Monday, February 28, 2011


by James Karas

The citizens of Venice that Shakespeare shows us in The Merchant of Venice are generous, noble, decent, and loyal. They are the essence of humanity. They have one blind spot that would make you reconsider all those characteristics when viewing them from a different perspective. To say that they are anti-Semitic is to understate their virulent hatred of Jews. That hatred is so deeply rooted in every individual and in society as a whole that not one of these fine people seems capable of accepting Jews as human beings.

That is the disturbing and puzzling premise on which Shakespeare’s great play is based. Shylock, a Jew and the central character of the play, responds to that hatred in kind. He has enough humanity to ask if a Jew is not a person (“Hath not a Jew eyes?”) but he is the victim of intolerable abuse and humiliation and his response is to wreak revenge on one of his many abusers. Shylock’s message is that Jews are not worse than Christians but they are not better either.

Daniel Sullivan has directed a great production of the play starring Al Pacino and it just closed its run at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York. It is a production that leaves one emotionally exhausted as if this were the first time you had ever saw the play.

The extraordinary performance by Pacino is a part of the success of the production but Sullivan has done a number of imaginative things that raise the production above the stunning. During the trial scene, for example, Shylock is allowed to take his pound of flesh from Antonio (Byron Jennings). He takes out a sharp knife and a white handkerchief and is about to start carving up Antonio. At that moment Shylock stops. He cannot do what he has been demanding the right to do – take revenge on his tormentor. It is a phenomenal theatrical moment.

The “humane” Duke of Venice (Gerry Bamman) after humiliating Shylock orders him to become a Christian, the ultimate insult for a Jew who has maintained his faith in the diseased atmosphere of Venice. Here Sullivan adds a brief scene in which Shylock is baptized. He is led into a wading pool in front of a priest. His yarmulke is tossed from his head and his head is dunked into the water. He has become a Christian. The Christians leave the stage and Shylock’s Jewish friends rush in to give him a hand. He rises, finds his yarmulke and defiantly puts it on back on his head. It is a moment of triumphant humanity and defiance and an unforgettable coup de théatre.

And there is one more. Right after Shylock steps off the stage following his baptism, the scene changes to Belmont where Lorenzo (Thomas Michael Hammond) and Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Heather Lind) go on about how “in such a night” scenes from great love stories took place as the two lovers compare their relationship with mythical lovers. In this production, Jessica, who has denied her Jewishness and her father, steps in the same pool of water where her father was just humiliated.

At the end of the play she is shown sitting on the edge of the pool. She has been given a deed to her father’s fortune and she throws is in the water. Lorenzo puts his jacket around her shoulders and she does not toss it off. Her betrayal is complete.

The big love affair of The Merchant is, of course, the one between Portia (Lily Rabe) an heiress from Belmont and Bassanio (David Harbour). That love affair has a mirror image in the lower class relationship of Portia’s servant Nerissa (Marsha Stephanie Blake) and Bassanio’s servant Gratiano (David Aaron Baker). Their protestations of noble and eternal love result in naught, it seems. At the end of the play they walk off in different directions.

Pacino’s riveting performance and the stunning production as a whole does not mean that all the actors rose to the occasion. Rabe’s Portia sounded a bit nasal and did nothing for me. Jennings was an excellent Antonio as was the Harbour as Bassanio. The rest of the cast was at least competent and some were very good.

Christopher Fitzgerald was a funny Launcelot Gobbo, a comic character in a play that is not exactly made for laughs.

The set consists of black wrought-iron fences and they serve for the entire play. These people are all prisoners of their world and they cannot see beyond their hatreds. Shylock comes the closest, of course, but they are incapable of seeing what he sees, simply because he is a Jew.

A great night at the theatre.

Sunday, February 27, 2011


Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Simon Boccanegra / Met Opera

by James Karas

Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra has never been completely ignored but it has not been on the boards with any frightful regularity either. The Canadian Opera Company produced it two years ago after ignoring it for thirty years and the Metropolitan Opera has only performed it 139 times in its history. Now compare that with La Boheme which has been performed 1229 times and counting and you get a sense of which opera sells those expensive tickets.

