Monday, April 30, 2012


Colin Ainsworth as Renaud (centre) and Artists of Atelier Ballet. Photo: Bruce Zinger

 Reviewed by James Karas

In 2005, Opera Atelier gave Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Armide its North America premiere. That is quite an achievement considering that the opera had its world premiere in Paris in 1686. The opera is back at the Elgin Theatre for Atelier’s spring season.

Armide is a Muslim sorceress who has managed to capture almost all of the Crusaders but not the heroic Renaud. He is a Christian, of course, and her enemy so she really hates him or, make that, really loves him. She has magical powers and uses them to win him over and this tug-and-pull for both of them is the stuff of the opera.

One should mention that the story of Armide and Renaud is contained in an epic poem of 1581 by Torquato Tasso called Gerusalemme liberata that so fascinated artists that it became the source for almost 100 operas and ballets.

Armide is an ideal vehicle for Opera Atelier. It requires a ballet corps, needs original instruments to give it an authentic 17th century sound and it can be performed in a stylized manner and have the flavor of a chamber opera. The Elgin Theatre may not be Versailles in size and décor but it is an elegant venue and exceptionally suited to this type of opera.

Armide is largely static except for the dancing scenes, highly stylized, almost ritualistic in its movements. Director Marshall Pynkoski’s treatment takes advantage and at times suffers from some of these elements. At its best, the production achieves grace, elegance and beauty. There are moments when the static nature of the piece requires some more movement. Pynkoski has tightened the opera by removing the parts of Glory and Wisdom whose main purpose seems to have been to praise the “hero” and in Lully’s time this meant King Louis XIV.

The woman with magical powers who commands demons, visits the underworld and can conquer armies is sung by soprano Peggy Kriha Dye. She is operatically and ritually tormented between Love and Duty and things get so bad that she calls Hate - La Haine – (a sonorous and very convincing Curtis Sullivan) to help her dispel her passion for Renaud.

Alas (a favourite word in the opera) her love is stronger than Hate and she succumbs to her passions. All this is done superbly by Kriha who dominates the performance.

Renaud in the hands of Canadian tenor Colin Ainsworth does not get as much work as Armide but he does an excellent job. His light tenor voice is beautifully suited for the role and as Renaud he does fall in love with Armide but is saved in the end.

Bass Joao Fernandes sings the role of Hidraot, King of Damascus. Although Fernandes has a fine bass voice, he had difficulty being heard at times and for the first time in an Opera Atelier performance I felt there were certain imbalances between pit and stage. Some of the singers needed a bit more volume for the audience to hear them cleanly and comfortably.

It has become de rigueur to expect superb choreography from Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg and the Artists of Atelier Ballet and there were up to their high standard this year.

The sets by Gerard Gauci consisted mostly of hanging tapestries but they were colourful and suggested perhaps a medieval and perhaps a baroque milieu.

The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra was conducted by David Fallis.

Opera Atelier is doing its best to get us attuned to baroque operas but their static nature does not always stand them well.

For its next production, Opera Atelier is moving into the 19th century German repertoire with Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischutz which opens on October 27, 2012.

Armide by Jean-Baptiste Lully, presented by Opera Atelier, opened on April 14 and ran until April 21, 2012 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto.

Sunday, April 29, 2012


Trish Lindstrom and Gemma James-Smith in The Game of Love and
Reviewed by James Karas

There are times when nothing seems to work.

Canadian Stage is wrapping up its current season at the Bluma Appel Theatre with a production of Marivaux’s The Game of Love and Chance in a new translation and adaption by Nicolas Billon.

The play has been around since 1730 and has a simple but potentially very funny plot. Silvia is engaged to Dorante but they have never met. He is coming to her house to meet her. She has the bright idea of trading places with her maid in order to judge her fiancé’s character better. He has the same idea. Unbeknownst to each other, the two couples meet with the servants pretending to be masters and vice versa.

In the 18th century the play was performed in the commedia dell’arte style of broad comedy with stock characters that one suspects had people rolling in the aisles with laughter. In those days the difference between a rich lady and her maid would have been obvious and a source of mirth if one pretended to be the other.

Billon and director Matthew Jocelyn have brought the play to the 20th century and the servants and masters wear almost the same clothes and the social and class distinction almost vanishes. Remove the social milieu, remove a lot of the laughter.

