Tuesday, December 27, 2011

MARY POPPINS GOES DOWN LIKE A SPOONFUL OF SUGAR FOR A JOLLY HOLIDAY AT THE PRINCESS OF WALES

Nicolas Dromard as ‘Bert’ performs “Step In Time” with the National Tour Company of MARY POPPINS. ©Disney/CML. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Reviewed by James Karas

Walking up the wall and on the ceiling; flying across the stage, over the audience and landing back on the stage using an umbrella: these are some of the hijinks offered in Mary Poppins, the delightful musical now playing at the Princess of wales Theatre in Toronto.

The story of Mary Poppins, the nanny with magical powers, started as a series of children’s books by P. L. Travers and hit the big times and big screen in the 1964 Walt Disney movie of the same title. The movie had Julie Andrews as the marvelous nanny with Dick Van Dyke as Bert and major comic talents such as Ed Wynn and Arthur Treacher. The film garnered numerous awards and added the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious to the English language. The movie is exceptionally enjoyable.

Forty years after the movie opened Cameron Mackintosh brought out a stage version of the film with some changes. The 2004 London production made it to Broadway and road companies have taken it just about everywhere. It has now reached Toronto and one has to admit that Mary Poppins provides marvelous light entertainment on stage especially for the young who seemed to be enjoying it even more than the adults.

The musical contains most of the songs composed by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman for the movie as well as some new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. Richard Eyre, who directed the London production, directs this staging as well and he is as good as they come in the business.

What happens? Well, lots! George Banks (Laird Mackintosh) is a banker and the head of a British household in the early 1900’s. He is a strict disciplinarian while his wife Winifred (Rebecca Thornhill) is an indulgent but flustered mother. They have two ill-behaved children, Jane (Camden Angelis) and Michael (Reese Sebastian Diaz), a hilarious cook (Valerie Brill) and a servant (Dennis Moench).

The children are smart, rambunctious and cute. But they are badly behaved and the current nanny is storming out and everything is in an uproar at the Banks residence.

We have already met Bert (Nicolas Dromard), a jack-of-all trades who can sing dance and be funny – a Bert and Dromard that we can definitely take to. But we now need the big star. No sooner than the Banks children wish for a perfect nanny than Mary Poppins (Megan Osterhaus) descends.

She is pretty, with a lovely voice, has extraordinary powers and a bagful of tricks that can delight the most hard-to-please children and even adults. Osterhaus is splendid in the role.

Plot complications abound, of course, from banking and business issues to a visit with the Bird Woman (Janet McEwen) where you “Feed the Birds” and Mrs. Corry (Michelle E. White) who sells words like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and even if the sound of it may be atrocious it makes for a very invigorating song.

You do not need “A Spoonful of Sugar” to make this musical with its delightful comic scenes and very vigorous dancing go down. You will “Step in Time” with Mary, Bert and the Chimney Sweeps, “Chim Chim Cher-ee” down Cherry Tree Lane, feel like you want to “Fly a Kite” and in the end have a “Jolly Holiday” and a damn good night at the theatre.
________

Mary Poppins by Julian Fellowes (book), Richard M. Sherman and Robert E. Sherman (original music and lyrics) and George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (additional songs and lyrics) continues until January 8, 2012 at The Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. West, Toronto, Ontario. www.mirvish.com.



Thursday, December 22, 2011

CHRISTMAS CONCERT WITH ARIANA CHRIS, HANNAFORD STREET SILVER BAND AND CCOC CHORUSES



Reviewed by James Karas

Review a Christmas concert?

Children with shining faces and intense attention to the conductor singing “Silent Night”, a choir, joined by an enthusiastic if somewhat cacophonous audience, intoning the Hallelujah Chorus – that’s a Christmas Concert and you don’t review that. You just enjoy it.

The event at the Metropolitan United Church in Toronto was not called a Christmas Concert but a Yuletide Celebration and there was a wide variety of musical offerings from opera to Greek songs. That gives an opening for comment. The Hannaford Street Silver Band, mezzo-soprano Ariana Chris, The Canadian Children’s Opera Company Youth and Principal Choruses performed and with that kind of array you have carte blanche to praise and even criticize without being assigned to a particularly hot cauldron for your eternal residence.

With a group like The Hannaford Street Silver Band you are guaranteed some powerful accompaniment and solo pieces. The most interesting piece was a cornet solo by Marcus Venables which was played by his father Robert Venables. “Eternal Life” demands some intricate playing that was done well. David Briskin conducted with assurance and enthusiasm.

The Hannaford Band performed several pieces ranging from robust Fanfares to more lyrical pieces. It also accompanied most of the choral and solo singing.

The Principal and Youth Choruses under the firm hand of conductor Ann Cooper Gay sounded wonderful in the high vaulted church, the perfect setting for Christmas carols. There were times when I wished they were accompanied by an organ or simply sang a cappella rather than having the over-powering Band especially in carols that have Gregorian chant modulations.

We were treated to the Finale from Laura’s Cow: The Legend of Laura Secord, a new opera by Errol Gay, a work that is not scheduled to premiere until next June.

You probably can’t have opera arias and Greek songs and still qualify the evening as a Christmas Concert. This Yuletide celebration had four songs by Greek composers and “Una voce poco fa” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Ariana Chris’s rich and mellow had little problem dealing with the aria but the brass accompaniment gives one pause. You need to make some quick aural adjustments to listening to the very different accompaniment.

There was an issue of balancing the band, the singer and the acoustics and the powerful sound of the band provided strong competition for Ms Chris and she did not always win the contest.

Ms Chris sang four Greek songs accompanied by Leonidas Zafiris on bouzouki and Fotis Tubanos on guitar. Manos Hadzidakis’s “The North Star” gained a haunting quality in the large church but there were problems. The acoustics swallowed the music and prevented the crisp chords that we want to hear from the bouzouki and the guitar. Loizos’s “Lullaby” gained a dream-like quality from the acoustics. The audience responded enthusiastically to Ms Chris’s performance.

As is de rigueur in a Christmas concert, the audience joined in for a couple of the carols. A very civilized evening but let’s get to the real complaint. With all those cornets present and the chorus where in the world was the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Messiah? Even a Yuletide Celebration should have it. And as for “Silent Night,” it was only added as an encore. You can see the problem!!

Needless to say, my complaints are registered as a possible point-getter from the Keeper of the Pearly Gates just in case I am brought to task for complaining about something that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Monday, November 28, 2011

LAVISH LA TRAVIATA FROM OPERA AUSTRALIA IN MELBOURNE

Reviewed by James Karas

Opera Australia has the good fortune and the intelligent planning to present its productions in two major cities and two magnificent opera venues: The Sydney Opera House and Melbourne’s Arts Centre.

I caught a lavish production of La Traviata on the opening night of its performances in Melbourne. It is a magnificently designed production and superbly directed by Elijah Moshinsky. The singing was generally very good with some excellent performances and some gaps.

Russian soprano Elvira Fatykhova sang the title role and in the end gave an extraordinary performance. Her “Addio del passato” near the end of the opera is sung and acted with heart-breaking pathos. Indeed her final scene should not leave a dry eye in the house. That height is not achieved throughout the evening. Her performance was at times uneven and there were moments when she came frightfully close to being drowned out by the orchestra.

At the beginning I thought that she simply did not have a big enough voice and the rather large opera house (seating capacity 2085) was going to swallow her vocal prowess. It did not and in the end she proved her mettle but she and the conductor need to do some fine tuning.

Tenor Aldo Di Toro had some fine moments as the lover Alfredo Germont but he had to strain for the high notes and I was not always thrilled with his singing.

The most impressive and consistent performance was given by Michael Lewis as Giorgio Germont, the man who must tell Violetta to leave his son in order to save the family’s honour. He has to convince his son Alfredo as well and in each case he appeals to higher emotions, love and duty. Lewis does marvelous vocal work and is also emotionally convincing. His scenes with Violetta and his son are superb.

Director Moshinsky and Set Designer Michael Yeargan have put together a detailed and plush production that works superbly. The set for the opening scene in Violetta’s house is plush with heavy drapes, gorgeous dresses (designed by Peter J. Hall) and furniture and furnishings of convincing authenticity. When the lights need to be dimmed, a servant with a long candle snuffer appears!

A set of similar lavishness is used for the ball in Flora’s house with appropriate variations. In both instances, the places look a bit crowded but I think it is more appropriate thus than to present us with a set that looks like the grand ballroom at the Ritz. These courtesans do quite well but keeping their success within reasonable bounds is advisable.

For the second act scene in the country, Moshinsky places us outside Violetta and Alfredo’s house in the autumn. There are some denuded trees and the leaves are falling. This is preferable to having an indoor scene in a room with little furniture with Alfredo singing about how happy he is and then realizing that Violetta has sold the furniture because they are broke. A fine touch by director and designer.

For the final scene we return to Violetta’s apartment in Paris where all the furniture is gone and we are treated to the very dramatic and moving death scene and a truly fine night at the opera.

