Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Reviewed by James Karas

About a dozen kilometers north of Aix-en-Provence, on the Puyricard Plateau, lies the Domaine du Grand Saint-Jean, a 16th century chateau. The countryside of Provence is visible for miles and the grounds of the chateau are an expanse of lawns and trees. The Aix-en-Provence Festival uses an area at the back of the chateau for an open air theatre. It is there that Handel’s Acis and Galatea was staged this summer.

The opening words of Handel’s “Pastoral Entertainment” are “Oh, the pleasure of the plains!” followed by Galatea singing “Ye verdant plains and woody mountains.” You sigh with pleasure at the gorgeous setting so well suited to Handel’s first dramatic work in English.

Then you notice the set. Yes, the floor of the stage is green but there are some moveable hedges that are no more than dry bushes. What happened to the verdant plains? Could they not devise some green shrubs or hedges to serve the purpose? They probably could but they did not.

Acis and Galatea, based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, tells the love story of the mortal Acis and the semi-divine Galatea. All is fine on the plains and Acis and Galatea sing of their happiness but there is a Cyclops named Polyphemus who will wreck everything.

Acis and Galatea is a static work depending on the beautiful arias, duets and choruses composed for the four main characters and the Chorus of Shepherds and Shepherdesses.

Canadian tenor Pascal Charbonneau is the distraught Acis who is very unhappy about his love life except for the few minutes of bliss allowed him before he is turned into a fountain. He has a beautiful voice and sang superbly. Too bad he was dressed in a torn jacket and when sitting under a tree could have passed for a beggar.

American soprano Joelle Harvey was Galatea. She has a lovely, full and luscious voice and she brought out the joy and sadness of love.

Tenor Rupert Charlesworth was a mellifluous Damon and Grigory Soloviov was Polyphemus. The latter gets to snarl and overact a bit and he could be played for laughs. But Saburo Teshigawara, who directed the production as well as designing the sets, costumes and lighting downplays him. He is dressed in a black costume with a mask that makes him look a bit like Batman but not enough is done with him.

The Chorus of Shepherds and Shepherdesses are dressed in modern clothes indicating that they could not tell a sheep from a goat. They only have to sing though and maybe do a bit of dancing to break up the static nature of the work, sing they can; dance they cannot.

All of the characters were forced to dance and without putting too fine of a point on the subject, let us say that their attempts looked more like the contortions of a person suffering from a debilitating neurological disease than dancing. We would have enjoyed the singing much better if they simply stood still.

Teshigawara has tried to create a modern work out of the pastoral classic by staying away from any ideas of Arcadia with dancing nymphs and idyllic scenes and inserting what I guess is supposed to be modern dance movements. It is a bold step that does not work especially in the milieu of the very pastoral setting of the Domaine du Grand Saint-Jean.

Acis and Galatea by George Frideric Handel, presented by the Aix-en-Provence Festival, was performed between July 9 and 23, 2011 at the Domaine du Grand Saint-Jean, Puyricard, France.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


by James Karas

Even the most casual opera goer, has probably seen at least one production of Verdi’s La Traviata. For the second or subsequent viewings, you want to know not just what famous singers will entertain you but what the director is bringing to the table to entice you to cough up some major dough.

La Traviata is the most popular offering of the Aix-en-Provence Festival and if you combine that with Natalie Dessay singing the leading role, you will have a full house that will not want to stop applauding. At least that is what happened at the Théâtre de l’Archevêché the night that I saw the opera.

No one could disagree with Dessay’s splendidly sung and emotionally wrenching performance. Because of directorial shenanigans (more about this later) the opera starts slowly and the singers do not take control of their characters. But once Dessay takes control she delivers a beautifully sung and acted performance.

American tenor Charles Castronovo was not a very passionate or convincing Alfredo in the first scene. He is forced by the other guests to sing the rousing “LIbiamo” and he is not very ardent in his declaration of love to Violetta. He soon warms up however and delivers marvelous singing and acting. Whatever shortcomings there were, are all directorial choices.

Baritone Ludovic Tezier delivers the finest performance after Dessay in the role of Giorgio Germont. “Di Provenza il mar,” his signature aria, suffers and benefits from familiarity. We all know the type of sonority and moving conviction that we want from a father who wants to convince his son to come home. It is difficult to blow the aria completely but it is even more difficult to deliver a pitch-perfect and thrilling performance. Tezier does.

The London Symphony Orchestra played Verdi’s lush music under the baton of Louis Langrée and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir did a fine job.

After the singers and the orchestra and chorus, we look to the director, set, costume and lighting designers to put their stamp on the production and give us something memorable. The costumes were modern chic clothes, the type worn by people who want to make an impression. Good.

The set in the opening scene consisted of a large room with a few chairs and tables shoved on the sides. The walls were dark and someone wrote on the back wall the word Violetta, the name of the well-off courtesan who is throwing a fancy party in Paris. For reasons that are best known to the director and the designer, this Violetta is living in a warehouse. Forget the Zeffirellian excesses of red velvet and huge chandeliers. Set Designer Alexandre de Dardel is not interested in giving us a realistic set and that’s fine, But what is it supposed to be?

