Thursday, November 25, 2010


Anna Netrebko and John Del Carlo in "Don Pasquale." Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

A rich old bachelor wants to marry a beautiful young woman. She is in love with a handsome young man and the two must outwit the old fool. There is a clever go-between who will devise a plot to get rid of the old codger and unite the young lovers.

Sounds familiar and in fact could be Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Close enough but in this case we are talking about Gaetano Donizetti’s comic masterpiece Don Pasquale. The opera premiered in Paris in 1843 and was one of the last bel canto operas to be composed. It is also one of the best.

The Metropolitan Opera has an all-star cast for its production at Lincoln Center and, for us less lucky mortals, in movie theaters around the world Live in HD. The production is lively, brisk, funny, well sung and provides several hours of supreme entertainment. One does miss the ambiance of Lincoln Center and New York but you can’t have everything.

Don Pasquale wants to punish his nephew Ernesto for not marrying the woman he has chosen for him. He decides to marry the beautiful widow Norina. But she is in love with Ernesto and we have Dr. Malatesta, the plot mover, who will disguise Norina as a virtuous convent-trained girl and marry her off to Don Pasquale. She will turn into a bitchy spending machine and drive Don Pasquale crazy. He will get rid of her and she will marry Ernesto and we or maybe just they will live happily ever after.

The opera is a storehouse of marvelous melodies, gorgeous arias, duets and trios and some of the fastest patter songs you ever heard. One of them (the duet with Don Pasquale and Malatesta near the end of Act III) is such a perfect example of machine-gun speed parlando delivery, that the singers stop and provide an encore on the spot. Not an everyday occurrence but it was certainly a crowd pleaser.

The star of the show is clearly soprano Anna Netrebko as the widow Norina. There are no qualms about heaping praise on Netrebko's lustrous voice but there was a question mark about her doing this role. Opera buffa is not her natural territory but she showed that she has considerable comic flair and she handled the role with gusto. Her Barbie-doll pretty face is not capable of great expressiveness but she is still a pleasure to watch and a sheer delight to hear.

Bass John Del Carlo sang the name role. He is a Falstaffian comic actor and singer who seems to have been born for the role. He has an expressive face and a voice that is suited to the foolish old man who convinces himself that he can marry a feisty widow.

Tenor Matthew Polenzani is the perfect Ernesto, the young lover who would rather be disinherited by his uncle than marry a woman he does not love. He is earnest, passionate and sings with a lover’s conviction.

The conniving Dr. Malatesta is sung by baritone Mariusz Kwiecien. He is vocally excellent but appears a bit young for the role. I think of him as a Figaro figure but he lacks the barber’s wiles and humour. For some reason he wore sunglasses and I can only assume it was because the lights bothered his eyes and not because the director or designer decided the character needs them.

The main setting for Don Pasquale is a room in his house. Designer Rolf Langenfass’s set gives the impression that Don Pasquale’s house is full of dilapidated furniture occupied by a slob. He should hire a cleaning lady, you say, but he has all those servants. What are they doing? Why the mess? Whatever the answer, the messy set adds nothing to the production.

Director Otto Schenk sticks to a traditional production that lets you enjoy the myriad of melodies and comic business from one of the best examples of the genre.

Gary Halvorson’s handling of the camera angles and close ups was sensible and you could enjoy an outstanding production and start saving for a trip to New York to see the real thing.

The production will be shown in movie theatres again on December 4, 2010 and on January 17, 2011. Go to or for more information.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


From L to R: James Durham (Apparatchik 1), Hardee T. Lineham (Vladimir Vorobiov), Janine Theriault (Nadia) & Arne MacPherson (Apparatchik 2).

** (out of five)

Reviewed by James Karas

Playwright Vern Thiessen had a brilliant idea: write a play about the heroic embalming of the great leader of the people, Lenin. The outline of the story already existed in a book by Ilya Zbarsky and Samuel Hutchinson called Lenin’s Embalmers and all he had to do was shape it into a play with black humour and a satirical look at Russia in 1924. He did that but unfortunately the result was not as happy as the original idea.

Thiessen’s play, Lenin’s Embalmers, opened in New York last March and the Harold Green Jewish Theatre has brought it to Toronto at the Al Green Theatre on Spadina Avenue. The limited virtues of the play are made worse by a creaky production directed by Geoffrey Brumlik.

After Lenin died in 1924, Stalin decided to preserve the body of the great leader forever and put it on display in Red Square, in the heart of Moscow. He rightly guessed that people would line up for hours to see the embalmed remains of the great man. The irony of making an almost holy relic of a dead Communist is simply astounding.

The problem was that no one knew how to preserve a corpse forever and the job was given to Boris Zbarsky and Vladimir Vorobiev, two Jewish scientists. The advantage of giving the job to Jews, aside from the ability to do it, was that they are twice as easy to kill. There was no need to kill them right away, because in the hands of the two scientists the impossible became reality and they became national heroes for their achievement. Their success and influence, like that of many Russians of the day, was short-lived. Stalin shipped them off to a prison camp and they disappeared.

The play is or is intended to be fast-paced with people walking on and off the stage in a quick succession of scenes. The main plot of the embalming is supplemented with a subplot about Stalin’s relations with Trotsky who, as we know, went into exile and was murdered with an ice pick in Mexico.

The problem with the play and the production is that just about nothing works. Thiessen inserts a fair number of jokes in the play, probably a good sign that he had difficulty coming up with decent lines arising from the situation. Examples: What is the difference between capitalism and socialism? In capitalism, man exploits man. In socialism, it is the other way around. Lenin collects jokes that people tell about him; Stalin collects people who tell jokes about him. These may authentic examples of Russian humour of the time but like all jokes they need to be delivered properly. The delivery that Brumlik evinces simply kills the humour.

Near the end of the first act, we see the two scientists embalming the body of Lenin. They put gauzes on his face, pour liquids in a bathtub, put the body in the tub, and presumably spend days or weeks in the process. They do not say a word during the scene which seems to last as long as the actual embalming. The audience waits for something, anything, to happen but nothing does. Surely some dialogue laced with black humour would be รก propos.

The scientists and some of the other characters are somewhat buffoonish, indeed budding comedians. Martin Julien as Zbarsky is almost a figure from a farce and Hardee Linehan plays the alcoholic Vorobiov without humour or drama. David Fox struts around as Stalin with little notion of the evil depravity of the man. Arne MacPherson’s Trotsky is not much better while Steve Ratzlaff plays the bureaucrat Krasin and has to deliver some awful dialogue. Harry Nelken is Lenin alive and dead. In the end the characters look as if they came out of a meat grinder. Janine Theriault, the only woman, plays several Nadias but the humour of her metamorphoses gets lost in the dross of the rest of the play and the production

The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company is in its fourth year and has had a mixed bag of productions all dealing with the Jewish story. Lenin’s Embalmers will not be counted as one of its successes. Unfortunately, neither the play nor the production merits much praise.

The company’s next production will be Zero Hour, a play about Zero Mostel and it will open on March 26, 2011. It will be followed by To Life, a musical revue, next May.

Lenin’s Embalmers by Vern Thiessen runs from October 30 to November 21, 2010 at the Al Green Theatre, 750 Spadina Ave. Toronto, Ontario.

Monday, November 8, 2010


Tim Campbell, Ari Cohen, Joseph Ziegler, Nancy Palk. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

***** (out of 5)

Reviewed by James Karas

Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman premiered 61 years ago which makes the play a couple of years younger than Willy Loman, the salesman of the title. It is one of the masterpieces of the American theatre and Soulpepper’s production at the Young Centre, Toronto, is an extraordinary staging that does justice to the play.

Director Albert Schultz elicits stellar performances from an outstanding cast and the result is, to coin a phrase, a must see production for anyone who cares about the theatre.

Willy Loman is an ordinary man in the extreme. He drives all over New England carrying samples for a New York store and selling whatever he can. He has a wife and two sons and lives in a small house that was once surrounded by greenery but is now hemmed in by high-rise buildings. He has a mortgage and bills to pay and all the ills of a middle class American. But Willy has dreams, ambitions and desires on a grand scale. He does not see himself as an ordinary salesman but as a salesman who is well-liked; he does not have to wait to see the buyer; the cops do not give him tickets; he beats sales records; he is a somebody.

It is this simplicity and complexity, this pathos, exuberance, pathetic ambition and lack of ability in Loman that Joseph Ziegler captures in his defining performance.

Loman conveys some of these qualities to his two sons and they grow up with the faith that they are better than everyone and that they will succeed on character and desire instead of ability and effort. Biff (Ari Cohen) and Happy (Tim Campbell) grow up not just as shallow human beings but as liars and, in the case of Biff, as a thief and a criminal. Campbell plays Happy as the classic narcissistic womanizer who denies his own father to gain favour with a woman. Biff uses the discovery of his father’s infidelity as a crutch to cover his own nothingness.

The Lomans are surrounded by success. Willy’s brother Ben (William Webster) went into the jungle and came out wealthy. What is his secret, asks Willy. His neighbour Charley (Michael Hanrahan) owns a business and his son Bernard (Gregory Prest) becomes a lawyer who is about to argue a case before the Supreme Court and will stay with friends who have their own tennis court. Everybody around him is living Willy’s dream and he cannot pay his bills. He is reduced to begging foe a job from his employer Howard (Brendan Wall), another successful man, who summarily fires him.

Nancy Palk, speaking in her lower register, gives an outstanding performance as Willy’s wife Linda. Linda understands everything, says little and supports her husband to the end.

Set Designer Lorenzo Savoini opts for a small, claustrophobic set. The kitchen and sons’ bedroom in the Loman house are small and there is a panel on one side of the stage to indicate the changes in scenery. The panel shows greenery when Willy remembers the past but displays a forbidding tenement building in the present. The scene in Howard’s office and the restaurant are indicated with a view from a skyscraper and neon lights respectively. Very effective.

