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.       
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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.

Friday, September 5, 2014

THE BEAUX’ STRATAGEM – REVIEW OF STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Colm Feore (left) as Archer and Mike Shara as Aimwell in The Beaux' Stratagem. Photo by Michael Cooper

Reviewed by James Karas

Antoni Cimolino has selected some of the Stratford Festival’s finest actors for his production of The Beaux’ Stratagem, George Farquhar’s 1707 comedy. The result is a highly successful production of a play that is not produced very frequently.

The Beaux’s Stratagem is a literate and fast-moving comedy with some nineteen characters who take us through a number of plot strands leading to a happy conclusion.      

Aimwell (Mike Shara) and Archer (Colm Feore) are socially gentlemen but financially impecunious. The solution: find a wealthy heiress in some small town and marry her or join the army. They stop in Litchfield pretending to be a nobleman and his servant and a series of events unfolds to keep the audience splendidly entertained.

They meet the unhappily married Mrs. Sullen (Lucy Peacock) and her drunkard husband Squire Sullen (Scott Wentworth). Archer lays amorous siege on Mrs. Sullen but she resists him even though she is highly tempted by his efforts. Aimwell pursues the lovely Dorinda (Bethany Jillard) with fervour and is more successful because she is not married.

Martha Henry appears as Lady Bountiful, a rich widow given to herbal medicine and the mother of Squire Sullen and Dorinda. She has saved more people than doctors have killed, we are told.

We have a French Count (Evan Buliung), an Irish priest posing as a Frenchman (Michael Spencer-Davis), a highway man named Gibbet (Victor Ertmanis), and Boniface (Robert King), the amusing inn owner. There are servants and travelers to fill the stage and carry us through the numerous turns in the plot.

From left: Bethany Jillard as Dorinda, Lucy Peacock as Mrs. Sullen, Colm Feore as Archer and Gordon S. Miller as Scrub in The Beaux' Stratagem. Photo by Michael Cooper.

The result is highly enjoyable. Shara and Feore are excellent as the swaggering beaux. Wentworth has the juicy role of the cynical husband who hates his wife, loves her money and adores drinking. Peacock does an excellent job as a wife seeking escape from a bad marriage and provides cogent commentary on the non-existence of divorce laws.

King as Boniface gets the laughs as does his wily daughter Cherry played well by Sara Farb. Spencer-Davis is very funny as Folgard the priest.

Cimolino had his work cut out in keeping the large cast moving through some complicated plot twists and getting out the funny and literate aspects of the play. He wisely chose not to even attempt to have the cast struggle with English accents. It would have been very annoying to listen to a good part of the cast torturing the text with their attempts at an accent. 

Restoration and Eighteenth Century comedies are not exactly Stratford Festival staples and one is quite happy with a delicious taste of one of them.
______


The Beaux’ Stratagem by George Farquhar continues in repertory until October 11, 2014 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Sunday, August 31, 2014

THE PHILANDERER - REVIEW OF SHAW FESTIVAL PRODUCTION


Reviewed by James Karas

The Shaw Festival’s production of The Philanderer has a climactic beginning, a rousing end and, unfortunately, a not a very exciting middle.

Shaw tells us that when the play opens “a lady and a gentleman are making love to one another in the drawing room of a flat.” Put the brakes on your hormones if you are envisioning something wild. This is circa 1893 and the gentleman, the philandering Leonard Charteris, is “dressed in a velvet jacket and cashmere trousers;” the lady, Grace Transfield, is in evening dress and the two are “seated affectionately side by side in one another’s arms” on a sofa. Those are Shaw’s instructions.

Director Lisa Peterson will have none of that. As the lights are about to go on in the Festival Theatre, we hear the lady and the gentlemen moaning passionately with pleasure and probably in the throes of orgasms. The two are wearing very few clothes, they are on the floor and Grace asks Charteris, “are you happy” and he replies “in heaven.” Indeed.