Orchestra Victoria and Opera Australia Chorus were conducted by Marko Letonja in an exemplary performance.
____

La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi opened on November 16 and will run until December 17, 2011 at the Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St. Kilda Road, Melbourne, Australia. www.operaaustralia.com,au

Friday, November 18, 2011

PYGMALION FROM QUEENSLAND THEATRE COMPANY IN BRISBANE


Reviewed by James Karas


Brisbane, with a population of more than 2 million, does not pop up on the world cultural map all that often. Sydney and Melbourne are bigger cities and have more to offer but Brisbane is no slouch. It boasts the Queensland Performing Arts Centre on the banks of the Brisbane River where you can find four halls that provide opera, concerts, major theatrical events and more intimate performances.

I was able to catch the opening night of Shaw’s Pygmalion in the 850-seat Playhouse in a production by the Queensland Theatre Company directed by Michael Gow. It proved to be an uneven success with some strengths and some questionable directorial choices.

Pygmalion is, of course, the source for My Fair Lady and it is fair to say that far more people have seen the musical than Shaw’s 1912 “Romance in Five Acts.”

Most directors tinker with the text of the play but Michael Gow has done a bit more than is strictly necessary. First, he adds a narrator who tells us where the play is set. This is normally indicated by the dialogue or by stating in the programme where each act takes place, At QPAC, a programme costs $10.00 and perhaps not everyone buys one. Having someone walk across the stage telling us where we are is not an acceptable solution. Hand people a cast list with the rest of the information.

Gow and Designer Stephen Curtis have replaced Prof. Higgins’ book-lined study and Mrs. Higgins’ elegant drawing room with a map of London at the back and a few pieces of furniture. The map has markings like Oxbridge, Cockney and Establishment as well as the names of actual areas of London. This may be a reflection of the budget available for sets and one must be sympathetic but one must also note that it is an unsatisfactory solution. The sets take away a great deal from the play.

The acting was uneven. Melanie Zanetti was a spunky, almost too spunky, Eliza who hides under the table in Higgins’ study at one point. Her nerve however is what she needed to attempt to get out of selling flowers on the street.

Robert Coleby had the ease and self-assurance of the upper-crust gentleman who can afford to be rude and crude. My complaint is that he spoke too quickly at times and did not enunciate sufficiently. A professor of phonetics who would teach a squashed cabbage leaf beautiful English would be more emphatic in his enunciation.

Colonel Pickering is a rich and sophisticated gentleman and older than Higgins. He is a true “gentleman” in manners and in heart. In the hands of Bryan Probets, Pickering looked like a geek who lacked any self-assurance and despite his Cambridge education sounded as if he needed a few lessons in phonetics from Higgins.

Chris Betts was a convincing Alfred Doolittle, the poor dustman who philosophizes about life and drinks as much booze as he can bum from others. Betts convinces us that Doolittle can become a cabinet minister or a preacher if he could change his accent.

The other actors were competent but Gow let some of them overact and went for the cheap laugh when some restraint would have been more appropriate.

The big punch line of the first production of Pygmalion was Eliza’s reply to the question if she was going to walk. “Not bloody likely” she replies and Western civilization almost collapsed. Try getting a laugh out of that line today! Michael Gow finds a solution: “Not f...g likely” blurts out Eliza and the audience roars.
___

Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw opened on November 7 and will run until November 27, 2011 at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, Australia

www.queenslandtheatre.com.au/

Sunday, November 13, 2011

ANONYMOUS - FICTIONALIZED MOVIE ABOUT SHAKESPEARE IS ABOUT AS BAD AS IT GETS

Reviewed by James Karas

The movie Anonymous is set in 16th century England and deals with people named William Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth I, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson the Earls of Oxford, Southampton and Essex and a host of other historically familiar personages.

At the end of the movie, after the interminable credits roll by, there is a fulsome disclaimer to the effect that this is a work of fiction and if any person or incident bears any resemblance to actual events or people, it is entirely coincidental.

The movie deals ostensibly with the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays and involves us in the convoluted politics, plots and treacheries of Elizabethan England. The punch line, if it can be called that, is that Shakespeare did not write a single word of the works attributed to him and that everything was penned by Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.

The idea that the Earl of Oxford wrote what we consider Shakespeare’s works is not new. There are numerous candidates for the position of giving authorship credit to anybody but the glover’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon. It is a fair game engaged by hard working enthusiasts and bringing the subject to the big screen can only increase interest in the plays and the question. But could they not make a better movie? Did it have to be a convoluted bore where you stay awake merely to see if you can figure out the chronological changes as the film jumps back and forth over decades? Did it have to be that dumb?

According to Anonymous, the best thing that can be said about Shakespeare is that he was a dunce. He can read enough to learn his lines (he is an actor) but he cannot write and it is downhill from there. He is given Oxford’s plays by Ben Jonson and is paid well to pretend that they are his own. When he runs out of money or simply wants more (he is a greedy pig), he blackmails Oxford into giving him huge amounts. Meet Roland Emmerich’s Shakespeare: an illiterate idiot and an extortionist.

On the political side, we have Queen Elizabeth who is a very sensual woman in her youth and has numerous lovers and several bastard children. One of her sons and subsequent lover is the Earl of Oxford and their lovechild is none other than the Earl of Southampton, the man to whom the sonnets are dedicated. The Queen does not know what happens to her child and the incest is done unknowingly. Remember Oedipus and Jocasta?

The political battle lines are drawn between the Cecils and the Earl of Essex. Oxford has been forced to marry William Cecil’s daughter while his son Southampton keeps company with Essex. The Cecils plot against Essex to ensure that their choice of king will succeed the aging Elizabeth while Essex wants to be king.

By this time you have lost all interest in the political permutations and are in danger of causing ruptures to the corners of your mouth from excessive yawning.

There are a few scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, we see Ben Jonson being tortured and some boom, boom and bang, bang as Essex tries to start a rebellion and ends up with his head on a chopping block but by that time you have probably lost the plotline and run out of popcorn.

Enough fulmination about a stupid movie and some well-deserved credit to the actors. Rhys Ifans is a man full of thought and talent with little political ability. He has poetry and drama in his veins in this fine performance as the Earl of Oxford.

Queen Elizabeth is a very sensuous young woman played by Joely Richardson and as the old, imperious but crumbling monarch played by Vanessa Redgrave.

Derek Jacobi is wasted as a narrator at the beginning and end of the movie but his voice is always a pleasure to hear.

David Thewlis plays the conniving and corrupt Sir William Cecil and Rafe Spall plays the nasty William Shakespeare.

There are some fine scenes of London and its theatres and the lines from Shakespeare’s plays simply burn holes in this turgid movie that does a disservice to everyone, especially the audience.

The movie opened in Australia on November 3, 2011 and I saw it in Brisbane on November 5. There were precisely four people in the Event Cinema with my wife and I making up 50% of the audience. Those Australians sure know how to judge movies.

Friday, November 11, 2011

VISITING PINTER’S SHIFTING GROUND IN NO MAN’S LAND IN SYDNEY AUSTRALIA

Steven Rooke, John Gaden, Andrew Buchanan and Peter Carroll Photo by Rob Maccoll

Reviewed by James Karas

Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land opens with an unprepossessing situation. Two men are having drinks in a room full of books with a well-stocked bar. They just met in a bar but seem affable enough but we sense that there is little basis for the relationship and their attitudes will change. We will spend about 95 minutes with the two of them and we will be thoroughly confused as to who they are. That is a classic Pinteresque situation and one can see it at the Sydney Opera House in a production by the Sydney Theatre Company and the Queensland Theatre Company.

Spooner (Peter Carroll) is a gray-haired man who meets the aristocratic Hirst (John Gaden) in a bar and is invited to the latter’s book-lined home. Spooner is a bit nervous and becomes rather garrulous compared to the taciturn Hirst. The men reminisce about the past and one quickly develops serious doubts about their veracity or the accuracy of their memories.

The reserved Hirst soon tosses a glass at Spooner. The men become increasingly more drunk and their attitudes and behaviours change.

They are joined by Briggs (Andrew Buchanan) and Foster (Steven Rooke). Foster is ostentatiously gay and Briggs is a t-shirt-wearing tough guy who may burst out into violence at any moment. Their attitudes will change as well as the play progresses.

You never know who these people are because you can never trust what they say. Interestingly, no man’s land is defined by Hirst as a place that “does not move ... or change ... or grow old ... remains ... forever ... icy ... silent.” That may be one view of no man’s land but Pinter’s characters who occupy that land do move and change, they do grow old and are neither icy nor silent. In some ways the reverse is also true because despite what they say, we do not know who they are and under the veneer of civility, there lurk possible violence and the unknowable.

No man’s land has many other meanings including the patch of land between two armies which was very dangerous to cross or disputed property. All of these meanings can be applied to the complex memories of the characters.