Near the end of the play, the travelling salesman imagines his own funeral. He sees people with cars with strange license plates from all over New England coming to pay their last respect to the well-liked Willy Loman. By that time Willy’s dreams and ambitions have all crumbled and the only think left for him is inglorious death and hopefully a funeral becoming someone of his ambitions if not his success. In the end, almost no one attends even his funeral

The final scene of the play is a Requiem for Willy on his grave site. Only his family and neighbours Charley and Bernard are there Biff has reached a cathartic realization that he is a nobody. The play ends with everyone leaving the cemetery. Schultz however wants us to know that Willy has an heir for his vacuous dreams and ambitions: his son Happy stays on the grave site after everyone leaves.

But if Willy was a failure right up to his funeral, he manages to achieve some posthumous success. By committing suicide, he leaves a substantial amount of insurance money for his wife – from a life insurance policy by money he “borrowed” from Charley.

A great night at the theatre.

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller opened on October 21 and will continue until November 13, 2010 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. 416 866-8666.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


Mireille Asselin & Thomas Macleay in Handel's Acis and Galatea. Photo: Bruce Zinger

Reviewed by James Karas

****1/2 (out of five)

For its 25th season, Opera Atelier offers two 18th century works, namely Handel’s Acis and Galatea and Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. The first is playing now at the Elgin Theatre; for the second you will have to wait until April 2011.

For the 1732 production of the pastoral opera Acis and Galatea, the advertisement read that “there will be no Action on the Stage, but the scene will represent in a Picturesque Manner, a rural Prospect, with Rocks, Grottos, Fountains and Groves.”

The current production of the work by Opera Atelier pays no heed to the early advertisement and co-artistic directors Marshal Pynkoski an Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg have produced a delightful version of the work. There is considerable humour and action on the stage in the form of dances choreographed by Ms Zingg but unfortunately very little evidence of groves and fountains. More about that later.

Acis and Galatea was first performed in 1718 and it was George Frideric Handel’s first dramatic work in English. His librettist John Gay based the wok on Ovid’s Metamorphoses and tells of the love triangle of Acis, Galatea and Polyphemus. Galatea is a Nereid, a sea nymph, one of the 50 daughters of Nereus, the god of the sea.

Somehow she finds herself in Arcadia or Sicily and the semi-divine Galatea has fallen in love with a mortal named Acis. The one-eyed, man-eating Cyclops Polyphemus is also in the same neighborhood and he has fallen in love or more accurately in lust with Galatea. (this is before he took up sheep rearing full time on the island of the Cyclops and dined on some of Odysseus’s men). Polyphemus’s father is the god Poseidon and you know things will not turn out well for the mere mortal Acis.

Acis and Galatea has been variously described as a masque, a serenata, a pastoral and a pastoral opera. It has a number of melodic arias, duets and choruses that tell the story of the love of Acis and Galatea and the fate of the mortal lover in the hands of Polyphemus. There is a fourth character named Damon who is sometimes described as a Shepherd but Pynkoski has wisely chosen to have him played as spirit. He comments on the action and is a connecting link in the plot.

The delight of the evening is soprano Mireille Asselin’s Galatea. Ms Asselin has a lovely voice, rich in tone and colour and she was a pleasure to watch and hear. She was well-matched by tenor Thomas Macleay as Acis. Handel does not require lung-stretching vocal histrionics but he does demand beauty of tone and Macleay delivers some marvelous singing.

Pynkoski has chosen to present the Cyclops Polyphemus as a comic character rather than as a straight villain. Polyphemus is larger than life and he must be either a terrifying monster or a comic burlesque of a monster. Bass Joao Fernandes struts on the stage and overacts as becomes a clownish monster and produces some laugher but he is not larger than life. His singing was good but the character needed to take a more extreme shape to be satisfactory. Tenor Lawrence Wiliford was sprightly physically and vocally as the spirit Damon and a good example of a properly conceived character.

The Tafelmusik Chamber Choir gets some of the best parts of the opera and from the opening chorus of “Oh, the pleasure of the plains” to the final “Galatea, dry thy tears” is simply superb. The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra under the baton of David Fallis is matchless in this repertoire.

The opera has a large number of solo airs and if the singers were allowed to simply sing their numbers there will indeed be no Action on the Stage. Leave it to Choreographer Zingg to devise dances for the Atelier Ballet to accompany the singing. The production becomes a ballet as well as a pastoral opera.

The single backdrop that serves as a set for the entire production looks more like a decaying gothic castle on “a dark and stormy night” rather than anything that remotely resembles any notion one might have of Arcadia. When the choir sings of the pleasures of the plains, there are none to be seen. The center looks like the opening to a cave with overhanging rocks. The sky is dark and menacing and there is no hint of groves. Even the animals that are come bouncing across the stage seem to be running away from an approaching storm rather than happily romping through the dales of Arcady.

Aside from those two complaints, this is a superb production in period style that is worth seeing more than once. By happenstance, I saw it twice and enjoyed it even more the second time.

Acis and Galatea by George Frideric Handel, presented by Opera Atelier, opened on October 30 and will be performed seven times until November 7, 2010 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto.