Monday, November 28, 2011


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.,au

Friday, November 18, 2011


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

Sunday, November 13, 2011


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


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,au

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


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,au

Sunday, November 6, 2011


 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.,au

Friday, November 4, 2011


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.

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,au