Carroll manages to go through all the chameleon-like changes of Spooner with extraordinary acting agility. He dominates the play. Gaden is very effective as the patrician Hirst. Rooke and Buchanan go though some kaleidoscopic changes as well in what can only be described as bravura ensemble acting.

Hirst and Spooner are also perhaps poets and they certainly display a joyous use of the English language.

The whole thing is orchestrated by director Michael Gow who maintains the sands shifting and the audience trying to follow the changing dunes. He defines the characters in their different permutations and allows physical activity to supplement the intellectual permutations and variations as the audience tries to follow the play’s shifting sands.
___

No Man’s Land by Harold Pinter opened on November 1 and will run until December 11, 2011 at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, Sydney Australia www.sydneytheatre.com.au,au

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

TERRIFIC DON GIOVANNI FROM OPERA AUSTRALIA AT SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE

Andrew Jones and Tary Fiebig in Don Giovanni. Photo: Branco Gaica

Reviewed by James Karas

Opera Australia wrapped up its current season at the Sydney Opera House with a performance of Don Giovanni. The revival of Swedish director Goran Jarvefelt’s production which was first seen at the Sydney Opera House in 1991 proved to be vocally and theatrically quite superb.

Jarvefelt has a fairly traditional approach to the opera. No tampering with the plot or egregious search for psychological byways. Mozart has provided everything and all you need is excellent singers, a superb orchestra and a director to bring out the best in one of the best operas ever composed.

The single set designed by Carl Friedrich Oberle consists of a beige room with high windows at the back and a sloping stage. There are a good number of interesting touches by Jarvefelt including the Commendatore’s coffin being left center-stage for much of the second act. The Commendatore himself emerges and stands beside his coffin near the end of the opera and it proves a highly effective way of treating the “statue”.

The singing was generally first rate. Argentinean baritone José Carbó was an agile, virile and very well-sung Don Giovanni. He is not a big man but he dominated the evening as the hormonally over-active, selfish and amoral lothario.

Soprano Teresa La Rocca has a gorgeously luscious voice and she had no difficulty expressing her distress and pain as Donna Elvira, one of Don Giovanni’s victims. She fell short of expressing her rage, however. For example, when she threatens to tear out Don Giovanni’s hear in “Ah! Chi mi dice mai” her entrance aria, there should be more rage in her voice even if she has no intention of doing anything to her lover. Other than that hers was a moving and thoroughly enjoyable performance.

Soprano Anita Watson showed a superb vocal and emotional range as Donna Anna, the woman who is (almost?) seduced by Don Giovanni. She is a mysterious character in some ways but Watson’s handling of the role is quite amazing.

The soubrette role of Zerlina is sung by Taryn Fiebig, who is indeed pretty, flirtatious and a master at handling men like her future husband, the dolt Masetto. Fiebig has that beautiful, light and almost fragile voice that threatens to crack. With Zerlina her “weakness” is her strength and she can flirt and be almost seduced by Don Giovanni and get away with it. Excellent work.

Australian baritone Andrew Jones was a suitably angry and manipulated Masetto but in dress and acting I would have preferred him to be a bit more dense. His singing was superb.
Stephen Bennett is a big middle-aged Leporello who has been following Don Giovanni and making lists of his conquests for too long and he has every right to be sick and tired of his job.

Stephen Smith has a good tenor voice but he sang a bit too pianissimo at times and was overwhelmed by the orchestra on a couple of occasions. Crank up the volume.

The costumes tended to be generally colourless. Donna Elvira does wear a beautiful red gown but the rest of the characters are not nearly as well attired. The peasant girls can be suited up in colourful costumes and I am not sure why they are dressed rather plainly.

There was a problem with visibility. A large number of people could not see the window where Donna Elvira and her maid sit and are serenaded in the second act. The problem is easily solvable by having the window at the back of the stage instead of on the side.

The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Northey played magnificently.
___

Don Giovanni by W. A. Mozart opened on September 24 and played until November 5, 2011 at the Sydney Opera House, Sydney Australia www.operaaustralia.com,au

Sunday, November 6, 2011

WEALTHY AND MERRY WIDOW SAVES EUROPE AND ENTERTAINS AUSTRALIA FROM SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE

 Amelia Farrugia (as 'Hanna') and the OA Chorus in  'A Merry Widow'

Reviewed by James Karas

A visit to the Sydney Opera House for the current production of Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow will convince even the most cynical that the operetta and the European debt crisis must be taken seriously. The consequences of failing to do so can be very drastic but the benefits of attending can be commensurately valuable.

We need to elaborate. Lehar’s three-act soufflé premiered in 1905 and it is one of the handful of works that define the operetta genre. The less serious-minded will note that the plot involves a beautiful, young widow named Countess Hannah Glawari who is living in Paris and is being courted by handsome young men. In this Opera North and Opera Australia production, the widow is sung by Australian soprano Amelia Farrugia. She has a lovely lilt in her voice and despite the fact that she has shown a tad too much enthusiasm for French pastries, she is decidedly worth pursuing for her vocal and acting attributes.

Those of us who are concerned, indeed worried about, the fate of Europe, the debt crisis and civilization as we know it, will note that this merry widow, whose husband had the decency to kick the bucket within days of their marriage, is loaded with enough dough to save a Balkan nation like Pontevedria. But she must marry a Pontevedrian or its good-bye happiness and hello IMF.

The solution is quite clear: impose monetary restrictions or freeze assets to prevent a run on the banks …. Oh, this is operetta. How about getting a dashing young man like Count Danilo, the Chargé d’Affaires at the Pontevedrian Embassy in Paris to marry the widow and keep the money in Pontevedria. Luckily we have Luke Gabbedy to play Danilo and he is tall, dark and handsome, and in fact looks like someone from an operetta. He swaggers and sings appropriately and he will make a perfect husband. We have a couple of hours and change to seal the match.

We need some complications to fill the time so let’s see what we can do. The European Central Bank, Goldman, Sacks and the International Monetary Fund are the sensible choices but they may not provide too many laughs. Let’s see what we can do with Baron Zeta (Robert Alexander), the Pontevedrian Ambassador to Paris. He is a bit of a dunce but he was smart enough to marry a beautiful ex-chorus girl named Valencienne (New Zealander Katherine Wiles). She wants to have an affair with the charming Frenchman Camille de Rossillon (Scottish tenor John Longmuir). Those are complications and arias we can deal with and the cast that can handle them with aplomb.

With Pontevedria ready to go under and the ECB and IMF nowhere to be seen, these people are having the time of their life. They take advantage of Lehar’s waltzes and marvelous songs; they dance, they sing. Danilo even brings some girls from Maxim’s who kick up a storm and are shamelessly entertaining.

The libretto has been translated and adapted into colloquial English by Kit Hesketh-Harvey with director Giles Havergal providing for more laughter and merriment. Under those conditions saving the economy of a small nation becomes almost impossible let alone shoring up the Euro.

Need I add that conductor Andrew Greene conducts the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra with verve and relish and with no thought to the economic issues facing Europe?

There is one issue that is worthy of mention. Baron Zeta or perhaps his wife Valencienne and Countess Hannah should have a word with designer Leslie Travers. The costumes are vintage haut couture. The gowns worn by the ladies express the essence of elegance and style. The men who are not in tuxes are bedecked in military uniforms with epaulettes, sashes and medals that bespeak another world. You would think you were watching an operetta.

But they need to tell Mr. Travers that the décor will not do. Those phony chandeliers will have to go. They are white, painted chandeliers on drapes that come up and down and look awful. And what are those nude statues holding light fixtures doing in a Viennese operetta set in Paris? Please, get rid of them and give us the elegance and chic that match the gowns.

No need to wait for the morning papers. Danilo will marry the merry widow; Pontevedria will be saved; the audience will have a good time; the IMF and ECB will not be required and the Euro … well, the Australian dollar is doing just fine so to hell with the Euro.
____

The Merry Widow by Franz Lehar opened on August 4 and ran until November 4, 2011 at the at the Sydney Opera House, Sydney Australia. www.operaaustralia.com,au

Friday, November 4, 2011

THE LOVE OF THE NIGHTINGALE - DRAMATIC NEW OPERA BASED ON GREEK MYTH AT SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE


Reviewed by James Karas

For most North Americans, Sydney, Australia and its fabled Sydney Opera House are no more than a name on the map for the former and an item in the “I must see it before I die” bucket list for the latter. Australia is not exactly around the block but you can make it there in a mere 15 hours on the plane if you leave from Vancouver.

Needless to say, the Sydney Opera House is even more spectacular than what you see in pictures or videos. When opera seasons gear up in North America, it is spring in Sydney and Opera Australia wraps up its season for a few weeks until it starts again in January. I was able to catch several productions before the closed sign went up for 2011.

The first production I saw was The Love of the Nightingale by Richard Mills, a two-act opera based on a libretto by playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker. It is a powerful and very dramatic opera with some magnificent music.