Gaetano Donizetti’s comic opera Don Pasquale which is also on the boards this season at the Met has been performed 131 times there. It is a delightful piece and many of its productions were paired with shorter operas and at times ballets. I think it is simply considered too lightweight an opera to merit numerous performances.

Simon Boccanegra is anything but light, of course, but whatever their relative densities, I saw both operas at the Met at the beginning of February, 2011.

The problem with Boccanegra is that it has such a convoluted plot with so many twists, that you are lucky if you can recall what happened five minutes after you leave the theatre. All you know is that the baritone is dead (even though he is a nice guy), the bad bass is executed and the tenor marries the soprano.

By the time you get there, you have enjoyed some phenomenal arias and ensemble pieces and opera on a scale that few companies can imagine or afford to stage.

The current production by Giancarlo del Monaco premiered in 1995 with Placido Domingo in the tenor role of Gabriele Adorno and Kiri Te Kanawa as Amalia. The cast for the performance that I saw was headed by the great Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the title role, soprano Barbara Frittoli as Amalia, tenor Ramon Vargas as Gabriele and bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as Jacopo Fiesco.

From Frittoli’s luscious soprano, to Hvorostovsky’s resonant sonority to Furlanetto’s rumbling bass, this is vocal prowess and splendor to be relished. I was not as keen on Vargas’s performance. He was simply not as convincing as Marcello Giordani’s portrayal of the character that I saw in the role playing opposite Angela Gheorghiu four years ago in the same house.

The vocal splendor of the production is matched by the physical opulence of the set and costumes by Michael Scott. The dark square outside the church of the Prologue, the seaside garden of the Grimaldi Palace and the doge’s palace are constructed with meticulous care to detail to give the impression that you are entering the medieval city of Genoa.

The plot of Don Pasquale could not be simpler or older. An old bachelor wants to marry a pretty, young widow who happens to be in live with his nephew. There is a plot catalyst, a doctor in this case, who will arrange for the old bachelor to “marry” the young widow. She will make his life hell on earth and he will be happy to let his nephew get this termagant off his hands. True love triumphs. End of story.

The current production by Otto Schenk was shown Live from the Met in theatres last November and I reviewed it then. Anna Netrebko as the widow Norina was marvelous both vocally and in her handling of physical comedy. However, you do miss the close-ups. There are advantages to watching it on the big screen with well-aimed camera angles.

Bass John Del Carlo is a superb Don Pasquale. He is a comic actor, a must for the role, and can sing some of the best pieces in comic opera. Dr. Malatesta, the man who arranges for Norina to “marry” Don Pasquale is sung by baritone Mariusz Kwiecien. He seems to have gotten rid of his sunglasses and does a fine job in the role.

Tenor Matthew Polenzani who usually sang the role of the young lover Ernesto was replaced for the performance that I saw by Barry Banks. Last minute replacements that result in the launch of great careers are legendary in opera. Unfortunately this was not the case with Banks. He is of relatively small stature (no matter) and he did not do a bang-up job to make you cheer a great vocal discovery. He sounded thin and choppy where he should have sounded melodious and passionate.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Laara Sadiq and Cast of Saint Carmen of The Main, Photo Credit: Bruce Zinger

Reviewed by James Karas

Saint Carmen of the Main, Michel Tremblay’s 1976 play, takes place in Montreal’s red light district. It is a play full of hookers, transvestites and pimps, what are now politely called sex workers. The play is described as a twentieth-century Greek tragedy. There, you have two reasons to sit up and pay attention.

Saint Carmen is now playing at the Bluma Appel Theatre in a production by Canadian Stage and the National Arts Centre English Theatre directed by Peter Hinton. The play is a commendable choice and in line with Artistic Director Matthew Jocelyn’s mandate for adventurous programming.

On the realistic level, the play is about a country-and-western singer named Carmen from Montreal’s seedy Main district. She goes to Nashville to perfect her art and on her return home, decides to sing her own songs. She is opposed by the people in power in her world, call them managers, bar owners or pimps and has a bad end.

But Carmen, in the process of expressing her desire for artistic freedom, becomes a spokesperson and a force for the down-trodden (read Quebec, if you will) and her story gains a mythical aspect. Carmen, her antagonists and the people she speaks for become representatives of a much broader cultural and political world. This is the type of representation that has its origins in Greek tragedy, in the Royal House of Thebes and in the House of Atreus, for example.

