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July 26, 2022

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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

Reviewed here: Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 2022 (Art); Lucia di Lammermoor (Opera)

Toronto Outdoor Art Fair 2022 (Art) July 17, 2022. Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto

What with Covid and other matters, it's been several years since we at Dilettante's Diary have attended the Toronto Outdoor Art Fair (formerly known as the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition). This year it seemed to me that there were, perhaps, fewer artists participating. Also, there seemed to be more of the forms of art that don't interest me so much: sculpture, pottery and jewelry. However, there was lots of good painting to appreciate. Not that I could see everything in a two-hour visit, but some very enjoyable works caught my attention.

Among the works by favourite artists from previous years, there were David Brown's encaustics. His art has changed a lot since I've been watching it. At one time, he was turning out wildly free and exuberant encaustic paintings. Now, his works are more geometric and they're encaustic monoprints. As I understand the process, pigmented wax is melted onto a heated metal surface, then a sheet of paper is pressed over it to pick up the image. Several pressings can be done for different colours on one painting. Sometimes, Mr. Brown cuts up the results to form dazzling collages or gives them a new dimension by folding them into sculptural shapes. One of the works that really spoke to me showed a large oblong in fading black, washed over with cool greys and blues in mottled textures, conveying an inviting mood of contemplative calm. www.artistdavidbrown.com

Also among the favourites, Peter A. Barelkowski's works would be some of the most distinctive and recognizable in any show. His strange little, forlorn figures -- seeming lost in the enormous expanses that the artist has placed them in -- say lots about what it means to be human in this world. www.peterbarelkowski.com

Another artist whose work is always recognizable is Gordon Leverton. He shows supreme mastery in the way he creates marvellous compositions featuring the upper storeys of houses, rooves, eavestroughs and windows, all captured in beautifully balanced colours. It's a wonder that he can keep creating what must be -- by now -- hundreds of variations on these subjects. www.gordonleverton.com

An artist who was new to me and whose work made one of the strongest impressions was Diogo Pinheiro. His paintings were some of the smallest in the show: about four by five inches. They're oil paintings on paper that has been treated with gesso (a mixture of plaster of Paris and glue). Mr. Pinheiro bases his paintings on his photos that capture architectural features of locations like Union Station and subway stations. He then removes from the pictures all the "chaos" as he calls it: the people, the advertising and so on. That leaves him with compositions of rectangles, squares, circles and so on. In the finished paintings, you can tell that you're looking at hallways, doors, pillars, escalators and stairs, but there's a remarkable stillness, a Zen-like quality to them. Mr. Pinheiro admits that he sometimes enhances the colours a bit but he says a viewer would be surprised to find that most of the colours in the paintings appear just like that in the actual locations. www.diogopinheiroart.com

Toronto artists love Cabbage Town street scenes and back alleys with laundry flapping on lines. You inevitably see a lot of that kind of art in these shows. That's what made Karin Shaddick's work all the more remarkable for me. She imbues those scenes with especially vibrant colour that gives them a life and immediacy that catches your eye in a way that no other street scenes do. One of her best paintings was an urban scene that featured a lot of clutter in the foreground -- including a folded patio umbrella and a Coca Cola sign -- with buildings looming in the background. It was stunning, not just for the sun-drenched colour of it, but even more so for the handling of the complex composition. www.karinshaddick.com

At these shows, I'm always looking for some abstract works that say something special to me. The works of Sylvain Côté, a print maker, did that in a very simple way. Consisting of not much more than patches of colour -- sometimes in bright colours, sometimes in paler hues -- overlapping or juxtaposed, with lots of empty space around them, they brought forth a feeling that there was a place of harmony and peace hidden deep in the turbulence surrounding us. (Google: TOAF 2022 Sylvain Côté)

In a more buoyant, free-wheeling and playful way, Susan Ukkola's encaustic abstracts bring all kinds of fun to mind with their lines, circles, dots and sweeping expanses of colour. www.susanukkola.com

I also found attractive abstracts in the mixed media works on paper by David Adshade: large, bold works, with declamatory effect. While those are the artist's more recent works, he was also showing what he calls "Industrial Abstracts:" large pieces -- about four feet by three feet -- on rusty metal, with various suggestions of industrial ambiance, not actual representations of tools or machines, but hints of factories: rust, oil, grit and so on. You can almost smell the sweat and feel the heat. www.davidadshade.com

Not much of the landscape in the show caught my attention in any special way. (Canadians buyers can't seem to get landscape unless it has a Group-of-Seven-ish vibe.) However, I was quite taken by Larissa Mattwich's works. Somewhat messy and tumultuous, they're almost complete abstracts but there's still a feeling of landscape about them. What they convey most of all is the artist's excitement about the natural scene she's looking at and how she expresses that in colour and design. (Google: TOAF 2022 Larissa Mattwich)