Jocelyn tries to orchestrate the action and move forward into a farce with people bumping into each other, walking into walls and getting in some physical comedy but unfortunately almost nothing works.

Trish Lindstrom is the well-born Silvia who trades places with her maid Lisette (Gemma James-Smith) but they are almost interchangeable. The well-born Dorante (Harry Judge) is different from his servant Arlequino (Gil Garnett) and the latter goes in for a considerable amount of overacting which results in very few good laughs.

Silvia’s brother Mario is presented as a farcical gay man with the flick of the wrist and the contortion of the body and try as he does Zach Fraser brings in, again, very few big laughs. William Webster as Silvia’s father is the straight man and he does his job well.

The set in the opening scene consists of a red carpet and a bench seat with a white wall as background. The wall seems to be in need of some paint. The wall is removed for subsequent scenes and we have mirrors and walls in the background. In other words, the play is set in a 20th century vacuum and not in any definite social world. This may be stylish but it does not work. It simply takes the humour out.

Canadian Stage again reminds us that Artistic and General Director Matthew Jocelyn’s mission is to produce “multidisciplinary theatre with a focus on emerging performance styles that integrate theatre with other artistic mediums such as dance, film, visual arts and more.” Now I am not sure if any of that applies to the current production but I would have settled for an evening of laughter and been very grateful for seeing a play that I had not seen for almost twenty years.

This is a co-production Centaur Theatre of Montreal and that only adds to the disappointment.

The Game of Love and Chance by Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux in a new translation and adaptation by Nicolas Billon opened on April 19 and will run until May 12, 2012 at the Bluma Appel Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario.

Thursday, April 26, 2012


Piotr Beczala being lured by Anna Netrebko/. Photo: Met Opera
Reviewed by James Karas

The Metropolitan Opera has replaced the lavish Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production of Jules Massenet’s Manon with a new staging by Laurent Pelly with sets designed by Chantal Thomas. Pelly moves away from the grandiose, realistic sets with huge chandeliers, opulent surroundings and a sense of truly grand opera to a more restrained and relatively Spartan outlook when it comes to the sets. It is a trend that is visible in other productions from the Met such as Tosca, La Traviata and most notably, Wagner’s Ring in the controversial Robert Lepage staging.

Pelly moved the date of the opera from the 18th to the late 19th century and thus got rid of wigs, waistcoats, canes and other paraphernalia and gives us gorgeous dresses for the women and mostly tails and top hats for the men. Paris in the 1890’s is a sensible time period.

The gowns that Pelly designed for Manon and the other ladies are worthy of a fashion show runway and on Anna Netrebko they are simply stunning but let’s concentrate on the opera, shall we?

Anna Netrebko makes a marvelous Manon. Her lustrous voice and the combination of innocence and worldliness in her appearance make for a memorable heroine. She is convincing as an innocent 15-year old on her way to a convent who turns into a siren that lures a priest away from his church.

Her lover is the dashing Chevalier des Grieux (tenor Piotr Beczala). He sings with passion and precision in a fine performance of a man torn between love and religion. She finds him in his church and, unlike Odysseus, des Grieux does not have anyone to tie him to the mast or a church column, and he succumbs to this siren’s song.

The spoiler of Manon’s and des Grieux’s happiness is Manon’s cousin Lescaut (Paulo Szot) who with his friend De Brétigny (Bradley Garvin) abducts des Grieux from the couple’s loft. Manon takes up with the rich De Brétigny. Garvin sings well but what were they thinking when they put that mop of curly hair on top of his head?

The rich and randy Guillot de Morfontaine (Christophe Mortagne) who is after Manon’s pretty, young flesh is played like a character straight out of operetta. At first blush this may be a legitimate interpretation of the role, but when we get to the end Morfontaine proves to be more of an avenger than a fool. Pelly’s interpretation seems uncalled for.

Some of the issues with all set descriptions are subject to the qualifier of “what we are allowed to see” by the Met’s director for cinema Gary Halvorson. The experience at Lincoln Center may well be different.

The opening scene is set in the courtyard of an inn where the 15-year old Manon arrives on her way to a convent. The courtyard looks like the interior of a fortress in the desert where the French Foreign Legion used to serve (I have never seen one but that is how I imagine it.) The austere walls have shutters that open and we see people peer out at the arrivals.