The play’s allusions and relationship to Greek tragedy are intentional and stated outright by Tremblay. He was heavily influenced by Athenian drama and Saint Carmen (a part of a trilogy) is directly influenced by it.

The play opens with a chorus of fourteen hookers and transvestites dressed in bright red reciting a choral ode about the return of Carmen from Nashville and identifying her with the sun. In fact, Carmen is the sun. The stage is bathed in red and there is a large doorway in a wall that also alludes to classical theatre.

There are five characters aside from the Chorus but all five parts can be played by three actors as would have been done in Ancient Greece. Carmen has long white hair and is dressed in white as if ready to be sacrificed to some angry god. Her antagonists, Maurice (Jean Leclerc) and Toothpick (Joey Tremblay) are dressed in black. Gloria (Jackie Richardson), another singer, is just plain menacing.

There are some exceptional performances, staring with Laara Sadiq’s portrayal of Carmen. Carmen according to the title is canonized. She comes from a troubled and bizarre background and lives in the underworld where violence is imminent. She is a saint, a sacrificial victim and a part of the sleazy demimonde. Sadiq conveys all of these worlds.

Diane D’Aquila plays Harelip, a dresser, friend and advisor of Carmen and she does a superb job. Jean Leclerc plays the heavy and murderous Maurice with assurance as does Joey Tremblay as Toothpick. Jackie Richardson is a powerhouse of talent and she shifts her weight with mastery, especially in a lengthy aria-like scene with Carmen.

Greek tragedy is a long way from Montreal and Michel Tremblay does not attempt to imitate Aeschylus. But he has taken a local story and infused it with sufficient allusions to Athenian drama to create a richly textured play that stands on its own. You cannot have a twentieth-century Greek tragedy but you can have a story based in the seedy part of Montreal reach back, however imperfectly and uncertainly, two and a half millennia to the sun-drenched Theatre of Dionysus on the foothills of the Acropolis.
Saint Carmen of the Main by Michel Tremblay opened on February 10 and will play until March 5, 2011 at the Bluma Appel Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


Michael Schade and Aline Kutan  - photo Michael Cooper

By James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company’s mid-season offerings follow the usual pattern of the adventurous and the traditional fare. The adventurous part of the programme is John Adams’s Nixon in China and the traditional dish is Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Kudos for the choice of works.

The Magic Flute is the type of opera that can withstand all kinds of approaches and be thoroughly enjoyable. Operaphiles, of course, look for the directorial stroke of imaginative genius, the outstanding singing, the extraordinary set designs and orchestral playing. Many of these components are missing many times but no one, not even Salieri could kill Mozart.

That is around about way of stating that I enjoyed the current production at the Four Seasons Centre and now for the compliments and the gripes.

Director Diane Paulus has cast the opera as a play-within-a-play. This can work and emphasize the point that The Magic Flute is a fairly tale among other things. We see people milling around a stage and the opera begins in the stage on the stage. The apparent benefit of the approach disappears quickly and all we end up with is a reduced playing area and not much to show for it. The device is abandoned later in the opera.

The set, designed by Myung Hee Cho, when we moved past the play-within-a-play device consisted largely of privet hedges on wheels. The monumental temple may be desirable but perhaps financially impractical. Here it is only suggested. The hedges are a practical way of solving the problem and if they add very little, they do no harm either. To be fair, she does an excellent job with the monsters and the overall effect is fine with the exception of the play-within-a-play device.

In the singing department, Canadian soprano Aline Kutan carried the evening with a spectacular performance as the Queen of the Night. She has two killer arias and everybody is waiting for her to slip up as she delivers those vocal spikes that reach high F. Kutan delivered them and she may have slipped slightly on one note but aside from that she gave a stellar performance.

Canadian tenor Michael Schade was not at his best as Tamino. His voice lacked the warmth and ease of delivery that I would want to hear from our hero.

Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian sang a passionless Pamina. She has a bad tic of looking towards the floor. I am not sure if this is the director’s idea to indicate her modesty and virginal purity (Pamina’s not the director’s) or just a bad habit that is easily corrected.

Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko as Sarastro carried his arias reasonably well but I missed the rumbling low notes of a bass to add gravitas to the high priest’s words of wisdom. Petrenko sings well but does not have rolling notes.

Russian baritone Rodion Pogossov was an outstanding Papageno. He is a wiry and wily bird catcher who managed both the singing and the comedy well.

Monostatos (American tenor John Easterlin) is the guardian of Sarastro’s prisoners by profession, and a would-be rapist by vocation. He can be played as a scary and ugly monster or as a funny bumbling fool of a monster. Paulus gives us neither. He is a small man who is neither ugly nor scary but does have a good tenor voice. He definitely needs to be jazzed up.

The Magic Flute is not opera proper: it is musical theatre, fast paced, funny, approachable and memorable. It has dialogue instead of recitatives and lots of broad humour. Comedy like that travels very badly from stage to surtitles and back. The question is why are they doing The Magic Flute in German? The German lyrics, especially in a comic setting are relatively easy to translate into English. In other words, there is nothing to be gained by singing it in the original and a great deal is lost. We can leave some of our snobbery at home and have lots of fun seeing this musical in English.

Johannes Debus conducted the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra which with the COC Corus gave a good accounting of themselves.

In the end, despite its many virtues, the production was missing the spark of magic that one hopes to find. You enjoy it but you still wish for more.


The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder opened on January 29 and will be performed twelve times with some cast changes until February 25, 2011, at the Four Seasons Centre, 145 Queen St. West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


by James Karas

It is not often that you get to see an opera three times in one week, but my stars were aligned in such a way that I was able to attend Nixon in China at the New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the Canadian Opera Company’s production as well as Live from the Met in HD.

John Adams’ opera about President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 premiered in 1987 in Houston. It was Adams’ first opera but it is very much the brainchild of Peter Sellars and has had numerous productions since. It has finally arrived at the Met in a major production that has elicited a lot of media attention. Sellars directed this production as well.

Coincidentally it also had its Canadian Opera Company premiere several days later in a production directed by James Robinson.

After seeing operas by Puccini, Donizetti and Verdi in succession at the Met, Nixon in China comes as a pretty dramatic change. Adams’ music is a long way from Verdi and the familiar arias, ensemble pieces and flourishes that we associate with operas from that era. Nixon in China is minimalist music which means that chords or short melodic pieces are played repeatedly with minor variations that build up to a musical whole. At first it sounds like rap music where some phrase is repeatedly endlessly, it seems.

There are some choral pieces and a ballet scene when the music soars to anything but minimalist. Whatever the buildup and the excitement, there is nothing Verdian or even Wagnerian here. All of this requires an adjustment to one’s ears

As one would expect, the Met gives Nixon in China a grand production with first-rate singers. The orchestra was conducted by the composer and Peter Sellars, the creative genius behind the opera directed it.

American baritone James Maddalena, a man with a big sonorous voice and an uncanny resemblance to Nixon, sang the role that he created at the premiere of the opera. Scottish soprano Janis Kelly was the slightly naïve Pat Nixon who delivers the lengthy aria/recitative “This is prophetic” in Act II. German baritone Russell Braun is an upright and rigorous Chou En-lai while American tenor Robert Brubaker plays the doddering Mao Tse-tung.

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Richard Paul Fink) is reduced to a buffoon in the opera but Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao Tse-tung) is given numerous show-stealing opportunities and Korean soprano Kathleen Kim takes advantage of all of them.
The COC production can stand its own beside the Met’s even if the vocal talent (or budget, for that matter) cannot, in fairness match the latter’s. Director Robinson and set designer Allen Moyer make their own mark rather than aping the Adrianne Lobel’s designs for the Met.

At the Met, we are given the front end of The Spirit of ’76, the presidential jet, and Nixon steps out giving his famous wave. No such dramatic entrance is provided in Toronto. The smaller stage of the Four Seasons Centre necessitates smaller sets than the huge stage at Lincoln Centre.

The final scene of the opera takes place on the last night of the visit. In New York, there are six beds on the stage, one for each of the main characters, perhaps. In Toronto, there are six television consoles which play scenes from the actual visit. I could not get a good look at the screens but it provided an interesting variation.