Wertenbaker’s play premiered in 1988 and is based on the myth of Tereus, Philomele and Procne. Tereus is the king of Thrace who marries Procne, the daughter of King Pandion of

Athens. Five years after marrying her, Tereus returns to Athens to bring Procne’s sister Philomele to Thrace. On the return journey he rapes her and cuts her tongue off to ensure her silence. When the two sisters are reconciled, they take vengeance by killing his son Itys.

The plot is violent, complex and multi-layered. Mills’s music reflects and captures the power and violence of the story as well as the few tender and lyrical moments.

The most remarkable performance was delivered by Australian bass Richard Anderson as Tereus, the warrior king from wild Thrace who speaks ill of love and thus offends the goddess of love, Aphrodite. Tereus is physically and morally deformed and Anderson with his powerful voice and lumbering gait brings out the seething violence and lust of this rapist.

Soprano Emma Matthews gives a passionate performance as Philomele, the curious and innocent young girl for whom Tereus develops an uncontrollable lust. Matthews is at times wistful and playful in the opera but in the end she is the brutalized victim. She gives a stellar vocal performance and a marvelous acting presentation. In wreaking her own revenge agent her rapist, she accuses the warrior king in front of his soldiers of cutting her hymen with a knife because of his inability to penetrate her.

Procne, sung by German soprano Anke Höppner, is tortured almost as much as her sister but she does have some tender moments with her son Itys. Höppner gives a vocally accomplished performance and is very moving as the distraught wife of the brute.

Less successful vocally were Andrew Brunsdon in the dual roles of King Pandion and a Soldier and Elizabeth Campbell in the roles of Niobe, Nurse and Narrator. Brunsdon sounded strained in his upper range though fine in his mid-range and Campbell was unconvincing in her aria telling a parallel story of the abuse of women in the time of war.

Australian soprano Taryn Fiebig soared as the goddess Aphrodite, the cause or at least personification of all the ills that befall the characters in the opera. She punishes Tereus for speaking ill of love.

The opera is performed on several raised platforms in front of projection screens designed by Dan Potra. The projections provided some colour but were not particularly effective. What was happening on stage was enough to keep one busy without looking at the screens at the back. Otherwise, the platforms worked well and the costumes suggested the wildness of the Thracians and the more civilized Athenians.

Director Tama Matheson directed the complex plot efficiently and managed to bring out the extreme horror without making it ridiculous.

The composer conducted the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra and the music sounded simply extraordinary. The score could and should be recorded and listened to alone without the vocals.

The opera has some lyrical passages and there are many opportunities for bravura singing but this is modern opera and there are no show-stopping arias. In the end, the violence is brought to a conclusion with transformation and transfiguration, if not redemption. Kong Tereus is changed into a hoopoe, Procne into a swallow and Philomele into a nightingale.

A memorable night at the opera.
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The Love of the Nightingale by Richard Mills opened on October 21 and was performed four times until November 1, 2011 at the Sydney Opera House, Sydney Australia www.operaaustralia.com,au

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A VERY FUNNY BARBER OF SEVILLE FROM OPERA HAMILTON

Reviewed by James Karas


Opera Hamilton has launched its 2011-2012 season with a very funny and colorful production of The Barber of Seville at its new venue, the Irving Zucker Auditorium at The Dofasco Centre for the Arts.

The Barber is a comic chestnut that everyone has heard of and opera lovers have probably seen a good number of times. Can a director do something to make one sit up and say “I never thought of that”?

In the hands of Brent Krysa, the answer is a resounding “yes”. He treats The Barber like an excellent comedy, a play that needs good comic acting and re-acting with lots of inventive moves to add to the fun. He succeeds wonderfully. Examples of Krysa’s inventiveness abound. Here are two instances from the opening scene alone: when Figaro sings his famous entrance aria “Largo al factotum” he doesn’t just sing –he coifs an old man. When Count Almaviva wants to get rid of the “chorus” that is serenading his beloved Rosina at dawn, he doesn’t just shoo them away; he throws some money into the wings and the men scamper after it.

An interesting directorial touch: in the opening scene, Almaviva takes a sip from a flask that he carries with him. This gives the idea to Figaro for Almaviva to gain entry into Rosina’s house in the next scene as a drunk. Nice touch.

Krysa maintains his comic inventiveness throughout the evening in this well-paced and enjoyable comedy.

But we have gone to see an opera after all and not just a comedy and Opera Hamilton does a very good job in that regard as well.

Canadian baritone Hugh Russell has a big voice and considerable agility and comic talent. That makes for a very good Figaro who must outwit everyone.

South-African mezzo-soprano Lauren Segal made a splendid Rosina. She is very attractive and has a voice that she can lower to rich dark chocolate and raise it to delicious white cream. This Rosina gets what she wants but no one can blame Count Almaviva for loving her.

Tenor Edgar Ernesto Ramirez sang the role of Count Almaviva who appears as the ardent lover, drunken soldier and music teacher and finally successful wooer of Rosina. I found him a bit uncertain in his “Ecco ridente in cielo” but his voice settled down and he did a fine job after that.

Quebecois Alexandre Sylvestre was given comic license by Rossini which was augmented by Krysa and he was a funny and sonorous Dr. Bartolo, the buffoon who wants to marry his ward, Rosina.

Gordon Gerrard conducted the Opera Hamilton Orchestra and Chorus. The small orchestra produced a lot of good sound and the size of the theatre no doubt on their side in making them sound bigger.

The Barber needs two sets: a street scene and the interior of Dr. Bartolo’s house. A reversible and colourful wall served both purposes. The wings of the stage were not covered but one suspects there is only so much money allocated for sets and Opera Hamilton has done a lot with relatively little.

There was a glitch with the surtitles in Act II but it was fixed within a couple of minutes.

Opera Hamilton has a new home in the Dofasco Centre for the Performing Arts. I did not have time to examine the Irving Zucker Auditorium but it is much smaller and more intimate than the rather cavernous Great Hall of Hamilton Place. At 750 seats it is less than a third of Toronto’s Four Seasons for the Performing Arts. The dark gray paint gave it a steely austerity but the red seats provide some warmth. The acoustics seemed excellent and the small size obviously helps.
_____

The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini was performed on October 22, 25. 27 and 29, 2011 at Irving Zucker Auditorium, Dofasco Centre for the Performing Arts, 190 King William St. Hamilton Ontario. www.operahamilton.ca Tel. 905 527-7627

ANNA BOLENA LIVE IN HD (THEORETICALLY) FROM THE METROPOLITAN OPERA


Ildar Abdrazakov, Anna Netrebko and Keith Miller

Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera



Reviewed by James Karas

The Metropolitan Opera has started another season of broadcasting some of its productions from Lincoln Center to hundreds of theatres around the world in high definition. This year’s lineup consists of eleven operas and that is about twice as many productions as most opera companies in the world put on. The Canadian Opera Company provides only six. The Met’s contribution to opera around the world is simply inestimable.

There are times, of course, when technology and weather do not cooperate and the result that reaches your local theatre may not be quite as admirable as what those lucky New Yorkers see at Lincoln Centre.

Everything seemed to go wrong on Saturday, October 15, 2011 when the current season was launched with a highly-anticipated production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. I am speaking only of what we saw in the movie theatre and not about the virtues of the production. The screen was smoky and grainy, a far cry from the crisp, well defined picture one expects from a broadcast in high definition.

The orchestra sounded fine but there were a few glitches that reminded one of those nasty blips that sent a stab of pain when listening to an LP. (This experience applies to only those of a certain age.) But even the singers’ voices were not always perfectly clear. What is worse, the movements were jerky as if we were watching one of those silent movies before the number of stills and projection speed were coordinated.

In other words, this Anna Bolena was like watching a worn VHS tape with speakers purchased from Canadian Tire. Shoot the weatherman.

As far as directing the opera for the cinema (i.e. choosing the shots and angles that we poor slobs got to see) the Met’s Gary Halvorson was at his usual level worst. We never did get to see the whole set unless he showed it when the picture was so bad and I closed my eyes so I could listen to the stupendous singing. In addition to nauseating close-ups, Halvorson has developed a taste for dramatic up-shots where we look at the characters from below.

Anna Bolena is the story of Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII’s wife No. 2, near the end of her tenure as she is about to be replaced by No. 3, Jane Seymour. Henry is after Jane while Lord Richard and Mark Smeaton are in love with Anne. Well, you know the ending.

Director David McVicar offers an old-fashioned (that is a compliment) grand production with monumental sets (or what Halvorson will let you see) and singing on a magnificent scale. Anna Netrebko gets to be distressed and distraught as she is rejected by Henry and wooed by Smeaton and Percy. She even gets a mini-mad scene near the end in a vocal performance of the first rate. Netrebko’s vocal beauty was matched by her physical attractiveness but she has now puffed up and become another overweight soprano. Pity.

