Wednesday, December 26, 2012


Sondra Radvanovsky as Amelia and Marcelo Álvarez as Gustavo in Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard
Reviewed by James Karas

The Metropolitan Opera has a new production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera and it has been transmitted around the world Live in HD. The modern-dress production set in early twentieth century Sweden is the brainchild of director David Alden with sets designed by Paul Steinberg. The stark sets and the “feel” provide a marked contrast to the seething passions of the lovers. In the end, you are not sure if you were watching hot-blooded Italians or cool-blooded Swedes.

Un Ballo was supposed to be set in 18th century Sweden where a king was in fact assassinated. Censorship put a kibosh on that idea and the scene was transferred to 17th century Boston where one could find a vice-regal governor-general but everyone else was demoted to plebian rank.

Alden restores the plot to its Swedish base but moves it up to the last century with some serious modifications to the sets and the emotional wavelength. King Gustavo III (Marcelo Álvarez) wears a well-tailored suit but no other insignia of royalty. His secretary and best friend Count Anckarstrom (Dmitri Hvorostovsky) wears a grey suit with a raised-collar shirt and he looks every inch the high-ranking, proper civil servant.

Amelia (Sondra Radvanovsky), the Count’s wife and the woman the King loves is given some beautiful gowns and she is worthy of attention. So far so good.

With a king in a starring role, we are guaranteed a stay at the palace. This is where we part company with our expectations. Gustavo’s palace consists of gray walls, chrome furniture (what little there is) and some steel beams. It has an unrelentingly forbidding atmosphere but there is a huge paining of Icarus falling form the sky on the ceiling. We in theatres around the world get glimpses of the painting because Matthew Diamond, the Director for Live Cinema, controls what we see.

We see a few variations on the gray set. In Act III where the Count tells his wife that she must die for her adultery, the set consists of the same grey walls, one piece of furniture and a sloping ceiling. I am not sure if that took the entire Metropolitan Opera stage but it looked quite claustrophobic.

The background switches to Greco-Roman temples in the ball scene and I am not sure of the connection. I suppose if you can have a painting of Icarus, you can have an outburst of classicism and provide Grecian columns for the final scene.

Un Ballo has a character called Oscar who can be played for fun. In this production, soprano Kathleen Kim sings the role. She wears a white suit and sports a goatee or at least a tuft of hair on her chin. In the opening scene, she wears wings that she later discards. I suppose this provides a connection with Icarus but unconvincing is the politest thing that can be said about it.

Un Ballo has a sinister sorceress called Ulrica (mezzo Stephanie Blythe). In this production, she wears a black gown and makes her pronouncements while clutching her purse. Nothing sinister about this woman.

The guests at the so-called masked ball wear masks that cover the eyes only and you would have to be a moron not to recognize everybody.

When the Count threatens to kill Amelia, he is holding a sword. There were swords available a hundred years ago but it would be the unlikeliest weapon of choice. A gun, a knife, perhaps. It alone it would not be noticed but the accumulation of incongruities left me uncertain about how to react. The deep passion of the lovers contrasts uneasily with the cold, bureaucrats atmosphere around us.

The benevolent king being hunted down by disgruntled subjects who want to assassinate him (he killed my father; he took my castle) adds to the unease but that is Verdi and librettist Antonio Somma and we cannot blame Alden.

The singing was exceptional.  Sondra Radvanovsky was in full voice packed with emotion and passion. She is a woman in love who does not want to be unfaithful to her husband and Radvanovsky displays the conflict superbly.

Álvarez sounded a bit forced in the opening scene especially in comparison to the suave Hvorostovsky. The Russian baritone sang with such ease and resonance as to make the role appear like a cake-walk. Álvarez sounded much better when away from Hvorostovsky.

Maxine Braham choreographed parts of the production. Fabio Luisi conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus and they played some of Verdi’s most passionate music superbly.

It is an interesting production that provokes thought but I would have preferred it to evoke emotion.

