Saturday, March 30, 2013


A scene "Maria Stuarda" with Matthew Polenzani as Leicester, Joshua Hopkins as Cecil, Elza van den Heever as Elisabetta, and Joyce DiDonato as Maria Stuarda. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Reviewed by James Karas

Maria Stuarda, Gaetano Donizetti’s 43rd opera, finally made it to the Met. Its first night at Milan’s La Scala was on December 30, 1835 and at Lincoln Centre on December 31, 2012. That is a long coffee break but the Met went all out to make up for lost time (I guess) by giving us a stellar cast and an impressive production directed by David McVicar under the baton Maurizio Benini.

In mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Maria Stuarda and soprano Elza van den Heever as Elizabetta, the production has two outstanding vocal performers. Bass Matthew Rose is a superb Talbot with baritone Joshua Hopkins (Cecil) and tenor Matthew Polenzani (Leicester) right up there if not quite as successful in their roles.

Maria Stuarda presents the fictionalized relationship between Queen Elizabeth II and her cousin Mary Queen of Scots which ended with the latter having her head chopped off. Schiller added the fiction but the beautiful bel canto arias and ensemble pieces (as well as some stock music) are all from Donizetti.

Heever as Elizabeth dominates vocally the first part of the opera. She has an expressive and lustrous voice that soars above the others. As the first act progressed, her marvelous singing appeared incongruous with her physical movements. She waddled rather gracelessly and affected a manly, meaning awkward, gait. This lady needs lessons in walking gracefully, I thought, and why didn’t the director notice it. It turns out that the gait was intentional and McVicar spent some time teaching her how to achieve it. The result was not worth the effort.

The most powerful performance was delivered by DiDonato as the imprisoned queen who feels she is unjustly condemned. The final scene of the opera is simply extraordinary and DiDonato does not miss a beat. She sings Mary’s prayer for forgiveness and for Elizabeth to be forgiven with emotional depth and vocal majesty. Mary holds a rosary during the final scenes of the opera and her hands start shaking as if she were suffering from Parkinson’s disease. DiDonato never falters even in that small detail and it adds to her outstanding portrayal.

Bass Matthew Rose was the best of the male singers. He is a big man with a big voice and he sang with commanding resonance and made a very sympathetic Talbot. Joshua Hopkins was fine vocally but he played the elder statesman Cecil. Hopkins’ youthful features contrasted unfavorably with the bearded man he was playing. He looked like a young man dressed up awkwardly to play an older person in some amateur theatrical production.

Tenor Matthew Polenzani was correct in his singing and looked the part of a lover but he failed to convey much emotional depth. Perhaps he does not have any – I mean Leicester not Polenzani.

McVicar and Set and Costume Designer John Macfarlane start the opera with most of the cast wearing white clothes in front of a red backdrop. The second scene takes on darker tones as becomes the setting of a prison even though Mary is initially happy. From there we move to Mary’s apartment in Fotheringay Castle and finally to the scene of her execution. All very dramatic and well-staged except for Heever’s wobble.

Extended comments about Gary Halvorson, the Director for Cinema are unfortunately inevitable. This is the click-click man who thinks we are playing a video game instead of watching opera in a movie theatre. A couple of examples of his ineptness and stupidity will suffice. In one scene, Leicester is about to kiss Elizabeth. His lips are about to touch her chin just below her lip and Halvorson stays on until the last split second before he clicks away from it. Did we need to get that close to the “kiss” and then put up with the added moronic click away from it?

Maria gets close to Talbot during her confession scene. We can see every detail from a respectable distance and still maintain the context of where they are. Halvorson zeroes in on them and only when half of Maria’ face is hidden by Talbot’s costume, does he click away.

During the beautiful Hymn of Death, the stage is dimly lit and we have a dramatic view of the chorus. We just want to listen to the splendid singing. Not good enough for Halvorson. He pans the camera around, focuses on some members of the chorus and almost succeeds in making a pig’s breakfast of the scene. I closed my eyes for parts of it.