Fast forward to the final scene. Shaw wrote two endings to the play. In the original ending, the marriage of Julia and Dr. Paramore is on the skids after four years and they will seek a divorce in South Dakota. Divorce is not available in England, you see.

He wrote an alternate and more conventional ending where Julia accepts Paramore’s marriage proposal and Grace regrets not being brave enough to kill Charteris.  There is no South Dakota and no divorce.

The latter ending has been used in the published editions of the play and in most productions. Peterson has chosen the original conclusion of the play where Julia and Charteris will not marry but they end up in each other’s arms. In this production, they do so with considerable enthusiasm and begin the journey toward where we started with them in the opening scene.

And that is s long way around to stating my reaction to the rest of the play which is largely negative. Much of it is the fault of the play but Peterson failed to find the formula for action and interaction to give life to Shaw’s lines. We got mostly “the seated affectionately side by side on the sofa” level of performance instead of imaginative, lively, dynamic and funny exchanges.


Gord Rand as Charteris, Marla McLean as Grace and Moya O’Connell as Julia can do a much better job than they in fact perform. For example, when Julia crashes into the flat where Grace and Charteris are having their ardent tête-à-tête, there should be howls of laughter. It barely works.

Michael Ball as Joseph Cuthbertson and Ric Reid as Colonel Craven are standard fatherly figures from comedy, sensible, nonsensical and necessary for the plot. Jeff Meadows as Dr. Paramore helps with the sub-plot about a new disease which in the end does not exist.

The sets by Sue LePage are quite unrealistic and impressive.  The first scene is set in the flat that looks classy without being Victorian. The library of the Ibsen Club for the second scene has glass walls and is splendid.

The third act in Paramore’s dining room looks like it has the remains of Greek temples but it is impressive none the less.

The Philanderer has many references to Henrik Ibsen not the least of which is the fictitious Ibsen Club where the second act takes place. So far so good but when you list The Spirit of Ibsen in the cast (played by Guy Bannerman) and you have the great playwright sing a song you have lost me.
          ______

The Philanderer  by Bernard Shaw continues in repertory until October 12, 2014  at the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.

Monday, August 25, 2014

HAY FEVER - REVIEW OF STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

                    
Members of the company in Hay Fever. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann 

Reviewed by James Karas

The shenanigans of the Bliss family and their guests in a house in the country over a weekend may be impossible to capture or even do them some justice. The Blisses of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever are unconventional, self-consciously rude, colourful and occasionally ridiculous with overdeveloped tendencies towards striking poses and overacting to the point of being caricatures of themselves.

Their four guests are at best victims of the family and are driven to distraction and eventual escape from the outrageous conduct of the Bliss parents and children. That means that any production needs to balance all the above characteristics so that the play remains funny.  

The Stratford Festival has mounted a reasonably successful production of the play. There are some strong performances and Director Alisa Palmer does generate quite a good deal of laughter but this is not the production of Hay Fever that you will tell your grandchildren about.

Lucy Peacock plays Judith, an actress of a certain age who is self-conscious about her appearance and desperate for recognition. She invites a boxer named Sandy Tyrrell (Gareth Potter) for a weekend in the country. Peacock has a distinctive voice that she uses to good effect. She can pose, act, overact and flaunt herself around the stage like a prima donna and her Judith is a credible representation of what Coward probably intended.

Her husband David is a somewhat eccentric writer and Kevin Bundy portrays him as a rumpled novelist who fits in the bizarre family.
  

Much of the preposterous conduct emanates from the children, Sorel (Ruby Joy) and Simon (Tyrone Savage), who try to outdo each other in juvenile pranks and treatment of the guests. They can over overdo it and Joy and Savage do not always strike the right note.

Cynthia Dale plays the over-the-top socialite Myra Arundel with suitable aplomb. Jackie Coryton is supposed to be a “flapper” or a woman who uses sex as a shrimping net. Ijeoma Emesowum appears more like a nice dunce with almost no sexual magnetism.

Sanjay Talwar is stiff and upright as the diplomat Richard Greatham who loses his reserve and kisses Judith on the neck.

