton’s best known musicians, Michael Massey.
It completed an enlarged festival – nine main concerts, plus talks and a symposium – that took place, for the first time, entirely in Edmonton. The purpose of the festival is to bring high-quality piano playing to the city in the summer, but also to provide an educational opportunity for a dozen teenage pianists (aged from 12 to 18) to take part in an intensive summer workshop. Four of those young pianists preceded Massey’s recital in an unannounced but welcome prelude to the main part of the recital, showing off their skills in works by Chopin, Kabalevsky, and François Morel.
Michael Massey – who was inducted into the Alberta Order of Excellence last year – is now perhaps best known for his work as conductor of the Edmonton Youth Orchestra, but he has also been influential as a pianist. He initially joined the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra as a cellist, but after two years he became the ESO’s pianist, a position he continues to hold after some four decades. He has taught piano extensively, and indeed the artistic director of Alberta Pianofest, the pianist and now New York resident Jason Cutmore, was a pupil of his.
Massey’s recital on Saturday was notable for the type of music he decided to play. The tone was set by Brahms’ Intermezzo in A major Op.76 no. 6, in a contemplative performance that suited Massey’s general emotional feel – its mellowness was rather like Gandalf taking a break from the action to light a pipe of Old Toby and ruminating away.
That tone entirely suited the little suite of three pieces that make up John Ireland’s Green Ways, all inspired by literature. The first, ‘Cherry’, based on A. E. Houseman’s poem ‘Loveliest of Trees’ (perhaps best known in the vocal setting by George Butterworth), pictures rather dense cherry blossoms in an English pastoral style, that again has an introspective, ruminative element. ‘Cypus’ reflects Shakespeare (Twelfth Night’s “Come away, come away, death, And in sad cypress let me be laid”), and is a kind of slow movement in the suite, angular and painterly, and inconclusive in its ending. The final piece, after Thomas Nash’s ‘The Palm and May’ opens as if tone-painting fast-flowing streams, and then has a dance feel to it, as if garlands were being strewn: Massey built up to the ending with exactly the right pace and feel.
It was a pleasure to hear the Ireland, though it should perhaps be said that, attractive though Green Ways is, there is quite a body of the composer’s little-known piano music that is both finer and more challenging. Similarly, it was good to hear some works by the Russian composer (and contemporary of Rachmaninov), Nikolai Medtner, whose music Massey has long cherished, but this was also a mixed blessing.
Medtner did write some very fine music (notably the early Piano Quintet, and the first and third piano concertos), but he was also a composer who could get caught up in his own invention. So it was with the Sonata Reminiscenza Op. 38 no. 1 (one of the composer’s 12 piano sonatas). Its reminiscent tone fitted the pattern of the recital, and it is poetic in its opening, but it shows the composer’s weaknesses as well as his strengths. Its failing (as with quite a lot of Medtner) is that it simply does not have enough variety in the writing to sustain its length. It attempts to keep the listeners in the same sort of ruminative ecstasy throughout, with the song elements in the middle voices and a reliance on repeated patterns in the top and bottom of the range.
Much the same might be said of some of the ‘Fairy Tales’ he wrote throughout his life – little colourful pieces, essentially ballads. The Fairy Tale in B flat minor Op. 20 no. 1 and Fairy Tale in E flat major Op. 26 no. 1 were pleasant enough, richly textured, but the tales, alas, largely unmemorable. The Fairy Tale in F sharp minor Op. 35 no. 4, however, is much more expressive and highly charged, with a freer flow, and showed how effective Medtner can be – a fine way to end the festival. I can see how gratifying these pieces must be to play, but overall Massey’s selection here confirmed that while Medtner is well worth hearing once in a while, perhaps once in a while is the operative element – but all the more important to have the chance to hear it here.
The Alberta Pianofest Society plans to launch another venture this November – an annual chamber music festival. This is a much more crowded field already well served by the Edmonton Recital Society and the Edmonton Chamber Music Society – not to mention the Summer Solstice chamber music festival – and it will be interesting to see how the ‘Alberta Chamberfest’ adds to this. In the meantime, the Society is filling an important niche by bring its summer piano music festival to Edmonton. It deserves to establish a following in the years to come.