In the second act, Alfredo and Violetta live in the country and are not much for furniture or general housekeeping, it seems, despite the availability of servants. They sleep on the floor but that’s because they are broke and Alfredo has not noticed it.

There are a number of panels that pop up or are brought down. A couple of them show fun parties but we do not see anything like that on tstage. Some other panels show clouded sky and then are lowered and disappear in the floor. I am sure they mean something.

At the opening scene party, the guests are stuck on the sides of the warehouse and Alfredo, as I indicated, is forced to sing. Flora’s party in Act II is just as deadly and at the end when Alfredo acts like a jerk and is slapped by his father, several women just collapse on the stage.

The final scene takes place in Violetta’s apartment where she is dying. She is living in the warehouse furnished with only two chairs. In the final seconds of her life, she is on her feet, walking towards the audience with no one near her. When death arrives she collapses on the floor from a standing position.

Each director brings his own vision and interpretation of an opera to the stage. That interpretation must flow from the work and make sense. Last year in the same theatre, Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov produced an original and brilliant Don Giovanni despite taking considerable liberties with the plot.

Director Jean-Francois Sivadier has shown more directorial self-indulgence than creative genius. Of all the quirky things that he does I must admit that there was one that worked, yes, brilliantly. When I saw Dessay walking towards the audience, seconds before she is to die, I could not figure out what was going on or about to happen. There was no one near Dessay and there was no furniture around her. Is he going to let her die standing up? At the last second, she dropped dead on the floor and the lights went out. That is a stupendous coup de théâtre.

La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi opened on July 6 and was performed ten times until July 22, 2011 at the Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France. www.festival-aix.com

Friday, July 22, 2011


By James Karas

Those who saw Robert Lepage’s production of Igor Stravinsky’s The Nightingale and other fables with the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto or the same staging at the Grand Théâtre de Provence (in French, Le Rossignol et autres fables) in Aix-en-Provence, recall an opera that pushed the boundaries of spectacle and provided something innovative and exciting.

The Aix-en-Provence Festival is repeating that feat with another Russian product, albeit quite different from Stravinsky’s work. This year they are mounting Dmitri Shostakovich’s Le Nez (The Nose) in a mind-blowing production by William Kentridge.

It is a co-production with New York’s Metropolitan Opera and it was seen at Lincoln Centre in March 2010. It has now found its way to Aix.

Shostakovich wrote The Nose between 1927 and 1928 and it premiered in Leningrad in 1930. It was not produced in the Soviet Union again until 1974 although it did get several productions in Europe. By and large the work has been ignored but the current production is generating considerable excitement.

The plot, based on a story by Nicolai Gogol, is a surrealist tale about a civil servant who loses his nose. Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov (Vladimir Samsonov) is shaved by barber Ivan Yakolievich (Vladimir Ognovenko). Next morning, the barber finds a nose in his bread and his wife Praskovia (Claudia Waite) suspects he chopped it off the face of one of his customers. She orders him to get rid of it. He does by throwing it in the river but is caught by the police.

In the meantime, Kovalyov, wakes up without a nose. Naturally, he is quite upset and runs to the police to report the missing anatomical appendage.

In the meantime, the Nose has taken on a life of its own and, dressed as a State Councilor it is seen praying in the local cathedral. When its owner orders it to return home, the Nose refuses because it has higher social status than Kovalyov. End of Act I.

The police, townspeople and others join the search for the Nose and it is finally found, given a thrashing and returned to the rightful owner by the Police Inspector (Andrey Popov) who demands a handsome bribe.

A love interest enters the plot, the nose does not fit but order is eventually restored.

Kentridge has created a whole world around the plot and Shostakovich’s music. First of all he uses video projections of people and animated figures with extraordinary inventiveness and effectiveness. When the opera opens, the stage is covered with a backdrop of newspaper clippings. In the upper left corner we see a small opening and the barber shop scene unfolds. It is a short scene and we quickly switch to another small hole in the curtain where the barber finds the node in his bread.

We see moving pictures and stills of people on the screen, including some of the composer. There are countless animated images including ones showing the living Nose riding a horse.

There are about 70 or 80 live people on stage who are channeled into various groups and run around the stage reminiscent of the Keystone Kops at times. The principals are also there, of course, such as the Nose (Alexandre Kravets), Kovalyov’s servant Ivan (Vasily Efimov), The Doctor (Gennady Bazzubenkov), Madame Podtotchina (Margarita Nekrasova) and her daughter (Tehmine Yeghiazaryan). Most of these singers take more than one role.

Kazushi Ono conducted the Orchestra and Chorus of the Opera of Lyon.
This is a fast-moving and complex opera. The images projected on the screen or seen on the stage are so many that you can hardly keep up with them. I found myself jumping between listening to the exciting music or following the action on the stage and being unable to keep up. One needs to see this opera more than ones to begin enjoying it.


Le Nez by Igor Stravinsky opened on July 8 and was performed four times until July 14, 2011 at the Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, France. www.festival-aix.com

Monday, July 18, 2011


Reviewed by James Karas

On a hot July evening when Thessalonikeans are strolling along the famous shore of Salonika Bay and the cafés are full of young people sipping frappe, you do not expect to run into Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But it should not come as a surprise. Greece’s co-capital has considerable cultural activity and it is not unusual to see plays from all over the world produced here.

In a park under the shadow of the White Tower there is an outdoor theatre in the classical form called the Theatro Kypou, (Garden Theatre). Near it is the Royal Theatre and across the street lies The Theatre of the Society for Macedonian Studies. That is three theatres within a few meters.

It was at the Theatro Kypou that I found a fine production of Hamlet by the 5th Epochi Technis (Fifth Season of Art) company directed by Themis Moumoulidis. True, it is a spare production with numerous questionable directorial choices and many cuts, shortening the play to less than two hours with no intermission. With lots of doubling up and no extras, the play is done by 10 actors.

The first round of kudos goes to Emilios Cheilakis in the title role. He has a mellifluous voice and a fine delivery that makes prose sound like poetry. His Hamlet indeed goes mad and Cheilakis has developed some exceptional mannerisms to indicate madness. For one, he shakes his head and mop of hair and gives a psychotic laugh. He can be dramatic, comical and confounding - a true Hamlet. By the end of his performance, I was so taken in that I started hearing Shakespeare’s lines in my mind’s ear instead of the Greek translation by Giorgos Cheimonas.

The second round of praise belongs to Eugenia Dimitropoulou as Ophelia. She is a very attractive woman and a very lively Ophelia in the early scenes. She displays extraordinary depth and breadth in her mad scene and gives an overall superb performance.

The third round of applause, somewhat less fulsome, goes to Leonidas Kakouris as Claudius and Marina Psalti as Gertrude. They both showed considerable talent and ability to do the roles but failed to deliver. It could well be directorial shackles that prevented them but their overall accounting of the roles cannot be judged more than satisfactory.

Dimitrios Alexandris as Laertes and Manos Vakouzis as Polonius were good in their respective roles. The latter doubled as the First Gravedigger.

Ilias Zervos was given six roles to play, some of them admittedly insignificant, in which he may be expected to do no more than deliver his lines without falling over his feet. But he is given the role of the First Player who emotes the dramatic speech about Hecuba that prompts Hamlet to deliver his great “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” soliloquy.

Zervos delivers the part of the First Player’s speech that he is allowed with his back to the audience, his feet firmly nailed to the floor and in such a wooden and deadly fashion that the only effect it should have on Hamlet would be to put him to sleep. What was Moumoulidis thinking when he put that scene together must remain a mystery.
Zervos had some company in the wooden acting department from Tony Dimitriou who played Horatio and to a somewhat lesser extent by Panagiotis Exarheas and Alberto Fais who took a number of roles each.

Uneven acting talent is not that unusual even though in this case the gap between excellence and incompetence seemed rather wide. What is more deserving of praise and harsh criticism is the work of the director and costume designer Themis Moumoulidis.

The Garden Theatre has a large circular acting area that simply begs to be used. Moumoulidis set up his loud speakers and some footlights in the acting area and used only a relatively small portion of the available space. The acting area was further confined by a raised platform where most of the action took place. If he had made full use of the space he could have placed his actors much closer to the audience and avoided the use of microphones. The mikes were more than usually annoying because on a number of occasions they simply did not work or produced grinding noises.

At one point Hamlet sees Claudius praying and he does not kill him on the excuse that by doing so he will send him to heaven. In this production Moumoulidis gives a quick light change and Hamlet in fact grabs Claudius by the neck as if to slash his throat. The lights go on and off and Claudius finishes his soliloquy.. We are to know, I suppose, that Hamlet is merely imagining killing Claudius or that he in fact grabbed him by the throat and then left him alone to continue his business. What are people new to the play to make of this director’s choice?

The First Gravedigger is, as indicated, played by Manos Vakouzis with almost no attempt at disguise, not even so much as a hat. What are we to think, that Polonius has become a gravedigger or that the director and his artistic team could not be bothered to disguise the actors who took more than one role. And, oh yes, give the man a shovel. He does not dig the grave with his bare hands.

The final scene usually takes place at the palace but Moumoulidis has it done at the cemetery, in fact right over Ophelia’s grave. I am not sure that this is a bad idea and I fact it is a very interesting twist.

One can rack up quite a number of complaints against Moumoulidis but one has to grant the fact the Cheilakis and Dimitropoulou save the day and provide a fine production.

A few comments about the audience are appropriate. The performance was sold out and the attendees were mostly young people. Ticket prices at €20 for adults and €15 for students were a bargain and surely one of the main reasons for sold-out performances.

