Monday, April 21, 2014


Allan Hawco and Christine Horne in the bathtub in Belleville

Reviewed by James Karas

The programme cover for Amy Herzog’s Belleville shows a man and a woman huddling in a bathtub. The play is described as Hitchcockian and you know that two clothed people in an empty bathtub is definitely a clue. You will have to go to the Berkeley Street Theatre to decipher the clue in this Company Theatre production.

That is assuming that you are still interested in the fate of some of the characters in the pay or you have not figured things out before the lights go out.  You may well consider the outcome as self-imposed and well-deserved social cleanup but that may disclose a nasty streak in your character.

Zack (Allan Hawco) is a doctor and his wife Abby (Christine Horne) is a yoga teacher. They are Americans who live in a nice apartment in Paris.

And now for the bad news. We quickly realize that all is not well in the city of light and love (their description). Zack likes watching porn on his computer and he is addicted to drugs. Abby is a basket case who is suffering from depression, is trying to get off her medication,  has a strange relationship with her father and has not overcome the death of her mother which happened five years ago. This is just a partial list of the ailments of this unpleasant loony bin.

Alioune (Dalmar Abuzeid) is Zack’s friend, neighbour and landlord. Friend means they smoke weed together; neighbour means he lives in the apartment below; landlord means Zack has not paid rent for four months and Alioune will throw him out. Alioune’s wife Amina (Marsha Regis), a woman with some sense makes a couple of brief appearances.

Allan Hawco and Christine Horne in Belleville 

Director Jason Byrne has all the characters, except Amina, act as if they are uncomfortable in their own skin. Amina is angry and she too is finds out some unpleasant information about her husband. Zack and Abby fidge,t talk nervously and behave like people who have a great deal to hide including their psychoses which are quite obvious.

We are left with the flake that married the fraud and they are not sufficiently interesting to keep us concerned about them even for the ninety minutes that the play lasts. I think the audience should be fascinated by the people in the play, relate to them, like, them, admire them, despise them – some or all of the above. None of these reactions apply to the characters in Belleville.

Byrne and the cast strive to keep our attention to the plot but a play needs more than just a question mark about how the story will end. Herzog’s play has precious little more than a question mark. A good dose of humour would have helped but these people are too far gone even to be funny.

A flawed play with characters one cannot give a hoot about can have good acting and Hawco and Horne do get good marks for their portrayals of their respective losers.   

Belleville by Amy Herzog in a production by Company Theatre in association with Canadian Stage runs from April 6 to May 4, 2014 at the Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto, Ontario. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


Miriam Fernandes and Derek Boyes. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Reviewed by James Karas

Child prostitution, especially in developing countries, has reached such levels that many countries have made it a criminal offence in the place of origin of the offender. Stories about men going on “sex holidays” in the Far East are common and prosecutions may be increasing but their effectiveness is doubtful.

Playwright Erin Shields has tackled the subject from an angle all her own in Soliciting Temptation which is playing at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space until May 4, 2014.

A Canadian on a business trip to an unnamed country has made arrangements to meet a young girl in a cheap and sweltering hotel room. A shy, pretty girl arrives, wrapped in a see-through sari and wearing only panties and a top underneath. She says nothing and proceeds to unwind the sari from her body in a sexually suggestive manner. The man takes the first steps towards sexual contact and the girl explodes in his face like a hidden hand grenade.

She is no child prostitute but an intelligent, well-educated, self-assured and articulate young woman (we never find out her age) who was raised in Canada and has returned to her country of origin to fight child prostitution.

The positions of power are reversed and the man becomes a blubbering idiot begging for mercy. She shows none as she displays her own power. She knows his phone numbers and can inform his wife and daughter; she knows his employer; there are pimps protecting her and she can call the police.

The uneven battle stops when the girl is bitten by something and goes into anaphylactic shock. The man saves her life with a shot of adrenalin but the battle between them resumes. She goes on the offensive again and has him take off his puts and shirt. She puts them on, leaving him in his underwear. The man’s humiliation is complete.

The power struggle takes a turn when she admits that she is a virgin and somehow that provides an opening for the man to take the upper hand for a while.

The two actors, Derek Boyes as the man and Miriam Fernandes as the girl, are on stage throughout the eighty minutes of the play and they have their work cut out. They engage in highly emotional scenes, nasty arguments and some lyrical exchanges. They never falter and give superb performances. Director Andrea Donaldson does a fine job except for allowing both the man and the girl to reach dramatic heights a bit too quickly. 

