Wednesday, October 28, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company’s choices for its second production for 2015-2016 can best be described as bold, innovative and commendable. It is advertised as Pyramus and Thisbe, a world premiere of a Canadian opera by Barbara Monk Feldman but there is more than that.

The first piece of the programme, which lasts only an hour and twenty minutes, is Lamento d’Arianna, a scene for solo soprano and orchestra and the only surviving fragment from Claudio Monteverdi’s second opera L’Arianna. Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo sings the role of Ariadne, the Cretan princess who showed Theseus how to kill the dreaded Minotaur and find his way out of the Labyrinth. Theseus promised to marry her but on his way back to Athens he abandoned her on the island of Naxos.
Phillip Addis as Tancredi and Krisztina Szabó as Clorinda. Photo: Michael Cooper
Szabo as the betrayed and grief-stricken Ariadne sings of her love for Theseus, her anger and her desolate state. She is alone on an empty stage with only a chair to sit on. The music and the singing are elegiac, plaintive and heart-wrenching with bursts of anger when she curses her betrayer. A beautifully rendered piece.

The second part of the programme is Il combattimento di Tancrdi e Clorinda, a piece for three voices from another Monteverdi opera. The three voices are Szabo as Clorinda, baritone Phillip Addis as Tancredi and tenor Owen McCausland as Testo. Il combattimento has a plot. The Christian knight Tancredi does battle on the walls of Jerusalem with an infidel. He wounds the infidel who reveals that she is in fact his beloved, Clorinda – an infidel. She asks to be baptized before she dies on a note of Christian forgiveness.

Testo gives us a blow-by-blow description of the battle but the narrative rarely matches what the two warriors are doing. No problem. We are there to listen to the singing and not watch a brawl.

(l-r) Owen McCausland as the Narrator, Krisztina Szabó as Thisbe and Phillip Addis as Pyramus. Photo: Michael Cooper
The last work and I suppose the pièce de resistance of the evening is Barbara Monk Feldman’s Pyramus and Thisbe. Although the lovers are called Pyramus (Addis) and Thisbe (Szabo) we are quickly disabused of any notion that this is a retelling of Ovid’s tale of the tragic lovers or Shakespeare’s hilarious take on them in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.     

Monk Feldman treats the lovers’ story as a tone poem sung in a slow, deliberate, often dream-like fashion. In addition to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Monk Feldman uses William Faulkner’s The Long Summer, St. John of Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul and Rainer Maria Rilke’s Die Sonette an Orpheus. The opera is sung mostly in English but there are sections in German and Latin.

The slow and deliberate pace used almost throughout the opera eventually becomes ponderous. Banal phrases seem to take a very long time to sing. There are some beautiful passages for the singers and the chorus but not enough to keep one from looking at his watch.

Director Christopher Alden takes a minimalist approach to the three pieces and that is commendable. Ariadne’s lament does not need any movement and the last thing we want is a swashbuckling scene between Tancredi and Clorinda. Pyramus and Thisbe as a tone poem for the stage is not entirely satisfactory.
Pyramus and Thisbe  by Barbara Monk Feldman opened October 20 and will be performed a total of seven times until November 7, 2015 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671.

Monday, October 26, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

Opera Atelier is celebrating its 30th Anniversary Season with a revival of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Armide. And why not? Co-Artistic Directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg know a good thing when they see it.

The last production of Armide in 2012 went to the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York. The current revival is travelling to the Royal Opera House at the Palace of Versailles in November.   
Colin Ainsworth (Renaud) and Peggy Kriha Dye (Armide). Photo by Bruce Zinger
Armide premiered in Paris in 1686 and it has characters with magical powers, demons, a visit to the Underworld and a Water Nymph. And that is an incomplete list. We have Renaud, a Christian virgin knight versus Armide, a Muslim, virgin warrior. She is a sexual magnet who is immune to attraction (except to Renaud) and Renaud who is just as immune except when influenced by magic. You get the idea.

