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Oct 29/15

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Art Toronto 2015 (Art); Election Night on CBC (TV); Otello (Opera); Il  Trovatore (Opera)

Art Toronto 2015 (Art) Metro Toronto Convention Centre; Oct 23-26.

This is usually one of the best art shows in Toronto, given that galleries from around the world bring the work of their best artists. The quality of the art was high again this year, but it seemed to me that there was considerably less to see than in previous years. Also, there seemed to be fewer exhibitors from outside Canada. Even so, it would have been impossible for me, after a two-hour stroll through the show, to give a complete and comprehensive assessment of it. Lots of good work will have to go without mention here. What follows are some things that leapt out at me. (Where possible, I’ve given the country or the city of the exhibiting gallery.)

One of my favourite finds was Jennifer Hornyak, an artist born in England and now living in Montreal. Her work exhibited a wonderfully semi-abstract way with flowers.. The colours are vivid and the paint is slashed on with exuberance. The lack of botanical precision might make you think that the artist isn’t respecting the beauty of the flowers. On the contrary, she is acknowledging the flowers as more than eye candy. She is incorporating them in structural compositions that make them an integral part of the world we live in, not mere decorations. www.debellefeuille.com (Montreal)

Also in the exuberant department, there was the portrait "The Motorcyclist" by Erik Olson. It was astonishing how dramatically the artist conveyed the personality of a young man with a cigarette hanging on his lips. The broad strokes of paint were so thick that the work almost amounted to bas relief. There was no re-working or blending of the strokes, every one remained just exactly as it had hit the canvas. As a result, the subject confronted the viewer with insistence and urgency. www.gibsongallery.com (London, Ontario)

Another portrait executed with minimal means caught the viewer’s attention from thirty yards away. "Oh yes," you said to yourself, "there’s Sigmund Freud." And yet, the likeness was conveyed simply by a few black lines for the head, eyes and glasses, then a slash of white for the beard. All this on a purple background. Another blast of white from a spotlight shining on Herr Freud’s hand, made it glow with the only flesh colour in the painting. I wonder what a Freudian analysis of Eran Shakine’s painting would reveal? www.zcagallery.com (Israel)

One abstract that riveted my attention had a lot of black lines on a tumultuous canvas filled with teeming colours. When I asked the gallery representative for some information about the artist, she said he’s Brennan Stalford, just nineteen years old, and he’s headed to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on a $100,000 scholarship. www.rennanisaacs.com (Guelph, Ontario)

Among many other attractive abstracts, one that especially impressed me was Otto Rogers’ "Wave Landscape" – a circle, about four feet in diameter, covered with broad, flowing stripes of white, tan and black. www.godardgallery.com (Toronto)

Another abstract, one with a mesmerizing effect, was "Power Station #1" by Kazuo Nakamura. Consisting of some geometric shapes that vaguely suggested high rise buildings, the painting used only blacks, whites and a teal blue in such a way that the shapes pulsated with a push-and-pull effect that amounted almost to op art. www.cuttsgallery.com (Toronto)

As a lover of watercolours, I was happy to find two works in that medium (with some India Ink) by Willy Ramos: riotously scrambled depictions of watery garden settings, somewhat in the style of Claude Monet, but with more vibrant colours. www.odonwagnergallery.com (Toronto)

Messum’s gallery was showing only one painting by Simon Carter, one of my favourites among the painters whose works appear regularly in these shows. A seaside scene, presumably from the east coast of England, Mr. Carter’s home territory, the painting gloried in his style of simplifying a subject to its bare essentials and sketching them with a child-like freedom and glee. It strikes me that it may have been in the work of Paul Czanne that we first saw something like the pared down, structural quality that we now find in Mr. Carter’s paintings. Another artist in the Messum’s booth, one who has a somewhat similar way of minimalizing a subject, is Rose Hilton. Her still lives and interiors are evocative by virtue of a sparse, spare quality that reminds me of Henri Matisse. www.messums.com (London, England)

I was disappointed to find that the Roberts Gallery, one of the best downtown Toronto galleries, featured mostly rather conservative paintings by well-known Canadian artists. The only works among them that interested me very much were John Lennard’s wonderfully modernistic city scenes with emphasis on strong compositions, using large shapes. www.robertsgallery.net (Toronto)