I have problems with the play. The situation is a set up to get a man who is by no means the worst sex tourist that one reads about. The plot is reminiscent of David Mamet’s Oleana where a hapless professor is set up in a power struggle by a student and is destroyed. I am not looking for another play by Mamet but Soliciting Temptation lacks inner coherence and convincing dramatic development. It reaches a climax quickly when the man is brought to his knees begging for mercy and the reversal of the girl’s behaviour is not convincing. There are times when the play simply creaks.

Soliciting Temptation is a good example of bringing a current issue on the stage but the play needs a few sessions with a talented dramaturge to be completely credible.

Soliciting Temptation by Erin Shields opened on April 9 and will run until May 4, 2014 at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


Reviewed by James Karas

The garret that Franco Zeffirelli built in 1981 for those starving artists seems to have been made of sturdy stuff. Thirty four years later The Met has revived his production of La Bohème yet once more and one can say with some assurance that there was not a dry eye at Lincoln Centre and in the theatres around the world where it was beamed.  

Opera thrives on legends and marvelous statistics and the April 5, 2014 broadcast added yet another tale. Soprano Anita Hartig was scheduled to sing Mimi but she became indisposed on the morning of the performance. Kristine Opalais had sung Madam Butterfly the night before and had gone to bed at 5:00 a.m. (Precision is important in these cases) and was called at 8:00 in the morning (if I recall correctly) to replace Ms Hartig. She wanted to say no but she said yes and the rest is history, and let’s get on with the review.

Opalais is a young but experienced singer who knows the role of Mimi (the legend would be juicier if a young and inexperienced soprano stepped in and a Maria Callas was born … sorry, I stray) and she had no problems vocally.

With Opalais you will not get a petite, fragile and ill-nourished Mimi but that is not crucial. My issue with Opalais is that she almost never looked anyone in the eye. This may have been nerves or concentration on the singing after being ushered to do the performance rather unceremoniously but I would have liked her to look at Rodolfo or his friends. She looked down, sideways or nowhere in particular and not on her lover or anyone else that she was interacting with. When she separates from Rodolfo in Act III, she shows more emotion to the bannister than to Rodolfo.

Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo is a superb Rodolfo. He strikes the perfect note of youthful innocence, passion and idealism. When he takes Mimi’s cold hand and tells her his dreams in “Che gelida manina” we are convinced of his rising passion even before she tells us her sad story in “Me chiamano Mimi” and the ardent duet that follows, full of emotional intensity and vocal splendour, is payment in full for tears that we will shed at the end.

American soprano Susanna Philips attacked the juicy role of Musetta with relish and aplomb. The vocal part is all her own but she has plenty of help otherwise. Dressed in a striking red velvet gown, she arrives on a horse-drawn carriage amid a large, cheering crowd. That is a grand entrance to make the Queen of Sheba jealous.

Rodolfo’s garret-mates are a well-defined individually and are a marvelous set as well. Baritone Massimo Cavalletti as Marcello sang with touching resonance and presented the artist as a real mensch. Bass Oren Gradus as the philosopher Colline gave a moving rendition of “Vecchia zimarra,” his farewell to his old coat, an act of touching generosity.

Bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi as the musician Schaunard completed the quartet of friends who engaged in tomfoolery and poignant humanity.

Zeffirelli’s over-the-top production has been the subject of endless comment. The garret of the first act gives way to the Café Momus. In fact, Zeffirelli creates a whole neighbourhood. There are crowds of people on two levels, a toy vendor, a donkey-drawn cart and Musetta’s entrance. I have seen the production a number of times and it still makes an impression on me. Seeing it for the first time, may make your jaw drop and give you a slanted view of opera.

Stefano Ranzani conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

What we saw in the movie theatres was decided by Barbara Willis Sweete. Her enthusiasm for close-ups and constant camera changes is not as pronounced as Gary Halvorson’s (and that’s not much of a compliment) but it is bad enough. There were a number of bad shots, unnecessary and annoying close-ups. In the final scene, when Marcello is singing about his brush, Sweete focuses on Rodolfo. The obvious shot of showing the two men on the screen and sitting on her hands probably did not occur to her. Just keep clicking.

La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini was transmitted Live in HD on April 5, 2014 at the Coliseum Scarborough Cinemas, Scarborough Town Centre, 300 Borough Drive, Scarborough, ON, M1P 4P5, (416) 290-5217 and other theatres across Canada.  For more information:        

Monday, April 7, 2014


Stuart Hughes and Diego Matamoros. Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

Reviewed James Karas

The Gigli Concert is a fascinating play whose characters live in a truly bizarre world. They exist between reality and their fantasies (with the latter predominating), between psychoses and sanity, and between alcoholic stupor and bouts of sobriety. Yet it is a world of intelligence, philosophical musing, religious references and some mundane concerns. And don’t forget the great Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli.  

Soulpepper gives Tom Murphy’s 1983 play a creditable production directed by Nancy Palk with Diego Matamoros, Stuart Hughes and Irene Poole.

Matamoros takes on the tough role (he never leaves the stage) of JPW King – Dynamatologist. The word means nothing, of course, but it is supposed to describe some kind of movement or idea. JPW lives and works out of a dingy room that has a desk and a convertible couch. He is frequently drunk and is described as a quack and a charlatan. He admits that he has not achieved anything in his life but when an Irish Man walks in his office, JPW undertakes to makes him sing like Gigli in six sessions.

Matamoros has no difficulty bringing out the absurdity, irrationality and ridiculousness of JPW as well as of his thinking and philosophical side. But there is another side to JPW that does not come out very well. He is an upper-class Englishman living in Ireland and trying to imitate an Irish accent. He is a man who does not belong where he is in many ways, including as an Englishman in Ireland. Accents are not Matamoros’s strong point and you could not place him anywhere especially as a displaced Englishman in Ireland.

The Irish Man is a successful builder, well-dressed and just as looney as JPW. He wants to sing like Gigli and thinks that JPW can make him do it. His appearance of normality is superficial and the man belongs on a psychiatrist’s couch but he has no use for psychiatrists. Stuart Hughes has a gruff voice and his Irish Man is in turn aggressive, pathetic, wistful and just plain nuts.

Irene Poole has the smaller role of Mona. She is JPW’s mistress, a woman who seeks sex with men but who also lives in her world of fantasy. After giving birth to a child while still in her teens and having to give it up for adoption, she dreams of having another one. The three characters face reality in different ways but Mona’s encounter with it comes in the form of cancer.

Gigli’s voice provides a unifying theme to the bizarre world of the characters and we hear a number of arias. The Irish Man does not do a concert but JPW does get to perform as if he were Gigli even if it is in his dream.

Palk has a tendency of leaving her characters to stand in one place as if nailed to the floor for too long. Pacing up and down may not be the solution but some kind of stage business is preferable to standing in one place. That and the failure to establish the Irish-English milieu and tension are the main complaints about the production. Otherwise, Murphy avalanche of ideas in extraordinarily rich language and verbal dexterity is a treat not to be missed. As for Gigli, you will probably  end up on YouTube listening to his recordings.

Ken MacKenzie’s single set and costumes are very good.

The Gigli Concert by Tom Murphy opened on April 2 and continues until May 16, 2014 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Distillery District, Toronto, Ontario. 416 944-1740

Wednesday, March 26, 2014



 Reviewed by James Karas

Watching La Fille du Regiment at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, I was struck by the similarities between opera and Olympic figure skating. You see the handsome couple glide around the ice surface, leap gracefully in the air, twirl several times and land as if they were snowflakes falling to the ground.

We enjoy all of it but most attention is paid to those difficult moves, those twirls and those landings. One mistake and farewell medal contention.

La Fille has broad comedy, splendid music and some of the toughest arias in the repertoire. Donizetti was not satisfied with just a work of melodies and comic business – he wanted vocal gymnastics. What else would you call nine high Cs in one aria alone?

In the current production, as in the Olympics, there is stiff competition. In this case it is Canada v. Peru. You will recall, the Canadian pair of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir giving a breathtaking performance at Sochi. With utter objectivity, good faith and sound judgment, we expected them to win gold. They were pitch perfect in their singing …er …skating, got all the high notes (OK, there were a couple of booboos, but the others were worse) and in the end Canada ended up with silver.

The tenor in La Fille who belted out the nine high Cs for the first four performances of the current revival of Laurent Pelly’s production was Peruvian superstar Juan Diego Flórez. For the final two performances, the role was sung by Canadian tenor Frédéric Antoun. Like most of the Canadian team at Sochi, Antoun is a Quebecois. The Peruvian has sung the role of Tonio umpteen times, in fact he sang it at the Met in 2008 and that performance was broadcast around the world as part of the Met’s Live in HD series. The audience could not stop applauding at the time. It was like watching those Russian gymnasts who dominate that sport as if they own it.

Antoun was making his debut at Covent Garden and one could compare the standoff between Canada and Peru like a David and Goliath match of the vocal chords. Before we get to the singing pyrotechnics, the defining twirls in the air, so to speak, we listen with pleasure to Antoun skating around his notes with grace, and beauty. We notice that his partner Marie (soprano Patrizia Ciofi) has a big and marvelous voice. She brings energy and vocal resonance to a delightful Marie. Her voice is just a bit bigger than our Canadian hero’s.

We arrive at the crucial test of the high Cs in Tonio’s first act aria “Pour mon âme” and hold our breath. Will Canada best Peru? With poise and ease, Antoun leaps once, twice … nine times and does not miss a single beat. The audience, those relentless judges, roars its approval. In the medals ceremony, alas, as happened to Tessa and Scott the gold medal went to the Peruvian. As gracious Canadians, we accept the result but do not give up.

La Fille, as its name states, contains a regiment and Choreographer Laura Scozzi has created dance routines and comic business around Donizetti’s boisterous music.

Contralto Ewa Podleś played La Marquise de Berkenfeld. She is a crusty old woman and Podleś enjoyed showing off her low notes and indeed getting a laugh out of them. That is what a good singer/actor does in a comic opera – sing well and evoke laughter.

Pietro Spagnoli has better vocal power than comic talent, or at least he was not allowed to display the latter. Pelly had him play more a straight man than a broadly comic character.

Dame Kiri te Kanawa made a cameo appearance as La Duchesse de Crackentorp. She did some vocalizing, sang an aria, did some comic business and the audience loved her. She just turned 70 and nothing other than appreciation and applause are called for.

The set by Chantal Thomas consisted of indications of a mountainous area covered by maps in the first act and wood-paneled opulence in the second act.

Pelly moved the action from the Napoleonic Wars to World War I. The reason escapes me. War as fun and glory never existed but one is more ready to accept it as myth in the Tyrolean Alps of two hundred years ago than in the trenches of the Great War one hundred years ago. Christian Räth was the revival director.    

Despite the World War I setting, including a tank, this is a thoroughly enjoyable production be it with Flores or Antoun.

But one of my convictions is absolute and unshakeable: Tessa and Scott should have gotten the gold medal at the Olympics. As for Juan Diego, it won’t be too long before Canada produces a tenor who will consider nine high Cs in an aria as a mere warm up. And the Maple Leafs will win the Stanley Cup!


La Fille du Regiment by Gaetano Donizetti was performed six times between March 3 and 18, 2014 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London.


Thursday, March 20, 2014


Reviewed by James Karas

As the curtain goes up on Un Ballo in Maschera in Ljubljana, we see a huge staircase with three landings occupying almost the entire stage. We are listening to the overture as eight men dressed in white military uniforms emerge furtively from trapdoors in various areas of the stairs. They have their pistols out and are looking for someone. They reach the bottom of the stairs, find a chair and as they point their guns, notice that it is empty. They disperse as the overture ends.

This is the dramatic curtain-raiser that Director Vinko Möderndorfer and Set Designer Branko Hojnik have devised for Ballo. They want to emphasize the conspiratorial aspect of the opera where a few men can collude in the murder a ruler. More about this later.

Möderndorfer and dramaturge Blaž Lukan have brought the plot to a modern setting with a powerful civic leader, Riccardo, rather than an Earl or a King as in the original and revised versions. In the original version, the main character was a Swedish king but a hypersensitive censor forced Verdi to make him the Earl of Warwick, Governor of Boston, where it was presumably more acceptable to murder a high-ranking official.

The production has several alternate casts but I saw the opening night performers on March 13, 2014. Two singers stood out: tenor Branko Robinšak as Riccardo and soprano Natalia Ushakova as Amelia.

Robinšak has a marvelous lyric voice and he handled the role of Riccardo with ease. He has to be generous, passionate and remorseful as he pursues illicitly but ardently his friend’s wife (wearing the mask of a friend, of course) and gives her up with her virtue intact. Robinšak shows vocal flair and gives us a fine Riccardo.

Ushakova makes a moving and very effective Amelia. She was fine throughout but rose to the heights in “Morró, ma prima in grazia,” her emotional aria where she begs her furious husband Renato to let her see her son before he kills her for her suspected infidelity.

Baritone Jože Vidic seemed to be doing a workmanlike job as Renato until Act III where in “Eri bu che macchiavi” he bursts out with such passion and marvelous singing that his performance becomes anything but workmanlike. The joy of his life loathsomely poisoned everything and Renato expresses the ultimate loss of his life through the treachery of those he loved most: his wife and his dearest friend. 

The sorceress Ulrica emerges from the crevice between the divided stairs and looks as if she is materializes from the underworld. The stage is darkened and the conspirators lurk ominously around the stage. Slovenian mezzo soprano Mirjam Kalin looks very dramatic and acts as such but her singing was not as convincing.

The conspiratorial appearance of the officers led by Samuel (Saša Čano) and Tom (Peter Martinčič) during the overture gives way to the brilliant scene in the court or residence of Riccardo. Almost everyone is wearing white and it is a brilliant scene. For the second scene, the stairs are pulled apart in the centre, as I said, creating a dark path through which Ulrica enters. It is a dark, mysterious and dramatic scene.

The same stairs are moved to the side to create the grisly execution area where Amelia goes looking for the magic herb to kill her illicit love for Riccardo. About a dozen or so decaying corpses are lowered on the stage making the place indeed gruesome. The final scene is the masked ball where the colour red is emphasized, including the uniforms of the conspirators. Again, a brilliant tableau.

Against the usual advice about not putting children or animals on stage, Möderndorfer puts a child on stage (Amelia’s son) who is cute and steals the scene. When the men must choose who will kill Riccardo, they put their names in a toy truck. The little is asked to draw a name and he picks his father as the killer. A terrific and imaginative touch.

Conductor Marko Gašperšič took a very deliberate approach to the score and the small orchestra performed well.

Möderndorfer took possession of Ballo and gave us a fresh, imaginative, effective and exceptional production.

Un Ballo in Maschera by Giuseppe Verdi opened on March 13 and continues until March 25, 2014 at the SNG Opera in balet, Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Reviewed by James Karas

Director Bepi Morassi gives an energetic and well-sung production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice. The sets are kept to a minimum but spirits are high, the singing is generally excellent and the orchestra of La Fenice is in superb form.

Morassi and Set Designer Lauro Crisman have draped off the top and sides of the stage, lopping off about a third of the playing area. This gives the effect of a miniature theatre and the feel that you are watching a delightful play in intimate surroundings. The relatively small and ornate La Fenice helps in creating and sustaining the impression.

The set for the opening street scene where Count Almaviva (Giorgio Misseri) courts the beautiful Rosina (Marina Comparato) is sparse and almost papier mâché in keeping with the miniature theatre idea. The reduced playing area means that the set for the rest of the opera is also limited but elegant.

That sets the stage for opera buffo fun. Tenor Misseri’s approach to his role is not just lively, it is downright athletic. Not just physically, I mean vocally as well. He does not just hit his high notes, he leaps to them with fervor.

He is well-partnered by South Korean baritone Julian Kim as Figaro. In keeping with Morassi’s approach, the youthful Kim attacked the role of the wily barber with vigour and relish and sang superbly. “Largo al factotum” and largo al Julian Kim.

Italian mezzo-soprano Marina Comparato sang the lively and lovely Rosina. Comparato has a lush voice with a beautiful mid-range and an amazing low register. Fair enough that with that type of range, she is not at her best with high notes. But she is and amazing mezzo in the middle and lower registers. And as the decisive, self-assured and I-get-what-I-want young lady, she is just the type of girl you want to love.

The opera is a non-stop conveyor of melodious arias, ensembles and comedy but there are two set pieces that I wait especially to see: Rosina’s “Una voce poco fa” and the Music Lesson. “Una voce” defines Rosina’s character and the singer’s ability to handle all of Rossini’s embellishments. Here Comparato was not at her best when she had to deal with those high notes.

The Music Lesson is full of comedy and melody as the two lovers furtively express their feelings, sing beautifully and fool Bartolo as to what they are really up to. Delightful.

In Bartolo Basilio and Berta, Rossini provides three relatively minor but very juicy roles. Each is provided with comic business so necessary to the opera and an opportunity to show off their vocal dexterity.

Baritone Omar Montanari is Rosina’s foolish guardian Bartolo who wants to marry her. The old boob (Bartolo, not Montanari who seems quite young) is set up as the butt of the romantic liaison between Rosina and Almaviva. Montanari is very adept as a comic and as a singer.

Bass-baritone Luca Dall’Amico is Bartolo’s sidekick, Basilio. The tall singer with his flaxen hair in the role reminded me of Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Sir Toby’s sidekick in Twelfth Night. Dall’Amico gets to sing “La calumnia,” one of the famous arias in the opera and the repertoire and he handles the crescendos with aplomb. He also does his comic business well.      
Bartolo’s maid Berta is given some comic business and a nice aria, “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie,” and soprano Giovanna Donadini does well in both.

Giovanni Battista Rigon conducted the Teatro La Fenice Orchestra with verve and every crescendo got its due in a splendid afternoon at the opera.

Il Barbiere di Siviglia  by Gioachino Rossini is being performed eight times bteween Feebruary 20 and March 20, 2014 at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice.