Thursday, July 19, 2018

THE MODERATE SOPRANO – REVIEW OF HARE’S PLAY AT THE DUKE OF YORK’S THEATRE

James Karas

The Moderate Soprano is a genial, moving, funny and wonderful play about love. In fact, it is about two loves: the love of a woman and the love of opera. The lover is John Christie, a man of decency, integrity and generosity, and a man with a formidable will power who founded the Glyndebourne Festival. The woman he loved and who loved him was Audrey Mildmay, a soprano who was his partner in the creation of the now famous festival in the boonies of Sussex.

David Hare has fashioned a play that tells the love story of the Christies from the 1930s when the festival was started up to their old age and deaths. As John sadly tells us, all successful love stories end badly because they inevitably end in separation.
 
Nancy Carroll and Roger Allam in The Moderate Soprano© Johan Persson
The story is told in non-chronological order and Hare jumps from the 1934 to 1962. In 1934, Christie was sufficiently wealthy and ambitious to open an opera house that he started looking for talented people. He knew very little about who is who in the opera world but that did not deter him from approaching conductor Fritz Busch (Paul Jesson). At the end of the interview, Busch summarize their conversation by saying “You’ve never heard of me, I’m not available and I waste money. What other qualifications do I need for the job?” Christie smiles and Busch goes to England to conduct at Glyndebourne.

Professor Carl Ebert (Anthony Calf) follows as well as Rudolf Byng (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) to create a Bayreuth on the lawns of Christie’s estate near Lewes, Sussex, a highly questionable venue to put it mildly. Christie, a genial man, believes in democracy as long as he decides what democracy is and is willing to listen provided he gets his way. After all he is paying the bills. He is strong-willed but never dictatorial and he does lose arguments.

There are funny and touching scenes. Christie wants to produce Parsifal and the three artists and his singer wife have to slowly convince him that it would be impossible to do that. Christie does not particularly like Mozart and they have to convince him that Mozart is the right composer for his opera house. They do.

He wants to impose his wife as one of the singers. She convinces him that integrity demands that she audition like everyone else. Humorous and touching scenes.
 The cast of The Moderate Soprano © Johan Persson
Roger Allam as John Christie and Nancy Carroll make a loving couple as we see them in their youth and in old age and illness. Fortune-Lloyd is charming and arrogant as Byng in his days before he becomes manager of New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Jesson and Calf have their pride and perhaps even their arrogance but they are intelligent people, refugees from Nazi Germany and they have very little choice but to show class and tolerance and use the art of persuasion effectively.

There is generous use of projected photographs of the Glyndebourne estate and use of music during scene changes designed by Bob Crowley (set and costumes), Simon Baker (sound) and Luke Halls (video). Full marks to director Jeremy Herrin for capturing the atmosphere of geniality and the humour of the play.

A pleasure and a delight to watch a play about decent people in a civilized setting where a marvelous festival was created. And perhaps more importantly, a monument to John Christie and Audrey Mildmay for their great achievement that arose from love – their love for each other and their love of opera.    
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The Moderate Soprano by David Hare played at the Duke of York’s Theatre, 104 St. Martin’s Lane, London, WC2N 4BG, England.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

ORESTES – REVIEW OF NATIONAL THEATRE OF NORTHERN GREECE PRODUCTION

James Karas

Western civilization has done well by the griefs of the House of Atreus. From Aeschylus’s Oresteia to plays by Sophocles and Euripides, the cycles of murder, revenge and progress towards justice and civilization have held centre stage for some twenty five centuries. There are numerous productions of Ancient Greek tragedy and comedy around Greece every summer. The National Theatre of Northern Greece has staged Euripides’ Orestes in the open air Theatro Dassous (Forest Theatre) where it played for two performances before embarking on a national tour that will take it from Cyprus to Epidaurus before returning to Thessaloniki in September.

I saw the premiere performance on July 12, 2018 and it was impressive. Orestes tells the story of the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra who murders his mother in revenge for her slaughter of her husband. The play opens six days after the murder and Orestes has been driven mad by the avenging Furies for his action.
 
The chorus in Orestes
His sister Electra stands by his bed while the people of Argos are deciding the fate of the murderer. Orestes tells us that he was ordered by Apollo to kill his mother. The Beautiful Helen appears and she blames the gods for her elopement with Paris. A raging Tyndareus, the father of Clytemnestra arrives and he is furious and abusive towards his grandson Orestes. Menelaus shows up and waffles about the fate of Orestes but Orestes’ friend Pylades is steadfast. The play is wrapped up by the deus ex machina device where a god, in this case Apollo, appears and sends Orestes to Athens to be judged by the gods.

There are a number of strong performances. Ioanna Kolliopoulou plays a very dramatic and moving Electra.  Her brother is almost delirious a few days after he has murdered their mother and she is left in the palace with Helen and her daughter Hermione. She needs to show strength, grief and courage and Kolliopoulou does all of it.

Christos Stylianou as Orestes has committed matricide and the invisible Furies are pursuing him like the avenging spirits that they are. Stylianou must convey fear, guilt and behaviour tantamount to madness. A tough role done superbly by Stylianou.

Helen (Dafni Lamprogianni) appears with sun glasses, a stylish purple dress and is still the sexual magnet. She is afraid to go to her sister’s grave after all the deaths and destruction she caused by her elopement. An interesting take on the woman who launched a thousand ships.

In this modern dress production, Menelaus, played by Christodoulos Stylianou, appears like a naval officer (he is king of Sparta) and speaks in deadpan tones. He does show greater emotional range later in the play. His daughter Hermione (Marianna Pouregka) is a nice virgin who will make a nice wife eventually.    

Helen has a Phrygian slave and Director Yannis Anastasakis has Christos Stergioglou play him for comedy as a Trojan. The slave conveys information to the audience and is terrified for his life. After all the drama, he is a welcome piece of comic relief done well by Stergioglou.

A central problem of staging Ancient Greek tragedy, aside from the general paucity of information about how it was done, is the even greater ignorance about the presentation of the Chorus. Greek tragedy was probably closer to opera than a straight play and scholars are certain that the Chorus sang and probably danced.
 Pylades, Orestes and Electra 
The Chorus of Orestes consists of twelve young women who are Electra’s friends. They wear conservative but stylish dresses and speak separately and in unison and sing. They sing recitatives and some melodic verses with musical accompaniment composed by Babis Papadopoulos. Their movements (by Alexis Tsiamoglu) are well coordinated and appropriate and the result is a good example of what can be done with the Chorus.

The Theatro Dassous has a large semi-circular playing area and it is not always easy to position actors without having them very far apart. The theatre’s acoustics are not the best and the actors need to face the audience to be heard. Anastasakis’s direction minimized those problems with intelligent use of the space.

Orestes takes place outside the palace of Argos. The set of this production consisted of a large structure surrounded by scaffolding and enveloped by greens nets. There was a wheelbarrow, a barrel and a bucket in front of the palace and the playing area was cordoned off with a black and yellow tape. In other words, this looked like the palace was undergoing serious renovation and we were looking at a construction site.

There may be a reason for some of that but I could not figure it out. The presence of the wheelbarrow and the bucket were intentional for the rest, let’s just say it was inappropriate and leave it at that.

The play ends with Apollo making a somewhat vacuous wish about peace. Anastasakis adds a short piece of dissonant music. We all know wishes for peace are empty words and the dissonant music was a brilliant stroke.

A highly commendable production overall.
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Orestes by Euripides in a translation by Yorgos Blanas opened on July 12, 2018 for two performances at the Theatro Dassous, Thessaloniki and will tour Cyprus and Greece until September 16, 2018.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

SEVEN STONES AND ORFEO & MANJUN - REVIEW OF AIX-EN-PROVENCE FESTIVAL PRODUCTIONS

James Karas

Seven Stones is a one-act opera commissioned by the Aix-en-Provence Festival that had its world premiere at the small Théâtre du Jeu de Paume on July 7, 2018. The opera is by composer Ondřej Adámek based on a libretto by Sjon. It is described as an a capella work for four singers and a twelve member choir but there are string and percussion instruments. It is sung in English.

The performance lasts 1 hour and 20 minutes but the libretto is rich in incident and range and is divided in some dozen parts. The Stone Collector (Nicolas Simeha) gets around, you may say. We find ourselves, among other places, in a city in Central Europe, in a bar in Buenos Aires and in the New Testament with the Adulterous Woman about to be stoned.  Needless to say a lot of people are hit on the head by a stone.
 
 The cast of Orfeo & Majnun. HUGO SEGERS / FESTIVAL OF AIX-EN-PROVENCE
The libretto is printed in the programme in French and English and one can follow it as much as possible.  But, I think Adámek is striving for a new form of vocal expression. The four soloists (Simeha, Ann-Emmanuelle Davy, Shigeko Hata, and Landy Andramboavonjy) and the accents / axe 21 choir frequently sounded out chopped syllables at the beginning. The letter “s” is emphasized or elongated as if they have a serious lisping problem and other syllables are again sounded out as if they have a stutter or other speech impediment. After a while I wondered if they did not have a mental as well as a speech impediment.