Billy Bigelow: Justin Kautz
Julie Jordan: Krista Paton
Jigger Craigin: Nolan Kehler
Carrie Pipperidge: Brittany Rae
Enoch Snow: Ross Mortimer
Netti Fowler: Olivia Barnes
Director: Donna Fletcher Conductor: Andrew St. Hilaire
There are no two ways about it: in 2017, Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, which Opera Nuova presented on alternating nights with Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen at Festival Place, Sherwood Park, from June 24th to 30th, is problematic.
For, whereas Janáček’s opera seems all too relevant today, Rogers and Hammerstein’s Broadway 1945 music does seem awfully dated. There is a paradox here: so many of the songs are (rightly) classics: ‘If I loved You’, ‘You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan’, and that anthem of the British soccer terraces, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, to name but three, will be known to most readers of this, even if they don’t know the source.
The work introduced some musical innovations (the soliloquy, for example) that have become Broadway staples, and the overall tone of the songs and choruses – tuneful, tonal, with a large element of sentimentality that rose-tints the story – picked up on Rogers and Hammerstein’s earlier Oklahoma! (which Opera Nuova presented in 2015), and has largely defined the genre ever since.
So the attractiveness of the music is not in question – it’s that story that is the problem. It is almost a clinical study in dysfunctional relationships, and more pertinently what is known as ‘co-dependency’. The mill girl Julie Jordan is quite willing to give up herself and her job to the clearly ne’er-do-well fair-ground carousel barker Billy Bigelow, as she has a crush on his good looks and silken tongue. The result is almost inevitable: pregnancy, marriage, crime and domestic violence. Most notorious of all is the way that domestic violence is treated, with the horrible line, given completely uncritically in its context: “It’s possible for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and not hurt at all.” In other words, the very musical itself can become part of that dysfunction.
Then there is the peculiar last third, where Billy Bigelow, having committed suicide, is given the opportunity to make amends by returning to earth for one day. However, not only does his violence flare up again as he hits his now-teenage daughter, but actually he doesn’t actually do anything that materially helps that daughter – Louise Bigelow would put the past behind her, one feels, whether he had come back or not. The theme of returning after suicide was much more effectively treated only two years later in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart.
It doesn’t help that the musical framework is so appealing, and largely without a sense of awareness of the underlying dysfunction (the Hungarian novel on which the scenario is based is much darker). It is possible to present the dark side of the musical (by all accounts, the famous National Theatre 1992 production did just that), but that was not the approach of director Donna Fletcher in this Opera Nuova production.
Indeed, I was reminded of J. Kelly Nestruck’s Globe and Mailreview of the 2015 Stratford production, which asked whether the director was deliberately trying to sabotage the musical by playing up its such insensitive features. For here was virtually nothing dark – on the contrary, it was played rather as if it was Oklahoma! with a bright cheerie chumminess (Sondheim described Oklahoma! as being about a picnic), even in Heaven, rather than descending into the abyss (Sondheim described Carousel as being about life and death).
This was reinforced by a very strong acting performance from Albertan Justin Kautz as Billy Bigelow when I saw the musical on June 28 (like most of Opera Nuova’s productions, the musical had been double-cast). He was almost frighteningly slick in his seductions, arrogantly self-confident, and his hesitations over committing murder seemed a question of self-preservation rather than of any moral scruple: his body-language expressed his up-tightness throughout the musical. Churlish in heaven, and still narcissistic back on earth, he thoroughly convinced me what a truly awful person Bigelow actually is, devoid of any redeeming features.
Not that any of this, I suspect, really mattered to the enthusiastic audience, and therein lay the problem with this production. For that cheeriness, that brightness, that melodiousness was engagingly expressed by all the company, very successfully, exactly as if this were Oklahoma! No undercurrents of strong sexual urges, or the equally strong sexual repressions inherent in the musical, here, but rather, let’s fall in love and get on with it (or be a bit jealous), and what do a few blows or a murder matter.
There were some fine individual performances, too: an even-keeled and well sung Julie Jordan from Krista Patton, and a particularly impressive and confident Carrie Pipperidge from soprano Britanny Rae, who had impressed earlier in one of the Festival’s vocal recitals (not to mention the Opera Nuova 2016 production of Bellini’s opera I Capuleti e i Montecchi). Mezzo-soprano Olivia Barnes was also impressive as Nettie, with a strong stage presence, fine vocal strengths, and the suggestion that she could have taken the role quite a lot further had the directorial approach been different.