If you were looking for well-established names, you couldn’t do any better than the works in the Landau Fine Art booth. A huge Pablo Picasso in an elaborate gilt frame, "Les dormeurs" (1965) dominated the scene. As is often the case with Picasso, you got a tangle in which you could more or less make out two human shapes. I was more intrigued by a smaller work by Henri Matisse, "Tete de femme au collier" (1950). With a few lines of brush and India ink, the artist had conveyed the appearance and personality of his subject more distinctly than a more elaborate painting might have. But the work in this booth that really fascinated me was "Les oiseaux dans les arbres," by Fernand Leger (1953). Black lines gave you trees, birds, clouds and a suggestion of some buildings and windows, all intersected by electrical wires, amounting to one artist’s love letter to a particular corner of a city. www.landaufineart.ca (Montreal)

One test of the worth of these shows is whether or not any work startles you, shakes you out of your complacency, makes you ask questions. Several installation works had that effect in this show.

Such as Karine Payette’s offerings. First there was her kitchen table with a tipped over bowl sitting on it. Flowing from the bowl was a spill of milk, scattered Rice Krispies floating in it. The milk (presumably some kind of white plastic or resin) was even flowing over the table’s edge in icicle-like drips and pooling on the floor. Towards the back of the booth, two bare feet and a rear end, in jeans, were sticking out from behind a panel. I took this to be some frantic artist working to install a piece that hadn’t been finished sooner. Closer investigation revealed that I was seeing the back end of a dummy of a kneeling person, his or her "head" supposedly immersed below the floor. That missing head struck the kind of chilling note that so many displays in the upcoming Halloween season will be striving for. www.karinepayette.com

The show this year was focusing on work from Latin America and one of the works from that part of the world that interested me most was by Catalina Lon, from Argentina. The artist’s work appeared inside a shed or cabin, about fifteen by fifteen feet, roughly constructed of unfinished two-by-fours. Hanging inside were large swaths of fabric and some sheets of plywood. Most of these bore markings – blobs, splotches, daubs and streaks, that looked like the beginnings of paintings. A few, though, seemed to be somewhat more finished works. The overall effect, for me, was that this was like some sort of club house where a bunch of kids had been making art. They’d been having a great time but something had suddenly called them away. Maybe they decided to take a break for a swim in a nearby river. Maybe a rainbow needed chasing. The first outpourings of their imaginations were left for the adult who came along to finish as he or she saw fit. I loved the open-ended, carefree spirit of the thing.

Another work from Argentina, "Reflujo," by Eduardo Basualdo, consisted of about eighty identical wall clocks – white faces, metal rims – lying face up on the floor of an enclosure. The second hands on the clocks were all turning and it looked like they were all registering the same time, although that was a bit difficult to tell because there were no numbers on the clocks’ faces and you were seeing them all at different angles. The only other object in the space was something like a tree constructed of a pole bearing a cluster of gnarled, twisty ropes. Lots to think about there.

 

Election Night on CBC TV (October 19, 2015)

Why, you may be wondering, does a note about election night appear on a website devoted to reviews of the arts?

Because it’s about the art of the election coverage on tv. Election night is the only night I watch tv (apart from the Academy Awards and big funerals, if there should happen to be any). So a review of the proceedings is called for. Also, some of us complain so much about the CBC these days – in particular the reduction in quality programming on Radio Two – that it seems appropriate to make note of the things that the corporation does extremely well.

Election night is a complicated, tricky, rapidly evolving situation, and yet the professionals at CBC handled it with complete aplomb, assurance and even humour. From time to time you hear rumours that Peter Mansbridge may be a bit of a prima donna. We all know that CBC has had some serious trouble in recent years with people who fit that description. But if Mr. Mansbridge does happen to trail a bit of starry glory in his progress through this world, he has a right to. He is unbelievably good at his job. He manages to appear relaxed and genial while keeping on top of the vast amounts of information pouring in. He jokes a bit with the reporters, as though he’s having fun. And he’s so confident, so self-assurred, that he can fumble and lose his way now and then without seeming the slightest bit flustered and without upsetting the applecart.

Perhaps it’s his casual style, honed after so many years in the role, that made for a somewhat less glitzy feel to the coverage of election night this year. Yes, the graphics and computer animations were ingenious, the set was space-age, but the program did not seem to be as hyper as it sometimes was in the past. You didn’t have the feeling that the CBC was trying to get you all revved up about the results. There was no overkill. Instead, you were getting an informative and fascinating analysis of some very important developments. The reporters were precise and well-informed; the commentators were insightful and pithy.

