Monday, August 30, 2010


Age of Arousal, the title of Linda Griffiths’ play, contains the mildly titillating indication that humanity has reached a new level of civilization. After the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason, we have progressed to the age when we can finally get sexually excited. The sexual liberation of women was an important part in the struggle for the emancipation of women in the 19th and 20th centuries but that was not the central concern.

Women were not fighting merely for legal, social political, and yes, sexual, rights: they were fighting for recognition as people. In 1876 a British court had ruled that "Women are persons in matters of pains and penalties, but are not persons in matters of rights and privileges." As late as 1928, the Supreme Court of Canada, when asked if women are persons, had resoundingly answered “no.”

Linda Griffiths’ play was, in her words, “wildly inspired by The Odd Women, a novel by George Gissing.” It deals with women trying to assert the fact that they are persons. Mary Barfoot (Donna Belleville) is a 60 year old woman and she has set up a business teaching woman to type. This is a great leap forward because it means that women can work and be paid instead of being indentured to the wealthy or to their husbands.

One of the interesting facts that Griffiths brings out is that in the late 19th century there were 500,000 fewer men than women in England. That meant that half a million women could not find a husband. It was perhaps one of the factors that pushed women to demand rights and privileges to go along with their pains and penalties

Mary Barfoot has a partner in the commercial and personal sense of the word in Rhoda Nunn (Jenny Young) and they go so far as to kiss, a mild, split–second peck but a huge step for humanity, one might say.

They are joined by the Madden sisters, working class women in pretty desperate conditions, who find liberation and self-assertion. The pretty Monica finds sexual freedom while one of the others is free to wear a man’s suit.

The problem I have with the play is its structure. Griffiths is far too enamored of asides or expressions of thoughts during a dialogue. For example when Rhoda is telling Mary’s young cousin, Everard (Gray Powell), that she and Mary had a row and that they may have to separate, he tells us that he is aroused and that he noticed the swell of her breasts. They are talking about business and she informs us that she sees the bulge in his trousers. Commercial discussion on the surface and sexual arousal underneath are interesting but there are more subtle ways of indicating the latter. In the end each character becomes her own Chorus and it is simply overdone.

Acting honours go to Jenny Young. She has a wonderful ringing voice and the bearing and expression of a woman who could bring about change. Donna Belleville’s Mary was strong but her best days may have been in the past when she was a suffragette and paid dearly for her protests. Zarrin Darnell-Martin is a pretty and smart Monica who is learning the ropes of freedom and manipulation of men.

Kelli Fox and Sharry Flett are seasoned actors who bring fine performances to the roles of the Virginia and Alice Madden respectively. Gray Powell as Everard, the only man in the play, is the suave upper-crust gentleman looking for a woman for the usual entertainment.

Jackie Maxwell directed the play very capably and we do get a fine statement of a grand theme despite some structural infelicities in the play.

Age of Arousal
by Linda Griffiths will run until October 9, 2010 at the Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. 1 800-511-SHAW

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Lucy Peacock as Nana and Tom Rooney as the Narrator. Photo by: David Hou
Reviewed by James Karas

Michel Tremblay’s For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again is one of those deceptively simple but theatrically marvelous plays, that, done by the right actor, is a sheer delight and a memorable experience. Stratford has struck gold in this pitch-perfect production at the Tom Patterson Theatre with Lucy Peacock and Tom Rooney.

The 1998 play is a celebration of the wild imagination, of sheer theatricality and histrionic humour of a woman called Nana. And that’s just the beginning. It is also the homage paid by the playwright to his mother, a working class woman who becomes Everywoman.

We see Nana during five stages in her life, all of them involving her son who is also the Narrator of the play. We see Nana and her son when he is ten years old and go through the stages of his growth until age 20. By that time Nana has grown old and ill and she is about to die.

The role of the Narrator and the son at different stages of his growth is not a bad one and Rooney does excellent work with it. But he is completely overshadowed by the exuberant and melodramatic Nana. Tremblay wanted a play about his mother, I suppose, and he put himself in it to showcase her and not himself.

Nana is a role to be craved for by an actor who can be funny, outrageous, moving and loving. Lucy Peacock has all those qualities and her Nana is such a bravura performance that a standing ovation seems like meager praise.

Who is Nana? When her 10-year old son throws a chunk of ice under the rear wheels of a car, the driver stops fearing he has hit a child. The policeman knocks on the door and she learns of what has happened. Nana’s imagination and tongue go into over-drive as she blasts her son for what he had done. But what she imagines could have happened is not remotely connected to reality or the laws of probability. Her outbursts are simply hilarious.

Nana is an avid reader of fiction and so is her son. The two engage in discussions of romantic fiction that is both astute and simple. It is also funny. The discussions and arguments are, of course, food for the developing imagination and talents of her impressionable son who we know will become a writer.

Nana brings much more than her family on the stage. She deals with Canada and Europe in the bargain. The origins of nobility and royalty, their “blue blood” and the peccadilloes of her family are all fodder for her tongue and imagination. But they are more than that; for Nana humour and melodrama are tools for survival and she knows it. When she makes a comic narrative of her sister-in-law’s death she knows that she is doing it in order to escape reality.

Unfortunately reality pursues Nana with its usual cruelty and she becomes fatally ill. In one of the most moving descriptions of approaching death, Nana describes the pain from the cancer in her stomach and likens it to the pain of pregnancy and giving birth. It is an extraordinary juxtaposition.

In the end the theatrical Nana is given a thoroughly theatrical exit by the son that she nurtured. He writes an exit for her on angels’ wings. Nana’s death, like the rest of the play, is an amazing coup de theatre that provides a great night at the theatre.


For the Pleasure of Seeing her Again by Michel Tremblay continues until September 26, 2010 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. 1-800-567-1600

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Reviewed by James Karas

The first English invasion of Ireland took place in 1169 when King Henry II sent an army over with the permission of the Pope or so he claimed. The English stayed there despite numerous reminders by the Irish that their presence was unwelcome. The Irish views were ignored, one might say, to such an extent that the English began to regard Ireland as simply John Bull’s other island.

The relationship between the two islands was examined by Bernard Shaw, an Irishman living in London, in his play John Bull’s Other Island. It is the second play of the two and only two plays by Shaw out of the ten productions offered by the Festival that is named after him. The other one is The Doctor’s Dilemma.

We get a solid, well-acted and well-directed production. The interest in Anglo-Irish relations at the beginning of the twentieth century (the play premiered in 1904) is not as keen as it used to be. The plot (what plot?) is intended to facilitate discussion of the subject rather than the characters and the incidents facilitate examination of the political and social issues of Ireland.