The four soloists tell a number of tales including one about snow and the word is pronounced snow wo wo wo wo. Other words are similarly elongated. We hear the story of The Blind Poet of Buenos Aires, the tale of the Young Sailor from Boston and others.

A new work that may be trying to expand our horizons should not be judged hastily and I will wait to see the opera again or hear a recording. There is clearly more to it than I got on a first hearing.

ORFEO & MANJUN

The broad Cours Mirabeau, Aix-en-Provence’s main shopping street was turned into a theatre for a single performance of Orfeo & Majnun. A huge stage was erected for the performance of Western and Middle Eastern music based on the myth of the unfortunate Orpheus who lost his Eurydice and went to Hades in search of her.

The beautiful Layla (Nai Tamish Barghouti) has fallen in love with Qays but her father disapproves of the match and calls Qays, Majnun (Loay Srouji) meaning a fool. Barghouti and Srouji have beautiful voices and they sing some melodious love songs as he goes into the desert to live alone and she writes poetry about her love that she throws to the wind. Unfortunately her father forces her to marry someone else.
 The three-headed Cerberus in  Orfeo & Majnun. 
Photo Aix-en-Provence Festival
Orpheus’s (Yoann Dubruque) singing is of such surpassing beauty that animals leave the forest to listen to him. He and the lovely Eurydice (Judith Fa) do marry but alas she dies. Orpheus vows to go to Hades to rescue his beloved. He encounters Charon, the deliverer of souls across the River Styx and the three-headed dog Cerberus who guards the entrance. He convinces them to let him through.

We are led  through the tragic stories by a Narrator (Sachli Gholamaizad) and the rest of their stories follow with the inevitability of myths.

The opera was written by Moneim Adwan, Howard Moody and Dick van der Harst based on the conception of Airan Berg. The libretto is by Martina Winkel. It is directed by Berg and Winkel and conducted by Bassem Akiki.

More than a dozen choirs participate together with an intercultural ensemble of the Youth Orchestra of the Mediterranean. As you may gather, this is opera on a grand scale intended to entertain the thousands of people seated or standing in the Cours Mirabeau.

This is obviously and inter-cultural programme integrating Western and Middle Eastern music and singing. It is a marvelous, perfectly timed idea, done extremely well and a delight to watch and hear.
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Seven Stones by Ondřej Adámek opened on July 7 and will be performed a total of six times until July 17, 2018 on various dates at the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume. Orfeo & Majnun was performed once on July 28, 2018 at the Cours Mirabeau, Aix-en-Provence, France. www.festival-aix.com

Thursday, July 12, 2018

DIDO AND AENEAS - REVIEW OF AIX-EN-PROVENCE FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas is a relatively short but beautiful work. It has a splendid role for Dido, the much abused Queen of Carthage, who laments her fate almost throughout. In her opening words she speaks of languishing in Torment, being a stranger to peace and unable to even confess her troubles.

The Aix-en-Provence Festival has struck gold in its choice of South African soprano Kelebogile Pearl Besong as Dido. She expresses the high griefs of Dido with surpassing vocal beauty and when she laments her fate she gives us a magnificently moving rendition.
  
Scene from Dido and Aeneas. Photo:  BERTRAND LANGLOIS / AFP
Baritone Tobias Lee Greenhalgh plays a straight-backed Aeneas. He is dressed in khaki with high boots and he looked, I thought, like a British officer somewhere in the Empire in the good old days. His singing was good but relatively passionless. A toga may have been out of place but modern army attire did not help him. Aeneas as the founder of Rome can fall in love but he is to greater business bound and in the end he must leave Dido behind.

Soprano Sophia Burgos sang a sympathetic Belinda, Dido’s sister and friend while mezzo soprano Lucile Richardot was  suitably villainous and vitriolic as the Sorceress who hates Dido and you can imagine the rest.

Dido and Aeneas  has some of the most beautiful choral pieces in the repertoire and the Ensemble Pygmalion, chorus and orchestra, performed all exquisitely.       

Dido and Aeneas may have been composed as a court masque that requires a great deal of dancing. That could extend the time required for a full performance. But that would also require choreography and of course a troupe of ballet dancers. The Festival chose do without that but needed to add something to make an evening of it.
 Soprano Kelebogile Pearl Besong as Dido.  Photo:  BERTRAND LANGLOIS / AFP
The solution chosen was a new prologue consisting of a poem by Maylis de Kerangal. The poem is recited by Rokia Traoré while some women are aligned on the stage. Traoré, from Mali, represents A Woman from Cyprus, a new character added by Dramaturge Louis Geisler who sings a few verses and represents, I think, the fate of abused women. The new prologue adds some twenty minutes to the production which lasts one hour and fifteen minutes start to finish. How about another one act opera?

Dido and Aeneas is relatively static but it does have three short acts which show Dido and her train at the palace, the Sorceress and the Witches in their cave or wherever you want to put them, Aeneas and company hunting in the vales and the Sailors on the shore. The current production is done on one set representing a concrete wall that may be on the shore. Most of the production is done in gloomy lighting.

Purcell did marvels with Nahum Tate’s rhyming couplets which are a long way from Virgil’s description of the affair. Dido wants her life but not her fate to be remembered. Thanks to Virgil and Purcell, we remember both.
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Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell opened on July 7 and will be performed eight times until July 23, 2018 on various dates at the Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France. www.festival-aix.com

Sunday, July 8, 2018

THE MAGIC FLUTE - REVIEW OF AIX-EN-PROVENCE FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

The Aix-en-Provence Festival has revived Simon McBurney’s 2014 quirky and even perverse production of The Magic Flute with some of the same cast. The revival has its admirers judging by the standing ovation it received and some of its doubting Thomas’s about its virtues.

This is a no-magic Magic Flute and the countless gimmicks and tricks that McBurney and designer Michael Levine bring to their vision of the singspiel, though interesting and imaginative at times, do nothing to increase one’s enjoyment of the work.

This is an aggressively black and white production. Papageno and Papagena wear colourful costumes but after that there is very little colour.
Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night), Mari Eriksmoen as Pamina and Three Ladies
© Pascal Victor | artcompress
McBurney is enamored of video projections and with video man Finn Ross there is no end to its use. There are two cubicles on each side of the stage and we see a person writing the title of the opera, directional arrows and even a sketch of the monster that threatens Tamino with chalk on a blackboard which is then projected on the back of the stage. The fire, the water and other tasks that Tamino must endure are also projected on video. A bit too much of a good thing and some of it really unnecessary.

McBurney believes in orchestra participation in the performance and Papageno is seen among the musicians. Papageno needs birds thanks to his profession so he is provided with a dozen or so actors who flit pieces of paper around him which we take to be birds. We don’t. Even members of the orchestra get into the act.

A prominent item of the staging is a large platform that is suspended from above and can be raised, lowered and slanted. It proves quite useful for many of the staging effects. The whole business, and there is lots of it, makes the production look artificial, lifeless and simply confusing. What is the point of all that.

The singing and acting were a mixed bag as well. Soprano Mari Eriksmoen brought in the best performance as Pamina. Dressed in a simple white dress and barefoot, the pretty Norwegian, with her satin and mellifluous voice, was a moving and thoroughly enjoyable princess.

Tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac sang correctly but gave the impression that he was not quite engaged by the role. He sings his first aria where he declares his love for Pamina wearing a very unprincely T-shirt and underwear and shows very little passion throughout. He enters looking like a mountain hiker and the Three Women undress him.

Bass Dimitry Ivashchenko as Sarastro showed fine sonority in his middle range but he had difficulty with his low notes. On several occasions he came close to being drowned out by the orchestra.

Papageno the bird catcher is really a mountain hiker who carries a backpack and, for reasons unknown, a stepladder. Baritone Thomas Oliemans manages to sing well and be funny despite the production.

Soprano Kathryn Lewek plays the Queen of the Night, in a manner of speaking. She looks like a bag lady who should be sitting in the Cours Mirabeau with an empty coffee cup in front of her and with or without her wheelchair and cane. But ignore her accoutrements and listen to that marvelous voice that belts out her two arias with stupendous energy. 

Her partner, so to speak, Monostatos, is equally well-costumed but Bengt-Ola Morgny sings well and does a fine job as the dirty old man.

The choir and orchestra of the Ensemble Pygmalion conducted by Raphael Pichon does exemplary work with the score and shows that its players have a sense of humour.