Smoking is not allowed in the theatre but that only applies to non-smokers. Whenever I looked around someone was either lighting up or taking a deep and satisfying drag.

The usual warning about use of cell phones was given but, again, that only applied to those who did not have urgent messages to send. When Hamlet was wondering whether “To be or not to be” a young lady near me was sending a text message no doubt asking the same question.

As soon as Hamlet stabbed Polonius another young lady immediately started sending a message, no doubt to the local police reporting a murder. Others gazed at their phones for lengthy periods or explained the play to their neighbours.

In the end, the music from the park, the passing traffic, the sirens, the smoking and text messaging were minor distractions and disappeared under the fine performance of Cheilakis and Dimitropoulou.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare was performed between July 11 and 14, 2011 by the 5th Epochi Technis (5th Season of Art) at the Theatro Kypou, Thessaloniki, Greece..

Thursday, July 14, 2011


Reviewed by James Karas

Aix-en-Provence is not the only medieval town with narrow streets, picturesque squares, historic buildings and outdoor cafes in France but it is one of the best. In addition to all that, Aix in the summer becomes a cultural Mecca that draws people from all over the word. From July 5 to 25, it hosts the Aix-en-Provence Festival with a rich array of operas, concerts, recitals and other cultural events that can make you forget (thank God) the shopping that you can do.

This year the Festival offers six operas that cover a wide range of styles and centuries. Chronologically, we start with Acis and Galatea by George Frideric Handel which was first produced in 1718. The pastoral opera will be performed in its original English at the Domaine du Grand Saint-Jean, an outdoor theatre outside Aix.

Still from the 18th century, we get Mozart’s opera seria La Clemenza di Tito (reviewed below) at the Théâtre de l’Archevêché, the former residence of the Archbishop in the centre of the city.

From the 19th century we get the reliable and ever-popular La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi done at the same theatre with French opera star Natalie Dessay in the principal role.

A long way from standard fare is Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Nose (Le Nez), at the Grand Théâtre du Provence. The opera premiered in 1930, in the Soviet Union of Stalin and the political milieu always provides an interesting aspect to everything that Shostakovich composed.

The Festival also features two new works that is has commissioned. The first is Oscar Bianchi’s Thanks To My Eyes. The libretto is by the composer and Joël Pommerat, based on a story by the latter. The other new work is Austerlitz: Eine Kindeheitsreise by Jérôme Combier based on a novel by W.G. Sebald. Both works will be performed at the small Théâtre du Jeu de Paume.

Six operas ranging from the 18th to the 21 century in four venues and that’s just the beginning of the rich offerings of this outstanding Festival.

The first opera that I saw was La Clemenza. This is a new production by David McVicar and it is conducted by Sir Colin Davis with the redoubtable London Symphony Orchestra and the highly capable Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir.

The principal characters of La Clemenza are four men and two women but only two of the roles are sung by male singers. Tito is sung by American tenor Gregory Kunde who replaced John Mark Ainsley and the relatively minor role of Publio, the Commander of the Praetorian Guard, is sung by English bass Darren Jeffrey.

Kunde has a fine voice but I would prefer a more supple tone to handle the flourishes of opera seria. No doubt he would be superb in bel canto operas, but he is not my ideal interpreter of Tito. Jeffrey handled the heavy Publio with ease and was a delight to listen to.

The four other roles were handled by high voices, sopranos and mezzos. This is a leftover from the days of castrati and leaves me less than thrilled but convention and authorial dictates must be respected.

The driving force of the opera and the most interesting character is Vitellia. She is the daughter of a former emperor and she is full of hatred and vengeance. She wants the clement Tito assassinated and she has the ability to convince his own friends to do it. Do not tangle with this babe! The role makes serious vocal demands and a wide range of emotions from ferocity to manipulation to remorse and repentance. The job is undertaken by Italian soprano Carmen Giannattasio. She has the vocal range but she fell a bit short in the acting department. I think Vitellia should display ferocity where Giannattasio showed anger and the emotional depth needs to be more profound. Still a superb performance.

English mezzo soprano Sarah Connolly wore pants for the role of Sesto, Tito’s great friend and Vitellia’s hapless victim. He betrays Tito and does everything wrong but in the end he sees the light presumably by accepting his friend’s forgiveness but indicating that he will never forgive himself for his treachery. An excellent performance by Connolly.

English mezzo-soprano Anna Stephany did a fine job in the role of Annio, as did soprano Amel Brahim-Djelloud as Servilia.

McVicar has a rather dark view of La Clemenza. I saw his production for the English National Opera at the London Coliseum a few years ago and the impression that the set gave me was that of prison fortifications or jail cells. He has lightened up a bit for this production but the dark hues are still there, Except for Tito and Servilia everybody wears forbidding dark costumes set sometime in the 18th century. There are a couple of columns and statues to suggest Rome.