Ildar Abdrazakov gets to scowl pretty much throughout the performance. His Henry VIII is vocally and physically virile, commanding and not to be trifled with. Mezzo soprano Ekaterina Gobanova as Jane Seymour provides a contrast and a foil for both Henry and Anne Boleyn. She is tortured by her betrayal of her friend Anne and her position as the King’s mistress. She has an exceptional scene confrontation with the king near the beginning where she tells him that she no longer wants to meet him in secret. He puts a different interpretation on her comments and agrees to make her his.

Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford does a fine job in the pants role of Smeaton, the court musician who is secretly in love with Anne.

The passionate Lord Percy is sung by Stephen Castello. He along with Smeaton and Anne’s bother Lord Rochefort will lose their heads.

Marco Armiliato conducted the Met Opera Orchestra.

We should have better luck when we see the encore broadcast on November 21, 2011.
____

Anna Bolena by Gaetano Donizetti was shown Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on October 15 and will be broadcast again on November 21, 2011 at the Cineplex Town Centre and other cinemas. For more information: www.cineplex.com/events

Friday, October 28, 2011

GHOSTS IS DRAMA ON GRAND THEMES BUT PALATABLE PRESENTATION FROM SOULPEPPER

Joseph Ziegler and Nancy Palk in Ghosts

Reviewed by James Karas

Henrik Ibsen was not interested in small themes or plots for his plays. He examined large, really large, issues on a grand scale. His play Ghosts, now playing at the Young Centre in a fine production by Soulpepper, examines the social, moral and religious order of Norwegian, indeed, European society with an unflinching eye.

The play is ostensibly about the Alvings, a well-off Norwegian family living on a large country estate. A children’s home has just been completed in memory of the late paterfamilias Captain Alving and his widow Helene (Nancy Palk) and their son Oswald (Gregory Prest) are preparing for the grand opening. Pastor Manders (Joseph Ziegler), who is responsible for the construction of the home, is also there for the grand occasion.

Jacob Engstrand (Diego Matamoros), a local carpenter, wants to build a home for sailors and he pretends to be a reformed Christian. His daughter Regine (Michelle Monteith), an astute young lady, works for Mrs. Alving. She is attracted to Oswald.

That is the apparent world order surrounding this family. Social responsibility, family values and religion are the pillars of this society.

Ibsen soon starts showing the rot underneath these pillars, the ghosts from the past that will come to haunt the family and the social order. Captain Alving was a philanderer and an alcoholic. He fathered Regine with a servant and paid Engstrand to marry the servant and pretend the child was his. Mrs. Alving was forced into an unhappy marriage. She was in love with the handsome Pastor Manders and tried to run away with him He preferred the appearance of morality and sent her back. Oswald is suffering from syphilis, a disease he inherited from his father. Appearance and reality are not the same.

I speak of the grandness of themes of Ghosts to stress that although it is a great play it can be heavy-going stuff on stage and indeed it can be crushingly boring. Director Morris Panych has found a way of dealing with the play that makes it enjoyable without detracting from its incisiveness and dramatic value. He approaches it with a light touch, good pacing and very few melodramatic touches. He takes a Victorian drawing room and gives it a make-over without reducing its beauty.

Nancy Palk as Mrs. Alving is an attractive, classy, upper-class woman. She can relate her past without being melodramatic and therefore give a credible portrayal. Ziegler’s Pastor Manders is judgmental and has done some dumb things but he is human rather than a patriarchal bigot from the Old Testament.

Diego Matamoros’s Engstrand is a greedy, manipulating and comical character while his daughter has some of his traits without his crudeness. Matamoros shuffles his feet across the stage, usually drunk, and does an excellent job as the selfish and amoral carpenter. Monteith is the perfect servant; smart, deferential and able to take care of herself.

The most melodramatic character is Oswald who is going blind from the worsening effects of syphilis but even he is not overdone by Prest.

The set by Ken MacDonald is sparse and appropriate; large windows at the back so we can see when the children’s home is on fire and furniture to indicate comfort and perhaps money.

Ghosts premiered in 1881 in a moral world that is very different from ours. The social, moral and religious orders presented by Ibsen have changed dramatically since then and it is perhaps for that reason that his play can be heavy-going. Panych, by adapting the play and directing it, has treated us to some great drama and a good night at the theatre.

_____

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Morris Panych, opened on October 14 and will run until November 18, 2011 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. 416 866-8666. www.soulpepper.ca

Monday, October 24, 2011

PRAISE THE LORD FOR SPIRITED PRODUCTION OF TARTUFFE FROM VILLAGE PLAYERS

Carly Tisdal and David J. Phillips in Tartuffe. Photo: Robert Rayfield

Reviewed by James Karas

The Village Players have opened their 38th season with a spirited production of Moliere’s Tartuffe using a robust prose translation by David Nicholson.

There are several achievements in the above sentence that deserve emphasis. The Village Players occupy a small basement theatre on Bloor Street West in Toronto and will be putting on five plays during their 2011-2012 season. Their survival alone is evidence of their tenacity especially at a time when many other theatrical troupes have fallen by the wayside.

Tartuffe belongs to that rarefied company of indisputably “great” plays. It was written in Alexandrines and it has been translated many times in English, one of the best translations being the rhyming couplets of Richard Wilbur. Most actors have difficulty enunciating them and directors are well-advised to steer away from the play unless they have a superior cast.

The Village Players have side-stepped that problem by producing the play in modern dress in a new prose translation that is colloquial, quick and works well.

Tartuffe (Trevor Birrell) is a religious humbug and conman who is adored by Orgon (David J. Phillips) who is prepared to give his daughter Mariane (Margaret Brock) and all his property to the fraud artist. Tartuffe is not content with just that and wants to have Orgon’s wife Elmire (Carly Tisdal).

Director Anne Harper gives us a fast-paced, indeed spirited production that lets you enjoy the play without the slower pace that is sometimes dictated by the rhyming couplets.

Janice Tate plays Mme Pernelle, Orgon’s no-nonsense virago of a mother. She shoots her lines like darts as she struts around the stage telling everyone how to live and what to do. Equally lively are CeAnne Walsh as the maid Dorine and Brock as Mariane.

The counterbalance to the brisk movers are the holy-schmolly artuffe, Orgon and Cleante (Jonathan Thomas), Orgon’s sane brother-in-law.

Elmire gets a funny scene with Tartuffe where she lures him into attempting to seduce her while the dummy Orgon is hiding under a table. Birrell manipulates his eyebrows and leers at her like the dirty old man that Tartuffe is. Well done. That results in the hypocrite being exposed but it is almost too late for Orgon because he has already deeded all his property to Tartuffe. Here Moliere brings in a rex ex machine to render justice and end the play.

Special mention should be made of Scott Cavalheiro who was a last-minute replacement for the role of Damis, Orgon’s son. He had to appear with script in hand and he did a superb job. Even though he had to look at his lines, he never just read them but acted them out very well.

There are some small issues with the translation rather than adaptation of this 17th century play that is done in modern dress. When Tartuffe is feeling Emire’s skirt, he refers to her gown. Expressions like “at your service” and kissing of hands are a bit awkward in the 21st century. But these are small matters in a production that Molière himself (who played Orgon in the original production) would have probably enjoyed.

_____

Tartuffe by Moliere in a translation by David Nicholson played from September 16 to October 8, 2011 at the Village Playhouse, 2190 Bloor St. West, Toronto, Ontario. www.village players.net Tel. 416 767-7702





Thursday, October 20, 2011

NANCY ATHAN-MYLONAS: Artistic Director - EAST AND WEST OF SUEZ

By James Karas

On October 15, 2011, Nancy Athan-Mylonas received the CEGA Award for Education from the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA). CEGA is the acronym for Celebrating Excellence in Greek Achievement. The Award is in recognition of her “nurturing of seven generations of young talent” in “Greek traditional and modern dances, dance theatre, ballet and mime.”

The article that follows was published in The Greek Press of December 23, 2004. I felt that it is worth posting now without any changes.


The second floor of the Polymenakion Cultural Centre behind Toronto’s St. Dimitrios Church is a large hall, good for meetings, dances and other cultural events. Once a year a raised platform is put in, stands holding some four hundred people are installed and the unprepossessing room becomes a theatre. Calling it inadequate would be the politest thing one can say about the place as a home for drama. But don’t tell Nancy Athan-Mylonas that. She is the Artistic Director of the Greek Community of Toronto and in her eyes that space is as good as Epidaurus, Drury Lane or the Comédie Francaise.

In the past 12 years she has staged some thirty productions ranging from half-hour dance presentations welcoming dignitaries to full plays by Euripides, Aristophanes, Lorca and Moliere. Her main focus however is Greek dramatists and she has directed such plays as O Agapitikos tis Voskospoulas, Maroula’s Luck, and Golfo. She is now rehearsing Nikos Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek in a dramatization by Michael Vitopoulos.

All her work is done with amateurs and volunteers. Her talent pool is second and third generation Greek-Canadians for most of whom Greek is, at best, a second language. She has to put them through the paces of not only learning and comprehending their lines but also brushing up on their accents. And then she has to direct them in the play. Most of the instructions are given in English.

Who is this lady with the passion and the vision for Greek theatre in Toronto? Nancy Mylonas (the Athan or Athanassopoulos part of the name will come later) was not born in Greece, she has never lived there and she never even went to fulltime Greek school. She is that paradoxical but quintessential child of the Diaspora with a huge difference. Despite her cosmopolitan upbringing on several continents, she has remained Greek to the core.

Before World War II, her father, George Mylonas, migrated from Mytiline to Athens. He wanted to seek adventure so he hopped on an outgoing ship in Piraeus. The ship, as it turned out, was headed for Egypt, and the stowaway was kept on board because he could bake Greek sweets for the captain. He eventually married, settled in Suez, opened a big Greek sweets bakery and prospered. He sent his daughter Nancy to a French school where she fell in love with classical dancing and mime in addition to learning French. Nancy spoke Greek at home, French at school and Arabic on the street.

The political situation in Egypt under Nasser was untenable for foreigners and Nancy, at age 16, emigrated to Sydney, Australia. She continued her studies in classical dance and mime and joined a Greek theatrical group under Chrysostomos Mantouridis whom she remembers as a great director. Afterwards she established her own school where she taught classical dance and mime. In addition she worked in stage, film and television. She was the fragile Laura in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie as well as the earthier Eliza in My Fair Lady in addition to numerous appearances on television and documentary films.

In 1989 she married Christos Athanassopoulos, the commercial attaché at the Greek Consulate in Sydney. Christos added the Athan to her last name and, in 1991, he was transferred to Toronto. Nancy came with him and she got a job as Executive Assistant to the board of directors of The Greek Community of Metropolitan Toronto and plunged into theatrical work. She started teaching dance and theatre for the Board of Education’s Greek programme at Wilkinson Public School and came across one of those rare, eye-popping discoveries - there was an incredible amount of untapped talent in our community.

She asked The Greek Community for permission to form a theatre group. The initial reaction to her idea was less than enthusiastic. Her woven clothes earned her the moniker “tsouvallou” (something between a bag lady and someone who does not make The Ten Best Dressed list) and the idea of staging plays raised fears of her putting a fez on the Community’s metaphorical head which translates neatly as splashing red ink all over the financial statements. She was prepared to do the whole thing on a voluntary basis and promised to break even, she said in a recent interview.

She was eventually given the green light and went on to create a theatre group. She advertised and hundreds of applicants showed up. She accepted only thirty. This led to the founding of The Nefeli Community Dance Theatre. She later added the Ellinakia dance group for young children and established The Community Theatre Nefeli. Hundreds of children and youngsters have learned dancing and been exposed to the theatre by Nancy. They have been able to recreate scenes from the Greek War of Independence to village life in 19th century Greece, from 20th century Athenian aristocracy to 17th century Parisian aspirations to nobility.

Her first production was Chere, O Chere Efeftheria (Hail, Freedom) based on poetry about the Greek War of Independence compiled by Michael Vitopoulos. In 1993, she staged Michael Vitopoulos’s Canada, My Ithaca and took the production to a theatrical competition in Greece. There were sixty entries in the competition ranging from elite schools in Greece to groups from Australia, Cyprus, England and other European countries. The Toronto group won first prize. Looking back, Nancy feels that the success came almost too soon but a triumph is a triumph and there was no looking back after that. She won two more first prizes in competitions at the University of Crete. One was for The Poet of Freedom, a production based on the poetry of Greece’s National Poet, Dionysios Solomos, and the other for Children of the Flame a theatrical extravaganza written by Greek-Australian poet Sophia Catharios.

The playwright’s text is frequently no more than a rough guide for Nancy. If the play calls for a cast of ten, she will put thirty people on the stage. If the script does not call for singing or dancing, Nancy corrects the omission by putting in singing and dancing. Lorca’s Blood Wedding, for example, does not require dancing or clarinet music, not unless Nancy is directing it that is. She is unapologetic about what she does. She needs to involve as many people as possible in each production and create humour and generate energy to keep the amateur players and the equally amateur audience entertained. Besides, she says, the Chorus was an essential part of Ancient Greek tragedy and what she does is provide a connection to the works of the classical tragedians. But she was completely faithful to Spiros Peresiadis’s Golfo, she points out. He had provided all the comic characters and opportunities for singing and dancing that she needed.

But, according to Nancy, the best is yet to come. She has begun an ambitious project whose aim is to capture the vanishing culture of the Greek immigrants in Canada. There are memories, traditions, customs and folklore that she wants to record and create theatrical presentations from the raw material. She is calling the project To Sentouli tis Yiayias (Grandmother’s Hope Chest) and she is mobilizing teachers and other volunteers to collect the information from immigrants from every corner of Greece and provide the Community with invaluable archives.

The Greek Community has probably seen more theatrical productions during Nancy’s tenure as Artistic Director than it had in all the years since its establishment in 1911 to her arrival in 1991. A proper theatre will be built in the new Hellenic Cultural Centre and her energy is not abating. Of course, there are plenty of fezes but they are on the heads of youngsters on stage or parading on national holidays and never in the financial statements.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

PRIVATE LIVES – IT’S ALL A MATTER OF STYLE, DAHLING!

Paul Gross & Kim Cattrell in Private Lives - Photo Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann
Reviewed by James Karas

Noel Coward’s Private Lives is one of those superb plays that has a rather thin plot and scintillating dialogue that, depending on the performance, can have the audience roar with laughter or sit in silence in the theatre. More than in most plays, the repartee in the play depends on timing, accent and pitch. It has to be done a certain way to be successful.

Since it opened in London in 1930, Private Lives has been revived frequently as a vehicle for actresses with the talent, poise and je ne sait quoi to handle the role of Amanda. It is now playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre en route from London to Broadway starring Kim Cattrall (applause, please) and Paul Gross (applause but not as much, thank you.)

Two couples are on their honeymoon in a fancy hotel overlooking the sea in France. The couples, Sybil (Anna Madeley) and Elyot (Paul Gross), and Amanda (Kim Cattrall) and Victor (Simon Paisley-Day) have adjoining balconies. Amanda and Elyot were madly in love and married at one time. Meeting like this could be awkward and funny. It is.

When Elyot and Sybil come out on the balcony, they look at the reflection of a yacht in the water (just to set the social milieu) and she asks him if he is happy. “Of course I am. Tremendously happy” he replies. That is an innocuous line that need not mean anything. But if it is said with a slight pause at the beginning and a tiny pick up in speed at the end, it will tell us a great deal about the couple and produce a mild laugh. That is what I mean by a matter of style.

The repartee will be continued as Sybil asks Elyot if he is glad he married her, how glad he is and if his first wife, Amanda, was pretty.

Paul Gross does justice to the lines as does Madeley to her part and the opening scene brings the message that Sybil and Elyot’s marriage may have seemed like a good idea but it will not have the necessary elements to thrive as a passionate union.

We then meet Amanda and her new husband on the adjoining balcony. Soon enough, he asks her if she loves him and in comes the reply: “Of course, that’s why I’m here.” It is a simple line that provides great possibilities for intonation and style of delivery. Cattrall provides the slight pause and the right tone to indicate that the real, prosaic answer would have been something much longer and very different from the affirmative “of course”.

Amanda and Elyot are the beautiful lovers who struck each other and broke gramophone records during their fights but lived passionately, orgiastically and gorgeously at other times. Gross and Cattrall do excellent work as the loving and warring couple but one must observe that Gross tended to lose the impeccable, high-toned English accent that you want to hear.

Paisley-Day and Madelley are stuck with the roles of side-kicks. They are the ones Elyot and Amanda play off, almost the straight people in a comedy routine. They do generate their own laughs because they are pretty silly.

Paisley-Day’s Victor is a tall, straight-laced man and a perfect foil for Elyot. Elyot’s put-down of him is perfect: “I think I am a bit cleverer than you, but apparently that’s not saying much.” Victor may not be bright but Paisley-Day does excellent work in delivering his lines and producing laughter.

Equally straight-laced is Sybil, who is not too swift but has some unpleasant traits that make for good comedy. She drives Victor crazy and gets into rows with him all to good comic effect.

The production is directed by Richard Eyre who does not miss a trick in evoking the atmosphere of the play and producing all the laughs that the text suggests.

I am not as keen on the set design of Bob Howell but I admit that I paid scant attention to it. The balcony seemed fine but those green blinds did not really add anything. In any event, I was too busy watching and enjoying the show to care about furniture and furnishings.
_________

Private Lives by Noel Coward runs from September 16 to October 30 2011 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St. W. Toronto, Ont. www.mirvish.com

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

THE ODD COUPLE – CLASSIC NEIL SIMON COMEDY AT SOULPEPPER

Kevin Bundy, Oliver Dennis, Diego Matamoros, Derek Boyes, Albert Schultz, Michael Hanrahan

Reviewed by James Karas

 The Odd Couple is an early product of the Neil Simon Comedy Industry. More than a successful and Tony award-winning Broadway play in 1965, it became a funny movie, a successful television series and, in the end, a national brand. That’s what you call success.