This production represents McBurney’s personal vision of the opera which some peoplefind entertaining and invigorating. He owes nothing to librettist Emmanuel Schikaneder who produced a popular work to please the masses. We want directors to give us something different. That means that many of us may not be thrilled with what we get.
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The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart opened on July 6 and will be performed a total of eight  times until July 24, 2018 on various dates at the Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France. www.festival-aix.com

Saturday, July 7, 2018

THE FIERY ANGEL - L’ANGE DE FEU - REVIEW OF AIX-EN-PROVENCE FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

The Aix-en-Provence Festival’s second offering for its 70th season is Sergei Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel  (L’Ange de feu). This is an opera that is decidedly out of this world which presents a relentless and at times it seems endless phantasmagoria. Prokofiev finished the opera in 1927 but it was not produced at all until 1955 and then in Paris in French. He wrote the libretto based on the 1908 novel by Valery Bryusov.

The opera has not been completely forgotten but don’t hold your breath about seeing a production around the corner from your house any time soon. It may have been produced somewhere in Canada in the last sixty years but I can find no mention of such happening.
 
 The Set for The Fiery Angel. Photo: PASCAL VICTOR / ARTCOMPRESS
The Fiery Angel has a large cast but the central characters are three. Renata (soprano Ausrine Stundyte) had a vision of the angel Madiel when she was 8 years old. When she was 16, he appeared to her in a dream as a human being and promised to return eventually. Renata fell in love with Heinrich (bass Krzysztof Baczyk) who she is sure is Madiel but he disappeared. She meets Ruprecht (baritone Scott Hendricks) in a hotel where she is sprawled on the bathroom floor and he attempts to rape her.

That is just the opening scene. Ruprecht and Renata go to Cologne (the opera is set in Germany) in search of Heinrich and they meet a Fortune Teller (Agnieszka Rehlis), Mephistopheles and Agrippa the magician (  Andreï Popov), Faust (Krzysztof Bączyk) and an assortment of other characters, most out the realm of “normal.”

Director Mariusz Treliński and Stage Designer Boris Kudlička give us an unremittingly dark, sinister and hallucinatory atmosphere. Renata is clearly possessed and we never know where reality ends (if it exists at all) and where the world of delusion and nightmare begins.

There is mystery, cruelty and a sense of the unknown and unknowable. There are six young women singers and a number of dancers who perform a ballet sequence. Renata in her youth is hinted at from the beginning of the opera but in the final act entitled Retrospection we are in fact taken back to her school days. After all her nightmarish adventures, she ends up in a convent. We meet the Inquisitor and the plot may connect to the beginning. I will say no more. Spoiler alert.

The stage consists of two playing levels and the emphasis is on the unrealistic, the shadowy and the gloomy.  

Ausrine Stundyte as the possessed Renata has a tough role to handle both in singing and in acting. She does a splendid job. There is no explanation about who Ruprecht is but he struck me as a travelling salesman of yore who ended up in a sleazy motel. There is nothing heroic about him but he sings and acts well in the role.
 
Ausrine Stundyte as RenataPhoto: PASCAL VICTOR / ARTCOMPRESS
The opera is done in modern costumes and there is much to be said against that. Agrippa, Faust, Mephistopheles, the Inquisitor and life in a convent are hardly recognizable in modern life. Surely a few centuries back would be more appropriate and resonate better with the audience, or at the very least something less obviously modern.

The music for this lurid tale is appropriately dissonant and gloomy. There seem to have been some comic scenes in the original but they were all deleted from the current production. There are some flashes of melody but there are no memorable arias or duets. It seems like a tough score and Kazushi Ono does superb work with the Paris Orchestra and the Choir of the National Opera of Poland.

The Fiery Angel shows bold programming and it is an opera worth seeing more frequently but, as I said, don’t hold your breath.
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The Fiery Angel  by Sergei Prokofiev opened on July 5 and will be performed four times until July 15, 2018 on various dates at the Grand Théâtre de Provence , Aix-en-Provence, France. www.festival-aix.com

Friday, July 6, 2018

ARIADNE AUF NAXOS - REVIEW OF AIX-EN-PROVENCE FESTIVAL PRODUCTION


Reviewed by James Karas

The Aix-en-Provence Festival is celebrating its 70th season in the gorgeous medieval city in Provence. If you were asked to plan a festival and had to choose a time, a place, weather conditions, theatres and, after 70 years, achievements, you could not do better than this one in southern France.

The 70th Festival runs from July 4 to July 24 features six operas among a rich and crowded program. The operas have a wide range from Mozart’s The Magic Flute to Seven Stones by Czech composer Ondřej Adámek, a new work commissioned by the Festival.      

