Monday, May 30, 2011


Reviewed by James Karas

Fronteras Americanas is an ambitious, wide-ranging and stimulating one-man play that is performed by its author Guillermo Verdecchia. It is now playing at the Young Centre in a production by Soulpepper Theatre Company.

The title means American Borders and it refers to North and South America and the reference is of course ironic. Verdecchia tries to examine the immigrant experience from so many angles that at times you wish he would go for more depth and less breadth.

He describes Canada as a Noah’s Ark of a nation meaning, I suppose, there are immigrants from all over the world here. The image that is created in my mind is that all the animals are the immigrants and Noah and his family are the people who run the Ark. Not a particularly flattering picture.

Verdecchia is described as an Argentinean-Canadian and I find this a continuation and expansion of the Noah’s Ark image. He is a hyphenated Canadian as compared to the unhyphenated ones. In other words, Noah and his clan, the Saxons as Verdecchia calls them, are Canadians; the rest are Something-Canadians. Where do these hyphenated Canadians belong? They are not 100% Canadian and they are not 100% Something. The only place where they are most suited, most what? is perhaps on the hyphen. Who am I and where am I are constant questions for them.

Verdecchia touches mostly on Argentina, Chile, Mexico and Columbia from the “Hispanic” countries of the continent with passing glances at some of the others. He witnesses a shooting of a man from a hotel window and gives graphic descriptions of the event including the fact that no ambulance ever turns up. They pretend that he is abank robber but one is sure that it is a simple execution by the police. This is the 1990’s and dictatorships are the rule rather than the exception.

He gives an entertaining and idiosyncratic bird’s eye view of history starting about two hundred million years ago (I think) when the earth’s crust broke up and formed the continents. He brings it to the present and talks metaphorically and literally about himself as an immigrant child in a Canadian school whose teacher tries to pronounce his name to travelling to Los Angeles and trying to get entry with that name.

The drug cartels that provide jobs and social programs, social injustice, dictatorships, Hispanic culture from dancing to Latin rhythms to movie stars are grist for his mill. The image of the handsome, hot Latin lovers of the screen to the Mexican farm workers are fair game for commentary by the author. Fernando Lamas stands side by side with Jose Jimenez, Ricky Ricardo and Speedy Gonzalez.

Verdecchia speaks unaccented English but can put on several different Hispanic accents. By the way, why are these people called Hispanic? They have nothing to do with Spain.

Canada and perhaps even more so Toronto, may be a Noah’s Ark in its population mix but relatively few of the people who fill the theatres belong to the “animal population”. Verdecchia engages in some pointed but well-received humour about that.

There are some stills and film clips projected on a screen and costume and accent changes keep the play moving. A one-man show is notoriously difficult to do but Verdecchia has managed to find a formula to keep it going for more than two hours. It flags on occasion but Verdecchia, under the direction of Jim Warren, gives a bravura performance.

Fronteras Americanas by Guillermo Verdecchia continues until June 12, 2011 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. 416 866-8666.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Part of the cast of the Toronto production of The Railway Childre - Aris is second from the right. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

By James Karas

When Aris Athanasopoulos was 10 years old, he had to recite a poem at his school’s Christmas concert. The poem was in Greek and his mother, like all good Greek mothers, told him to make sure he had memorized it. He assured her that he had.

On the date of the show, he strutted on the stage and recited the first word of the poem and froze. He had forgotten the whole thing. But he had taken a small precaution. He had stuffed a copy of the poem in his pocket. After a brief, terrifying moment he said “Hold it,” reached into his pocket, uncrumpled the piece of paper and proceeded to recite the poem.

That was some fifteen years ago. Now the budding young actor knows his lines (but still takes precautions) and is presently appearing as the Superintendent in The Railway Children at the Roundhouse Theatre in Toronto.