Pelly and Thomas make the posh Cours-la-Reine of Act III resemble a bunch of wheelchair ramps. This is where Manon and de Brétigny are living the high life. The gambling room of the Hôtel de Transylvanie in Act IV Looks like a storage room after some incompetent painter sloshed a lot of green paint on the walls. Are we eschewing the opulent or is this supposed to be opulent?

I take issue with the sets and some interpretations of the opera but aside from that, this was an enjoyable afternoon at the opera.

Manon by Jules Massenet was shown Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on April 7 2012 at Cineplex Odeon Eglinton Town Centre Cinema, 22 Lebovic Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, (416) 752-4494  and other theatres.

Monday, April 23, 2012


 Michelle Terry, Claudie Balkley, Lenny Henry and Lucian Msamati

Reviewed by James Karas

The Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare’s early plays and no one will argue that it is one of his best. It is a classic comedy of mistaken identities and it relies heavily on the Roman prototypes in the genre. What can be done with the play? In the hands of an ordinary director and company, you can get a few laughs and be grateful that you were taken through the text.

In the hands of a genius like Director Dominic Cooke, The Comedy of Errors can be turned into a riotous comedy, imagined anew, full of hilarious slapstick and inventiveness that you may never think of by simply reading the text.

The opening scene of the play consists of a long speech by Egeon of Syracuse (Joseph Mydell) explaining how he has been separated from his wife, his identical twin sons and their identical twin servants. He is now in Ephesus looking for them and treats us to a long speech about his troubles.

Cooke will not let us start fidgeting through the scene. Egeon is arrested and robbed in a pretty rough part of town. The Duke of Ephesus (Ian Burfield) appears to explain why Syracusans found in his city are put to death and he is no ordinary Duke. He fits the rough surroundings and acts like a Mafia thug or a brutal dictator.

Cooke’s inventiveness continues throughout the production. The twin brothers are black (Lenny Henry as Antipholus of Syracuse with a thick Jamaican accent and Chris Jarman as Antipholus of Ephesus) and they are simply hilarious. They give highly physical comedy and when they wallop their servants (Lucian Msamati and Daniel Poyser – both just terrific), they really go to market.

The fights get so comically serious at one point that an ambulance and half a dozen medics rush in with straitjackets as they try to catch the crazy twins.

The scene moves from the rough harbor scene of the opening, through some rather tough looking neighborhoods with derelict buildings but we also see a nice outdoor café and a pool hall.

When Adriana (the delectable Claudie Blakley) finds her “husband” (the wrong man, of course) in the pool hall and tries to convince him to go home for dinner, her entreaty becomes so physical that the poor man who has no idea of what is going on, gets an erection. She has a very attractive sister, Luciana (Michelle Terry) and they make a nice comic pair.

When the servants yell insults at each other over Antipholus of Syracuse’s apartment intercom, they end up in a farting contest that produces belly laughs.

The Comedy of Errors is set in Ephesus which means that it can be anywhere. Cooke’s production designed by Bunny Christie is in modern dress and this Ephesus could be a contemporary city in Turkey or even London. The two servants wear T-shirts with the words “The Emirates.”

Dominic Cooke has done what we hope that every director will do for every production of a play: imagine it or re-imagine it afresh. Many such attempts are made and many fail miserably. Some are grandly successful and can turn even second-rate works into something extraordinary. Cooke has done that and the result is an extraordinary production of The Comedy of Errors and a great night at the theatre.

The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare played from November 29, 2011 and to April 1, 2012 in repertory at the Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London, England.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


Alexander Cobb (David) and Roger Sloman (Frank). Photo byTristram Kenton
Reviewed by James Karas

Goodbye to All That is a brilliant first play by Luke Norris that premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Norris has taken a simple idea and nurtured it into a well-constructed play that is moving, funny ironic and thoroughly enjoyable.

The simple idea: Frank, a married, old man falls in love with another woman, Rita. He feels liberated by the act and is about to separate from Iris, his wife of forty years and go to live with his new love. In the process of leaving his wife, he suffers a stroke and that puts an end to the affair and for all intents and purposes to him.

As a stroke victim he requires extensive and expensive medical attention that his wife cannot afford. His lover can and wants to but we realise the biting irony that if he gets well he will leave his wife. What is his wife to do? Is she to nurse him back to health for his mistress?

