Saturday, February 18, 2017


By James Karas

The second production offered by the Canadian Opera Company for its winter season is a revival of Tim Albery’s 2006 staging of Die Gotterdammerung.

The final scene of the opera as Wagner described it, can hardly be imagined let alone staged but the current production brings it home with outstanding splendour. In the closing moments, we hear (and imagine) Brünnhilde’s ecstatic leap into the fire, we see the immolation reflected in the faces of the chorus. The surging and spectacular music slowly recedes as does the fire and we see the Rhine flowing calmly, the Rhinemaidens regain the ring as the music becomes extraordinarily beautiful and sweet. When Conductor Johannes Debus lowered his baron for the final chord, the audience burst out into applause and a standing ovation.

 (l-r) Ain Anger as Hagen, Ileana Montalbetti as Gutrune, Andreas Schager as Siegfried and 
Martin Gantner as Gunther. Photo: Michael Cooper
In other words the star of the evening was the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and Debus. They played Wagner’s incomparable score with all its grandeur, ecstatic beauty and serene splendor magnificently.

The singing was generally outstanding. Austrian tenor Andreas Schager sang a heroic and vocally and physically impressive Siegfried. American soprano Christine Goerke sang a powerful Brünnhilde. She is a relatively recent arrival to Wagnerian roles but she dominated the performance with her Nilssonesque stamina and dramatic expression. She soared over the orchestra in a singularly impressive performance.

On the baddy side (the characters not the performers), Estonian bass Ain Anger carried the laurel wreath for his portrayal of the nasty Hagen. Anger brought out the manipulative, power-hungry character of the villain with superb panache. German baritone Martin Gantner provided comparison and contrast as Hagen’s half-brother Gunther in a well-delineated characterization of the Gibichung. Gunther is inadequate, envious, devious but incapable of going for the jugular and under the thumb of Hagen. 

Tim Albery’s production falls squarely into the modern-dress, unheroic trend of Wagnerian productions. Otto Schenk’s production for the Metropolitan Opera, with its grandiose sets and traditional costumes held sway for over twenty years at the Metropolitan Opera to be replaced by the quirky Robert Lepage version. Many productions at Bayreuth have attracted very loud boos and I know people who refuse to go to the Festival because they consider the productions “Eurotrash.” Last year, one production of the Ring was set in a motel on Route 66 and it was all about oil around the world.
Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde. Photo: Michael Cooper 
Albery is somewhere in the middle. When the curtain opens we see cables running across the stage symbolizing The Ropes of Destiny spun by the none-too-exciting Norns. The next scene is the morning after the honeymoon night of Siegfried and Brünnhilde where our hero reveals that he had some performance anxiety during the night. The only prop is a bed and we will see it several times before the end of the opera. It is carried on stage even when Siegfried is assassinated. There are some lighting effects and hanging neon lights.  

The hall of the Gibichungs is furnished with Ikea furniture and in the later scene there is a huge boardroom table. Hagen and Gunter have a lot of staff (the whole Chorus, in fact) and they are all dressed in gray suits. When they are summoned to war-like behavior, they toss their jackets on the floor and jump on the large table.

Except for the scenes in the hall of the Gibichungs the back of the set is dark and the props are minimal. Siegfried wears a leather jacket over a T-shirt but he does dress up for his wedding. The women wear mostly gowns that do not draw attention to their attire.

The point here is that the costumes made very little difference after one noticed them. The music and the singing are so overwhelming that you are drawn into the drama completely and cease noticing or caring about the set or what anyone is wearing.

A great night at the opera.                     
Die Gotterdammerung by Richard Wagner being performed seven times between February 2 and 25, 2017 at the Four Seasons Centre, 145 Queen St. West Toronto.

Friday, February 17, 2017


Reviewed by James Karas

If you meet a Hedda Gabler as played by Ruth Wilson run as fast and as hard as you can no matter how tempted you are to stop and spend some time with her. Remember what Odysseus had to do to escape the beautiful Sirens with the long hair and lovely voices. His men’s ears were filled with wax so that they would not hear them and he was tied to a mast to make sure he stayed put. He got away and he was tempted with only physical and vocal beauty. If you do not run, you will probably be tempted with raw sexual magnetism and end up in Hades.

Where can you go to escape such a fate? The best place is the National Theatre in London to see the current production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. You will meet a woman who is conniving, bitchy, treacherous, sexually magnetic and lusts for the domination of men. In fact men get some very bad press in the play because all of them are the victims of women.
 KYLE SOLLER (Tesman), RUTH WILSON (Hedda Gabler). Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Director Ivo van Hove and Set and Lighting Designer Jan Versweyveld have the play done on a virtually empty stage without even doors for the characters to enter and exit. They get off the stage using steps leading to the auditorium. The walls are taped but not painted and there are a few scarps of furniture such as a piano, a couch and some flowers in the first act. That is all, except for a fire centre stage which is mandated by the plot. The costumes are modern.

Hedda’s husband Tesman (Kyle Soller) is frequently portrayed as a dry academic who bores his gorgeous new wife and no one can figure out why she married him. Soller’s Tesman is young, athletic, vigorous, ambitious and no push over. A very intelligent interpretation of the role. He could be a worthy husband and opponent, if necessary, for Hedda but she tires of him quickly and goes after the other men in the play. Judge Brack (Rafe Spall) was no fool to want to marry her. She exercised power over Lovborg but when he tried to impose himself, she dumped him.  Lovborg (Chukwudi Iwuji) is a brilliant writer who degenerated into alcoholism and destroyed his career but he is on the rebound.
     Ruth Wilson (Hedda Gabler), Rafe Spall (Brack). Photo: Jan Versweyveld
After Hedda, Mrs. Elvstad (Sinead Matthews) entered Lovborg’s life and gained dominance over him. Hedda wants to destroy that relationship. When Lovborg loses the only manuscript of his new book and wants to commit suicide, she hands him a gun and commands him to do it beautifully. She believes in some kind of amoral, bacchanalian freedom where she must dominate or destroy everyone who stands in her way.

Ruth Wilson is a Hedda for the books. Her Hedda is sexually irresistible, emotionally conniving, intellectually cunning and usually able to get her way. There are few actresses that can combine all these characteristics of this odious woman.

The rational and conniving Brack figures her out and wants to have the upper hand in an affair with her. In a scene of extraordinary emotional power he throws her to the floor and gains absolute supremacy. I will not spoil the effect by giving you more details but if you see this production, it will stay with you forever.
Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen in a new version by Patrick Marber continues until March 21, 2017 at the Lyttleton Stage, Nation Theatre, South Bank, London, England. The production will be broadcast in movie theatres on March 9  and April 1, 2017. Go for details.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017


Reviewed by James Karas

When the Royal Shakespeare Company puts on a play by Shakespeare you pay attention and get tickets. When the performances are at the beautiful Theatre Royal Haymarket you run. The two comedies playing in repertory are Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won which makes for wonderful symmetry but falls short in veracity. The second play is in fact Much Ado About Nothing but Love’s Labour’s Won does serve as its subtitle.
 The Princess (Leah Whitaker) and her ladies in Love’s Labour’s Lost

Love’s Labour’s Lost is a tough play for modern audiences. It relies on ostentatious use of language. Rhyming couplets, wordplay, alliteration and a showing off of Shakespeare’s ability with English are the hallmarks of the play. At one point the aptly named police constable Dull (Chris McCalphy) is told by the schoolmaster Holofernes (Steven Pacey) that he did not speak a word, he replies “Nor understood none neither, sir.”

The plot itself is rather silly. The King of Navarre (Sam Alexander) and three of his companions decide to go monastic including having nothing to do with women for three years. Just at that time a French princess (Leah Whitaker) and three of her ladies arrive at the Navarre court. You have guessed the plot already.

