Wednesday, November 11, 2009


The Canadian Opera Company is in its 60th year of existence and in its fourth season at The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. The new venue may not have put Toronto on top of the operatic world but it can probably stand its ground against most opera houses. The new opera house is almost completely sold out for most performances and it is a world away from the old, unlamented O’Keefe/Hummingbird/Sony Centre.

The seven operas offered for the 2009-10 season are nicely spread out over the year instead of the old method of feast or famine. Full houses have resulted in additional performances and the present looks bright.

The COC offers Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Igor Stravinsky’s The Nightingale for the fall season which runs from September 26 to November 5, 2009. The next two operas, Carmen and Otello will be shown from late January to the end of February, 2010.

Madama Butterfly is a familiar favourite whereas The Nightingale is a new creation by Robert Lepage. It premieres on October 17 and with Lepage as the force behind it, the tickets for the eight performances are all but completely sold out.

Butterfly is an approachable work and can be enjoyed by the neophyte as well as the opera aficionado. In fact there was a little girl sitting on a seat booster across the aisle from me. The COC’s revival of its 2003 production makes it an even greater pleasure to see and hear the opera. Director Brian Macdonald has opted for a simple and very attractive production. He eschews any attempts at making it ‘different’ and the result is a terrific night at the opera.

The COC has two casts for the main characters. The night I saw it the role of Cio-Cio San (Butterfly) was sung by Romanian soprano Adina Nitescu in her COC debut. What one notices again is that Butterfly is an opera for a soprano with a bunch of visitors thrown in. Pinkerton, Sharpless, Suzki and Goro come and go – Cio-Cio San is on stage most of the time and she has a job to do. Nitescu has the vocal and acting equipment with which to do it. From “Un bel di” to her dramatic farewell to her son and suicide she delivered a moving and beautifully sung performance. She is physically suitable for the role. She does not exactly look like a 15-year old Japanese girl but if she did she would probably not be able to sing or act.

Newfoundlander tenor David Pomeroy was the swaggering Lieut. Pinkerton who is a heartless naval officer in the first act and a remorse-ridden man in the final act when he finds out that he fathered a child with the child geisha. Puccini does not overwork the tenor in this opera but Pomeroy gave a fine account of himself from the Act I aria and duet to the final trio. No doubt we will see more of him.

Baritone James Westman was a very sympathetic and well-done Consul Sharpless. He sang well and interacted very effectively with Butterfly. The pain and sympathy he felt for her was palpable and that is high praise for a singer who may be more interested in the notes than in the acting.

Puccini’s plush music was brought out by the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra conducted by Carlo Montanaro.

Monday, November 9, 2009


Nikos Dionysios Planning Production in 2010

Plans are afoot to reopen the Theater of Ancient Messene.

Nikos Dionysios, director, actor and choreographer, has organized the Dionysios Theater Company with a view to producing ancient drama at the site as early as next summer. In fact he wants to stage Euripides’s The Bacchae and hopes to take the production on tour.

Dionysios, with his deep roots in Messinia, wants nothing less than a cultural revival of the south-western corner of Peloponnesus. He envisions not just theatrical productions but exchanges with other companies, workshops and conferences on the theater.

Your knowledge of the prefecture Messinia may go no further than eating Kalamata olives and you may not have heard of Ancient Messene and its theater at all. You are not alone. Systematic excavations of the site did not begin until 1986 and there is still much work to be done.

Ancient Messenia did not have particularly cordial relations with its neighbors, the Spartans, and its citizens ended up as helots of the latter. In 369 BC, they achieved independence and the Theban General Epaminondas built the city of Messene as the new capital.

Ancient Messene is the best-preserved city of southern Greece. It is located in the Municipality of Ithomi about 20 kilometers from Kalamata, and was probably the most-ignored site in Greece. Ancient Messene has a stadium, an assembly hall (Vouleftirio) and a theater. The stadium is useable as a theater and can hold up to 7000 people according to Dionysios. The assembly hall can accommodate about 700. The theater should be ready for use in two years and will hold about 4000 spectators.