The play is produced in the small Jerwood Theatre Upstairs in the Royal Court where the stage is smaller than some living rooms.

David (Alexander Cobb) meets his grandfather Frank (Roger Sloman) in a golf club lounge and confronts him with the fact that he, Frank, is having an affair. He demands that he stop. Frank does the opposite and admits the affair to his wife Iris (Susan Brown) who throws him out.

Norris’s play changes scenes quickly and efficiently as we go to Rita’s apartment, David’s apartment, the hospital and a care home. The actors move the few pieces of furniture around and we change locale quickly.

One of the strengths of the play is that all four characters are completely believable. There is no battle of good and evil, there is no sleaze. The 18-year old David loves his grandparents and wants to protect his grandmother first and later his grandfather. Cobb shows the intensity and candour of David in a well-done performance.

Sloman has simply fallen in love and looks back on his life with his wife where there is no love and perhaps there never was. He is a decent man but there are corners of his life that leave us wondering. Why has no one visited him in the hospital or the care facility or even sent a get well card?

Susan Brown’s Iris is the “good wife” who devoted herself to caring for him before and after the stroke. She must decide to accept money from her husband’s mistress or let him remain a complete invalid. Even her grandson abandons her and sides with Rita. An excellent acting job.

Marlowe’s performance is equally convincing. She is not some harlot but a woman in her 60’s who has fallen in love but more importantly she does not abandon her lover when it becomes clearly obvious that he will never recover.

The simple situation has some intricate subtexts from the relationship of Frank and Iris with their daughter, to their own relationship, to the decisions that must be made right to the harrowing end.

The production is brilliantly directed by Simon Godwin.

This is the type of new writing that one wants to see and let’s give Luke Norris a standing ovation for his debut as a playwright.

Goodbye to All That by Luke Norris played from February 23 and to March 17, 2012 at the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London, England.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Reviewed by James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company has opened its spring season with the mostly tried and true The Tales of Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach. It is a respectable and enjoyable if not inspired production directed by Lee Blakeley with set designs by Roni Toren.

The Tales of Hoffmann tells three love stories of the poet of the title and it ranges geographically from Nuremberg to Paris to Munich and to Venice. All of the travelling to come to the one woman who combines the other three loves.

We are supposed to start in Luther’s tavern where Hoffman will tell his tales but instead we begin in a box-sized apartment where, presumably, our hero lives. This may be fine for a couple of minutes but Blakeley holds onto the idea for so long I started getting claustrophobic. After that there is a lot of ground to cover and the sets are occasionally too dark and strangely unsatisfactory in an opera that includes magical, supernatural and god-knows-what elements.

The first tale is set in Paris where we meet the inventor Spalanzani (Michael Barrett) and his creation Olympia, a mechanical doll that should make him rich. Olympia is sung well by Andriana Chuchman and my only complaint about her is that her doll-like movements are exaggerated to the point of farce. Hoffman falls in love with the contraption and I think more subtle movements are in order. Inevitably and thanks to the anger of Coppelius (John Relyea), Spalanzani’s enemy, the doll is torn apart and Hoffmann sees the truth.

The second story, set in Munich, is about Antonia (Erin Wall) and is a bit less preposterous. She is an opera singer with a hereditary heart condition. She sings; she dies. She is somehow engaged to Hoffmann but is forbidden to see him until he tracks her down and, yes, she sings gorgeously to her death.

The final affair takes place in Venice where we meet the faithless Giulietta (American soprano Keri Alkema), a courtesan who is true to her profession. Hoffman loses his mirror reflection or his other self to a magician, kills a rival in order to secure Giulietta’s love only to see her take off with another man.

The three women are usually sung by a single singer but Blakeley has decided to split the work among three. The bad guys, Lindorf, Coppelius, Dr. Miracle and Dapertutto are sung by Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea. The well-voiced singer did a fine job in delineating the four characters.

American tenor Steven Cole is likewise assigned four roles but they are more comical and he does manage to get a few laughs in a good night’s work.

Mezzo-soprano Lauren Segal gets to pop in and out in a solid performance as The Muse-turned-into-Nicklausse, Hoffman’s friend.

The toughest job of the night falls on American tenor Russell Thomas in the title role. He starts quite strongly and does a very good job with the “Il etait une fois a la cour d’Eisenach” aria. But by the end of the opera we start losing him. Perhaps the house is too big or his voice not big enough for the house.

