Sunday, October 26, 2014

ALCINA – REVIEW OF OPERA ATELIER PRODUCTION

Mireille Asselin as Morgana, Wallis Giunta as Bradamante and Krešimir Špicer as Oronte. Photo: Bruce Zinger 

Reviewed by James Karas

Opera Atelier’s production of Alcina is full of magic, illusion, enchantment, transformation and love. There is an underlying layer of danger, destruction and evil that all are combined in George Frideric Handel’s 1735 opera.

When the curtain opens, we see an expanse of sand dunes. As we listen to the overture, we notice a shifting of the sand and some of the dunes are transformed into a human body. It is as if the body had been fossilized or become sand and was struggling to escape from its imprisonment like an unfinished sculpture embedded in a slab of marble. It is a startling image created by a projected video and a fine metaphor for the opera. 

Alcina is a sorceress and she rules an island where she turns discarded lovers and other people into animals and vegetables. Think of Circe of Greek mythology who did pretty much the same thing but her specialty was turning men into swine.

Alcina has six characters and a plot that goes something like this: Alcina has the knight Ruggiero in her thrall on the island. Bradamante is in love with Ruggiero and she arrives on the island with Melisso, Ruggiero’s former tutor. Their mission: free Ruggiero and Alcina’s other captives. The means: a magic ring. Bradamante is disguised as her brother Ricciardo and Alcina’s sister Morgana falls in love with him/her. We are now thirty seconds into the opera.
Backdrop to Alcina. Photo Bruce Zinger.

Morgana dumps her lover Oronte who becomes very jealous and violent; Ruggiero is unaware of what is going on remains in his world; more jealousy as the da capo arias come pouring in. Are you still with me? Probably not, in which case, listen to the arias and forget the plot twists.
        
Director Marshall Pynkoski does a number of things to alleviate the creaky plot. He adds some humour and a number of beautiful ballet sequences choreographed by Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg as well as some extraordinary video projections as mentioned at the beginning of this review. Film Director Ben Shirinian’s video and Gerard Gauci’s sets provide an extraordinary illustration of the text of the opera. Alcina’s palace, a view of people who have become embedded in the landscape, the transformation and liberation of imprisoned men, make up a stunning display of imaginative recreation of an opera.

All of that was not quite enough to free the opera from its complex and unsatisfactory plot but the music and arias in the hands of an excellent cast more than made up for it.

Soprano Meghan Lindsay as Alcina showed good voice even if her fury was not always convincing. Mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta sings Bradamante who is in love with Ruggiero but appears as her own brother Ricciardo. Giunta does a splendid job as a woman playing a man who lets her hair down to show us that she is beautiful and worthy of Ruggiero.
    
Mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy handled beautifully the pants role of the hero Ruggiero who eventually comes out of his thrall and saves the day. Alcina’s sister Morgana was sung by soprano Mireille Asselin in a prime performance.     

Bass-baritone Olivier LaQuerre has the straight-man role of Melisso, Bradamante’s guardian. He is imposing vocally and physically.
  
Tenor Krešimir Špicer plays the somewhat buffoonish and jealous Oronte, the commander of Alcina’s troops.   

The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra was conducted by David Fallis to its usual high standards.

This Alcina has enormous production values combined with superior singing but suffers from its unsatisfactory plot. But you can’t blame Opera Atelier for that.
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Alcina by George Frideric Handel opened on October 23 and will run until November 1, 2014 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.operaatelier.com

Friday, October 24, 2014

THE ART OF BUILDING A BUNKER – REVIEW OF FACTORY THEATRE PRODUCTION

Adam Lazarus in The Art of Building a Bunker at Factory Theatre. 

By James Karas

The Art of Building a Bunker, now playing at the Factory Theatre, has a promising beginning, a muddled middle and an editorializing end that add up to an interesting night at the theatre with a play that needs a dramaturge. Adam Lazarus and Guillermo Verdecchia are listed as “creators” of the piece and I am not sure how that differs from writers. Lazarus is the sole performer and Verdecchia directs. 

The programme tells us that this is “a play about sensitivity training that is ANYTHING BUT SENSITIVE.” Lazarus appears as a number of characters including someone called Cam who has been ordered by his boss to run a sensitivity training class for a week and someone called Elvis who has been ordered to take one. Lazarus starts with the obnoxious jargon of such sessions including words like inclusivism, sensitivity etc. He interpolates what he really thinks of such drivel and is very amusing.

There are a number of people from very different backgrounds in the group and Lazarus imitates their accents and continues with the unctuous language of sensitivity training with trenchant asides. In addition to the characters, Lazarus manages several accents and delivers a performance that is difficult and superb. The problem is not the acting; it is the play.  

The play quickly runs out of material and it goes off into various tangents but concentrates mainly on Elvis. My mind started wandering and I had some difficulty concentrating and following what was going on. We have Elvis, probably a sociopath, who is building a bunker. He editorializes about most of the headlines in the current newspapers from Ebola in Texas to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal to genetically modified foods to ISIS and you-name-it. But there is no real explanation about Elvis’s character or his actions. What is he and what is the bunker meant to protect him from?   

There is a sort of unifying metaphor of leaving the shore and paddling up a river in a canoe on a voyage of discovery. There is a canoe on top of the pipes that surround the stage but even the metaphor gets lost in the muddle. We need to know what Elvis has done and what problem he and we are trying to solve or resolve in out voyage of discovery.

Creator/Performer Lazarus works very hard to entertain us. He does some acrobatics, some physical comedy, manages a number of accents and creates different characters. But the script is so muddled that only he and Creator/Director Verdecchia could follow all its twists and turns that lead to ninety minutes of discovering that the play needs some editing, tightening up and more meat to make a good night at the theatre.
      
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The Art of Building a Bunker by Adam Lazarus and Guillermo Verdecchia opened on October 21and will run until November 2,  2014 at the Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.factorytheatre.ca

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.      
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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.
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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.
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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

Monday, October 13, 2014

MACBETH - REVIEW OF LIVE IN HD FROM THE MET PRODUCTION

Anna Netrebko as Lady Macbeth, René Pape as Banquo, and Željko Lučić in the title role of Verdi's Macbeth. Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera
Reviewed by James Karas

The Metropolitan Opera’s ninth season of broadcasting productions from New York to cinemas around the world is under way with an exceptional revival of Adrian Noble’s staging of Macbeth. The production is dramatically intense with a triumphal finish and a fine twist in the final tableau.

The first-rate cast is dominated by the plush voice and extraordinary beauty of Anna Netrerbko as Lady Macbeth. This Lady Macbeth dominates her husband by the force of her character and the magnitude of her ambition without histrionics or overt pressure. Her physical appearance and vocal prowess establish and maintain her authority right to the end. Her Mad Scene is a model of restraint and controlled drama. The drama comes from within and not from any overt melodramatic movements. What a performance.

Baritone Željko Lučić is the ideal husband and foil for this Lady Macbeth. He appears older than her and although he falls in for her ambition, it seems as if it is not entirely in his nature. Even after he commits horrendous crimes, we never grow to hate him completely. Lučić has a wonderful voice, on the lighter side of the baritone scale, thus giving him a more humane and less threatening persona.

Bass René Pape and tenor Joseph Calleja play Banquo and Macduff respectively. They are both victims of Macbeth with Banquo being assassinated because the witches predicted that his children will inherit the throne and Macduff’s family being eliminated as a precaution. They sing impeccably.

Anna Netrebko as Lady Macbeth and Željko Lučić in the title role of Verdi's Macbeth. Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera


Verdi increases the number of Shakespeare’s witches into the dozens giving himself the opportunity to compose some outstanding choruses. The Metropolitan Opera Chorus looked like a bunch of bag ladies and the children looked like ragamuffins but all to good effect. The bag ladies carried purses which shone a light on their faces when opened. That is how they can foretell the future, I suppose, but they also sang marvelously.

Noble and Set and Costume Designer Mark Thompson deliver a dark and brooding production in modern dress with no attempt at realistic sets. The set is dominated by huge black columns that resemble tree trunks with rings of light. There are also leafless trees and for many stretches we see only a dark background. Much of the performance is done in a spotlight with red as the contrasting colour to the darkness. Blood is a dominant image of the opera, of course, with Macbeth emerging covered in blood after the murder of the king. Banquo and Lady Macbeth also appear covered in blood.

The staging is highly effective with numerous brilliant directorial touches. King Duncan’s bed can be seen on the stage between the columns. After the murder, his slit throat on the blood-spattered bed is revealed in an intensely dramatic scene.

The Met Orchestra is conducted with vigour and intensity by Fabio Luisi.

You will recall that the witches predict that Banquo’s descendants will occupy the throne of Scotland. We see Banquo and his son Fleance (Moritz Linn), the latter wearing a bright red scarf, leave the palace followed by Macbeth’s henchmen with orders to kill them. They kill Banquo but Fleance escapes.

At the end of the opera, order is restored with the crowning of Malcolm (Noah Baetge), the son of the murdered king. As the newly crowned king rises, he glances to his left and sees the boy in the red scarf. Is this the restoration of order or simply a prelude to the next battle for the Scottish crow? Marvelous touch.
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Macbeth by Giuseppe Verdi was shown Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on October 11, 2014 at the Beach Cinemas, 1651 Queen Street East, Toronto, ON, M4L 1G5 (416) 699-1327 and other cinemas. Encores will be shown on November 10 and 15, 2014. For more information: www.cineplex.com/events

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.
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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