Along with the King, the Princess and their retinues we need some other preferably comic characters to add to the merriment. The Spaniard Don Armando (John Hodgkinson) with his fractured pronunciation is there and he will help with things like pronouncing peace like piss. The pedantic Holofernes, the dim gardener Costard (Nick Haverson), the lovely maid Jaquennetta, the hall boy Moth (Peter McGovern) are all there and their names alone suggest comedy and they do provide it.
William Belchambers, Tunji Kasim, Edward Bennett and Sam Alexander. Photo: Alastair Muir
The King’s men, Berowne (Edward Bennett), Longaville (William Belchambers) and Dumaine (Tunji Kasim)  get together with the Princess’s ladies, Rosaline (Lisa Dillon), Katharine (Rebecca Collingwood) and Maria (Paige Carter) in high-end mating rituals but there are not enough complications to keep us entertained for two plus hours. The men decide to entertain the ladies by disguising themselves as Russians and putting on exotic dancing. The ladies disguise their identities so that their suitors address the wrong lady.

We need more. Shakespeare provides a show where people put on a show called the Nine Worthies, historical figures are satirized and caricatured to fine comic effect.
In a marvellous stroke, designer Simon Higlett set the play in an Elizabethan stately home. The gorgeous backdrop that we see is the façade of Charlecote Park, country home of the Lucy family. Shakespeare was caught poaching on its extensive grounds and was brought before a magistrate. It may be just a legend but it does make for a great connection between a 21st century production of two of his plays (Much Ado uses the same set) and Shakespeare’s youth.   

Director Christopher Luscombe knows the difficulty of staging Love’s Labour’s Lost and making it entirely approachable. And he takes no chances. The episodes with the Russians and the Worthies are turned into raucous musical numbers. Arcane language be damned – Love’s Labour’s Lost can be made hugely enjoyable. It may well be the funniest production of the play you will ever see.
Love’s Labour’s Lost by William Shakespeare continues in repertory until March 18, 2017 at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, England.

Monday, February 13, 2017


By James Karas

La Monnaie’s production of Madama Butterfly is aggressively different, has some fine singing and a few head scratchers. The production is in the Palais de la Monnaie, Tour & Taxis, the company’s temporary home while the main house in central Brussels is being renovated.

A blank white screen goes up for the action to begin and a woman in a gray wig, wearing a Japanese costume, goes to the left side of the stage. During the hubbub of the opening scene Cio-Cio San a.k.a. Madama Butterfly enters and she is a marionette handled by three marionettists. This will be the evening’s Cio-Cio San but the singing will be done by the woman on the side, soprano Alexia Voulgaridou. 
Alexia Voulgaridou as Cio-Cio San and Aris Argiris as Sharpless. © Baus
Goro (Riccardo Botta) is showing Lieut. Pinkerton (Marcelo Puente) the house overlooking Nagasaki harbor that he and his bride will occupy but there is no house, just a couple of screens hanging from the ceiling. The arrival of Cio-Cio San’s friends and relatives is severely restricted. What we get is almost a concert performance of the opera for most part.

This is not your usual Madama Butterfly.

The production is by Kirsten Dehlholm and Hotel Pro Forma, a Danish theatre company that has been producing some revolutionary theatrical work for the past thirty years. Hotel Pro Forma, according to one source, espouses “the concept of theatre with strong visual and artistic effects … a fusion of visual arts, architecture, performance, digital interactions and theatre.”

Cio-Cio San, as an old woman is telling us the story of Cio-Cio San the thirteen-year old girl who married an American Navy lieutenant. We know that Cio-Cio San dies at the end of the opera but Dehlholm, it seems to me, wants to apply the Brechtian concept of epic theatre by insisting on narrating the story rather than attempting the classic representation of “real life” on the stage. It is theatre or opera at arm’s length.
AlexiaVoulgaridou (Cio-Cio-San) © Baus
The production is quite faithful to the approach. The set by Maja Ziska is unrealistic and unengaging. There is no attempt to make us feel we are in a specific locale. Cio-Cio San’s relatives look like they are from a space movie, perhaps Ninjas and let’s say their costumes are outlandish.