American baritone Robert Orth played a very credible Nixon and soprano Maria Kanyova did a fine job as Pat Nixon. Adrian Thompson sounded hoarse and decrepit as Mao, no doubt representing the character rather than his real vocal ability.

On February 12, 2011, Nixon in China was broadcast live in movie theatres. Needless to say the broadcast featured all the vices and most of the virtues of such a viewing. The broadcast was directed by Sellars himself so we cannot complain about someone sabotaging the director’s intentions.

The opera opens in an airfield outside Peking where a contingent of servicemen is awaiting the arrival of Nixon and sing. After giving us one long shot of the stage, Sellars zeroes in on close-ups of unknown characters. What the hell is going on? Who are these people and why are you not letting us see the whole stage again? And why are you changing camera angles after every handshake?

There are many advantages, of course. Facial expressions are great to see and there are details that only a close up can reveal. The intermission features are usually interesting and you do get some information. You also get fulsome, very, very fulsome, expressions of mutual admiration and some inane questions and the concomitant answers.

All the promotional and much of the critical commentary of the opera made use of numerous superlatives including the big one – “a masterpiece.” It may well be but I cannot admit to enjoying the entire piece. There are some recitatives that go beyond Wagnerian longueurs and approach tedium. There are also some magnificent scenes. The libretto by Alice Goodman goes beyond most 19th century operas in complexity and attempt to capture the personal and political importance of the situation. That is a significant achievement,

What is needed, I suppose, is for one’s ear to become attuned and accustomed to the Adams’s music and be able to approach it with the same zeal as, say, Verdi and Wagner.

One thing is certain however: seeing an opera three times in one week in two different productions and one on the big screen is perhaps the best way to enjoy a work, new or old. Of course, you could go to London, Paris and Milan …. but let’s stop dreaming.

Nixon in China by John Adams opened on February 5 and will play until February 26, 2011 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671. It continues at the Metropolitan Opera, New York until February 19, 2011. and it will be shown in movie theatres again on March 12, 2011.

Monday, February 14, 2011



By James Karas

Last week the shell of what was to become the Hellenic Cultural Centre near Warden and Ellesmere in Toronto was put up for sale. The Greek Community of Toronto celebrated its centenary two years ago and the Cultural Centre was to prove its greatest achievement, the symbol of its maturity. It has turned into its greatest disaster.

One of the main functions of the Centre would have been to provide a theatre. The Hellenic Heritage Foundation had pledged one million dollars for the theatre and the expectation was that The Community Theatre Nefeli would finally gain a performance space many steps up from the makeshift facilities on the second floor of the Polymenakio Cultural Centre behind the St. Dimitrios Church. It will not happen.

Nefeli, under the stewardship of Nancy-Athan Mylonas, has been around for twenty years. My guess is that at least several thousand youngsters have been involved with it over the years. They have travelled widely, won numerous awards and, no doubt, have learned about the theatre, singing and dancing.

If the Greek Community is supposed to maintain and promote Greek culture and Hellenism, then I dare say that Nefeli Theatre has done more in that direction than all the dances and speeches of visiting politicians put together.

Nefeli is presenting a variety of dances, songs and sketches this year and the main theme is a salute to Hellenism and some gentle poking of fun at Greeks. The title Ελλάδα δεν είναι μόνο Φραππε (Τhere is more to Greece than just Frappe) is an indication of a spirited defense of Greece which has been getting some pretty bad press lately (to put it very mildly) and like the Greek Community of Toronto is, according to some, on the verge of bankruptcy.

The revue is based on the poetry of Angelos Sikelianos, Yiannis Ritsos and “Kataxnia” by Kostas Virvos with music by Christos Leontis. As with anything that Nancy Athan-Mylonas touches, expect it to be tailored to her taste and the talents of Nefeli Theatre.

The revue contains some rousing patriotic songs and a number of sketches. It delves into Greek history from the Secret School during the Tourkokratia to the protests in Mel Lastman Square in North York over the Macedonian issue. There is a sketch about the Nazi occupation where the violence was so realistic that a lawyer sitting beside me got worried enough to comment that “I hope they checked their liability insurance.”

