Thursday, May 30, 2013



Reviewed by James Karas

With bagpipes piping, drummers drumming, limousines disgorging beautiful people and hoi polloi emitting gasps of admiration (okay, there were bagpipes and taxis), the Stratford Festival opened this year’s season with an excellent production of Romeo and Juliet.

Much of the credit goes to Director Tim Carroll who has brought the “original practices” approach pioneered at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London to the Stratford Festival. Without getting into much detail, the productions are an imaginative leap into how plays may have been done in the 16th century. They are done on an empty stage, emphasize the text and are usually boisterous and thoroughly enjoyable. There is no attempt at “authenticity” because Juliet would have to be played by a boy, just to give one example.

That is a fair description of this production of Romeo and Juliet. Carroll makes judicious and hilarious use of the audience. You have flowers in your hands? Get a member of the audience to smell them. You have a list of names that you cannot read? Show it to someone in the front row. You want to describe a beautiful woman? Point to someone in the fifth row. The method makes the audience a part of the action and provides gales of laughter.

Carroll does not hesitate to add dance sequences, one of which is particularly appropriate and effective. When Paris (Antoine Yared) arrives at the Capulet house on his wedding day to marry Juliet, he and his companions kick their heels into a lively dance. He quickly realizes that Juliet is “dead” and the gaiety stops abruptly as her father (Scott Wentworth) bursts in tears.
The acting, as can be expected in a play with a large cast, is uneven with the good outweighing the merely serviceable. The best is Sara Topham as Juliet. She is young, petite, agile and can leap onto her bed like the teenager that she is supposed to be. Better still, she exudes innocence and youthful passion. Best of all, she has poetry in her voice. Topham understands and delivers Shakespeare’s gorgeous language with nice vocal inflections and modulations. A delight.

The prose is assigned to the lower classes and the best of them is Kate Hennig as the rough-and-ready Nurse. Hennig’s Nurse is the quintessential servant: loyal, cunning, smart and tough. She has no poetry but she is real and splendid.

Stratford veteran Wentworth can always be relied to provide a strong performance, in this case as the patriarchal Capulet. He is both dictatorial and emotionally moving.

Shakespeare gave Mercutio the great Queen Mab speech and Jonathan Goad delivers it fairly straight-forwardly. There are many ways of doing it but Carroll seems to have chosen poetry over histrionics and so much the better.

Tom McCamus gave a first-rate performance as Friar Laurence. This friar is world-wise without being world-weary and holy without being sanctimonious. Terrific.

Daniel Briere made a good-looking Romeo with youth and fervor on his side. Unfortunately he lacked poetry. He has some the most beautiful iambic pentameters ever penned but he managed to deliver only prose. We want to hear the vocal modulation at every syllable and feel that we are listening to verbal music. We did not.

In the final scene, things got even worse but this time it was not entirely Briere’s fault. When Romeo finds Juliet “dead” in the mausoleum, he notices that she is still beautiful and that “death's pale flag is not advanced” upon her lips and cheeks. It is an extraordinarily beautiful speech of love and grief. Briere delivers part of the speech while looking perfunctorily at Juliet and then he jumps on top of the bier on which she is lying. A scene of pathos and majestic grief becomes something from The Three Musketeers. Too bad.

The sum total, however, is a highly enjoyable production and all one can do is repeat Oliver Twist’s plea for “more, please”.

For those interested in trivia, when the Festival opened in 1953, it was called the Stratford Shakespearean Festival. Shakespeare’s name, however, was dropped in 1956. When Antoni Cimolino and Des McAnuff took over as General and Artistic Directors, respectively in 2008 they amended the marquee to read Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Their first production was a lackluster Romeo and Juliet directed by McAnuff. 

With Cimolino as Artistic Director this year, we are back to Stratford Festival sans Shakespeare but with a splendid production of Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps we should listen to Juliet when she asks What's in a name?” and reply “a good production will be just as good no matter what the Festival is called.”