“I want to capture the poetry of Ancient Greek tragedy” said Dionysios in a recent interview at a cafĂ© overlooking Ancient Messene. “Greek tragedy is poetry, music and movement” he added “and we need to reach back to those elements even in translation”

“Take the Chorus, for example” he continued. “They spoke in unison, they chanted and they danced. You rarely if ever see Greek Tragedy performed that way these days.”

Dionysios trained and worked under the legendary director Karolos Koun. He has performed in theatres ranging from the Odeon of Herodes Atticus and Epidaurus in Greece to venues in Europe, Hong Kong and North America. Ephemera, his first work as writer and director was distinguished as the Best Production of the Year.

He has also created Masks, a production based on ancient poetry, and Bolero, a play based on the life of Isadora Duncan, among others.

In 2003 he directed Aristophanes’ The Birds at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada. That was the first time that the Festival had staged Aristophanes in its fifty years of existence.

In 2007, he directed and choreographed Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes with the Corfu Regional Repertory Company. In 2008 he directed, choreographed and acted the role of Dionysus in The Bacchae with the same company. The production was seen and well received in Albania and in southern Italy.

Kostas Georgakopoulos, the mayor of the Municipality of Ithomi, sees a great opportunity for the cultural and commercial development of the area. “It will be easier to go from Athens to Ancient Messene than from Athens to Epidaurus when the new highway is completed” he pointed out as he looked at the ancient site and on the spectacular vista of hills beyond.

“We want to enhance and promote the cultural life of the area” added the mayor. “We want to put Ithomi on the cultural map of Europe.”

Christos Athanasopoulos, the President of the Council of Ancient Messene nodded in agreement.

Excavation of the theater at Ancient Messene revealed the startling fact that it had a moveable and removable stage. The stage was mounted on large wheels and it could be moved forward towards the audience. The stage was as much as five meters (15 feet) off the ground. The reason for the construction of a moveable stage is not certain according to Petros Themelis, the archeologist who has spent more than 20 years excavating the site.

It was thought that the moveable stage was a Roman invention that the Greeks had copied after the conquest of Greece by the Romans. This appears not to be so and in fact the theater at Ancient Messene proves the reverse: the Romans copied the idea of a moveable stage from the Greeks. The stage was also completely removable. It was put away in storage at the end of the performance.

“I don’t expect to have a moveable stage” commented Dionysius “but I do want to see prominent theatrical companies from Europe to stage high-quality productions in Ancient Messene. It would be marvelous for people to see how other directors and actors treat Greek tragedy” he said.

Asked about how he plans to finance his vision, Dionysios commented that productions in ancient Athens used to be paid for by wealthy Athenians called “chorigoi”. “In fact there was a very rich and powerful family here called Saethidas during Roman times. They spent a lot of money to preserve the theater. I am checking out if there are any of them still around to repeat what their ancestors did two thousand years ago” he said. “If not we will have to rely on modern day Saethidases and local support.”

“Look what Herodes Atticus did. He built a theatre to commemorate his wife and two thousand years later his name is still a household word for theatre lovers in Greece. Not a bad monument!” he continued.

“Culture is good for business and business is good for culture” he added. Just imagine what even a few thousand visitors to an area can do for its economy. You can look at any number of examples from Canada to Europe where cultural events give a tremendous boom to a community” he concluded.

Mount Ithomi had a sanctuary in honour of Zeus Ithomatas. In the 16th century the Monastery of Voulkano was built over Zeus’s sanctuary. There was also in all likelihood a sanctuary dedicated to Dionysus, the god of the theater.

“We have pagan and Christian representatives close at hand” commented Dionysios with a smile. “With local help and maybe a modern Saethidas or Herodes Atticus, the theater of Ancient Messene may be up and running again after a couple thousand years of darkness.”