Just as successful was the set by Terry Gunvordahl (who had also designed the 2015 Oklahoma!). The central building blocks were upright poles of the diameter of telegraph poles, but grouped into movable modules rather like the wooden construction of the trestles supporting a pier, or the poles a fishing boat might tie up to. These modules, when combined with such elements as fishing nets strung between them, or the sails of a three-masted ship at the back, were adaptable enough to effortlessly suggest the waterfront, Julie Jordan’s house, or the murder scene. Inventive, visually appealing, and a considerable contribution to the staging.
What was less effective was the amplification, which was far too loud (is this a reflection of a millennial age, risking deafness by having the volume of music in ear-buds turned up too high?). At times it was actually grating, and it did a disservice to Justin Kautz by emphasizing the tendency to the nasal in his voice. That it didn’t need to be turned up so high was shown by Krista Paton as Julie Jordan, who, in the second half at least, seemed to have the volume of her headset turned down a little compared to the rest. The result was to allow more of the orchestra, well conducted by Andrew St. Hilaire, to come across without detriment to the solo line.
So, overall, this Carousel was something of a mixture – enjoyable performances of enjoyable music that unwittingly made one question the piece itself. This was no fault of the performers, but I couldn’t help but feel there was a missed opportunity here.
Opera Nuova Janáček : Příhody lišky Bystroušky (The Cunning Little Vixen)
Cast: Forester: Andrew Erasmus Bystrouška (Sharp Ears the vixen): Irina Medvedeva
Forester’s wife: Meghan Goguen
Schoolmaster: Jeff Fang
Parson: Simon Chalifoux
Harašta (Poacher): Elliot Harder
Lapák the dog: Chelsea Kutyn
Zlatohřbítek (Gold-Spur the fox): Jillian Bonner
Conductor: Rosemary Thomson
Director: Brian Deedrick
Festival Place, Sherwood Park
June 29, 2017
Many years ago, I lived in a house near Oxford that backed onto the famous Wytham Woods, owned by the University and essentially, and deliberately, left untouched for centuries.
I got to know the forester quite well, and he told me that one day, just as dawn was breaking, he was walking along one of the wood’s paths with a young golden retriever he was still training. He turned a corner in the woods, with thick undergrowth on either side, and suddenly the inexperienced dog broke forward and dashed away in front of him.
Down the path, ambling along towards them, was a big old male badger. The forester did not have time to call the dog back before she had rushed towards that ancient denizen of animal wisdom and deep burrows. As the dog reached the badger, he lifted one huge powerful fore-paw, and with one swipe knocked the dog dead.
Then, instead of turning aside or back, the badger simply continued ambling down the path towards the forester. He stood, stock still, beside the path, and he told me that as the badger passed by him, only a foot or two away, the animal looked up at him, straight into his eyes, and held that look.
The forest said that in that moment he knew, for certain, without a shadow of a doubt, what that look was about, what the badger was trying to tell him: “Sorry about that, but I really didn’t have much choice.”
Many years later, sitting outside on the deck of our house in the country near Wetaskiwin with a couple of friends on a sunny summer’s evening, there appeared on the short gravel driveway a pair of young, ruddy-brown fox cubs.
I knew the vixen had been denning under an old shed on my neighbour’s property, but I hadn’t seen the cubs before. What fun they were having, frolicking with each other, rolling over in the gravel, until they saw us sitting there watching. Then curiosity overtook play – they probably hadn’t seen humans before. Without any sign of fear, they tiptoed carefully further up the drive, coming to inspect us.
It was a magical moment, two so different types of creature who nonetheless shared the same natural space, both fascinated with each other. Then suddenly, out of nowhere from behind us, underneath one of our chairs, shot the diminutive all-black matriarch of the yard, the barn-cat Black Cat. She launched a blur of black fur straight at them, and the two poor cubs, taken completely by surprise, fell over themselves to race back to their den, chased by Black Cat until she was satisfied they had successfully been put to flight.