The problem is one of incongruity. Old plays and old operas are reimagined constantly just as old wine is put into new bottles but the objective I think is to bring out the best in the old play, opera or wine. In the case of Madama Butterfly, we want to see and feel the emotional impact of the opera not to have it defeated.  Here are some thoughts arising from the production that may be seen to work in the wrong direction.

Voulgaridou barely moves except for one time when she slashes a blank screen. She does some of her singing sitting down. The three marionettists move the puppet Cio-Cio San around. I imagined Odysseus telling his adventures to the court of King Alkinoos with some actors or puppeteers re-enacting some of his adventures. You listen to Odysseus but watch the show. That is in effect the idea of epic theatre. Is this a legitimate approach to Madama Butterfly?

There is minimal interaction among the characters and the distinct preference is for the main singers to stand still and do their job. I think there is more freedom in a concert version than there was in this fully staged production.

Cio-Cio San’s son is a rather chubby marionette and, understandably perhaps, she does not have any contact with him. Voulgaridou sings a heart-wrenching “Tu, piccolo Iddio” as she says goodbye to her son but there is no correspondence between her voice and words and the actions of her alter ego, the marionette.
Marcelo Puente (F.B. Pinkerton), Marta Beretta (Kate Pinkerton), AlexiaVoulgaridou (Cio-Cio-San) © Baus
In the final scene, when she stabs herself and falls to the ground, Pinkerton and his wife Kate (Marta Beretta) rush in and simply stop a few feet away from her. There is no emotional reaction and falling on his knees by the creepy Pinkerton. The puppet of the little boy is blown up into a huge balloon reaching to the top of the stage and the intended effect escaped me.

Voulgaridou, despite the constraints put on her, sings with incredible power and emotional punch. You forget the disconnect between the teenage bride waiting with unbelievable longing for her beloved to return and the sterile puppet being moved around. She is a soprano at the top of her game and able to perform under challenging conditions.

Mezzo soprano Ning Liang gives a superb performance as Suzuki. Tenor Marcelo Puente is not at his best perhaps because he is hampered from much physical movement. His feet may not have been nailed to the floor boards but at times it looked as if they were. His middle was fine but his high notes were a struggle.

Baritone Aris Argiris sang the role of Consul Sharpless. He handles the vocal part without any difficulty but what caught my attention was his costume, a ridiculous beige suit and hair half-way down his back. This was a ludicrously unconsular attire and I have no idea what effect it was supposed to produce.

The Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie were conducted by Bassem Akiki and I should note the acoustics of the temporary quarters leave a lot to be desired.

In the end you have a choice. You can view the production as a bold, experimental jump into something different, something that will encourage thinking and esthetic experimentation. Or you can look at it as directorial self-indulgence that does not enhance your enjoyment of this opera.

See the production and choose.

Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini opened on January 31 and will be performed until February 14, 2017 at the Palais de la Monnaie, Tours & Taxis, Brussels, Belgium.

Friday, February 10, 2017


By James Karas

The Royal Opera House’s Il Trovatore is a war opera. Black and grey colours dominate. You will see tanks, machine guns, campers, smoke, wooden crosses, fires burning and, yes, passions raging. This is David Bösch’s modern-dress interpretation of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera. A bit of torture and war crimes can be gleaned but the final tableau will be a huge, fiery heart that could be interpreted as the triumph of love through death.

Bösch made his Royal Opera House debut with this production last July and it has been revived with Julia Burbach as the Revival Director.
Il Trovatore at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Photo: Clive Barda 
American tenor Gregory Kunde did a respectable job as the troubadour Manrico. He sang somewhat heroically but without passion. We expect him to be overwhelming in his heroism and expression of love for Leonora and he simply did not deliver it. His appearance did not help. His drab costume made him look like an unemployed warehouse worker and even a gypsy troubadour should strike a better pose than that.

Leonora, the woman who loved him to death does a much better job in the hands of Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian. Dressed in dramatic white amid the gloomy colours of the others, she sang with emotional conviction and dramatic effect.   