The plot or incidents that provoke the discussion, if you will, concerns two civil engineers, one English, one Irish, who go to an Irish village from London in order to foreclose on a mortgage and develop the land they will acquire. They meet the colourful “locals” and that keeps the humour and brilliant discussion moving.

There is also a mildly romantic subplot. When Larry Doyle (Graeme Somerville), the Irish engineer, left the village eighteen years ago, he had a romantic attachment to Nora Reilly (Severn Thompson), a local girl. Instead of the flame between the two being re-ignited, Tom Broadbent (Benedict Campbell), the Englishman, falls in love with the girl.

That is the dramatic terrain that director Christopher Newton has to tread and he does so with a sure-footing that provides us with a well-paced and entertaining production despite the usual Shavian verbosity.

Campbell’s Broadbent is ambitious, unscrupulous and displays the assurance and arrogance of a nation used to ruling people as if by divine approval. The initial thought that Henry II conquered Ireland with the permission of the Pope has not diminished. He is enthusiastic and patronizing but he does it with panache. He sees no irony in wanting to become the Member of Parliament for the region – after all, who better than an Englishman to represent the Irish and speak about Home Rule (under English guidance) on their behalf? Benedict Campbell handles the role with assurance and aplomb.

The Irish engineer is a tall, redheaded young man who is equally adept at analyzing Ireland’s problems. He does not appear to mind that his old love is taken by his friend and partner and he is rejected even by his townspeople as their candidate for Parliament. Splendid work by Somerville.

Jim Mezon deserves special mention as the defrocked priest Peter Keegan. Keegan is an eccentric, a philosopher, a keen observer and a loner. Mezon has the accent and the bearing to bring out the fascinating and almost mythical character that Shaw no doubt intended.

The townspeople provide the broad humour and colour of the play. Notable performances are turned in by veteran actor Guy Bannerman as Cornelius Doyle, Thom Marriott as Father Dempsey, Jonathan Widdifield as Patsy Farrell, Mary Haney as Aunt Judy and Patrick McManus as Barney Doyle. Ric Reid doubles as Timothy and Matthew Haffigan with very funny results.

Severn Thompson was unfortunately not a particularly convincing Nora. She needs to be more attractive and alluring. No wonder Larry Doyle left her eighteen years ago and paid scant attention to her when he finally returned. She is an attractive woman and Newton and designer William Schmuck should have paid more attention to her.

A production well worth seeing.

John Bull’s Other Island by Bernard Shaw continues until October 9, 2010 at the Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. 1 800-511-SHAW

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Seana McKenna as La Marquise de Merteuil and Tom McCamus as Le Vicomte de Valmont. Photo by: David Hou

Reviewed by James Karas

Dangerous Liaisons is this season’s fourth production at the Festival Theatre. With two plays by Shakespeare and an American musical, this comedy adds a British and a French connection. The play by Christopher Hampton is based on the novel by Pierre-Ambroise-Francois Choderlos de Laclos. The novel and the play used the French title, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but Stratford has decided to give us the title in English.

What is a dangerous liaison, you ask. In the hands of Hampton and Laclos, “dangerous” is a gross understatement. “Liaison” means getting entangled with two French aristocrats, namely Le Vicomte de Valmont (Tom McCamus) and La Marquise de Merteuil (Seana McKenna). You may not remember their names but once you have met them, you will not forget their characters.

Do not imagine cruelty or torture á la Marquis de Sade or Robespierre and the Terror. The Vicomte and the Marquise are far too civilized, polished and well-behaved for such conduct. The cruelty and inhumanity that the two display are done with style, delicacy and panache.

While performing their tasks, they speak in balanced sentences, with wit, fine manners, deferential curtsies and the polish that comes with high birth.

More details? The Vicomte and the Marquise were former lovers. The latter was dumped by another lover and she wants revenge. She wants Valmont to seduce Cecile (Bethany Jillard), her former lover’s fiancée. What exquisite pleasure it would bring to the Marquise to know that when her former lover exercises the priapic jus of his prima nocta he will discover that his bride’s hymeneal path had been cleared by someone else. We must use polite language lest we be accused of speaking of country matters, as Hamlet would say.

Valmont considers the job beneath his talents. Seducing a girl fresh out of a convent school is far too easy. He wants to lay siege on the beautiful, religious, virtuous and faithful wife, La Presidente de Tourvel (Sara Topham).

The apparatuses are assembled. His valet Azolan (Paul Dunn) seduces Tourvel’s servant in order to gain access to her letters. Valmont saves a poor family from bankruptcy so he can be painted as a man of virtue. He declares his love to Tourvel! She resists; he insists, she fights, he persists. He conquers.

Valmont wants more than mere sexual conquest. He wants Mme de Tourvel to destroy her moral universe for him. She falls in love with him and does destroy her world. At this stage, Valmont, in an act of sadistic cruelty, abandons her.

There are other Machiavellian machinations in the play and director Ethan McSweeny does a marvelous job of bringing out the comedy and cruelty of the piece.

McKenna and McCamus are superbly matched as the scheming couple and turn in exquisite performances. Sara Topham is beautiful and statuesque as Mme de Tourvel until she breaks down under Valmont’s assault.

Bethany Jillard is excellent as the nubile target of Valmont’s lust and Michael Therriault is good as the doltish Danceny.

Martha Henry is wasted in the minor role of the old aunt, Mme de Rosemonde but Dunn does a fine job even in the minor role of Valmont’s valet.

The set by Santo Loquesto struck me as 18th century high tech, meaning that it was neither. There were spot lights on the stage that were occasionally aimed at the audience. There was also some discordant modern music that can most charitably be described as annoying. All of these minor flaws are easily ignored. Like Mme Tourvel’s virtue, all complaints vanish in the face of a wonderful play done exceptionally well.


Dangerous Liaisons by Christopher Hampton opened on August 12 and will run until October 30, 2010 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. 1-800-567-1600

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Carmen Cusack and the Nurses of South Pacific. photo: Peter Coombs

Aubrey Dan has three things going for him: ambition, vision and money.

His vision and ambition are to bring Broadway to Toronto. He has even registered “Rewarding Broadway Experience” as a trademark. Now many people can do all of the latter but few mortals have the financial wherewithal to even imagine bringing a Broadway musical to Toronto. Aubrey Dan has no such limitations and he wants Broadway in the heart of the city.

Unfortunately Mirvish Productions had first dibs on the theatres that it did not already own and despite some brave legal scuffles, Mr. Dan was left with the suburbs. The suburbs that is until he realized that the Four Seasons Centre, Toronto’s opera house, is available during the summer. Now Mr. Dan could bring Broadway to downtown Toronto and he did.

The choice of musical and the production could hardly be better. The musical is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific and the production is the extraordinarily successful revival at New York’s Lincoln Center, directed by Bartlett Sher.

True what you get at the Four Seasons is a road-show company (even Aubrey Dan cannot bring the Broadway cast). But, aside from some minor glitches and one substantial complaint, this is an outstanding production of a great musical.

South Pacific is set during World War II and involves two unorthodox love stories. The main love story is between Ensign Nellie Forbush (Carmen Cusack), a nurse from Little Rock and an older French planter named Emile de Becque (Jason Howard).

Cusack and Howard get some of the best and most famous songs in Broadway history. He sings “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine” with sustained sonority and vocal splendour. Cusack sings “A Cockeyed Optimist”, “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outa Ma Hair” and “Honey Bun” with verve and vocal beauty. She has a luminous voice that is a delight to listen to.

The other love story is between the Princeton-educated Lt. Cable and a Polynesian girl named Liat. The idea of a hick from Arkansas marrying an older Frenchman who has two children by a Polynesian woman was pushed through in 1949, the year South Pacific premiered. The thought of an American officer marrying a Polynesian girl must have seemed too much and Cable was killed. It should be noted however that Rodgers and Hammerstein faced American prejudice head on and their position on bigotry is clearly stated in the title of one of the songs: “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” hatred and prejudice.

The ensemble pieces such as “Bloody Mary” and “There is nothing like a dame” are done superbly.

The minor vocal hitch is provided by Anderson Davis as Lt. Joseph Cable. He does not quite manage to convey his passion for Liat (Sumie Maeda), the Polynesian girl that he has fallen in love with.

The more substantial complaint is the use of microphones. The Four Seasons Centre has excellent acoustics and we are entitled to hear the actors deliver their lines from their mouths and not through loudspeakers. With the use of microphones, the lines spoken come through the loud speakers no matter where the actors stand. The musical pieces sounded fine and the microphones may well have enhanced the singing. Dialogue through loudspeakers is unacceptable.

Subject to that, one must give Aubrey Dan and Dancap Productions full credit for keeping their word and indeed bringing first-rate Broadway to Toronto.


South Pacific by Rodgers & Hammerstein opened on August 15 and will run until September 5, 2010 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St. West, Toronto, Ontario. 416 644-3665 or 1-866-950-7469

Monday, August 16, 2010


Reviewed by James Karas

Un retour – El regreso is a new chamber opera by Oscar Strasnoy with a libretto by Alberto Manguel. It is one of the five operas offered by the Aix-en-Provence Festival, this one being performed in an outdoor theatre in the countryside near a village called Puyricard. But the opera is only a part of the programme. On the lush-green fields of an old chateau, you are treated to a dance performance, a poetry recital or some madrigals by Monteverdi and Barbara Strozzi.

When these are finished, there is a dinner break on the grounds of the chateau. By then it is dark and the opera can begin.

Finding the Grand Saint-Jean, the old chateau where the performances take place, should also be included in the programme because it does provide a tour of the countryside outside Aix. After Google maps and GPS fail to disclose the location of the chateau, you depend on asking the locals for directions. The directions that went beyond the shrug of the shoulders no doubt were meant to be helpful and may even have been accurate but the chateau appeared to be a moving target. Given enough time, you will find the chateau.

Michele Noiret performs a dance on a circular wooden floor surrounded by benches. The dance is called “La primultine rencontre,” something like the prenultimate meeting. It refers to something that happens at the beginning or at the end; it is first and it is last but happens only one time. Noiret performs simple steps with almost no musical accompaniment.

You walk across a grassy field to a similar circle sans the wooden floor. A young man sits on a tree stump and reads some poetry including a long passage from Virgil’s Aeneid. The passage describes Aeneas’s visit to the underworld where he again meets Dido, the Queen of Carthage. He stopped at Carthage on his voyage from Troy to Latium and fell in love with her. He had to leave her behind, however, because fate had decreed more important duties for him, namely the founding of Rome. The choice of poetry is not accidental.

I did not attend the concert of madrigals as it ran simultaneously with the dance and poetry recital

Manguel’s libretto for Un Retour – El Regreso is based on his own novella about Nestor Fabris (Job Tomé), a former activist, retuning to Argentina after thirty years of absence. He is returning purportedly to attend the wedding of his godson but the story is more of a parable about going into the underworld where he meets Marta, the woman he loved, and the friends that he left behind so long ago.

The libretto is in French, Spanish and Latin (now you get the connection with the reading from the Aeneid). Fabris is another Aeneas and Marta (Amaya Dominguez) is the Dido that he left behind.

The music is scored for piano, percussion, trombone and trumpet. There is plenty of dissonance and generous use of percussion as Fabris goes through the airport, finds his friends and meets Professor Grossman, a man he admired thirty years ago. Grossman takes him to a place called DIS. The letters stand for Disgrace, Infamy and Somber and the structure is bathed in red light and it is, of course, hell.

The opera moves quickly from scene to scene. It is a political as well as an esthetic work as the composer and librettist, both Argentineans, look back at the recent history of their country. The dissonant music is apropos the situation and the opera together with the dancing and poetry recitals add up to a fascinating evening under the stars.

Un retour – El regreso by Oscar Strasnoy and Albert Manguel opened on July 4 and ran until July 17, 2010 at Grand Saint-Jean, Puyricard, France.


When opera was “invented” in early 17th century Florence and quickly spread around Italy, producers found out what “sells”. What sold then with the people and still does is spectacle. By the eighteenth century, all types of stage machinery had been invented to produce more and more visual effects at the expense of the music, libretto and singing that were supposed to be the main features of opera.

Opera was reformed and although sets and costumes retained their importance, the musical and vocal aspects regained their importance. The advent of digital technology has begun to be used in some productions but the most and hopefully best is yet to come.

That is a long way around the block to stating what the Aix-en-Provence Festival, the Canadian Opera Company, the Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam and the Opéra national de Lyon have done with their production of Igor Stravinsky’s The Nightingale and other fables. They clearly wanted to push the spectacular elements of opera further and provide a production that gives visual as well as musical and vocal splendour.

The man chosen for the job was Canadian director Robert Lepage. He conceived the work and it had its premiere in Toronto last October. It is one of the five operas offered by the Aix-en-Provence Festival and it opened at the Grand Théâtre de Provence as Le Rossignol et autres fables.

The production opens with some short compositions namely “Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet” (Jean-Michel Bertelli), “Pribouatki” and “The Cat’s Lullaby” sung by Svetlana Shilova, “Two Poems by Konstantin Balmont” sung by Elena Semenova and “Four Russian Peasant Songs” sung by the Women’s Chorus of the Opéra national de Lyon.