When it comes to art accomplished by unusual means -- unusual, at least, for this viewer -- the prize would have to go to Michelle Rodrigues. Her works consist of tiny fragments of colourful magazine photos pasted in ragged collages that leave some of the edges of the scraps of paper fluttering in the breeze. Ms. Rodrigues says that these works are about love, sex, relationships and life in our crazy world. One of the works suggested to me something like a fractious street scene, but I had the impression you weren't supposed to see anything remotely representational in the work. www.michellerodrigues.ca

An artist who also uses a medium that's far from typical is a young man who identifies himself only as "Owen." He takes large sheets of metal that he finds in junkyards -- doors and hoods from old cars, for instance -- and, using a blowtorch, he cuts out intricate designs in them, along the lines of the florid patterns in the William Morris style of art. That makes for an ironic contrast between the rough-hewn nature of the material and the lacey effect of the finished product. Owen also makes sculptures, on commission, from old tools that people ask him to work with -- saws, drills, hammers, etc -- that are, perhaps, beloved souvenirs of an ancestor. www.burnisland.ca

You don't often see etchings in art shows these days but Alex R.M. Thompson had some impressive ones on display. He even had a large copper sheet on hand by way of explaining to interested bystanders how the etching process works. The fine, detailed process made for excellent black and white prints celebrating lofty and vaguely industrial structures and towers. www.alexrmthompson.com

For someone whose first love is watercolours, it was a great pleasure to find the work of Golrokh Daneshgar. From a distance, her watercolours looked like angular, fragmented abstracts, but, up close, you realized they were evocations of streams, rivers, trees and skies. They almost looked like collages made of separate pieces but that was because Ms. Daneshgar had used masking fluid to block out jagged sections of the paper. (Masking fluid protects certain sections of the paper so that they don't pick up any paint. When the masking dries, you scrape it off and -- Presto! -- you have a pure white section in your painting.) These white shards had dramatic effects on the paintings, but the most important thing about the works, from my point of view, is that they so beautifully expressed the essence of watercolour: transparent, ephemeral and delicate, in a way that no other medium is. (Google: TOAF 2022 Golrokh Daneshgar)

Lucia di Lammermoor (Opera) by Gaetano Donizetti; libretto by Salvadore Cammarano, based on the novel by Sir Walter Scott; conducted by Riccardo Frizza; production by Simon Stone; set by Lizzie Clachan; starring Nadine Sierra, Javier Camarena, Artur Rucinski, Christian Van Horn; with the Metropolitan Orchestra and Chorus; originally broadcast May 21, 2022; encore broadcast July 13, 2022.

Gorgeous as Donizetti's music is, you might not always need to see another Lucia, unless, perhaps, one or two special conditions pertain: 1) there's an exciting new star singing the legendary role; and/or 2) the opera's getting an intriguing new setting.

Both conditions apply in this case. Not that Nadine Sierra is exactly a newcomer -- given her many awards and starring roles -- but I couldn't remember having heard her before. And Simon Stone's concept for the production certainly is breath-takingly original.

First the setting.

Instead of late 18th century Scotland, we're in contemporary rust belt USA. Lucia and her treacherous brother, Enrico, live in a dingy clapboard house, its interior boasting a thoroughly tacky decor. Other aspects of the revolving set display the neighbourhood's ambiance: liquor store, convenience store, pharmacy, pawn shop and fast food joint. Pick-up trucks take the stage in many of the scenes. Wardrobes feature lots of t-shirts and torn jeans. Lucia's first big scene, the one where she's telling her friend, Alisa (Deborah Nansteel), about her love for Edgardo, takes place in what looks like a water filtration plant: lots of ominous concrete walls and metal pipes. Not inappropriate, given that the libretto has Lucia pondering the fate of a young woman whose murdered body was found in a nearby pond.

In a pre-recorded intermission interview, director Simon Stone said he thought the US rustbelt, where people are struggling with declining prosperity and dashed hopes, made a suitable parallel to the original late 18th century Scottish setting of the opera, a time when the aristocracy were losing their privilege and people like Enrico were desperate to restore their finances. Sounds reasonable enough. However, the production never convinced me of that premise. Mainly, because I was never able to see the characters as anything like those in Donizetti's original setting. That may be because Enrico, for example, never seemed anything like an aristocrat or a person whose high social status was jeopardized. "White trash" would be more like it. And the music couldn't feel anything like an expression of the culture that this man lived in: here was this supposed scumbag singing so beautifully! The lack of fit between the music and the people became most glaring in the wedding scene, where the drunken revellers were trying to "groove" to Donizett's lilting melodies.

