Tuesday, July 30, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

The Argo Theatrical Company produced Euripides’ Bacchae at the Ancient Theatre of Dion. It was part of the Olympus Festival centered on the Hellenistic theatre, south of Katerini, Greece.

Director Dimitris Lignadis interprets that play as an encounter between a fascist Pentheus and a Christ-like Dionysus with some highly dramatic results. 

In the opening scene, a man climbs up a pole and turns on a light. His is dressed in worker’s khaki clothes and his head is covered. He intones the opening lines of the play without revealing his face. We, of course, know that he is Dionysus (Sakis Rouvas) disguised as a Stranger. His followers who make up the Chorus of bacchants from Lydia appear. They are dressed in white dresses that struck me as resembling very badly dressed brides. They perform an orgiastic dance to some wild music, mostly percussion.

The music by Giorgos Poulidis is heavy on rhythmic beats and dissonance with some haunting melodic pieces. The Chorus gyrates, rolls on the ground and executes sexually suggestive moves in keeping with the ecstatic nature of the group. The choreography is by Dafni Asimakopoulou and it suits Lignadis’ view of the play.

The bacchants swarm onto the Stranger and tear his clothes off and he appears with white bottoms and naked from the waist up in a Christ-like pose. This is highly ironic, of course, to see the god of wine and ecstasy as the epitome of asceticism but it is very effective.

Pentheus (Dimitris Passas), wears a black uniform, sports a mustache and is reminiscent of a fascist dictator.     

Rouvas does quite a good job as Dionysus. His voice carries well, he has good physical presence and was convincing in the role.

Passas as Pentheus had the initial advantage of speaking through a microphone like a dictator addressing a mass rally. Passas looks prissy and legalistic and does a fine job in providing a contrast between the logical (him) with the irrational as represented by Dionysus and the Chorus.

Roula Pateraki was disappointing as Tiresias. She was wheeled onto the playing area on a cart (Tiresias is blind) and she delivered her lines in a flat, loud, monotone that made little impression.

Maria Kitsou as Agave had better lines and more amplitude to display her talents and gave a dramatic performance as Pentheus’s mother. She ends up murdering her son and brining his head in a bag in the belief that she is delivering the head of a lion.

The set, designed Eva Nathena, consisted of a stack of bales of hay as background and a few chairs as props. The scene is in front of the palace of Thebes and I am not sure about the bales of hay. 

Greek Tragedy is notoriously difficult to produce and a director must strive to avoid giggles and raised eyebrows, especially when veering away from a traditional approach. Lignadis unfortunately did evoke some giggles, especially when Agave kicked the bag containing her son’s head as if she were playing soccer. We heard a smidge of a Christmas Carol at one point and a “miroloi”, a traditional funeral lamentation near the end.

The production had some solid performances and original ideas by Lignadis. In the end, Dionysus hangs the head of the faithless Pentheus by the light that he lit at the beginning of the play in a nice touch of connecting the opening and closing of the production.

Partially because of the open-air concept of the theatre without particularly good acoustics, the actors must speak loudly or risk not being heard. This does give the performances a stentorian flavour without the balancing effect of choral passages. The production has many virtues and an interesting approach but it seems that not all the details of the consequences of that approach have been thoroughly canvassed.

The Bacchae was produced in Athens in 405 B.C., after Euripides’s death. It probably premiered at Dion before that date. The present theatre dates from the third century B.C. and it replaced the original theatre on that site that had been destroyed. The imaginative leap from a seeing The Bacchae on a balmy July evening in sight of Mount Olympus to its premiere more than 2400 years ago is a thoroughly pleasant thought. The price of entry in the theatre at €15 is a bargain by any description.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


James Karas

***** (out of five)

The year’s grand production by the Aix-en-Provence Festival at the aptly named Grand Théâtre de Provence is Richard Strauss’s Elektra. The Orchestre de Paris is conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the production is directed by Patrice Chereau. The result is a simply outstanding production of a great opera.   

Elektra strikes me as an extended Mad Scene for its main character. The rest of the cast has to work under two impediments: Strauss’s powerful, sometimes overpowering music and the dominance of the performance by Electra.

German soprano Evelyn Herlitzius has the lung-power, acting ability and the extraordinary voice to dominate the performance. In the opening scene, she is released from a pen and stumbles onto the stage where there is a hole for her in the centre. She is at least unbalanced if not completely deranged and wears slacks and a blouse. She is no princess. There are moments of lucidity, psychotic glee, frenzied dancing and vocal prowess that add up to a stupendous performance by Herlitzius.

Electra, of course, is the daughter of Agamemnon who was murdered by his wife Clytemnestra upon his return from Troy. Electra is full of rage and hatred and she is reliving her father’s murder every day as she waits to wreak vengeance by killing her mother.

Chrysothemis does not share her sister’s maniacal desire for revenge. She wants vengeance but she also wants life. Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka gave a dramatic and well-balanced performance but like the rest of the cast with the exception of Herlitzius on occasion she faced the problem of the lack of balance between pit and stage.