Armide is opera as well as ballet and the problem is how to get everything on stage and have a successful production. You need magic. This production is a masterly exercise in operatic and balletic magic by Pynkoski and Lajeunesse Zingg. The style is, we assume, high baroque and Lajeunesse Zingg as choreographer inserts graceful dance routines that blend with the action. Did I say it is magical?

Soprano Peggy Kriha Dye is Armide, the virgin princess who has walloped the Christians during the First Crusade but has not captured Renaud, the greatest knight whom she hates and loves. Today we would call her conflicted but don’t tell Lully that. Kriha Dye gives us a well-crafted portrait of the tragic princess.

Tenor Colin Ainsworth is the perfect Baroque opera hero and with his beautifully toned voice, the ultimate heroic knight. Armide’s magic magnetism makes him fall in love with her but his knights manage to break the spell with their own brand of magic.

The company of Armide. Photo by Bruce Zinger
The cast gave noteworthy performances. Carla Huhtanen and Meghan Lindsay were elegant and vocally beautiful as Armide’s companions. Baritone Daniel Belcher sang Hatred and guarded the Underworld with verve and panache. Bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus did a fine job as Hidraot, Armide’s uncle who recommends marriage for her.      

The set by Gerard Gauci, the lighting by Bonnie Beecher and the costumes by Dora Rust d’Eye show fine eyes for colour, elegance and variety. The opera may be set in medieval Damascus but we see the splendours of Versailles on stage from the gorgeous gowns to the graceful dancers of the Atelier Ballet.
David Fallis conducts the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra performing to its usually high standards Lully’s score on original instruments.          

If you feel you are impervious to opera the way Renaud and Armide thought they were impervious to love go and see this production and you will find yourself begging for more.

Armide  by Jean-Baptiste Lully with libretto by Philippe Quinault based on Torquato Tasso’s  Jerusalem Delivered opened on October 22  and be performed six times until October 31, 2015 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto, Ontario.

Sunday, October 18, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

During the overture to the current production of La Traviata by the Canadian Opera Company, we see a woman putting on a fancy gown before the guests arrive for a fancy party. The guests enter the semicircular room with a large table in the middle. Director Arin Arbus and Lighting Designer Marcus Doshy let us see the guests but they also emphasize their shadows against the back wall. Are they more shadows than real people?

The woman putting on the gorgeous gown is the courtesan Violetta and is she simply, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, preparing a face to meet the faces that she will meet? Is she also a shadow until she falls in love and for a brief interlude in her life becomes a human being? We will see the shadows of people again but let’s examine the rest of production first. 

Robert Gleadow as Dr. Grenvil and Ekaterina Siurina as Violetta. Photo: Michael Cooper
La Traviata requires a soprano with considerable vocal and emotional range, a tenor who can be convincingly passionate and a baritone of gravitas and vocal resonance.

The Canadian Opera Company has scored a home run with Russian SOPRANO Ekaterina Siurina as Violetta. She establishes dominance quickly and her expressive voice goes from the flirtatious to the passionate and finally to a heart-breaking scene. The flirtatious shadow has become a woman of passion, generosity and nobility.

Baritone Quinn Kelsey sings the role of Giorgio Germont, the father who must convince Violetta to leave his son. His daughter’s engagement will be called off if her fiancée finds out Violetta’s former profession. The role requires vocal splendour, conviction and emotional strength to convince a woman to abandon her true lover. Kelsey has it all.

Kelsey sings “Di Provenza il mar il suol,” one of the most famous and familiar arias in the repertoire. The father appeals to his son’s loyalty to native land, home, family and his sense of honour. Kelsey captures the emotional appeal and resonant beauty of the area with splendour.
Quinn Kelsey as Germont and Ekaterina Siurina as Violetta. Photo: Michael Cooper
Tenor Charles Castronovo was good but not entirely successful as Alfredo Germont, Violetta’s lover. His voice may be fine but he did not find the emotional wavelength that we expect of a man deeply in love. 

The overall production is excellent and highly interesting. As I said, the first scene at the party in Violetta’s apartment featured an unadorned background where the silhouettes of the guests were projected. The set for Violetta’s and Alfredo’s country house consisted of two painted panels and a settee. For the final scene, we return to Violetta’s barren apartment where Verdi finds a way to release pathos, beauty, defiance, love and emotion of surpassing splendour.

Unlike Prufrock, Violetta and Alfredo have found love, they have heard the mermaids sing to them, they have ceased being mere shadows of human beings and amid the sorrow, guilt and pain of the final scene, Violetta cries out a defiant “gioia” with her last breath.  

The COC Orchestra is conducted by Marco Guidarini. 

This new COC production is co-produced with Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera.

Go see it!

La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi opened on October 8 and will be performed a total of eleven times until November 6, 2015 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671.

Saturday, October 17, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

The timing of Tarragon Theatre’s production of An Enemy of the People could not have been more apt. It comes in the middle of a long and dirty campaign where the major political parties are vying for our votes with attack ads, misleading statements, lies and every method that the imagination can conceive and their political operatives perpetrate.

The production is an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play by Florian Borchmeyer for Berlin’s Schaubühne in a translation by Maria Milisavljevic. The production is explosively dramatic and reaches such emotional intensity that I found myself infuriated by what was happening.
Laura Condlin and Rick Roberts. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann 
Borchmeyer has brought the play to the 21st century with a number of interesting changes. Ibsen’s Dr. Thomas Stockman becomes Dr. Thomasina (Laura Condlin) who is a married lesbian with a child. A number of minor characters from the original are discarded and the plot is tightened to two hours with no intermission.

The confrontation is between Thomasina, a principled medical officer, and her brother Peter, (Rick Roberts), a venal politician for whom the truth, morality and public health are meaningless in the face of the financial cost of fixing the town’s polluted water system.

Thomasina has discovered that the water system is polluted and she expects gratitude and indeed adulation for her work. She is so naïve that she has no conception of the possible political machinations that can change the opinion of a town from gratitude to contempt and make her an enemy of the people.

Laura Condlin, Tamara Podemski and David Fox. Photo: Cylla on Tiedemann 
The confrontation between the siblings is so intense and dramatic as to make you want to  scream. You watch a town hall crowd become a mob; you see political mendacity and manipulation to make you cringe. Condlin and Roberts give performances that are utterly outstanding.

Ibsen’s point that people can be manipulated or cave in when their self-interest confronts principles is brought home with unerring accuracy. The newspaper owner Aslaksen (Tom Barnett), the editor Hovstad (Kyle Mac) and the reporter Billing (Lyon Smith) all cave in like driveling cowards creating a depressing sight of humanity.

We all know that cigarettes do not cause any illness; guns do not kill people; coal does not pollute the atmosphere; the oil sands do not pollute; we believe what our politicians tells us.

The coup de grâce is delivered by Kiil (David Fox), Thomasina’s father-in-law, who buys up all the available shares in the polluted baths at a fire sale price for Thomasina. His plant is the cause of much of the pollution and by destroying his daughter-in-law and her findings he is assured of great financial gain.

The set by Thomas Ryder Payne is a blackboard covering the entire stage. There is chalk writing all around and when the scientific findings are distorted and denigrated, the cast whitewashes the blackboards in what seems like unnecessarily emphasizing the obvious.

Peter the politician wears a blue suit and a shirt and tie. Thomasina is dressed very casually becoming more easily attackable by the townspeople. She belongs to a rock band with her wife Katarina (Tamara Podemski) and Billing, again something the locals may not be too keen on.

The cast is superb, the directing brilliant, the adaptation riveting and the result, theatre that is spellbinding and enthralling.

An Enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Florian Borchmeyer  opened on October 13 and will play until October 18, 2015 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.

Monday, October 12, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

Hana’s Suitcase has everything that you want to see in a production by Young People’s Theatre. It may be no coincidence that it marks the opening of the 50th anniversary season of YPT.

It has a mind-opening, indeed a mind-expanding story for youngsters. Hana was a Jewish girl from Czechoslovakia who was taken to Auschwitz by the Nazis. Her suitcase ended up in the Holocaust Learning Centre in Tokyo. Two Japanese children and the director of the Centre became captivated by the story behind the suitcase and went on a search for Hana. Japanese children looking for Holocaust victims from Japan to Europe, that’s what I call mind-expanding.

 L-R: Noah Spitzer and Caroline Toal with the ensemble. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
The play is based on Keren Levine’s book adapted for the stage by Emil Sher and it is recommended for children who are 10 years old and up. That seems like the right age to introduce them to intolerance, bigotry, brutality and absolute evil.

The young audience sees what I suspect is not a frequent occurrence for Canadian middle class youngsters: Japanese children who act the same way children act all over the world. True the multicultural nature of our schools has caused many stereotypes to disappear but we still have a long way to go. In the play we have Akira (Jeff Ho) and Maiko (Lisa Truong) whose boundless curiosity and enthusiasm about the story behind Hana’s suitcase is so infectious, it impels Fumiko (Jennifer Villaverde) to search around the world for information about Hana Brady.       

She eventually finds Hana’s brother George (Noah Spitzer) who lives in Canada and he gives her, Akira and Maiko information about Hana and his family.

We see photographs and a reenactment of the happy family life of Hana (Caroline Toal), her brother George and their parents Marketa (Tracey Ferencz) and Karel (Jeff Miller) as the dark clouds of the holocaust begin descending on them. They are all rounded up by the Nazis and three of them end up at Auschwitz. The telling is appropriately restrained but the story and the message are clear.

Jeff Ho dominates the production with his driving keenness and zeal to find out Hana’s story and just about everything else. The audience identified with him and loved him. Truong as Maiko is no less enthusiastic but she is more sensible and down to earth than Akira. They are a delight to watch and give marvelous performances.

Villavarde as Fumiko is infected by the children’s enthusiasm and she does everything possible in her search for Hana’s story.

Fumiko’s search leads her to Kurt (Thomas Hauff) who informs her that George is alive and the quest culminates in the learning the tragic information so desperately wanted and feared.

Hana’s Suitcase tells a great story with restraint and finesse. Director Allen MacInnis tells the horrible tale but he does not neglect the sine qua non of young people’s theatre – humour. Akira provides most of the laughter with his ambition to write poetry, his somersaults and his desire to change the world.      

I was accompanied by Emily, a feisty seven-year old whose father had some trepidation about letting her see a play about the Holocaust. There was no cause for concern. Emily gave the production a review that should stand as a high compliment to YPT. She liked the show but, she said, “this was the first time I saw a story that did not say they lived happily ever-after.”

Hana’s Suitcase by Emil Sher based on the book by Karen Levine opened on October8 and will play until October 30, 2015 at the Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. 416 862-2222.

Friday, October 9, 2015


By James Karas

The Last Wife is a provocative, dramatic and thoroughly enjoyable non-historical drama. The Stratford Festival has staged Kate Hennig’s play at the small Studio Theatre near the end of the season. It has saved the best for last and the play should receive many more productions.

The last wife of the title is Katherine Parr, the last spouse of King Henry VIII who nursed him in the last years of his life and survived him.
 Joseph Ziegler as Henry and Maev Beaty as Kate in The Last Wife. Photography by David Hou.

Hennig’s Kate is intelligent, well educated, strong, passionate, principled and (most of the time) politically astute. She lives in a patriarchal society where women are considered as sexual objects when it pleases men and as chattels when it suits them. Maev Beaty incorporates all these characteristics in her bravura performance.

Henry VIII is an arrogant dictator who does not brook any disagreement, rules by whim and has the power and the ability to execute almost anyone. Hennig does give him some redeeming characteristics such as his love of music and his ability to change his mind but they do not detract from his essential being of a capricious thug with a crown.

Joseph Ziegler does a masterful job as Henry. His Henry may be the lion in winter but he has lost none of his brutality and selfishness. We are told that Henry is overweight but Ziegler is a fairly fit king.

Kate and Henry dominate the play with Bess (Bahia Watson), the future Queen Elizabeth I and Mary (Sara Farb), the future Queen “Bloody” Mary playing important roles in the fractured relationships  of the “family.” They are angry, rejected, hateful and bitter as Henry’s daughters whom he considers bastards.

The young Jonah Q. Gribble plays Eddie, the future King Edward IV and Gareth Potter is the passionate Thom Seymour who is in love with Kate.

Kate tries to navigate the shoals of a society that is closed to women, a husband who is capable of having her executed and his children with whom she tries to establish meaningful contact. A warrant is issued for her arrest and she uses her sexual attraction to avoid being beheaded.

The play is not a costume drama set in 15th century England. It is a modern play with the actors wearing contemporary costumes and speaking with Canadian accents. Director Alan Dilworth delivers the wit, fast-paced drama, intelligence and sheer theatricality of Hennig’s play faultlessly.

The names and a few of the events in the play are historical but almost all the rest comes from Hennig’s imagination.

This is lousy history but great theatre.

The Last Wife by Kate Hennig played until October 9, 2015 at the Studio Theatre. Stratford, Ontario.

Monday, October 5, 2015


By James Karas

We the Family is a new play by George F. Walker that received its premiere at Hart House Theatre as the first production of its 2105-2016 season. Stand up and applaud enthusiastically.

The play promises multicultural mayhem, love, larceny and death! Prick up your ears. There are vast possibilities for examining multicultural conflicts in Toronto and as for the rest, well, love, larceny and death are always welcome on stage.  

Phoebe Hu, Sarah Murphy-Dyson and John Cleland. Photo: Scott Gorman 

In the eighty minutes’ performance, you will get some superficial satire of multicultural conflicts, a tad of love, a dose of lust, some gratuitous criminal conduct and a large quantity of jokes some of which are quite funny. But the plot takes so many twists and turns, so quickly that there is no room left for any character development. The episodes come on so quickly, that there is very little time to consider anything. In the end Walker seems to have run out of steam and brought the thing to a quick end after only an hour and twenty minutes. Take a deep breath and a sigh of disappointment.

On the bright side, director Andrea Wasserman and the cast do heroic work to bring this play to life. They do get some laughs and handle Walker’s black comedy well but the play serves them badly because most of the characters are papier mache caricatures rather than human beings.

The multicultural clash involves Jews, Chinese and Catholics when a Jewish young man marries a Chinese woman. We never see the couple but we learn that they are kidnapped on their honeymoon. David Kaplan (John Cleland) is the wealthy and creepy father of the groom who wants to negotiate a good deal with the kidnappers. He enlists his Russian mistress Sonya (Jessica Allen) to use her crime boss father in Russia to help with the negotiations.

In the meantime his crazy, alcoholic and psychotic wife Lizzie (Sarah Murphy-Dyson), is seeing a psychiatrist who does not have an office (played by Renée Haché) and an Arab (played by Mike Vitovich). She wants to kill her husband.

David’s father Sonny (David Cairns) is a criminal while his wife Merle (Connie Guccione) is a racist nut.

The Chinese family is not much better but there are only two of them: Jenny (Phoebe Hu), the mother of the unseen bride and her daughter Lucy (Sherman Tsang).

The several compartments of Brandon Kleiman’s dark set serve well for the numerous scene changes from a bedroom, to a courtroom, to a restaurant scene and a highway.

Walker in the end seemed to have run out of twists and he brought people back from the dead. By then there was nowhere to go but drop the curtain which he does.

In the end your enthusiasm has waned and you are left unsatisfied by unfulfilled expectations and you applaud the director and the actors for their work as you scratch your head about why a fine playwright like Walker allowed a half-baked script to be produced. 

We the Family by George F. Walker played from September 18 to October 3, 2015 at Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle, Toronto, Ontario. Telephone (416) 978-8849