The only discordant note of the program – quite unrelated to what any particular viewer’s feelings may have been re the results – was the short film about the glories of Canada. I can appreciate that the CBC was a bit strapped for material to fill the waiting time; talk about the results from Atlantic Canada was stretched pretty thin over two hours. But I found this paean of praise to our true north strong and free more than a bit cloying. It featured glowing, humanistic shots such as you find in commercials for insurance companies or phone plans: workers on tractors, in factories, in offices; people on streets; dancers on stage, fireworks, etc. The narration by Jay Baruchel talked about what great people we are. It reminded me of the film extolling the glories of Ontario that was made for Expo ‘67 in Montreal. That film choked me up; it made me imagine how much I would long for home if I were stranded in some foreign country. Is it just because I’m a little older now, a little less naive, a little less idealistic – not to say cynical – that I find this patriotic fanfare off-putting?

 

Otello (Opera) by Guiseppe Verdi; libretto by Arrigo Boito, based on the play by Shakespeare; conducted by Yannick Nzet-Sguin; production by Bartlett Sher; starring Alexandrs Antonenko, Sonya Yoncheva, Željko Lui, Dimitri Pittas, Gnther Groissbck; with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus; HD Live Transmission, October 17, 2015

Here we’re dealing with Verdi’s second last opera, premiered in 1887. (Falstaff, in 1893, was his last.) His style is changing from the lilting, tuneful Verdi of the earlier works. Now his operas are tending in the direction of Richard Wagner’s. There aren’t so many stand-alone arias. It’s no longer the case that the action stops while people stand and sing about their feelings. Instead, the singing and the orchestration carry the story forward. In other words, the music and the drama are one.

And there’s the problem – for me.

It’s hard to buy into this tale of insane, unjustified jealousy. Granted, infidelity is a serious matter in any relationship, but this Otello has a hair-trigger response to the least suggestion of it. Does Shakespeare’s play make it any more reasonable than this libretto by Arrigo Boito? As I recall, it does. At least, the build-up to Otello’s rage takes a little longer in Shakespeare’s version, as I recall. In this opera, it seems to be a knee-jerk thing, just another aspect of that Mediterranean culture that we find reflected in so much Italian opera: macho men, victimized women. And how can we believe that people would stand around, seeing what’s happening to Desdemona, and simply let it happen? I’m thinking of Emilia, her maid. In that final act, it’s clear that Desdemona is telling Emilia that she knows she’s going to die. Why does Emilia seem to accept it sadly without trying to do anything to prevent it? And then come running in at the very end and claim that she didn’t know?

However, that final act is so beautiful that it made sitting through the previous scenes worthwhile. Here’s where the music and the drama meld perfectly for me. And maybe that’s why I became a little more accepting of the premise of the opera. We still know of cultures where women are considered the property of men. Cultures where men can do what they want to women. Honour killings, for instance. So maybe it’s not too much of a stretch to put ourselves into a world where an Otello could have such absolute power over his wife and no other woman could do anything about it.

Sonya Yoncheva’s singing in that final scene, as from her very first moment on stage, was very beautiful. She has a magnificent voice. In the "Willow Song," it was a bit too rich and strong to have that haunting quality that always gives me shivers when I listen to Joan Sutherland’s recording. But Ms. Yoncheva makes up for the lack of Ms. Sutherland’s floating effect in other ways. Not least of which – she’s one of the rare operatic sopranos who’s young enough and beautiful enough to be completely believable in the role.

As Otello, Alexsandrs Antonenko did his best acting in those final moments – dragging his quaking body across the stage for "one more kiss....a kiss, again!" When he sang his first notes in the opera, I was thinking: this is no Jon Vickers! Mr. Antonenko’s voice sounded thin and pinched on top. His high notes at the end of the love scene didn’t quite ring true. Maybe it was a case of gradually warming up. As things got rolling, he proved that he could deliver this formidable music very well.

Whether it was his decision or the Met’s, I don’t know, but Mr. Antonenko, a white-skinned person, sang Otello without donning the usual blackface for the role of the Moor. I gather that there has been some controversy in the cultural world about opera companies seldom hiring black tenors for the role. The rebuttal of that complaint is that, given that there are so few tenors in the world who can sing the part, it’s a bit much to insist that only black ones be hired. Maybe, then, the Met’s dispensing with the blackface was by way of a gesture towards political correctness. A successful and adroit one, in my view. It suddenly made you aware that there was nothing in the text that required that the singer be black, apart from the reference to him as the "Moor."

Was there any suggestion in Shakespeare’s play that Othello’s being black would make him more prone to violent jealousy than a white man might have been? Was it taken for granted that a frail white woman might have more to fear from a black man? Was that something that Shakespeare’s audiences might have assumed? Perhaps. But maybe we don’t want to go there.

It could be that another way of the Met’s addressing the colour issue was having Eric Owens as the host for the afternoon. This was a case, though, where the gesture did not have quite as good an effect. Mr. Owens, a black singer who has made a big name for himself in Wagnerian roles, was struggling mightily to come across as friendly and relaxed; he was clearly ill at ease, leaning back from the camera and flapping his hands as if he didn’t know what to do with them.

Another of the less than successful aspects of the broadcast was Bartlett Sher’s idea of the production. Monumental walls of translucent glass (or plastic?) slid in and out, suggesting various possibilities of palatial residences. These towering structures almost looked like ice sculptures. Was the point to stress a certain chilliness about the proceedings? A lot of my attention was occupied by trying to figure out the reasons for the frequent changes in the arrangements. At one point, a bed indicated that Otello and Iago were having a discussion in a bedroom. But why was a bedroom a more significant venue at this point than any of the anonymous, generic groupings of the walls? The glass walls did make for some striking pictures, though, and occasionally they had the advantage of showing a murky view of someone who was eavesdropping on a scene.

It turns out that some of the most enjoyable aspects of these broadcasts are the intermission features. Appropriately enough in this 10th anniversary year of the HD Live initiative, the Met gave us a short documentary on the production of the shows. It was fascinating to see the setting up of the cameras (about ten of them) and the director’s calling the shots for each moment of April’s broadcast of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. A special treat was seeing hostess Susan Graham mugging for the camera when the rehearsal for her introduction was going off track.

An even more intriguing aspect of the program on the afternoon of the Otello broadcast was a peek into one of the dressing rooms to catch an off-the-cuff rehearsal with conductor Yannick Nzet-Sguin and the three principal male singers: Mr. Antonenko, Željko Lui (Iago) and Dimitri Pittas (Cassio). They had a tricky trio coming up and Maestro Nzet-Sguin wanted to run them through it. With a pianist hammering away and the conductor giving the beat, the men stood around in their shirt sleeves, sweaty and tousle-haired, singing dutifully through the challenging passage. When they had skilfully negotiated it, Maestro Nzet-Sguin congratulated them effusively. Then we caught a bit of an animated discussion between the maestro and Dimitri Pittas about some fluke in the first half of the performance. Monsieur Nzet-Sguin, a star of the Met, must be unique in the world of the maestro. He’s so darned cute! So buoyant and boyish, with such an infectious glee. He’s the kind of guy you’d expect to find working in a daycare, not mounting the podium to command one of the world’s greatest orchestras.

 

Il Trovatore (Opera) by Giuseppe Verdi; starring Anna Netrebko, Yonghoon Lee, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Dolora Zajick, Štefan Kocn; conducted by Marco Armiliato; with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus; production by Sir David McVicar; HD Live Broadcast; October 3rd.

Having never seen Il Trovatore (as far as I can remember), I had to consider the pro’s and con’s before making up my about attending this HD Live broadcast.

Pro’s:

First show of the 10th anniversary season.

Verdi, i.e. lots of good music.

Good singers on deck.

Con’s:

A lousy story.

As you can see, the "con’s" won.

But the opening scene confirmed my worst fears about the libretto. A bunch of soldiers are sitting around while their leader regales them with a long backstory about gypsies, curses, burnings at the stake, missing and incinerated infants. Although the contorted tale was very well sung by Štefan Kocn, the male opera chorus had quite a bit of trouble trying to pretend that this horror story was news to them.

I’m thinking: this is the kind of thing that gives opera a bad name. And what’s with that obvious telegraphing, in the opening scene, of the big secret that’s going to be revealed at the end? Were audiences more gullible in the 1850's? Or did they just not care how bad the dramaturgy was, as long as they got a spectacular show with good tunes?

