Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Ariana Chris as Cherubino, Nathalie Paulin as Susanna and Brett Polegato as Count Almaviva. Photo: Peter Oleskevich
Looking for opera in Southern Ontario is not exactly like looking for oases in the Kalahari Desert but neither are productions so plentiful that you feel you cannot see everything. The Canadian Opera Company offers seven productions, Opera Atelier provides only two and if you want to see more you will have to settle for some concert versions or see opera on the movie screen Live from the Met.

But there is another oasis, a scrapper known as Opera Hamilton that refuses to be deterred by budget deficits and offers two full productions and a concert version of opera favourites each year.

For 2010-2011, the operas are The Marriage of Figaro (October 21 and 23 2010) and a double bill of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci (April 21 and 23, 2011). In between, they offer POPERA Plus! which they subtitle a “gala super concert” (January 27 and 29, 2011) of familiar and less frequently heard arias and ensembles.

The production of The Marriage of Figaro was a delight. Not that there were no shortcomings and much of the credit belongs to Mozart. But director Brent Krysa invested the production with many nice comic touches (like Marcellina holding Figaro on her lap like a baby after she discovers he is her son) and maintained a good pace that in the end left you patting yourself on the back for being wise enough to see it.

Let’s start with the strengths of the production. Canadian bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus made a fine Figaro. He sang and acted well and handled the comic business with panache. His counterpart is Count Almaviva, sung by Canadian baritone Brett Polegato. Where Figaro is the clever and funny servant, Almaviva is the serious and dramatic aristocrat. Polegato was just that, thundering his notes with musical authority.

Susanna (soprano Nathalie Paulin) is the other quick-witted servant who can match and even surpass Figaro in cleverness. Paulin has a lovely voice but it took her a while to warm up. Initially I thought her voice may be too small for a large auditorium. But she settled in and did a fine job.

Canadian soprano Katherine Whyte’s Countess presented several problems. The Countess, in contrast with her servant Susanna, should be regal, even majestic. Her marriage to the count has gone stale and she is pensive and perhaps depressed because she feels that he no longer loves her. In fact the Count wants to seduce Susanna. In her beautiful first aria, “Porgi amor,” the Countess laments the loss of her beloved husband’s love and expresses her deep sorrow. The long phrases of the aria should be delivered with a majestic beauty that Whyte does not quite achieve. The same can be said of her singing of “Dove sono” where she asks where the lovely moments of sweetness and pleasure have gone.

The other issue with Whyte was simply sloppy directing on the part of Krysa. The Countess’s movements and manner should be in sharp contrast to that of her maid. Begowned and bejeweled, she should move with the gait of a princess not the quick steps of a servant. She does not.

Mezzo soprano Ariana Chris did a superb job in the pants role of Cherubino. He is hormonally overcharged and can usually be found where he shouldn’t be. Aside from some wonderful comic business he/she gets two marvelous arias, “Non so piu cosa son, cosa faccio” (I don't know any more what I am, what I'm doing) and “Voi, che sapete che cosa è amor” (You ladies, who know what love is) where poor Cherubino simply quivers with sexual excitement. Chris acted convincingly boyish and, as they say, delivered the vocal goods.

Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Lichti delivered Bartolo’s “La vendetta” aria with sonority and he and mezzo-soprano Lynne McMurtry’s Marcellina made a nice comic team of the would-be spoilers of Figaro’s wedding plans. Gerald Isaac sang the roles of Basilio and Don Curzio with a comic twang that was quite appropriate.

The set, designed by Susan Benson was functional. It was not big enough to fill the stage and when Cherubino jumped out the window we saw him scamper off to the wings. Once you get used to it you forget the stage and listen to the music and the singing.

The Opera Hamilton Chorus sounded thin at times and the Hamilton Philharmonic under the baton of Gordon Gerrard went through some uneven patches but gave an overall god accounting of the score.

In the end, it was a very enjoyable evening at the opera.

The Marriage of Figaro by W.A. Mozart was performed on October 21 and 23, 2010 at The Great Hall, Hamilton Place, Hamilton, Ontario. Tel. 905 527-7627

Thursday, October 21, 2010


Franz-Josef Selig as Fasolt, Bryn Terfel as Wotan, Hans-Peter Konig as Fafner, Stephanie Blythe as Fricka and Wendy Bryn Harmer as Freia. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by James Karas

In the spring of 2009, New York’s Metropolitan Opera staged Otto Schenk’s production of Der Ring des Nibelungen for the last time. The production had been around for some twenty years and who would have thought that its final staging would become a cultural “event”. Yet, it was.

No sooner was Schenk’s staging retired than a new production was announced for the fall of 2010, this time directed by Robert Lepage. Lepage is an extraordinary director who pushes the visual boundaries of opera beyond what we are accustomed to. His production of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables by Igor Stravinsky for the Canadian Opera Company last year gave Torontonians a good taste of his tremendous imagination.

With that type of background, expectations for his production of Wagner’s massive cycle are running high and the first installment, Das Rheingold, is already in. Mortals who are favored by the gods saw the production at Lincoln Centre. The less fortunate got to see it on a large screen in a movie theatre. We all expected a high tech approach with visual effects that should be at the very least surprising and perhaps stunning.

Needless to say, Lepage steers away from Schenk’s grandiose and traditional sets. The set that he provides, (designed by Carl Fillion) consists of a series of platforms that can be moved laterally, vertically and in every other way, it seems. With the help of appropriate lighting the result is usually amazing. The opening scene of Das Rheingold, in the depths of the river is stunning. The Rhinemaidens flap their fins and glide down a sloped platform and the impression that they are indeed underwater is marvelous.

In the scenes that follow from the top of the mountain where Wotan negotiates with the giants Fasolt and Fafner over the bill for the construction of Valhalla to the underground home of the Nibelungs, the judicious and imaginative use of lighting and moving platforms create a credible and at times exciting production visually.

The costumes, designed by Francois St-Aubin, from Wotan’s plastic breastplate, to the long gowns for the goddesses, are appropriate. The giants Fasolt and Fafner are given masses of hair and puffed up sleeves. I thought they looked more like overfed hillbillies than giants but let that be.

Unfortunately in a Live from the Met telecast in a movie theatre, you are subject to the capricious and often ridiculous choices of Gary Halvorson. He is the telecast director and he chooses the shots from close-ups to full stage views, to the angles from which we poor mortals are allowed to see the production.

His work ranges from the barely acceptable to the utterly deplorable. At the beginning there were enough long shots for us to get a sense of the staging and get the benefit of close-ups of the Rhinemaidens and the slimy Alberich. After that full views or even shots of most of the stage became rarer. There were times when we could see the character and a view of the boards and some shade of the set. The impression was that the gods were having a get-together on a shady deck in suburbia.

Let’s get to the real pleasure of the production. A frail James Levine in his 40th year at the Met conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra to produce sonic splendour on, how else can one put it, Wagnerian scale. The lead singers were outstanding. Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel is a magnificent Wotan. A patch of hair over one eye, a plastic breastplate and a couple of weeks of beard add up to an impressive appearance to supplement his vocal prowess.

American mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe was Fricka. She is supersized vocally and physically and if one characteristic may be more attractive than the other we have to accept Wotan’s choice for a spouse and just listen.

German basses Franz-Josef Selig (Fasolt) and Hans-Peter Kőnig (Fafner) are the lumbering giants who sound Wagnerian (thank god) even if they look Tennessean. America bass-baritone Eric Owens’ Alberich is slimy and scary. His acting and singing are superb and this is an Alberich to remember.

Irish mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon sings beautifully as the earth goddess Erda who warns Wotan and Wendy Bryn Harmer is suitably attractive as Freia, the goddess of beauty.

The visual effects that Lepage provides do not always satisfy. When the gods finally enter Valhalla – just a minute, where is Valhalla? As ordered by Wagner, the colours of the rainbow appear, the music soars but there is no visual representation of the grand palace of the gods. I expected something visually stunning that surpasses anything that a realistic representation could provide. It was not there. The only solution here is to one-up Lepage. Close your eyes and imagine a Valhalla more grandiose than any director can imagine or set designer devise. All you really need is the music and Levine delivers that gloriously.

What Halvorson allows you to see of Das Rheingold will be shown again in movie theatres on November 20 and 29, 2010.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


Ngozi Paul as Julia and Ashley Wright as Fernando. Photo by Bruce Zinger

Summer is over and the theatre season has opened in earnest. The professional and amateur theatre compnies have opened their intitial productions and the eternally optimistic audience has begun looking for that great production of a great play. Let’s start with a list of plays that you will be able to see in he coming months: Fernando Krapp Wrote me this Letter, The Anderson Project, Studies in Motion, Saint Carmen of the Main, The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman he Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union and Untitled.

How many of those plays do you recognize? Where are they playing?
The answer to the first question may be “none” and the guess to the second question may well be that the plays are being produced by some experimental company in a theatre that you need your GPS to find.

Would you believe, as Maxwell Smart used to say, that they make up the Canadian Stage Company’s new season at the Bluma Appel Theatre?

Canadian Stage has a new Artistic and General Director in Matthew Jocelyn. He replaced Martin Bragg who served in the post for 17 years. A Torontonian, Jocelyn has spent most of his artistic life in Europe. Words used to describe his approach are bold, innovative, trans-disciplinary and redefining. The titles of the plays alone tell us that Canadian Stage Company and the Bluma Appel Theatre may never be the same.

For his first production Jocelyn has chosen German playwright Tankred Dorst’s Fernando Krapp Wrote me this Letter: An Attempt at the Truth which he translated and of course directed. On the surface it is a simple, almost mythical story. But it is the type of play where most of the action takes place beneath the surface and in the end you are left scratching your head. This is not intended to be a light evening out for the tired businessperson.

When the play begins, Julia (Ngazi Paul) tells us that Fernando Krapp “wrote me a letter”. Julia is a poor woman who lives with her father in a city. Fernando is very wealthy and he gave some money to Julia’s father (Walter Borden) and consequently she accuses her father of selling her to Fernando. She is adamant that she wants nothing to do with Fernando.

Fernando (Ashley Wright) appears and he is not a sleazy or tough Donald Trump-type tycoon. He is a rather jolly, overweight man wearing a beige-coloured three piece suit. He is arrogant, to be sure and wants his way but he does not seem nasty at all. He marries Julia and they seem to be quite happy.

The Count (Ryan Hollyman) visits Julia and they get along quite nicely. Is Fernando jealous? No. Are Julia and the Count having an affair? No. Let’s go over the last propositions again. In a bizarre way, we will find Julia and the two men in her life in a mental hospital. She is mentally ill and Fernando and the Count are psychiatrists. Julia is cured and at home and we see the two men with her again.

The plot moves seamlessly and without any connecting logic from one point to the next. This is theatre of the absurd that make sense and no sense. As the subtitle of the play states, Fernando’s letter and the play itself may be an “attempt at the truth” but you are never sure what the truth is or for that matter what is the question. In other words, you cannot find the truth if you do not know what you are looking for and Dorst does not give you too many clues to assist you in your search.

This is theatre of questions and not answers; of “what was that all about” head scratching and a desire to see the play again or find out more about it. Perhaps that is the highest compliment one can pay to both director and author.

The real question however is if this production and the other plays on this season’s roster will bring people to the Bluma Appel Theatre. Let’s hope that it does.

Fernando Krapp Wrote me this Letter: An Attempt at the Truth by Tankred Dorst opened on September 28 and will run until October 16, 2010 at the Bluma Appel Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario.

Monday, October 11, 2010


Sondra Radvanovsky as Aida, Jill Grove (above centre) as Amneris and Rosario La Spina as Radames . Photo: Michael Cooper

The Canadian Opera Company opened its 2010-2011 season with a surefire crowd pleaser –Verdi’s Aida to be followed by the more adventurous choice of Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice.

Even the greenest neophyte has heard “Celeste Aida” or the Triumphal March and most opera fans have seen a production of Aida which probably included a zoofull of animals like a tiger, an elephant, a horse and a camel. In fact those animals were featured in a production by Royal Opera Canada in Mississauga a few years ago. The eternal love triangle, a palace, a couple of temples and the banks of the Nile, all add up to grand opera on a massive scale.

Director Tim Albery will have none of this. His conception of Aida is of a modern drama, in a poor country where human emotion may be paramount and the paraphernalia of grand opera are chucked. The Pharaoh’s palace becomes a rather shabby conference room with a pine boardroom table and a few cheap chairs. The Egyptians wear rather drab suits and the army officers wear ordinary not to say shabby uniforms.

You are expecting a Triumphal March? Forget it. You will hear the music but there will be nothing on stage to correspond to the thrilling trumpets. You imagine Aida, the Ethiopian princess who is the prisoner of Princess Amneris of Egypt as a beautiful woman for whom Radames, the powerful Egyptian commander falls in love? Forget that too. This Aida is a frump, dressed in an ugly dress and an uglier jacket. She is a defeated woman and all her body language indicates a mouse rather than a princess. Why would Radames fall in love with her?

Every director wants to and must put his imprimatur on a production of a staple of the opera house. You don’t want the same production with different animals walking across the stage for the few minutes of the Triumphal March. But there must be a correlation between the obvious content of the opera and the specific conception of the director. That correlation simply does not exist in the current production.

But all is not lost. The COC has much better luck in its singers than in Albery’s quirky approach. Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky is an outstanding Aida. She has a lustrous voice and achieves emotional and vocal splendour. She is marvelous in the long “Ritorna vincitor” and extraordinarily moving in “O patria mia.”