The fundamental problem is not so much the production as the opera itself. Offenbach called it “opera fantastique” and the plot becomes convoluted with supernatural and almost ridiculous elements that are not convincing on any level. There may be a production that can reduce or elevate these to a satisfactory whole but this one, for all its virtue and vices, simply did not do so.

The last time Tales of Hoffmann was produced by the COC was in 1988. There seemed to be no rush to bring it back it seems. The current production is by Vlaamse Opera of Belgium and is conducted by Johannes Debus.

The Tales of Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach opened on April 10 and will be performed nine times until May 14, 2012 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671.

Saturday, April 14, 2012


Reviewed by James Karas

The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster is a grand revenge tragedy which has enough torture, treachery, murder and incest to make some opera librettos seem tame by comparison. The Stratford Shakespeare Festival has produced it twice albeit a few years apart: in 1971 and in 2006. Two years ago, there were two productions of it running simultaneously in London. This year (March 2012), there was a production of the play at the Greenwich Theatre which was followed by another one at the Old Vic.

I was able to catch the Old Vic production in previews. It is directed by Jamie Lloyd with some highly talented actors and is meant to be a major staging of the play.

When the curtain goes up, we are in a grandiose, smoke-filled room. We see people wearing masks, there are candles and the set could be a room in a palace or a cathedral. There are finely wrought railings and woodwork and the place looks dark and forbidding.

Lloyd makes a slight change in the opening scene and we first see the villainous Bosola (Mark Bonnar) being turned down in his request for payback by the Cardinal (Adam Burton).

The Cardinal and his brother the Duke (Harry Lloyd) have a sister, the duchess, who is a young, beautiful widow and marries her secretary Antonio (Tom Bateman). This is unacceptable and it will unleash a series of events that involve spying, murder, treachery and pleasant things like that.

The Duchess is played by Eve Best. She is statuesque and beautiful and has the strength of a lioness. Even when she is given the cut-off hand of her husband, her reaction is understated, to say the least. She does explode a couple of times but this is a Duchess that will not be put down. An outstanding performance.

Bosola is the complex informer, murderer and man of greed and ruthlessness but he does claim to have a conscience. Bonnar plays him with a thick Scottish accent and delivers a frightfully evil Bosola.

The real depravity comes in her brothers the Cardinal and Duke Ferdinand. They are both thin, calculating, outwardly charming but simply vicious. Cardinal’s role was to be played by Finbar Lynch but he was replaced by Burton due to indisposition.

Bateman as Antonio is the upstanding, decent man caught in a web of evil and treachery and he does well in the role.

The dark tone and sets chosen by the director, designer Soutra Gilmour and Lighting Designer James Farncombe are very well suited to this grim revenge tragedy. The presence of candles and the suggestion of being in a church even when we know we are not adds to the brooding darkness of the piece. With the amount of hypocrisy and cruelty, the presence of masks is quite appropriate but Lloyd has enough sense not to overdo it.

The problem with the entire production is one of tempo. The sets, the atmosphere, the acting are handled well but the speed at which the production moves poses a real problem. Lloyd has decided that a slow, deliberate delivery of the lines is called for as if every word that Webster wrote must be enunciated and frequent pauses be made so that we will not miss anything. I thought there were pauses in the middle of sentences that had no indicative punctuation justifying it.

The play takes about three and a half hours to perform with one intermission. Understating the action in a play that has plenty of melodrama from hanging bodies to tortuous strangling is acceptable. But the slow delivery becomes itself tortuous. You feel like yelling “Get on with it” to the actors. Even the strangling of the Duchess by two muscle-bound thugs seems to take forever.

During the intermission, Kevin Spacey, the Artistic Director of the Old Vic, walked by. “Maybe he is going back stage to kick their ass” commented one person.

Let’s hope he did.

The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster opened on March 17 and will run until June 9, 2012 at the Old Vic Theatre, The Cut, London, England.

Thursday, April 12, 2012


From left, Sterling Jarvis (Albert), Audrey Dwyer (Francine), Maria Ricossa (Bev) and Jeff Lillico (Jim). Photo by Karri North.

