Monday, July 24, 2017


James Karas

Twelfth Night is playing at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London this summer. It is directed by Emma Rice who is also the Artistic Director of the theatre. Ms Rice should have had the curtesy to warn people that what is on stage is not Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night but an adaptation. Carl Grose is listed in the credits for “additional text and lyrics” and there are numerous cuts in the text, a great deal of music and dancing has been added and Shakespeare’s play has been dumbed down for a teenage audience. The warning should have concluded with the advice that Shakespeare lovers or people who respect the text should stay away.

I went to see Shakespeare’s play and not an adaptation for teenagers.
Le Gateau Chocolat, centre, as Feste and the cast on board in Twelfth Night. Photograph: Tristram Kenton.
The play opens on board a ship (appropriate) and a man in drag in a sequin dress with a grotesque wig starts singing. He has an impressive bass voice but what we get is about ten minutes of unpleasant noise. After the shipwreck near an island in northern Scotland in 1979 (we are told this in the programme) Viola asks “what country, friends, is this?” and everybody on stage answers “Illyria.” Are these the survivors of the wreck? Who are they? One person takes over the dialogue and tells her that Illyria is governed by Orsino and sure enough Orsino walks across the stage dancing and singing “If music be the food of love.” He mentions Olivia and she saunters across the stage. Welcome to Sesame Street.

The man in drag turns out to be Feste, the clown (Le Gateau Chocolat) who will get rid of the wig but keep the sequin dress. He will do a lot of singing and the rest of the cast will join in frequently. There is a band and it is used to the point where I wanted to scream “SHUT UP” especially when they played while characters were speaking.

Scene changes were effected with dancing when the whole cast came on stage, did a few steps and ran off. This was ridiculous, unnecessary and had no other effect than to keep the teenagers amused.

If Rice did not try so hard for the ridiculous, it could have been a good production. Anita-Joy Uwajeh made a spry and attractive Viola/Cesario as did John Pfumojena as her brother Sebastian. Annette McLaughlin was fine as Olivia but she looks a bit past her bloom of youth for the part. Joshua Lackey’s Orsino is a shallow, dancing and singing playboy and not the moping, love-sick duke.
Marc Antolin (Sir Andrew Aguecheek), Carly Bawden (Maria) and Tony Jayawardena (Sir Toby Belch). 
Photograph: Tristram Kenton
Katy Owen made an interesting Malvolio. She is a petite woman with an elastic body who can kick her heels above her head. She is a very feisty Malvolio and in a normal production would have been superb.

Marc Antolin’s Sir Andrew is played like the old caricature of an effeminate man in a pink sweater and Tony Jayawardena’s golfing Sir Toby gets the laughs when they play Shakespeare.

In other words, Shakespeare managed to break through despite the countless alterations, additions, subtractions, dumbing down and garbage brought in by Rice and Grose. By the end of the performance I was so infuriated that the only word I could come with when asked my opinion was excrement.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare plays in repertory until August 5, 2017 at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, 21 New Globe Walk, London.

Sunday, July 16, 2017


James Karas

Conductor                                           Jérémie Rhorer
Stage Director                                    Jean-François Sivadier
Stage Designer                                   Alexandre de Dardel
Costume Designer                              Virginie Gervaise
Lighting Designer                              Philippe Berthomé

Don Giovanni                                     Philippe Sly
Leporello                                            Nahuel di Pierro
Donna Anna                                        Eleonora Buratto
Don Ottavio                                        Pavol Breslik
Donna Elvira                                      Isabel Leonard
Zerlina                                                Julie Fuchs
Masetto                                               Krzysztof Baczyk
Il Commendatore                                David Leigh

Chorus                                                English Voices
Orchestra                                            Le Cercle de l'Harmonie

At the Théâtre de l'Archevêché, 26 Rue Gaston de Saporta, Aix-en-Provence, France, for eight performances from July 6 to 21, 2017

Jean-François Sivadier’s production of Don Giovanni for the Aix-en-Provence Festival may be described as Apostolic. There are a number of names that may be apt but the last scene which is fresh in my mind suggested that word.

When the flames engulf Don Giovanni (which in this production they do not) the other characters show up and celebrate the end of the life of an evildoer and things return to normal. In Sivadier’s production, Don Giovanni is centre-stage, almost naked with long blond hair. Leporello grabs him from behind at one point and he spreads out his arms. This is Christ on the cross.

He stands in the middle of a bright spotlight. In an earlier scene the word LIBERTA appeared on the back wall of the set, in large red letters except for the letter “t” which is in the form of a cross. In the final scene, Don Giovanni’s jacket is hung on that cross.

After standing still for a few minutes in the bright spotlight, he gets a rush of energy and does some athletic movements and remains on the stage. He is not engulfed by anything of course and I wondered if the bright spotlight and the other indicia are supposed to tell us that Don Giovanni was not only not punished but was transfigured.

