blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Opera, the ultimate art: Monteverdi to Bernstein

Having heard the Yukon singers in the morning of July 6th, as described in my previous post, I went to something very different in the afternoon, at the First Baptist Church, further west along Laurier Avenue, having munched at a homemade sandwich half way there, on a bench by the fountains outside Ottawa's City Hall.

* My sketch
This Music and Beyond concert was entitled 400 Years Of Opera and was repeated at an evening performance on that same date. Four young and professional opera singers took part, accompanied by Maxime Dubé-Malenfant at the piano and hosted by the animateur, the musicologist Pierre Vachon. They had all dressed up for the occasion, looking glamorous. I sat near the front and sketched them *, during the performance. They were all excellent singers, but I thought the baritone, Max van Wyck, had a particularly lovely voice.

Monsieur Vachon was francophone, but for the benefit of the Ottawa audience spoke mostly in English. He called opera "the ultimate art" and commented that the big "opera voice" was developed in the 16th and 17th centuries, when the singers had to make themselves heard in big halls unassisted by microphones. The introductory item was a rendition of Verdi's very familiar Libiamo quartet from La Traviata and indeed the four voices were so loudly resonant that perhaps I should have chosen a pew further back.

Then we started on a potted History of Opera. The first two examples, from the 17th century, were a baritone aria from Orfeo and a love duet from L'Incoronazione de Poppea by Monteverdi (1642). Thrilling music! The animateur said that the message of Orfeus, who lost his girl in the Underworld, was that "the way to overcome obstacles is to sing," a notion I heartily agree with. The Italians called opera musica favole (legends in music) and the castrati employed by the opera companies "were the Céline Dions of their day" --- adored pop stars.

Two 18th century arias followed, first a virtuoso performance of Vivaldi's florid Agitata da due venti from La Giselda (1735) sung by the mezzo-soprano, Marjorie Maltais, libretto by Boccaccio. Later in that century came Mozart (Gluck was mentioned as being the link composer between the Baroque and Classical style) and we heard as an example of his achievements one of Donna Anna's arias (sung by the soprano Myriam Leblanc) from Don Giovanni, where she pleads with the noble Don Ottavio to wait a while before they get wed, because she is still in mourning for her murdered father. When I hear this one, I always think that it's really because she has a subconscious yearning for the attractive murderer, Don Giovanni, but that's just my reading of it. Anyhow it is subtle music. We heard how Mozart's intention was to "bring real life into opera" and how subversive that was, in those days.

Some more Bel canto: we heard a Rossini aria from La Cenerentola (i.e. Cinderella), Rossini being the composer who brought a sense of fun into music (according to Pierre Vachon) followed by another Verdi quartet, this one from Rigoletto, so skillfully portraying the feelings of all four characters simultaneously. "Verdi wanted to be a musical psychologist." The facial expressions and gestures of the performers fitted their roles.

After this, a much needed Intermission. The performance continued with three further 19th century items, the first being Bizet's famous La fleur que tu m'avais jetée from Carmen, emotionally sung by the tenor, Danny Leclerc. The two female singers then gave us the equally famous duet, Belle nuit, o nuit d'amour by Offenbach: girls in a gondola on Venice's Grand Canal. By contrast, we then heard O du mein holder Abendstern, very well performed by the baritone, from Wagner's Tannhäuser (1845), a 13th century Germanic tale. We learned about Wagner's ambition to create Gesamtkunstwerke in his operas and about his use of the Leitmotiv. It seems Wagner included more than 100 Leitmotive in his works.

For the last section of the programme we had a series of lighter, 20th century music that stuck in my head for several days afterwards, so much did I enjoy it. Summertime from Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess is always easy on the ear, but M. Vachon made a mistake in telling us, to a sharp intake of breath from the audience, that Porgy and Bess was the more acceptable face of racism. He apologised immediately for this embarrassing slip. Myriam Leblanc made the most of her moment by wandering up and down the aisle during her Summertime and holding a beautiful high pp note at the end. (I have tried that myself, and admire singers who can do it.) Finally we heard the tenor singing Maria from Bernstein's West Side Story (1957), lyrics by Sondheim --- which, when you come to think of it, is a sort of opera --- and finally an adaptation of the full-company number, Tonight, Tonight, which comes at the climactic mid-point of the original show, by all four singers, together with their hard-working accompanist. Brilliantly composed music! I heard a lecture about it once, long ago, on BBC Radio 3. This also brought back memories of an ambitious performance that we once attended at the Croesyceiliog Comprehensive in Cwmbran, Wales, with my son as lead cellist in their orchestra and his school friends singing on stage, their music teacher Mr Appleby conducting. Full of nostalgia when I got home, I wasted time watching YouTube clips from West Side Story, and singing along.

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