One of the statues is seen centre-stage, draped in black during the overture. It is removed when the action begins and returns at the end; the drape is removed and we see its head in bloody red. Tito may be a wonderful man who forgives his enemies but the end will be bloody no matter what. It is not a terribly imaginative production but it does the job.

The end for opera-goers in Aix comes around 12:30 in the morning. The performance in the open-air l’Archevêché, starts at 9:30, when darkness arrives. In Aix, somehow time stops to matter at least for three weeks every summer.


La Clemenza di Tito by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart opened on July 7 and will be performed six times until July 21, 2011 at the Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France. http://www.festival-aix.com/

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Reviewed by James Karas

Attila was Giuseppe Verdi’s ninth opera and it has been around for longer than the united Italian nation. Unlike Italy which was unified in 1861, Attila has been royally ignored during most of the time since its opening in 1846 in Venice. La Scala has proven that Attila does not deserve the cold shoulder that it has been getting with a rousing production directed by Gabriele Lavia.

Attila was the leader of an Asiatic tribe that invaded Europe in the fifth century A.D. in what may be described as a less than genteel manner. As a result neither he nor his followers, the Huns, have been getting much good press ever since.

Verdi’s opera opens with the chorus singing words “Screams, pillage, moans, blood, rape … are sport for Attila.” You cannot expect good press with that kind of attitude.

Attila requires several powerful singers, a large chorus and orchestral dynamism. There are quiet moments in the opera but for the most part Verdi wants his singers to belt out his arias and ensemble pieces with the fortitude of steel-plated lungs. They need to rise above chorus and orchestra and dominate everything with thrilling vocal power.

This is not always achieved by the singers in the production under review. The chorus of La Scala performs magnificently and rousingly and they make all the difference in the production.

Bulgarian bass Orlin Anastassov could and did unleash some powerful singing as Attila but he did not sustain it throughout. He came close but not as close as tenor Fabio Sartori in the role of Forreste, the knight who is in love with our heroine Odabella.

Odabella was sung by soprano Elena Pankratova whose voice matched her physical size and she delivered a fine performance but again failed to dominate vocally all the time.

Italian baritone Marco Vratogna as Ezio, the treacherous Roman general, looked like Mussolini and his stamina and vocal prowess were severely tested by the role.

The production can claim superior directing by Lavia and stupendous sets by Alessandro Camera. The opera opens on a scene of devastation. The sky is dark and on the right we see ruins of a city. On the left we see corpses impaled on the spears of the Huns standing in a row. It is an arresting scene.

There are variations on the set as the scene changes but all are effective until we get to the last tableau. This is the Roman camp where Attila will meet his doom. We see Ezio, the Roman general watching an old movie showing a charging cavalry! What the hell is that supposed to be? I have no idea and can only add that it is annoying, distracting and plain stupid.

The costumes were becoming if not precisely recognizable. The Huns looked barbaric and the Romans looked better. The latter could afford full length leather coats.

Nicola Luisotti conducted the La Scala Orchestra with exceptional vigour.

One feature of the opera that stands out is its fervent patriotism. Verdi praises Italian valour and raises the flag repeatedly. This was quite proper in the 1840’s when the opera was composed and just as fitting on the 150th anniversary of Italian unification.

Despite all complaints, this is a rousing and indeed thrilling production. I have no idea why the opera has been ignored for so long. The Metropolitan Opera of New York produced it for the first time last year. In Milan too it has been largely ignored even though the performance I saw on July 2, 2011 was the 175th at La Scala. Of those only 20 were in the 20th century and the last time it was staged there was in 1991.

Attila by Giuseppe Verdi opened on June 20 and was performed nine times until July 15, 2011 at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan.

Sunday, July 10, 2011


.       From the left to the right.  Michele Pertusi (Mustafà), Vincenzo Taormina (Taddeo), Lawrence Brownlee (Lindoro), Anita Rachvelishvili (Isabella), Pretty Yende (Elvira), Valeria Tornatore (Zulma)

Reviewed by James Karas

Algiers is facing a serious problem!

Mustafa, its chief honcho, is tired of his wife and he wants a replacement. Even though he has a seraglio full of choices, he will not settle for anything but the best. As the whole world knows (ahem), when it comes to the best only an Italian woman will do.

As luck would have it, there is a shipwreck and a juicy Italian morsel lands on Mustafa’s doorstep and we are in business. Even luckier for us Gioachino Rossini gets wind of the story and composes a comic opera called L’Italiana in Algeri which La Scala has revived for those who have made a turn towards Milan this summer.

This is a remounting of a production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle that was first staged in 1973 and was last revived in 2003. But let’s get on with our story.

The lady that lands on Mustafa’s door is called Isabella, she is Italian, she is the best, and is sung by Anita Rachvelishvili. The Georgian soprano has a lustrous voice that can reach down to some low notes and sound throaty at times. She does not quite match the description of a sexy woman but she does a good job with what she has.