Although the over-arching concept of the production didn't work for me, several of Mr. Stone's innovations gave certain scenes and incidents a particularly striking and relevent effect. Of course, cell phones came into play, most notably to display the fake photos meant to illustrate Edgardo's supposed perfidy. For part of the mad scene, Lucia was climbing around on top of a pickup truck. We learned that the murder weapon she'd used was a cylindrical fire extinguisher from a motel room. (We got to see Arturo's bloody body lying on the bed, but shouldn't the body have looked a little more bashed up, given the murder weapon?) When Edgardo was grieving the loss of Lucia, he was cradling in his arms her puffer jacket that she left in his truck. Of the contemporary touches, none was more effective than the one that came in the finale: instead of the corny falling-on-your-sword shtick from Edgardo, we had a struggle between him and Raimondo (Christian Van Horn) who was trying to take Edgardo's gun. The gun went off while they had their backs to us, Raimondo turned and showed his bloody hands, then Edgardo turned, showing his blasted chest.

One of the most contemporary aspects of the production was the use of video. When Lucia was not involved in a scene, an actual camera crew was following her and projecting her actions on a big screen suspended above the set. This was an ingenious way of revealing something about her inner life that we wouldn't otherwise have intuited. For instance, we got to see her in her bedroom at Enrico's, getting ready for her clandestine meeting with Edgardo, then climbing out the bathroom window. In the mad scene, we flashed back to black-and-white video fantasies -- or actual memories -- of the love scene that had ended in a motel with Lucia and Edgardo tearing off each other's clothes. These fantasies helped greatly to put us inside her madness. At one point in these fantasies, she was taking her bridal veil and putting it playfully over the head of Edgardo who smiled back at her indulgently and lovingly.

The only thing I didn't quite get about the multi-media aspect of the production was that, at times, scenes from classic black and white movies were playing on a screen. (I'm not sure if the screen was in the background or above the set; it was hard to tell exactly how the audience at the Met was seeing the videos.) Were we supposed to recognize these as famous scenes? Would that have tipped us off to their meaning? One of the scenes seemed to involve two gentlemen and a woman negotiating some kind of understanding. This was playing on screen when Enrico was telling Normanno (Alok Kumar) about his plans to force Lucia into a marriage that would reap financial benefits for him. I can see how the courteous, mannerly discussion on the screen might have offered an ironic contrast to what was happening onstage.

As for the singing ... full disclosure here: Joan Sutherland was my ideal Lucia and it's impossible to shake my impressions of her performance. From some previews of this production that I'd heard, I was afraid that Miss Sierra's voice was too dark, too heavy. No such problem, it turns out. It's a different kind of voice from Ms. Sutherland's -- Ms. Sierra doesn't have the miraculous floating quality and the seemingly endless resources in the upper register that "La Stupenda" had -- but she executes all the coloratura with brightness, agility and great sensitivity. (In crucial moments of the mad scene, it was a pleasure to hear the glass harmonica accompanying the singer, as originally intended by Donizetti, rather than the flute that has often been used.) One thing that was most remarkable about her performance -- and this is something you could never have said of Joan Sutherland -- was the quality of Ms. Sierra's acting. You had no doubt that she was truly demented. A lot of this was conveyed by her darting eyes which didn't seem to know where to look.

Other directorial touches helped to make the mad scene more convincing than it usually is. Arturo (Eric Ferring) had shown up for the wedding in a brilliantly pink suit and his bloody body was still wearing it while lying on the motel bed. During the mad scene, for a few moments, four or five men, similarly garbed in pink suits dripping blood, followed Lucia in her rambling. One could well imagine how such apparitions could have appeared in her imagination. In another effective directorial choice, one of the men in the front row of the chorus was so upset by Lucia's raving, that he couldn't look at her; he kept his gaze to one side.

We all know by now that Javier Camarena is an unparalleled tenor, with a seemingly endless capacity for navigating the tricky coloratura and ringing out the high notes. Being not very tall and somewhat stocky in build, he doesn't have the matinee idol bearing. Still, with the beguiling sweetness in his face, he made a charming and engaging Edgardo.

Artur Rucinski doesn't have the richest or biggest baritone voice I've heard, but he uses it beautifully. His acting, as Enrico -- with his cigarettes, his cocaine and his booze -- was perhaps the most interesting of anyone's in the cast. Decidedly masculine and inclined to be taciturn, he could be slick and persuasive when necessary, even faking affection convincingly, while being cunning and malevolent the rest of the time.

This is not meant as a criticism of the production, but, in spite of its many fascinating aspects, there were times when I couldn't help feeling a twinge -- or more than a twinge -- of nostalgia for the old-style production, with Joan Sutherland's heavenly singing, when it all seemed so far away and long ago, so sad in a sentimental way that had nothing to do with today's ugly realities.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com