Thursday, October 23, 2014

MADAMA BUTTERFLY – REVIEW OF COC PRODUCTION

Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio San and Stefano Secco as Pinkerton. Photo: Michael Cooper

Reviewed by James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company has revived its 2003 production of Madama Butterfly in what can best be described as a mixed blessing. Brian Macdonald’s production was last seen at the Four Season Centre in 2009 and it has not fared well with the passage of time.

The best part of the production is soprano Patricia Racette’s performance as Cio-Cio San. It is a role that requires a huge emotional and a significant vocal range and Racette does a superb job as Butterfly, the 15-year old Japanese girl who marries, Pinkerton, a despicable American naval officer. She goes from blissful infatuation, to deep love, to desperation, to eternal hope, utter despair and finally suicide. Racette captures all those emotions in her bravura performance.

The most disappointing performance was that of tenor Stefano Secco as Pinkerton. His voice was not strident but it fell well short of the tone of the passionate lover of the first act. He was simply unconvincing either as a lover or a cad. To my great surprise, the audience did not take to him at all and a substantial number of usually polite Canadians booed him. An average performance does not deserve that kind of treatment.
 Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki and Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio San. Photo: Michael Cooper

Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong was an affectionate and dramatic Suzuki and gave an impressive performance. Baritone Dwayne Croft was a sympathetic Sharpless, the humane American Consul. His resonant voice stood him in good stead and he provided fine contrast to Pinkerton.  

Macdonald’s and Set Designer Susan Benson’s conception seemed flat and indeed almost drab. Half a dozen screens on a raised platform were practically the sum total of the set. In the background we see a faded mountain presumably on the other side of Nagasaki Harbour. The sky is gray, the sides of the stage are gray and the costumes seem unimaginative. What was simple and even attractive a few years ago no longer satisfies and we need a more imaginative production but do keep Patricia Racette.

The directing seemed careless. The Pinkerton-Butterfly duet in Act I is an ardent expression of love but physically they almost never get even close to each other. “You are the centre of the universe,” “you are mine,” “yes, for life” they sing in passionate bliss. You can’t very well have them in each other’s arms for the duration of the duet singing into each other’s dental work but the staging was decidedly awkward. There has to be sexual electricity between the two even if they are apart because they are about to have their honeymoon.
Racette rises to the occasion in the final scene when she says farewell to her child and kills herself. The libretto calls for Pinkerton to sing “Butterfly! Butterfly! Butterfly” offstage and he and Sharpless rush onto the stage. Pinkerton is supposed to fall on his knees in a possible gesture of repentance. In this production, they are not seen at the end at all. They are not needed. Racette carries the scene all by herself.      
_____


Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini opened on October 10 and will be performed twelve times until October 31, 2014 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671. www.coc.ca

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

FALSTAFF - REVIEW OF CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY PRODUCTION

Russell Braun as Ford and Gerald Finley as Falstaff. Photo: Michael Cooper

Reviewed by James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company delivers a resoundingly successful Falstaff for its fall season. Gerald Finley dominates the production the way Herne’s Oak towers over Windsor Great Park (even if in this production the tree is left to our imagination).

The Canadian bass-baritone gives a defining performance as the exuberant, irreverent, lecherous fat knight in Robert Carsen’s brilliant imagining of Verdi’s last opera. There are times when he is the centerpiece of the opera around whom the other characters seem like simple satellites. He dominates vocally with his powerful chords and physically with his well-padded torso. He is funny and Carsen manages to keep him from becoming pathetic in the ends when the “fairies’ are supposed to basically torture him. The needling is ritualistic rather than realistic and the desired result is comic rather than cruel.

Canadian baritone Russell Braun gives a superb performance as Ford, the jealous, would-be-cuckolded husband of Alice. He disguises himself as a wealthy man in order to catch Falstaff, his supposed cuckolder and manages to be amusing in both guises. Braun sings with conviction and acts with panache. Soprano Lyne Fortin is an attractive, energetic and satisfying Alice.

French-Canadian Contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux gave an impressive performance as Mistress Quickly, one of the merry wives of Windsor. She has a marvelously rich voice and a fine comic sense. Her Mistress Quickly was a delight to see and hear.

Tenor Michael Colvin did the best in the relatively minor role of Dr. Caius by being vocally expressive and quite funny. Tenor Frédéric Antoun was good as Fenton the young lover with Simone Osborne as Nannetta, the object of his affection.
 A scene from Falstaff. Photo: Michael Cooper

Much of the strength of the production lies in Carsen’s interpretation. The Garter Inn where the opera is set in 16th century England (i.e. Shakespearean’s The Merry Wives of Windsor) becomes a modern grand hotel. Falstaff is in a huge bed in a paneled room that is as big as the stage. With a few judicious rearrangements of the panels we move to the other scenes of the opera. The panels are removed for the scene in the kitchen in Ford’s house where Falstaff will be hidden in a huge laundry hamper and unceremoniously dumped into the Thames.

After being saved from drowning by the size of his belly, Falstaff ends up in the stable of the grand hotel where a horse is having dinner while our hero tries to deal with his humiliation.

Falstaff opens at a brisk speed and the tempo is maintained with necessary modulations in pace. Carsen brings out comic touches and gets the laughs and enjoyment inherent in the opera. The last scene in the park where Falstaff’s punishment could become disproportionate to his sins is handled with finesse. In the end his atonement rings false as it should. We want an irrepressible Falstaff who gets his comeuppance but is essentially unstoppable and immortal.

The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra performed energetically under the baton of Johannes debus.

This is a co-production with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, thr Teatro alla Scala, Milan, the Metropolitan Opera, New York and the Dutch National Opera. That may be a good indicator of the current state of opera.

Be that as it may, the audience gave this Falstaff an enthusiastic reception and Gerald Finley a standing ovation.
_____
       

Falstaff by Giuseppe Verdi will be performed seven times between October 3 and November 1, 2014 at The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St. West, Toronto, Ontario. www.coc.ca

Thursday, October 16, 2014

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD – REVIEW OF YPT PRODUCTION

Jeff Miller as Atticus Finch and Caroline Toal as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. 
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Reviewed by James Karas

Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird has attained iconic status as a novel, a film and a play. The 1960 novel and 1962 film starring Gregory Peck are known better than the 1990 theatrical adaptation by Christopher Sergel but all tell the powerful story of growing up in a small town in Alabama in the 1930’s and of racial inequality and injustice at the most despicable level.

Young People’s Theatre gives us an outstanding production of the play that captures the atmosphere of a town with deep racial bigotry and disregard for justice.

Director Allen MacInnis leads a fine cast who give very good performances that tell the two stories of the novel with effectiveness and emotional punch.

One plot strand is the domestic life of lawyer Atticus Finch (Jeff Miler), his two children, Scout (Caroline Toal) and Jem (Noah Spitzer), their friend Dill (Tal Shulman) and the maid Calpurnia (Lisa Berry). The children and Dill are intelligent, curious and have very active imaginations especially when it comes to their reclusive neighbour Boo Radley (Mark Crawford). Their curiosity leads them to harassing the poor man in order to see what he is doing and how he is living. It is a touching tale of childhood fears and of growing up.

The parallel story is about Tom Robinson (Matthew G. Brown), a Negro labourer charged with raping Mayella (Jessica Moss), a young woman who befriended him and made sexual advances. Her father Bob Ewell (Hume Baugh) saw the  incident and Tom was immediately arrested and charged with rape. Judge Taylor (Thomas Hauff) appoints Atticus to defend Tom and we have a memorable courtroom scene.

The two plot strands meet to very dramatic effect at the conclusion of the play. I am not disclosing the entire plot for those who may not be aware of it. Suffice it to see it is an extraordinary story that goes from the humour of childhood fears and domestic life to the depths and depravity of racist America and the perversion of justice.

The story is told from the point of view of the ten-year-old Scout but the central character is Atticus. He is the essence of decency in a society poisoned by racial hatred. His defense of a Negro transfers society’s hatred towards him when the disgusting Bob Ewell spits in his face. Atticus reacts calmly and expresses the wish that his attacker did not chew tobacco. That is the persona that Miller has to represent and he does so with terrific effectiveness.  

Toal does a very good job as Scout. The actor is understandably older than the 10-year old Scout but she is convincing in the role. She manages a decent Southern accent and my only small complaint is that at times she spoke a bit too quickly.

Shulman and Spitzer are in good form as the young boys as is Rudy Webb as the decent Reverend Sykes and Hauff as the fair-minded judge.

The obnoxious and evil Bob Ewell and the pathetic Tom Robinson represent the opposite poles of the emotional scale. Brown as Robinson delivers an emotionally draining performance while you want to strangle Baugh’s Ewell he is so hideous.
 
The theatre on the media opening performance of this production was full of students representing the racial mix of Toronto. They seemed enthralled by the play that is as much a lesson in morality as it is a thoroughly dramatic story. It was a delight to watch the stage and the audience. The show is recommended for ages 11 and up but there is no upper age limit! Go see it.
______  


To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, dramatized by Christopher Sergel opened on October 9 and will play until November 2, 2014 at the Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. 416 862-2222. www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

GOLFO! DIRECTOR’S CUT – REVIEW OF AVLAIA THEATRE PRODUCTION


Reviewed by James Karas

Avlaia Theatre of Thessaloniki has produced a bold production of Golfo in Gothic Manga style that has some production values a great deal of imaginative touches but a final result that left me cold.

Golfo was written by Spyros Peresiadis in 1893 in a highly poetic, rural language (you could say hillbilly) and is described as an idyllic drama. Tassos and Golfo are poor but deeply in love. Stavroula, the daughter of the wealthy local grandee, let’s say rancher, wants to marry Tassos. Her haughty cousin Kitsos wants to marry Golfo. Tassos succumbs to the lure of wealth and disavows Golfo.

She is heartbroken and takes poison; he repents and apologizes but is too late. The poison takes effect and he stabs himself. The lovers are joined in death. Think of it as a Romeo and Juliet story with some variations.

Simos Kakalas takes the main plotline of Golfo and creates something very different and calls it Golfo! Director’s Cut. Four actors play seven of the play’s thirteen characters. Kakalas’s version has a narrator/chorus who becomes perhaps the play’s most important character. Except for the narrator, the other characters wear masks and act and speak in a highly stylized way as if they were cartoons or marionettes. It could easily be taken for children’s theatre because almost all the actors speak in an unnatural and at times childish voice.

The play opens with a length monologue by the Narrator. He is wearing a black foustanela and a black sailor’s hat and accompanies himself on an accordion. He has a long rambling monologue with a wide range of references almost none of them related to Golfo. The monologue is self-indulgent but some of the audience seemed to find it amusing. I assume the Narrator was played by Kakalas but no attempt was made to identify him or the other actors in the programme. Presumably the audience knows them all.

When the monologue is over the play begins. All is back throughout and there are projected videos of black and white cartoon figures and country scenes as well as photos of the Acropolis.

Tassos and then Golfo appear wearing masks in and play in stylized movements and stances. When birds are mentioned the Narrator appears and “produces” the birds and makes what are supposed to be humorous comments. Tassos disappears and Golfo keeps busy while we wait for Kitsos to appear. The delay is because the same actor plays both parts, Golfo tells us. Golfo wears a mask that has wide child-like eyes. She has pigtails, wears a young girl’s dress and speaks like a child.

The plot of Golfo is told fairly faithfully subject to interpolations and interruptions. Near the end the actor playing Golfo removes her mask and delivers a poignant curse to Tassos that is overwhelming in its emotional impact. She later retracts the curse again very effectively. It serves to emphasize the beauty of Peresiadis’s verse and the travesty of what Kakalas has done to the play.

One of the interpolations by Kakalas is the presentation of a Chaplinesque Hitler and a rendition of “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in English to the tune of a Greek folk song. That, the English titles on the screen, the political and cultural references, the awful music and the self-indulgent humour left me in turn wondering, annoyed and at times utterly bored.

Simos Kakalas takes credit for direction, sets, movement and the script (the latter with Xenia Aidonopoulou). The actors aside from Kakalas are Dimitra Kouza, Elena Mavridou and Mihalis Valasoglou. As I said, I don’t know who played what role.

The title Golfo! Director’s Cut by Simos Kakalas is a good indicator of where the play will lead. Spyros Peresiadis is not mentioned anywhere in the programme but the director’s self-indulgence is everywhere.

Old wines can be poured into new bottles and may even gain by the transfer. But mixing new wines with old ones is a risky task that should be approached with care and humility. Kakalas exercised neither care nor humility. He jumped on the idea of shoving Golfo into a Gothic Manga straitjacket and the result was a very bad night at the theatre.
______


Golfo! Director’s Cut by Simos Kakalas based on play by Spyros Peresiadis played at the Avlaia Theatre, Thessaloniki, Greece until September 29, 2014. www.avlaiatheatre.gr

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

MARRIAGE OF FIGARO IN ST. MARK’S ENGLISH CHURCH, FLORENCE

View of St. Mark's English Church, Florence.

Reviewed by James Karas

How is this for an opera season: forty-five performances of ten operas and an evening of love duets. Most opera companies don’t come even near those numbers.

Early September can be a dry month for operas in many cities. But that does not apply tp Florence, Italy where St. Mark’s Opera Company started its fall season on September 2.

Producing opera in St. Mark’s, the English Church in Florence, is like entering a boxing match with one hand tied behind your back. The odds are stacked against you but that does not mean you will not get in a lot of jabs and hooks to leave your supporters cheering.

The programme lists only four singers, a pianist and a Narrator. The latter is Franz Moser who, with his wife Ilse, founded the opera company that is now in its twelfth season. No director is listed and I will assume that Moser does that job. He is also the audience welcoming committee, the prop mover between acts and who knows what else.

Much credit goes to the singers who perform under less than ideal conditions. Elise Efremov is a lovely and lively Susanna. She sings beautifully in challenging surroundings and is spritely and comic. Alvaro Lozano has a good, big voice but he suffered from the acoustics of the Church.

Chiara Panacci was a moving Contessa Almaviva. One could see why the Count’s eye may stray toward the lively Susanna but Panacci’s rendition of her two great arias, “Porgi amor” and “Dove sono” convince us that she deserves to be treated well.

Franco Rossi as Almaviva was impressive and when caught acting like a fool with an axe in his hand, he was quite funny. Eva Mabellini  was fine vocally as a red-haired Cherubino but she was somewhat stilted in a role that requires  a body trembling with sexual excitement.

All the other characters and the chorus were deleted and as a result the opera was done in two hours including an intermission.

The vaulted ceiling of St. Mark’s Church is not opera-friendly. The piano playing of Eugenio Milazzo displayed some very intricate finger acrobatics but it suffered for coming out fortissimo because of the acoustics when less volume would have been more pleasing to the ear. The same fate befell the singers especially the strong, low registers of Rossi and Lozano. The sopranos fared better.

In the tiny playing area of the church there is hardly much room for maneuvering and the set consisted of a couch and a few essential furniture. The seats did not allow much of a view and we had to settle for seeing most things above the knees of the singers.

Yes, this is not La Scala but there is an intimacy and a sense of opera in the raw and on the inexpensive all worthwhile.       
____


The Marriage of Figaro by W. A. Mozart was performed on September 4, 2014 at St. Mark’s English Church, Florence, Italy.  http://stmarksitaly.com/music-arts/opera-at-st-marks/

Friday, September 12, 2014

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING OR MOLTO RUMORE PER NULLA – REVIEW OF ROME’S GLOBE THEATRE PRODUCTION


Reviewed by James Karas

When in Rome, you should, to coin a phrase, do as the Romans do. In the summer you should go to the Globe Theatre and watch productions of plays by William Shakespeare. 

No, I am not mixing up my cities. Rome has a replica of the Elizabethan Globe Theatre where for the eleventh year in a row there is a summer season of plays by Shakespeare and other playwrights.

I caught a fine production of Much Ado About Nothing or Molto rumore per nulla directed by Loredana Scaramella.

Scaramella captures the comedy, both high and low, and gives a very lively accounting of the play. Mauro Santopietro and Barbara Moselli make an energetic Benedick and Beatrice. Fausto Cabra as Claudio looks and acts like a dunce and, of course, he is. Claudio does come through in the end because we need a wedding and a happy ending.

Leonato (Daniele Faccioti) is gracious as the Governor of Messina and passionately furious as the father of Hero (Mimosa Campironi), the bride-to-be of Claudio who is accused of conduct unbecoming the night before her wedding.

The show was stolen by Carlo Ragone who played the inimitable Dogberry and made something significant of Balthasar. As Dogberry he is dressed vilely and has hair that looks like an oil slick. He has one leg shorter than the other and hops around the stage as he gives his orders. Hilarious.

As Balthasar he sings and directs a three-man band and elicits laughter while doing justice to the songs including a few falsetto shrieks. Quite a performance by an actor who seems to have comedy in his bones.

