Sunday, February 21, 2016


By James Karas

When you learn that the top floor of a big house is boarded up and nobody, but nobody is allowed to go up there, you sit up and try to figure out “why.”

That is one of the questions you ask yourself in Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight, now playing at the Ed Mirvish Theatre. Of course, the play is a whodunit and it piles on the mysteries, drops some clues and keeps you going for a couple of hours of entertainment until there is a resolution.

Ian McElhinney, Flora Montgomery and Owen Teale in GASLIGHT ©2016, Cylla von Tiedemann
You can set a mystery wherever you want, I suppose, but there is no better place than a large house in Victorian England. The spacious drawing room with heavy velvet curtains, dark wallpaper, walnut furniture and gaslights makes the quintessential setting for unravelling incomprehensible conduct and events.

Mr. Manningham (Owen Teale) is a patriarchal tyrant who runs his house and his wife with an iron fist. Poor Mrs. Manningham (Flora Montgomery). Just as he makes her deliciously happy by promising to take her to the theatre, all hell breaks loose when he notices that a picture has been taken off the wall. Mr. Manningham becomes furious and demands to know why she took it down and where it is.

She pleads innocence and ignorance with vehement fervour including kissing the bible. The two servants, the fetching Nancy (Emily Head) and the older Elizabeth (Victoria Lennox) kiss the bible to assert their innocence. Conclusion: Mrs. Manningham is crazy. Even she begins to doubt her sanity as Mr. Manningham threatens to bring a doctor and ship her to a loony bin. 

After Mr. Manningham has gone to his club (or has he?), Inspector Rough (Ian McElhinney) arrives and he delivers some startling news about murder, robbery, strange happenings and some missing rubies. Why do the gaslights dim and what are those steps on the top floor? The plot has thickened to the breaking point and after some very considerable tension, it begins to unravel.

Flora Montgomery has the toughest role in the play. She is a woman driven to the brink of insanity by an abusive and tyrannical husband. She is terrified by her husband, abused by the maid and scared by the inspector as she tries to maintain her composure. That is a loaded role and Montgomery does a superb job.

Teale is very good as the obnoxious husband whose relationship with the maid is outside usual employment standards. He can be affable but underneath that pose there is cunning and evil. He goes from cajoler to stentorian bully and we watch him with fascination.

McElhinney gives us an affable inspector, ready with a laugh and charming approach but keenly observant. We want him on our side otherwise we may never know what is happening on the top floor.

Gaslight is a classic in its genre. Directed by David Gilmore, it provides a couple of hours of entertainment. You know a mystery is good when, during intermission, people are asking each other who they think did it.      

Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton continues until February 28, 2016 at The Ed Mirvish Theatre, 244 Victoria St. Toronto, Ontario.

Friday, February 19, 2016


By James Karas

When fantasy encroaches on reality, we are in familiar territory. When reality trespasses on fantasy and you can’t tell what is real and what is imaginary, you are in a strange world. That is the world that Kat Sandler creates in Mustard now playing at the Tarragon Extra Space.

We meet Mustard (Anand Rajaram), a big man with large eyes dressed as a clown. We learn that he is the imaginary friend or boon of Thai (Rebecca Liddiard) but with a difference. Thai is a troubled sixteen-year old and well past the age when she should still have an imaginary friend.
Paolo Santalucia, Rebecca Liddiard and Anand Rajaram in Mustard. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Thai’s mother Sadie (Sarah Dodd) has been left by her husband and takes drugs and alcohol in excessive quantities. Mustard appears to her as well and after some lively and very funny arguments they become friends and have a date.

Mustard has his own problems. The boon police represented by the hilarious Tony Nappo as Bug and the uppity Julian Richings as Leslie are pursuing him because he has overstayed his term as a boon. Their methods include sticking needles under his nails and taking out a couple of teeth using terrifyingly big pliers.

Mustard takes on more than one personality adding to the fascinating interplay between fantasy and reality with Sandler making sure that we do not relax during this intriguing play.