Leonora needs a great deal of strength and conviction because she is loved by two fierce warriors, Manrico and Count di Luna. The latter will not take “no” for an answer and he is ferocious in love and war. Dmitri Hvorostovsky was scheduled to take the role but he cancelled because of illness. Ukrainian baritone Vitaliy Bilyy made his Royal Opera House debut replacing Hvorostovsky. He was authoritative physically and vocally and gave a superb performance.
Il Trovatore at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Photo: Clive Barda 
Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili outdid everyone as the gypsy Azucena. “Stole the show” is the catchphrase that comes to mind but that would be unfair and untrue. She did not steal it – she earned it. She delivered an outstanding performance in an admittedly marvellous role and the audience just loved her.  Rachvelishvili has a marvellous, smoky voice that can spew venom and passion as she single-mindedly pursues vengeance. One enjoys every minute of her presence on stage.

Ukrainian bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk deserves praise for his performance in the relatively minor role of Ferrando. He is the fine officer who carries out orders and Tsymbalyuk sang with commendable sonority.

Patrick Bannwart designed the set and video projection with the intent of emphasizing the internecine conflict of the opposing parties, with considerable war machines in use. The soldiers may sing of fighting with swords for glory and plunder but the images we see on stage suggest something far more brutal. A captured soldier is senselessly brutalized and a noose is put around his neck and strung on the muzzle of a tank. This is no glorious war.

Il Trovatore is a highly approachable opera despite its somewhat turgid plot. It has some great melodies and between love duets and martial music it makes for opera the way most people imagine it to be. Bösch gives us a far more nuanced production and puts his imprimatur on the opera. That is what directors must do.

The Orchestra of the Royal House Opera and Royal Opera Chorus were conducted by Richard Farnes in an exceptional night at the opera.

Il Trovatore by Giuseppe Verdi, directed by David Bösch was performed at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden six times between January 16 and February 9, 2017.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017


By James Karas

The English National Opera has revived Jonathan Miller’s production of Rigoletto at the London Coliseum. This production premiered in 1982 and that may rate as Methuselahian longevity in operatic production history but Franco Zeffirelli’s La Boheme (1981) may claim priority. An attempt to replace it was quickly shelved.

Miller imagined Rigoletto as taking place in New York’s Little Italy during the 1950’s where the show was run by the Mafia. The Duke of Mantua becomes a Mafia don and everyone is having a grand time is a classy bar where Rigoletto is the caustic bartender. He lives in a tenement with his daughter across the street from Ceprano (Andri Bjorn Robertsson), the man whose beautiful wife (Joanne Appleby) the Don fancies and whom Rigoletto ridicules.
Nicholas Pallesen and Sydney Mancasola in Rigoletto from ENO
Placing the opera in a Mafioso setting was an inspired idea and there have been numerous re-imagining since them. The latest Metropolitan Opera production set the opera in a Las Vegas casino. In Miller’s Little Italy the men are dressed in well-pressed suits, the women wear beautiful gowns and the atmosphere of power and decadence under the control of an absolute boss works well.

Baritone Nicholas Pallesen is young and impressive as Rigoletto. When he struts around the stage begging the heartless Mafiosi for his daughter he is moving and when he discovers the trick played on him at the end of the opera he is heart-wrenching. A fine vocal and acting performance.

Sydney Mancasola is an up and coming lyric soprano that gives a good accounting of herself as Gilda. She has the same constraints as the others in singing in English but we like her voice and believe that as Gilda she is nice girl but not too swift in her love of the dissolute Mafia boss.

Tenor Joshua Guerrero made his London debut with this production and he displayed the swagger and devil-may-care attitude of the Don with gusto. He is a young singer honing his skills and deserves kudos for his singing especially executing “La donna è mobile” in a “strange” language.

The question of whether opera should be sung in English rather than its language of composition is not discussed as frequently now as it used to be. The arrival of surtitles has made watching non-English opera much easier. Besides even opera sung in English, relies or surtitles to be properly understood.