The railway and long distance travelling are appropriate metaphors for Aris. His parents emigrated from villages near Kalamata, in the southern Peloponnese, Greece and ended up running a restaurant in Elliot Lake. They returned to Toronto when Aris was two and like so many Greek immigrants continued to run a restaurant.

Aris graduated from York University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting in 2007. His father wanted him to become a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant, the latter two professions being more useful for his Mr. Submarine franchise but Aris had other ideas.

You don’t get to go Argentina for five days to shoot a commercial for a credit company if you are running a submarine sandwich shop.

Nor do you go to Poland and Austria in a production of George F. Walker’s Theatre of the Film Noir directed by Miroslaw Polatynski. Aris did and played Bernard, one of the major roles in the play.

Aris has done Shakespeare for young audiences with the Classical Theatre Project – Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream - and appreciates the difference between rose and iambic pentameters. The Superintendant in The Railway Children stands at the end of the platform/ stage and must project his voice so that he can be heard at the other end.

He has tasted acting for television in the cop series Rookie Blue and will do the voice over in the animated serial Redakai: Conquer the Kairu.

He is continuing to take acting lessons from David Rotenberg at the Pro Actors Lab n Toronto.

“I will probably do it for the rest of my life” he said in a recent interview at The Roundhouse Theatre.

He wants to land roles in movies. He has already spent time in Los Angeles scouting for opportunities.

Doing movies is a matter of extremes, according to Aris. “Acting in a film is like trying to capture lightning in a bottle” he says, “because you only have to get it right once.”

“In the theatre, you need to construct a performance that you can repeat on a nightly basis.” In fact, he has to construct his role in The Railway Children eight times a week with only Mondays off.

Many actors have difficulty making ends meet and they can be found serving at tables or making lattes in expensive coffee shops – after getting the appropriate training, of course.

If the need ever arises, Aris will not need any training for a pay-the-bills alternate career.

“Can you make a submarine sandwich?” I ask.

“I can do a lot more than make a sandwich,” he replies. “I can run a Mr. Submarine shop.” And quickly adds: “Let’s hope I never have to do it.

And if he ever does and forgets how to make a super-sub, he will no doubt have the instructions written on a piece of paper and crumpled in his front pocket – just in case.

Aris has played enough Shakespearean roles and had enough training to know how to enunciate iambic pentameters. He is even ready to recite Greek poetry but, alas, he has yet to receive an invitation to do that.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


The cast of the Toronto Production of The Railway Children. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Reviewed by James Karas

When you have railroad lands with a railway and a roundhouse, and a play called The Railway Children the only thing to do is produce the play. If you don’t have a theatre, you simply put one up, bring a steam locomotive from England (the play takes place there, after all) and you are off.

That is what is happening at the foot of the CN Tower where Edith Nesbit’s play is now showing in the newly constructed tent theatre called appropriately enough the Roundhouse Theatre. This is a production with an all-Canadian cast of the play that was originally produed at The York Theatre Royal in England.

The Railway Children is based on the 1906 children’s novel by Edith Nesbit which has been converted into a play by Mike Kenny. It is a paean to the British spirit and especially those plucky children.
A well-off English family that has a nice house and servants in London falls on hard times. The father is led away from his home and we are left to wonder where to and why. The family moves to Yorkshire and must live in poverty.

The children, Roberta (Natasha Greenblatt), Peter (Harry Judge) and Phyllis (Kate Besworth) will spend much of their time around the railroad station and on the railroad. In times of adversity, they will display courage, determination, versatility, presence of mind and, in a word, pluck. When a train is about to crash into some obstacle on the railway, the girls take off their red undergarments and warn the conductor. The children prevent a serious accident and become a credit to the nation.

They find gifts for the nice Mr. Perks (Craig Warnock) and give him an object lesson in generosity and grace when he momentarily loses his temper and thinks they are condescending and insulting him. It is all very heart warming.