The Christ figure is preceded by Don Giovanni as a circus clown with a ridiculous blond wig. He looks pretty unattractive most of the time and I thought this man may not be able to hire an hourly sex worker, let alone cause women to become enamored and indeed obsessed with him past all understanding. 

This is a new production of the opera and Sivadier wants to put his stamp on it. In most respect the attempt misfires and the result is a largely unpleasant performance.

A few more points may have to suffice. The peasants are very happy that Masetto and Zerlina are getting married and they are wearing traditional country clothing. But they decide to boogie. Good grief. The costumes and the sets are of no help in giving us the age when the opera takes place unless it is at the time of Christ. That neither helps nor is it convincing but the opera  does take place at one time or another.  
Sivadier seems to think that singers should address the audience regardless of the suggestions of the music and the libretto. When Don Giovanni sings “Là ci darem la mano’ to the peasant Zerlina, he is trying to seduce her. Sivadier positions them across the stage as if they are addressing the audience. This happens many times and if there is a reason for it, it escaped me completely.

The set itself is incomprehensible to me. A large square platform, tilted towards the audience dominates the set. There are some curtains that are raised and lowered and several gold banners for Leporello and Don Giovanni to hide behind when they are horsing around with the ladies. There are some colourful lights as well.

People appear on stage, walk around and disappear. I did not get what they were supposed to represent or what Sivadier was trying to tell us.

Sly as Don Giovanni was not convincing as a lover, or a seducer, or Christ figure. He may have done well as a clown but that was the last thing I wanted to see. Among these shenanigans he managed to sing well.

Isabel Leonard as Donna Elvira starts out by calling Don Giovanni a traitor, a liar and a villain. Those accusations need fury in her voice which she did not apply.  Eleonora Buratto does a good job as Donna Anna but she does not seem to communicate well with the sappy Don Ottavio. He does find his voice and delivers promises that do not convince Donna Anna and she dumps him.

Fuchs as Zerlina was a sheer delight with the slight tremolo in her voice as the street-smart country lass marrying the oaf Masetto. The ones that never failed were the English Voices.

Conductor Jérémie Rhorer started Le Cercle de l'Harmonie orchestra at a very leisurely pace but did pick up speed.

The best that can be said for the production is that it is a headscratcher and I will leave it at that.

Friday, July 14, 2017


James Karas

Conductor                                           Pablo Heras-Casado
Stage Director and Designer              Dmitri Tcherniakov
Costume Designer                              Elena Zaytseva
Lighting Designer                              Gleb Filshtinsky
Spoken Dialogue rewritten by           Dmitri Tcherniakov

Carmen                                               Stéphanie d'Oustrac
Don José                                             Michael Fabiano
Micaëla                                               Elsa Dreisig
Escamillo                                            Michael Todd Simpson
Frasquita                                             Gabrielle Philiponet
Zuniga                                                 Christian Helmer
Moralès                                               Pierre Doyen
Le Dancaïre                                        Guillaume Andrieux
Le Remendado                                    Mathias Vidal*
L'Administrateur                                Pierre Grammont

Chorus                                                Chœur Aedes
Children's choir                                  Maîtrise des Bouches-du-Rhône

Orchestra                                            Orchestre de Paris

At the Grand Théâtre de Provence from July 4 to July 20, 2017.

Before the performance of Carmen begins, the audience is given a warning. There is an appearance of danger during the performance. It is part of the production and not real, we are told.
As you enter the auditorium of the Grand Théâtre de Provence in Aix-en-Provence for Carmen you notice that the stage is decorated with black leather chairs, coffee tables, a water fountain and closed circuit cameras. This looks like the waiting room of a large enterprise yet you have come to see Bizet’s opera which you know is not set in a waiting room. You will soon realize that this is the set for the entire opera and it is in fact the waiting room of a psychiatric hospital

Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov has turned Bizet’s opera into therapy session for an emotionally disturbed man. I can only describe the transformation as a work of a genius even though I have some reservations about it. How does he do it?

A man and a woman walk into the waiting room and they are met by someone. The couple have come for help with the man’s emotional issues. He wears a blue suit and she has an elegant pink coat. They are told that they will participate in a performance of Carmen as a therapeutic vehicle for the husband. He will take the role of Carmen and she will play Micaela.

The overture begins and we watch a performance of Carmen all in the waiting room. We are reminded a number of times that this is not a performance of Carmen per se but a production in which  hospital staff, including Carmen and the couple who seek help, are performing in order to cure the husband. This does require a few liberties with the libretto which Tcherniakov takes care of but the objective of the performance is always clear.