The individual performances do not manage to create the chemistry to give us a great production. Some of the lines produced the desired effect, others misfired but the production in its totality failed to produce the mayhem that is inherent in the script.

The set by Designer Douglas Paraschuk is quite splendid. Lots of paintings on the walls, comfortable furniture and a large staircase on the right give the impression of unconventional living with money to support it. Palmer has decided that one of the steps on the stairs is defective and most of the characters manage to stumble over it several times. It is a nifty trick but it gets tiresome after a while.
  ______
Hay Fever by Noel Coward continues in repertory until October 11, 2014 at the Avon Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

TARTUFFE – REVIEW OF SOULPEPPER PRODUCTION

Diego Matamoros, Oliver Dennis & Raquel Duffy. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann

Reviewed by James Karas

Soulpepper’s Tartuffe is a finely acted production with several directorial gimmicks that seem to lead nowhere.

Moliere’s play about the ultimate hypocrite takes place in Orgon’s house in Paris. In the current production, directed by László Marton, the play opens backstage and we see a couple of clothes racks. The cast rushes onstage, puts on 17th century (I assume) costumes, takes them off and the performance begins with the actors wearing modern clothes.

The clothes racks will disappear, a few painted panels will appear and the backstage will become an ordinary stage, say the type you would expect in an amateur theatre. There are a few covered pieces of furniture and it looks like a Little Theatre rehearsal with due care for the props. I am sure that Marton and Set Designer Lorenzo Savoini have something in mind in using this approach but I have no idea what it was.

If you ignore those gimmicks and listen to Richard Wilbur’s marvelous rhyming couplets you will enjoy the show.

Tartuffe is a man of God, a humbug and a conman sans pareille. Diego Matamoros in the role looks pious, lovable, almost cuddly on the surface and is quite a monster underneath. One can see why a gullible man like Orgon is duped by him. Oliver Dennis is perfect for the role. This Orgon is decent, generous, well-meaning and, unfortunately, pretty stupid.  

Orgon’s wife Elmire is quite a different creature. She is smart, cunning, strong and very beautiful. Raquel Duffy is so sexually appealing in the role that even a less despicable person than Tartuffe would compromise his morals for her.    

Gregory Prest, Colin Palangio, Oliver Dennis, Raquel Duffy, Katherine Gauthier, Oyin Oladejo & Gordon Hecht.  Photo Cylla von Tiedemann

Katherine Gauthier and Gordon Hecht are the young lovers, Mariane and Valère, and they make an attractive pair. Gregory Prest does a fine job as Orgon’s brother-in-law Cléante as does Brenda Robins as Mme Parnelle, Orgon’s elderly mother.

The success of any production of Tartuffe depends to a significant extent on the delivery of rhyming couplets. The cast did an excellent job. They spoke clearly without falling into monotony and there was sufficient modulation for a thorough enjoyment of the text. William Webster as the bailiff does superb work in this regard.

Tartuffe’s attempted seduction of Elmire while Orgon is hiding under a table was done brilliantly. Tartuffe drinks and sprays Elmire with wine; Orgon rolls out from under the table when Tartuffe looks under it; Elmire takes off and throws her panties under the table to get her idiot husband’s attention; she drives the suspicious Tartuffe bonkers with her sexual magnetism; Tartuffe pulls his pants down and at that moment Orgon comes out from under the table. Full marks to Marton for doing an outstanding job on this scene.   

The disaster for the Orgon family is staved off by the appearance of a rex ex machina. In this case, it is a representative of Louis XIV who arrests Tartuffe and returns to Orgon the property that the conman had appropriated. A red carpet is rolled out and a miniature gold carriage is magically wheeled on stage. A letter from the King is on top of it and it will bring a happy end to the play. Cute.

We could have done without the clothes racks and such gimmicks. Take whatever period or style you want and stick to it. A fine cast and Moliere will do not need tricks. 
     _________

Tartuffe by Moliere in the verse translation by Richard Wilbur opened on August 12  and will run in repertory until September 20, 2014 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca  416 866-8666