19 May 2013

Astounding Sphinx

My opera evening didn’t start as it usually does. I had forgotten that this was the night, so I ended up not being able to remind my companions in time and taking the world’s fastest shower and taxi ride to get there on time. That I made it was a miracle; that I had the world’s most expensive coat chair next to me — with a spare on the other side — was just a shame.

Panting, I was in my seat in enough time to read the synopsis before the lights went down and the curtain went up. I was still shaken enough, however, that the name of the substitute tenor did not register with me. I’m left wondering how the bed scene with a shirtless des Grieux might have been with Portuguese tenor Bruno Ribeiro (below) who couldn’t make it. As an aside, the substitute, who was apparently filling in on a mere three days’ notice, was excellent. It’s only too bad I can’t seem to find his name on the Opéra de Montréal website!

The other thing I will comment on before getting to the performance itself is the promotion. You might remember the uproar I wrote about in a previous post about using models versus using the actual singers for the promotion. At the top of this post is the actual soprano of this production, Marianne Fiset, and below is the model photo. It seems that the Opéra de Montréal has learned from the controversy and is using the images in parallel, but with somewhat more prominent use of a better thought-out photo of the star. I actually prefer the star’s photo, wearing something other than one of the costumes used, but conveying the feel of the promotional model photo quite well. We will see if next year is parallel imagery or a focus on the stars, but this one was very well done and the Opéra de Montréal deserves kudos for it.

I always enjoy the plots of operas. This one — Manon by Massenet — is no exception. “A litany of poor choices and regrets,” I tweeted during the first intermission. And indeed it was, from leaving your sixteen-year-old cousin waiting at the equivalent of the bus station while you go to drink and gamble with your friends, to running off with a stranger you just met, to throwing yourself at your ex-lover when he is about to take his vows as a priest to the real kicker: telling your penniless lover that if he really loves you he will gamble to win a fortune for you both. Let’s just say that the character of Manon might inspire admiration for her beauty, but she will not encourage feelings of empathy. Not from me, anyway. (My title is a name she gets called in the libretto.)

So by the time we get to the end everyone is quite unhappy, except Manon, who is dying in her lover’s arms, so as usual you can’t really be happy and live. But that’s why opera is such a refreshing form of storytelling that compares favourably to our usual Hollywood movie fare.

The music was lovely — many catchy tunes to draw you in — and the singing was good (this coming from a non-expert, so don’t take my adjective as a slap in the face or a kudo too far). I especially liked Marianne Fiset in the role of the detestable Manon, and Gordon Bintner in the role of Lescaut (cousin who leaves her outside while he gambles.). Bintner, pictured above, has been singled out by Barihunks as “opera’s new Golden Boy” and his voice is a joy to listen to.

They seem to paying a good deal of attention to the acting aspects of productions, too, and the comic timing in certain parts of this was most excellent. We had some good laughs and they were intended!

I usually remark, too, how much I want to appropriate the sets of the Opéra de Montréal productions as apartments for myself to live in. This set didn’t so much make me want to live in it, but I started out a little skeptical about the visibly flat trees in many layers that appeared in a number of the acts, but they really grew on me and left me feeling the depth and lushness of the foliage. A lot of the other parts of the sets had a similar “flat, but grew on me” feel, and then the mist at the end was quite good. It must have been a real feat to keep such a good layer of fog around the feet of the singers throughout the last part of Act 5.

Oh, and one other touch that kept amusing me: blowing bubbles in the crowd scene in Act 3. They weren’t intrusive, just little hints of bubbles floating up from various parts of the back of the crowd…and I didn’t see them being blown! It definitely added to ambiance of the chaotic outdoor scene with vendors hawking wares and such. It somehow felt summery.

One last aside with respect to the Opéra de Montréal. When I got to my seat(s), there were stickers on the backs reminding me to renew for the next season. I do find that they tend to go into renewal overdrive rather early (got the form in the mail weeks ago!), but I had to admire the extra effort involved in putting the stickers on my seat(s) so that I would see them upon my arrival. Well played.

Now I have to decide if I will renew (probably, and probably soon, so stop calling me!) and if I will expand my little zone by also buying the seat that my friend has decided not to buy for next year. His reason is one that merits some attention, too: there is an inexcusable dearth of women in important positions in these productions. We’re not talking about the performing parts, but roles like Director and Conductor. Far too rarely are these roles filled by women and that ought to be fixed.

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