The problem is that we are removed from the “reality” of the opera and watch an unreal production for a specific purpose. We hear the children’s chorus but there are no children to be seen. The march of the soldiers is indicated by “the hospital staff” who are participating in the therapy but they are dressed in their work clothes and that is all we see in terms of costumes.

Carmen is limited in her dancing and sexually provocative performance because Lillas Pastia’s tavern is the waiting room and we feel the distance between the realities almost throughout. I say almost because by the end of the performance the pretend and the real Carmen blend into a powerful and wrenching conclusion to the opera that is emotionally draining.

Soprano d’Oustrac has some constraints in her performance. She has a lustrous and luscious voice and can be sexually magnetic but she knows that she is only acting. When the patient’s (as Don José) passion gets too “real” she walks off the stage only to be told that she is a professional and must finish the job. She does not do any dancing but her performance is astounding and by the end there is no “real” or real Carmen just a great performance that garnered an extended and well-deserved standing ovation.

Tenor Fabiano as the patient/Don José has in effect a much better acting opportunity than  a straight Don José. He wants to be sensible and stay with his nice wife who plays Micaela but he cannot control himself. He is thus doubly dramatic as a man and a patient in a performance that leaves you breathless. He has great vocal and emotional impact of the highest order.

We are taken in by Dreisig as the sympathetic wife who takes her husband to seek help and as the lovely and innocent Micaela who, as the latter, is dumped because Don José falls for the loose cannon known as Carmen and as for the former…well, we can only imagine what she must have gone through with him to find herself in a psychiatric hospital, performing in an opera no less.

American baritone Simpson is just what the doctor ordered for an Escamillo, be it as hospital staff or real. Dressed in a white suit, he is heroic, self-assured, vocally superb and utterly romantic and seductive. He will never need a psychiatrist.

The taking of directorial liberties with established works has come under severe criticism but there are examples like Tcherniakov’s productions where the dabbling with the familiar produces a work of genius that most of us could not have imagined.

Thursday, July 13, 2017


James Karas

Conductor                                           Leonardo García Alarcón
Stage Director and Lighting               Jean Bellorini
Stage Designer                                   Jean Bellorini et Véronique Chazal
Costume Designer                              Macha Makeïeff
Make-up and hairstyling                    Cécile Kretschmar

Erismena                                            Francesca Aspromonte
Idraspe                                               Carlo Vistoli
Aldimira                                            Susanna Hurrell
Orimeno                                            Jakub Józef Orliński
King Erimante                                  Alexander Miminoshvili
Flerida                                              Lea Desandre
Argippo                                            Andrea Vincenzo Bonsignore
Alcesta                                             Stuart Jackson
Clerio Moro                                      Tai Oney
Diarte                                                Jonathan Abernethy

Orchestra                                            Cappella Mediterranea

At the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, 21 rue de l’Opera, Aix-en-Provence, from July 7 to July 21, 2017

Erismena is an opera by Francesco Cavalli that was a big hit in 1655. Its popular appeal has dropped somewhat since then and it is almost never produced these days. But the Aix-en-Provence Festival is giving this rarity an outstanding production and the Festival  gets a laurel wreath for intelligent and aggressive programming. A world premiere of Pinocchio, an opera by Philippe Boesmans, the production of a very early opera and three familiar works, Carmen, Don Giovanni and The Rake’s Progress, cover a lot of ground, to say the least.

Erismena is a product of its period. A complex story is told through accompanied recitatives and “songs” but this is before the development of the aria so don’t expect lengthy da capo cadenzas.
The language of the opera is ornate, colourful and formulaic. All emotions are extreme. They love, adore, die, suffer, and languish on extraordinary levels and at great length. We accept the mode of expression as a relic of the early years of opera.

The plot is almost impossible to digest by trying to read a synopsis or follow the English surtitles of the performance that is sung in Italian. Director Jean Bellorini tries to be helpful by inserting a scene at the beginning where King Erimante of Media, after defeating the Armenians, dreams of his crown being stolen from him by a knight.

Erismena is in love with Idraspe who dumped her. She disguises herself as an Armenian soldier and goes in search of him but is wounded. She is taken to the court of King Erimante. The disguised and brave Erismena is entrusted to the slave Aldimira. And, you guessed it, Aldimira falls in love with Erismena.

Prince Idraspe shows up in Media disguised as Erineo and he is in love (provide your own adverbs) with Aldimira. Idraspe as Erineo is ordered to poison Erismena but she recognizes him and passes out, ergo no poisoning. Stay with me. Erismena pretends to be her own brother out to find Idraspe. Aldimira has a deal: I find Idraspe, you marry me.

That puts a kibosh on King Erimante’s plan to marry Aldimira and he throws Aldimira and the disguised Erismena in jail. They all escape and are caught and the King orders Idraspe/Erineo and Erismena to kill each other. At which point Erismena bears her breasts to show that she is a woman. Idraspe goes through a quickie metamorphosis (I love you; forgive me). She does and we all find out that Erismena is the king’s daughter.

I have given you only one strand of the plot. There must be another dozen of them but who is counting. There are ten characters and every one of them has a convoluted story.
The singing is quite marvelous even without the lengthy arias and coloratura cadenzas.  Soprano Francesca Aspromonte has a sumptuous voice and she gives a marvelous performance in a role that requires a lot of running on and off stage. That is true for all the cast. The other soprano in the cast is Susanna Hurrell who gives an equally fine performance.

There are two countertenors in Carlo Vistoli as Idraspe and Jakub Józef Orliński as Prince Orimeno (who is dumped by Aldimira but he eventually marries her). Always a delight to hear finely tuned high male voices. The King is sung by Alexander Miminoshvili, a bass baritone as becomes the rank of the role.

Tenor Stuart Jackson plays the old nurse Alcesta. He is a big man dressed in a purple dress and provides a bit of comedy. I thought Alcesta would provide quite a few laughs but that simply did not fully materialize.      

The sets by Jean Bellorini and Véronique Chazal were minimalist, sometimes consisting of a couple of chairs and at times using a platform and effective lighting to indicate dreams. The costumes by Macha Makeïeff were of no particular time period but they may be described as modern. Dresses, kilts, skirts, a fur jacket, some colourful shoes, they went all over the place.

One of the big delights was the tiny Cappella Mediterranea orchestra conducted by Leonardo García Alarcón. They provided a wonderful treat of 17th century music that made you accept the plot twists without wincing.
 A fascinating night at the opera.

Monday, July 10, 2017



James Karas

Conductor                                           Emilio Pomarico
Director                                              Joël Pommerat
Set and Lighting                                 Éric Soyer
Costumes Designer                            Isabelle Deffin
Video                                                  Renaud Rubiano

Manager of Theatre
Company and Circus etc.                   Stéphane Dégout
The Father, The School
Master etc.                                          Vincent Le Texier
The Puppet                                          Chloé Briot
The Cabaret Manager, The
Judge, The Donkey Dealer etc.          Yann Beuron
The Cabaret Singer, The Naughty
Pupil                                                   Julie Boulianne
The Fairy                                            Marie-Eve Munger
Stage musicians
Fabrizio Cassol (saxophone, imrovisation coordination), Philippe Thuriot (accordion), Tcha Limberger (violin)

Orchestra                                            Klangforum Wien

At the Grand Théâtre de Provence from July 3 to July 16, 2017
The Aix-en-Provence Festival is in full swing with an astonishing array of events in a mere three weeks (July 3 to 22, 2017). Six operas are featured starting with Pinocchio, a new work by Philippe Boesmans receiving its world premiere. And that is just a part of the cultural wealth available. Let’s start with Pinocchio.

The libretto by Joël Pommerat is based on the classic fairy tale by Carlo Collodi. The librettist also directs the production. Pommerat tells the story of the wooden puppet whose nose grows frightfully when he lies. The telling is through a Homeric-type bard, the manager of a travelling theatre company, who is blind, narrates, sings and guides us through the story. He illustrates his darkness for us and we see the story through his own “sight” or darkness.
Pinocchio and the Fairy
The tale is also a picaresque story full of adventures as Pinocchio goes through a number of episodes from meeting murderers and a fairy, to going to prison and joining a circus as a donkey, to going to school and finally “growing up.” The picaresque is wrapped in a morality tale (after all it is a children’s story) with lessons like obey your parents, go to school and don’t lie, especially do not lie.  

Boesmans has composed a variety of musical styles from recitative, to singing, to some gypsy music as well as some operatic flourishes. Soprano Chloé Briot plays Pinocchio, the rascally puppet who goes through all kinds of misconduct until he is reconciled with his kind Father (bass-baritone Vincent Le Texier).

Pinocchio is dressed in a black coat with a hood over his head and a white mask over his face. We do not seem him as a boy until near the end when he has gone through the transformation of becoming the hero of a morality tale. Briot does an excellent job in the role.

Except for the Fairy, the other main members of the cast take several roles each. Stéphane Dégout in addition to being the manager of the travelling theatre company, also appears as a criminal, a murderer and the manager of the circus. He is quite superb both vocally and as a master of ceremonies, a bard and criminal.

Le Texier plays a murderer, an amusing and exasperated school teacher and the kindly old father who gives “birth” to Pinocchio when his beloved tree is felled by a storm.     

Tenor Yann Beuron plays the Judge, the donkey merchant and cabaret manager and two other roles. Mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne is the cabaret singer and the naughty pupil with some opportunity for humour. Soprano-Marie-Eve Munger plays the Fairy and she gets some of the operatic flourishes as she lectures Pinocchio. A fine cast.