Strauss’s music is powerful and only singers with steel-plated lungs need to apply for most of the roles in Elektra. That being said, the conductor needs to balance the orchestra and the singers. Pieczonka can more than stand her ground vocally but much of Chrysothemis’s singing is not done at full throttle and there were times that the orchestra almost overpowered her. This holds true for most of the other singers as well.

Mezzo soprano Waltraud Meier was the pleading, haunted Clytemnestra. Like Electra, she is haunted by her husband’s murder and is seeking a means of purging her nightmares. A sacrifice to the gods is the only solution – her sacrifice! Meier captures the conflicting personality and sheer evil in a fine performance.

Russian bass Michail Petrenko sang Orestes, a role that is a foil for Electra and American tenor Tom Randle sang Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover. They did well.

In passing, I want to mention Sir Donald McIntyre’s appearance as an Old Servant. From Wotan in the 1976 Ring directed by Chereau at Bayreuth to a servant in Elektra is quite a distance. But Sir Donald, at 78, looked good and it was a treat to see him.

Subject to my comments about the need for better balance between pit and stage on occasion, the performance of the Orchestre de Paris was simply incomparable. Elektra is as much a full concert as an opera and Salonen brings out the thunder and the maniacal nuances of Strauss’s score.

Chereau and his designer Richard Peduzzi (the same one who designed the 1976 Bayreuth Ring, if you will), use a stark, monochromatic set for the production. Chereau adds his own touches.  Orestes brings out his mother’s body after he kills her with a hatchet and leaves it on stage. Aegisthus is normally murdered behind the scenes, but in this production he meets his end on stage by Electra.

A final touch of directorial finesse comes at the end when Orestes leaves the stage and goes into the same pen from which Electra emerged at the beginning of the opera.

A great and memorable night at the opera.
Elektra by Richard Strauss (music), Hugo von Hofmannsthal (libretto) opened on July 10 and will be performed five times until July 22, 2013 at the Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, France. http://festival-aix.com/

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas
**** (out of five)
Elena is an opera by Francesco Cavalli that was first performed in 1659 and has not been staged since then. Leave it to the Aix-en-Provence Festival to dig it up and give it a full blooded performance at the small Théâtre du Jeu de Paume. There may be good reasons for ignoring the opera for so long but don’t tell that to the Aix people who have produced it. They deliver a masterful and enjoyable production despite some wrong-headed choices.

Elena of the title is none other than Helen of Troy but that was in the future. Cavalli’s opera deals with Helen’s marriage to Menelaus, King of Sparta. The plot is full of twists as various suitors vie for the hand of the most beautiful woman in the world. There are some wonderful melodies and set pieces and the whole thing eventually ends in happy marriages – for the time being, in any event.

The opera opens with a Prologue which presents a version of the Judgment of Paris where the three goddesses, Juno, Athena and Venus, compete for the Golden Apple. Paris is not in the opera but thanks to the involvement of Discordia, the apple goes to Venus, and June and Athena swear that, although Helen will marry Menelaus, she will be taken away from him.

Director Jean-Yves Ruf treats the Prologue as a burlesque. The goddesses appear in hairstyles that are from Mad Magazine. They shove each other around and give the impression that we have a comic opera in the style of Offenbach’s La Belle Helene. Cavalli called the opera a “dramma per musica” and I think he wanted us to take his piece, if not seriously, certainly not as burlesque. The rest of the production does not suit the treatment of the Prologue.

The convoluted plot centers, more or less, around the wooing of Helen by Menelaus, Theseus and Menestheus. Menelaus cross-dresses as an Amazon called Elisa in order to get closer to Helen. A bunch of men fall in love with Elisa. Theseus’s real Amazon wife Hippolyta appears and she wants to kill her husband and by this time you are having the time of your life trying to figure out who is what, who is chasing whom and in what part of mythical Greece you are in. The libretto was started by Giovanni Faustini and finished by Nicolo Minato before a good editor got his hands on it to straighten it out. It is badly in need of streamlining and slashing but it is a bit late for that now.

Grab what you can of the central plotline and listen to the music and the singing and you will discover why the opera is worth producing. Cavalli is unfailingly melodic, inventive and simply beautiful in his musical settings.

Start with Hungarian soprano Emöke Baráth who sings the roles of Helen and Venus. She is a pretty blonde with a beautiful voice. Cavalli gives her some lovely melodies and her ringing and luminous voice delivers them to perfection.

Rumanian countertenor Valer Barna-Sabadus is a scrawny young man with a simply beautiful voice. His stage presence leaves something to be desired but his singling is simply gorgeous. His hair (and that of some others) could have used some attention if not some shampoo. He seemed to belong nowhere physically but was saved by his vocal ability.

Portuguese tenor Fernando Guimarães with his deeper voice provided a nice contrast to the countertenor pursuer of Helen. He played Theseus who is married to the Amazon Hippolyta. The latter is sung by Solenn’Lavanant Linke, a woman of some stature well suited to the role.

There is scant characterization in the opera with perhaps the exception of Iro, the buffoon. Tenor Emiliano Gonzalez Toro delights in the role which gives a bit more scope than the lovers have.

Thirteen singers with some doubling up take on more than twenty characters in the over-crowded opera but all find some opportunity to display their talents.

The stage design by Laure Pichat consists of a few wooden panels on stage for the first part and some streamers to indicate the forest in the second part.

Costume Designer Claudia Jenatsch has chosen clothes that seem to fit no time period that I could discern. There are hints of medieval knights’ costumes in Castor and Pollex’s clothes; Renaissance costumes for some but overall the idea seems to be they are mythical figures and they can wear whatever they want. The unkempt hair on some did not help the general appearance.

The Cappella Mediterranea Orchestra under Leonardo Garcia Alarcon was one of the stars of the evening. They played with extraordinary finesse they gave us the best part of Elena: Cavalli’s music.

Director Jean-Yves Ruf had some tough choices to make with a problematic opera. Most of his choices worked well despite some arguable ones. The opera has its shortcomings but it was a delight to see its reappearance after so many centuries   


Elena by Francesco Cavalli opened on July 7 and will be performed on various dates until July 19, 2013 at the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, Aix-en-Provence, France. http://festival-aix.com/


Sunday, July 14, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

For its 65th season, the Aix-en-Provence Festival commissioned a new opera that had its premiere at the outdoor theatre of the Domaine du Grand Saint-Jean in the countryside of Provence. The House Taken Over is a fascinating piece that has an equally fascinating provenance. The opera is composed by Vasco Mendonça on a text by Sam Holcroft.

The House has only two characters, Hector (Oliver Dunn) and his sister Rosa (Kitty Whately) who live in a large family house in Argentina in the 1940s. Although they have names, they are referred to as Brother and Sister and they live according to well-set routines that have become ritualistic. They have breakfast, clean the house, open the curtains, cover the family portrait to protect it from the sunlight as if they were almost automatons. Sister is what one would have described as an old maid at one time. She is dressed very conservatively and when not in view of her brother she knits shawls and affectionately embraces a doll.

The routine of the siblings is broken by what is announced in the title of the opera. They hear noises and the house is slowly taken over by someone or something or perhaps simply their own fears. The occupation proceeds until they are left with only a small vestibule where it is impossible to live.

This frightful progression is captured by the text and the music of Mendonça. He seems to have taken his cue from Hamlet to suit the music to the word, the word to the music without overstepping the modesty of nature. There are frightful “noises” when parts of the house are taken over which are represented by dissonant and agitated music. There are segments when the siblings carry on their routines; when Rosa knits or cuddles her “baby;” when the two are frightened or arguing. Mendonça shapes his music to these moods and events.

Holcroft’s text is in simple English reflecting the relationship of a brother and a sister caught in the family home under strange and frightful circumstances. The opera is sung in English.

English baritone Dunn, in a beard and sweater, is a bachelor, not old but perhaps past his prime who lives an almost robotic life with his sister. The two seem to have some inner life through reading and dreaming but externally their existence is pathetic even without the slow invasion of their house.

Whitely and Dunn did fine work and were convincing as the besieged couple.

Alex Eales designed a fine set consisting of a dining room and a kitchen. The set is turned around and becomes a vestibule for the final scene.

Katie Mitchell, a highly experienced theatre director, treated the opera as a stage play with excellent results. She orchestrated the movements of the characters and paid close attention to the details of their existence.

Etienne Siebens conducted the Asko/Schönberg Ensemble of thirteen musicians who sounded superb.

Now as to provenance. The opera is based on Casa Tomada, a novella by Argentinian writer Julio Cortazar. The text was prepared by English playwright Sam Holcroft. The music was composed by Vasco Mendonça who is Portuguese. The opera was commissioned by the Aix-en-Provence Festival but it is a coproduction of five other organizations spanning a swath of Europe. It is put together with support from the Cultural Programme of the European Union.

And this is for an opera that lasts one hour.

Now that is what I call international cooperation!

The House Taken Over by Vasco Mendonça opened on July 6 and will be performed sixn times run until July 17, 2013 at the Domaine du Grand Saint-Jean near Aix-en-Provence, France. http://festival-aix.com/

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

*****  (out of five)

Don Giovanni is one of the most popular operas in the repertoire and everyone knows something about the fantastic womanizer. Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov will wipe out all your notions about the legendary seducer of Mozart’s opera. Tcherniakov gives a brilliantly original interpretation  of the opera and of the myth.

The Aix-en-Provence Festival produced Tcherniakov’s vision of the opera in 2010 and the production has been seen in Moscow and Madrid. It will eventually be shown in Toronto. For those seeing this production for the first time some factual adjustments are necessary.

We know that Don Giovanni seduces Donna Anna, the daughter of the Commendatore. She comes out screaming, her father challenges Don Giovanni and is killed by him. Her fiancée Don Ottavio comes on the scene and promises vengeance against the seducer.

Don Giovanni escapes with his servant Leporello but soon runs into Donna Elvira, a noblewoman that  he once seduced and abandoned. She is a woman on a mission to expose his crimes to the world.

That is what Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte gave us. According to Tcherniakov, Donna Elvira is Don Giovanni’s wife and the cousin of Donna Anna. Zerlina, the peasant girl that is his next target, is the daughter of Donna Anna by a previous marriage and Leporello is a relative of the Commendatore. In other words this Don Giovanni is a family drama and all of it takes place in the Commendatore’s book-lined and beautifully paneled dining room.

Tcherniakov uses a number of devices to achieve the transformation including inserting time delays in scenes that are continuous in the opera. When Don Giovanni “kills” the Commendatore (he really dies after accidentally hitting his head against a bookcase and perhaps having a heart attack) in Mozart’s version Don Giovanni runs off. In the Tcherniakov version as a guest of the house and the husband of Donna Elvira, he cannot very well run away and he does not. The curtain drops and a few days later, the scene continues without any problem in the plot as laid out by Da Ponte.

Zerlina is getting married in the Commendatore’s house because she is his granddaughter and not some country girl. This intricate conversion is carried out throughout the libretto and the result is an utterly fascinating and convincing transformation subject to some twists that do stretch our credulity.

But that is not the most interesting aspect of the production. Tcherniakov’s view of Don Giovanni is so complexly different from what we expect or think we know about the character that we are left almost aghast.

This Don Giovanni is not the ruthless and selfish lecher who runs off from Donna Anna, kills her father and in short shrift runs into Donna Elvira, one of his victims and then tries to seduce a country girl on her wedding day.

Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni is old, tired, all passion spent, and a distant memory of the mythical character. He is not interested in seducing anyone. His hair is rumpled, he is unshaven and his clothes look like they have been slept in for weeks. In short, he is a pathetic figure.

Donna Anna tried to seduce him and not the other way around. She is so desperate for sexual satisfaction, that she sprawls out on the stage looking for sex but neither Don Giovanni nor her dolt of a fiancé are prepared to fulfill her. If Don Giovanni says some words that sound as if he is trying to seduce Zerlina, his actions tell us that he is not interested at all. In fact he does nothing.

That is the vision and interpretation that Dmitri Tcherniakov brings to this opera and I consider it original, brilliant and simply awesome.

The production boasts a fine cast of singers/actors to bring out convincing portrayals of Mozart’s people as seen by Tcherniakov. American baritone Rod Gilfry is the exhausted, stumbling Don Giovanni who lives and often sings mechanically. That is not a criticism but a compliment. His voice carries the notes masterfully and displays occasional flashes but all is done in character. It is a superb performance.

Swedish soprano Maris Bengtsson is the sexy and sex-starved Donna Anna with a luscious voice that suits her character. Her cousin Donna Elvira is in the hands of Kristine Opolais and she is angry, frumpy and sexless. She can express her displeasure well enough but one look at her and you say no wonder Don Giovanni left her. Well done by Opolais. 

American bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen is a devil-may-care Leporello, with his mop of hair and irreverent attitude. Ketelsen has a marvelous voice and gave an excellent performance.

Lithuanian bass-baritone Kostas Smoriginas gave us a city tough-guy Masetto instead of a country oaf. Well done vocally and well-acted. American soprano Joelle Harvey gave us a sassy Zerlina, smart and carefree who goes after Don Giovanni and can wrap Masetto around her little finger. Very well done.

American tenor Paul Groves was a square-jawed Don Ottavio, well-meaning but ineffectual. He can sing well (Groves, that is) but he cannot even give minimal sexual satisfaction to Donna Anna (as Don Ottavio, that is).  

Conductor Marc Minkowski conducted the London Symphony Orchestra with deliberation and precision matching the interpretation of the opera.

A great night at the opera.

Don Giovanni by W. A. Mozart opened on July 5 and be performed a total of ten times until July 23, 2013 at the Théâtre de l'Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France. http://festival-aix.com/

Sunday, July 7, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

The Aix-en-Provence Festival opened its 65th season with a resoundingly successful production of Rigoletto directed by Canadian Director Robert Carsen.

Rigoletto has been placed in many venues from a casino in Las Vegas to a high-rise apartment building in New York but Carsen’s vision and interpretation surpasses all of them. With the assistance of dramaturge Ian Burton, Carsen makes Rigoletto a clown in a circus. The scenes that usually take place in the palace of the Duke of Mantua are transferred to a circus rink. The courtiers of Mantua sit in the stands of the rink or come down to the performance area.

Carsen enriches the production with numerous brilliant strokes and inventive touches that make Verdi’s chestnut look like a new work. A few examples.

During the brief overture, Rigoletto steps on the stage in front of the curtain carrying a blanket. He opens the blanket and reveals the naked body of a woman. It is only a limp mannequin, but we know that it is the corpse of his daughter. Rigoletto grabs the mannequin, the curtain opens and he joins the partying courtiers in the first scene of the opera. The mannequin becomes his toy and he even simulates copulation with it.

The court of the Duke of Mantua or in this case the circus rink is a full-blown bordello. We have acrobats doing some magnificent somersaults and other athletic deeds but we also see bare-breasted women who are engaged in acts of debauchery. The courtiers are dressed in tuxedos and Rigoletto is dressed as a clown.

Carsen carries the circus metaphor brilliantly to the end of the opera. When the courtiers abduct Gilda and bring her to the palace, the Duke visits her. I suppose the courtiers have already gang-raped her and at times I am not certain what the Duke does when he sees her in a private room. Carsen knows and practically shows us that the Duke has sex with her. In fact, he takes off all his clothes, yes, all, (but does not reveal his front to us), somebody puts a housecoat on him and he climbs a ladder to his private box to (further?) defile Gilda.

When Gilda comes down, disheveled and disgraced, she is wearing the Duke’s housecoat. In fact, she keeps it right to the end. This woman is in love with that man, period.

I will mention one more brilliant directorial trick. When Monterone (a sonorous Arutjun Kotchinian) complains about his daughter being disgraced by the Duke, he brings her body on stage. He curses Rigoletto, of course, and that curse haunts the jester to the bitter end until it is fulfilled. When Rigoletto realizes that Sparafucile (a scary and excellent bass Gabor Bretz) killed Gilda instead of the Duke, the body of Monterone’s daughter is lowered on the stage. This is directorial imagination at its best.

Baritone George Gagnidze made a marvelous Rigoletto. His deep mellow voice was full of pathos and he was magnificent as the clown whose heart is breaking. He does not have a hunched back since his “deformity” is to be a clown.

Tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz was a very disappointing Duke. He is youthful and agile but his voice had no colour, no feeling and nothing convincing about him. He sounded strained in the upper register and only adequate in the middle.

The best singing of the evening was done without a doubt by soprano Irina Lungu as Gilda. She fits the part physically and has a lovely voice. Her “Caro nome” was full of tenderness, beautiful phrasing and a delight to hear. Gilda may be stupid but Lungu made her believable and very attractive. A marvelous performance.

Since we are at the circus, we have acrobats and dancers that perform real acrobatics at several points in the opera including during the kidnapping of Gilda. Together with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, this production required a small army of people.

The London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gianandrea Noseda played Verdi’s dramatic music superbly.

The set by Radu Boruzescu consisted of the circus rink and stands as indicated. There was a box with a curtain in the middle of the stands where the Duke was initially seen. The stands remained in place throughout. Gilda’s residence consisted of a small camper on wheels. There was no need for a ladder here but the courtiers pretended that they climbed up for the kidnapping. There were a few such incongruities for those that were paying strict attention to the words of the libretto.

Once again, Carsen has taken a very familiar work and imposed his vision on it and produced a new opera while being faithful to the old. A superb achievement.  

Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi opened on July 4 and will be performed ten times until July 27, 2013 at the Théâtre de l'Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France. http://festival-aix.com/

Saturday, July 6, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude has been cut down to less than three and a half hours for its production by England’s National Theatre on the Lyttleton Stage. That is a good starting point for this early play.

O’Neill wrote Strange Interlude in 1923 but it was first produced on Broadway in 1928 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It is an interesting play to say the least, at times engrossing and at times drowning in its verbosity.

The plot is fairly straightforward with some risqué elements that caused problems with censors when it was first produced.

Nina Leeds (Anne Marie Duff) is the daughter of Professor Henry Leeds (Patrick Drury). She was in love with Gordon Shaw who was killed in World War I. We never see Gordon but he is a central character in the play. After some sordid affairs, Nina marries Sam Evans (Jason Watkins), a fool with a head for business. She becomes pregnant by him but his mother (played by Geraldine Alexander) tells her that insanity runs in the Evans family. Here comes the risqué part: Nina aborts her child and conceives another one with Dr. Ned Darrell (Darren Pettie). Her husband believes that the son, named Gordon after Nina’s first lover, is his while she falls in love with the real father.

That could be the plot of a melodrama where the lovers fear being found out, there are divided loyalties, hand-wringing and eventual something-or-other. All those elements exist in O’Neill’s play but they are of secondary importance.

O’Neill wants us to know what each character is thinking and each character’s interpretation of what others are saying or thinking. The method he uses is that of the aside or the soliloquy. All of the characters comment on what they really think after they say something. They simply change their tone of voice and speak their mind as if the other person does not hear what they are saying. That is not an occasional occurrence but a constant thread throughout the play. Even when we see the child Gordon as an 11-year old, he says his part of the dialogue and then adds an aside comment.  

There were times when I thought that these characters are not people but amateur psychoanalysts staring at their bellybuttons and constantly analyzing what they and everyone else was saying.

As happens in better plays by O’Neill, you do get sucked in by the very verbosity of the work and watch and wait for the next turn in the plot however slowly it may arrive.

The performers/self-analysts are led by Duff. Her Nina is a slender woman with no particular intellectual attraction or sexual magnetism and I could not figure out why so many men seemed to fall in love with her. The handsome Charles Marsden (Charles Edwards) is in love with her, the successful, brilliant and fine-looking Dr. Darrell spends a lifetime running away and returning to her. Her husband is very loving and if he were not so dumb he would have known that his son was fathered by another man.

The play takes a whole generation from Nina’s love affairs to the death of Sam by which time son Gordon (Wilf Scolding) has grown up and is ready to marry the lovely Madeline (Emily Plumtree).

Despite the risqué features, the play takes the high moral ground. Sam and Gordon are never told about who the father of Gordon really is. When Sam suffers a stroke Nina nurses him until his death instead of abandoning him to his fate.

One aspect of the production that deserves unstinting praise is the staging and stage design of Soutra Gilmour. The interior of the Leeds home from study to sitting room and a boat from which to watch a rowing race are shown richly and magnificently on the Lyttleton’s revolving stage.

The actors handled the roles very well and in fact made them look very easy. 45Director Simon Godwin deserves high praise as well for keeping the interesting psychodrama moving and let that be the last word for the play – interesting

Strange Interlude by Eugene O’Neill opened on June 4 and continues until September 1, 2013  in repertory at the Lyttleton Stage, National Theatre, South Bank, London, England.  http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

Thursday, July 4, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

Children of the Sun is a play by Maxim Gorky that paints a pretty grim picture of a section of Russian society at the beginning of the 20th century. The National Theatre has produced a new version of the play by Andrew Upton on the Lyttleton stage.

It is one of those plays where most of the characters are annoying, exasperating, disgusting, or sickening. Most of them belong to the middle class and are the educated and better-off members of a society that is collapsing.

Let’s start with Protasov (Geoffrey Streatfeild), a scientist and the central character of the play. He is a spineless dishrag of a man who deserves most of the pejorative words listed above. He is under the delusion that he is doing important scientific research but is in fact a self-centered coward completely out of touch with what is happening under his roof or in society beyond. Streatfeild does a masterly job in the role. He has a silly smile at times, is unable to take a step forward and is the prime image of a useless man in an exploding world.

His sister Liza (Emma Lowndes) is an emotional cripple who is unable to take her medication without being prompted by a servant. Lowndes shrivels into a mousy being like the pathetic Liza.

Paul Higgins plays the local vet who is trying to convince Liza to marry him. He eventually comes to terms with his position and takes the Ophelia solution.

Vageen (Gerald Kyd) is a local artist, full of himself and purportedly in love with Protasov’s wife Yelena (Justine Mitchell). Like the rest, he is a useless and extremely annoying person. Mitchell gives a fine performance as the ignored wife of a useless man as she  looks for comfort from a man she does not respect. She shows considerable gumption by going out to help people when cholera breaks out.

Protasov cannot pay his rent and what is left of the once-prominent house is run by the nanny (Maggie McCarthy), a garrulous old woman who is listening-impaired.

We watch these characters talk endlessly as evidence about what is happening outside mounts. There is hunger, unrest and finally cholera caused by Protasov’s poison leaking into the water. The children of the sun are still sleep-walking until the crowd starts killing people and breaking down the gates to their house.

The opposite side of the children of the sun is represented by Protasov’s maid Feema (Florence Hall). She is pretty, self-assured and ambitious. She has something to sell (her body) and wants the best price for it.  Nazar (Paul Hickey) offers money for sex but she turns him down. She negotiates with his despicable son Misha (Matthew Hickey) but his price is too low. She finally finds a rich old man and leaves the Protasov house. She knows what she wants and goes after it without any qualms. Does she represent the new moral centre of this disgusting society?

We also meet Melanyia (Lucy Black), who sold herself to the highest bidder some years ago and is now a pathetic woman looking for some affection. She tries to buy Protasov’s affection by promising to build a lab for him. She is truly pathetic person well done by Black.

Director Howard Davies marshals the large cast (there are twenty of them) into a well-oiled ensemble with overlapping speaking, emotional outbursts and numerous confrontations that gives frightful picture of Russia and a splendid production of the play.      


Children of the Sun by Maxim Gorky in a version by Andrew Upton opened on April 16 and continues until July 14, 2013 at the Lyttleton Stage, National Theatre, South Bank, London, England.  http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/    

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

Simon Boccanegra is a dark and sombre work with a convoluted plot but it provides vintage operatic pleasure with the right cast under the right conductor. The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, bats a thousand, as they say in baseball, with its current revival of Verdi’s much-revised opera. We get the 1881 version, for those tracking details.

Antonio Pappano’s vigorous conducting of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House does not allow for a dull moment. The production by Elijah Moshinsky has been around since 1991 and although I cannot express unreserved enthusiasm for the set designs, it is a thoroughly enjoyable staging.
The sombreness of the opera is reflected in the vocal distribution. We do have a tenor who turns out to be a fine person after some wrong turns on the road and a much-suffering soprano but the rest are baritones and basses.
The name role is handled with ease and aplomb by baritone Thomas Hampson. He has sung the role so many times that it seems to be a part of him. The tall American has a great stage presence and he fulfils the vocal requirements with resonance and complete control.
Bass Ferruccio Furlanetto seems to have cornered the market for older men with rumbling low voices. He has the role of Jacopo Fiesco, an angry patrician who hates Boccanegra. Fiesco takes some unpleasant turns in the tortuous plot but in the end he comes out on the side of morality and order. A fine performance on the high par maintained by Furlanetto.
The unredeemed villain of the opera is Paolo Albiani, politically and morally corrupt, who ends up on the gallows. Baritone Dimitri Platanias shuffles on the stage, oozes evil and gives an excellent vocal performance, acted well.
The lighter voices are given to tenor Russell Thomas and soprano Hibla Gerzmava. Thomas may not qualify as physically heroic but he more than makes up for that with his vocal chords. He leaps to his high notes with ease and displays marvellous phrasing and tonal beauty. We don’t always like his character but eventual heroes are allowed to make mistakes.
The moral centre is held by Amelia Grimaldi as sung by Gerzmava. She is the out-of-wedlock daughter of Boccanegra who was raised by the wealthy Grimaldi family as a secret replacement for their dead daughter. This plot bit is mentioned to dissuade you from following the libretto and directing you to concentrate on Gerzmava’s lovely voice and moving performance.
Hampson and Furlanetto have sung the same roles at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in a production by Giancarlo del Monaco. That production has been around since 1995 and a small comparison is inevitable. The Met production is over the top in its monumental sets from a huge statue in the prologue to opulent displays for the rest of the scenes.
The Royal Opera’s sets by Michael Yeargan seem Spartan by comparison. A few oversize columns and almost-blank walls are most apparent. The Doge’s apartments are utilitarian to put it mildly and the only signs of wealth and splendour are the costumes of the Genoan council. No fireplaces and decorated walls here except for the limited grandeur created by the over-sized columns.
The sets take nothing away from the performances by a superb cast and the orchestra and Royal Opera Chorus. A great night at the opera.
Simon Boccanegra by Giuseppe Verdi in its current revival opened on June 27 and will be performed six times until July 16, 2013 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. www.roh.org.uk

Tuesday, July 2, 2013


The Count, Susanna and Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro - Photo: Robert Workman
Reviewed by James Karas

****  (out of five)
Figaro has moved his marriage to Susanna to the 1960s.

The Glyndebourne Festival has revived its 2012 production of Michael Grandage’s staging of The Marriage of Figaro set in the hip decade of hot skirts, marijuana, long hair and other long forgotten habits and fashions.

Grandage’s production has some delightful aspects, some great theatrical touches but his conception is not without its problems. Life in a castle in Seville a couple of hundred years or so ago poses some challenges when trying to marry it to the 21st century. I will have more to say about that in a minute but first let’s talk about the singing and acting.

For several good reasons, top honours for performance go to soprano Laura Tatulescu as Susanna. She sang with verve, joy, beauty and energy. She acted the same way and gave a Susanna that is a delight to watch and listen to. She can be quite physical in her falls and tossing of her legs in the air and is a woman who can stand on her own two  feet in any century.

Bass-baritone Adam Plachetka was an outstanding Figaro, tall with a resonant voice he made a comic and enjoyable partner for Susanna and  an adversary for Count Almaviva.

Soprano Amanda Majeski made a majestic and gorgeous Countess. The singer gets two wonderful chances to display her vocal splendour and the heart-rending condition of a woman spurned by an unfaithful husband. Majeski’s “Dove sono” and “Porgi amor” are feasts for the ears and the eyes as the beautiful soprano pours out her distraught emotions in lustrous tones.

The juicy role of Cherubino is handled by Lydia Teuscher. The Count calls this hormonally hyperactive teenager a “horny bastard” and that’s putting it mildly. This mop-haired boy (and Teuscher does a good imitation of a boy) has hormones that are so hot you can practically see the steam coning out. His arias are fine expressions of his sexual excitement and Teuscher delivers all well. The role is usually given to a mezzo soprano but Teuscher makes you forget that fact.

      Amanda Majeski as The Countess. Photo: Michael Workman

Partially because of Grandage’s conception for the production, there is a problem with the rendition of the role of Count Almaviva. This Almaviva is a superficial dandy with long hair who smokes pot. If you imagine the Count as being imperious and commanding (like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau doing it, say), you will not find him in this production. Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins acts the part as directed and sings it in a like manner. He sounds like a shallow, fun loving creature which is quite incongruous with the character that he is playing or, perhaps more accurately, the character we know from Mozart’s opera.

During the overture, a convertible sports car arrives and the Count and Countess alight. They are returning from their honeymoon. (They could have been out shopping but I prefer my view). A gardener places a flower pot under a window and we know that it will come in handy a bit later.

Susanna and Figaro roll happily on the floor in the opening scene and when she ends up on top of him she feels something hard and jumps up. It’s only the measuring tape in Figaro’s pocket. These are some of the fine touches that Grandage adds to the production that help define and humanize the characters and entertain the audience.

The set by Designer Christopher Oram seems to be intended to make no impression at all. Are we in a rich castle, a modern house or what? Did I detect Middle Eastern décor? 

Jeremy Rhorer conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra and gave us crisp and delicious Mozartian music.

Not all the issues of the change in era were resolved satisfactorily but that barely affected this thoroughly enjoyable production.

The Marriage of Figaro by W. A. Mozart opened on June 8 and will be performed on various dates until August 2, 2013 at the Glyndebourne Festival, East Sussex, England. www.glyndebourne.com

Monday, July 1, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas 

The scenes: a woman is raped by two thugs and her hands and tongue are cut off; a man’s hand is cut off by a hacksaw; a man is sacrificially killed; there are numerous stabbings; dinner is served and the main dish is a meat pie filled with human flesh.

The assignment: Stage them.
No, this is not a black comedy but Titus Andronicus, a revenge tragedy by Shakespeare. It is now playing at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in a production by the redoubtable Royal Shakespeare Company.

Director Michael Fentiman and Designer Colin Richmond have opted for a straight-faced reading of the play with mostly judicious choices that provide an effective and restrained production. With Titus Andronicus “judicious” can mean something as basic as not provoking giggling from the audience. They managed to avoid giggling almost completely.

The play is set ostensibly in ancient Rome but this production has a variety of elements that set it somewhere between ancient Rome and sometime in the future. Some of the men wear modern jackets and pants with an emphasis on black. There are some purple arm bands that, together with the black shirts, could be construed as Nazi paraphernalia. The Roman soldiers wear black helmets in a shape that made them look like people from some sci-fi movie. The Goth soldiers wear primitive attire. Titus and his sons wear burgundy officers’ jackets. Although there is a radio on stage, there are no guns, only swords and daggers. The play is thus set in no particular era and the design works.

Stephen Boxer is an effective Titus. He is mostly stentorian in the opening scenes but his character and his attitude change when he goes mad and regains his sanity later in the play. Many of the other characters in the play are mostly one-sided leaving scant room for development or introspection. However, Boxer delivers the goods.

Saturninus (John Hopkins) and Bassianus (Richard Goulding) are the sons of the late Emperor and they are vying for his job. There is not much difference between the two but Fentiman cleverly makes Saturninus a bit effeminate while Bassianus is the more macho figure.

Tamora, the Queen of the Goths (Katy Stephens) is an exuberant character from her begging for her sons’ life in the beginning of the play to her energetic embrace of evil throughout.

Aaron the Moor, Tamora’s lover, stands out for the sheer breadth of his evil. Kevin Harvey has one of those deep, rolling bass voices that is just a pleasure to hear. You do not want his Aaron as your neighbor.

Perry Millward as Demetrius and Jonny Weldon as Chiron make an impressive duo of remorseless thugs. They are the sons of Tamora and are outside the pale of morality as recognized by most people.

Worthy of mention is the performance of Richard Durden as Marcus Andronicus. He has a deep voice and displays gravitas among a lot of shouting and killing.

Lavinia, beautiful, blonde, dressed in white, is lovely to behold. She is Titus’s daughter who is raped and mutilated and Rose Reynolds is very good in the role. She does her best work after she is mutilated as she tries to identify her attackers.

What does the creative team do with the blood and gore? The first murder is the sacrifice of the Goth Alarbus (Nicholas Prasad). As his attackers descend on the victim, a trap door opens and they are all lowered below stage. The killers come up covered in blood, carrying a large bowl of Alarbus’s body parts. The same is done with Lavinia and she emerges covered in blood and mud. She spits out blood from her severed tongue. Her severed hands are stumps and she is one need hardly say a pretty pathetic sight. The irony is that the blood and gore are not all that gross.

The rest of the stabbings are fairly antiseptic if numerous. One scene does stand out and that is the severing of Titus’ hand. He must offer one hand as proof of loyalty and Fentiman has it cut off on stage with a hacksaw.

Titus Andronicus is part of the Shakespearean canon and is probably produced for that reason alone. It was very popular in its day but the 20th century held a dim view of it. Aside from its historic interest, the way a director stages those vile scenes peaks one’s curiosity. Do we get enough revolting detail or are we left disappointed?

This production has its good points but in the end making meat pies with human flesh is just not what it used to be.

Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare opened on May 23 and continues in repertory until October 26, 2013 at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, England. http://www.rsc.org.uk/