When the mother (Emma Campbell) becomes ill, they bring in a doctor (Richard Sheridan Willis, who plays three other roles) and find a way to get help from a wealthy Old Gentleman (John Gilbert.)
This is an old type of wonderful narrative about meeting bad luck or misfortune head on, maintaining the attitude of “there is always hope” and in the end triumphing.

The stage resembles the platform of a railway station with the tracks in the middle. There are moving platforms in the middle that are wheeled along the tracks to connect both sides of the side platforms for scenes that do not take place at the station.

Director Damian Cruden has the children and the other actors of a large troupe run up and down the platform frequently. The coming and going of trains is indicated by sound and lights except for the times that the imported locomotive is brought out. Set and Costume Designer Joanna Scotcher, Lighting Designer Richard G. Jones and Sound Designer Craig Vear create a marvelous atmosphere and considerable spectacle.

It is a nice story about three children, family, friendship, generosity and decency. It is well done in a rather unusual setting. One may question the efficacy of a theatre that resembles all too accurately a railway station. The actors are miked and some of the action is a considerable distance from the audience. But they generate energy and humour and you get wrapped up in the excitement of the narrative. In the end it is a very pleasant night at the theatre.
The Railway Children by Mike Kenny based on novel by Edith Nesbit opened on May 8 and will run until September 4, 2011 at Roundhouse Theatre, 255 Bremner Street, Toronto, Ontario.

Friday, May 20, 2011


           Lawrence Zazzo as Orfeo, Isabel Bayrakdarian as Euridice and Ambur Braid as Amore.Photo: Michael Cooper
by James Karas

Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice is considered an operatic masterpiece and is famous for being the first “reform” opera. It was first staged in 1762 and for some reason the Canadian Opera Company had never produced it. It has made amends by giving us what I can only describe as a great production this year. The production is borrowed from the Lyric Opera of Chicago but let us give General Director Alexander Neef credit for knowing a good thing when he sees one.

The kudos belongs to Director Robert Carsen who has imagined and delivered an original, fully integrated and stunning interpretation of the work. The word great has been so debased by overuse as to become almost meaningless. I refer to its fundamental meaning of something exceptional, brilliant and head-and-shoulders above any other production.

Orfeo ed Euridice opens on a desolate, gray expanse of seashore with an open pit. There is a procession of people, dressed in black and carrying a shrouded body, that walk towards the pit. They are carrying the dead Euridice to her grave. A distraught Orpheus is part of the precession and his beloved wife is about to be buried. He is torn with grief and attempts to commit suicide.

Euridice is placed in the grave and her body is covered leaving a mound. A light is placed at the head of the grave. The people/chorus leave Orpheus behind to mourn his wife.

It is a visually arresting scene and a stunning imagining of the opera. There is nothing in the libretto to indicate any of this. In fact, the libretto calls for “a pleasant but secluded grove of laurel and cypress trees.”

The barren expanse will serve as the sole set for the entire production.

It gets better. When Orpheus approaches the Underworld, the stage is lined with shrouded bodies, the Furies of Hades, surrounded by a circle of torches. He goes in the middle of the Furies and begs to be allowed to reclaim his wife. The Furies relent and allow him to go to the Elysian Fields, the Rosedale of Hades you might say.

Carsen’s direction provides a visual counterpart to the music and the singing. As the Furies are calmed by Orpheus, they back away from him, become less threatening.

In the return to earth in the final scene, Orpheus and Euridice emerge from the grave where Euridice was buried. It is here that Orpheus loses his self-control and looks at Euridice. The deal was that he can have her back provided he does not look at her during the journey to earth from the Underworld.

The people who deserve full credit for bringing Carsen’s vision to the stage are Set and Costume Designer Tobias Hoheisel and Lighting Designers Carsen himself with Peter Van Praet.

I speak at length about Carsen’s vision of the opera because it is a stunning and extraordinarily effective interpretation.