 The set. Photo: Pascal Victor / Artcompress © courtesy of the Aix Festival].
The Festival opened with Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos  under the open roof of the converted Archbishop’s palace in a production directed by Katie Mitchell with the Orchestre de Paris conducted by Marc Albrecht.

Ariadne auf Naxos as envisioned by Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal uses the story of the princess who was abandoned by Theseus on the deserted beach of the famous island as a springboard for many other things, most notably the encounter of opera seria with opera buffa. 

“The richest man in Vienna” (Paul Herwig) is not given a name but he is putting on a posh dinner for his friends. He wants to entertain them with a serious opera, Adriane auf Naxos, a light comedy in the commedia dell’arte style called The Fickle Zerbinetta and Her Four Lovers and fireworks.

Fireworks of a different type start in the Prologue when the “artists” are told that Ariadne and Zerbinetta have to be performed simultaneously because there is just not time for both. The other fireworks have to start on time.

The Prologue consists of a number of temper tantrums by the artistes who must compromise their artistic integrity. The Composer (a suitably histrionic and vocally accomplished mezzo soprano Angela Brower) goes ballistic at the thought of being associated with the low class comedians. But there is the wily and marvelous Zerbinetta of soprano Sabine Devieilhe with her feet on the ground, her sense of humour in sharp readiness and her voice in ship-shape condition.  If there is any disagreement left, the Music Master (baritone Josef Wagner) brings them down to earth by reminding them that he who pays the piper, calls the tune.

The war between high art and low comedy comes to a head during the performance of Ariadne and the intrusion by the comedians. Soprano Lise Davidsen sings the languid and abandoned Ariadne who simply wants to die. Davidsen has a marvelous voice and Strauss provides her with some long and tough vocal demands which she meets with splendid flourishes and exemplary stamina.

She waits for Hermes to take her to Hades but instead is visited by Bacchus, god of wine and similar enjoyable duties. Tenor Eric Cutler has a supple voice and an excellent stage presence as the somewhat mysterious presence to inconsolable Ariadne.
 
Zerbinetta and the Richest Man with comedians. Photo: Pascal Victor / 
Artcompress © courtesy of the Aix Festival
To some of us who may be less high-minded, the joy of the opera is the practical, open-minded Zerbinetta as sung by the delightful Devieilhe. While Ariadne dreams of the peace, purity and quiet of the kingdom of the dead in “Es gibt ein Reich,” Zerbinetta tells her in Grossmächtige Prinzessin (O great princess!) to get off her ass (ok, she uses polite language) and have fun. There are lots of men out there and she can have as many as she wants. A delightful long aria done with panache and encompassing a philosophy of life and a trumpet call for the liberated woman that must have been shocking in 1916 when the revised edition of Ariadne premiered.

The opera is set in the mansion of the wealthy patron but we get almost no sense of life in the financial stratosphere. The preparation for the performances and the performances are done presumably in the servants’ quarters which in this case consist of two rooms that look like a living room and a dining room and can be found in any suburban house. The furniture is moved to make a playing area and a place for chairs but with bare walls and modern costumes, there is no feel of wealth at all.

Has “the richest man in Vienna” gone through a stock market meltdown? I think removing or failing to show the difference between the upper crust that can be purchased by money and the lower class artists is an unfortunate decision by Mitchell and designer Chloe Lamford.    

Strauss’s complex score is performed by the Orchestre de Paris conducted by Marc Albrecht in a performance that started at 10:00 p.m. and ended with enthusiastic applause close to 1:00 a.m.
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Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss opened on July 4 will be performed six times until July 16, 2018 on various dates at the Théâtre d l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France. www.festival-aix.com

Thursday, July 5, 2018

KILLER JOE – REVIEW OF LETTS’ PLAY AT TRAFALGAR STUDIOS

James Karas

Tracy Letts’ early play Killer Joe is about life in a trailer park. Yes, all the characters are white trash and there is a prodigious amount of violence but there is also serious playwriting. I like to think of the play as violence and gore for the intelligent person. Maybe.

The play opens with a young woman climbing to the roof of a trailer using a rope ladder. There is a thunderclap of music and the lights go out leaving the young woman mysteriously standing atop the trailer. The play continues with Chris (Adam Gillen) frantically knocking on the door to be let into the trailer so he can urinate.
From left: Adam Gillen and Steffan Rhodri in Killer Joe. Photo Marc Brenner
The plot of Killer Joe can hardly be more melodramatic. Chris, a teenager, is desperate for money to pay his drug dealer who will kill him if he does not. He convinces his father Ansel (Steffan Rhodri) to let him hire Killer Joe (James Groom) to kill his mother so that Chris, his sister Dottie and Ansel can collect on her life insurance policy. Agreed.

We meet Killer Joe who comes to close the deal for his next job. He is usually played by star-power Orlando Bloom who was indisposed the day I saw the production. Cold-blooded killers are a frequent occurrence in movies and on television but this man goes over the top. He is a complete professional with good manners and a few rules. He gets paid $25,000 up front and he demands obedience. The violence within him is terrifying because it is hidden beneath a veneer of good manners. Groom’s performance is simply stellar. 

Chris and Ansel have no money but Joe is willing to make an exception and take a retainer – Dottie (Sophie Cookson). Dottie is attractive but not all there but that does not deter Joe from proceeding to have sexual relations with her. Joe fulfills his end of the bargain and I will say nothing about the rest of the plot for fear of spoiling it for you.

The words trailer trash barely begin to describe all of the people in the play. The door in the opening scene is answered by Sharla (Neve McIntosh), Ansel’s girlfriend, who is wearing nothing below the waist and does not see anything wrong with her appearance. Chris is shocked.

With the possible exception of Dottie, these people are the scum of the earth who live like pigs. Gillen as Chris is frantic throughout the play because he is living in terror of being wiped out any moment. Ansel is a doormat but a filthy one who is capable of violence. Sharla is just trash.

The play makes considerable demands on the actors. The seething evil in the eyes and actions of Killer Joes, the terror suffered by Chris and his outbursts of violence, the furor of Ansel and Sharla test the mettle of all of them and the audience remains agog at what is happening. All five give stupendous performances.

Director Simon Evans gives us a taut, disciplined production that is all the more effective for its embrace of the trailer park atmosphere and the violent life of its inhabitants.

The single set by Grace Smart shows the kitchen and living room of the trailer and it is perfectly suitable.

The final tableau of the play leaves the plot perhaps where the play began. But one cannot be sure. It is partially the director’s choice to leave us wondering.
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Killer Joe by Tracy Letts continues until August 18, 2018 at Trafalgar Studios, 14 Whitehall, London, SW1A 2DY. www.trafalgarentertainment.com/

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

MACBETH – REVIEW OF ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY PRODUCTION

James Karas

The Royal Shakespeare Company gives us a free-wheeling, modern production of Macbeth in Stratford-upon-Avon directed by Polly Findlay. It uses projected titles, children as witches and other unorthodox artifices as well as taking a casual attitude toward the text. There are some brilliant touches and some head scratchers but overall it is a dazzling production with an outstanding cast.

Macbeth, as everyone knows, opens on a blasted heath in Scotland with three scary witches babbling in rhyming couplets. Nope. This production opens with a large, very comfortable-looking bed centre stage on which an old man is sleeping. Three children appear wearing red hoodies and holding plastic dolls of babies. These cute girls are the three witches and they toss the dolls violently on the ground to tell us who they really are and then try to decide where to meet again.
Niamh Cusack and Christopher Eccleston as the Macbeths. Photo by Richard Davenport (c) RSC
Unfortunately, they are still children with children’s voices and there is nothing sinister or mysterious about them. They do speak to Macbeth and Banquo promising kingship to the first and a royal line to the second. The witches, if you will, do appear again according to the text, but they make a few out-of-the-text appearances and at times are used to push props like the bed and a desk off the stage.

Findlay uses the Porter (Michael Hodgson) in ways that I simply could not figure out. He has a brief scene when he opens the gate to Macbeth’s castle and Shakespeare, generous to actors even is in minor parts, gives him some very good lines that evoke genuine laughter. He is the one who tells us the positive effect of alcohol on the desire for sex and its negative impact on the ability to perform it. Findlay has him sitting on the side of the stage almost throughout the performance. He carries a broom and interacts with some characters but whether he is supposed to be some kind of Chorus simply escaped me.

He is given a few lines that are usually spoken by other characters including telling Macbeth that Lady Macbeth is dead.

Designer Fly Davis splits the back of the stage horizontally in two creating an upper playing area. Quite brilliant because then we can have some of the characters above watching the others below.  Very effective staging.

Christopher Eccleston plays a very dramatic and frantic Macbeth. He shows us that Macbeth has the ambition but not the ability to be a true tyrant. He is in fact a bit of a coward who is pushed into acts that he would normally not contemplate.

This is in stark contrast to Niamh Cusack’s Lady Macbeth who shows us in a superb performance that she is capable of anything to fulfill her ambitions. Her example of her ability to toss a child and bash its brains out if it is in her way is a fine illustration of this Lady Macbeth. The witches smashing the dolls is obviously related to this Lady Macbeth.
 Niamh Cusack and Michael Hodgson. Photo by Richard Davenport (c) RSC
Edward Bennett is exceptional as Macduff. When he is told that all his children have been butchered by Macbeth’s henchmen he is stunned and all he can do is repeat the word “all” in shock and disbelief. Raphael Sowole is a bloodied and effective Banquo.

There are titles projected on the stage telling us about the play, I suppose. One of them is “THE FUTURE IN AN INSTANT.” Findlay wants to emphasize the importance of time by having a digital clock prominently displayed which shows the time some scenes are taking.

All of the components mentioned and many more add up to a brilliant production. The role of the Porter, the children as the weird sisters and other details may be somewhat confusing but the production leaves you bowled over by its effectiveness.
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Macbeth by William Shakespeare continues until September 21, 2018 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, England. www.rsc.org.uk

Sunday, July 1, 2018

ROMEO AND JULIET – REVIEW OF ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY PRODUCTION


James Karas

Director Erica Whyman has staged a youth-oriented and fast-paced if somewhat ill-focused production of Romeo and Juliet for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. It has become de rigueur to say and be inclusive and to try to attract the young to the theatre and that is quite right. Theatres need young people to replace the gray hairs and walkers that fill the auditoriums.

Whyman and Designer Tom Piper have chosen ill-defined modern costumes and do the entire production on an almost empty stage. The dominant prop is a large box that is open on two sides and bears resemblance to a bus stop shelter. It serves as the balcony, Juliet’s bier, a platform for the death scene and for some of the actors to climb on. Juliet dies in a chair and is carried to the top of the box where she made love to Romeo.
 
Bally Gill and Karen Fishwick in Romeo and Juliet. 
Photo: Topher McGrillis/RSC
Bally Gill is the passionate and agile Romeo to Karen Fishwick’s clever and equally passionate Juliet. I liked them but I did not love them. Whyman may have tried hard to make them modern lovers so that the younger members of the audience may identify with rather than those of a certain age. Fair enough if that is the intention.

The vault of the Capulets consists of the aforementioned box with the ghosts of Tybalt and Mercutio standing on each side. There is no mystery or dread evoked by the scene at all. But Whyman goes a step further in reducing the fear of death and the presence in a vault with dead bodies. When Romeo sees the dead Juliet, he asks “Ah, dear Juliet, /Why art thou yet so fair?” For reasons that escape me the following line is deleted in this production: “Shall I believe / That unsubstantial death is amorous, / And that the lean abhorrèd monster keeps / Thee here in dark to be his paramour.” Juliet is so beautiful that the monster keeps her beautiful even after death because he is in love with her. Why would any director delete a beautiful line like that?

Mercutio is played by Charlotte Josephine as an athletic, mercurial, lithe young woman who is an adept boxer. She as he faces Juliet’s cousin Tybalt (Raphael Sowole) who is quite the opposite of Mercutio in size but he still gets the better of him.

Escalus, the Prince of Verona, is another role played by a woman but Beth Cordingly makes an authoritative and convincing ruler. Michael Hodgson is a very affectionate father to Juliet when he gets his way and powerfully monstrous when he is gainsaid.

Andrew French is a sympathetic Friar Laurence. He wears a loose white shirt and slacks and I could not figure out what type of friar he is. Even in today’s secular society friars look about the same as they did in previous centuries and I have never seen one dressed like French is in the role. Maybe I lead a sheltered life and there are friars in white shirts and slacks all over the place.

Juliet’s Nurse is usually good for a few good laughs but Whyman has Ishia Bennison play her pretty straight. She may be a bit raunchy but you have to use your imagination rather than feel her dirty-mindedness.

Whyman lays some emphasis on knife fights, presumably the weapon of choice of modern youth. Knives and, in the United States, guns, are weapons of choice but I am not sure that one can superimpose that fighting of the youth of Verona in times of yore on the youth of today. Do we really need to stretch that far to convince today’s youth to go the theatre?

Subject to these observations, this is a good production and Whyman did not need to go to such lengths to make it relevant to modern youth. With a good cast and intelligent directing, Rome and Juliet does fine on its own.
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Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare continues until September 21, 2018 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, England. www.rsc.org.uk