Friday, February 5, 2016

SALOME – REVIEW OF DEUTSCHE OPER BERLIN PRODUCTION

James Karas

When the curtain went down at the end of the performance of Salome at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, soprano Allison Oakes who sang the title role stepped out for a bow. She was greeted with a widespread chorus of boos.

The gentleman who was sitting beside me leaned forward and put his head between his hands. The applause of the audience became polite and even enthusiastic when the performers took their bows and they applauded Oakes positively if not enthusiastically. My neighbor (unknown to me) refused to lift a finger of approval and I finally asked him how he would rate the production on a scale of 1 to 10. He expressed a fervent wish that he had missed it completely.


Scene from Salome at Deutsche Oper Berlin. Photo: © 2016, Monika Rittershaus
I found it riveting.

If you want to be negative, Claus Guth’s production can be described as unorthodox, confusing, taking liberties with the libretto and creating a Salome like you have never seen before. All of that is true and the result is an outstanding and brilliant interpretation of the opera.

Salome is based on Oscar Wilde’s play in which Salome, Herod’s step-daughter and niece is sexually attracted to Herod’s prisoner, John the Baptist (called Jochanaan in the opera). Herod is married to Herodias who is Salome’s mother and the former wife of his brother. He is sexually attracted to Salome to the point where he considers replacing her mother with Salome as the queen. No wonder the Baptist is fulminating about the cesspool of sin that this family represents.

All of it is very dramatic with some wild music by Strauss. It is a one-act opera that lasts for about one hour and forty five minutes (no intermission) and keeps you on the edge of your seat.  

Guth turns the character of Salome and the opera inside out. There are seven Salomes representing her from childhood into adulthood. Only one of them sings but her younger versions are very much around and they participate in Salome’s famous dance.

Most of the minor characters are in effect robots. They move mechanically like robots and in fact there are a couple of mannequins on stage.


The Baptist is the wild, fulminating prophet in the opening scene. He lies on a pile of clothes (at first I thought they were corpses), almost naked. He is brought out of the dungeon at Salome’s insistence and he joins a party thrown by Herod. Herod seems to own an upscale men’s clothing store. The men are dressed in dapper suits and when the Baptist joins them, several Salomes dress him up in a three-piece suit identical to the one worn by Herod. His hair is combed the same way and Herod and the Baptist become identical.     


                                  Scene from Salome at Deutsche Oper Berlin. Photo: © 2016, Monika Rittershaus
John is decapitated but not in the way we are used to seeing. I will not give more details about that and spoil the possibility that you will see the production or a recording of it. To delve into all the possible psychological issues of Salome in her relationship with her stepfather and John would require a lengthy essay and not just a review.

German baritone Michael Volle with his powerful and expressive voice sang the key role of the Baptist. German tenor Burkhard Ulrich sang Herod, the businessman with the illicit lust for his niece/stepdaughter who is willing to give up half his “kingdom” for a dance. Soprano Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet took the role of Herodias, dressed in black she looks like a woman who scored a rich husband and enjoys her position of wealth and power.

The singing was quite exceptional with a minor note. Catherine Naglestad was scheduled to sing the title role but she was replaced at the last minute by Allison Oakes. She has a superb voice but there was an issue of the orchestra almost drowning her out on occasion. This may be simply a lack of time to adjust the balance between stage and pit and it should not detract from an outstanding performance.

The Deutsche Oper Orchestra was conducted by Alain Altinoglu and it delivered Strauss’s score in all its intricacies with heroic assurance.

In short, this is a Salome that is profoundly original, perhaps disturbing to some but in the end it represents opera at its intellectually most exciting.
__________

Salome by Richard Strauss opened on January 24 and will be performed on February 6, April 2 and 6 at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Bismarckstrasse 35, Berlin.


Monday, February 1, 2016

LOHENGRIN – REVIEW OF DEUTSCHE OPER BERLIN PRODUCTION

James Karas

When the lights go up for the opening of Lohengrin at the Deutsche Oper Berlin and Wagner’s taut music fills the auditorium, we see a stage strewn with the corpses of soldiers. Several women appear and they go from corpse to corpse trying to identify the dead person. Eventually one of them recognizes a dead person and she gives a heart-wrenching scream.


This is the image that director Kasper Holten and designer Steffen Aarfing want us to keep in mind as we watch Wagner’s “romantic opera” as he called it.

Lohengrin has a romantic aspect and an almost comic one according to Holten but it is also about national unification, love, betrayal and war. Holten tells us about all of these but he wants us especially to remember war.