Now Mustafa, (how shall I put this delicately), has the hots for her. Bass Michele Pertusi has a fine voice and does an excellent job as the would-be tough but somewhat buffoonish potentate. He has no respect for women or much else that does not please him but the Italians, being the best, will give him a lesson that he will not forget.

In order to make room for Isabella on the matrimonial bed, Mustafa plans to give his wife to another Italian prisoner named Lindoro. With a name like that you know he is an expert lover, a marvelous tenor and Italian par excellence. (How do you say that in Italian?) Tenor Lawrence Brownlee fits that description in his singing and acting if not in his national background. Alas, he is American. But you know that Lindoro will get the girl as soon as he enters, soaring vocally with “Languir per una bella,” his first cavatina. Brownlee has a slightly annoying habit of rising on his toes when he hits high notes and the director should tell him to knock it off. But no one can argue with the gorgeous voice that can reach high notes with supreme ease.

We need a comic sidekick and that is provided by Taddeo, Isabella’s companion from the shipwreck. Italian baritone Vincenzo Taormina has the vocal ability to handle the role but he falls a bit short on the comic angle. He is not a natural comic and the director has simply not provided him with enough business for him to be funny.

South African soprano Pretty Yende sings the role of Elvira, the-wife-to-be-got-rid-of with vocal agility.
Ponnelle’s production is a traditional and solid staging of the opera which is not produced all that often. I saw the 173rd performance at La Scala where it was first produced in 1815. The sets with the rounded arches suggest an Eastern setting but there is no obvious opulence. The stage is rarely brightly lit and the impression is that of Mustafa’s palace that has seen better days or is ecologically a tad too prudent.

Rossini could compose gorgeous melodies at will. This is evident in L’Italiana where arias, duets, trios, quartets, quintets and choruses come pouring in. What Rossini lacked was a good libretto. There is no sub-plot and the thin story of this clever Italian woman outwitting the doltish Mustafa, wears pretty thin. Rossini never found a Lorenzo da Ponte the way Mozart did for his great operas.

The opera is a paean to Italy and Italians, especially Italian women. In the second act, Rossini and his librettist Angelo Anelli quite forget that they are writing a comic opera and go into full-fledged patriotic singing for la patria and about how brave, courageous and wonderful Italians are. Who are we to disagree.
Incidentally, the Italian flag is visible around every corner in Italy these days and for good reason. Italy is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its unification and some patriotic fervor is surely a propos. Rossini provided some of that fervor almost fifty years before the event and La Scala has chosen to raise the flag as well.

L’Italiana in Algeri by Gioachino Rossini opened on June 30 for eight performances until July 14, 2011 at Teatro alla Scala, Milan. www.teatroallascala.org/

Friday, July 8, 2011


Composer: Richard Wagner
Company: Teatro La Fenice di Venezia
Conductor: Lothar Zagrosek
Principal Singers: Greer Grimsley, Natascha Petrinsky, Marlin Miller, Richard Paul Fink
Venue: Teatro La Fenice, Venice
Run: June 24 to July 2, 2011

**** (out of five)

Reviewed by James Karas

Richard Wagner died in Venice in 1883. There was something fitting about seeing Das Rheingold in the city where its creator breathed his last and at the splendiferous Teatro La Fenice even if it was in a concert version only.

Wagner, with typical arrogance, described his monumental Das Rheingold as a prologue, a mere preliminary evening to the three parts of Der Ring des Nibelungen. No one is fooled by the description but authorial respect still describes this full-fledged opera as its nasty creator wished. La Fenice presented the whole cycle beginning with Die Walkure in 2006, Siegfried in 2007, Die Gotterdammerung in 2009 and is now finishing with six performances of Das Rheingold.

A concert version has the huge disadvantage of giving you the music and the singing without the theatrical accoutrements. No scenery, no acting, just the performance by the orchestra and the singers facing the audience and turning pages on the lecterns.

There are advantages as well. You pay more attention to the music and the singing without being distracted (if that is the right word) by stage business, sets and acting. It is like listening to a sound recording on the best stereo system imaginable and being able to see the singers and the orchestra.

The Venice production has a great deal to offer beginning with the Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice under the baton of Lothar Zagrosek. He attacked the score with vigour and the result was a splendid orchestral concert alone.

The singing was led by American bass-baritone Greer Grimsley as Wotan. The pony-tailed singer has a commanding physical stature to match his equally commanding vocal prowess. He sang with convincing sonority and was a marvelous Wotan.

Another American, baritone Richard Paul Fink, shone in the role of the evil Alberich. Even in tails, Fink could not stay still and he engaged in physical movements as he sang the notes of the horny dwarf who gives up love for gold. Singing and even acting on a very high standard.

Tenor Kurt Azesberger was a perfect foil as his brother, the whining and abused Mime. Again, Azesberger was not content to deliver only the notes; he brought out the character of the dwarf as well.