Un Ballo in Maschera  by Giuseppe Verdi was shown Live in HD on December 8, 2012 at The Beach Cinemas, 1651 Queen Street East, Toronto, ON, M4L 1G5 and other theatres across Canada. For more information:

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Reviewed by James Karas
Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy opened at the Belasco Theatre in New York in 1937. The Lincoln Center Theater is giving it a major revival this year at the same theatre. If you are quick with arithmetic you will have calculated that this is the 75th anniversary of the play.
I found the play creaky, sentimental, melodramatic and rather obvious in its plot development. The production emphasized those qualities and added some overacting, a couple of awful accents and sets that did nothing to improve matters.
The play is set in New York in 1936-7 and it involves a boxer named Joe Bonaparte (Seth Numrich), the golden boy of the title. He is a talented violinist but is drawn into the glory, money and brutality of the world of boxing where he excels.
The play has a large number of characters that resemble cardboard figures from B movies. There are some real conflicts, of course, including Joe’s subconscious doubts about his decision to abandon music. When he runs into a violinist before a boxing match he is so perturbed that he fights badly.
His Manager Tom Moody (Danny Mastrogiorgio) is a tough-talking man who has Lorna Moon (Yvonne Strahovski), a blonde floosy with a good heart, for a mistress. She loves Tom but falls in love with Joe and with that type of triangle things are guaranteed to be hackneyed and go badly. The love scenes are full of awkward stock phrases that make for pretty unbearable dialogue.
Joe’s father (played by Tony Shalhoub) is an Italian immigrant who wants his son to become a violinist. Shalhoub tries to affect an Italian accent but he achieves it rarely, loses it frequently and should never have attempted it.
That is nothing compared to what tough-guy Mafioso-type Eddie Fuseli (Antony Crivello) does. He is the well-dressed, tough-talking brute that is a caricature of the type. His Italian accent is simply awful and no amount of over-acting can give this cartoon life or credibility.
The play moves from Moody’s office to the Bonaparte house to the dressing rooms of boxing rinks. Mr. Bonaparte has a chubby daughter (played in a nightie and  dressing gown by Dagmara Dominczyk) who is married to Siggie (Michael Aronov), a doltish Jew and they provide or are supposed to provide some comic relief and I suppose contrast to Joe’s very different ambitions.
There are several fights but we are spared the trouble of seeing them and hear only descriptions in the dressing room. We see or hear about some other boxers and “brain-damaged” is the politest description that can be ascribed to them.
The costumes were very impressive. They must have made much better suits in those days. Lorna wears a number of beautiful dresses and the men have finely tailored three-piece suits and tuxedos into which they change with admirable speed. Maybe they don’t make clothes like they used to but that is hardly the point. Full marks to Catherine Zuber for costume design.
The back wall of the set for Moody’s office and the Bonaparte apartment consists of the wall of a tenement building. It looks as if the characters are sitting in the courtyard of a building when they are in fact inside. The same wall serves for a street scene but it is changed for the dressing room scenes. What was set designer Michael Yeargan thinking of?
Odets (1906-1963) has taken his position on the second rung of 20th century American playwrights and he is worth producing. Golden Boy is not just about an immigrant boxer but also about the choices facing America then and perhaps now. The brute force of the boxing world and the gentler civilization of music; the simple life of domesticity versus the appeal of glory and money are contrasted. Those American choices were and are important but their presentation in this creaky and awkward production make relatively little impression.
Director Bartlett Sher is unable to emphasize the strong points of the play and leaves us with only a decent production that could use some grease to decrease the creakiness and relieve some of the awkwardness of the piece.
Golden Boy by Clifford Odets opened on December 6, 2012 and will run until January 20, 2013 at the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street, New York, N.Y

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


 Elīna Garanča as Sesto, Giuseppe Filianoti as Tito, and Barbara Frittoli as Vitellia.
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Reviewed by James Karas

Mozart composed La Clemenza di Tito in the last months of his life when his health and finances were in pretty bad shape. One critic has suggested that Mozart composed much of La Clemenza on automatic pilot. The plane may seem to have veered off course now and then when the opera is examined in detail, but Mozart could compose extraordinary stuff even on automatic pilot.

The Metropolitan Opera offers its 1984 production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle to mortals around the world Live in HD. Interestingly, this was the Met’s first staging of the opera and you can use that as a gauge to the popularity of the work.

Ponnelle and the Met were not taking any chances by treating the work as a small-scale opera seria. They give it a full-blown grand opera treatment and the result is thoroughly enjoyable.

The sets designed by Ponnelle would meet with the approval of Cecil B. DeMille. Huge columns, arcades and large stone steps give the impression not so much of the Roman Empire as it may have been in the first century but of the ruins of Rome as seen by tourists many centuries later. The costumes designed by Ponnelle have nothing to do with Rome. The wigs, the ruffles and the beautiful gowns are strictly eighteenth century haute couture.  

La Clemenza has six characters, four male and two female, but only two of the roles are sung by men, Emperor Tito (sung by tenor Giuseppe Filianoti in this production) and the minor role of Publio, the Captain of the Praetorian Guard (sung by baritone Oren Gradus).  

Filianoti has a light tenor voice and he sings with ease. This Tito has a broad, luminous face that has a ready smile on his face. He wants to be decent in the face of treachery and attempted murder. But what he has to confront is so vile that he becomes indecisive to the point of paralysis at times. When you pardon someone who has tried to kill you, you have crossed the line between clemency and stupidity. Tito wants to be decent no matter what.

Tito’s big aria is “Se all’impero, amici dei” near the end of the opera. It is long and varied in speed but it requires some vibrato and Filianoti had some difficulty with it. But he sang well otherwise. Giving us a rather wimpy Tito is much better than a heroic one that dramatic tenors tend to deliver.

Sesto sung by mezzo Elina Garanča and Vitellia in the hands of soprano Barbara Frittoli dominate the opera. Sesto is a friend of Tito’s and in love with Vitellia who has a grudge against the emperor and wants to kill him. The two reach operatic emotional and ethical crises (don’t worry about the details) and give truly marvelous vocal performances. Frittoli as Vitellia is ferocious, selfish, manipulative and quite scary. She tended to flail a bit much with her arms at times but you quickly forgot about it and watched an outstanding performance. Her singing of “Non piu di fiori” is a marvel. She can lower her voice to a lower register and with the help of some dramatic lighting give the crowning moment of the opera.

Garanča is an effective Sesto especially in her great aria “Deh, per questo istante” where she/he begs Tito for forgiveness. She sings beautifully and melts Tito into forgiveness under very tough circumstances.

Mezzo soprano Kate Lindsey is Annio, Sesto’s friend and in love with his sister Servilia (soprano Lucy Crowe). They both perform without a hitch.

Harry Bicket conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

A few comments about the director for the telecast. This is the person who chooses the camera angles, the close-ups and basically what we see in the theatre. Except for a few hitches Barbara Willis Sweete does a very good job. She does not think that we are watching a video game, thank you. We could do with fewer close-ups but let it go at that. One of the annoying hitches was showing us the chorus shuffling into place at the end of “Se al volto,” the great trio in the second act. We do not need to look behind the curtain during pauses in the performance. Save that for the intermission.

Aside from those minor complaints, it proved quite an afternoon at the opera.

La Clemenza di Tito by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was shown Live in HD on December 1, 2012 at The Beach Cinemas, 1651 Queen Street East, Toronto, ON, M4L 1G5 and other theatres across Canada. For more information:

Friday, December 7, 2012


Debra Winger and Patti LuPone in The Anarchist
Reviewed by James Karas

The Anarchist, David Mamet’s new play lasts barely an hour and a quarter but the author throws so many arguments and ideas at you, that it sets your head spinning. There are only two characters, Cathy (Patti LuPone) and Ann (Debra Winger) who engage in a lengthy discussion and you eventually realize that Cathy is in prison and she is applying for parole to Ann.
If you have any pre-conceived notions about a prison environment or an application for parole, toss them away. In this play you will consider yourself lucky when you figure out what Cathy did and what she is talking about. What’s more, Ann not only follows what she is saying, but she more than keeps up her end of the argument. This may not apply to everyone in the audience. Ann is the warden and she will submit a report and recommendation to the parole board. She is a brilliant woman and all wardens and prison officials will be proud of her even though they don’t understand what she is talking about.
I digress. We eventually figure out that in her youth Cathy was an anarchist and she killed two police officers. She has been convicted of murder and given an indeterminate sentence. Thirty five years later she is applying for parole.
The discussion or perhaps arguments between the two women are wide-ranging and seesaw between them with each getting the upper hand on occasion. Wide-ranging? There is religion, philosophy, psychology, personal relationships, private thoughts, sexual preferences and – that is just a partial list.

Cathy, a Jew, has found redemption in Christ and believes that she deserves to be set free. Her father is dying and she wants to see him. She falls short of accepting responsibility for her murders and all the rest of the sophistic arguments fail to convince Ann to recommend her  release.

Ann is leaving the prison (end of her career or moving to another institution, we don’t know) and even though she can keep up and at times best Cathy at her sophistry, she asks repeatedly one concrete question. Where is your accomplice?

Cathy was not alone when she murdered the officers and she has kept in contact with her accomplice but she refuses to divulge her whereabouts disingenuously protesting ignorance.

The play moves largely on a cerebral level and emotional manipulation is fairly minimal. These women may have barren emotional or sexual lives but we are only allowed brief glances at those areas. There is no emotional climax or even a breakdown in the play.

The intellectual sparring is directed by Mamet himself and LuPone and Winger handle their roles with control and assurance. The set consists of a desk and a conference table of the simplest kind. Cathy is dressed plainly and it does not resemble a prison uniform. Ann wears business attire.

The anarchist meets the state and complains about the power of the state as she tries to convince or cajole its representative into releasing her. We are not aware what she was rebelling against and was prepared to and in fact committed murder for her cause. The state says we have punished you but your accomplice got away with murder. Where is she? You may have found Christ, philosophy, charity and grace but the state has more mundane interests like justice.

Despite fine performances by the two actors, the play is unconvincing despite and perhaps because of all its intellectual paraphernalia. I would ot dare to give Mamet any advice on playwriting or directing but I can be helpful to anarchists and would-be murderers. If you decide to adopt Cathy’s unique method of expressing your disagreement with the social order, you are better off to do it in Canada. Here you will be eligible for parole after a mere 25 years of leisure as Her Majesty’s guest and we do not have capital punishment.

The Anarchist by David Mamet opened on December 2, 2012 and continues at the John Golden Theatre, 254 West 45th St., New York, N.Y.  

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


Reviewed by James Karas

Something strange is happening at the fabled Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto. The auditorium is completely empty and a performance is taking place. No, this is not a theatrical disaster. The audience is on the stage and they are watching some bravura acting that is almost as rare as the Royal Alex being empty.

The play is Terminus by Mark O’Rowe produced by a theatre company called Outside the March. The programme cover says Off-Mirvish and The Second Stage Series without any explanation but I am sure they mean something.

The “play” consists of several monologues, dramatic poetry recitations, really, by three actors who are simply referred to as “A”, “B” and “C” in the programme. They are Maev Beaty, Ava Jane Markus and Adam Kenneth Wilson.

During the ninety minutes of the play, each actor is confined to a small space, faces the audience and recites rhyming couplets in a highly musical Irish lilt. The poetry is accompanied with some gestures and dramatic and sometimes comic vocal modulations that are quite exceptional.

The play takes place in Dublin and the stories that they actors tell range from the bizarre to the more bizarre. They are not always easy to follow and the acoustics of the Royal Alex stage seemed to be against them. There were times when I found myself listening to the music of the poetry rather than the actual words.

The idea of listening to rhyming couplets for ninety minutes may sound like a monotonous bore but the three actors involved have a poetic sense to deliver the lines without making them sound repetitious. That is no small achievement.

Wilson’s character stands out as the goriest. He is a homicidal maniac who gives graphic descriptions of sexual perversions and sadistic murders. The man sells his soul to the devil in a Faustian deal in exchange for women; someone fall off a crane and there is blood and disgusting acts everywhere. The whole thing takes place during one night in Dublin. As I said not everything is clear, the script does tend to fade but the outstanding acting by Beaty, Markus and Wilson never falters.

Mitchell Cushman directs the production, which is designed by Nick Blais. This production originally opened at Toronto’s Summer Works Festival in August 2012.

Terminus is not a completely easy take for those who go to the Royal Alex without any preparation. Outside the March theatre company does its best to be unhelpful. There is a couple gushing notes by the director and actor/producer Ava Jane Markus but there very little useful information at all. In the equally useless Who’s Who in the programme, they do not bother to give any information about the author or provide some information about the play. To be fair, their website does fill in some of the gaps.

Too bad.


Terminus by Mark O’Rowe opened on November 21 and will run until December 9, 2012 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St. W. Toronto, Ont.