Then she turned, and walked back slowly to us, so proud of herself.
Imagine both scenes, and then add music to describe all the emotions that words are so limited for – joy, awe, humour, play, surprise, sadness, curiosity, connection, magic, natural wonder – and you are getting somewhere near the miraculous magic that is Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen. What music it is, too, yearning, shifting, dancing, loving, all the time with the lilt and lift of how people actually speak. And the idiom is inimitable (and has never really been imitated) – you can recognize a piece is by Janáček in about three measures. Even more remarkable, this ultimately completely unsentimental peon to the magic of nature, to its inexorable unfolding of the circles of life and death, to the inextricability of the human place in that nature, was written when Janáček was 70.
It’s a daunting opera to put on, though, for it has a large cast, it needs really to be sung in Czech, and few Canadian musicians and singers are familiar with the very idiomatic style of the Czech composer. It is not normally an opera associated with young, post-undergraduate vocal forces, for those very reasons, so all the more kudos to Opera Nuova for not only presenting the work (almost certainly for the first time for most of the audience) as part of the 2017 Opera Nuova Opera & Music Theatre Festival, but also for making such a success of that presentation.
The Festival allows the young singers of the Opera Nuova training program, just starting, or about to start on, their professional careers, the opportunity for fully staged opera performance. This year there were 59 young singers from across Canada, and four main stage opera productions. These were all double-cast, to provide the widest opportunity for the participants, and I saw the Thursday July 29th performance of Cunning Little Vixen at Sherwood Park’s Festival Place. One of the advantages of the opera for a program like this, which traditionally has more women than men participants, is that, while there are important male roles, the majority of the animal roles are given to female voices (including the dog-fox whom the vixen marries).
There are, perhaps, two ways to approach Cunning Little Vixen (and I have seen both). The first is to emphasize the human qualities – the anthropomorphization – of the animals (and in the opera the animals can understand what the humans are saying, but not vice-versa). The second is to do the opposite, and emphasize animal movements and make them as realistic and as naturalistic as possible.
Brian Deedrick’s production rather combined both approaches. The chorus of the animals, birds, and insects of the woods were largely naturalistic (with some engagingly realistic movement from the uncredited squirrel). The result of this was to place them behind a kind of invisible barrier when the humans were involved, both spiritually and physically.
In contrast, the major animal characters, while still having some animal movements (the cockerel, hens, and Chelsea Kutyn’s Lapák the dog in particular), were primarily played as humans with animal characteristics (and in the case of Jillian Bonner’s Zlatohřbítek – Gold-Spur the fox – or Xuguang Zhang’s badger, almost entirely human). The result of this was to place them much more in the realm of humans, and if that divide was there between chorus and humans, to a certain extent it was also there between the chorus and those anthropomorphized animals (the badger was a good example). The colourful costumes – nine of which were designed by Leslie Frankish for Pacific Opera, and the rest designed and created by Stephanie Bahniuk – were similarly ambivalent, some seeming to veer towards a humanizing of the animals, some more obviously trying to recreate animals. All this had some unexpected consequences, discussed below.
That being said, overall the movement – and the consistency of movement within a large cast – was captivating, drawing the audience into a world that was fantastical and natural both at the same time, not the least because of the involvement of Citie Ballet in the extended orchestral passages that demand dance. They (very successfully) helped to train the movement of the singers, and there were three main Citie Ballet dancers taking roles in Kiera Keglowitsch’s choreography. Mingyi Liang as a tall willowy Blue Dragonfly (beautifully costumed) was the closest in the production to a pure spirit of nature, well supported by two midges (Jinah Kim and Lydia Redpath), though they looked much more like bees. That costume ambivalence was here, too, the Dragonfly more naturally magical, the midges more human in their skirts.
Deedrick emphasized the humour in the piece more than in any other production I have seen. Sometimes this was enormously entertaining, but at other times it was annoying, loud laughter from the audience appearing at inappropriate moments. Perhaps this was inevitable with a youthful cast, but the point of the humour in the opera is that it is only one part of the whole panoply of life that Janáček presents.
Commendably, Deedrick ensured that the Vixen’s death was completely unsentimental (no weepy handkerchiefs here). Janáček added her death himself – it’s not in the novel on which the opera is based – to make the point that death is part of the whole natural cycle of life.