The construction team of the giants Fasolt (Israeli bass-baritone Gideon Saks) and Fafner (South Korean bass Attila Jun) are effective with very high marks going to Saks.

Austrian mezzo-soprano Natascha Petrinsky eschewed movement but she managed to sound like a nag and a bitch as Fricka. Welsh mezzo-soprano Ceri Williams had the smaller role of Erda but she made an impressive appearance. Tenor Marlin Miller conveyed the shiftiness and crookedness of Loge, the mastermind of the theft of the gold from the dwarfs.

I enjoyed listening to the Rhine Maidens more because I was watching a concert version. In fully staged productions I tend to be looking at directorial approaches and production methods rather than listening the Maidens in the opening scene. Mea culpa. Eva Oltivanyi (Woglinde), Stefanie Iranyi (Wellgunde) and Annette Jahns (Flosshilde) gave great reasons for paying attention to their singing and a needed corrective to a bad habit of mine..

Venice in the summer is awash with tourists negotiating the narrow streets, shopping for souvenirs in the ten million shops catering to that mentality or spending €1000 for a pair of sandals. Or worse, pretending to enjoy a ride on those over-priced, infernal gondolas. I am not exaggerating about the sandals.

La Fenice has been around for over 200 years (it opened in 1792) and has been somewhat prone to fires. It was last torched by arsonists in 1996 and it did not re-open until 2004. It is ornately decorated with gold leaf and presents an atmosphere of opulence.

Wagner was born in 1813 and in a couple of years we will be celebrating his 200th anniversary. Opera companies around the world are gearing up for the occasion and Wagnerites have a lot to look forward to – perhaps even another production in Venice.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


Reviewed by James Karas

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival has racked up another memorable and historic production of Richard III. Memorable because it is an excellent production in every respect of a difficult play. Historic because the title role is played by a woman (Seana McKenna) and the production is heir to earlier significant stagings of the play.

After all Richard III was the first play to be produced at Stratford in 1953 with Alec Guinness in the title role directed by Tyrone Guthrie. In 1967 Alan Bates took on the role of the evil king and was followed by Brian Bedford and Colm Feore in subsequent productions. That is a formidable array of talent to follow for any actor. In this case there is the added element of increased curiosity and scrutiny because the star is a female.

The result is an outstanding production that qualifies for the monikers of memorable and historic.

Shakespeare’s Richard III is an evil man, a manipulator, a murderer who is so depraved and power hungry that he has his brother and his nephews (the heirs to the throne) killed without any compunctions. That type of evil person is not unusual in drama. Richard is also physically misshapen with a hunched back and a lame arm which complements his moral deformity.

What takes Richard out of the pantheon of ordinary villains is his sheer theatricality. He enjoys, indeed relishes, his villainy and even finds humour in it.

This production, directed by Miles Potter, captures all those characteristics of the villain and delivers the play without relying on noise, battle scenes or over-the-top exits and entrances.

The bulk of the credit, of course, goes to Seana McKenna. With stringy hair and a bald pate, she hops around the stage and delivers her lines with impeccable poetic sense and assurance. She and the rest of the cast speak in a measured speed allowing the audience to hear and absorb every line. The underplaying of the sword fights adds to the perception that words are the most important part of the play.

McKenna’s Richard is a delight to watch and hear. Her female voice appears like an added deformity on the part of the character. He has a high-pitched voice, another burden that he has to bear and that makes him stand apart from the rest of society. A performance to relish.

Richard III has a page full of lords, knights and clerics, and you need a family tree and a guidebook to know who is who. But there are three women who stand out. In order of my prejudice, the most memorable is Queen Margaret, the widow of the deposed and dead King Henry VI. She is angry and bitter, one might say, and uses invective against her enemies like a swashbuckler uses a sword. She is fast, accurate, deadly and simply marvellous. I speak both of the character as conceived and of the performance as delivered by Martha Henry.

Bethany Jillard as Lady Ann is another woman to watch. She has cause for anger and bitterness. Her husband has been killed by Richard and he stops the funeral procession to woo and win Lady Ann. Jillard’s Lady Ann is a wounded but vulnerable woman done superbly.

Yanna McIntosh as Queen Elizabeth and Roberta Maxwell as the Duchess of York deserve special mention for the performances. The cast in general did very well.

The plot of Richard III gets pretty murky around the middle and the temptation for a director is to overdo the entrances and exits and emphasize the sword fights. To his great credit, Potter eschews that sort of commotion. The costumes and the regalia are underdone leaving us with the essence of the play whatever its shortcomings.

You should leave the theatre with memories of a woman playing Richard in a production bereft of pomp and circumstance but very well acted and making this Richard III an outstanding production.

Richard III by William Shakespeare opened on June 2 and will run until September 25, 2011 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Monday, July 4, 2011


Reviewed by James Karas

As the summer heat is about to hit Rome, the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma is wrapping up its current season with a production of the all-time favourite tear jerker, Puccini’s La Bohème directed by Marco Gandini. The production was performed ten times between June 16 and 26, 2011 at the beautiful Teatro dell’Opera also known as the Costanzi after its builder.