Swedish tenor Michael Weinius gives a fine accounting of himself in the title role. His voice has the amplitude and fortitude for the part but he does not quite strike the heroic model that one envisions for the knight of the grail. The fault may not be entirely his. As we know, Lohengrin arrives on the scene to defend Elsa in a boat drawn by a swan. He bids farewell to the swan upon alighting from the boat but Holten puts the wings of a swan on him and he wears them throughout the performance. He looks like an angel and I have some reservations about that appearance.

American Soprano Rachel Willis-Sorensen sings the pure and virginal Elsa. In this production she walks on the stage blind-folded and of course launches into “Elsa’s Dream” almost immediately. This is sung in a reverie of remembrance and pain and it is her defining aria. Elsa will show spunk when dealing with Ortrud but she will return to the same mode in the end. Willis-Sorensen shows depth of emotion and tonal beauty in a sterling performance.

Russian mezzo-soprano Anna Smirnova can shoot poisonous darts wrapped in honey as the evil Ortrud. She plays an ambitious and conniving Ortrud that could give instruction in evil to Lady Macbeth. Vocal strength and projection of evil like guided missiles.

German baritone Thomas Johannes Mayer was all ambition and bluster as the evil Friedrich von Telramund who wants to usurp Brabant. He is under the thumb of his truly evil wife Ortrud and he seems to have less  cruelty than Macbeth but a much nastier wife than the hapless Scottish king. Mayer sang even though he had a cold. He deserves credit for so doing.

Baritone Bastiaan Everink was suitably stentorian as the Herald and Austrian bass Albert Pesendorfer was sonorous and regal as King Henry.

Lohengrin has some powerful choruses and the Deutsche Oper Chorus was supplemented by the Extra chorus for a performance that was simply overwhelming. Together with the Deutsche Oper Berlin Orchestra under Donald Runnicles, they, as they say, brought the roof down.

Back to the conception and design features. As I said we have the rather bizarre situation of Lohengrin who is so assiduous and unforgiving about his identity, going around with the wings of a swan on his shoulders. He should be gloriously heroic and look a bit less incongruous.

The stage in the first act is bare except for the soldiers who are dressed in khaki or gray. They are soldiers from any era. The main characters wear more traditional, perhaps medieval attire.  In the second act there is a raised platform on which Elsa stands and when she descends from it we can see that it is in the form of a cross. There is a bright red curtain and the image of a cathedral in the second act. After the magnificent wedding procession Lohengrin and Elsa end up in what should be their honeymoon suite but it consists of only one bed. Despite all the elevated love, Lohengrin shows that he a frisky young man as he gets rid of his wings, his sword and his robe and prepares for something more earthy. It got a laugh.

Elsa is under the influence of Ortrud and asks for the one thing Lohengrin cannot give her. The rest is a disastrous end for Elsa but a great evening of opera for the audience.  
__________

Lohengrin  by Richard Wagner opened on January 31 and will be performed on February 14 and May 5 and 8, 2016 at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Bismarckstrasse 35, Berlin.
http://www.deutscheoperberlin.de/

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

THE HOMECOMING – REVIEW OF JAMIE LLOYD PRODUCTION AT TRAFALGAR STUDIOS

Reviewed by James Karas

Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming was first seen in 1965 and has become an entrenched classic of the British theatre. It has been revived for its 50th anniversary by Jamie Lloyd in a production that seeks to distance itself from previous stagings and yet retain the power and complexity of the play.

The result is largely favourable.

On the surface the play has the simplest of plots. Teddy and his wife Ruth are visiting his home in north London after an absence of six years. Teddy’s family consists of his father Max, his brothers Lenny and Joey as well as his uncle Sam. Teddy is teaching philosophy in America and the homecoming will reveal a number of plot complexities and character issues to keep one fascinated for hours.
 Gary Kemp, Ron Cook and Gemma Chan in 'The Homecoming'. [Photo:Marc Brenner]
Max, played with subliminal and then actual viciousness by Ron Cook, is a retired butcher who molds the past to suit his present mood. He idolizes his late wife one moment and calls her a slut the next. His best friend Mac had an affair with her including encounters in the back seat of Sam’s limo. He seems to have doubts about the paternity of his children and was almost certainly sexually inadequate. Cook with his face looking red like a piece of meat gives an outstanding performance.