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare opened on May 27 and will run in repertory until October 19, 2013 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford,


Wednesday, May 29, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

The share price of George Bernard Shaw who has a festival that bears his name in Niagara-on the-Lake seems to have plummeted. In the beginning (1962), there was nothing but Shaw at the Shaw Festival. In 1965, Sean O’Casey squeezed in with one play and in 1967, Somerset Maugham sneaked in one of his works. In 2013, poor Shaw gets a mere one and a half of his plays produced. Major Barbara is the one and an adaptation of his Geneva by John Murrell as Peace In Our Time is the half. In other words, Shaw went from 100% to 15% of the take. Now you know how the shareholders of Research in Motion must feel.

The good news is that the production of Major Barbara directed by Jackie Maxwell, the Festival’s Artistic Director, is excellent.

Much credit goes to Nicole Underhay in the title role. Barbara is a major in the Salvation Army in early twentieth century London and she is passionate about saving people’s souls. Most people need nourishment for their stomach and she therefore has an uphill battle. She is also the daughter of a wealthy gun and powder maker or the business of weapons for killing people and not saving souls. Underhay gives us a Barbara who is attractive, spunky, committed and intelligent.

Her father, Andrew Undershaft (Benedict Campbell), is a powerful, seemingly unscrupulous capitalist who is interested in profit and has no qualms about manufacturing weapons of destruction. There is more to him than that, of course, and that is the whole point of the play. Campbell is excellent in the role; he can bluster, be dramatic and witty and deliver a fine performance. Shaw cannot turn off his verbosity in the final act and we are grateful for Campbell’s performance that carries the play to its conclusion.

The other central role in the play is that of Adolphus Cusins, a professor of Greek who falls in love with Barbara and in the end turns out to be Undershaft’s spiritual son. A red-haired Graeme Somerville as Cusins grows from an infatuated lover to a future industrialist and humanitarian in a fine performance.

The play moves from the library of Lady Britomart (Laurie Paton) where the upper crust Undershaft family gathers and we get good performances but bad accents from Ben Sanders, Wade Bogert-O’Brien and Ijeoma Emesowum. From there we go to the Salvation Army shelter where we get cockney accents and hungry looks.

We meet Peter Krantz, Billy Lake and Catherine McGregor as the down-and-outs who do very good work with much better lower class accents.

Maxwell gets high marks for her directing subject to a couple of comments. The play opens in the Undershaft library but Maxwell has decided to interpolate a short scene with Barbara. It may appear suitable but we do not need anyone to tamper with the play. What is the point?

Judith Bowden’s design merits comment. The shelter where the play opens in Maxwell’s tampered version of the play consists of a bare brick wall, an iron staircase and some exposed concrete. No complaints about it. Then we need to switch quickly to the Undershaft library and we have several gray panels lowered that are supposed to represent books. The exposed brick walls remain as well as some of the railings. This is just plain ugly.

The set for the scene at the Undershaft factory is a variation on the above and it is acceptable.

Major Barbara has a lot of words and you need actors who can deliver them properly over the almost three hours that the performance lasts. This production succeeds in that regard and provides a good night at the theatre.  


Major Barbara by Bernard Shaw runs in repertory from May 2 until October 19, 2013 at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.


Friday, May 24, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

This House is a riveting political extravaganza that was shown in movie theaters directly from the Olivier stage of the National Theatre, London. It is about the backroom political warfare of the Conservative and Labour Parties of Great Britain between 1974 and 1979 when Labour fought to survive as a minority government.

The large stage of the Olivier is turned into the House of Commons at Westminster with people from the audience seated on each side of the stage as if they were Members of Parliament. Most of the action however takes place in offices, corridors, the inside of Big Ben and the basement.

Playwright James Graham is not interested in the Prime Ministers or the Leaders of the Opposition Parties of the day. Harold Wilson and later James Callaghan were Prime Ministers during the period and Margaret Thatcher became Conservative Party leader but none of them is mentioned directly.

Graham focuses on the Labour and Conservative “whips”, the party disciplinarians who make sure that their members are in the house when necessary and maintain party loyalty. In a minority government, they woo members of other parties with persuasion, promises, coaxing and whatever other means they can conceive and perpetrate in support of purely political ambitions.