The production is sung in English with surtitles because without them we will not understand every word that is sung and not know exactly what is happening.
 Joshua Guerrero and Sydney Mancasola
What is the effect of listening to a familiar work in English? It is mixed. The initial issue is that we are simply used to hearing Rigoletto performed in Italian. Many of the arias are very familiar with the result that we know some of the lyrics by heart. But even if we get past familiarity, there are issues.

The fundamental issue is the difference between the structures of Italian and English. We need the musicality of Italian and those open vowels that let the singers belt out those notes and emotions with abandon. When sung in English it frequently sounds like the singer is fighting impediments as if going through mud when he needs a flat meadow. A simple phrase like “io l’amo” with that “a” and “o” gives the singer scope for expression. Try singing “I love him” and you get some mileage from the “o” and feel you have tripped over something when you try to get anything out of “him.” Try singing “mia figlia” and then “my daughter” and you get a further idea of the difficulty.

Nevertheless the singers in this production soldiered on and we followed them despite the obvious difficulties.

The ENO Orchestra was conducted by Sir Richard Armstrong. Patrick Robertson and Rosemary Vercoe were the designers.

If the production has not aged, Jonathan Miller gives a good impression of being past middle age. The 82-year old, leaning on a cane, came on stage with Elaine-Tyler-Hall, the Revival Director, for a bow and was greeted with a thunderous ovation. Well deserved.    
Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi, directed by Jonathan Miller, opened on February 2 and will be performed nine times in repertory on various dates until February 28, 2017 at the London Coliseum, St. Martin’s Lane, London.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017


By James Karas

Richard Eyre’s production of La Traviata at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden has proven its staying power by being revived fourteen times since its first performance in 1994. Judging by the pact houses of the current performances managed by Revival Director Andrew Sinclair the ROH may be in no rush to replace it.

The revivals are performed by different casts, of course, and a large array of sopranos, tenors and baritones have taken up the major roles. The current cast is headed by Canadian-Lebanese soprano Joyce El-Khoury who gives a stunning performance. (Torontonians saw her as Mimi in La Bohème in 2013 and as Violetta in La Traviata in 2015). She has an exceptionally beautiful voice that can express deep emotion and move the audience to tears. She did superb work throughout the evening but her last scene where she realizes that she is dying and sings “Addio, del passato” she brings the house down. One may add that being beautiful does not hurt her portrayal.

Sergey Romanovsky and Joyce El-Khoury in La Traviata. Photo: ROH / Tristram Kenton
Russian tenor Sergey Romanovsky makes his Royal Opera debut as Alfredo Germont who goes from ardent lover to jerk but repents his misconduct and Violetta dies in his arms. He has a supple and mellifluous voice and sings with ease and total assurance. He makes it sound as if it takes no effort to sing the role. It is and he does commendable work.

Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont gets two unforgettable arias,"Pura siccome un angelo” and “Di Provenza il mar, il suol.” Sandwiched between them is his scene with Violetta where he has to convince the deeply in love woman to give up Alfredo and her happiness. He needs to be moving, convincing without becoming maudlin or tyrannical. Verdi provides the music and Polish baritone Artur Rucinski sings with melodic resonance and conviction. Rucinski first sang the role at the Royal Opera House in 2014 and he seems to have made it his own.
Joyce El Khoury and Artur Rucinski in La Traviata. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Designer Bob Crowley provides dramatic and opulent sets for the salons in Violetta’s and Flora’s houses respectively. Violetta’s salon features a large room with a circular sofa with a dramatic dome. This is living (and stage décor) on a grand scale. Flora’s pad is shock of red velvet where some Spanish dancers entertain the men who gamble in a casino atmosphere. The set in the country house represents the bankrupt state of Violetta’s and Alfredo’s accommodation with bare walls and pictures on the floor ready for the pawn shop.

Daniele Rustioni conducted the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and the Royal Opera Chorus in this traditional but classic approach to this most popular of operas.

La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi, directed by Richard Eyre, will return to the Royal Opera House for its summer season for eight performances from June 14 to July 4, 2017.