Lenny (John Slim) dresses in a three-piece suit and tries to speak in elevated tones. His real character emerges through the patina of politeness: he is a pimp and a murderer. Joey (John MacMillan) is a would-be-boxer who has been punched on the head far more times than his brain can withstand. He attempts to have sex with his brother’s wife and fails miserably.

The frightful family is rounded off by Max’s brother Sam (Keith Allen) who is a prissy limo driver and may have had sex with his sister-in-law. Pinter’s plot is always opaque and no one should forget that he is treading on quicksand.

Gary Kemp as Teddy looks older than his brothers and he is just as inept at establishing a relationship with his wife as the others are in establishing one among themselves.

The central figure of the play is Ruth (Gemma Chan). She is attractive, distant, fetching, available and mysterious. She is a woman from the neighborhood who seems to have come from another world.
Lenny starts dancing with and kissing her and Joey lies on top of her in front of everyone. Chan maintains her mystery and manages to establish complete dominance over the men in a repulsive manner. She becomes a prostitute-goddess as she starts ordering the men around as if they were her slaves. An astonishing and subtle performance by Chan.

The stage by designer Soutra Gilmour has a pitch-black background with a red floor and several pieces of furniture. The centre piece is Max’s easy chair which in the end is turned into Ruth’s throne for the vassals to adore and obey her. Very effective.

Sound Designer George Dennis has inserted loud and extremely annoying rock music at the beginning and several other spots in the production. No doubt he had his reasons for doing so and annoying the audience was not one of them. He should have controlled the impulse.          

The Homecoming deserves close attention to every line of dialogue, every pause and every gesture. It is an inexhaustible play. This production pays attention to and captures many of its subtleties.
__________


The Homecoming by Harold Pinter continues until February 13, 2016 at the Trafalgar Studios, 14 Whitehall, London, SW1A 2DY http://www.trafalgar-studios.co.uk/

Sunday, January 24, 2016

LA TRAVIATA – REVIEW OF RICHARD EYRE’S PRODUCTION AT THE ROYAL OPERA HOUSE

James Karas

The Royal Opera, Covent Garden, seems to have struck gold with Richard Eyre’s 1994 production of La Traviata. It has been reviving it every other season since then with great success and every major soprano and tenor seem to have sung the leading roles. For the current season they have assembled three casts for the principal roles and the opera will be performed fourteen times.


Venera Gimadieva as Violetta in Richard Eyre's Royal Opera production of La Traviata, 2016. Photo by Tristram Kenton
Russian soprano Venera Gimadieva makes her debut at the Royal Opera House as Violetta and will sing most of the performances and perhaps rightly so. The night I saw her she brought the house down. Her voice is big enough to dominate the Royal Opera House with its lyrical beauty and passionate tones. When she cries, we weep as she goes from the exaltation of love to a devastating death scene where only false hope remains and it is followed by death.

Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu as her lover Alfredo Germont was a match and a foil for Gimadieva. He has a limber voice that scaled up easily with nice control and display of emotion. The final encounter and reconciliation with Violetta was splendidly moving.   

Luca Salsi made his Royal Opera debut as Giorgio Germont, the father who destroys Violetta’s and his son Alfredo’s love for the sake of his daughter’s happiness. He must exude sympathy and humanity to gain our grudging approval especially when he tells her that she can always find somebody else to love. Verdi steps in to help with “Purra siccome un angelo”, a poignant affirmation of paternal love and the even more moving “Di Provenza il mar, il suol” with which he tries to convince his son to leave Violetta for the sake of family love and duty. You need a singer with vocal resonance but also emotional conviction to persuade us of the rightness of his cause. Salsi does it all.   
The sets by Designer Bob Crowley consist of a gorgeous salon in Violetta’s house at the beginning and a stunning gambling table and sculptured ceiling in Flora’s house. The country house after Violetta’s salon and her bedroom in the final scene are of necessity threadbare. 

There have been innumerable productions of Traviata since the premiere of Eyre’s staging. From Zeffirelli’s over-the-top opulence, to Jean-Francois Sivadier’s dark, minimalist approach to Willy Decker’s dazzling “clock” staging, La Traviata has covered a lot of ground.

Eyre’s production can best be described as traditional and that is meant as a high compliment. Non-traditional approaches can vary from the brilliant approach to directorial self-indulgence. Eyre and the current cast with the brilliant playing of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under the baton of Yves Abel and Royal Opera Chorus bring an outstanding night at the opera even after repeated viewings.
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La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi opened on January 16 and will be performed fourteen times until March 19, 2016 at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London, U.K. It will be shown live in cinemas on February 4, 2016.  http://www.roh.org.uk/

Thursday, January 21, 2016

PERICLES, PRINCE OF TYRE – REVIEW OF PRODUCTION AT SAM WANAMAKER PLAYHOUSE

Reviewed by James Karas

Pericles has had a rough ride since it was first produced around 1608 at the Globe Theatre. Its fate has swung from one of the most popular of Shakespeare’s (and collaborator George Wilkins’) plays to one of the most ignored. It has joined the repertoire for the time being and suffice it to say that it has its admirers and its detractors as a theatrical piece.

I confess that I have not been able to warm up to its episodic plot of storms at sea and the dead coming back to life. And who can keep a straight face about Marina’s escapades and Pericles’ adventures around the eastern Mediterranean.


James Garnon as Pericles with Jessica Baglow as Marina. Photo: Marc Brenner
Shakespeare’s Globe has fearlessly staged a production of the play in the small Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, directed by Dominic Dromgoole. It may be as good as one can get.

Pericles is introduced by the rather tiresome Gower, the Chorus. He appears at the beginning of each act and he is perhaps essential to keep us on route in the travelogue through the years. Gower is played by Sheila Reid who, I want to be polite, can be heard most of the time and perhaps that is enough for the role.

James Garmon makes a muscular, assertive and fine Pericles. By the end of the play he appears tired and after what he has been through, no wonder. Dorothea Myer-Bennett plays the appreciative Dionyza who later turns murderous, and the lovely Thaisa. Jessica Baglow plays the saintly goody two-shoes Marina, the daughter of Pericles, who is abducted by nasty pirates, ends up in a brothel and comes out virtuous and angelic.

After Pericles is washed up on the shore of Pentapolis and the waves bring in his armour, he goes to the court of King Simonides (Simon Armstrong). A number of knights contend for the hand of Thaisa and the notable part about the scene is the noise that Dromgoole generates. Clanging, screaming yelling. There are a number of loud noises like that throughout the evening.

The set of Designer Jonathan Fensum is minimal. The most outstanding feature is the use of chandeliers. The Playhouse has an Upper Level and many of the spectators were forced to find the actors and the action through the chandeliers. You had to bend backward, lean forward, and stretch sideways to see the action on the stage below. The theatre is supposed to represent a 17th century indoor playhouse but Dromgoole or someone else should have glanced at what it looks like from the upper level.

This was not a fortuitous situation for changing my opinion about the play. Too many ingredients did not work to make the evening at the theatre a success.

I should mention in fairness that most of the audience seemed to react more positively than I did but they probably did not have to contend with a chandelier.
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Pericles Prince of Tyre by William Shakespeare and George Wilkins continues until April 24, 2016 at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 21 New Globe Walk, London. www.shakespearesglobe.com

AS YOU LIKE IT – REVIEW OF NATIONAL THEATRE PRODUCTION

James Karas

Polly Findlay has directed a bleak and darkly beautiful production of As You Like It, one of Shakespeare’s best comedies of love. As You Like It takes place in two distinct worlds: the city and the country. It starts with treachery and usurpation of power in the city and ends with the triumph of love and marriage in the Forest of Arden with some gray areas in between.
Patsy Ferran and Rosalie Craig. Photo:Jojann Persson 
The city for Findlay and Set Designer Lizzie Clachan is a large office full of desks and other furniture. Orlando (Joe Bannister), the younger son of an aristocrat, is mistreated by older brother Oliver (Philip Arditti), is denied his inheritance and is forced to clean the furniture with a sprayer. The same set serves as the scene in the house of Duke Frederick (Leo Wringer) who seized power from his brother Duke Senior (John Ramm) and exiled him in the forest. Duke Senior’s daughter Rosalind was spared because she is a friend of the usurper’s daughter Celia. But Ferdinand changes his mind and throws her out as well. The two girls leave the evil palace for the forest together.

We all go to the Forest of Arden and Findlay has the engineers of the National hoist all the furniture above the playing area. All the pieces are tied together and the change from city to forest is quite dramatic.
    
The furniture hovering over the actors is black as is the rest of the stage. This forest is bleak, cold, forbidding and unpleasant. We hear the sounds of animals that may be natural to the forest and perhaps threatening. At one point the chorus comes out on all fours wearing woolen sweaters. The flock of sheep has arrived.

The desks and chairs of the city and the dreary forest perhaps tell us that people and life are the same everywhere? It may be but by the end of the play Oliver and Duke Frederick, the bad guys, will be transformed into decent people, order will be reestablished and the sun will shine.