In the end, though, I did rather miss the magical power of nature that infuses the work, in part because of the over-emphasis on the comedy, and in part because of the ambivalence in style and costume between animal and human. What was missing in the end was Janáček’s message that humans are just as much a part of that nature as the animals, birds and insects. Here, in spite of Andrew Erasmus’ final lines as the Forester, and perhaps inevitably in a world that is now so urbanized and so out of touch with the natural world, were two solitudes. Yet today surely this is the most important massage from Janáček’s opera.
I don’t want to give the impression that this production was therefore not enjoyable – just the opposite, as it was consistently engrossing. It very nearly, but just not quite, showed the full range of power and depth in this opera.
The cast were uniformly effective – and are to be congratulated on so coming to terms with the idiom. Even if their pronunciation was at times a little wayward, to have sung it in Czech was not only invaluable experience for them, but honoured the opera.
It’s a bit invidious to single out anyone from a young ensemble, but there were two outstanding performances from the cast I saw. The first was Andrew Erasmus as the Forester. He is a big man with a big baritone, and, one suspects, a big future. Winner of the People’s Choice Award at the 2016 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions Western Canada District, he is about to study at the famed Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.
His acting is still a little rough at the edges, but that rather suited the gruff but ultimately compassionate Forester – one well believed from Erasmus’ performance that the reason that he doesn’t kill the Vixen himself is that he can’t bring himself to do it. There is no doubting the quality of his voice – this was a convincingly sung performance, both in the woods and in the rather different side of him in the pub.
The role of the Vixen is indeed a difficult one. One the one hand she has to be young, bright-eyed and coquettish, on the other Janáček gives her vocal lines (as he does for almost all the major women roles in his operas) utterly different from those in, say, his contemporaries Puccini or Richard Strauss. There is very little call in Janáček operas for those soft floating high soprano notes that are endemic to Puccini and Strauss love scenes – instead, a kind of hard steel is needed in the upper register (reflecting that, however playful they might be, most of Janáček’s women do have a hard steel side to them).
Even Lucia Popp, whose voice had that remarkable girl-like purity when she wanted it to, doesn’t quite pull it off in Mackerras’ famous Decca recording of the opera. She ends up sounded a little too matronly. The most successful is perhaps Hana Böhmová in Neumann’s first Czech recording in mono from 1958 (still the most satisfying overall recording).
I’m not going to claim that Irina Medvedeva is a Lucia Popp or a Hana Böhmová, but she was awfully good in the role in Festival Place, on a number of counts. First her charismatic acting was utterly convincing – winsome, sharp-eared, full of the joy of life and with a little sardonic humour, but intense when needed. Second, she has that steely upper range, while still managing to sound young, and (like Erasmus) the sense of a confident command of the idiom. Third, with her Russian background, her Czech came more naturally than for many in the cast.
I have long thought (and I am not the only one) that Janáček essentially fell in love with his vixen (hence the wonderful meditation on old age at the end), and seeing Medvedeva’s performance, well can well understand why. Both these two young Canadian singers are well worth keeping an eye on, and I look forward to hearing them again.
The weakest link was the orchestra (Rosemary Thompson’s conducting, however, sounded just exactly right in pacing and in support for the singers). This wasn’t entirely their fault: the idiom is a very difficult if one has never encountered it before, and the reduced orchestration – essentially one instrument to a part – not only left the players very exposed, but inevitably could not recreate the depth of orchestral sound that is such an important element of Janáček’s style. Nonetheless, they pulled it off, in a production that was a considerable achievement for all involved, and a definite feather in Opera Nuova’s cap.
Last, but not least, a mention for the very effective set by Terry Gunvordhahl, well supported by lighting designed by Stephanie Bahniuk. The set uses a number of mobile units based on tall upright poles, and capable of a multiplicity of arrangements, especially when accompanied by screens of other wooden elements flown in.
It made for a very effective wood for all the animals, morphed very naturally into the farm yard, and yet was versatile enough to set up the pub. What was even more remarkable is that it was the same set as used in Opera Nuova’s Carousel (and I will be writing about it in my review of the musical), yet never once looked like it.