The play moves with ferocious speed at times, has some Wildean wit, considerable drama and comedy, and a satisfactory ending. The bickering, backstabbing and enormous efforts by the Parties to outwit each other, with Labour desperately trying to stay in power and the Conservatives just as desperately trying to defeat them can be quite depressing. Labour realizes that is unable to pass any legislation and the country is paralyzed. What is their achievement? Keeping the Conservatives out is the answer.

There is treachery, stupidity, selfishness, arrogance and complete disregard of the national interest. However, there is also some humanity and Graham does find an act of principled nobility at the end of the play.

The action shifts from the House, to offices, to other locations with lightning rapidity and director Jeremy Herrin reaches frenetic speeds but also slows down for mellow moments.

The action is propelled by the eight whips (five for Labour and three for the Conservatives) who pursue their own members and MPs from the marginal parties. Vincent Franklin is in overdrive as the Labour whip Michael Cocks with Phil Daniels as the less frenetic whip Bob Mellish . Lauren O’Neil as the new and attractive Labour whip who shows class and sense and humanity.

Julian Wadham, Charles Edwards and Ed Hughes as the Conservative whips, represent men from a different class who are no less conniving than their Labour counterparts. The whole play was acted superbly.    

My only complaint is that the play is relentlessly political and has a constant theme of getting one vote more than the other side. There is large number of MPs introduced by the name of their riding and that causes some confusion in people who do not know the political map of Great Britain.

There is a somewhat limited “human side” with the dying MP who is brought in to vote, the nursing mother and the Scottish, Irish and Welsh members who are colourful and make democracy look bad. Mind you, almost all of them make democracy look bad.

The audience in the movie house did not get the full effect of the efficient movement from one venue to the other on the stage. At the back of the stage was the interior of Big Ben but the close-ups made us lose the full effect of that and   of the House of  Commons.

Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979 and she took over with an iron grip setting aside all the unseemly squabbles. She has left a controversial legacy with many people refusing to forgive her for some of her policies. At the end of this play, her election comes as a relief.

This House by James Graham was shown at the AMC Yonge and Dundas Theatre, 10 Dundas St. East, Toronto Ontario and other theatres on May 16, 2013. For more information visit

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

Guys and Dolls is the Shaw Festival’s big musical offering and it should keep audiences entertained until October. The 1950 show by Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows has both the advantage and the disadvantage of familiarity for most theatregoers but that should not detract anything from this production.

Based on a story and characters by Damon Runyon, Guys and Dolls is pure New York – the New York of the underworld where gamblers are looking for a safe place for a crapshoot, the cops want to arrest them and the Salvation Army wants to save their souls. That may seem unreal, and for that reason the musical is properly subtitled a “fable of Broadway.”

The chief gangsters are Nathan Detroit (Shawn Wright) and Sky Masterson (Kyle Blair). Nathan is an inveterate gambler who cannot find a place for his game because the police are after him. Wright does a good job and gets most of his laughs. His New York accent is decent but not perfect (this applies to most of the actors in varying degrees). There is not much demand on his vocal chords and the tough/comic character is what counts Wright delivers him.

Nathan and his doll Miss Adelaide (Jenny L. Wright) provide the comic romance of the plot. The latter has a high-pitched, comic voice and has been engaged to Nathan for 14 years. She tries to reform him as she waits for him to marry her. In the meantime, she is telling her mother that they are married and have four children. A shoe-in role for Wright and she does not miss a beat.

Blair as Sky Masterson is tall, handsome, well-dressed and has a reasonably good voice. Masterson is the man who bets $1000.00 that he can take Sarah Brown, a Salvation Army sergeant, to Cuba for dinner. Elodie Gillett is blonde, pretty and can sing well enough to get Sky to fall in love with her. We want both the comic and serious romances to work.

Guys and Dolls does have one seriously or almost seriously evil person in Big Julie (Aadin Church) who comes from Chicago and pulls out a gun on the other gamblers. Church looks and acts the tough guy but in the end he is not so bad.

Much of the comedy lies in the secondary characters, a bunch of colourful gamblers with names like Nicely-Nicely (Thom Allison), Benny Southstreet (Billy Lake), Rusty Charlie (Kelly Wong) and Harry the Horse (Evan Alexander Smith). They are sinners that are promised to Sarah for her Save-a-Soul Mission. The result is, of course, hilarious.