Findlay assembled a first rate cast for her dramatic conception of the play for this production. Rosalie Craig as Rosalind and Patsy Ferran as Celia made a fine team of friends who interacted superbly with each other and the other characters. The delivery of Shakespeare’s language by them and the rest of the cast was outstanding. Clear, resonant, pitch-perfect.

Touchstone the clown (Mark Benton) and the melancholy Jaques (Paul Chahidi) are always interesting characters to watch. Benton with his generous physique was very funny and Chalidi gave us a sympathetic outsider with a fine delivery of the Seven Ages speech.

The country folk were entertaining. Siobhan McSweeney was a lively and randy Audrey, Gemina Lawrence, a spitfire Phoebe and Ken Nwosu made a bouncy Silvius.   

Findlay staged the wrestling match between Orlando and Charles (a beefy Leon Annor) like something from the World Wrestling Entertainment. Charles wore a gold cape and his supporters were screaming and howling with excessive zeal. It did not quite match the mood of the rest of the production but it was fun.

Findlay has added a chorus which sings some songs (music by Orlando Gough) and it is all very pleasant.

The director delivers a well thought out production with a personal perspective that is interesting, successful and very much worth seeing.
__________

As You Like It by William Shakespeare continues until March 5 2016 at the Olivier Theatre in the National Theatre, South Bank, London, England.  http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

Thursday, January 14, 2016

WITHIN THE GLASS – REVIEW OF CHATTERTON’S PLAY AT TARRAGON

James Karas

Within the Glass, Anna Chatterton’s new play is roller coaster of emotional outbursts dealing with the highly sensitive issue of in vitro fertilization. An egg is fertilized by sperm outside the body and the resulting embryo is transferred into the uterus of the mother or a surrogate

The procedure is fraught with emotional and legal issues especially if the embryo is transferred to a woman who will carry the embryo to term. 
 Rick Roberts, Philippa Domville, Nicola Correia-Damude and Paul Braunstein. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann
Michael (Rick Roberts) and Darah (Philippa Domville) are a successful couple who live in a well-appointed house. She has been unable to conceive a child naturally and they have resorted to in vitro fertilization without success.

In their last effort, the clinic mixed up their embryo with that of Scott (Paul Braunstein) and his wife Linda (Nicola Correia-Damude). Darah’s pregnanacy was unsuccessful but Linda is carrying Darah’s and Scott’s fetus. (They make a great distinction between “child” and “fetus”.                     

When the play opens the two couples are about to meet for the first time to sort things out. Michael and Darah’s emotions are stretched to the breaking point as they rush around in extremis while expecting Linda and Scott. There is “a problem” to put it very mildly, indeed there are many problems. Linda, as the carrier of the embryo” has become attached to it and wants to keep the child. The words “abortion” and “adoption” are mentioned as the two couples engage in vehement and volatile arguments.   

The emotional extremes are pushed even further with Michal becoming attracted to Linda while her husband is fuming and wants nothing to do with the fetus or the situation. He is an outsider to the whole situation with his wife becoming attached to someone else’s fetus/child.

The complex and raw emotions involved in IVF and surrogacy may be difficult for outsiders to comprehend. Add to that the grotesque error of placing the embryo in another woman’s uterus and the situation becomes monumentally explosive.

Within the Glass has numerous emotional spikes where the actors perform at fever pitch. Chatterton has to somewhat stretch her material to fill the ninety minutes that the play lasts. There is some well-placed humour but I would have preferred a slower build up to fewer climactic scenes.

Rick Roberts and Philippa Domville are nervous wrecks as they rush around trying to survive an awkward and frightful situation for them. They want a child and after a few miscarriages they are near the end of their endurance.

Correia-Damude’s Linda has her own issues with the sanctity of life, her emotional attachment to the fetus and her legal rights. Scott seems to be a misconstrued character. He is supposed to be a poet which should indicate emotional sensitivity and verbal skills. He comes out like a duffus who should be driving a truck.

Andrea Donaldson directs the play at a brisk speed and she does not understate any emotional reaction.  The production may have gained if more restraint were shown but the issues addressed are so devastatingly emotional for the people involved in real life and the characters of the play, that some of us may simply be unable to appreciate.

Go see the play.    
                     ______


Within the Glass by Anna Chatterton opened on January 13 and will play until February 14, 2016 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.  www.tarragontheatre.com