These are short, beautiful pieces but the main part of the first half of the production is “The Fox”, a composition based on a Russian fable that premiered at the Paris Opera in 1922. The story of the wily fox that tries to devour the dumb rooster in the farmyard is sung by two tenors (Merat Gali and Edgaras Montvidas) and two baritones (Nabil Suliman and Ilya Bannik).

While the orchestra and the singers “tell” the story, Lepage has provided amazing hand-shadow theatre and some amazing acrobatic displays to illustrate the fable. The hand shadows in the form of animals are projected on a screen above and behind the orchestra. The acrobats/dancers perform behind the screen and all we see are their shadows. Lepage is not trying to fool us that they are shadows because their feet are clearly visible below the screen.

Le Rossignol forms the second half of the show. As in the first half, the orchestra is on stage. Lepage has a better use for the pit than hiding the musicians. He creates a pool and that is where the action of the piece, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s Nightingale”, takes place. The libretto is by Stravinsky and Stepan Mittussow.

A Fisherman (Edgaras Montvidas) presents the Emperor of China (Ilya Bannik) with a nightingale that sings, well, like a nightingale. In this case it is using the gorgeous voice of soprano Olga Peretyatko and for my money she is better than the bird.

The Bonze of Japan (Yuri Vorobiev) brings a mechanical bird and the nightingale flies away. When Death (Svetlana Shilova) comes to claim the Emperor, He is so moved by the Nightingale’s beautiful singing that he allows the Emperor to live. Happy ending.

The achievement here is not the story or the beautiful singing but Lepage’s method of telling it. Almost all the action takes place in a pool where the characters manipulate puppets of themselves or puppeteers manipulate other puppets. The latter, frequently submerged, are dressed all in black and produce some amazing effects. Their manipulation of Death consisting of a huge skull and skeleton is breathtaking.

The orchestra of the Opéra national de Lyon was conducted by Kazushi Ono. The singers that deserve and got loud applause are Peretyatko, of course, but also Montvidas for his well done Fisherman, Bannik as the Emperor and the puppeteers.

This is a production that pushes the visual boundaries of opera without sacrificing the music or the singing. The question is how many opera companies can afford the services of a Robert Lepage not to mention the construction of a swimming pool and the work of a half a dozen puppeteers.


Le Rossignol et autres fables by Igor Stravinsky opened on July 3 and was performed six times until July 10, 2010 at the Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, France.

Friday, August 13, 2010


Chilina Kennedy as Eva Peron and Juan Chioran (right) as Juan Peron with members of the compnay. Photo by: David Hou

Near the start of the second act of Evita, Chilina Kennedy, who plays the name role, comes on stage. She is dressed in a stunning white gown and has a swath of diamonds around her neck. She walks with poise and grace and stops in front of some microphones.

The usually loud orchestra reduces the decibel level and the strings take up a beautiful melody as Chilina sings “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” Her luscious voice at mid-range carries the song and sends thrills through the theatre. It is without a doubt the highlight of Andre Lloyd Webber’s 1978 smash hit musical Evita which is now playing at the Avon Theatre in Stratford.

Unfortunately it is almost the only highlight of the musical. The melody of “Don’t Cry for Me” is heard several times during the performance, sometimes only in snippets. There are some other notable musical moments in the musical but nothing comes close to “Don’t Cry.”

Evita has garnered an extraordinary number of awards and has been performed thousands of times in the thirty-two years since it opened. It is a type of rock opera which is through-written and contains a variety of musical styles from the classical sounding chorus “Requiem for Evita” to the “Waltz for Eva and Ché” to the trenchant “And the Money Kept Rolling in” sung by Ché and the chorus. And of course the great aria, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.”

Much of the music sounds like stentorian recitative even when it is not intended to. There are times when you felt that there was a contest if not a war between stage and pit and the musicians, being more numerous, tended to win. Most concert organizers seem convinced that people could not possibly enjoy music at less than eardrum-shattering volumes. Evita was not at that volume level but we may have enjoyed it more at a more civilized decibel range.

Webber and Rice want to present the world of glamour, beauty and corruption as represented by Eva and Dictator Juan Peron on the one hand and the corruption and social injustice as seen through the rebel Ché (Josh Young), on the other.

Chilina Kennedy shines as Evita and her singing at mid-range is beautiful. Unfortunately, she does not do nearly as well when she has to reach for higher notes. If she did not have to fight (and sometimes lose) with the orchestra, she may have done better. Director Gar Griffin and Musical Director Rick Fox are accountable for that.

Young is a powerful performer who is given loud recitatives to point out the injustices of Argentina, a country with huge gold reserves that is going bankrupt and a nation that produces meat for export but rations food to its people.

Juan Chioran as Peron is tall and has the bearing of a gentleman if not necessarily a dictator and sings well. The be-medaled generals are there to give the military dictatorship ambience.

Evita is a definite crowd pleaser. It got a standing ovation and that’s as good a review as any production can expect.

Aside from the items that I have noted, the production did have considerable production values. Griffin kept a brisk pace throughout and the volume of the playing is no doubt part of creating and maintaining energy levels.

For me, one great song and some acceptable melodies followed by too much and too loud recitatives that are simply not to my taste do not a great night at the theatre make.


Evita by Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics) opened on June 10 and will run until October 30, 2010 at the Avon Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. 1-800-567-1600

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


Juan Chioran as Fred Graham (playing Petruchio), Chilina Kennedy as Lois Lane (playing Bianca) with members of the company. Photo by: David Hou

In a recent radio interview, Des McAnuff invited people to go to Stratford to see Broadway musicals. I guess that chap from Warwickshire after whom the Festival is named is not much of a drawing card as far as the Festival’s Artistic Director is concerned. We are well warned not to expect a broadly based classical repertoire that dips its toes into the deep well of world drama on a regular basis. If musicals fill the theatre, give them musicals.

Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate is one of the great American musicals and Stratford gives it a stupendous production. The principals can sing, dance and act and the result is a rousing performance that is thoroughly enjoyable. The bag of complimentary adjectives contains a few less laudatory modifiers but one must give credit where it is due.

Kiss Me Kate is about the backstage goings on during a production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew in Baltimore around 1940. Fred Graham (Juan Chioran) is the producer and director of The Taming on its tryout in Baltimore before going (hopefully) to Broadway. He also plays Petruchio while his fiery former wife Lilli (Monique Lund) plays the shrew that must be tamed.