There are fast ensemble pieces, dance routines and nice melodies. “Adelaide’s Lament,” the familiar “Luck be a Lady” and the more than a dozen other numbers create energy, humour and fulsome entertainment.

Director Tadeusz Bradecki and Choreographer Parker Esse maintain a fine pace and onward momentum. Set Designer Peter Hartwell gives a black-and-white image of Broadway as if we were looking at old photographs of New York.

The company does not have any outstanding singers but the overall production is enjoyable.

Guys and Dolls by Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows opened on May 11 and will run in repertory until October 12, 2013 at the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.


Monday, May 20, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

The Metropolitan Opera wrapped up its seventh season of live broadcasts with an excellent production of Georg Friedrich Handel’s Giulio Cesare.  The David McVicar production was originally seen at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2005.

Cesare has a convoluted and undramatic plot and although the music is quite beautiful, much of it sounds the same and there are numerous repetitions. That places a heavy load on the director to make the almost five hours’ duration an enjoyable experience rather than an endurance test.

McVicar has an interesting conception and a superb execution that make for an extraordinary production. First, he moves the time of the plot from ancient Rome to 19th century Egypt. The conquerors are not Roman but British and we are put on a more familiar ground of imperialist activity.

We get the familiar insignia of British imperialist occupiers: red coats, white helmets, epaulets on the shoulders and medals on the chest. The locals wear fezes and aprons with a mixture of beautiful dresses and ornate costumes for the upper crust.

McVicar invests the production with sheer theatricality from beginning to end to make the static plot fluid and exciting. He does not shy away from humour, provides plenty of choreography, fight scenes and movement to create a marvelous production.

Set Designer Robert Jones places the action between two rows of columns with a view of the sea at the back. The backdrop is changed frequently to indicate the different settings and the effect is dramatic.   

After the curtain rises and during the overture, we see billowing waves and the arrival of ships. The ships pull into the harbor and Caesar disembarks onto the stage for the opening scene. Intelligent stage design.

Costume Designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel goes to market in her design of clothes. We are told that Cleopatra alone has eight costumes and clearly, no expense was spared in outfitting everybody. Money and design talent talk and the costumes, especially those of the women are gorgeous.

Handel did not skimp in providing the leading roles with lots of notes. Caesar, Cleopatra, Cornelia, Sesto, Tolomeo and Achilla are all given major arias and scenes. Of course, the opera is long enough not to leave anybody out.

Soprano Natalie Dessay gave the best performance in the crowded field. She probably has the best music but she had complete control of the role and not only sang with assurance but danced, romped around the stage and was vocally and physically impressive.

American countertenor David Daniels sang the role of Caesar. Initially he appears in a red coat, epaulets and a brass breastplate as if he wants to emulate a bodybuilder. He gets rid of all that until near the end and concentrates on singing. His phrasing and ornamentations are amazing and his Caesar is splendid within the boundaries of Baroque characterization.

I was most impressed with Irish mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon as Cornelia, the wife of the murdered Pompey. Dressed in a black gown, the statuesque blonde beauty is a stunning image of the grieving widow. She sang beautifully and gave an emotionally and vocally convincing Cornelia.

Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote was the perfect foil as Cornelia’s son Sesto, the young man who vows vengeance for the murder of his father. A fine performance.

French countertenor Christophe Dumaux sang the creepy Tolomeo who beheaded Pompey, while the lower vocal range of the opera range was occupied by baritone Guido Loconsolo as Achilla, the Egyptian general.    

The success of the production lies obviously in Handel’s beautiful music, which despite its many repetitions in the arias and a pervasive impression of sameness in many places, is quite splendid. Full marks to Conductor Harry Bicket and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

After that, credit goes to the outstanding cast with the three countertenors and a mezzo trouser role that only few opera houses can afford.

But even with all that, the production may have ended up with  some yawn-inducing segments if it were not for McVicar’s sense of physicality and theatricality. For example, both Tolomeo and Achilla lust after Cornelia and they attempt to seduce her. The attempt could be left to the music and the words. Instead, McVicar has her assaulted and almost raped as she is grabbed from behind, thrown to the ground and a hand is put up her dress.