He has lots of help from the singers. By far most of the opera falls on Orfeo and the COC has one of the best in the world in American countertenor Lawrence Zazzo. Zazzo as Orfeo must express in turn grief, despair, defiance, fear, supplication, love and elation. He has the suppleness and tonal quality of voice to express all of these stages in the life of Orpheus. It is a marvelous performance.

Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian has the relatively short role of Euridice as does soprano Ambur Braid as Amor. Both roles are sung well.

Harry Bicket conducts the COC Orchestra for this outstanding night at the opera.

Orfeo ed Euridice by C. W. Gluck opened on May 8 and will be performed eight times on various dates until May 28, 2011 at the Four Seasons Centre for he Performing Arts, 145 Queen St. West, Toronto, Ontario.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Linda Bassett (Frieda) and Tom Sturridge (Harry) Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

Reviewed by James Karas

Wastwater, the title of a new play by Simon Stephens that opened on March 31, 2011 at London’s Royal Court Theatre, refers to the deepest lake in England. It is located in the Lake District and is described as terribly still with many bodies hidden underneath. That is a very good clue to understanding this opaque and seemingly still play that has depth and “bodies” under the surface.

The play involves three couples who are obliquely connected. In the first scene we see a foster child leaving his foster mother to go to what appears like exile on Vancouver Island. Harry is 22 and he has had a troubled childhood. He got drunk and drove a car in which his friend was killed.

As with Lake Wastwater, all the action is underneath. Harry has had a troubled past. He believes that the move from hunter-gatherer to farmer for homo sapiens was a catastrophic change. His foster mother Frieda lives near an airport and the construction of another runway will put an end to the farm that she is keeping,

Tom Sturridge plays a subtle Harry suggesting both mental disturbance and humanity. Linda Bassett is a very good Frieda who loves but does not necessarily understand what her foster children are doing.

The second scene takes place in a fancy hotel room where Mark (Paul Ready) a handsome teacher meets Lisa (Jo McInnes) for an afternoon of adultery. He is in for a few surprises: Lisa is a former drug addict, porno film maker and policewoman. She wants him to beat her up as part of their sexual fun. This is a bit more than Mark bargained for. Mark was fired from his teaching job because he hit Harry, the troubled youth of the first scene.

Ready plays Mark at the beginning as a self-assured would-be adulterer who does not flinch at Lisa’s initial revelations and description of her desires. He is even willing to be blindfolded and tied. But this woman wants to be hit and there seems to be no end to her bizarre past. Jo McInnes’s Lisa is a sexy older woman who chose her target and slowly leads him to her style of seduction and sex.

The third scene is even more bizarre. Sian (Amanda Hale) one of Frieda’s former charges, meets Jonathan (Angus Wright), a maths teacher, in a warehouse near the airport in order to complete a transaction. Before the transaction is completed, the foulmouthed, brutal Sian asks Jonathan a number of questions including what is his favourite piece of music and why.

He replies that it is Messiaen’s “Music for the End of Time.” It was a piece that was composed in a prison camp and has painful orchestration and a beautiful melody, he explains. What is this highly cultured man doing with Sian? It turns out, he is an aficionado of child pornography and he is buying a nine-year old child.

Wright plays the frightened and nervous Jonathan marvellously and provides a perfect contrast to the violent and malevolent Sian of Amanda Hale.

Wastwater is directed with care and perfect balance by Katie Mitchell. It is an intricate play that bears reading and watching more than once. It is the type of play one finds at the innovative Royal Court Theatre.

Wastwater by Simon Stephen opened on March 31 and played until May 7, 2011 at the Royal Court Theatre, London.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


J. Anthony Crane as “Scar” and Dionne Randolph as “Mufasa”. ©Disney. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.Photo

By James Karas

Would you see a musical based on a Walt Disney animated movie?

I would NOT and did not – until now.

I am referring to The Lion King, of course, the animated feature that was released in 1994 and won enough awards to fill some large bookshelves and has made enough money to buy several small countries. The movie spawned an entire industry what with spinoffs, sequels, games, a television series, merchandize and much more.

Three years after the release of the movie, a musical was spawned with music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice (with additional music and lyrics by several others) and it hit Broadway in November 1997. It is still there and, it seems, in every major city in the English speaking world and elsewhere. It played at The Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto from 1999 to 2004. That was hardly enough time for everybody to see it and it is back at the same theatre until the Second Coming or perhaps longer – well, OK this is a touring production and it is scheduled to close on June 12, 2011.

Why are people around the world flocking to see the show? I enjoyed it and decided to put together a few of the reasons for saying that.

Here they are, in no particular order, as they say:

1. It has a good story. The animals of the jungle act like people and we have the king of beasts who has a nasty brother who wants his job. A familiar story. The bad brother disposes of the king and sends the heir to the throne packing. The heir returns as a grown up and restores order. A happy tale.

2. It is a story about animals and here the doors open for the creation of masks, puppets and imaginative methods of presenting the animal kingdom on stage. The success of The Lion King in this department is simply extraordinary. The people on stilts that represent very credible giraffes, the lions, the hyenas and the other animals are brought to “life” with brilliant imagination, colour, humour and astonishing success.

3. There is wonderful humour coming from many characters and especially from Zazu, Timon, Pumbaa and the hyenas.

4. The show is simply spectacular in its staging, kaleidoscope of colours and pace. There is not a boring moment.

5. It is suitable for children and it will entertain, scare and delight them. Adults get to see a great show and give a great birthday or other occasion present.

6. The music and lyrics are excellent. The ensemble numbers are exciting and the solo numbers go from the romantic to the animated.

7. There are some scary sequences that will keep your brats glued to their seat and then have them jump up and down with joy during the rest of the show.

8. It is a huge show with animals coming down the aisles and filling the stage with dancers and singers.

9. It is not fattening (unless you go for the buttered popcorn).

10. I enjoyed it and that alone is good reason to see it unless you are so culturally inept, spiritually bankrupt and emotionally sterile, that you dare to disagree with my assessment.

Individuals who shone in the production were the bad lion Scar played with an English accent of sorts and panache by J. Anthony Crane. Mufasa, the lion king is sonorous and deeply humane as played by Dionne Randolph. Tony Freeman is the hornbill Zazu, Nick Cordileone is Timon and Ben Lipitz is Pumbaa, all played with impeccable comic verve.

There is a large number of ensemble singers and dancers that keep the whole thing moving.

Production credits are claimed by a creative team that can make up a small army in one of the countries that they can buy with the profits. Director Julie Taymor will probably end up as the president and hold several ministries. She contributed to the lyrics, designed the costumes and had a hand in designing the masks (with Michael Curry).

In the end, just look at reason Numero 10 and do not worry about any other details. The rest is “Hakuna Matata.”

The Lion King, music and lyrics by Elton John, Tim Rice and others, book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi continues until June 12, 2011 at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. West, Toronto, Ontario.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


by James Karas

Everybody knows that Theseus abandoned Ariadne on the island of Naxos. Yes, he dumped the very woman who fell in love with him and saved his life from the dreaded Minotaur in Crete.

If Theseus can be indicted for being a callous bastard in relation to the Cretan princess, opera composers cannot be accused of the same. Starting with Monteverdi in 1608 and into the 1990’s there are over seventy operas dealing with the fate of poor Ariadne. The latest one (1995) is Alexander Goehr’s Arianna, a reworking of the libretto that Monteverdi used.

In 1912, Richard Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal produced the first version of Ariadne auf Naxos which was not successful and in 1916 they put out a second version and got better results. The Canadian Opera Company has assembled some major talent and produced this work as part of its spring season.