When Fred’s flowers erroneously go to Lilli instead of Lois (Chilina Kennedy), the actress who plays Bianca instead of Lilli all hell breaks loose on stage and off. When Lilli reads the card that accompanies the flowers and realizes that they were not intended for her she threatens to walk off the show. Fred retains the services of a couple of Mafia-type enforcers (Steve Ross and Cliff Saunders), guns drawn, to keep Lilli on stage. They have come to collect $10,000 from Fred on an IOU signed by Bill (Mike Jackson), pretending to be Fred. He is a ne’er do well gambler and the Lucentio of Shakespeare’s play. In short the situation on and off stage is hilarious and Porter’s music and songs from “Wunderbar” to “Tom, Dick and Harry” to “I Hate Men” and “Brush Up You Shakespeare” are about as good as they come.

Director John Doyle is also about as good as they come as a director of Broadway musicals and he puts together a rousing, fact-paced, funny and marvelous evening at the theatre. The problem is that he does not know when to stop or leave well-enough alone. Porter does not need to be improved. Doyle never met a cheap laugh that he did not like or an interpolation that he did not insert. Ok, there are not many but should there be any?

An actor should not step out of character for a laugh or any other reason. This rule does not apply to Doyle. When Bianca is wooed by “Tom, Dick and Harry” she goes into the audience and tells us that she said “Dick” ten times. We could have done without the information or the laugh. It is not in character, of course.

Bianca is supposed to be the demure sister of the shrewish Kate. Doyle has her screaming and screeching for cheap laughs. She follows direction and brings in a rousing performance.

Chilina Kennedy and Chioran are outstanding as the warring couple with gorgeous voices for Porter’s magnificent songs.

Steve Ross and Cliff Saunders practically steal the show as the two mafiosos and their “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” brings the house down. They do mention Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides and that’s as close as we will get to Greek tragedy this year and who knows for how many years to come.

Almost all the characters are dressed in motley colours as if we are watching a collection of clowns. It may be colourful but it, like other things in the production, simply goes over the top for effect that is neither necessary nor adds anything to the production.

Start with an A for the choice of musical, the performances and the sheer excitement the production generates and then start deducting marks for some silly directorial choices. You can damn many of Doyle’s decisions but you will still end up with at least an A- and an enjoyable night at the theatre.


Kiss Me Kate by Cole Porter opened on June 8 and will play until October 30, 2010 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. 1 800 567-1600

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Christopher Plummer as Prospero and Trish Lindström as Miranda. Photo by: David Hou

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival unleashed its star power last Friday with the opening of The Tempest starring Christopher Plummer. Even though the Festival opened three weeks ago, this opening was treated with all the hoopla of a season curtain raiser. I need hardly add that Plummer is featured on all the posters and the season programme.

Plummer did give a grand performance as Prospero even though the production as a whole did have some issues. It is directed by the Festival’s Artistic Director, Des McAnuff and it bears his imprimatur.

Plummer can speak a line of poetry and McAnuff has him deliver Shakespeare’s iambic pentameters in a measured tone, squeezing the juice out of every word, pausing, reacting to the other characters and even getting laughs. Plummer’s Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan who was tossed on a desert island, is a grand old man, kindly, despotic, full of magic tricks as well as a bit of a tyrant towards, let’s say, the natives.

The other notable and quite extraordinary performance came from Julyana Soelistyo as Ariel. We expect and want Ariel to be nimble, ethereal, almost a spirit – in fact she is a spirit. Our wishes are not always fulfilled. Soelistyo is one of the best in that role. She is a petite woman giving the part immediate physical credibility. She has a melodious, child-like voice, moves almost like a spirit and gives a wonderful performance.

Bruce Dow as Trinculo the jester and Geraint Wyn Davies as the butler Stephano practically steal the show with their simply hilarious antics. Trinculo is an overdressed and overweight gay man while Stephano is a Scottish drunkard. They take advantage of all the comic possibilities of their scenes with hilarious results.

The slave Caliban is half human and half reptile and he slithers around and plots the over throw of Prospero. An outstanding performance by Dion Johnstone. Trish Lindstrom is an appealing and well done Miranda and ditto for Gareth Potter’s Ferdinand.

There are a large number of touches that a director brings to every production in order to make it his own. McAnuff emphasizes the humour of the play and I have never heard that many laughs from the scenes that involve Prospero. A pause, a look, an intonation are the means that McAnuff uses to evoke laughter and most of the devices work.

The real issue with the production is the pace. The deliberate delivery of Prospero’s lines may be quite suitable for the old duke but McAnuff has just about everyone speak so slowly and deliberately you feel that you are in a class of English for beginners. The advantage of lines being spoken clearly and enunciated precisely is that you do get to understand them all. The disadvantage is that most people do not speak at that speed and it would be preferable for a character to speak more quickly and with greater feeling rather than emphasizing almost every word as if all lines are of equal value. Get it moving.

At the opening of the play, Ariel descends from the ceiling as if swimming under water and upon reaching the stage unleashes the storm. Well done. Then we see Prospero and Ariel on stage, in the audience, and up above. Miranda is looking for her father during the storm that will wreck the ship carrying the usurping Duke Antonia (John Vickery) and the King of Naples (Peter Hutt) and their followers. This is not a bad device but Shakespeare simply forgot to write the words that Miranda and Prospero speak during the scene. He also forgot to tell us that the two are directly affected by the storm instead of, perhaps, just watching it. Shakespeare needs first rate directors and he can do without collaborators.

Stephen Russell is in his 28th season at the Festival. He is very talented actor and used to get major roles. In this production he is given probably the worst role in the play, that of the Master of the Ship. He gets several lines at best. He is considered good enough to be Plummer’s understudy but why such talent is wasted remains a question to be asked and some day maybe even answered.


The Tempest by William Shakespeare opened on June 25 and will run until September 12, 2010 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. 1-800-567-1600

Monday, August 9, 2010


Bo Slovhus as Don Givanni, Marlis Petersen as Dona Anna and Kyle Ketelsen as Leorello

Can Mozart’s Don Giovanni be turned into a family drama that takes place entirely in the library of the Commendatore’s house? No talking statue, no scenes in the countryside, no street scenes. Strictly a family drama?

The answer is yes and the result is one of those brilliant, original and masterly interpretations of a masterpiece that is difficult to conceive until you have actually seen it done.

That is what Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov and dramaturge Alexei Parin have done for their recreation of Don Giovanni for the Aix-en-Provence Festival.

