Saturday, July 14, 2018


James Karas

Seven Stones is a one-act opera commissioned by the Aix-en-Provence Festival that had its world premiere at the small Théâtre du Jeu de Paume on July 7, 2018. The opera is by composer Ondřej Adámek based on a libretto by Sjon. It is described as an a capella work for four singers and a twelve member choir but there are string and percussion instruments. It is sung in English.

The performance lasts 1 hour and 20 minutes but the libretto is rich in incident and range and is divided in some dozen parts. The Stone Collector (Nicolas Simeha) gets around, you may say. We find ourselves, among other places, in a city in Central Europe, in a bar in Buenos Aires and in the New Testament with the Adulterous Woman about to be stoned.  Needless to say a lot of people are hit on the head by a stone.
The libretto is printed in the programme in French and English and one can follow it as much as possible.  ButI think Adámek is striving for a new form of vocal expression. The four soloists (Simeha, Ann-Emmanuelle Davy, Shigeko Hata, and Landy Andramboavonjy) and the accents / axe 21 choir frequently sounded out chopped syllables at the beginning. The letter “s” is emphasized or elongated as if they have a serious lisping problem and other syllables are again sounded out as if they have a stutter or other speech impediment. After a while I wondered if they did not have a mental as well as a speech impediment.

The four soloists tell a number of tales including one about snow and the word is pronounced snow wo wo wo wo. Other words are similarly elongated. We hear the story of The Blind Poet of Buenos Aires, the tale of the Young Sailor from Boston and others.

A new work that may be trying to expand our horizons should not be judged hastily and I will wait to see the opera again or hear a recording. There is clearly more to it than I got on a first hearing.


The broad Cours Mirabeau, Aix-en-Provence’s main shopping street was turned into a theatre for a single performance of Orfeo & Majnun. A huge stage was erected for the performance of Western and Middle Eastern music based on the myth of the unfortunate Orpheus who lost his Eurydice and went to Hades in search of her.

The beautiful Layla (Nai Tamish Barghouti) has fallen in love with Qays but her father disapproves of the match and calls Qays, Majnun (Loay Srouji) meaning a fool. Barghouti and Srouji have beautiful voices and they sing some melodious love songs as he goes into the desert to live alone and she writes poetry about her love that she throws to the wind. Unfortunately her father forces her to marry someone else.
 The three-headed Cerberus in  Orfeo & Majnun. 
Photo Aix-en-Provence Festival
Orpheus’s (Yoann Dubruque) singing is of such surpassing beauty that animals leave the forest to listen to him. He and the lovely Eurydice (Judith Fa) do marry but alas she dies. Orpheus vows to go to Hades to rescue his beloved. He encounters Charon, the deliverer of souls across the River Styx and the three-headed dog Cerberus who guards the entrance. He convinces them to let him through.

We are led  through the tragic stories by a Narrator (Sachli Gholamaizad) and the rest of their stories follow with the inevitability of myths.

The opera was written by Moneim Adwan, Howard Moody and Dick van der Harst based on the conception of Airan Berg. The libretto is by Martina Winkel. It is directed by Berg and Winkel and conducted by Bassem Akiki.

More than a dozen choirs participate together with an intercultural ensemble of the Youth Orchestra of the Mediterranean. As you may gather, this is opera on a grand scale intended to entertain the thousands of people seated or standing in the Cours Mirabeau.

This is obviously and inter-cultural programme integrating Western and Middle Eastern music and singing. It is a marvelous, perfectly timed idea, done extremely well and a delight to watch and hear.
Seven Stones by Ondřej Adámek opened on July 7 and will be performed a total of six times until July 17, 2018 on various dates at the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume. Orfeo & Majnun was performed once on July 28, 2018 at the Cours Mirabeau, Aix-en-Provence, France.

Thursday, July 12, 2018


James Karas

The Aix-en-Provence Festival has revived Simon McBurney’s 2014 quirky and even perverse production of The Magic Flute with some of the same cast. The revival has its admirers judging by the standing ovation it received and some of its doubting Thomas’s about its virtues.