Ariadne auf Naxos is an unsatisfactory work in many ways. It is comic, ironic, serious and perhaps even burlesque. The Prologue takes place in the house of a wealthy Austrian where we meet the singers and actors who will put on an opera and a comedy in the mansion owner’s private theatre. The opera is Ariadne Auf Naxos and the comedy is The Fickle Zerbinetta. The rich patron orders that the opera and the comedy be performed together.

The Prologue has some spoken dialogue and many recitatifs. That means it is quite verbose and you end up looking at the surtitles and finding the humour escape you or not finding it at all. No doubt, this part of the opera may be funnier to German speakers.

The opera and the comedy are performed “together”. We see the distraught Ariadne bewailing her fate and the comedians show up and try to console her. We have opera and commedia dell’arte running into each other. In the end, the god Bacchus stops by and Ariadne finds love and, we assume, happiness and so do the comedians.

Despite the title, then, Ariadne is only a third or perhaps half the opera. There are some vocal and musical peaks but there are also some low points to the extent that the whole thing works only partially well through no fault of the current production.

The highlights are Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka (Prima Donna and Ariadne) and tenor Richard Margison (Tenor and Bacchus). Strauss provides the disturbed Ariadne with some marvelous arias as she expresses her wish to be dead. Outstanding performance and singing by Pieczonka.

Zerbinetta is the comic counterpart of the tragic Ariadne and Jane Archibald does good work in the role. Her showpiece recitative, aria and vocal acrobatics, however, seem to go on forever.

British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote was very adept vocally and theatrically in the pants role of The Composer.

One of the stars of the evening was undoubtedly conductor Sir Andrew Davis who led the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra.

Neil Armfield directed this staging for the Welsh National Opera and it deserves high praise for its production values. The set and costume designs by Dale Ferguson were effective from the backstage of the theatre to the deserted island where Ariadne bemoans her fate.

This production, for all its virtues, will not catapult Ariadne auf Naxos into anyone’s “favourite opera” category but it is decidedly worth seeing.

Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss opened on April 30 and will be performed eight times until May 29, 2011 on various dates at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


  by James Karas

The most important character in Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play The Children’s Hour is Mary, a teenager in a private girls’ school in a small town in New England. Mary is intelligent, manipulative, domineering, an accomplished actress and a consummate liar. She is the face of evil.

The Children’s Hour is now playing at the Comedy Theatre in London’s West End with an all-star cast. It was Hellman’s first play and it provides riveting drama even if the ending is a bit creaky.

Mary, played brilliantly by Bryony Hannah, is a rebellious student and her teachers and owners of the school, Karen and Martha, discipline her. Mary has a doting and powerful grandmother, Mrs. Amelia Tilford. In order to strike back at her teachers, Hannah whispers to her grandmother that she has seen Karen and Martha engage in “unnatural” conduct. The words lesbian or homosexuality are never mentioned.

(It is worth mentioning that the play was a great success on Broadway but it was banned in Boston, Chicago and even in England in 1934. The mayor of Boston banned it as “unfit” without bothering to see or read the play. Such moral perversion and sexual degeneracy was not going to infect those pure-hearted Bostonians.)

Mary’s accusation sets in motion a series of events which result in the ostracism and destruction of the lives of the two women. There is a nicely built climax to the play that leaves audiences sitting up aghast at the triumph of mendacity and injustice.

The play gets a great deal of help from director Ian Rickson who has the talent to coordinate and orchestrate magnificent performances. Keira Knightley as Karen is an intense, innocent-looking teacher who is about to marry the local doctor. When she is cornered, she breaks out into some superb dramatic acting.

Elisabeth Moss as Martha is a bit tougher but she has or she realizes that she has a dark secret. Moss provides outstanding acting as a contrasting character that complements Knightley’s performance.

Ellen Burstyn is the imperious Mrs. Tilford who has the assurance that comes with social position and wealth. She is right because everything that she believes in is right and she will not be gainsaid by anyone. Regardless of the source or flimsiness of the evidence against Karen and Martha, she believes it and pursues them to utter destruction.