As the drama unfolded, there was no point at which you could believe that any of the characters were real people involved in believable situations. However, the dramatist and composer did build to a resounding climax at the end of the first part, what with the heroine on the point of taking the veil and her rival lovers stepping in to steal her away from God.

On Anna Netrebko’s entrance, as the heroine (Leonora), it was a bit of a shock to see how much weight she has put on since the last time I’d seen her on screen. She’s still very beautiful but there’s much more of her than formerly. Is it sexist of me to comment on something like this? I don’t think so. The way a woman looks – indeed the way a man looks – has a lot to do with whether or not she or he can convey the requisite romantic image.

However, when a woman can sing like Ms. Netrebko, you’ve got to allow her to be whatever weight she wants. She is one of the great sopranos of all time. Her voice is darker now and her coloratura is not pin-point precise, but the voice is so beautiful, so rich, powerful and expressive that it’s hard to imagine anybody doing better justice to Verdi’s music. One of the special things about her instrument is that, unlike a lot of sopranos, she can sing the lowest notes with conviction that sounds natural and not at all forced.

Yonghoon Lee has the required romantic image for the role of Manrico, the troubadour: tall, trim, with a head of luxuriant black hair. His voice, though, is not very romantic. It’s cold and hard. There’s a metallic edge to it. The advantage of that is that it cuts incisively through the orchestra with bright, clear force. Sometimes with a tenor, especially in such a demanding role, you wonder whether or not the high notes are going to be there, secure and solid. They are, in abundance, in the case of Mr. Lee.

As Azucena, the gypsy, Dolora Zajick is celebrating her twenty-fifth season with the Met. Although she doesn’t have one of those warm, golden mezzo soprano voices, her singing is very clear and true. So is her acting. It’s not hard to see her Azucena as one of the street people who roam our cities in rags, toting their bundles behind them.

Much was made of baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s return to the Met after treatment for a brain tumour. General Manager, Peter Gelb, mentioned the fact in his opening remarks to host Susan Graham. When Mr. Hvorostovsky first entered as Count di Luna, he had to wait through a huge welcoming ovation. As the applause went on, he stepped out of character just enough to allow himself a slight smile and a nod to the audience. After his magnificent singing of "Il balen del suo sorriso...." the camera stayed close on his face as he waited through the uproar of appreciation. He remained composed but it almost looked as though he might break into tears.

The original 15th century setting of the opera was updated to what appeared to be the Napoleonic era: big hats, high boots and long coats on everybody. I don’t know what purpose that served but I did appreciate the fact that the set was minimal: just some high stone walls. That seemed to emphasize the fact that we shouldn’t try to look at this piece realistically. More symbolically, perhaps. But I never did get the point of the desiccated corpse on a cross in the background. It seemed to belong in the more barbarous times of the original setting of the opera.

Susan Graham proved herself to be one of the most enjoyable hosts we’ve seen in the history of the HD Live Broadcasts. She’s great with ad-libs. As when, Mr. Hvorostovsky kissed her, having just been slashed across the face by Manrico. As Mr. Hvorostovsky fled, Ms. Graham asked us: "Did he get blood on me?" During her interview with Ms. Netrebko, the star’s son, about eight years old, kept interrupting charmingly. When he and his momma withdrew, Ms Graham, alluding to the famous theatrical dictum about impossible colleagues on stage, sighed: "Ah yes, children and dogs!"

At the beginning of these broadcasts ten years ago, when the intermission interviews turned out to be part of the package, I was afraid that they might rob the opera of some of its mystery and enchantment. Maybe so, but in this case, the lightening effect was welcome. Dolora Zajick joked about the impossibility of anyone’s understanding the plot of Il Trovatore. The sense that we were just having fun couldn’t have been conveyed more vividly than when Mr. Hvorostovsky and another performer came running up, interrupted one of Ms. Graham’s interviews, and mugged for the camera, wearing elaborate headgear that looked like it came from Turandot.

And it was Mr. Hvorostovsky’s presence that made for one of the most exciting moments of the afternoon, although it had nothing to do with music. After the cast members had taken their solo bows and Conductor Marco Armiliato had joined them on stage, he got behind Mr. Hvorostovsky and pushed him towards the footlights. Then the orchestra members stood up and threw white roses at Mr. Hvorostovsky. He thanked them ebulliently, then started running around the stage, collecting the roses and giving them to the other singers.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com