Tuesday, August 15, 2017

BAKKHAI - REVIEW OF 2017 STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

The Stratford Festival is once again visiting Ancient Greek drama with a stunning production of Bakkhai by Euripides at the Tom Patterson Theatre. It uses Anne Carson’s translation and adaptation and she prefers to transliterate the title of the great play her way instead of the more traditional Bacchae.

No doubt you are keeping track of the Festival’s production of Greek drama and recall that the Bacchae was produced there in 1993 in a redoubtable staging by David William with Colm Feore, Ted Dykstra and Barbara Bryne. Otherwise the Festival seems to go into allergic reaction at the thought of producing classical drama but there are exceptions and that is another issue.
 
From left: Gordon S. Miller as Pentheus, Laura Condlln as a member of the Bakkhai, Mac Fyfe as Dionysos 
and Brad Hodder as Guard in Bakkhai. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Jillian Keiley directs the current production with intelligence, knowledge and an intuitive feel for Greek drama. She makes brilliant use of the Chorus and has some marvellous staging effects to give us an outstanding Bakkhai.

From the little that we know or can infer from Ancient Greek tragedy, the productions were more operatic than straight plays. The productions had music and the Chorus sang or chanted some of the poetry written for it especially the choral odes. How do you handle the issue today? If the leader of the Chorus speaks the lines, then the poetry allotted to the Chorus become prosaic. If they all speak together, it may be difficult to understand them or, worse, they sound ridiculous.

Keiley has found a splendid compromise. The Chorus (the Bacchae or devotees of Dionysos a.k.a. Bacchus) speak, sing, chant and dance to music composed by Veda Hille. Hille’s music plays a key role in the success of the production. In its lyricism and punctuated sections, it fits the poetry and the mood of the play. The choral odes are no longer impediments to the action but become integrated into the drama. A major achievement.

The Bakkhai is about the arrival of a new religion in Thebes which Pentheus, its king, and the women of the city reject. Dionysos whose mother Semele was a Theban and Zeus was his father comes disguised as a mortal to wreak revenge on the people of his native city. Mac Fyfe’s Dionysos is petulant, arrogant, effeminate, vengeful and with has a huge chip on his shoulder.

The youthful Pentheus, his cousin, rejects the new religion. Wearing a suit, Gordon S. Miller as Pentheus is arrogant, puritanical, ill-tempered, violent and a law-and-order ruler. He has a lot in common with Dionysos even though they are on opposite sides of the religious issue. Dionysos has the upper hand, of course, because he is a god and he will wreak unbelievable vengeance on the Thebans. 
Members of company in Bakkhai. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Graham Abbey plays the seer Teiresias and Nigel Bennett plays Kadmos, the father of Pentheus. They represent their characters as old codgers with a bit of humour if that can be said to exist in the play. Lucy Peacock plays the role of Agave, Pentheus’s mother and what she does defies the imagination. You may not know the plot of the play and I will not spoil it for you.

Keiley uses Anne Carson’s adaptation. It is poetic and colloquial. Some of the modernisms may go too far (“he’s a shrewd manager of data.” “Call a cab.” Dionysos describes himself as a daimon and explains that “there is no word for it in English.”) The cast handled the language with ease and the performances from the Herdsam of E.B. Smith to the main characters were stellar.

The set by Shawn Kerwin consists of a raised platform in the centre of the Tom Patterson stage. There is extensive and highly effective use of lighting by Cimmeron Meyer and sound by Don Ellis.

Bakkhai was written by Euripides in 405 B.C. near the end of his life while he was living in exile in Macedonia. It is a complex play that has kept scholars and philosophers busy for more than twenty four centuries. Better still, it has kept theatre lovers fascinated since its premiere in Athens in the early hours of the morning in March 405 B.C. at a theatre and a festival named after Dionysos. It won first prize.  
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Bakkhai by Euripides in a version by Anne Carson continues until September 23, 2017 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Saturday, August 12, 2017

PORGY AND BESS – REVIEW OF 2017 GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

Francesca Zambello, the Artistic and General Director of the Glimmerglass Festival has programmed and assigned directorial duties to herself of Porgy and Bess, perhaps one of the most important American operas. She has pulled out all the stops to stage the signature production of the season and has scored a resounding success.

It is a Negro spiritual, a folk opera and original musical combination that deals with life in the lower depths, with race, poverty, murder, drugs and love being ever present. It has an outstanding score by George Gershwin to a libretto by his brother Ira Gershwin, and Dubose and Dorothy Heyward. All of them are white. 
                                                                                                                                                                    The opera is set in Catfish Row in Charleston , South Carolina where the only whites that we see are contemptuous figures in authority The opera opens in what looks like a two-story tenement house designed by Peter J. Davison with people looking from the second floor and others playing craps in
the open space below.                                                                                                                                                                    The opera, with its large cast, has its main characters but it is very much an ensemble work with particular emphasis on the orchestra. There is no attempt to sugar-coat anything and the visceral impact is overwhelming.
 
Talise Trevigne as Bess and Musa Ngqungwana as Porgy: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Porgy is a crippled beggar who drags himself across the stage supported by a crutch. His physical deformity is counterbalanced by his essential humanity and decency. South African bass Musa Ngqungwana sings with a resonance and emotional depth that surpasses the cruelty and evil that surrounds him. His love for Bess is unconditional and immeasurable right to the last chord of the opera when he manages to strike a note of faith, even optimism in a milieu that offers none. When he sings the moving “I Got Plenty of Nothin” his voice and emotion resonate through the theatre. A stupendous performance.

Bess (Talise Trevigne) is the classic victim of her station in life, her sex, her possessive lover Crown, her drug dealer Sportin’ Life and her physical attractiveness. In her own way, she is just as crippled as Porgy.   

There is no shortage of cruelty in the slum of Catfish Row. Crown is a lanky, musclebound thug. He runs away after killing someone and on his return claims Bess who has fallen in love for Porgy. She resists but he brutalizes her mercilessly. Norman Garrett plays the frightful Crown and gives a scary portrayal of the self-absorbed brute.
 Norman Garrett as Crown. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Sportin’ Life is the local drug dealer and he offers a better life to Bess presumably because he has money. He gives her drugs but she rejects his offer to go to New York. She is rejected by everyone as she knocks on their doors except for Porgy, the beggar, the cripple and another “reject.” Listen to the lyricism and passion of Porgy and Bess’s duet “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and you have been repaid for the price of admission many times over.  

Talise Trevigne’s Bess is attractive, compassionate, tortured and in the end selfish in her betrayal of Porgy for the drug dealer. In other words, she is human. Trevigne has a marvelously strong and dramatic voice and she displays a tremendous emotional range in her performance.

The opera has more than twenty singing roles and no faint-hearted director need apply for the job. But Zambello has directed the opera before and her panache shows. There are outstanding soloists but even more so superb ensemble singing.  
                                                                       
The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus under John DeMain perform superbly.

Opera at its best.
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 Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, Dubose Heyward and Dorothy Heyward will be performed thirteen times between July 7 and August 21, 2017 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Thursday, August 10, 2017

OKLAHOMA! – REVIEW OF 2017 GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

One would have thought that 1943 was not a particularly auspicious year for a leap in the development of the Broadway musical. World War II was raging and there was much else to preoccupy the world. Yet with the premiere of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! an advance was made in producing integrated musicals where the songs advanced the plot and acting became more important. There was precedent for this already but Oklahoma! is a good marking point.

The Glimmerglass Festival production is unfortunately disappointing in many respects. Oklahoma! has some rousing songs, outstanding dance sequels and a good plot but all of that goes to the credit of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II who largely carry the production with some exceptions rather than the other way around.

The major exception is the performance of Jarrett Ott as Curly. He enters from the back of the theatre and sings "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin' " while walking towards the stage. He has a commanding voice, an impressive presence and dominates the production like a colossus.
 Judith Skinner as Aunt Eller and Jarrett Ott as Curly in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2017 production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" 
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
The rest of the performers fall behind him at various distances. Vanessa Becerra as Laurey has a good but not particularly big voice and she is overwhelmed by Ott. To varying degrees the rest of the cast suffers the same fate. Without Ott, many would have been adequate to say the least.

There are some dramatic scenes and some comic ones with Emma Roos as the dippy Ado Annie providing some laughter.

Color-blind casting is well-established and never raises an eyebrow but in this case it did. In the first scene we see a middle-aged black woman on stage and since we are in 1906 Indian Territory, the future Oklahoma, when we see a black woman we think of a servant or worse. In this case, African-American Judith Skinner plays Aunt Eller. She does a good job but decades of not seeing a black woman of the time in a role like that struck one, quite disgracefully, as peculiar.
 

The Glimmerglass Festival's 2017 production of Oklahoma! Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Oklahoma! has a number of dance numbers including the extended “Dream Sequence” ballet. The choreography and the dancing left a great deal to be desired. I will leave it at that.

With songs like "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top," the beautiful "People Will Say We're in Love" and the rousing "Oklahoma!" you will not be left twiddling your thumbs. But we expected more from director Molly Smith and choreographer Parker Esse who either did not have the best cast or simply did not bring out the best in what they had.

No issue with conductor James Lowe and the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus.

The set by Eugene Lee purported to present a scene or a vista of the wide-open territory. There was very little of that and the set appeared plastic and unimpressive.
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 Oklahoma!  by Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics) based on Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs will be performed thirteen times between July 8 and August 22, 2017 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

XERXES – REVIEW OF 2017 GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

        
James Karas

When a program for an opera gives you a diagram of who loves whom you brace yourself for a rough trip in trying to figure out the plot. When the names of four of the seven characters begin with the letter “a” you may consider yourself licked.

Fear not. This is opera seria and these people will fall in and out of love, throw in some treachery and all will live happily ever after. Well, most of them, anyway. Yes, Xerxes of Xerxes is the Persian Emperor Xerxes who got his butt kicked by the Greeks around 480 B.C. but Handel had better things to deal with in his opera.
 John Holiday in the title role of Handel's Xerxes. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
A smidgeon of plot. Xerxes was betrothed to Amastris but dumped her. Now he loves Romilda. His brother Arsamenes also loves Romilda and she loves him (but not Xerxes). Atalanta also loves Arsamenes. She wants to trick Xerxes into marrying Romilda so she can have Arsamenes. Hint: intercept a letter and spread lies, Atalanta.

Amastris pops in disguised as a man to check out the situation. Romilda’s father Arodates checks in and all is worked out in the end.

Xerxes is a static opera with no chorus, a few duets but mostly recitatives and arias sung by the characters who tend to walk on stage, do their job and go off. There is no doubt about the beauty of most of the arias as well as Handel’s music.

Conductor Tazewell Thompson and Director Nicole Paiement have assembled a fine cast for the job. Countertenor John Holiday, Jr. leads the cast as Xerxes. He was last seen at Glimmerglass in 2015 as Giulio Cesare in Cato in Utica and again displayed his exquisite and delicate voice.
 
Allegra De Vita as Arsamenes, Emily Pogorelc as Romilda and Katrina Galka as Atalanta in Handel's Xerxes. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Mezzo soprano Allegra De Vita sings the role of the faithful Arsamenes. It is a pants role, obviously, and her low notes serve her well in a fine performance. My only minor complaint is about her costume. She is a woman pretending to be a man. Her costume should not make her look like a woman. There is enough confusion in the opera.

Glimmerglass has an extensive and redoubtable Young Artists program and five of the seven singers in Xerxes are drawn from that program. The tricky and mendacious Atalanta is in the vocal chords of soprano Katrina Galka; soprano Emily Pogorelc handles the role of Romilda; mezzo soprano Abigail Dock sang Amastris, the jilted one who appears disguised as a man.

Handel does provide a comic role in Elviro sung by bass baritone Calvin Griffin who is given scope for his comic talent as well as singing. Bass Brent Michael Smith plays Ariodates, the father of Romilda who is not involved in a love affair. I name all the Young Artists in recognition of their developing talents and fine performances.

Sara Jean Tosetti has designed some lovely gowns for the ladies. The set by John Conklin consists of three raised platforms and some hanging panels in the background. Changing light effects by Robert Wierzel provide plenty of color.      
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 Xerxes by George Frideric Handel (music) and Nicolo Minato and Silvio Stampiglia (libretto), is being performed seven times between July 15 and August 18, 2017 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Monday, August 7, 2017

THE SIEGE OF CALAIS – REVIEW OF 2017 GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

The Glimmerglass Festival is in full swing and provides a cultural experience of the first order in a bucolic setting which might make you think of Arcadia. Where else do you find pastoral harmony and cultural pleasure? For the uninitiated, the Festival takes place on Lake Otsego a few miles from Cooperstown, N.Y. Yes, that is where the Baseball Hall of Fame is but you do not need Special Dispensation to go to both. Seeing the heroes of baseball, operas and a myriad of other cultural activities have been proven to provide have spiritual, emotional and physical benefits. Try getting that in front of a picture of Babe Ruth.

The Siege of Calais, Donizetti’s 48th opera, was a hit in Naples when it premiered in 1836. It did okay until 1840 and then it was mothballed for a nifty 150 years. It was resuscitated by Opera Rara and was even produced on stage. The uncontrollable desire, not to say ambition, to produce the opera in the United States took a few years, until July 2017 to be precise, when the Glimmerglass Festival raised the siege and produced it.
 
The Glimmerglass Festival's 2017 production "The Siege of Calais." Photo: Carrington Spires/The Glimmerglass Festival
The Siege of Calais is quite a remarkable work partly for historical reasons (Donizetti trying to break into the Parisian market with a “French” opera – it did not work) and partly as an opera that deserves to be produced on its own merits. It needs some dramaturgy (it has a third act that requires surgery amounting to excision) but Francesca Zambello, the Artistic and General Director of the Glimmerglass Festival and Music Director Joseph Colaneri have done the judicious editing that resulted in a brisk and fine production of the neglected work.

The siege refers to the blockade of the French port city by the English army under King Edward III in 1346 that resulted in its capitulation in about a year. As such it was an ordinary siege except for the fact that Edward agreed not to slaughter the citizens provided that six nobles agreed to be executed. That and Rodin’s famous statue of “The Burghers of Calais” has helped raise the garden-variety siege into something of mythical proportions.

Librettist Salvadore Cammarano tells the story through Eustachio, the Mayor of Calais, his son Aurelio and the burghers. Emotional punch is delivered by the fate of the people but it is enhanced by the presence of Aurelio’s wife Eleonora and his young son. When Edward demands six victims Eustachio, Aurelio and four others volunteer. The tragedy is averted by the entrance of Edward’s wife Queen Isabella. The six may be saved but the residents know that they have lost everything.
 

Aleks Romano as Aurelio, Rock Lasky as Filippo, and Leah Crocetto as Eleonora in "The Siege of Calais." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
American mezzo-soprano Aleks Romano leads the cast in the pants role of Aurelio. She sings with assurance and conviction in one of the best portrayals of a man by a woman. She has the gait, movements and mannerisms of a man. That is the least of her accomplishments because she has a firm, commanding and marvelous voice to give a memorable performance.

She is well-matched by soprano Leah Crocetto as her wife Eleonora who has a large, indeed powerful, voice such that when she belted out some phrases in the small Alice Busch Opera Theatre she sounded as if she could shatter glass.

Adrian Timpau as Eustachio has an impressive, big voice but unfortunately it displayed strength without color.

Michael Hewitt replaced ably Harry Greenleaf as King Edward and gave a fine performance as did Helena Brown as Queen Isabella. Donizetti provides a wealth of choral music and The Glimmerglass Festival Chorus performed impressively. 

Zambello sets the production in a modern city that has been gutted by bombs. There are numerous examples of such cities in the news almost daily and the setting could not be more appropriate. Scenery Designer James Noone set consists of a revolving shattered building for most of the performance with the exception of a wall representing Calais on the outside.

The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus perform under the baton of Joseph Colaneri.

Donizetti as a composer had many virtues and not a few drawbacks. The Siege of Calais is by no means one of his best operas but it deserved to be produced.

Only at Glimmerglass, eh!        
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The Siege of Calais by Gaetano Donizetti (music) and Salvadore Cammarano (libretto), is being performed eight times between July 16 and August 19, 2017 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Thursday, August 3, 2017

MEDEA – REVIEW OF KAROLOS KOUN THEATRE PRODUCTION IN THESSALONIKI

Reviewed by James Karas

The Athens-based Theatro Technis Karolos Koun has staged a striking production of Euripides’ classic tragedy for the Athens and Epidaurus Festival. The production is being shown in a number of cities around Greece in addition to Epidaurus and I saw it in the open air Roman Theatro Dassous in Thessaloniki.

Marianna Calbari puts her own stamp on the play as director, dramaturge, adapter (the last two with Elena Triantafillopoulou) and actor and the end result is a riveting production. Calbari has added a subtitle calling the play Medea – The Barbarity of Love and has added text and poetry from other classical writers including Plato (Aristophanes’ speech in the Symposium), Theocritus and Sappho.

Her most brilliant stroke is to us give us two Medeas. The first Medea (Maria Nafpliotou), the wife of Jason, lives in Corinth and is the character we know from Euripides. Calbari adds another Medea which she calls the Barbarian (Alexandra Kazazou) and she is the “original” woman from Colchis, the barbaric city on the      eastern shore of the Black Sea, the end of the world

The Barbarian Medea is a wildly sexual and passionate women. We see her rolling on a bed in the throes of ecstasy. This woman sacrificed everything, including her father, out of love for Jason, the hero who went to Colchis to get The Golden Fleece. The Barbarian   has magical powers and whether in Colchis or Corinth she is a woman to be reckoned with.
 
Alexandros Mylonas and Maria Nafpliotou in Madea
The Corinth Medea appears more civilized but she is a woman in agony. After all she did for Jason and the immense love and passion that she feels for him, he leaves her and the children for another woman – the innocent Glauce (Theodora Tzimou), the daughter of King Creon (Alexandros Mylonas). Jason makes a venal and cold-blooded decision in order to get the crown. He serves mealy-mouthed homilies that many husbands have used over the millennia: I still love you and I have to do this. I will give you money and look after you and the children. He goes as far as to say that he is betraying her for her own good!

Haris Fragoulis is a fine actor (and a lousy trumpet player) and his portrayal of Jason as a shallow, selfish and mercenary person is spot on. Interestingly, he considers Medea a monster and states that no Greek woman is like that. The scene between him and Medea where they hurl abuse and pleading is a point of extraordinary drama.

Medea becomes an implacable fury of hatred and vengeance leading to the inevitable destruction. Nafpliotou can display passion, hatred, grief, connivance and murderous fury with superb ability. Kazazou’s role as the alter ego of Corinth Medea is more limited but she gives a superlative performance as a woman of passion.

Calbari takes on the role of Medea’s Nurse and speaks some of Medea’s lines. She chants as well and generally gives a very dramatic performance. Mylonas as Creon in a purple robe is imperious and commanding.
   
Calbari makes judicious and intelligent use of the chorus with original music by Panagiotis Kalantzopoulos. Movement by Mariza Tsinga and chants used sparingly but very effectively are done exceptionally well avoiding the pitfalls of the use of the chorus that can mar a production.

The set designed by Constantinos Zamanis presents the central image of a large bed on a raised, revolving platform. It is an appropriate symbol of sexual desire and betrayal that starts the entire series of events from the successful theft of The Golden Fleece to the excruciating death of Glauce. The modern costumes do not detract from the drama and the large stage is used effectively.  

In short, this is a five star production starting from Calbari’s amazing dramaturgy and adaption, to her superb directing of a talented cast.