The rest of the cast did fine work but a few comments about the directing are a propos.

For some reason Scaramella has decided that the cast need microphones strapped around their heads. That meant we heard all the characters through the loud speaker closest to us. In a small theatre this seemed unnecessary and at the beginning of the performance, annoying. You get used to it after a while.
The action took place all too often in the front of the stage as if the sides did not exist. This is surely an oversight. The Globe is an oval-shaped theatre and the people sitting on the sides should not be ignored.

The most distinct aspect of Fabiana Di Marco’s set design was the use of sheets on clothes lines. They seemed pointless at the beginning but they came in handy as poor but comic covers for Benedick and Beatrice when they were being fooled into believing that they were madly in love.

There is considerable room for physical humour in the play and Scaramella provided some but I felt that there was room for more and the sheets were not enough.

The Silvano Toti Globe Theatre was built in less than four months in 2003 in the Villa Borghese and holds 1250 people of whom 420 sit on the floor. These are the yardlings of Shakespeare’s Globe but unlike them who must stand throughout the performance, the Romans are seated on the ground. In London, the actors frequently play down to the yardlings to great effect. In Rome in the production that I saw, they were largely ignored.

The current season runs from July to September and is dedicated entirely to Shakespeare. Love’s Labour’s Lost runs from September 11 to 18 and there is a Shakespeare Fest on September 19, 20 and 21, 2014 to end the season.  In Rome, if you please.
  ______


Much Ado About Nothing (Molto rumore per nulla) by William Shakespeare ran from August 22 to September 7, 2014 at the Silvano Toti Globe Theatre, Villa Borghese, Rome. www.globetheatreroma.com

Monday, September 8, 2014

JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK - REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock receives a thrilling production at the Shaw Festival directed by its Artistic Director, Jackie Maxwell.

The play is set in a Dublin tenement during the Irish Civil War in the early 1920’s. Maxwell and the cast create convincingly the atmosphere of life in the tenement and the neighbourhood and capture the musicality and rhythm of the play’s language. The colourful characters, the humour, the pathos, the human strengths and weaknesses of the people and in the end their tragic fate are brought forth in a masterly manner.

The Boyle family tries to survive against all odds. The daughter Mary (Marla McLean) is out of work. The son Johnny (Charlie Gallant) has lost one arm in the fighting and has a crushed hip. He has betrayed the son of a neighbour. The father, Jack Boyle (Jim Mezon) drinks to excess and cannot or will not work because of his legs. He is a useless person but a colourful story teller.

Jack and his equally useless friend Joxer Daly (Benedict Campbell) are frequent visitors to the local pub and just as frequently if not permanently drunk.

The family is kept together by Juno (Mary Haney), a powerful woman who commands respect and attention. She sees what her husband is and lives in fear of what may happen to her son, the betrayer.

This very ordinary, poor family gets some good news. They have been left an inheritance by a relative; they have struck it rich. The Boyles borrow money on the strength of the inheritance and go on a shopping spree.

The scenes of happiness, exuberance and hope culminate in a loud party which happens to take place during the funeral procession of the betrayed neighbour’s son. The cheerfulness and wealth will all disappear when they discover that there is no inheritance and Johnny’s treachery is about to be avenged an eye for an eye.

The central character of the play is the powerful Juno and in Mary Haney Maxwell has an equally powerful actor to portray her. Haney gives us a woman of towering strength, compassion and understanding. A magnificent performance.

Mezon and Campbell are superb as the drunken friends. They stagger on stage looking for yet another drink. They are colourful and perhaps even loveable if only they were not useless and had some hold on reality. They don’t.

Juno has a large cast of secondary and minor characters as O’Casey tries to give us a portrait of Ireland at war. Gord Rand is the solicitor who brings the news about the inheritance, pursues Mary and disappears when his negligence in drafting the will becomes apparent.

Jennifer Phipps appears as the distraught mother during her son’s funeral procession to put a damper on Boyles’ party. Donna Belleville replaced Corrine Koslo as Mrs. Madigan the day I saw the production. All to good effect.

The main actors and most but not all of the others managed excellent to decent Irish accents.

The single set by Peter Hartwell was simple but effective.        
        
The olive wreath goes to Jackie Maxwell for this outstanding production. 
        ______


Juno and the Paycock by Sean O’Casey continues in repertory until October 12, 2014 at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.