Rome Opera has two sets of starving artists in a cold Parisian garret as well as two sopranos for the beautiful embroiderer Mimi and the loose Musetta. Mimi has the requisite tuberculosis so she will not last more than four acts and the vivacious but golden-hearted Musetta will give us a flavour of what “other” girls are like.

The role of Mimi is alternated between Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava and Italian soprano Carmela Remigio. I saw the performance with Gerzmava. She has an attractive voice which she can modulate to produce tonal beauty and emotion. She is a good-sized woman and not quite the fragile girl who faints from weakness upon meeting Rodolfo that fateful Christmas Eve when her candle blows out.

She affects us with “Mi chiamano Mimi,” moves us with“Donde lieta uscì,” her farewell to Rodolfo, and has us in tears with her death scene.

The role of the writer Rodolfo is shared by Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas and Italian tenor Stefano Secco. I saw Vargas. He is over 50 and I am wondering if his best before date has not arrived. His Rodolfo was not terribly convincing physically or vocally. He was fine if not big-voiced at mid-range but he simply failed to soar in his big arias. His high notes sounded thin and forced. We want a Rodolfo who is robust and more attractive. I have seen him in the role before with much better results but this time he did not seem to be quite up to the demands of the role and must be judged a bit of a disappointment.

Italian soprano Patrizia Ciofi was a lively and flirtatious Musetta. She handles her main aria “Quando m'en vo'” which has the distinction of being better known as “Musetta’s Waltz” with zest and aplomb.

Rodolfo’s roommates get decent roles but relatively little opportunity to show off their vocal or acting powers. They participate in ensemble pieces, horse around in the first act and rush around at the end of the opera but that’s about it. Nevertheless, in this production my eye was caught by baritone Franco Vassalo’s performance as the artist Marcello. The Italian singer has a fine voice that resonated beautifully. He outshone and outsang Vargas. Too bad that Puccini did not give Marcello at least one big aria but left him as a second banana in ensembles and duets.

Bass-baritone Vito Priante was a colourful and well-done Schaunard and bass Marco Spotti was a lean Colline in a fine performance. Bass Matteo Peirone was the landlord Benoit and bass Luca Dall’Amico was Alcindoro in all performances.

Set designer Pierluigi Samaritani used the whole stage for the apartment of the poor foursome with no attempt to suggest a cramped attic or a view of the roofs of Paris’s Latin Quarter. Marcello is working on a huge canvas that covers a good part of the set in the first act. It is removed for the final act when we return to the flat for Mimi’s death.

The second act takes place on a bustling street scene. In this production, the street/stage is full of people but it looks more like a traffic jam than a lively scene. Gandini does not quite know how to control the crowd and he lets them stand there for a bit too long. Overall, however, the costumes by Anna Biagiotti and the sets do the job.

James Conlon conducts the orchestra and chorus of the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. This is a sound and solid production of a well-loved chestnut that one never tires of seeing.

While Costanzi was building the Rome Opera, a group of English residents of Florence were breaking away from their parish because they found it “too low”. In 1877, they established St. Marks English Church in Florence. More than 230 years later, the church is still active as a place of worship but it also houses St. Mark’s Opera Company.

I caught a performance of La Bohème there, a day after seeing the opera in Rome. The number of characters was reduced to four and the singing was done to piano accompaniment. It was a somewhat acted out concert version with a Narrator to explain the action.

Silvana Froli as Mimi has a pleasant voice and in the piano sections sounded very pleasant. She and the rest did not have much luck when singing more loudly. Much of the blame goes to the venue. The church may be good for the soul but its acoustics do nothing for the human voice. The low, vaulted ceiling acts like an echo chamber, multiplying sound.

Tenor David Righeschi has a robust voice and a Pavarottiesque girth. He hit his high Cs but he was a bit patchy in his lower register. He had the same trouble with the acoustics, of course, and perhaps even more so than the others.

Sarah Chirici sang Musetta with poise and verve and Lisandro de Guinis made a sonorous Marcello. All the other characters in the opera were edited out with perhaps one exception.

This is opera from five feet away on a hot Italian evening where a few, quite a few, members of the audience think that it is a photo-op. It may have been freezing in the artists’ attic but in St. Mark’s Church there were beads of perspiration on the faces of the performers.

This is opera with just about all the odds working against you. Yet, they did it. The person most responsible deserves special mention. His job description may inludes the follwoing and the list may be only partial: Greeter, usher, narrator, performer, intermission server, and philanthropic fundraiser. This much we saw. According to the program, he is also, with his wife Ilse, the founder of St. Mark’s Opera Company. His name is Franz Moser

Is it any wonder that the company got an extended standing ovation.

La Bohème was performed at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Rome between June 19 and 26 and at St. Mark’s English Church in Florence on June 24, 2011