In order for this to be a family drama we have to make the characters of the opera related to each other. No problem for Parin. Donna Anna, the Commendatore’s daughter is also the mother (from a previous marriage) of Zerlina, the country girl that Don Giovanni will woo. Donna Elvira, Don Giovanni’s discarded lover, is in fact his wife and a cousin of Donna Anna. His servant Leporello is a relative of the Commendatore’s. In other words, they all have the right to be at the Commendatore’s house silently attending a funeral during the overture. This funeral or that of the Commendatore that follows are not in the original work but they fit in this concept.

In the opening scene of the opera, you will recall, Don Giovanni is apparently seducing if not raping Donna Anna. She comes out screaming, the Commendatore comes out and Don Giovanni kills him. No so in this production. The lustful Donna Anna is pursuing a reluctant Don Giovanni. Scantily dressed, she lies on the floor, legs apart as Don Giovanni tries to run away. He pushes the Commendatore against a bookshelf and the man dies, presumably of a heart attack.

The family drama will continue to the end in the gorgeous, wood-paneled library of the Commendatore’s house and you will wait and wonder how the next seen will be handled. It will be handled with brilliant and masterly strokes that will leave you aghast. This is opera integrating drama and singing like you have never seen before.

Don Giovanni, the lecher of Leporello’s Catalogue aria is a middle-aged man, disheveled, tired and alcoholic. He goes through the motions of wooing but he is not interested in seducing women. When he tells the innocent Zerlina (Kerstin Avemo) that she is destined to be his wife in “Là ci darem la mano” he is unkempt, sitting on a chair and not interested in her at all. She falls for him in any event and pursues him.

When Masetto (David Bizic), Zerlina’s fiancé gets a thrashing from Don Giovanni and she sings the beautiful aria “Vedrai, carino” in order to comfort him, she is holding, indeed embracing, Don Giovanni's coat while poor Masetto is writhing in pain on the floor.

Best of all is Don Giovanni's wooing of Donna Elvira’s maid with the beautiful aria “Deh, vieni alla finestra, o mio tesoro,” (O come to the window, beloved). It is the ultimate example of the amoral lecher who will pursue anything that moves. In this production, a drunk, pathetic Don Giovanni is singing to the air. There is no maid to woo as he is totters around the floor looking for solace that no longer exists.

There are numerous such examples. The result is a superbly acted piece of theatre accompanied by Mozart’s music and Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto. Opera at its best.

The standing ovation for Tcherniakov and Parin should include conductor Louis Langree and the brilliant performance of the Freiburger Barockorchester and the singers/actors who provided such integrated performances.

Start with Danish baritone Bo Skovhus who delivers a very different Don Giovanni but of the highest order. You may miss the bravura of the legendary seducer but you will be bowled over by the tired, middle aged Don so brilliantly sung and acted. His side-kick Leporello of American bass baritone Kyle Ketelsen is a lithe, young man with a voice that can go deep and maintain control.

Marlis Petersen is a sexpot of a Donna Anna who oozes sexual desire without finding fulfillment. She goes down on the floor and spreads her legs for her fiancé Don Ottavio (done very well by Colin Balzer) and he does not get the message that she wants sex.

Kristine Opolais's Donna Elvira is a modern wife whose husband left her and she is robbed of showing some of the fiery bitterness that, say, an 18th century woman may have displayed. Still a first-rate performance.

There is still the question of how to deal with the talking statue of the Commendatore and the send-off of Don Giovanni to hell. This is a naturalistic family drama and statues don't talk in them. Tcherniakov and Parin find a brilliant solution to that too.

The good news is that this is a co-production with the Canadian Opera Company and we should be able to see it in Toronto in an upcoming COC season.


Don Giovanni by W.A. Mozart opened on July1 and was performed ten times until July 20, 2010 at the Théâtre de l'Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France.

Friday, August 6, 2010


Juan Diego Florez and Joyce DiDonato in La dame du lac. Opéra national de Paris/ Agathe Poupeney

Rossini’s La Dame du Lac (The Lady of the Lake) is not an opera you are likely to have seen or even heard of. It opened in Naples in 1819 as La donna del lago and has not been a big hit with opera house managers ever since. It has yet to play at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and it has only had one production at London’s Royal Opera House. There have been scattered productions in European opera houses in the past 190 years but nothing much.

It had never been seen at the Palais Garnier, the legendary home of the Paris National Opera until this June when all the stops were pulled to produce a Dame du Lac to remember.

La Dame du Lac is a largely static opera even though is has a plot about love, insurrection and war. It is based on Sir Walter Scott’s narrative poem and the similarities with Lucia di Lammermoor, another opera based on his work, are more than passing. The plot is developed haltingly and Rossini wrote a vocal score that requires the singers to step up to the now proverbial footlights and “let’er rip”, as they say.

If the plot creaks, the singing soars and the Paris Opera has some of the best in the business for this production. Elena, the lady of the lake, is sung by American mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato who has become a dominant figure in that voice range and has made Rossini one of her specialties. Rossini is excellent to mezzos and he offers a huge plum of a role in La Dame du Lac. DiDonato is allowed to deliver vocal splendour in her richly textured voice. There may be limited opportunities for acting in the opera but for pure singing opportunities it is a marvel.

Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez is more famous than DiDonato and anyone who wants to compete in the light tenor category should count his high Cs before entering the fray. The heroic-looking Florez can hit high notes as if hopping over a low fence and has a marvellous tone that reminds you of the Jussi Bjorling type of vocalizing. He plays the role of King James V of Scotland who, disguised as a hunter, falls in love with Elena and he tells us about in some rapturous arias and duets. Despite all his singing King James does not get the girl.

Elena has given her heart to Malcolm, a role sung by a mezzo soprano since the premiere of the opera. Italian mezzo Daniela Barcellona tells us of his love for Elena in “Elena! Oh, tu, che chiamo!” and the exclamation marks are not just in the text. Malcolm does get Elena despite competition from the passionate Rodrigo of South African tenor Colin Lee. He has the support of the Elena’s father Douglas (the sonorous bass Simon Orfila) but to no avail.

Director Lluis Pasqual and designer Ezio Frigerio do not try to produce a Lucia di Lammermoor or a type of opera that La dame du Lac is not. They allow conductor Roberto Abbado and the singers to deliver the marvellous music, plot be damned. The set consists of some monumental columns that come apart in the middle to show spectacular views of mountains. Huge chandeliers make sure that you do not mistake the setting for medieval or realistic.

There are a few tricks such as having Elena and King James lowered through a trap door in the middle of the stage. Are they sinking in the lake?

The costumes consist of capes and swords to suggest some heroic age but we also have modern gowns for the ladies and tuxedos for the men. Some of the men appear in tuxedos with capes on their backs. There are no kilts.

The chorus in their tuxes line up across the stage and sing. There is no pretence that they are doing anything else as characters in the opera.

The incongruity of the costumes, the static nature of the opera and the creaky plot are all subsumed in the extraordinary music and singing. The only annoying item is the ballet dancing. For some reason Pascal thought it prudent to allow ballet dancers to perform at various times. Alas, they added nothing to the production and their limited presence was a relief. A five star evening but dock half a star for the silly tricks and the ballet.


La Dame du Lac by Gioacchino Rossini opened on June 14 and ran until July 20, 2010 at the Palais Garnier, Paris.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Lyubov Petrova and Patrick Carfizzi in The Marriage of Figaro. Photo: Karli Cadel/Glimmerglass Opera.

We all know that mythical opera lover who is too embarrassed to admit to his beer-swilling, t-shirt-wearing, couch-potato friends that he would rather be watching Tosca butcher Scarpia than the New York Yankees slaughter the Blue Jays. Social pressure used to prevent him from indulging his passion until 1975 when the Glimmerglass Opera Festival was launched. Now he can go to Cooperstown on the pretence of seeing the Baseball Hall of Fame, visiting a thousand stores selling baseball memorabilia and even watching the boring game. In reality he is off to see four operas in the Alice Busch Theatre on the shores of Otsego Lake.

In its choice of operas and quality of productions, Glimmerglass can hold its own against the best and that, for your friends, includes the Yankees and whoever won the World Series last year. This year’s choices are two repertoire staples and two adventurous productions. The warhorses are Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Puccini’s Tosca. The others are Handel’s Tolomeo in its first professional production in North America and Aaron Copland’s rarely produced The Tender Land. Here are the scores in the order that I saw them.


From the rush of anticipation created by the opening chords of the overture to the final scene of forgiveness, reconciliation and conjugal love, Mozart’s masterpiece is opera at its finest. The Glimmerglass production directed by Canadian Leon Major is a sheer delight and provides some outstanding singing. There are a few “errors” by the coach but the team displays consistently good hitting and the result is a joy in the opera park.

American bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi is a Sarkozy-sized Figaro, physically and vocally agile, who does a superb job in the lead role. Russian soprano Lyubov Petrova is a topnotch Susanna. Her voice has a lovely coloration and she is so attractive one can understand why the Count cannot keep his hands off her. Definite home runs here.

American soprano Caitlin Lynch has a fine, regal bearing and a beautiful voice and she made a superb Countess Almaviva. The Countess sings two of the most beautiful arias in the repertoire, “Porgi, amor” and “Dove sono,” where she laments the loss of her husband’s love and wonders what happened to the moments of sweetness and pleasure that have vanished leaving only memories. Lynch sings beautifully and movingly and sends the ball out of the park.

American bass-baritone Mark Schnaible sang a credible Count Almaviva and Haeran Hong made a significant impression in the small role of Barbarina. The South Korean soprano is a member of Glimmerglass’s Young American Artists Program and she clearly deserves more exposure. Nice triples for both.

The hormone-driven Cherubino was sung by French mezzo-soprano Aurhelia Varak. She is of small stature and has the required agility for the role and almost makes it to home base.

Donald Eastman’s set was simple to the point of austerity. The Count is not as wealthy as we may suppose him to be. The opera is set sometime in the 19th century. The women wear long dresses but the men have suits. No fancy wigs or lace. The set gets a mere double most likely because of financial restrictions.

Canadian Director Leo Major coaches the team and there are issues with some of his choices. He prefers many arias to be sung from a sitting position. It is fine for the plaintive “Dove sono” to be sung while sitting down by why is the angry Dr. Bartolo (young artist Adam Fry) seated for “La Vendetta.” Surely singers can move and sing and gesture at the same time. The coach gets an error.


Puccini’s fourth opera is a pot-boiler by any standard but the contents of the pot are darn good. Ned Canty directs a dark and menacing production that hits some home runs and a few triples.

The home run belongs to Lester Lynch’s Scarpia. The pot-bellied American baritone looks fiendish and menacing. Scarpia is a rapist who prefers force to persuasion in sex and with his sonorous voice, Lynch gives a thrilling portrayal.

Tenor Adam Diegel has a powerful voice (it’s a small theatre with good acoustics so everyone sounds at his best) and his Cavaradossi came off quite well. His voice tends to have better force than tonal quality in the upper register and he only managed a triple. Soprano Lise Lindstrom was a dramatic and powerful Tosca. Unfortunately during the first act she looked undersexed, underdressed and underfed – like a school marm, you might say – and not the flamboyant diva after whom Scarpia lusts. She is given a beautiful white gown in Act II and is far more attractive.

The set, lighting and costumes were all in dark gray and black tones. A bit overdone, I thought. We need to see what is going on and too much darkness for effect can end up being annoying.

David Angus conducted the Glimmerglass Opera Orchestra and Chorus and the latter rose to a thrilling pitch at the end of Act I.


With George Frideric Handel’s Tolomeo, the crypto-operaphile has moved to an entirely different level of hidden passion. This opera premiered in 1728 and this is the first time it is being professionally staged in North America. It is high baroque, delectable and silly, a rarity to be sure, and our friend can only see it wrapped in a plain paper bag. His friends may forgive The Marriage of Figaro thinking it is an Italian sitcom but Tolomeo? Never.

If caught, the only possible defense is to say that he is studying Hellenistic history. He is following the labyrinthine history of the Macedonian dynasty that ruled Egypt after Alexander the Great and he is focusing on Ptolemy IX.

In Tolomeo, King Ptolemy IX is thrown out of Egypt by his mother Cleopatra and brother Alexander. He ends up in Cyprus where Elisa, the sister of King Araspe falls in love with him. Ptolemy’s wife Seleuce also arrives disguised as a shepherdess and Araspe falls in love with her. Then Ptolemy’s brother Alexander also arrives and he …. Forget the plot.

The opera consists of a number of short recitatives and arias. The characters tend to walk on stage, sing their piece and saunter off. There are few duets. Most of the arias are quite delightful but the parts do not make a satisfactory whole.

Director Chas Rader-Shieber could not take the plot seriously and decided to mildly ridicule it. There are some cheap laughs like bringing fans on stage and blowing flower petals to illustrate the libretto. There are three doltish footmen who stroll on and off the stage. Staging is spotty at best and the costumes are from any time period that you want.

The opera and the production, aside from the comic touches added by Rader-Shieber depends on the arias and the singing and there is gold here. Soprano Joelle Harvey hits the ball out of the park with her gorgeous singing but countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo as Tolomeo and Canadian mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne get homers quite handily. Young Artists mezzo-soprano Karin Mushigain (Alessandro) and baritone Steven LaBrie (Araspe) more than hold their own.