For its fall season, Soulpepper is reviving its 2008 production of the play and the laughs come with almost timed regularity and increasing hilarity. It is a very funny play with “real” people and a plot that will not strain your attention span or your credulity.

Six men get together regularly to play poker in a New York apartment but something happens to one of them to keep them busy and us laughing for a couple of hours. Felix (Diego Matamoros) has been thrown out by his wife. He is a comically weird eccentric with traits like these: he is a fanatic neatnik, a perfectionist cook, will not drink any alcoholic beverage (sips Pepto-Bismal on New Year’s Eve), and is generally neurotic about everything. He is so nuts, his friends fear that he may commit suicide because his wife could no longer put up with him.

His friend Oscar (Albert Schultz) is a gruff sports writer, an inveterate slob, a tough guy who does not know what punctuality and neatness mean. Well, Felix will move in with Oscar and we all know that the result will be comically disastrous.

Schultz and Matamoros make you feel that they can handle these roles in their sleep. Perhaps, but however hard or easy it may be, they are both funny, humane and a pleasure to watch.

Their poker-playing friends are reasonably well-defined characters who are given good one-liners to add to the laughter. Kevin Bundy is a tie-wearing accountant and he is mostly straight. Oliver Dennis is a policeman who is answerable to his wife and he is quite funny. Derek Boyes is Vinny, a man who constantly looks at his watch and will go to Florida in July because it is cheap. Michael Hanrahan is the rude and grumpy Speed who never takes off his hat.

Oscar invites two English sisters, Gwendolyn (Raquel Duffy) and Cecily (Michelle Monteith), for dinner because he wants female companionship. He goes to get drinks and Felix tells them his life story, reducing the two women to tears.

Stuart Hughes does a fine job directing the play. There are no glitches except for a minor complaint about accents. Most of the actors attempt some kind of recognizable New York accent and they either cannot do it or keep losing it. It is completely unnecessary. Keep to your Ontario accent (whatever that may be) and stay away from fancy New-Yorkese.

The situation in the play is eventually resolved. Felix moves out, Oscar becomes (maybe) a bit neater and most importantly the friendship and the poker game are saved. Life should be like that.
____

The Odd Couple by Neil Simon opened on September 23 and continues until November 19, 2011 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. 416 866-8666. www.soulpepper.ca

Friday, October 7, 2011

ANOTHER AFRICA: REPLAY AND REPETITION MAKE FOR AWFUL THEATRE FROM CANADIAN STAGE

Maev Beaty, Kristen Thomson, Tony Nappo and Tom Barnett in Peggy Pickit Sees the Face of God. Photo by John Lauener.

Reviewed by James Karas

Matthew Jocelyn, the Artistic and General Director of Canadian Stage is a man of ambition, vision and talent. He wants to uproot Canadian Stage from its traditional fare of middle of-the-road classical and modern plays and thrust it into bold, innovative, experimental and spectacular theatre. Jocelyn aligned half a dozen plays for the 2010-211 season, his first, that were almost unheard of by most theatre goers. Success was mixed but no one can argue that he broke new ground.

This year’s programme is no less imaginative and innovatively aggressive. Check out the titles and test your knowledge of modern theatre: I Send You This Cadmium, The Test, Orpheus and Euridice, Red, Cruel and Tender: Beckett: Feck It!, Dark Matters, Clybourne Park and The Game of Love and Chance. How many of these titles can you recognize let alone have seen? No too many, I suspect.

Another Africa, Canadian Stage’s first production of the current season may be somewhat more familiar because it was presented during the 2010 Luminato Festival in Toronto and has now been adapted for a run at the Bluma Appel Theatre. The production by Volcano Theatre consists of two plays, Shine Your Eye by Binyavanga Wainaina and Peggy Pickit Sees the Face of God by Roland Schimmelpfennig with The Stranger, a prologue by Deborah Asiimwe.

For The Stranger, the actors walk on the stage, welcome the audience, say a few words, speak in several languages and depart. They are directed by Weyni Mengesha and I have no idea what they are supposed to have added to the evening. Next.

Shine Your Eye is set in Nigeria and it examines the personal lives of several of its people as well as providing commentary about a corrupt country. The central character is Gbena Beka (Dienye Waboso) a brilliant young woman who is involved with a scammer named Lucky (Naakue Chrispin Tambari and Doreen (Ordena Stephens-Thomson), a woman with whom she talks on Skype.

The characters address the audience directly for much of the play or Gbena and Doreen talk on Skype. Images of Nigeria are projected on a monitor and there are two young men who act as a Chorus. Gbena is the daughter of a visionary and upright politician who was brutally assassinated and she is trying to find a professional and personal space for herself.

Intimate chats on Skype, stentorian or plaintive addresses to the audience and the commentary about the social and political situation in Nigeria did nothing for me except evoke impatience and unease.

In Peggy Pickit Sees the Face of God, Carol (Maev Beaty) and Martin (Tom Burnett) have just returned from Africa and are seeing their friends Frank (Tony Nappo) and Liz (Kristen Thomson) after a six year absence. There is a great deal of phony jollity as the couples meet and you know that less pleasant stories will be revealed as they talk and drink. Frank and Liz have a brilliant child (we do not see her) who has written a letter to Carol and Martin’s adopted child in Africa. Carol is a doctor in a village where only the very young and old are left and AIDS is a problem and perhaps an epidemic.

The private stories of the two couples and the lives of the Africans that Carol and Martin are involved with may hold much interest but the method of telling them is excruciating. There are constant pauses in the action to allow for commentary on what was just said. Then the last part of the scene is repeated. It is like having an announcer comment on a sports game and then watching an instant replay. Some incidents are repeated god knows how many times and as a result you end up checking your watch with alarming frequency.

There is also a monitor backstage and close-ups of the actors are occasionally projected on it. There were some technical problems the night I saw the play and I am not sure if that prevented the close-ups from being shown all the time or if it was intentional.

Whatever the author’s vision may have been about the impression to be made by the constant interruptions, commentary, repetitions and video projections, director Liesl Tommy and the actors failed to bring it out. It was a bad night at the theatre.

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Another Africa, plays from Volcano theatre’s The African Trilogy opened on September 29 and will play until October 22, 2011 at the Bluma Appel Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. www.canadianstage.com

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

RIGOLETTO HAS SOME FINE SINGING AND A CATALOGUE OF ?? IN CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY PRODUCTION


Reviewed by James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company’s second offering for its 2011-2012 season is Verdi’s ever-popular Rigoletto. It comes on the heels of Robert Carsen’s stunning production of Iphigenia in Tauris. In Carsen’s brilliant conception of the opera, everything works to produce a great night of opera By contrast in Christopher Alden’s production of Rigoletto just about nothing works. At the end of the evening, you are left scratching your head wondering what the hell Alden was trying to do.

Read full review at:

http://www.bachtrack.com/review-rigoletto-canadian-opera-company
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Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi opened on September 29 and will be performed twelve times on various dates until October 22, 2011 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671. www.coc.ca

Monday, October 3, 2011

IN THE NEXT ROOM OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY – MASTURBATING WOMEN MAKES FOR INDIFFERENT THEATRE


Reviewed by James Karas

First the facts: In 1880 Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville patented the vibrator. Please stay focused. The electro-mechanical device was intended for purely therapeutic purposes, i.e. the treatment of hysteria and not for what some of you surmised.

American playwright Sarah Ruhl has written a play about the use of the vibrator as a medical device in late 19th century America and it has received its Canadian premiere at the Tarragon Theatre. In case my syntax has become unsteady because of the subject rather than my ignorance of grammar, let me make it perfectly clear that the play and not the vibrator had its premiere. The Tarragon Theatre is innovative, but not that innovative.

Let me state at the outset that In the Next Room or the vibrator play is probably not as bad a play as this production makes it look. Let’s just say that whatever qualities the play possesses, they remain well hidden.

Dr. Givings (David Storch) and his wife Catherine (Trish Lindstrom) have just had a baby and they are showing all the parenting skills of two idiots living under a bridge in the Don Valley. We are in their living room but “in the next room” Dr. Givings practices medicine.

Mr. and Mrs. Daldry arrive (Ross McMillan and Melody A. Johnson) seeking medical attention. Mrs. Daldry is suffering from a congestion of the womb or some such malady which is called hysteria and the mode of treatment is the use of the newly-invented vibrator.

The device is applied in a very professional and antiseptic way by the good doctor and his assistant Annie (Elizabeth Saunders.) Guess what? Mrs. Daldry has an immediate “paroxysm” and she feels much better. She comes back again and again for more treatments.

An artist named Leo (Jonathan Irving) who seems to be suffering from painter’s block is also diagnosed with hysteria and he is treated with the new and improved Chattanooga Vibrator that is inserted up his rectum.

Next thing you know Mrs. Givings wants a bit of action as does Annie. Annie, let it be known, knows Ancient Greek and she acts as an alternate to the electrical vibrator during power failures. Somehow she seems to come to the realization that she is attracted to women.

Dr. Givings is a dunce who believes that he is a scientist. His wife is an idiot (there is a subplot about her baby and a black wet nurse played by Marci T. House). Yes, there was suppression in the 19th century and sex for some woman may have been no more than “I close my eyes, open my legs and think of England” but people were not that stupid.

I could not tell from the production if the play is meant to be a Pythonesque send-up of 19th century prudery and sexual idiocy or a sober presentation of the subject. Do these people realize that they were getting sexual pleasure plain and simple from the vibrator and curing some phantom ailment? In a very sloppy ending, Dr. and Mrs. Givings do find out that sex can be enjoyable.

Director Richard Rose, as I said, does not help the play. David Storch is made to look even more foolish than the script calls for and he appears like an ineffectual poseur who knows and understands nothing. His assistant Annie masturbates women and she is getting some sexual pleasure out if it but does she not realize it?

Lindstrom’s Catherine and Johnson’s Daldry are sexually suppressed to the point of stupidity and even after repeated orgasms the latter does not quite connect unalloyed sexual pleasure with the “medical treatments.”

Marci T. House plays the wet nurse who lost her son and has to give her milk to another child with humanity and grace and she is a good change from the rest.

Leo is a stock artist-type with a bad English accent who overacts and adds little to the play. He, like the women, is capable of achieving orgasm in about five seconds after coming into contact with the vibrator. It must have been one hell of a gizmo.

I wish I could say the same about the production.
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In the Next Room or the vibrator play by Sarah Ruhl opened on September 21 and will run until October 23, 2011 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario. www.tarragontheatre.com

Thursday, September 29, 2011

IPHIGENIA IN TAURIS TAKES US BACK TO ANCIENT GREECE IN MASTERFUL COC PRODUCTION

Scene from COC production of Iphigenia in Tauris. Photo: Michael Cooper

Reviewed by James Karas


The Canadian Opera Company concluded its 2010-2011 season with a stunning production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice directed by Robert Carsen. In a brilliant move, General Director Alexander Neef, has chosen to launch the current season with a masterly production of another opera by Gluck, Iphigenia in Tauris directed by the same director.

Iphigenia in Tauris premiered in Paris in 1779 and has invariably been described as a masterpiece and perhaps Gluck’s best opera. The COC has never produced it before and it has teamed up with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the San Francisco Opera and the Royal Opera House Covent Garden for this production. It is all worth it.

We all know that the creation of opera some four hundred years ago in Florence was intended to revive Greek tragedy, as it was perceived. Opera was supposed to be a perfect fusion of words, music and dance the way Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides did it when their plays were produced on the foothills of the Acropolis during the Golden Age of Athens.

Recreating Greek tragedy was a good idea then and it is a good idea now but we have sparse knowledge of how it was done. We have the texts of a handful of plays but almost nothing remains of the music or the dances that were fused with the words when they were staged at dawn so long ago.

Robert Carsen in his dark conception of Iphigenia in Tauris makes a convincing case for capturing some of the spirit of ancient drama. The music is provided by Gluck, of course, and the libretto is by Nicolas-Francois Guillard who remained fairly faithful to the play by Euripides.

Tauris in Scythia is a “barbaric” city on the east coast of the Black Sea where Iphigenia is a priestess in a temple dedicated to Diana. Iphigenia, you will recall, was supposed to be sacrificed by her father Agamemnon to appease Diana and get fair winds for the Greek fleet to sail off to Troy. Diana saved Iphigenia at the last second.

Years later, King Thoas of Scythia wants Iphigenia to sacrifice two strangers who have landed in Scythia. One of the strangers, unbeknownst to Iphigenia, is her brother Orestes. He killed his mother Clytemnestra in order to avenge the murder of his father by her. This is the ultimate irony: the victim of a sacrifice by her father is asked to sacrifice her own brother!

The opera opens in the temple of Diana during a violent storm and Iphigenia and the other priestesses are praying for calmness and protection from the gods. They are all dressed in black and the stage is also black. Carsen and Choreographer Philippe Giraudeau provide a ballet sequence that gives choreographic expression to the words and music of the scene. The scene could be done with Iphigenia and the chorus simply singing. It is not and it is a highly effective opening.

Carsen will follow the same style for the entire production. All the cast and chorus are dressed in black, the stage is black and the names of Iphigenia, Orestes and her parents are written in chalk on the walls.

Conception, design and direction play a crucial part in this production and I make no bones about my fascination and admiration for Carsen’s approach. Those qualities will only go so far, of course, without a first rate cast and orchestra and once again Neef and the COC have earned very high marks.

Soprano Susan Graham has almost co-opted the role of Iphigenia as her own and with good reason. She has four major arias to sing and carries much of the opera. The plot could hardly be more dramatic and she displays both vocal and acting ability to render an extraordinary Iphigenia. Her performance combines physical movement, emotional range and vocal splendour.

Orestes (baritone Russell Braun and Pylades (tenor Joseph Kaiser) are almost interchangeable in costume and conduct. They are close friends and each is willing to give up his life for the other. They gave unreservedly fine performances. I have serious reservations about bass-baritone Mark S. Doss’s singing in the role of King Thoas. Doss sounded rough and not quite up to the requirements of the production.

The chorus and ballet dancers were excellent. The COC orchestra was conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado in this outstanding night at the opera.
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Iphigenia in Tauris by Christoph Willibald Gluck with libretto by Nicolas-Francois Guillard opened on September 22 and will be performed eight times on various dates until October 15, 2011 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671. www.coc.ca

Monday, September 26, 2011

EXCEPTIONAL PRODUCTION OF THE PRICE FROM SOULPEPPER

Jane Spidell, Stuart Hughes, Michael Hanrahan. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Reviewed by James Karas

Arthur Miler’s The Price has, as its title suggests, a great deal to do with money and the value of things and relationships. It is an excellent and perhaps even a great play and Soulpepper has given it an exceptionally good production under the direction of Diana Leblanc.

The Price tells the story of the Franz family whose fortune was lost in the 1929 stock market crash. Before that, the Franzes were a wealthy couple, with a finely furnished house, a chauffeur and social status in New York’s society. Their two sons were highly intelligent and destined for great careers. All that came to an end when the money was lost and the father became emotionally paralyzed and sat in an easy chair staring into space much of the time.

The play tells the story about the relationship between the two brothers, Victor (Michael Hanrahan) and Walter (Stuart Hughes) and their relationship with their father. After the crash, Walter left his father to his fate and became a successful and wealthy surgeon. His family life was not as successful and he ended up divorced, estranged from his children and living alone.

Victor chose to stay at home and support his father. He did not have enough money to finish university and became a policeman. Both brothers have a lot of emotional issues to deal with when they meet for the first time since their father’s death. Their father died sixteen years ago and the play deals with the meeting of the brothers in order to sell the contents of their father’s house to an old and colourful Jewish furniture dealer named Gregory Solomon (David Fox).

The strength of the production and the play is the balance that it maintains in the arguments of the two brothers. Victor takes the high moral ground of having sacrificed his career in order to attend to his father. He is bitter about that and about Walter not giving him $500 to complete his university degree. Walter counters with the fact that their father had money stashed away which he refused to give to Victor. Walter had telephoned their father and told him that he had changed his mind and was prepared to give the money to Victor. The father never told Victor of the phone call.

It is this constant emotional seesaw that keeps the audience riveted to the play. The old furniture dealer has a marvelous sense of humour amid his own emotional baggage and provides some dramatic contrast to the attitudes of the other characters.

Victor’s wife Esther is caught in the middle trying to negotiate a peaceful end to the feuding and to deal with her own problems.

Hanrahan is superb as the bitter, resentful and confused cop who feels he has done the noble thing. His brother consistently disabuses him of that illusion and points out that the choice he made was not based on love or noble sentiments. There was no love in their family, only paternal selfishness and manipulation, according to Walter.

Walter’s choice to become a great surgeon and acquire wealth was not a great choice either. He is a lonely man and envying his brother’s apparently happy family life. Stuart delivers Walter’s humanity and attempts at reconciliation with superb emotional control and forthcoming humanity.

Solomon is a comic and wise character, almost ninety year old with a checkered past. Fox is simply outstanding in the role. Jane Spidell gives us an Esther who is worried, troubled and probably an alcoholic who is trying desperately to achieve some emotional and financial equilibrium.

Philip Siler’s set design is excellent with the large array of furniture and furnishings indicating past wealth and comfort.

The only complaint I have about Leblanc’s directing is the slow pace of the opening scene. She treats it like a play by Pinter where there are too many and far too long pauses. Pick up the pace, please. We can get the message and the effect of the play without waiting that long for the next line.

An outstanding night at the theatre.

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The Price by Arthur Miller opened on September 2 and will run until September 21, 2011 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca 416 866-8666