A passing comment on the work of Gary Halvorson, the Director for Cinema. He did his level best to ruin the production. Let us hope that the Met will eventually find a grown-up to do the job instead of a child who thinks these broadcasts are video games.

Giulio Cesare by Georg Friedrich Handel was shown Live in HD on April 27, 2013 at The Beach Cinemas, 1651 Queen Street East, Toronto, ON, M4L 1G5 and other theatres across Canada. For more information:

Saturday, May 18, 2013


Jean-François Lapointe as Marquis de la Force, Isabel Bayrakdarian as Blanche de la
Force and Frédéric Antoun as Chevalier de la Force. Photo: Michael Cooper

Reviewed by James Karas

Can you stage a full-length opera with (almost) as few props as an armchair, a white sheet and a few benches?  Robert Carsen can and did in his minimalist production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites for Amsterdam’s De Nederlandse Opera back in 1997. Some sixteen years later, the Canadian Opera Company has, sensibly and astutely, brought that production to Toronto.

Carsen and Set Designer Michael Levine manage to give us a visually stunning production despite and because of their minimalist approach. The opera, for example, opens in the aristocratic home of the Marquis de la Force (Jean-Francois Lapointe) but the first thing we see when the curtain goes up is a number of nun’s habits arranged like crucifixes on the stage floor. It is an arresting sight.

Then a mob enters in a menacing fashion and they leave a small square space in which the Marquis appears sitting in an armchair. Four liveried servants stand at each corner of the square as if guarding the Marquis and the performance proceeds from there. The nuns’ habits and the mob are ideas of the director.

There are a number of extraordinary stage effects like that. In the third act, the Chevalier de la Force (Frederic Antoun) goes to the convent where his sister Blanche (Isabel Bayrakdarian) is a nun to ask her to return to her house. Carsen has the other nuns lined up across the stage like a wall separating the siblings. An ordinary scene is turned into something extraordinary.

Finally, in the closing moments of the opera when the nuns are being guillotined, there is no guillotine on stage and we only see them fall to the ground. They are wearing white gowns this time as compared to the black habits that we saw in the opening scene. Blanche, the heroine of the opera, is supposed to be executed as well but she simply raises her arms in the air, the spotlight shines on her and we have an arresting vision of death and transfiguration.

You cannot ask more from a director and a designer than to provide an original interpretation without resorting to gimmicks or outlandish tricks.

The striking visual effects are matched by mostly outstanding vocal performances. Soprano Bayrakdarian is Blanche, the daughter of an aristocrat who joins the Carmelite convent and grows spiritually into a martyr. I saw her perform this role in Chicago in 2007 in the same Carsen production and she was magnificent. Nothing has changed.

Soprano Hélène Guilmette plays Sister Constance like a soubrette at the beginning in nice contrast to Blanche. She exudes optimism and has a lovely voice. However, she too matures and is the one who triggers the martyrdom of Blanche.

Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka as Madame Lidoine and mezzo soprano Judith Forst as the First Prioress gave polished, dramatic and praiseworthy performances.

Poulenc’s score has numerous musical exclamation marks where there is a sudden burst of music. This tended to drown out some of the singers including Lapointe and Antoun. Initially I thought that they simply did not have enough vocal power but that did not seem to be the case. It was probably a case of poor balancing between pit and stage. Not a major problem but noticeable nevertheless.

The COC Orchestra under Johannes Debus played Poulenc’s richly textured score quite marvelously.

Dialogues des Carmélites by Francis Poulenc opened on May 8 and will be performed eight  times on various dates until May 25, 2013 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671.


Monday, May 13, 2013


Hanna Schwarz as Herodias and Erika Sunnegårdh as Salome. Photo: Michael Cooper

By James Karas         

For many of us the Dance of the Seven Veils evokes the image of the gorgeous Rita Hayworth as Salome undulating before Charles Laughton as Herod. That image may be forever removed from your subconscious if you see (and you should) Atom Egoyan’s interpretation of Salome with the Canadian Opera Company.

Egoyan manages to produce an entirely new work while staying faithful to Richard Strauss’s setting of Oscar Wilde’s play. The Biblical story as adapted by Wilde is that Salome is the stepdaughter of Herod. He is married to Herodias, his brother’s wife and Salome’s mother.