Reviewed by James Karas

Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park is an exceptionally funny, dramatic and moving play that has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize. It premiered in New York in February 2010 and was produced in London in September 2010 at the redoubtable Royal Court Theatre. It has finally arrived in Toronto in a production by Studio 180 Theatre at the Berkeley Street Theatre. It is a gripping production of a gripping play and, to coin a phrase, a must-see.

The first act takes place in an ordinary house in a Chicago neighborhood called Clybourne Park in 1959. Russ (Michael Healy) and his wife Bev (Maria Ricossa) are getting ready to move out to the suburbs. They are bantering like any couple but one quickly senses an undercurrent in their conversation: there is something seriously wrong both in the move and in the reasons for it.

They have a deeply personal reason for moving and to whom they sell their house becomes an issue. Jim (Jeff Lillico), the local vicar drops by as do neighbours Karl (Mark McGrinder) and his deaf wife Betsy Kimwun Perehinec).

Russ and Bev have sold their house to blacks and the neighbours are up in arms because that will destroy the neighborhood. You let one of “those” people in and they will come swarming in and here goes the value of your house. Norris exposes the depth of these people’s racism with searing accuracy but that would be a trite achievement if that’s all that he offered. He exposes the neighborhood’s bigotry and indeed evil element in the way that people have treated the white Russ and Bev not for the colour of their skin but for what their son was accused of doing and the way he ended his life. On the issue of bigotry, skin colour is only one element; if you are in any way “different’ your life can be made a living hell.

Healy plays Dan as distracted, angry and anxious, a man in agony who bursts out in obscenities when cornered. His wife is trying to be calm and jolly as they go about getting ready to move but she has problems of her own. A fine job by Ricossa.

Karl is the bigotry catalyst and his deaf wife provides some humour based on her disability which one can probably do without. But the sharp edge of the play is maintained by the two and the Jeff Lillico’s Jim.

The counterweight to these people is provided by Russ and Bev’s maid Francine (Audrey Dwyer) and her husband Albert (Sterling Jarvis). They are black and are treated with the searing contempt that comes from a patronizing and hypocritically “understanding” attitude. Blacks don’t ski, for example, therefore they are different.

The second act of the play takes place in 2009 and we meet the descendants of the people in the first act in the same house. Ironically, Karl was right. Blacks did move in and Clybourne Park did go down and perhaps became a slum. Now the derelict houses are in demand for gentrification.

The people from the neighborhood are now concerned about frontage, height, easements and the Landmarks Committee. They are educated, sophisticated, well-travelled and they want to re-do the neighborhood. The submissive maid Francine has become the self-assured Lena who has memories of the old neighborhood and wants to preserve its history.

Bev, the housewife who tries to please her husband in the first act, is now a lawyer. Russ becomes Dan, a construction worker who finds the box he as Russ buried under a tree in the backyard. Excellent work by Healy. It provides a dramatic connecting link to the past

Indeed the characters played by the actors in the second act are so different from those in the first, that it takes a minute to adjust. The second act provides terrific opportunities, then, for the actors to shine in two very different roles, back-to-back. Their success is marvelous and one must take a deep bow to director Joel Greenberg for his signal success in bringing out the best in the play and the actors.

I saw Clybourne Park in London last year and it was one of those productions that is seared in your mind. Seeing it for the second time and knowing the plot did not take anything away from this superb play and outstanding production by Studio 180.

An excellent night at the theatre.

Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris opened on April 5 and will play until April 28, 2012 at the Berkeley Downstairs Theatre, 26 Berkeley St. Toronto, Ontario. 416 368-3110.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Reviewed by James Karas

The Madness of George III by Alan Bennett is a fascinating chronicle play that tells the story of the English king’s mental breakdown in 1788-1789. It is partly history lesson, partly costume drama with some moving and comic scenes leading to a splendid night at the theatre.

George III was a rather dull man but a good king by many standards. He was interested in farming, in learning about what his subjects were doing and in their general welfare. He had fathered fifteen children, thirteen of whom survived into adulthood. He was a busy man.

Alan Bennett’s play presents quickly moving scenes, sometimes just vignettes, of life in the palace at Windsor, in the political circles in London and at Kew Palace.

None of that would have been of much interest to a playwright except for the fact King George goes mad. He descends into madness quickly and is surrounded by political opportunists, servants who act like his overlords and a team of doctors who are no more than arrogant quacks. The powerful king becomes a pathetic human being abused to an extent reminiscent of the fate of King Lear.