But it was not all patriotic fervor. There were several very funny sketches. The funniest was the one about Madame Soussou with the very pregnant Irene Bithas-Georgalidis and Maria Mattheou. Think of a young Carol Burnett and you will appreciate Irene’s enormous and natural talents. She can play a peasant woman with a broom or the pretentious Madame Soussou and bring the house down. Mattheou is a very talented comedian and she shone best as the waitress in the Stavrakas sketch with Nikos Takas.

The show is constructed around an exercise assigned to a theatre class. The students pick out props from past productions of Nefeli and they are asked to describe how the prop relates to their Greek origins. This provides the impetus for the sentimental journey down memory lane of both the Theatre Company and Greek history.

The show involved some seventy people (I did not count them) ranging in ages from six to seventy five. Loukas Economou is the 75-year old and he has been with the company since its inception. Most of the others were probably not even born when the troupe was organized.

The show was put together and choreographed by Athan-Mylonas with English excerpts by Lydia Soldevila-Tombros. Vicki Chalkiopoulou is the Choir Master.

Enthusiasm generated by amateur theatricals can only be envied by professional companies – applause, laughter, tears and an audience enrapt by the performance.

The programme contains the names of dozens of people who have worked behind the scenes as well as those on stage. It is an astonishing communal and Community achievement that, it is worth repeating, has been around for twenty years.

The question remains: Will it continue?
ΕΛΛΑΔΑ ΔΕΝ ΕΙΝΑΙ Μ,ΟΝΟ ΦΡΑΠΠΕ ( There Is More To Greece Than Just Frappe) opened on January 28 and played until February 13, 2011 at the Polymenakio Cultural Centre, The Greek Community of Toronto, 30 Thorncliffe Park Drive, Toronto, Ontario. Telephone (416) 425-2485

Saturday, February 12, 2011


Maija Kovalevska  as Mimi. Photo:  Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

by James Karas

Those four starving artists who live in that freezing attic in the Latin Quarter are back. Not that they ever left. To be precise, they have shown up 1229 times at New York’s Metropolitan Opera as of February 3, 2011 and have gone AWOL for only six seasons since their first appearance at the Met in 1900.

I speak of Puccini’s La Boheme which is now showing at the opulent Lincoln Centre. This is a remounting of the Franco Zeffirelli production which has been around as long as Hosni Mubarak has been president of Egypt. Hosni’s 30-year stint is getting mixed reviews in Cairo’s Liberty Square these days. Zeffirelli’s over-the-top production is still eliciting standing ovations with no loud demands for resignation and without posing any danger to people.

Three years ago the production was beamed live to movie theatres around the world with the major star power of Angela Gheorgiu and Rolando Villazon in the lead roles. The current productions stars may not have such exalted star patina but they do provide first-rate vocal power in a production that has stood the test of time.

Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska sang the role of the pretty, simple and wonderful Mimi with the cold hands, with beauty and poise. She has a beautiful voice and sang with the right touch of tremolo to indicate fragility, vulnerability, and just the sweet girl you want to meet.

Polish tenor Piotr Beczala made an agile Rodolfo with a light tenor voice that soared on the high notes and was a delight to hear. Swedish baritone Peter Mattei provided the perfect contrast with his sonorous delivery of Marcello. American soprano Susanna Phillips was suitably flighty and vivacious as Musetta. Zeffirelli dresses her in wild red to make sure we get the message.

Zeffirelli believes that grand opera must live up to its name and nothing is done on a less than, well, grand scale. The attic where the artists live is clearly on the top floor of some tenement building. When we move to the street scene and the Café Momus we are given a glimpse of Paris that only Hollywood can compete with. There is a huge crowd, buildings rise on every side and the cafes are full of beautifully dressed people.

When a cart goes by and the toy vendor Parpignol shows up, there is a donkey to pull the first and a horse for the second.

The third act scene by the toll gate at the edge of Paris has snow banks to surpass the piles in most North American cities that were gathered after the last storm.

And the whole thing starts with a blown candle, a dropped key and groping around the floor. Rodolfo feels her hand and sings “Che gelida manina.” Mimi tells him her name and a few other things in “Mi chiamano Mimi” and a duet later they are madly in love. The love affair lasts for only a visit to the Café Momus, in stage time in any event.