Carol Kane plays the foolish and in the end passively vicious Lily Mortar. She is almost a caricature until she refuses to show up for the libel trial that is the ultimate fall of the two teachers.

Tobias Menzies plays the upright doctor who is all too human, to put it at its highest, and develops doubts about his fiancĂ©e’s sexual proclivities.

Near the end of The Children’s Hour we hear the sound of a gunshot. This was probably a good place to end the play but Hellman was not imitating Chekhov. She spends some time tying up loose ends and giving some moral satisfaction to the audience in terms of “good” getting the upper hand over “evil”. If only Hellman had asked me to edit her play.

A splendid night at the theatre.

The Children’s Hour by Lillian Hellman continues until May 7, 2011 at the Comedy Theatre, 6 Panton St. London.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


Ryan Harper as Frederic, Jean Stilwell as Ruth and Christopher Wilson as the Pirate King.
Photo Gilberto Prioste

Reviewed by James Karas

Toronto Operetta Theatre has ended its 26th year with an energetic production of that all-time favourite, The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan. The TOT cast and small orchestra manage to generate an enormous amount of oomph and provide a lot of fun. One feels sometimes that TOT is trying to warm up a room with a light bulb but General Director and Founder of TOT Guillermo Silva-Marin seems to be nonplussed by the limitations of space and budget.

The Pirates, subtitled Slave of Duty, is about a nice young man name Frederic, who is bound to serve with a band of pirates until his 21st birthday. These are really nice pirates who will not harm anyone who is an orphan – and everyone that they meet seems to be an orphan.

They run into “the very model of a modern Major-General” Stanley and his nubile wards but they can do nothing because the Major-General is an orphan. What they really want is the pretty girls but there many obstacles that will take a couple of hours to unravel. This is clearly serious stuff and thank goodness for Gilbert and Sullivan who will work things out for us with humour, wonderful melodies and patter songs.

Canadian tenor Ryan Harper is Frederic, the Pirate Apprentice, who is allowed to leave the Pirates on his 21st birthday and become a law-abiding citizen with a mission to destroy his former comrades. But wait: Frederic was born in a leap year and his 21st birthday is many decades away. Harper is a moon-faced fellow who looked innocent enough. His singing was good and his handling of the role was fine.

Canadian soprano Jessica Cheung sang the role of Mabel, Frederic’s love interest. She gets to vocalize through some scales including some ribbing of operatic sopranos and she does a commendable job. She is not quite as good in her portrayal of the Major-General’s daughter. She needs to learn to enunciate better and appear less tense on the stage.

The Major-General is a familiar comic character and places a heavy burden on the singer who sings the role because he has to sing the ever-popular patter song “I am the very model of a modern Major General” and provide some broad humour as the buffoon of the operetta. Now a patter song requires a very quick tongue and some vocal precision that does not come as trippingly to David Ludwig as one would wish. He is mostly successful with the role but not entirely.

Veteran singer Jean Stilwell played Ruth, a Pirate Maid-of-all-work. She is a fiery and vibrant redhead who delivered her songs with vigor and vivacity. Frederic rejects her because she is too old and the operetta will end too quickly if he goes for her. He should go back to her as portrayed by Stilwell, after the curtain falls.

Bass-baritone Christopher Wilson played the would-be rough and ready Pirate King while Jeffrey Sanders was the Keystone cop Sergeant of Police.

Sets were minimal but the costumes by Designer Howard Tsvi Caplan were quite colourful. The pace was brisk and the ensemble singing quite beautiful. The small theatre and the audience’s proximity to the stage made for intimate contact between stage and audience.

No doubt there were high notes which were never reached and low notes that were more looked for than attained. The attempts at an English accent produced the usual deplorable results. But the overall effect was quite delightful. Robert Cooper conducted the orchestra to produce lively results and Stage Director Guillermo Silva-Marin kept this other world known as operetta moving to the inevitable conclusion for both performers and audience - a sheer delight.