Tenor Rosario La Spina handled the role of Radames with self-assurance but with his bulky figure and military uniform he looked more like a tin pot dictator than a romantic lover who betrayed his country for the love of a woman. When the voice works, we overlook physical appearance. La Spina’s vocal prowess more than makes up for his lack of the ideal physical accoutrements for the role.

Jill Grove’s Amneris is a full-sized girl, as they say, but she does get a better wardrobe than Aida and she has a full-sized mezzo-soprano voice that stands her well. Her big moment comes near the end of the opera where she goes through the gamut of emotions. She wants Radames to die, she loves him, she wants him saved, she wishes he loved her. Grove gives a tour de force performance.

Baritone Scott Hendricks made a dramatic Amonasro while Alain Coulomb was a good King of Egypt. Phillip Ens was a sonorous Ramfis. The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra was conducted by Johannes Debus.
Hildegard Bechtler’s sets were, in keeping with Albery’s conception, drab with couches being pushed on and off the stage. The Egyptians may be able to whip the Ethiopians but as a country they cannot afford a bit of decent furniture even for the King.

And a final note on directorial choices. Aida sneaks into the underground chamber where her lover will be left to die for his treachery. Radames is unrepentant for his betrayal of his country and his love for Aida. They are left to die and they sing the beautifully melodic duet “O terra, addio.” Amneris is seen above the chamber and the three scenically make a triangle. Well and good, but would two lovers who are about to die for their love stand some fifteen feet apart? How about a final embrace at least, instead of the two collapsing to the ground as if they were strangers?


Aida by Giuseppe Verdi opened on October 2 and will be performed twelve times on various dates until November 5, 2010 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671.

Friday, October 8, 2010


In her memory, Alison (TABITHA KEAST) watches Diane (ALYSSA QUART) and Jerry (CAMERON JOHNSTON) meet on the film set. Photo by Karen Braaten

Reviewed by James Karas

There are some plays and productions that get you nowhere. You try to find points of interest, guess the author’s intentions, the director’s point of view and come up empty-handed. The current production of Daniel MacIivor’s You Are Here by the Alumnae Theatre Company left me with such an impression. I could find nothing in the play or in the production that made the play rise higher than tolerable and most of the time it was plain boring.

The play is centered on Alison (Tabitha Keast) who should be an interesting character but is so badly developed you do not much care for her. She is an intelligent and educated journalist. She first appears on the sand-covered stage with a bottle full of sand. She filled it from the shore of the Black Sea, the cradle of civilization, and she prizes it very highly.

She meanders through her opening monologue for so long that even the flashes of literary language begin escaping you and you want her to stop jabbering and get on with the play. Whatever the symbolic significance of the bottle, we will not see it until a couple of hours later when she empties it.

We flash back to her time at university and meet Prof. Steeves (Joseph Cochrane) and Connie Hoy (Seema Lakhani). The latter is a student and a Teaching Assistant and the professor is sleeping with her. That may be improper but it is mentioned in passing only and we go on to the next scene. Alison has a good friend in Richard (Michael Vitorovich) who also acts as a kind of Chorus in the play.

Alison interviews Diane Drake (Alyssa Quart), a shallow and ditsy actress, and Thomas Rowan (Will O’Hara), an arrogant director. Alison marries Jerry (Cameron Johnson), a psychologist but leaves him for Thomas. She then goes with Paul (Jamieson Child) a gigolo for reasons that escape me. Why she married Jerry is not made clear any more than the rest of the spouse-swapping that occurs.

Jerry the psychologist becomes a screenwriter and Thomas directs the film that Alison produces. We continue, in the meantime, with the deterioration of Alison’s condition for reasons that are not apparent.

Alison addresses the audience a number of times including telling us that intermission has arrived. We are grateful. Later on Connie provides comfort by telling us that there are only a few minutes left in the play. We are relieved.

Director Paul Hardy has the eight actors of the cast walk through the sand on the stage, as they must, and no doubt they are walking through the sand of time. There are virtually no props. The pace is soporific and the pauses are so long at times that you have forgotten what preceded them. Your mind is wanders away from what is going on on stage and it takes an effort to concentrate.

The actors deliver their lines more out of duty than conviction and I have no idea why this soporific play was chosen for production in the first place.

Perhaps if Hardy picked up the pace, tightened the acting, we may get a lot more from the play. There seemed to be some good lines but all were buried in the sand on the stage and not necessarily on the historic shore of the Black sea.

A bad night at the theatre.


You Are Here by Daniel MacIvor opened on September 24 and will run until October 9, 2010 at the Alumnae Theatre, 70 Berkeley Street, Toronto, Ontario. 416 364-4170