In the next scene, because of jealousy or perhaps something deeper, she is singing “Addio senza rancor” (let’s part friends!) He says he is splitting with her because she is sick and his earnings as a poet will not provide for much medical attention. Can we have that again? He is leaving her so she can find someone better-heeled to pay her medical bills.

A few ends are tied up in the final act back in the attic. Musetta proves she has a heart of gold and she and Marcello reconcile (they are the other side of the coin of love and left on bad terms when Rodolfo and Mimi were parting as friends) and Mimi dies just in time for the 11:00 o’clock news.

Puccini’s music manages to make this sentimental tale into a moving night at the opera. Without the music it would be laughed off the stage. Add the melodies and music and you have an opera that no opera house can do without and the Met, as I said, has not left it alone for more than six seasons in the last 110 years.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


Gene Fowler entitled his 1944 biography of John Barrymore Good Night, Sweet Prince. He thus placed the actor in the pantheon of theatrical royalty and related him to Hamlet, the greatest and most complex character in drama. In other words, Barrymore (1882-1942), had become a legend.

Author William Luce has undertaken to bring a piece of that legend back on stage through the talents of Christopher Plummer. His play Barrymore has been heavily advertized for months in the Toronto area and even if you are living in a cave you should know that it is now playing at the Elgin Theatre.

The play looks at Barrymore in the winter of 1942, “three months after Pearl Harbor” we are told and, as it turns out, shortly before his death on May 29, 1942. We see Barrymore rehearsing or more accurately trying to learn the lines of Richard III. He drinks, staggers, cannot remember a line, recalls incidents from the past and is always witty and engaging. He has a prompter named Frank (John Plumpis) who speaks off stage.

Plummer has a mellifluous voice, a magnificent stage presence and an unerring ability to deliver lines ranging from acerbic barbs to Shakespearean verses. Plummer, like Barrymore, is in the winter of his career and he can no doubt relate to an actor looking back over a long career with moments of achievement and failure.

The play lasts only about ninety minutes and Plummer is, needless to say, on stage all the time. Many of the recollections are personal, like his four marriages, relations with his siblings, Lionel and Ethel, his drinking, his progressive deterioration and his inability to master scripts.

The connecting link for the recollections is his attempt to say the opening soliloquy of Richard III, “Now is the winter of our discontent.” We hear numerous snippets from Shakespeare and even more witty comments usually self-deprecating.

Luce is enamoured of Wildean inversions and there are witticisms like my wife made our marriage work so I had to leave. (I paraphrase). There is the line about the drunkard who had varicose veins in his eyes. When told to look into AA by his exasperated prompter, Barrymore replies that he will drink anything. When Barrymore tells mogul Sam Goldwyn that a movie he is about to make is about two lesbians, the latter replies that “we will make them American.”

Asked by an English dowager if Hamlet had sex with Ophelia, Barrymore replies that he does not think so but he does know about a Hamlet in Chicago who had fellatio with Horatio.

These are all great anecdotes about old age, excessive drinking and life in show business. A bit like a highly literate George Burns monologue.

We see a lot of Barrymore in his dotage but we would like a glimpse of him at the height of his career. Could we not be treated to the whole of “Now is the winter of our discontent” soliloquy as Barrymore performed it before his decline? We are treated to incomplete recitations of the “What a piece of work is a man” soliloquy and the “get thee to a nunnery” speech from Hamlet but both are cut short for cheap laughs.

Barrymore became a legend because of his acting ability and not because of his drinking, womanizing or wittiness in old age. Plummer could have delivered some examples of what Barrymore could do to justify a play about him so many decades after his death.

Barrymore was first produced at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 1996 and it eventually made it to Broadway where it garnered several awards including a Tony Award for Best Actor for Plummer. Gene Saks directed the production.

On page 1 of his biography, Fowler quotes Barrymore’s favourite lines from Shakespeare, the “O! what a rogue and peasant slave am I” soliloquy from Hamlet. Would it not have been wonderful to hear Barrymore’s voice through Plummer intoning those great iambic pentameters? Such wasted opportunities!

Barrymore by William Luce opened on January 27 and will run until March 9, 2011 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yong St. Toronto, Ontario.