You are not likely to see Tolomeo in the repertoire of too many opera companies but it would be interesting to see someone take the plot seriously and provide some more staging and less tomfoolery. In the meantime, a seventh-inning bow to Glimmerglass for bold programming.


The final offering is The Tender Land, an opera that premiered in 1954 but is very rarely performed. It has music by Aaron Copland with a libretto by Horace Everett.

The opera is performed by Glimmerglass’s Young American Artists and the Festival deserves a grand slam for the training program. Thirty lucky and talented American artists are selected to work with professionals and perform. Several of them participated in the other productions but the cast of The Tender Land was made up entirely of young artists.

The Tender Land is a coming of age story about Laurie (Lindsay Russell), a high school graduate, who falls in love with Martin, (Andrew Stenson). Her family objects strenuously but Laurie decides to leave them and follow her love. Shades of West Side Story and Picnic come to mind.

The opera is composed through and that means some pretty ordinary conversations are sung rather than spoken. The music would be appropriate as background to dialogue in a film but listening to conversation recitative-style left me lukewarm.

There is a love duet in the second act between Laurie and Martin. The music swells but it never soars. The lyrics rarely rise above the prosaic and the whole thing left me lukewarm, at best.

That is truly unfortunate because Russell and Stenson gave marvelous performances as did Stephanie Foley Davis as Ma Moss, Mark Diamond as Top and Joseph Barron as Grandpa Moss. They deserve a better work to showcase their talents

For the closet opera lover, then, Glimmerglass is the ideal place to enjoy your secret pleasure. There is even a bonus in store for you. You will find a beautiful expanse of grass along the shore of the lake and that is where you play golf – you hit a small round ball with various tools to get it in a slightly larger round hole. For that reason, I gather, a six-hour session is known as a “round” of golf. Tell your friends that you played a “round” without dying of boredom. But do not commit the faux pas of telling them that the large body of water beside the course is the aquatic hazard for the 19th hole. It is Otsego Lake.


The Glimmerglass Festival continues until August 24, 2010 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or

Sunday, August 1, 2010


by James Karas

Aix-en-Provence is a beautifully preserved medieval city about thirty kilometers north-east of Marseilles. Its medieval structures, narrow streets and rich sightseeing opportunities are sufficient to please almost any discriminating traveler. But for some of us, all of that pales in comparison with what the Aix-en-Provence Festival has to offer. Between July 1 and 21 you can see five operas in the Festival’s four theatres and enjoy a large number of concerts and other events throughout the summer. And, if you must, you can still shop and eat.

The operas are: Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Stravinsky’s The Nightingale, Rameau’s Pygmalion, a new chamber opera by Oscar Strasnoy called Un retour and Gluck’s Alceste.

The story of Alcestis is one of those myths that once heard is never forgotten. Admetus, the King of Thessaly is told that he will die. Apollo owes him a favour and grants him the opportunity of staying alive if he can find a replacement for the journey to the Underworld. No one in Thessaly jumps at the opportunity of dying for the king except his wife Alcestis. (I am using the English version of the names for convenience.)

Alcestis’s act has fascinated scores of writers since antiquity. There were a number of tragedies based on the myth in Ancient Greece but only Euripides’ Alcestis has survived. The reasons for and consequences of her decisions were picked up by composers and librettists soon after the advent of opera in the 17th century and dozens of operas have been written about her.

Is it an act of sacrifice? Is it a statement of ultimate love, devotion and fidelity to her husband? What is it? She says that she is willing to die because she cannot live without him. What about her duties as a mother and queen? Can such an act, be it sacrifice, devotion, love, duty, be justified? And what about husband Admetus? He does eventually say he cannot live without her but he never comes out looking very good. This is a myth about a woman.

Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) composed Alceste based on a libretto by Italian poet Ranieri Calzabigi and it opened in Vienna in 1767. The “Vienna Version,” as it came to be known, was in Italian. Francois-Louis Gand Le Blanc du Roullet translated and revised Calzabigi’s text and produced a French version. Gluck re-worked the music and the “Paris Version” of the opera opened in 1776.

The Festival produced the Paris version in the Théâtre de l'Archevêché, the outdoor theatre located in a building that used to be the local archbishop’s residence. It does not get dark until very late in July and the opera did not start until after 10:00 p.m. and it finished well after one in the morning.

European festivals seem to have made it their specialty to produce controversial productions and the Aix’s Alceste, directed by Christof Loy, is no exception.

The most important aspects of the production are fortunately not controversial at all as is the singing done by soprano Veronique Gens in the title role and the English Voices as the chorus. The brunt of the work falls on them but tenor Joseph Kaiser as Admetus, baritone Andrew Schroeder as the Grand Priest of Apollo and baritone Thomas Oliemans as Heracles do superb work.

Gens’s Alcestis is a middle-class mother and wife. She wears flat shoes and simple dresses and is faced with a terrible decision. She makes the decision but has second thoughts, even doubts about it, but she never goes back on it. She believes it is the right decision. Loy may want us to think that she is acting in defiance of the unjust gods but there is no evidence of that in her acting or singing. She sings her signature aria “Divinités du Styx” in anguish and not in anger or defiance. A superb vocal and acting performance.

Kaiser’s Admetus could be an office worker, suit and tie on, who learns two devastating pieces of news: that he is about to die and that he is saved by his wife agreeing to take his place. He simply cannot handle the situation and goes all over the emotional board from elation to confusion to despair. Kaiser does an excellent job in portraying the hapless king as envisioned by Loy.

Heracles is a friend of the family who arrives with his suitcase and travelling bags carrying presents and his magic fur stole. A bit of a playboy but strong enough to beat the gods and save Alcestis from going down under. Again well done as seen by Loy.

The production is done in front of a white wall that features two large doors and a window. The doors will open to reveal Alcestis’s bedroom and when the time comes, the underworld. They are all dressed in modern costumes but the people of Thessaly (the chorus) wear variously pants to the knees, suspenders, sailors’ or maids’ uniforms and carry dolls. They appear and act less than adult.

Admetus and Alcestis are a nice middle class couple with a couple of kids and an unprepossessing bedroom. Apollo, like Heracles, is more a clown than a god. This is a long way from any conception of Greek mythology that most of us have. This is the middle class fighting the unjust gods. So much for Apollo returning a favour to Admetus.

Loy shows the flexibility of Greek myth and baroque opera. They can be placed almost anywhere and tickle the imagination as the composer and the librettist delight the mind and ear. Some controversial productions are more successful than others and this one is not the most successful.


Alceste by Christoph Willibald Gluck opened on July 2 and ran until July 13, 2010 at the Théâtre de l'Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France.