The Pirates of Penzance by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan played from April 27 to May 1, 2011 at the Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: (416) 922-2912.

Monday, May 2, 2011


Lawrence Brownlee and Eizabth DeShong.  Photo: Michael Cooper

by James Karas

Rossini’s La Cenerentola is one of the better comic operas in the repertoire and the Canadian Opera Company is wise to bring it back after a fifteen year absence. This rendition of the Cinderella story has some gorgeous music, marvelous patter arias and ensemble pieces and some funny comic business.

Rossini composed La Cenerentola in a leisurely 25 days in January 1817 just in time for its premiere at the Teatro Valle in Rome. It was bit of a rush job for librettist Jacopo Ferretti too who had to grab some material from Charles Perrault, Charles Guillaume Etienne and Francesco Fiorini but when you have one month from the decision to write an opera based on Cinderella to the opening night, you have to take some shortcuts. The librettist was not the only one who got help from others. Rossini hired a collaborator who put together the recitatives and composed some arias which were later removed.

The COC calls the opera Cinderella (La Cenerentola) for no apparent reason. The English name may have been justified if it were sung in English. Since it is sung in Italian, why bother with the translation of the title?

This Cinderella is called Angelina and she is abused by her stepfather Don Magnifico and his hideous daughters Clorinda and Tisbe. She does go the ball but there is no evil stepmother or glass slipper. Let us dispense with any suspense and state that she does end up marrying the prince.

The Canadian Opera Company has a very good cast with two outstanding singers in the leading roles. For the role of Prince Don Ramiro the COC has struck gold in the vocal chords of Lawrence Brownlee, one of the best lyric tenors in the business. He reaches the high notes with natural agility and produces outstanding vocal pleasure.

Angelina is sung by American mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong. She has a lush voice and sang gorgeously. She sang the beautiful aria “Una volta c’era un re” about love, innocence and goodness with tenderness and emotion.

Canadian soprano Ileana Montalbetti as Clorinda and Tunisian mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb as Tisbe were properly ridiculous and sang and acted their parts well. Bass-baritone sang the role of the philosopher Alidoro and baritone Brett Polegato was the valet Dandini. I don’t find these as particularly rewarding roles but here can be no complaints about the performances.

The problem with the production is attributable directly to director Joan Font. Although there were flashes of humour much of the production appeared to be screwed to the stage boards. Font could not figure out a way of producing physical movement for long stretches. He did introduce half a dozen mice which kept popping in and out to such an extent that I began hoping that a mousetrap or a cat would appear and get rid of them. They kept running around even when there was no apparent reason for them as in the reprise of the aria “Una volta c’era un re” by Angeline near the end.

Don Magnifico, the stepfather is a broadly comic character and should be good for a few laughs. If bass Donato DiStefano has any comic talent (and there is no reason to doubt that he does) it was well-hidden because Font seemed to refuse to let it come out. This is comic opera and certain liberties and physical acts are needed to produce laughter. What was done with DiStefano applied pretty much across the board with the other characters. There were moments of humour but not enough from such a comic opera.

The costumes were colorful, even pretty. Some of the characters and the chorus were dressed in motley costumes and the banners carried by the latter gave the story a medieval or perhaps mythical feel that was acceptable. But where was the physical movement?

The set by Set and Costume Designer Joan Guillen, from the two storey house with the plain fireplace of the financially-strapped Don Magnifico to the more opulent pad of the Prince was serviceable.

The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra was conducted by Leonardo Vordoni and with the Canadian Opera Company Chorus they produced magnificent sounds. Too bad much talent was left underused and we were treated to a good but not a great night at the opera.

Cinderella (La Cenerentola) by Gioacchino Rossini opened on April 23 and will be performed nine times until May 25, 2011 on various dates at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671.