Sandler’s brisk dialogue is sprinkled with very funny lines, some really salty language and creates energy. Underlying the humour and levity is a great deal of violence. Thai is involved in some vicious altercations and in fact shows up with a black eye. She smashes a glass in the face of her boyfriend Jay (Palolo Santalucia) that sends him to the hospital.

The cast of six actors give stellar performances. Rajaram is quick-witted, funny and chameleon-like as Mustard. Fantasy and reality meet in him. Sarah Dodd is funny, dramatic and highly effective as the lonely, alcoholic and ineffectual mother who does not know how to deal with a rebellious daughter.

Santalucia does a fine job as the hapless but loving boyfriend Jay. Nappo and Richings are Keystone Kops with an undertow of violence.

Major kudos goes to Liddiard for giving us a fascinating Thai, a thought-provoking character who is searching for love, affection or simply for herself.

Set Designer Michael Gianfrancesco has turned the small acting area of the Extra Space into a whole apartment. There is a bedroom for Thai with two windows for escape purposes; a living room and a door leading to the street with enough room for a bicycle to be visible.

A bow to director Ashlie Corcoran who brings the play to life with marvelous coordination and excellent performances.

Speaking of small acting area, I query why the play is not produced in the main space. The play is a significant achievement by Sandler and it deserves to be seen by more people.  
Mustard  by Kat Sandler continues until March 13, 2016 at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


Reviewed by James Karas

Claus Guth, the director of the current production of The Marriage of Figaro for the Canadian Opera Company tells us in a note that “he wanted to follow the characters into their darkest psychological depths.” He has found the shortest route to making one of the most enjoyable of operas into a dreary three and a half hours despite some excellent singing.

Let’s start with the set by designer Christian Schmidt. It consists of a grand but unadorned staircase. This bottom of the staircase is supposed to be Figaro’s room where he takes measurements for his bed while Susanna is showing her new hat. He is not really measuring and she does not have a hat. The set for the Countess’s bedroom in the next act is an unadorned room without a stick of furniture. Has the Count invested his money in oil or perhaps subprime mortgages and fallen on bad times? Guth created this production in 2006 for the Salzburg Festival     
A scene from The Marriage of Figaro, 2016, photo: Michael Cooper
Guth introduces a new character into the opera, “a kind of Eros angel” he calls him. This is an athletic youngster, played by Uli Kirsch, with white wings who appears regularly. Initially he is mildly annoying but progresses into a major nuisance and ends up as a pain in the ass.

The Marriage of Figaro has a good opera buffa plot with some very traditional motifs: the clever servants outwitting their masters; the course of young love obstructed by the old; the lost child reunited with his parents. All of these have existed since the dawn of comedy. Mozart’s music raises this conventional plot into something magical and thoroughly entertaining.   

Figaro (sung by Josef Wagner) is a lovable rascal, clever on his feet and getting married to Susanna (Canadian soprano Jane Archibald) who is smarter than him. Wagner does deliver a good Figaro but he would have done much better, along with everybody else, if Guth had not hung a millstone around his neck not the least of which is Eros. We love Susanna because she is pretty, clever and sings marvelously – Archibald does, that is.

Baritone Russell Braun could be a perfect Count Almaviva if he did not have Eros climbing all over him. Almaviva is a petulant, jealous, selfish and shallow aristocrat who becomes bored with his wife and wants to seduce her maid. He is motivated by lust and not by love. He is not conflicted; he is just plain horny. But he does grow and in the end is capable of going down on his knee and asking for forgiveness in a sonorous voice full of nobility and gracious contrition. 
                                 Josef Wagner as Figaro and Uli Kirsch as Cherubim (Eros). Photo: Michael Cooper
Cherubino, the testosterone cannon kid, is a juice pants role for a mezzo-soprano. Guth has mezzo Emily Fons dressed in a school uniform looking like a twelve-year old who should be doing homework instead of zipping up his pants. Fons is forced to look unpleasant and unconvincing even if vocally quite accomplished.

Soprano Erin Wall as the Countess sang her big arias beautifully and movingly. She plays with her wedding dress on the steps when singing “Dove sono” but the  splendour of the aria and her voice beat all.

Bartolo (Robert Pomakov), Don Basilio (Michael Colvin), Marcellina (Helene Schneiderman) are stock comic characters who are usually left lone by Eros and it is all for the better. They do a fine job as good singers and comic characters.

Johannes Debus conducted the COC Orchestra for the marathon performance.

There is no shortage of bold, imaginative and one may say unorthodox productions of Figaro. Peter Sellars placed it in the Trump Tower in New York with some major tweaks; Nicholas Broadhurst and Geoff Posner transferred it to the house of Sir Cecil Portico (Count Almaviva) in England at the time of the Faulklands invasion. The countess sings in English from her Lifestyle treadmill. Director John Dew decided that the Countess is an alcoholic. There are numerous such takes but most of them do not stray from the central fact that this is a comic opera even if it has some interesting social angles.

Guth’s forced interpretation reminds me of Freud’s comment about cigars. A cigar may look like a phallic symbol and psychiatrists can go to market analysing the simple pleasure of smoking. Freud’s comment was that a cigar is sometimes just a cigar. Guth should have taken the hint that an opera buffa is sometimes just an opera buffa and not an exploration of comic characters’ psychological depths.

The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart opened on February 4 and will be performed in repertory until February 27, 2016 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671.

Sunday, February 7, 2016


James Karas
The Canadian Opera Company is continuing the revival of its 2006 productions of The Ring of the Nibelungs, minus Das Rheingold. Last year we saw Atom Egoyan’s production of Die Walküre and this year we are offered Francois Girard’s production of Siegfried.  

One of the most striking and memorable features of the production is the set in the first act. A jumble of people, statues, miniature buildings and objects are suspended in midair above the stage. Some of the singers are lowered onto the stage by guy wires from there and you get the impression of an aerial Siegfried. More about this below.  

Christopher Purves (right) as Alberich in the COC production of Siegfried, 2016. Photo: Chris Hutcheson
The singing is of high caliber. German tenor Stefan Vinke tackles the demanding title role. Siegfried goes from a petulant, childish, vengeful and scornful youth at the beginning to the heroic being who finds love. Vinke acts with panache and sings dramatically and in the final duet with lyrical intensity to give us a first rate Siegfried.

American bass-baritone Alan Held is impressive as The Wanderer a.k.a Wotan. With his resonant voice, his feet firmly on the ground, he exudes authority and power amid fear of losing both.       

From the bad guys, baritone Christopher Purves and bass Phillip Ens were strikingly successful as Alberich and Fafner respectively. They exuded creepy nastiness vocally and physically. The same cannot be said of Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s performance as Mime, the dwarf who raised Siegfried. The latter admits that he learned a great deal from Mime except how not to loathe him. Admittedly Siegfried is being a bit of a creep perhaps but I think Mime is supposed to be a slithering, slimy creature. In this production Ablinger-Sperrhacke makes him almost sympathetic. He should make him disgusting. No complaints about Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s vocal performance.

Brűnhilde’s appearance in this opera is relatively short but she comes on at the end and she and Siegfried sing the final duet that is absolutely stunning. Just listen to soprano Christine Goerke and Vinke. There is an explosion of testosterone on Siegfried’s part; discovery of divine passion, acceleration, deceleration, bursts of lyricism – this is the pinnacle of opera. You arrived at the theatre at 6:30 and were told the opera ends in five hours. After this marathon duet you wonder where the time went.         

Stefan Vinke as Siegfried and Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde.  Photo: Michael Cooper
Director François Girard with Set Designer Michael Levine and Lighting Designer David Finn want an atmosphere of darkness even when, for example, Siegfried sings of the sunny summit, hails the sun that shines and Brűnhilde sees the day shining bright in the sun. There is a spot light where the happy couple sings of sunshine but there is darkness all around.

With the exception of Brűnhilde, all the characters, from The Bear to The Forest Bird are dressed almost identically in white. The Bear is lowered from above and lands behind Siegfried who is sitting on a huge stump. We are grateful for a human bear rather than an oversized teddy-bear that can look simply ridiculous.

When The Wanderer goes in search of Erda he stops by a circle of rocks from whence one would expect Erda to emerge. She does not and we find her sleeping on the floor, stage right.  A simply curious effect by Girard. But let’s give credit to contralto Meredith Arwady who has some rich low notes as the Earth goddess in a scene that is lousy on plot but rich in music.       

The singing and production values are only a part of the opera and perhaps even more important is the music. No opera house should think of staging Wagner without a first rate orchestra. The COC Orchestra conducted by Johannes debus was superb.

We can discuss directorial choices until the cows come home but who has cows in Toronto anyway. The result is an overall resoundingly successful production.   
Siegfried by Richard Wagner opened on January 23 and will be performed seven times on various dates until February 14, 2016 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671.

Friday, February 5, 2016


James Karas

When the curtain went down at the end of the performance of Salome at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, soprano Allison Oakes who sang the title role stepped out for a bow. She was greeted with a widespread chorus of boos.

The gentleman who was sitting beside me leaned forward and put his head between his hands. The applause of the audience became polite and even enthusiastic when the performers took their bows and they applauded Oakes positively if not enthusiastically. My neighbor (unknown to me) refused to lift a finger of approval and I finally asked him how he would rate the production on a scale of 1 to 10. He expressed a fervent wish that he had missed it completely.

Scene from Salome at Deutsche Oper Berlin. Photo: © 2016, Monika Rittershaus
I found it riveting.

If you want to be negative, Claus Guth’s production can be described as unorthodox, confusing, taking liberties with the libretto and creating a Salome like you have never seen before. All of that is true and the result is an outstanding and brilliant interpretation of the opera.

Salome is based on Oscar Wilde’s play in which Salome, Herod’s step-daughter and niece is sexually attracted to Herod’s prisoner, John the Baptist (called Jochanaan in the opera). Herod is married to Herodias who is Salome’s mother and the former wife of his brother. He is sexually attracted to Salome to the point where he considers replacing her mother with Salome as the queen. No wonder the Baptist is fulminating about the cesspool of sin that this family represents.

All of it is very dramatic with some wild music by Strauss. It is a one-act opera that lasts for about one hour and forty five minutes (no intermission) and keeps you on the edge of your seat.  

Guth turns the character of Salome and the opera inside out. There are seven Salomes representing her from childhood into adulthood. Only one of them sings but her younger versions are very much around and they participate in Salome’s famous dance.

Most of the minor characters are in effect robots. They move mechanically like robots and in fact there are a couple of mannequins on stage.

The Baptist is the wild, fulminating prophet in the opening scene. He lies on a pile of clothes (at first I thought they were corpses), almost naked. He is brought out of the dungeon at Salome’s insistence and he joins a party thrown by Herod. Herod seems to own an upscale men’s clothing store. The men are dressed in dapper suits and when the Baptist joins them, several Salomes dress him up in a three-piece suit identical to the one worn by Herod. His hair is combed the same way and Herod and the Baptist become identical.     

                                  Scene from Salome at Deutsche Oper Berlin. Photo: © 2016, Monika Rittershaus
John is decapitated but not in the way we are used to seeing. I will not give more details about that and spoil the possibility that you will see the production or a recording of it. To delve into all the possible psychological issues of Salome in her relationship with her stepfather and John would require a lengthy essay and not just a review.

German baritone Michael Volle with his powerful and expressive voice sang the key role of the Baptist. German tenor Burkhard Ulrich sang Herod, the businessman with the illicit lust for his niece/stepdaughter who is willing to give up half his “kingdom” for a dance. Soprano Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet took the role of Herodias, dressed in black she looks like a woman who scored a rich husband and enjoys her position of wealth and power.

The singing was quite exceptional with a minor note. Catherine Naglestad was scheduled to sing the title role but she was replaced at the last minute by Allison Oakes. She has a superb voice but there was an issue of the orchestra almost drowning her out on occasion. This may be simply a lack of time to adjust the balance between stage and pit and it should not detract from an outstanding performance.

The Deutsche Oper Orchestra was conducted by Alain Altinoglu and it delivered Strauss’s score in all its intricacies with heroic assurance.

In short, this is a Salome that is profoundly original, perhaps disturbing to some but in the end it represents opera at its intellectually most exciting.

Salome by Richard Strauss opened on January 24 and will be performed on February 6, April 2 and 6 at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Bismarckstrasse 35, Berlin.

Monday, February 1, 2016


James Karas

When the lights go up for the opening of Lohengrin at the Deutsche Oper Berlin and Wagner’s taut music fills the auditorium, we see a stage strewn with the corpses of soldiers. Several women appear and they go from corpse to corpse trying to identify the dead person. Eventually one of them recognizes a dead person and she gives a heart-wrenching scream.

Photo: honorarpflichtig / Protected by copyright
This is the image that director Kasper Holten and designer Steffen Aarfing want us to keep in mind as we watch Wagner’s “romantic opera” as he called it.

Lohengrin has a romantic aspect and an almost comic one according to Holten but it is also about national unification, love, betrayal and war. Holten tells us about all of these but he wants us especially to remember war.

Swedish tenor Michael Weinius gives a fine accounting of himself in the title role. His voice has the amplitude and fortitude for the part but he does not quite strike the heroic model that one envisions for the knight of the grail. The fault may not be entirely his. As we know, Lohengrin arrives on the scene to defend Elsa in a boat drawn by a swan. He bids farewell to the swan upon alighting from the boat but Holten puts the wings of a swan on him and he wears them throughout the performance. He looks like an angel and I have some reservations about that appearance.

American Soprano Rachel Willis-Sorensen sings the pure and virginal Elsa. In this production she walks on the stage blind-folded and of course launches into “Elsa’s Dream” almost immediately. This is sung in a reverie of remembrance and pain and it is her defining aria. Elsa will show spunk when dealing with Ortrud but she will return to the same mode in the end. Willis-Sorensen shows depth of emotion and tonal beauty in a sterling performance.

Russian mezzo-soprano Anna Smirnova can shoot poisonous darts wrapped in honey as the evil Ortrud. She plays an ambitious and conniving Ortrud that could give instruction in evil to Lady Macbeth. Vocal strength and projection of evil like guided missiles.

German baritone Thomas Johannes Mayer was all ambition and bluster as the evil Friedrich von Telramund who wants to usurp Brabant. He is under the thumb of his truly evil wife Ortrud and he seems to have less  cruelty than Macbeth but a much nastier wife than the hapless Scottish king. Mayer sang even though he had a cold. He deserves credit for so doing.

Baritone Bastiaan Everink was suitably stentorian as the Herald and Austrian bass Albert Pesendorfer was sonorous and regal as King Henry.

Lohengrin has some powerful choruses and the Deutsche Oper Chorus was supplemented by the Extra chorus for a performance that was simply overwhelming. Together with the Deutsche Oper Berlin Orchestra under Donald Runnicles, they, as they say, brought the roof down.

Back to the conception and design features. As I said we have the rather bizarre situation of Lohengrin who is so assiduous and unforgiving about his identity, going around with the wings of a swan on his shoulders. He should be gloriously heroic and look a bit less incongruous.

The stage in the first act is bare except for the soldiers who are dressed in khaki or gray. They are soldiers from any era. The main characters wear more traditional, perhaps medieval attire.  In the second act there is a raised platform on which Elsa stands and when she descends from it we can see that it is in the form of a cross. There is a bright red curtain and the image of a cathedral in the second act. After the magnificent wedding procession Lohengrin and Elsa end up in what should be their honeymoon suite but it consists of only one bed. Despite all the elevated love, Lohengrin shows that he a frisky young man as he gets rid of his wings, his sword and his robe and prepares for something more earthy. It got a laugh.

Elsa is under the influence of Ortrud and asks for the one thing Lohengrin cannot give her. The rest is a disastrous end for Elsa but a great evening of opera for the audience.  

Lohengrin  by Richard Wagner opened on January 31 and will be performed on February 14 and May 5 and 8, 2016 at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Bismarckstrasse 35, Berlin.