This is a no-magic Magic Flute and the countless gimmicks and tricks that McBurney and designer Michael Levine bring to their vision of the singspiel, though interesting and imaginative at times, do nothing to increase one’s enjoyment of the work.

This is an aggressively black and white production. Papageno and Papagena wear colourful costumes but after that there is very little colour.
Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night), Mari Eriksmoen as Pamina and Three Ladies
© Pascal Victor | artcompress
McBurney is enamored of video projections and with video man Finn Ross there is no end to its use. There are two cubicles on each side of the stage and we see a person writing the title of the opera, directional arrows and even a sketch of the monster that threatens Tamino with chalk on a blackboard which is then projected on the back of the stage. The fire, the water and other tasks that Tamino must endure are also projected on video. A bit too much of a good thing and some of it really unnecessary.

McBurney believes in orchestra participation in the performance and Papageno is seen among the musicians. Papageno needs birds thanks to his profession so he is provided with a dozen or so actors who flit pieces of paper around him which we take to be birds. We don’t. Even members of the orchestra get into the act.

A prominent item of the staging is a large platform that is suspended from above and can be raised, lowered and slanted. It proves quite useful for many of the staging effects. The whole business, and there is lots of it, makes the production look artificial, lifeless and simply confusing. What is the point of all that.

The singing and acting were a mixed bag as well. Soprano Mari Eriksmoen brought in the best performance as Pamina. Dressed in a simple white dress and barefoot, the pretty Norwegian, with her satin and mellifluous voice, was a moving and thoroughly enjoyable princess.

Tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac sang correctly but gave the impression that he was not quite engaged by the role. He sings his first aria where he declares his love for Pamina wearing a very unprincely T-shirt and underwear and shows very little passion throughout. He enters looking like a mountain hiker and the Three Women undress him.

Bass Dimitry Ivashchenko as Sarastro showed fine sonority in his middle range but he had difficulty with his low notes. On several occasions he came close to being drowned out by the orchestra.

Papageno the bird catcher is really a mountain hiker who carries a backpack and, for reasons unknown, a stepladder. Baritone Thomas Oliemans manages to sing well and be funny despite the production.

Soprano Kathryn Lewek plays the Queen of the Night, in a manner of speaking. She looks like a bag lady who should be sitting in the Cours Mirabeau with an empty coffee cup in front of her and with or without her wheelchair and cane. But ignore her accoutrements and listen to that marvelous voice that belts out her two arias with stupendous energy. 

Her partner, so to speak, Monostatos, is equally well-costumed but Bengt-Ola Morgny sings well and does a fine job as the dirty old man.

The choir and orchestra of the Ensemble Pygmalion conducted by Raphael Pichon does exemplary work with the score and shows that its players have a sense of humour.

This production represents McBurney’s personal vision of the opera which some peoplefind entertaining and invigorating. He owes nothing to librettist Emmanuel Schikaneder who produced a popular work to please the masses. We want directors to give us something different. That means that many of us may not be thrilled with what we get.
The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart opened on July 6 and will be performed a total of eight  times until July 24, 2018 on various dates at the Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France.


Reviewed by James Karas

Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas is a relatively short but beautiful work. It has a splendid role for Dido, the much abused Queen of Carthage, who laments her fate almost throughout. In her opening words she speaks of languishing in Torment, being a stranger to peace and unable to even confess her troubles.

The Aix-en-Provence Festival has struck gold in its choice of South African soprano Kelebogile Pearl Besong as Dido. She expresses the high griefs of Dido with surpassing vocal beauty and when she laments her fate she gives us a magnificently moving rendition.
Scene from Dido and Aeneas. Photo:  BERTRAND LANGLOIS / AFP
Baritone Tobias Lee Greenhalgh plays a straight-backed Aeneas. He is dressed in khaki with high boots and he looked, I thought, like a British officer somewhere in the Empire in the good old days. His singing was good but relatively passionless. A toga may have been out of place but modern army attire did not help him. Aeneas as the founder of Rome can fall in love but he is to greater business bound and in the end he must leave Dido behind.

Soprano Sophia Burgos sang a sympathetic Belinda, Dido’s sister and friend while mezzo soprano Lucile Richardot was  suitably villainous and vitriolic as the Sorceress who hates Dido and you can imagine the rest.

Dido and Aeneas  has some of the most beautiful choral pieces in the repertoire and the Ensemble Pygmalion, chorus and orchestra, performed all exquisitely.       

Dido and Aeneas may have been composed as a court masque that requires a great deal of dancing. That could extend the time required for a full performance. But that would also require choreography and of course a troupe of ballet dancers. The Festival chose do without that but needed to add something to make an evening of it.
 Soprano Kelebogile Pearl Besong as Dido.  Photo:  BERTRAND LANGLOIS / AFP
The solution chosen was a new prologue consisting of a poem by Maylis de Kerangal. The poem is recited by Rokia Traoré while some women are aligned on the stage. Traoré, from Mali, represents A Woman from Cyprus, a new character added by Dramaturge Louis Geisler who sings a few verses and represents, I think, the fate of abused women. The new prologue adds some twenty minutes to the production which lasts one hour and fifteen minutes start to finish. How about another one act opera?

Dido and Aeneas is relatively static but it does have three short acts which show Dido and her train at the palace, the Sorceress and the Witches in their cave or wherever you want to put them, Aeneas and company hunting in the vales and the Sailors on the shore. The current production is done on one set representing a concrete wall that may be on the shore. Most of the production is done in gloomy lighting.

Purcell did marvels with Nahum Tate’s rhyming couplets which are a long way from Virgil’s description of the affair. Dido wants her life but not her fate to be remembered. Thanks to Virgil and Purcell, we remember both.
Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell opened on July 7 and will be performed eight times until July 23, 2018 on various dates at the Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France.

Saturday, July 7, 2018


James Karas

The Aix-en-Provence Festival’s second offering for its 70th season is Sergei Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel  (L’Ange de feu). This is an opera that is decidedly out of this world which presents a relentless and at times it seems endless phantasmagoria. Prokofiev finished the opera in 1927 but it was not produced at all until 1955 and then in Paris in French. He wrote the libretto based on the 1908 novel by Valery Bryusov.

The opera has not been completely forgotten but don’t hold your breath about seeing a production around the corner from your house any time soon. It may have been produced somewhere in Canada in the last sixty years but I can find no mention of such happening.
 The Set for The Fiery Angel. Photo: PASCAL VICTOR / ARTCOMPRESS
The Fiery Angel has a large cast but the central characters are three. Renata (soprano Ausrine Stundyte) had a vision of the angel Madiel when she was 8 years old. When she was 16, he appeared to her in a dream as a human being and promised to return eventually. Renata fell in love with Heinrich (bass Krzysztof Baczyk) who she is sure is Madiel but he disappeared. She meets Ruprecht (baritone Scott Hendricks) in a hotel where she is sprawled on the bathroom floor and he attempts to rape her.

That is just the opening scene. Ruprecht and Renata go to Cologne (the opera is set in Germany) in search of Heinrich and they meet a Fortune Teller (Agnieszka Rehlis), Mephistopheles and Agrippa the magician (  Andreï Popov), Faust (Krzysztof Bączyk) and an assortment of other characters, most out the realm of “normal.”

Director Mariusz Treliński and Stage Designer Boris Kudlička give us an unremittingly dark, sinister and hallucinatory atmosphere. Renata is clearly possessed and we never know where reality ends (if it exists at all) and where the world of delusion and nightmare begins.

There is mystery, cruelty and a sense of the unknown and unknowable. There are six young women singers and a number of dancers who perform a ballet sequence. Renata in her youth is hinted at from the beginning of the opera but in the final act entitled Retrospection we are in fact taken back to her school days. After all her nightmarish adventures, she ends up in a convent. We meet the Inquisitor and the plot may connect to the beginning. I will say no more. Spoiler alert.

The stage consists of two playing levels and the emphasis is on the unrealistic, the shadowy and the gloomy.  

Ausrine Stundyte as the possessed Renata has a tough role to handle both in singing and in acting. She does a splendid job. There is no explanation about who Ruprecht is but he struck me as a travelling salesman of yore who ended up in a sleazy motel. There is nothing heroic about him but he sings and acts well in the role.
Ausrine Stundyte as RenataPhoto: PASCAL VICTOR / ARTCOMPRESS
The opera is done in modern costumes and there is much to be said against that. Agrippa, Faust, Mephistopheles, the Inquisitor and life in a convent are hardly recognizable in modern life. Surely a few centuries back would be more appropriate and resonate better with the audience, or at the very least something less obviously modern.

The music for this lurid tale is appropriately dissonant and gloomy. There seem to have been some comic scenes in the original but they were all deleted from the current production. There are some flashes of melody but there are no memorable arias or duets. It seems like a tough score and Kazushi Ono does superb work with the Paris Orchestra and the Choir of the National Opera of Poland.

The Fiery Angel shows bold programming and it is an opera worth seeing more frequently but, as I said, don’t hold your breath.
The Fiery Angel  by Sergei Prokofiev opened on July 5 and will be performed four times until July 15, 2018 on various dates at the Grand Théâtre de Provence , Aix-en-Provence, France.

Friday, July 6, 2018


Reviewed by James Karas

The Aix-en-Provence Festival is celebrating its 70th season in the gorgeous medieval city in Provence. If you were asked to plan a festival and had to choose a time, a place, weather conditions, theatres and, after 70 years, achievements, you could not do better than this one in southern France.

The 70th Festival runs from July 4 to July 24 features six operas among a rich and crowded program. The operas have a wide range from Mozart’s The Magic Flute to Seven Stones by Czech composer Ondřej Adámek, a new work commissioned by the Festival.      

 The set. Photo: Pascal Victor / Artcompress © courtesy of the Aix Festival].
The Festival opened with Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos  under the open roof of the converted Archbishop’s palace in a production directed by Katie Mitchell with the Orchestre de Paris conducted by Marc Albrecht.

Ariadne auf Naxos as envisioned by Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal uses the story of the princess who was abandoned by Theseus on the deserted beach of the famous island as a springboard for many other things, most notably the encounter of opera seria with opera buffa. 

“The richest man in Vienna” (Paul Herwig) is not given a name but he is putting on a posh dinner for his friends. He wants to entertain them with a serious opera, Adriane auf Naxos, a light comedy in the commedia dell’arte style called The Fickle Zerbinetta and Her Four Lovers and fireworks.

Fireworks of a different type start in the Prologue when the “artists” are told that Ariadne and Zerbinetta have to be performed simultaneously because there is just not time for both. The other fireworks have to start on time.

The Prologue consists of a number of temper tantrums by the artistes who must compromise their artistic integrity. The Composer (a suitably histrionic and vocally accomplished mezzo soprano Angela Brower) goes ballistic at the thought of being associated with the low class comedians. But there is the wily and marvelous Zerbinetta of soprano Sabine Devieilhe with her feet on the ground, her sense of humour in sharp readiness and her voice in ship-shape condition.  If there is any disagreement left, the Music Master (baritone Josef Wagner) brings them down to earth by reminding them that he who pays the piper, calls the tune.

The war between high art and low comedy comes to a head during the performance of Ariadne and the intrusion by the comedians. Soprano Lise Davidsen sings the languid and abandoned Ariadne who simply wants to die. Davidsen has a marvelous voice and Strauss provides her with some long and tough vocal demands which she meets with splendid flourishes and exemplary stamina.

She waits for Hermes to take her to Hades but instead is visited by Bacchus, god of wine and similar enjoyable duties. Tenor Eric Cutler has a supple voice and an excellent stage presence as the somewhat mysterious presence to inconsolable Ariadne.
Zerbinetta and the Richest Man with comedians. Photo: Pascal Victor / 
Artcompress © courtesy of the Aix Festival
To some of us who may be less high-minded, the joy of the opera is the practical, open-minded Zerbinetta as sung by the delightful Devieilhe. While Ariadne dreams of the peace, purity and quiet of the kingdom of the dead in “Es gibt ein Reich,” Zerbinetta tells her in Grossmächtige Prinzessin (O great princess!) to get off her ass (ok, she uses polite language) and have fun. There are lots of men out there and she can have as many as she wants. A delightful long aria done with panache and encompassing a philosophy of life and a trumpet call for the liberated woman that must have been shocking in 1916 when the revised edition of Ariadne premiered.

The opera is set in the mansion of the wealthy patron but we get almost no sense of life in the financial stratosphere. The preparation for the performances and the performances are done presumably in the servants’ quarters which in this case consist of two rooms that look like a living room and a dining room and can be found in any suburban house. The furniture is moved to make a playing area and a place for chairs but with bare walls and modern costumes, there is no feel of wealth at all.

Has “the richest man in Vienna” gone through a stock market meltdown? I think removing or failing to show the difference between the upper crust that can be purchased by money and the lower class artists is an unfortunate decision by Mitchell and designer Chloe Lamford.    

Strauss’s complex score is performed by the Orchestre de Paris conducted by Marc Albrecht in a performance that started at 10:00 p.m. and ended with enthusiastic applause close to 1:00 a.m.
Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss opened on July 4 will be performed six times until July 16, 2018 on various dates at the Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France.

Sunday, June 24, 2018


Reviewed by James Karas

Before I review Opera North’s production of Kiss Me, Kate, a few words about culture may be appropriate. Now we all know that the Italians gave us opera and the Mafia: the Viennese served us operetta and strudel; the English provided Shakespeare and Imperialism; the Americans delivered Broadway musicals and Trump and the Greeks gave us civilization.

Speaking of imperialism, the Broadway musical has definitely adopted imperialist proclivities as regards the English, because it dominates the genre in the theaters of London. Which raises the question (really?) which are the best Broadway musicals? If forced to name a handful, I would include Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate which was just one reason for wanting to see it. Its production by Opera North (that refers to north England and not North Dakota or North Bay) suggests that it is not a run-of-the mill musical but indeed a masterpiece.
 Stephanie Corley as Kate with members of the cast. Ohoto: Tristram Kenton
Kiss Me, Kate is a backstage musical based on a production of The Taming of The Shrew in Baltimore. The courtship of Kate the shrew by Petruchio and some other incidents from the Shrew are mirrored in the backstage shenanigans of the actors. This makes the musical a British-American partnership, a kind of coalition of the willing rather than an American invasion. 

Opera North takes no short cuts in its production at the sumptuous London Coliseum. Dutch baritone Quirijn de Lang plays the actor Fred Graham who plays Petruchio in the Shrew. De Lang is an opera singer as is soprano Stephanie Corley who plays his wife Lilli Vanessi and Kate the shrew. They make a fine pair who sing superbly and carry the comedy without a hitch. They have a number of songs including “Wunderbar,” the lilting waltz which was intended to satirize Viennese operetta (Porter did not like the genre) but people decided to love the song. They get wonderful solos such as Kates’s “I Hate Men” and Petruchio’s “I’ve Come To Wive It Wealthily.”

Kiss Me, Kate has a large number of wonderful songs (arias really), duets and ensemble pieces that are done beautifully, robustly and just plain entertainingly. Bianca (Zoe Rainey) gets to sing “Tom, Dick or Harry” with her suitors and the marvelous “Always True To You” to her gambling boyfriend

Joseph Shovelton and John Savournin brought the house down as the two would-be-literate enforcers (Italy is included, you see). They are listed as Gunmen come to collect on a gambling bet for their employer and sing and dance “Brush Up You Shakespeare” to hilarious effect.
Other performers of distinction are Alan Burkitt as Bill Calhoun / Lucentio, Stephane Anelli as Paul, Aiesha Pease as Hattie and Malcolm Ridley as Harrison Howell.
Opera North has a full chorus and a full orchestra conducted by James Holmes for the production. This is no ordinary musical with short cuts. Jo Davies directed the original production which premiered in Leeds in September 2015 and Ed Gogggin directs this revival. The choreography for the 2015 performances was done by Will Tuckett and David James Hulston is the revival choreographer. Opera North has eight dancers who perform with superb coordination, athleticism and talent.          

I trust I made no secret of my love of Kiss Me, Kate and my enjoyment of the production. Once again looking at the big picture of the cultural map, the United Kingdom from North to south must be happy. The Americans are obviously included. There are nods of gratitude and recognition to the Italians and the Viennese. And we are all happy because everything was started by the Greeks. Just go see this production, OK?

Kiss Me, Kate by Cole Porter (music and lyrics) and  Samuel and Bella Spewack (book) opened on June 20 and will run until June 30, 2018  at the London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London, WC2N 4ES, England.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018


James Karas

It has taken the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden more than forty years to roll out a new production of Lohengrin but the result is vocally outstanding with truly exceptional production values form David Alden.

Brilliant vocal artistry is provided by tenor Klaus Florian Vogt as the heroic knight Lohengrin who demands anonymity. His vocal chords are a precision instrument that can rise to high notes with power and sing lyrical passages with tonal splendor.
Lohengrin at the Royal Opera House, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Irish soprano Jennifer Davis stepped in to replace the indisposed Kristine Opolais with exceptional results. Poor Elsa has much to contend with as a woman accused of killing her brother. She is saved by the would-be nameless Lohengrin only to be maliciously misled into betraying him and herself. She needs strength of character, beauty of tone and has the Achilles heel of weakness to doubt her savior. An outstanding performance.

Baritone Thomas J. Mayer has sung the role of the nasty and ambitious Friedrich von Telramund all over Europe and is making his Royal Opera debut in the role this season. With his resonant voice and stage presence he has all the equipment for a superb performance which he provides. His character’s partner in sorcery and evil is Ortrud sung by dramatic soprano Christine Goerke in an equally well done performance.

Bass baritone Kostas Smoriginas with his commanding and booming voice served as the Herald.

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and the Royal Opera Chorus are conducted by Andris Nelsons and produce music of extraordinary power and beauty. When the full orchestra, chorus and soloists are mobilized, for example, after Lohengrin’s victory over Telramund, they produce a sound that is so thrilling that it transports you to another dimension.

David Alden brings some intriguing and in the end fascinating ideas to the opera. With Set Designer Paul Steinberg and Costume Designer Gideon Davey, he sets the opera in a devastated city after the war. The action takes place in a bombed building where only the outer walls have survived.

It becomes slowly clear that there is a power struggle among Telramund, King Heinrich (finely sung by Georg Zeppenfeld) and Elsa who represents her brother Gottfried, the rightful duke.

Alden saves us from having to watch a swan drag Lohengrin’s boat unto the scene. Judicious use of lighting suggests his arrival as the knight who will fight for Elsa and that is all we need.
Jennifer Davis and Klaus Florian Vogt in Lohengrin at the Royal Opera House, London. 
Photo: Tristram Kenton
But the swan or swans are not entirely left out. Near the end, as Lohengrin is about to depart because he was betrayed into having to reveal his identity, large red and black banners with white swans emblazoned on them are dropped across the stage. They are frightfully similar to the large banners with swastikas that were used by the Nazis.

It is an unexpected and startling scene. As Lohengrin walks quickly off the stage and disappears. Elsa falls to her death, the banners come crashing down and the old order disappears. Gottfried, the rightful duke appears, and order is restored. I found the scene breathtaking and the production awesome.    

Lohengrin  by Richard Wagner opened on June 7 and will be performed on different dates until July 1, 2018 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, England.