With some exceptions, this is a dark show, full of shadows and smoke. Most of the story is acted in small spaces. There is generous use of projected videos that add tremendously to the dark, ominous atmosphere of the adventures through which Pinocchio passes. The lighting by Éric Soyer is magnificent in adding to the atmosphere of the opera.
Pinocchio in school
There is a band on stage who(which) play(s) some rousing traditional music. The Fairy, in a long white dress, stands high above the characters on the stage. These are almost the only occasions when the darkness of the production is relieved. The murderers look like Ku Klux Klan members.

The Klangforum Wien was conducted by Emilio Pomarico.

Pinocchio seems to be intended for children and adults. There were numerous children, perhaps as young as six years, in the audience and I am not sure how much of the story they got or enjoyed. There was a youngster sitting beside me who spent most of the time making comments or asking his mother questions about the production. (A future critic?) His mother tried to keep him quiet to no avail and then stuck a lollipop in his mouth. That restrained his commentary for a while but it was replaced by slurping. She must have given up as they did not return for the second act. That was probably the only questionable review that the performance received.

Sunday, July 9, 2017


Reviewed by James Karas

The New Testament story of Salome, her dance of the Seven Veils and the beheading of John the Baptist is surely one of the best known tales of the Western world. South African playwright Yael Farber has tackled the subject again and directs a major production of her play at the National Theatre in London.

The play and the production display some great theatricality. The production touches on oratorio, ballet and stage effects that only a major theatre company like the National can produce. The story itself remains the same but the details are quite different.
Isabella Nefar as Salomé and Olwen Fouéré as Nameless in 'Salomé' at the 
National Theatre Photo: Johan Persson
There is a sandstorm to leave no doubt that we are in a desert kingdom. The huge stage allows for a playing area where we have balletic dancing. There are a couple of singers who chant Middle Eastern hymns and a revolving stage that allows for almost constant movement.

We have two Salomé’s. One of them is Nameless (played by Olwen Fouéré in a long gown and blond wig). The Bible does not give us the name of the woman who asked for the Baptist’s head but Nameless is Salome in old age and acts as a type of chorus in the play.

The “real” Salome is played by Isabella Nefar and she is abused the Romans and leered at by Herod, the Tetrarch of Judea and the Quisling of the Romans (played impressively by Paul Chahidi).

The politics are clear and well-delineated. The might of the Roman Empire represented by the Roman Prefect Pilate (played imperially by Lloyd Hutchinson) is pitted against the religious power of the Judeans represented by Caiaphas (Philip Arditti) and Annas (Raad Rawi).

Iokanaan, the Zealot, aka John the Baptist (played with passion by Ramzi Choukair) brings confusion and hope as a rabble rouser. Wearing only a loin cloth and resembling Christ as represented by Hollywood, he is a firebrand preacher. Unfortunately he does not speak English and surtitles are the means of understanding what he is saying. If there is a compelling reason for this, it escaped me and I found the whole thing annoying.
Olwen Fouéré and Lloyd Hutchinson in Salomé
The plot moves very slowly and the real Salome is mostly silent but she does find her voice near the end. There is no dance with veils of any number but Nefar does toss some curtains which may have numbered seven.

Yasmin Levy and Lubana Al Quntar, the Women of Song, added to the religious feel of the play with their chanting. The undulations of Shahar Isaac as the Zealot-to-be gave a certain feel of suffering as well but the brilliant lighting, the stage effects and all the other production values could not raise the play above an interesting but plodding night at the theatre.
Salomé by Yaël Farber opened on May 9, 2017 and continues in repertory at the Olivier Stage, National Theatre, South Bank, London, England.

Friday, July 7, 2017


James Karas

Rotterdam is a play based on a simple premise and as you watch it you wonder how the author will be able to sustain our interest for more than two hours. Jon Brittain does more than that in this funny, moving, witty and intelligent piece of work.

Alice (Alice McCarthy) and Fiona (Anna Martine Freeman) are gay, living in Rotterdam and deeply in love. Alice has not told her parents yet that she is gay but that is not the real problem. Fiona tells Alice that she is transgender – she is a man in a woman’s body and she wants to change that. Fiona eloquently explains to Alice that she does not want to become a man. She wants to stop pretending that she is a woman.
 Alice McCarthy and Anna Martine Freeman in Rotterdam/. Photo by Hunter Canning
Josh (Ed Eales-White) is Fiona’s brother who had a relationship with Alice until she realized that she is gay and dropped him for Fiona. Alice works with a spirited Dutch girl, Lelami (Ellie Morris) who is gay and smokes pot. These are the four people who will deal with the serious issues of the play and make us laugh.

McCarthy does a superb job as Alice, the shy, apologetic girl who realized at an early age that she preferred women to men. The only relationships she has had in her life were the failed one with Josh and the successful one with Fiona. She still cannot bring herself to telling her parents and how to deal with the desire of Fiona to stop pretending she is a woman. These themes will dominate the play. The issue is simple: Alice prefers women. Fiona insists that she is a man.

Freeman’s Fiona is smart, sympathetic, tolerant and loving towards Alice but she fails to foresee the consequences of the physical changes she must make to assert he manhood. A moving portrayal of conflict and despair.

Josh is the sympathetic brother with a sense of humour and some common sense. He is true foil and sounding board for the other characters. Morris has to affect what I take to be a Ditch accent. Lelani is a bit goofy, dresses outlandishly and is very expressive and uses her hands and the rest of her body when she speaks. Well done.
 Ed Eales-White and Alice McCarthy. Photo Hunter Canning
The set by Ellan Parry consists of a room indifferently decorated that serves as an apartment, a bar, a waiting room etc. The scene changes are done by moving pieces of furniture around. Too much is made of this and I think it could be effected more simply and without so much fuss.  And we don’t need that many lighting changes. A simple poster can indicate a change of locale, but so be it.

The real issue with the scene changes is the loud and really irritating rock music that is played. We hear a ton of it when we enter the theatre before the performance starts and we are exposed to it a few thousand times during the performance. Turn the damn noise off.

The simple play with a big issue and young people experiencing highly stressful situations is not easy to direct and maintain the pace and the emotional wavelength. Director Donnacadh O’Brian does excellent work.

An intriguing, stimulating and superb night at the theatre.
Rotterdam by Jon Brittain continues until July 15, 2017 at the Arts Theatre, 6-7 Great Newport Street, London, WC2H 7JB,

Thursday, July 6, 2017


James Karas

If you don’t know the story of Tristan and Yseult (aka Isolde) then you should. Tristan is sent by King Mark of Cornwall to fetch the Irish princess Yseult. He kills her brother and she nurses him to health using a special potion. On the way to Cornwall, Yseult’s servant Brangian gives them a potion and they fall in love. Tristan betrays his King. Mark is not too happy about this but in the end Tristan and Yseult die and find happiness elsewhere.

Let’s go to Shakespeare’s Globe theatre where Kneehigh, a theatre company based in Cornwall is putting on Tristan & Yseult, a play adapted and directed by Emma Rice, and written by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy. Kneehigh, we are told in the programme, is based in breath-taking barns on the south coast of England and tells stories on an epic and tiny scale.
The cast of Tristan and Yseult. Photo: Steve Tanner
Their telling of the Tristan story can be described as a takeoff, a farce, a travesty, a comedy sketch, a cabaret concert or a circus performance. You will find elements of all of these because the sole aim of Kneehigh is to entertain. There is dancing, singing, some acrobatics and a lot of shenanigans on stage.

We have Tristan (Dominic Marsh) who is French and brave and sports a wound on his stomach that was healed and bandaged by Yseult (Hannah Vassallo). Her lady Brangian (Niall Ashdown in drag) will provide potions but more importantly Ashdown will prove that he is a natural comic actor and provide a lot of laughter.

Mike Shepherd as King Mark is more serious but he too manages some laughs whereas his busy-body underling Frocin (Kyle Lima) will be more entertaining. We also have Whitehands (Kirsty Woodward), white gloves, white purse and 1950’s going-to-church hat and dress, as our guide and commentator.

That is the least of what they do. The dozen performers on stage are Love Spotters, dancers, musicians, singers and quick-change artists.

There is also a band that plays a number of songs and we do hear Tristan’s chord and a bit of the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Stu Barker provides additional music.
The company whooping it up. Photo: Steve Tanner
So far so good but are all those parts enough for a production at Shakespeare’s Globe? There were people in the audience, especially the very young, who loved the show. When one of the performers did some break dancing, they burst into wild applause. They loved the music (minus Wagner). Almost all the action was directed towards the audience with relatively little interaction among the actors. The audience loved it and they reacted favorably or enthusiastically to singing along or to blowing up balloons.  

Although I admired some of the comic business I found it a bit too light and too little for an evening at the theatre. Is Emma Rice trying to attract teenagers to Shakespeare’s Globe? Some people, especially teenagers, may find that a laudable goal but I am far removed from that age group. They can have their fun but I can’t get excited over a couple of break dancing contortions.

Tristan and Yseult by Emma Rice (adaptor and director) and Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy (writers) was performed from June 13 to 24, 2017 at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, 21 New Globe Walk, London. www.shakespearesglobe.comThe Norman Conquests (2013)
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

Wednesday, July 5, 2017


James Karas

The Royal Shakespeare Company has staged Oscar Wilde’s poetic one-act play at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. This is a good example of adventurous programming even if the result is not entirely successful.

Wilde retells the story of Salome, the stepdaughter of King Herod of Judea who lusts after her. And of her lust for John the Baptist who is imprisoned in a cistern in Herod’s palace. Salome is disgusted by Herod and John (called Iokanaan in the play), to whom she is fatally attracted, rejects her. The play then is a classic example of lust and unfulfilled desire that lead to tragic results.
Matthew Pidgeon and Matthew Tennyson in Salome. Photo: Isaac James. ©RSC
Gregory Doran, the Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company has decided to emphasize the homosexual aspects of the play, real or imagined, with some reason. Wilde was famously and tragically homosexual as is Doran, but happily in a different world. From 1533, we learn in the programme, when King Henry VIII passed The Buggery Act to 1861 sodomy was punishable by death in England. The programme gives us the frightful facts that between 1806 and 1861 a total of 8921 men were prosecuted for that act and 404 were executed. Homosexual acts were decriminalized in England and Wales only 50 years ago. The production of Salome takes cognizance of that anniversary.

Historical importance aside, the production provides little cause for celebration. It opens with Ilan Evans dressed like a gay hooker singing a song by Perfume Genius. Disclosure: I have not heard of either of them. We hear Genius’s music throughout and Evans appears in drag during the production. The dance of the seven veils becomes the dance of the table cloth with handkerchief-sized pieces of taffeta dropping from above on the audience during what seemed to me to be a teenage disco dance.

Salome is played by Matthew Tennyson, a slender young man dressed in a silk, diaphanous slip and wearing red high heels at times. He is referred to as “she” throughout but he does strip naked at one point so there is no doubt that he is a “he.”
Matthew Pidgeon (seated centre) and Company. Photo: James Isaac ©RSC
Matthew Pidgeon plays the corrupt, dictatorial and lecherous Herod while Suzanne Burden supplements the pairing of the two as his imperious wife Herodias. She was married to Herod’s brother but Salome proves to be no Hamlet.

A muscular Gavin Fowler plays the passionate moralist and stentorian critic of the royal couple. The Nazarenes, Jews, Soldiers and other relatively minor characters do not make much of an impression.

The set by Bretta Gerecke emphasizes the idea of ladders made of scaffolding. Salome climbs up a ladder as a symbol of her rising passion of Iokanaan or an escape from the lechery of Herod, I am not sure.

I am even less sure about the sexual crossfires. If Doran had changed Salome to a man and he developed an attraction for Iokanaan, there would be no issue. And we will get a revelation of Herod’s latent homosexuality which could add to the complexity of the drama. As presented, the production confused the situation without adding much more than confusion.
Salome by Oscar Wilde continues in repertory until September 6, 2017 at the Swan Theatre, Waterside, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England.  Box Office: 0844 800 1110.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017


James Karas

Mitridate, re di Ponto is an early opera seria by Mozart that is beautifully sung, marvelously directed and superbly played at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. These succinct praises are not frequently or obviously associated with this opera, but more about that later.

Opera seria, of course, means arias to express emotions and recitatives to advance the plot. There is no chorus and almost no ensemble singing except for a couple of duets. For example, when Sirafe and Aspasia sing the duet “Se viver non degg’io” (If I cannot live), they face the audience, walk around the stage and never really relate to each other.
 Bejun Mehta and Albina Shagimuratova in Mitridate; re di Ponto at Royal Opera House, London
The genre was dumped in the latter part of the 18th century but there is no reason to put our nose up because style and substance changed. Mitridate is enjoyable on its own regardless of any shortcomings or prospective changes in style.  In other words, look upon the donut and not upon the hole.

A smidgeon of plot. King Mitridate has two sons who don’t get along; to wit Farnace wants the king’s job and his fiancée Aspasia and Sirafe who also wants Aspasia. Meanwhile Mitridate who is supposed to be dead but is not, imports Princess Ismene as a wife for Farnace. Aspasia loves Sirafe, Farnace does not want Ismene and, well, you get the idea. Love, honour and treachery in opera seria are analogous to riding a bicycle: once you learn it you never forget it but you can change as many bicycles as you want.

The performances are vocally outstanding. American tenor Michael Spyres takes on the name role with aplomb. He has a light tenor voice that is flexible and reaches the high notes with ease. Many of the arias are done at a brisk pace but there some very moving moments. Mitridate has some nasty characteristics but near the end he becomes noble and forgiving and Spyres rises to the occasion with beautiful emotional cadences. This is a five-star Mitridate.

Soprano Albina Shagimuratova with her sumptuous voice gives us an Aspasia of vocal splendour. When she sings the recitative “Ah ben ne fui presage(Ah my foreboding was justified) and the cavatina “Pallid' ombre" (Pale shadows) she reaches an expressive and lyrical majesty that clearly presages “Dove sono.” 

Soprano Lucy Crowe sang the Princess Ismene. She is given to Mitridate as a slave and she tended to tilt her head to the side and I thought it was an indication of humility and servitude. Her singing and portrayal is highly accomplished.

Georgian Soprano Salome Jicia and American countertenor Bejun Mehta sang the sons Sirafe and Farnace, respectively. The boys go through love and hate, treachery and reconciliation without hesitation. That’s their operatic problem as characters but Jicia and Mehta display only vocal flexibility and finesse in their performances.

This production first surfaced in 1991 which was also the first time Mitridate was seen at the Royal Opera House. It is an imaginative and remarkable staging directed by Graham Vick. It never feels static and you are engaged in the plot however convoluted it may appear.
Michael Spyres as Mitridate and Albina Shagimuratova as Aspasia in Mitridate, re di Ponto 
Photo ROH© Bill Cooper
Designer Paul Brown uses stark red panels that can be moved around and a red floor. It is an arresting image that works well. The costumes are another story. They are colourful, conspicuous and eye-catching. But, some of those costumes looked like portable scaffolding for drying clothes. After you see them a couple of times and you giggle, you just ignore them.

The orchestra of the Royal Opera House was conducted by Christophe Rousset and played with finesse.

When Mozart composed Mitridate, he already had four operas under his belt and eighty-two other compositions. You can hardly call him the new kid on the block until you realize that he was fourteen years old at the time. The opera premiered at the Teatro Regio Ducale in Milan in 1770 conducted by Mozart. After that it was ignored for a couple of centuries. It was discovered late in the 20th century and has received a good number of productions and recordings. Now we can sit back and feel superior to…whatever. Or just enjoy a fine opera in a superb production.

Mitridate, re di Ponto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (music) and Vittorio Amedeo Cigna-Santi (libretto) opened June 27 and will play until July 7, 2017 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, England.

Monday, July 3, 2017


James Karas

The Greeks had it rightAfter a trilogy of tragic plays in Ancient Athens, people needed a freewheeling comedy, a burlesque, something really light. The Royal Shakespeare Company has done something  similar  this year in Stratford-upon-Avon. Beside the head chopping, murders, mutilations, assassinations and stabbing in plays like Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, they provide something strictly for laughs. And it is based on Roman comedy which, as the whole world knows, was based on Greek comedy!
 Centre: Felix Hayes as General Braggadocio and company. Photo: Pete Le May © RSC
The play is Vice Versa by Phil Porter and it is a wild comedy based on (make that pilfered shamelessly) from the plays of Plautus. You may not have seen too many of his plays on stage which is understandable because they are almost never produced. But you have some idea if you have seen A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Let’s start with the full title: Vice Versa (or The Decline and Fall of General Braggadocio at the Hands of his Canny Servant Dexter & Terence the Monkey). Is that clear?

General Braggadocio is of course the braggart soldier, a stock character in comedy, who is in love with himself and thinks the whole world shares his feelings. In Vice Versa we have Felix Hayes, oily hair slicked down and ready to brag. Along with the jokes, bad puns, singing, anachronistic references and riotous tomfoolery we need a plot.

But first the characters, and pay attention to the names: Braggadocio has three servants. Dexter (the irrepressible Sophia Momvete),  Feclus (Steven Kynman) and Omnivorous (Byron Mondahl). We also have Terence the monkey (Jon Trenchard). We need lovers and have Valentin (Geoffrey Lumb) and the delectable Voluptia (Ellie Beaven).We have a neighbour in Philoproximus (Nicholas Day) whose servant is Impetus (Laura Kirman) and frequent Climax (Kim Hartman) and guess her profession.

This is a hyperkinetic group that has a single aim and that is to make us laugh. They do.

Geoffrey Lamb, Sophia Nomvete and Nicholas Day.  Photo: Pete Le May © RSC
Oh, yes, the plot. The General has abducted Voluptia who loves Valentin, who lives next door, who sees Voluptia via the attic skylight, whom Dexter will rescue from the General so that love will triumph because that’s what happens in Roman (that is Greek) comedy, so there. That’s the plot which is to say that Trump is a nice, honest chap, who does not grope, or cheat or lie but will build a wall and make America great again. And the last line is in the play.

The play uses earthy language which is code to some deliciously raunchy profanities, enchanting references to bodily functions, delectable insults and an atmosphere of riotous irreverence, energy and song.

Janice Honeyman directs the comic extravagance and if you happened to see something like Salome or a Shakespearean heavy-duty tragedy you will understand and appreciate why the Greeks finished the day with a comedy that mocked and laughed at everything and booze, sex and phallic objects were favorite features and fixtures.

Vice Versa  by Philip Porter continues until September 9, 2017 at the Swan Theatre, Waterside, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England.  Box Office: 0844 800 1110.