John the Baptist, a zealous prophet, is under arrest for fulminating against the sinful life of Herod and Herodias. Herod is attracted to Salome; Salome is attracted to John the Baptist; John the Baptist will have nothing to do with her. Salome performs her famous dance and asks for the Baptist’s head on a platter as her reward.

That is the barebones of the opera’s plot. Enter Egoyan. When Salome is about to start her strip tease of a dance, we see on a projected video a smiling, little girl on a swing. As the dramatic music of Salome’s dance develops, we see images of the little girl as a young woman and men enter the picture. Subtly, beautifully, disturbingly we realize that Salome is an abused child.

Now her attraction to the horrible-looking prophet makes more sense. Her lecherous stepfather and probably others abused her and the Baptist is perhaps the only man who has not. She does not take revenge on John – she makes love to him as she kisses the lips and tastes the blood of the man’s severed head.

In the end, she is executed by Herod himself and not by the soldiers as indicated in the libretto.

The most impressive performance of the evening was given by soprano Erika Sunnegärdh in the title role. She is physically lithe with a big, dramatic and supple voice. This Salome is not a sexual magnate out for revenge but a woman wronged and in love and Sunnegärdh gives a signature performance.

Baritone Martin Gantner was a disappointing Jochanaan (John the Baptist). His voice never achieved the power and intensity required of the passionate moralist, and the orchestra frequently drowned him out.

Tenor Richard Margison made a splendid Herod. This ruler of Judea was a classic dictator: a bit demented, somewhat unstable and thoroughly egotistical. Margison’s big voice stood him in good stead and his Herod was done superbly.

Mezzo-soprano Hannah Schwarz, with orange hair combed in a bun on top of her head, wearing an orange gown, made a good Herodias vocally and in appearance.

The set by designer Derek McLane resembles a walled yard with a swing in the centre. The “cistern” of the libretto where John the Baptist is held is under the stage and he is brought out on a cart. However, there is a hole on the stage through which he can be seen by the other characters. The only other props are a couple of chairs brought out during the performance.

Egoyan relies partly on video projections to set the tone of the opera. Aside from the Dance of the Seven Veils, we get glimpses of the party inside the palace as well as a swimming pool and images of Salome almost naked. She leaves the party and comes out of the pool and on stage wearing a while robe and swimsuit for her scenes before the famous Dance.

Captain Narraboth (well done by Nathaniel Peake) wears a suit while others wear robes. John the Baptist, hair disheveled, looks simply wild. The impression is that of a futuristic sci-fi setting rather than anything recognizable.

Salome is as much an orchestral work as it is an operatic composition and Strauss’s marvelous score makes high demands on the orchestra. The COC Orchestra under Johannes Debus gave us what amounts to a full concert. Listening to them alone is worth the price of admission.

This is an original, thought-provoking and exciting production. A great night at the opera.

Salome by Richard Strauss opened on April 21 and will be performed eight times until May 22, 2013 on various dates at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671.

Friday, May 10, 2013



Reviewed by James Karas

Guido Loconsolo, Andrea Porta, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Alessandra  Marianelli, Ivan Magri,
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Regio di Parma conducted by Donato Renzetti
Directed by Pier Luigi Pizzi
C Major, Unitel Classica. Blu-ray and DVD.
Giuseppe Verdi’s second opera and his first foray into comedy was Un Giorno di Regno which premiered at La Scala, Milan in 1840. It was a disaster. Verdi would not touch comic opera for more than fifty years and the world would ignore Un Giorno for well over a century.

We can hardly argue with Verdi for his choices but there is considerable room for mounting a defense of the work as a quite enjoyable evening at the opera. The recording under review on Blu-ray of a performance in Parma in 2010 will be placed as Exhibit 1 in defense of the much neglected and maligned work.

The plot? The king for a day of the title is Cavalier di Belfiore (Guido Loconsolo), a French officer who impersonates Stanislas, the King of Poland. Stanislas is making a surprise visit to Poland to regain his crown but we really do not care about him.

We are in the castle of Baron di Kelbar (Andrea Porta) where two weddings are planned. As you may have guessed, the couples are not exactly matched. The Baron’s lovely daughter Giulietta (Alessandra Marianelli) is to marry the old Signor La Rocca (Paolo Bordogna) and the Marchesa (Anna Caterina Antonacci) who is in love with Belfiore, is to marry Count Ivrea (Ricardo Mirabelli). We have two hours to enjoy the opera and untangle the mess.

Baritone Loconsolo should be the king of the performance and he does reasonably well. He does not have phenomenal range but he handled the role with considerable assurance.

Soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci dominates the performance from her opening cavatina to “Si mostri a chi l’adora,” a beautiful aria, full of longing gorgeously done. I am not too keen on some of her grimaces but her vocal delivery is outstanding.

Tenor Magri is the perfect young lover with his light tenor voice easily reaching the high notes. Nice tone and, except for his hairdo, a delight to hear and see.

Soprano Marianelli is the ideal Giulietta with a sweet and silky voice and innocent looks.

Baritone Paolo Bordogna looked too young to be the old La Rocca and although he was vocally fine he did not do much for the comedy expected of him.  

The rest of the singing was at least adequate and in a rollicking comic opera not much more need be expected.

Pizzi directed and designed the set and costumes. The set with pillars, a double staircase and other large objects suggests a castle or something grand, whatever that may be.  The costumes have some weird colours and I suppose the idea is to create a comic world rather than any realistic representation of an 18th century chateau.

The lighting is not always successful and there are times when Video Director Tiziano Mancini shows us faces in the dark.

Verdi provided some rousing choruses, beautiful arias and ensemble pieces and if the comedy is not always successful, the opera and this production are quite enjoyable despite some shortcomings.

This is No. 2 in the Tutto Verdi project undertaken by C Major that has recorded all of the operas in Parma.

The world may be still ignoring Un Giorno but that cannot be said of the Glimmerglass Festival. This year it is producing a new English adaptation of the operas entitled King for a Day.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

carried away on the crest of a wave is the long title of a play by David Yee that is now playing at the Tarragon Theatre. It is about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the author helpfully tells us, that killed over 250,000 people. The play consists of nine vignettes that present situations related to that massive tragedy. If the intent is to give some idea of the enormity of the event through simple stories, the result is not very successful.

After a brief lecture about seismic movements, the disparate stories start with two brothers floating on top of their sinking house in the ocean. They are identified as Swimmer (Kawa Ada) and Runner (Richard Lee). Not very interesting but it is only the beginning.

In the next scene an engineer (Ada) is sent to investigate a miracle. A basilica was saved from the tsunami and Father Thomas (Ash Knight) and his Catholic flock believe it was a miracle. The Ismaili engineer suggests there is a rational explanation for the event that does not qualify it as divine intervention by the God of the Catholics. Interesting.

We then go to a Toronto radio station where an idiotic host (Richard Zeppieri) blathers about the tsunami basically trivializing it. Is Yee suggesting that the media trivialized the tragedy? He is not convincing at all.

I will not list all the scenes because it would be pointless. We have simulated sex between the prostitute Saraphi (Mayoko Nguyen) and Crumb (Richard Zeppieri) with some pretty trite dialogue about did you really “come” and worse.

Nguyen also plays Lenore, a woman who lost all her family in the tsunami and then kidnapped a small boy and brought him to the United States pretending that he was her son. She is visited by an FBI agent (Richard Lee) some four years later who arrests her. When an FBI agent and a woman start quoting lines from Edgar Allan Poe’s Lenore you may be fairly sure that the author of the play had run out of things to say. The situation, however, can provide enough material for an entire play.

There is a scene where a stranger (John Ng) is waiting at an airport to deliver a young Kid to an uncle. The Kid survived the tsunami but her family perished. Again there is much that can be developed from the situation that is simply left hanging in the air. Eponine Lee is unreservedly and totally cute as the Kid.

We finally get the seismologist (Zeppieri) who worked at the Pacific Tsunami Watch Centre and simply blew it – he misread the signs of the earthquake or the system was inadequate and therefore people were not warned. The concluding scene with Ng has some power but by that time our interest has waned almost completely. 

The set designed by Camellia Koo features a plastic curtain around the stage and a couple of inches of water on the floor. There is a dry board walk at the front of the stage but the actors have to wade through water for much of the time. There is a convincing rainfall as well, all quite appropriate and impressive for a play about a tsunami.

There are six actors aside from Eponine and they all take several roles each. They deserve praise for their work in a play that is very uneven and progressively loses your interest. Director Nina Lee Aquino does a good job in directing the piece but the quality of the script leaves a lot to be desired and in the end what you get is not a very good night at the theatre.

carried away on the crest of a wave by David Yee runs from April 16 to May 26, 2013 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.

Friday, May 3, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas
Giovanni Battista Parodi, Francesca Sassu, Fabio Sartori, Mariana Pentcheva
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Regio di Parma conducted by Antonello Allemandi
Directed by Pier’Alli.  C Major, Unitel Classica. Blu-ray and DVD.
Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio was Giuseppe Verdi’s first opera and its occasional productions are almost strictly honoris causa. One does look for nuggets of ore that will turn into gold but the few that you find are not enough to propel the opera into more than the outer fringes of the repertoire.

On the 200th anniversary of Verdi’s birth, Unitel Classica is issuing all 26 of the composer’s operas on Blu-ray and DVD and Oberto is No. 1 on the shelf if not the first one to be  issued. In fact, the recording is from a 2007 production at the Teatro Verdi di Bussetto, Parma, Verdi’s hometown.

The plot is set in early 13th century Italy but for this production the action takes place sometime in the 18th century. Riccardo (Fabio Sartori) is about to marry Cuniza (Mariana Pentcheva). Leonora (Francesca Sassu) whom Riccardo seduced in the past arrives and interrupts the wedding. She is the daughter of Count Oberto (Giovanni Battista Parodi), the defeated enemy of Riccardo. Cuniza finds out about Riccardo’s infidelity; Oberto challenges Riccardo to a duel and he is killed;  Riccardo goes abroad and Leonora goes to a convent. End of opera.

The story for the libretto by Temistocle Solera after Antonio Piazza is of unknown provenance.

Most of the issues of the production rest with Pier’Alli who is billed as Stage Director and Set, Costumes and Lighting Designer. Part of the problem is no doubt the tiny Teatro Verdi. It has a very small stage and seats a mere 300 people. The sparse reaction from the audience, the small orchestra and the tiny stage gave the “feel” of amateur theatre which it certainly is not.

The opera itself does not help. It consists mostly of a series of set pieces where there is little room for manoeuvring. What little there is, Pier’Alli reduces it to almost none.

The opera opens with Riccardo coming on stage to tell us how happy he is about getting married. Sartori plants his feet on the stage floor, sings his piece and leaves. The smartly dressed chorus is lined up on the sides and there is no interaction between the tenor and them. Sartori sings in more of a stentorian than lyrical fashion but he is pleasant enough.

Leonora, who tells us that she is after revenge because she was jilted by him (but she still loves him), follows him on stage. (Hello, Gilda?)  Soprano Francesca Sassu gives more of a recital than a performance with liberal use of her expressive hands. She sings in a spotlight with almost no indication of a set or anything to place her whereabouts. More of this later.

Then Oberto steps into the spotlight that illuminates the stage floor only and tells us that he is returning from exile. Parodi has a reasonably resonant voice but he seems to have limited range. Leonora joins him and we now have two characters on stage. The two sing a nice father-daughter duet but manage to almost never look at each other. This is the no-eye-contact duet and I am not sure what Pier’Alli was thinking. Throughout the production, performing meant, with few exceptions, facing the audience and belting out your notes.

Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Pentcheva does some fine singing but her movements and acting are almost non-existent.

Lighting was erratic to say the least. The main source was a large spotlight and there were times when the whole stage was lit but the characters stepped out of the spotlight, the chorus was frequently in the dark with someone rushing to turn on the light or waiting for the singer to step back into the lit area.

The Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Regio di Parma under Antonello Allemandi performed Verdi’s creaky music quite superbly.

The sound and video quality are excellent if you can get past the lighting faux pas.

Tutto Verdi means what it says and one is grateful for having all of these operas in quality recordings but one wishes that Pier’Alli was a bit more imaginative in his directing and a lot more careful in his lighting and design responsibilities.