David Haig gives a stellar performance as the king. George is by no means humble (you my only speak to him when he addresses you and that goes for the doctors who are treating him). When he goes mad he is put in a straitjacket, tied to a chair and literally tortured by the quacks in the name of medical care. Haig makes us feel sorry for the poor man and glad for him when he eventually recovers.

Clive Francis is superb as Dr. Willis, the “specialist” who along with the other “doctors” bleeds the patient, gives him purging medication and tries to break him down as if he were a horse.

Nicholas Rowe is a humourless but efficient and scrupulous Prime Minister Pitt the Younger in contrast to Gary Oliver as Charles Fox and Thomas Wheatly as Lord Thurlow, colourful and ambitious.

No one can approach Christopher Keegan as the corpulent Prince of Wales and future Regent and George IV in the despicability department. A superb job.

The costumes with the red coats of the officers and the waistcoats and breeches of the rest of the characters and all those fancy wigs make for a pretty lively sight. The sets are rather simple and indeed threadbare. The quickly changing scenes do not allow, I suppose, for an opulent or realistic set and Janet Bird’s design reflects that.

Director Christopher Luscombe keeps the action moving with the play’s numerous exits and entrances under control. The most memorable part of the evening will remain Haig’s performance in the leading role.

THE MADNESS OF GEORGE III by Alan Bennett opened on January 18 and played until March 31, 2012 at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London.

Thursday, April 5, 2012


Emma bell as Tina. Photo © ROH 2012 / Bill Cooper.
Reviewed by James Karas

Opera houses are continually making efforts to expand the repertoire by finding neglected work and, more adventurously, producing and even commissioning new works. It is a daunting task because opera lovers tend to be conservative and by and large prefer well known works. The prohibitive costs of staging new operas and the relatively limited audience for them, discourage production of new works.

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, is not just any opera house and this year it has produced Miss Fortune, a new opera by Judith Weir, which received its English premiere on March 12, 2012. The opera was commissioned by ROH and The Bregenz Festival and was first seen at the latter venue in July 2011.

Weir wrote her own libretto, based on a Sicilian folk tale. No, this is not Cavalleria Rusticana with an English accent but it is a story about Tina Fortune and her family who mysteriously lose their fortune. In folk tales “mysteriously” is usually attributed to supernatural forces and this case it is Fate.

Tina strikes out on her own and goes to a garment factory, runs a kebab van and a laundry. Fate seems ever present but she meets a rich man and, we guess, regains the status she had at the beginning.

Weir provides a rich variety of music for the story. Most of it is quite approachable but there are segments that, as with many modern operas, I find, that are not easy to take. The chorus of the garment workers and some of the other ensemble pieces are simply beautiful. Some of the accompanied conversations are serviceable whereas in others the music works well in emphasizing and colouring the libretto.

The opera, directed by Chen Shi-Zheng with set designs by Tom Pye, has high production values. Triangular and quadrangular panels in various colours hover over the performers. There is fluidity in the change of scenes that is appropriate to the unrealistic approach and the supernatural elements of the opera. The lighting design by Scott Zielinski is quite dramatic but there were times when I preferred to see the dancers and characters rather than have them in semi-darkness, however dramatic. There was also effective use of video projections.

Soprano Emma Bell, in orange hair and dress, sang with confidence the title role of Tina (Miss Fortune). Her parents, Lord Fortune and Lady Fortune are sung by British bass Alan Ewing and Kathryn Harries respectively. Ewing has a rich, resonant voice and did a very good job in the role. Harries, at 61, maintained vocal control and acted well in the role.

Countertenor Andrew Watts sang quite beautifully and handled the role of Fate with ease. Mezzo soprano Anne-Marie Owens sang the role of Donna, the laundry owner and she was excellent. The role of the hapless Hassan with the kebab van is sung by tenor Noah Stewart. He has a strong voice and carried the marvelous part well.

Miss Fortune lasts barely an hour and a half and the stunning sets, the slick scene changes and the general production values make the time go quickly. It has a good story but I am not sure how well the music will remain in my mind’s ear and how eager I will be to hear the opera without the stage effects.

In any event, it was a very interesting night at the opera.

Miss Fortune by Judith Weir opened on March 12 and was be sung five times until March 28, 2012 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London.