Let’s hope we will not have to wait for Halvorson to straighten up his act as long as it took for Maria Stuarda to reach the Met.

Maria Stuarda by Gaetano Donizetti was shown Live in HD on January 19 and March23, 2013 at The Beach Cinemas, 1651 Queen Street East, Toronto, ON, M4L 1G5 and other theatres across Canada. For more information:

Monday, March 25, 2013


Linda Bassett (Iris), Nicholas le Prevost (Ralph Lumsden), Frances de la Tour (Dorothy Stacpoole)
and Selina Cadell (June Stacpoole). Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Reviewed by James Karas

People, Alan Bennett’s latest play, is a richly textured work, humane, mordant, farcical, wise and simply funny. It is set in a large, stately home that has gone to seed and is about to be sold to the National Trust or private interests. The fate of the house and the old women who occupy it is an obvious parable about England past and present but that is not why the play is so enjoyable.

For my money, the most enjoyable part was watching and listening to Frances de la Tour as Dorothy Stacpoole. De la Tour has a deep, mellifluous voice and she delivers perfectly round vowels in an impeccable, aristocratic English accent that is almost operatic. In the first act, she is dressed in a moth-eaten fur coat with socks and hairdo that make her look frumpy to the nth degree. She resembles the grand house in Yorkshire whose fate is in her hands and has been around for half a millennium but, like her, it has seen better days.

Aside from the two competing interests for the house, Dorothy has to put up with her companion Iris (Linda Bassett), a woman who may not have seen better days. Iris knits most of the time and walks crouched over. She makes a good foil for Dorothy and does get a punch line near the end of the play.

There is additional conflict from Dorothy’s sister June (Selina Cadell), a moralistic, lesbian Archdeacon who wants to sell the house to the National Trust. A fine performance by Cadell.

Add to all that a crew that wants to film a pornographic movie and have the Bishop (Andy de la Tour) walk in at the most inopportune time and you get a hilarious scene from a farce.

In the second act we see a different Dorothy, dressed elegantly and recalling her past as a model as she inadvertently appears in the making of the porno flick. Dorothy displays aristocratic disdain, delivers perfect deadpan put-downs and still retains her humanity. A grand performance by de la Tour.

The two sides that want to buy the house, the National Trust and private investors are represented by Ralph (Nicholas le Prevost), a garrulous deliverer of twaddle and Bevan (Miles Jupp), a smooth and sleazy salesman, respectively. Very well done.

The main character is the house with the estate on which it was built. It has a long and colourful history from billeting soldiers during the English Civil War to housing Canadian troops during World War II. It was at the centre of a coalmine and it now rests creakily on what remains of the coal underneath it.

Nicholas Hytner directs a funny and moving production that plucks all the right chords.

Designer Bob Crowley gives us a huge and decaying stateroom that is turned back into its glorious past appearance near the end of the play.

The direction for the movie screen is mostly intelligent and well done. There a number of mishaps where the director seems to forget to change camera angles and he is a bit too enamoured of close-ups but not too seriously. The sound is an issue because all the voices come though the same speakers and there is very little perspective. It is the price of seeing it in the movie theatre instead of watching the real thing on London.

Friday, March 22, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

Aronica, Guanqun, Frontali, Mangione
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Regio di Parma, Andrea Battistoni
Directed by Guy Montavon
C Major, Unitel Classica. Blu-ray and DVD.

****   (out of five)

You are not likely to see Stiffelio, Verdi’s 1850 potboiler, in your local opera house but this DVD and Blu-ray recording goes a long way towards satisfying any craving to enjoy that neglected work. Recorded live at the Teatro Regio di Parma in April 2012, the production features some outstanding singing and striking staging that simply add to the question of why has Stiffelio been ignored and woefully underrated for so long. 

Stiffelio is about adultery, murder and (perhaps) forgiveness played against a religious background and suffused with biblical references. Not surprising, of course, since the title character is a Protestant minister. Tenor Roberto Aronica, shaved upper lip, heavy whiskers and minister’s tabs, looks quite patriarchal. On his return home from a trip, he rightly suspects his wife Lina of infidelity and he treads the course between vengeance and forgiveness.

Aronica delivers a powerful performance that expresses both pain and anger. He has a very good voice but it falls short of the tremendous emotional impact that a great tenor can deliver.

Soprano Yu Guanqun dominates the production as the erring wife Lina. She has a ringing, powerful and splendid voice that tears straight to the heart. With glasses, an ordinary hairdo and a very ordinary dress, she is no Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina but when she sings she displays uncommon emotional depth.

Baritone Roberto Frontali sings Stankar, the stentorian and melodramatic father of Lina. He is the catalyst of the plot that pursues and eventually kills the adulterer. A very dramatic performance both vocally and theatrically.

Tenor Gabriele Mangione is the adulterer Raffaele, a conventional rake, well sung. George Andguladze sings the role of the older preacher Jorg. We hear his sonorous voice but the old man keeps his head down much of the time and we see the top of his hat quite frequently.

Guy Montavon as stage director and lighting designer gives us a dour, almost monochromatic version of the opera. A long table and a few chairs is about all we get in the first act which takes place in the courtyard of Stankar’s mansion. A forbidding cemetery lit in blue is the setting for the second act and a church scene with a large open bible makes up final scene. A cross is visible frequently adding to the dramatic effectiveness.

Lighting comes from the side and the floor is usually brightly lit with quotations from the bible written on it. Quite appropriate, of course. In the final scene in the church, Stiffelio comes upon the Biblical story of the woman taken in adultery. He takes his cue from Christ and forgives his wife. But does he? In a fine directorial stroke, Montavon has Stiffelio run out of the church as soon as he indicates “forgiveness.”

 A youthful Andrea Battistoni conducts the Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Regio di Parma briskly and the sound and video quality are excellent.

Stiffelio is part of Tutto Verdi, a recording of all 26 of his operas on the 200th anniversary of his year of birth, all done in high definition and surround sound. A major achievement.  

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


Eva-Maria Westbroek as Francesca  and Marcello Giordani as Paolo il Bello.
Photo: Marty Sohl/ Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by James Karas

Francesca da Rimini is a melodrama by Riccardo Zandonai based on a classic Italian plot that nevertheless borrows strands from Wagner and Strauss. The result is a German-lite, Italian- wavelength opera that is easy on the ears and quite a spectacle in the Metropolitan Opera’s production beamed around the world.

The Met last produced Francesca in 1984 and it has dusted off Piero Faggioni’s production after keeping it in storage for some 27 years. It is a staging on a Zeffirelian scale with grandiose sets, heroic singing and an approach that defines grand opera. It has much to recommend it even if it may appear dated to some.

Francesca’s story has a pedigree non-pareil: Dante tells her story in the Inferno in the Canto about the fate of the lustful. Francesca is led to believe that she is marrying the handsome Paolo but he is merely standing in for his ugly brother Gianciotto Malatesta. However, she and Paolo fall madly in love. Without belaboring the obvious, they are discovered and, four acts later, have an unhappy end. In fact, their fate is so unhappy that Dante himself fainted upon hearing it!

The libretto is by Tito Ricordi who based it on a play by Gabriele D’Annunzio who, of course, started with Dante.  

Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbrook has a big, dramatic voice and a marvelous profile to go with it. Her Francesca is a humanized Wagnerian character, passionate on a big scale, a fearless woman who seeks her lover in the midst of battle.

Francesca falls in love with Paolo (tenor Marcello Giordani) on first encounter without a word being spoken. Giordano has the perfect voice for the role and he seems to handle the singing and posturing effortlessly. The two get a terrific love duet in the second act and meet their fate with due heroism.

The bad guys are Gianciotto (Mark Delavan) and his brother Malatestino (Robert Brubaker). Delevan has to sing mostly in his upper register and that put some strain on his voice. However, he never really let us down as Francesca’s creepy husband. The real baddy is Malatestino, a sadistic little creep who should be brought up on charges of sexual assault. Brubaker seems to relish the role and gives a fine performance.

Faggioni, with Set Designer Ezio Frigerio and Costume Designer Franca Squaricipiano, wants to give us a production on a grand scale with massive sets, gorgeous costumes and a cast of thousands, well, maybe just hundreds. The battle scene in the second act would be the envy of some movie producers. In this one instance, not being able to see the entire stage of the Metropolitan added to the impression of an immense panorama.

The characters are drawn on a heroic scale as well and the mellower love scenes and quieter moments do nothing to detract from that impression. You cannot get that scale or style of production every day of the week and you might as well enjoy it when it comes.

Marco Armiliato conducted the Metropolitan Opera orchestra with dramatic flair and brought out the best in the score.

A few words about what we saw on the screen thanks to Gary Halvorson, the Director for Cinema. Without putting too fine of a point on it, his direction went from the atrocious to the execrable. It looked like a hyperactive child with a three-second attention span playing a video game. Click, click.

The second act is taken up largely by a battle scene. Grandiose battlements, war cries, crossbows are all there. Our hero Paolo uses his crossbow to good effect especially if you consider that he has no arrows. If Halvorson did not repeatedly click on close-ups, we would not know or care if Paolo’s weapon is loaded.

It gets worse. Paolo is “shot” by an enemy arrow. Halvorson clicks on a close-up so we can see that the arrow is stuck on a girder and not on Paolo. Francesca looks for blood, Paolo acts as if he were hit when it is obvious that nothing has happened. A respectful longshot would have been immeasurably more effective and the dramatic scene would not have been reduced to ludicrous.

It gets worse. After the victory, a servant is about to pour wine in a goblet for the victor. Click on the pitcher so we can see that she is not pouring anything. The number of such idiotic close-ups is simply countless. This is directing for cinema at its level worst. Click.    

Francesca da Rimini by Riccardo Zandonai was shown Live in HD on March 16, 2013 at The Beach Cinemas, 1651 Queen Street East, Toronto, ON, M4L 1G5 and other theatres across Canada. For more information:

Friday, March 15, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas
Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers is still largely ignored but leave it to Opera Hamilton to make some redress by producing this tuneful and thoroughly enjoyable work.

The production directed by Brian Deedrick and conducted by Peter Oleskevich features some fine singing with very good playing by the Opera Hamilton Orchestra. The small Irving Zucker Auditorium provides an intimate venue and does away with any possible problems of singers with small voices.

The Pearl Fishers has some exotic elements. We are on a desolate seashore in Ceylon with a ruined Hindu temple in the background sometime in the past. We have a love triangle involving a virgin priestess and two friends who fell in love with her but renounced her for the sake of friendship.

Zurga (Brett Polegato) is elected King of the pearl fishers. His friend Nadir (Edgar Ernesto Ramirez) arrives on the seashore and the two renew their friendship and recall their pledge to forsake Leila (Virginia Hatfield), a beautiful priestess. She arrives just then accompanied by the High Priest Nourabad (Stephen Hegedus) to practice her craft of praying for the safety of the fishers.    

The singing by the principals and the Opera Hamilton Chorus ranges from the good to the exceptional. Baritone Polegato leads the cast as king of the fishers who is wracked by jealousy and the call of friendship. Bizet gives him some dramatic singing and acting as well as some mellow scenes and he does superb work in both. He has good stage presence and gets high marks for his Zurga.

Ramirez has a light and pleasant tenor voice and he was at his best in his mid-range. Although he did soar to his high-notes, there were times when he appeared to be straining to reach them.

Priestess Leila gets a huge buildup before she appears. The two friends sing her praises in the famous duet “Au fond du temple saint” and describe her as a goddess. Our imagination may go into overdrive and we know that no one can reach those heights and Hatfield does not.  But she has a lovely voice, full of lyrical sweetness and beauty.

Bass baritone Stephen Hegedus makes a solid Nourabad. Bizet did not stint on the chorus at all, in fact, some of the most melodious music is written for them and the Hamilton Opera group takes full advantage of it and does a good job after a rather sloppy start.

The production is done on a single set by Designer Nick Blais. There are three columns with a raised stage on one side. Lighting is used for the back of the stage, ranging from turquoise to rad to various shades of blue. The Hindu Temple consists of a few candles between two of the columns. In other words, the design calls for a minimal number of props and a Spartan stage. No doubt, the concept is driven as much by economy as by artistic imagination.

Stage Director Deedrick shunts the Chorus of fishers on and off the stage and allows the principal singers to do what they do best – sing – rather than go for excessive theatrics.

The costumes consist of non-descript turbans on the head and beige garments. They all look like exotic Hindu fishers form Ceylon! Well, we have no idea they are supposed to look like but we will take them on faith. The principals are costumed a bit differently and Leila wears a sari and veil. She is bedecked with leis when she first appears and it is something that she does not need.

All of that is run-of-the-mill and does not deserve too much comment but the wigs worn by some of the men, especially Ramirez, cannot go unnoticed. What were they thinking of? They would look ridiculous in an operetta. Just ignore them, I suppose.

The chance to see an infrequently produced opera that is well-sung, in an intimate theatre, with a good orchestra, deserves a solid round of applause.  


The Pearl Fishers by Georges Bizet opened on March 9 and will be performed four times until March 16, 2013 at The Dofasco Centre for the Arts, 190 King William St. Hamilton, Ontario

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


(L to R) Claire Calnan, Lauren Vandenbrook & Kawa Ada in Nicolas Billon's  Iceland. Photo: Joanna Akyol

Reviewed by James Karas

“That didn’t go over so well,” says Halim, one of the characters in Iceland, the new play by Nicolas Billon now playing at the Factory Theatre in Toronto.

That line can, unfortunately, be taken as applying to parts of the play as a whole and not just to the joke that Halim is delivering.

Iceland has three characters who deliver monologues about related events – not terribly closely but the incidents described do come together in the end. The characters are seated and address the audience with almost no interaction among the three of them except for a few moments. Do three monologues a play make? No doubt, they can, but if theatre means acting a situation out, a narrative description may not be the best representation of an action.

We start with Kassandra (Lauren Vanderbrook), an Estonian student doing her masters at the University of Toronto. Vanderbrook gave a straightforward recitation of her plight and at times spoke a bit too quickly and did not enunciate enough. Director Ravi Jain should have corrected that tendency.

Kassandra is the daughter of a professor of history in Estonia and she wants to work her way to a degree and help her brother back home. What’s a good part time job that pays well? Massage parlours and escort services pay very well.

Kassandra becomes an escort and accompanies an obnoxious Pakistani real estate agent named Halim (Kawa Ada). He is a loud braggart who tries to be amusing and manages to be merely unsavoury. He buys a condominium from an over-leveraged American and wants the tenant Anna (Claire Calnan) evicted on the pretense that he will occupy the unit himself. He just wants to flip it for a quick profit.

Anna is a religious fanatic of questionable sanity. Calnan tells her story with considerable dispassion. The best way to deliver lunacy is by appearing to be very rational.

When Anna sees that the condominium is for sale, she goes to see what happened to her former home. When she realizes what the new owner is doing, she douses him with pepper spray and he falls on the floor and injures himself.  She sits on his face with a pillow for good measure. She then sits on the toilet while Halim remains sprawled on the floor, still alive. Kassandra the escort is making a house call and stumbles on this highly dramatic tableau and must decide whether to call an ambulance or get the hell out of there.
A nice girl from Estonia who is working illegally as a prostitute cannot take chances so she sets the apartment on fire because her fingerprints are all over the place and takes off.

Where is Iceland? you ask. Well, Billon thinks that the financial collapse of 2008 is to be blamed on that tiny country and its failed banking system. The American investor who bought a condominium that he could not afford, the real estate agent who bought it on a fire sale and Kassandra who became a prostitute and Anna who murdered the real estate agent – all are victims, however remotely or perhaps symbolically of what happened in Iceland.

If Iceland is a parable about greed, sex, and the trickle-down effect of financial corruption on ordinary people, it is not totally convincing. The three individual stories that find a linkage in the end are interesting enough. Shaping the play as three separate narratives does maintain the suspense of how the stories are inter-related and you do get the punch line in the end.

Adding an implied critique of the financial collapse of 2008 and including the line, “blame it all on Iceland” is stretching things beyond what is necessary. It merely adds a note of incredulity to three stories that are dramatic on their own.

Iceland by Nicolas Billon opened on March 7 and will run March 24, 2013 at the Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, Ontario.  

Friday, March 1, 2013


Željko Lucic as Rigoletto and Diana Damrau as Gilda in Verdi's "Rigoletto."
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by James Karas

Can you transpose Rigoletto from the 16th century ducal palace in Mantua to a casino in Las Vegas in 1960?

The short answer is “yes” but the punch line is that the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Verdi’s chestnut is a brilliant recreation of the opera that manages to be faithful to the original and be stunningly different.

The production is the brainchild of director Michael Mayer with Set designer Christine Jones and Costume Designer Susan Hilferty. They take the action of the licentious palace of the Duke of Mantua to the tawdry, glitzy, corrupt world of the Mafia-run Las Vegas at the time of Frank Sinatra & Co.’s Rat Pack.

The Duke is a singer and owns the casino in a world where morality does not exist even as a word. His hangers-on procure women for him and they have a slightly deformed comedian who provides laughs when they have nothing better to do.

What is amazing is how easily the plot of the opera could be adapted to the Las Vegas milieu. Mayer takes some liberties with the libretto. Words and phrases such as beautiful like a movie star, home run, jackpot, rat pack and other modernisms add to the authenticity of the Las Vegas feel without taking anything away from Verdi.

The familiar setting of a casino makes the opera more human and approachable. Sometimes I  felt as if I were watching a Broadway musical of the most superior kind.

The concept, needless to say, is only the beginning. The cast will do the rest and here Mayer and the Metropolitan have struck a jackpot. Baritone Željko Lučič gives a defining performance as Rigoletto. He has a small hump on his back and, unlike the tuxedoed members of the pack, he wears a sweater. Mayer does not emphasize Rigoletto’s deformity and lets Lučič deliver a joker who is vocally outstanding and, more importantly, a truly dramatic character.  Lučič combines vocal excellence and acting prowess to give us an amazing Rigoletto.

Tenor Piotr Beczala is the perfect devil-may-care casino owner. He wants and gets his way. Beczala’s light tenor voice and his youthful appearance are perfectly suited for the role. He climbs the high notes from “Questa O quella”  to “La donna e mobile” with ease. A pleasure to watch.

Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter and the victim of the opera is sung by soprano Diana Damrau. Her Gilda is an attractive girl in a plain dress who is a bit overweight and not too swift. This is just the type that you would expect to fall in love with a stranger whom she has seen from a distance. Damrau’s singing is passionate, beautifully modulated and she makes a very good Gilda.

Bass Štefan Kocán is a marvelously malevolent Sparafucile. Rich of voice and lean of figure, he looks like he can and does kill with utter coolness and professionalism. His slutty but quite gorgeous sister Maddalena is sung and displayed provocatively by mezzo soprano Oksana Volkova.

The production, for those of us who saw it in movie theatres, was greatly aided by the judicious handling of camera angles and shots by Matthew Diamond. His work was discreet, intelligent and a pleasure not to notice.

Michele Mariotti conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in a production that will be long remembered for its inspired eccentricity and its outstanding performances.

Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi was shown Live in HD on February 16, 2013 at The Beach Cinemas, 1651 Queen Street East, Toronto, ON, M4L 1G5 and other theatres across Canada. For more information: