Thursday, April 26, 2018

THE RETURN OF ULYSSES – REVIEW OF OPERA ATELIER PRODUCTION

James Karas

Opera Atelier has brought back its 2007 production of Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses and applause is due to its co-artistic directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse-Zingg.  The production is mostly well-sung, colourful, finely directed, and gorgeously danced as well as judiciously edited to keep the running time under three hours.

Librettist Giacomo Badoaro relied on a fairly conventional retelling of the second half of Homer’s Odyssey where the Greek hero Ulysses (Odysseus, to the purists), after many adventures, returns to Ithaca. He finds his kingdom in disarray with his wife being pursued by the local nobility who are eating him out of house and home, as they say.
 
Kevin Skelton (Jupiter) and Meghan Lindsay (Minerva).Photo: Bruce Zinger
We can assume that he will eventually get rid of the men who lust after his wife, reestablish his authority and find connubial bliss after a twenty year absence but with Neptune (bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus) and so much else against him, he has his work cut out.

Prologue, please.  With the stars shimmering in the firmament in the background, we see the personification of Human Frailty (tenor Isaiah Bell), Time (impressive bass-baritone Douglas Williams who also plays the aggressive Antinoo, an early version of Trump), Fortune (soprano Carla Huhtanen who also does fine work as the treacherous servant Melanto), and Love (soprano Meghan Lindsay who is even better as Minerva). The latter three deride Human Frailty and claim that they control the fate of people who are weak in any event. Pynkoski directs the scene intelligently by having the taunters be quite active rather than singing with their feet screwed to the stage floor. A good start.

The opera proper begins on a high note with Penelope’s (splendidly sung by mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel) passionate recitative lamenting her husband’s long absence. The statuesque Lebel gives us an outpouring of emotions and display of strength that entitle her to be called The Temple of Chastity.

The scene moves from the palace with its grand columns to the sea where we see the wild waves painted in the background. From there (to do justice to the sets) we move to the countryside where we find the faithful shepherd Eumete (tenor Aaron Sheehan who sings well and don’t tell me he looks too young for the role this is a myth, not CNN). The goddess Minerva descends from the sky in grand style as does Kevin Skelton as Jupiter. The sets by Gerard Gauci are colourful and appealing and are strictly seventeenth century impressions of Ithaca, the gods and the sea with no attempt, quite rightly, to strive for representations of mythical Greece. Marvelous work by Gauci.

Pynkoski uses twelve singers for the twenty characters that appear in the opera and that is achieved by doubling the roles taken by many of the singers. Tenor Krešimir Špicer gives us a well-sung Ulysses. Pynkoski opts for a human and unheroic take of the opera and it serves us well. We appreciate Ulysses’ cunning and there are no heroics even in the stringing of his bow or his execution of the suitors. Lajeunesse-Zingg choreographs the scene so that it runs smoothly without any unnecessary heroics. Špicer’s Ulysses is a subtle and human hero and we are most happy about his return.

With a large cast, some unevenness in the singing is inevitable. Some could not project as well as we would have liked and other were not at their best. But they were the exception to an otherwise superb cast.

Lajeunesse-Zingg has as usual choreographed dance sequences for The Artists of the Atelier Ballet in which the dancers perform with grace, agility, lightness and sheer beauty.

Michelle Ramsay’s lighting design was uneven. She seems to like darkness and shadows but we want to see everything all the time. Penelope should not walk in and out of shadows.

The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra is conducted by David Fallis. The only score of the opera is unhelpful as to orchestration and Fallis has opted for a small orchestra. We may be attuned to larger ensembles but some authenticity is appreciated.

Final assessment: an exquisite production.       
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The Return of Ulysses by Claudio Monteverdi, presented by Opera Atelier, opened on April 19 and will run until April 28, 2018 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto. www.operaatelier.com

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

LA BOHEME – REVIEW OF LIVE FROM THE MET IN HD PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

A few hundred thousand people around the globe were treated to another revival of Franco Zeffirelli’s production of La Bohème beamed to them directly from New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Most of them were unlikely to have seen the premier of this production in 1981 because they were not born then, were not in New York or could not afford the price of admission even if they were.

The Met has made up for lost time and opportunities for many of us to see Zeffirelli’s take on the opera by broadcasting the production in 2008, 2011 and 2014 with stellar casts. This year’s cast is no less stellar with soprano Sonya Yoncheva as Mimi and Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo.
  A scene from Act II of Puccini’s “La Bohème.” Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
We may imagine Mimi as an ill-nourished flower embroiderer who faints after she knocks on Rodolfo’s door because her candle went out. Some of that is true but Yoncheva’s Mimi has a twinkle in her eye and she is not frail. I think she sees what she wants in Rodolfo and goes after him in her sweet, humble way and they both find love and happiness at least to the end of Act II.

Yoncheva does have a beautiful voice and the familiar stops from “Me chiamano Mimi” to happy moments to her heart wrenching death at the end of Act IV are done with vocal splendor and touching expressiveness. Her lover Rodolfo is in the capable hands and vocal chords of tenor Michael Fabiano. He is youthful, ardent, vocally well-equipped and we love his love, his foolishness and his belated reconciliation with Mimi with pleasure and tears. Familiarity breeds appreciation.

The flirtatious, fun-loving, man-abusing Musetta is sung by Susanna Philips who has done the role almost countless times. She shows no fatigue and attacks her part with relish. She arrives at the crowded scene in the café, takes control, flirts with her former lover Marcello and takes the foolish Alcindoro (the aging Paul Plishka) for all he is worth.
 Brigitta Kele  (not Susanna Philips of the performance under review) as Musetta and 
Lucas Meachem as Marcello in Puccini's La Bohème. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera
Rodolfo’s three friends deserve special mention and not just for their vocal talents. Lucas Meachem as Marcello, Alexey Lavrov as Schaunard and Matthew Rose as Colline interact superbly and show true friendship. Tomfoolery and humanity combine to make the four friends a pleasure to watch and hear.     

Franco Zeffirelli’s production may well be opera as imagined by many but achieved much less frequently in recent productions in general. It is not exactly “thrift, thrift” as Hamlet would say, that causes more modest sets but a charge in tastes. Yet Zeffirelli’s extravaganzas are still produced to the delight of many. The scene in the Café Momus in Act II recreates a whole neighborhood on the Left Bank of Paris. You get a horse-drawn carriage, a donkey-drawn cart, a crowd of people on two levels and a carnival atmosphere of great excitement. Over the top? You bet.

Marco Armiliato conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Matthew Diamond directed the production for the movie houses and did so sensibly without treating the opera like a video game.
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La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini was transmitted Live in HD on February 24, 2018 at the Cineplex Cinemas, Scarborough Town Centre, 300 Borough Drive, Scarborough, ON, M1P 4P5, (416) 290-5217 and other theatres across Canada.  There will be encore broadcasts on April 7, 9, 11, 15 and May 5, 2018. For more information: www.cineplex.com/events    

Friday, February 16, 2018

THE ABDUCTION FROM THE SERAGLIO – REVIEW OF CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY PRODUCTION

James Karas

Wajdi Mouawad is a prolific and talented Canadian of Lebanese origin who is a true man. He has written, directed and acted in numerous plays (among other accomplishments) and he knows the Middle East. The Canadian Opera Company has tapped into his talents by assigning him to direct its new production of The Abduction from the Seraglio.

Mouawad has gone a few steps further than the usual duties of an interpreter of a classic work by superimposing a play on Mozart’s work and making changes to the dialogue to suit his message. The Abduction opens with the Spanish nobleman Belmonte standing in front of the palace of the Turk Pasha Selim trying to figure out how to rescue his beloved Konstanze. She was abducted by pirates and you know the rest.
 
(top, l-r) Jane Archibald as Konstanze and Claire de Sévigné as Blonde; (bottom, l-r) 
Owen McCausland as Pedrillo and Peter Mauro as Belmonte. Photo: Michael Cooper

Mouawad adds a playlet before this. We are in Europe in the Age of Enlightenment and Belmont’s father (not in Mozart’s opera) and friends are celebrating the rescue of Kostanze. This is a celebration of civilization over Turkish barbarism and there is a game where people bash the head of a Turk with a sledge hammer. Such fun, no? Well, Konstanze has seen Turks up close and she has a different opinion of them.

Start Mozart’s work, please.

Belmonte (Swiss tenor Mauro Peter) is the ardent lover of Konstanze and his job is to be the ardent lover of Konstanze with the odd fit of jealousy. He starts with “Hier soll ich dich denn sehen” (“Here then shall I see you”) about how he suffered without Konstanze.  Then he tells us how ardently his lovesick heart is beating (“O wie ängstlich”)  and moves up the scale to rapture and joy in “Wenn der Freude Tränen fliessen” (“When tears of joy are flowing.” Peter has his job cut out and we never doubt his ardour but Konstanze, despite what she says and sings, may have some reservations the way Mouawad presents her.

The vocal part of the production belongs to soprano Jane Archibald as Konstanze. She has a silken voice and she projects her ardour and her pain with superb effect.  She sings about love and its sorrows in “Ach ich liebte” and then rises to the splendour of “Martern aller Arten” (“Tortures of every kind.”) She goes from defiance to pleading for mercy to accepting her fate. Konstanze is a more fully developed character in the opera’s unsatisfactory plot and Archibald gives a bravura performance.

Soprano Claire de Sévigné was a spry, lithe and delectably sung and assertive Blonde. Her lover Pedrillo was well accounted for by tenor Owen McCausland. Croation bass Goran Jurić sang the role of the creepy Osmin. He has a good voice but he was simply overwhelmed by the orchestra when he tried his low notes.

Pasha Selim’s palace is by the sea (the getaway is in a boat) and one can do much with Middle Eastern design motifs. Set Designer Emmanuel Clolus has set the opera in no particular place. There are large, moveable, mostly dark-coloured panels. About the only colourful thing is a large globe which holds people on a couple of levels that appears near the end of the opera. The seraglio ladies are pretty and dressed tastefully but you will not go to this production for the set.
 
Jane Archibald as Konstanze and Mauro Peter as Belmonte. Photo: Michael Cooper
The Abduction is a Singspiel meaning it combines songs and dialogue. There is lots of dialogue even without Mouawad’s additions. Why are we forced to read surtitles? Why is the dialogue at least not in English? I am not sure there is a defensible argument and I will not buy the spiel about some singers not knowing English.    

Mouawad’s intention is clearly to represent the Turks as humane, generous and civilized. There is no sign that we are in a Turkish palace at all. Scant turbans, no minarets, and no indication of a seraglio. Fair enough but we came to see Mozart’s imperfect opera and adding a playlet and making changes in the dialogue in order to make a point may be going too far. The opera can be done in perhaps a bit over two hours plus intermission. This production went to three and a half hour including a 25 minute intermission. That’s approaching Wagnerian dimensions. The music carries this opera; the plot does not. Stick to Mozart. 
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The Abduction from the Seraglio by W. A. Mozart opened on February 7 and will  be performed a total of seven times until February 24, 2018 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St. West Toronto, Ont. www.coc.ca

Sunday, February 4, 2018

RIGOLETTO – REVIEW OF CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Verdi’s Duke of Mantua and his courtiers have been found in all kinds of places. They have been seen in Las Vegas, a circus, with the Mafia in Little Italy and Trump Tower. Director Christopher Alden has placed them in a rather unlikely setting of a staid English gentlemen’s club. We have the rich walnut panelling, the leather chairs and well-dressed gentlemen perusing newspapers.

In keeping with our stereotypical view of the English, this is a stiff-upper-lip crowd who eschew much display of emotion and even much physical movement. Eye contact is assiduously avoided and communication across the room is encouraged. The courtiers seem to stay in their club around the clock the way I imagine Penelope’s suitors hung around Odysseus’s palace for years without ever going to their houses.
A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Rigoletto, 2018, photo: Michael Cooper
With minor exceptions, the entire action takes place in the club. That, of course, does not make sense but Alden, as far as I can tell, has no intention of giving us a sequential or logical telling of the plot. This Rigoletto is, I think, the title character’s nightmare or his daughter Gilda’s dream or perhaps both.

During the overture, we see Rigoletto (baritone Roland Wood) seated in a leather chair to our right sleeping uneasily. Pay attention to the chair because it will be there for the rest of the production. A larger-than-life painting of a woman dominates the stage and we learn that it is of Gilda (Anna Christy) and it is tended by her servant Giovanna (Megan Latham).

Much of what happens is unrealistic, illogical, and abstract. But all of that may be consistent with the internal logic of a dream or a nightmare. The portrait of Gilda in the club appears ripped after her abduction. When Gild is being abducted and Rigoletto is told by the kidnapping courtiers that they are after Ceprano’s wife, Ceprano’s wife appears. When the aggrieved Monterone (a powerful Robert Pomakov) appears to complain about the defilement of his daughter, a woman in a nightgown appears. No doubt, she is his abused daughter.

What struck me more was the scene after Gilda’s abduction. We hear a briefly humanized Duke grieve about her loss and expressing his love of her and his desire to comfort her. Gilda appears on a couch and the Duke mounts her. The courtiers surround the couch and Rigoletto appears begging them to tell him where his daughter is. During this highly affecting scene, the Duke and Gilda are hidden from view and he is defiling her. When the courtiers move away we see a distraught Gilda and no Duke.

Sparafucile (the fine-voiced bass Goderdzi Janelidze) is a well-dressed assassin with a briefcase who works out of the club while the courtiers are reading their papers. He is indifferent to his barber and does take his shoes off when he is supposed to be in his run-down murder work-shop but don’t look for him on some badly lit street. This is more of the internal logic of a dream, I suppose.
Anna Christy as Gilda and Stephen Costello as the Duke of Mantua. 
Photo: Michael Cooper
The singing is of uneven quality. Wood sings consistently well but he is not allowed to or is simply unable to bring out the great pathos and drama inherent in Rigoletto’s situation. He never gets close to Gilda and even in the final scene when he realizes that she has been murdered it takes him a long time to get near her and when he does take her in his arms it is perfunctorily. When he realizes that she is dead there should not be a dry eye in the house. In the end Gilda walks away and I was looking for a ray of light to indicate apotheosis but it did not materialize.

Tenor Stephen Costello has his moments when he is allowed to let go. He sings “Questa o quella” sitting down but he is allowed some swaggering in “La donna e mobile.” Maybe he felt he was singing with his hands tied behind his back in the bizarre interpretation but he was not totally satisfactory.

Soprano Anna Christy has a sweet voice but it is simply not big enough for The Four Seasons. Her delicate tremolo sounded fine in “Caro nome” but I felt like reaching to turn up the volume.

As I said, Rigoletto has been set in numerous locales and some are more suitable than others. But all of them need some exuberance, some emotional depth that expresses the lechery and depravity of the court as well that tragedy of love and vengeance. An English gentlemen’s club be it in a dream or a nightmare is hardly the place for that.
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Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi continues until February 23, 2018 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671. www.coc.ca

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

TOSCA – REVIEW OF McVICAR’S LIVE FROM THE MET PRODUCTION

James Karas

After you have found the singers, the orchestra and chorus, a successful production of an opera requires a grand vision and scrupulous attention to details. The Metropolitan Opera has assembled everything for its new production of Tosca and the result is, not surprisingly a massive success despite numerous mishaps of which more below.

Let’s start with the singers. The title role is taken by Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva. She has a luminous voice and manages to give a truly dramatic performance as the jealous diva. She and her lover Cavaradossi (tenor Vittorio Grigolo) are youthful lovers who cannot keep their hands and lips off each other. Their duets and her solos are splendid examples of vocal delivery. Her “Vissi d’arte” may lack some of the sustained high notes and emotional breadth we ideally expect but it brought the house down. Her relish in killing Scarpia was delightful for those of us who love to see a creep put down for ever.
 

Vittorio Grigolo as Cavaradossi and Sonya Yoncheva as Tosca. 
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
Grigolo brought youth and erotic intensity to Cavaradossi. His fine voice and physical agility make him ideal for the role. He was especially dramatic and moving in his “E lucevan le stelle” where the camera concentrated on his face poised from underneath. Everything was right about his singing and he brought the house down.

Baritone Željko Lučić sings the nasty Scarpia and he is splendid at it. Lučić has a resonant voice that he uses to fine effect to express his evil megalomania and cruel depravity. With the deep furrow between his eyebrows and his swaggering, authoritarian manner, he expresses a man who is used to getting his way. A superb performance.

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus has an easy night with singing basically only a “Te Deum” but the segment rises to absolutely thrilling heights. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra conducted by Emmanuel Villaume rises to equal heights throughout.

Tosca has had a somewhat spotty history at the Met of late. After revving Franco Zeffirelli’s production of the 1980’s for a quarter of a century, General Director Peter Gelb hired Luc Bondy to do something different. It was a more or less a disaster not that there were not people who thought highly of it. For the current new production, Gelb retained Director David McVicar who has opted for a traditional, opulent production in line with Franco Zeffirelli’s.

McVicar and Set and Costume Designer John Macfarlane give traditional sets. The first scene set in the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle features grand pillars and an imposing interior of a Baroque cathedral. Scarpia’s office is large, mostly dark with the painting of The Rape of the Virgins and suggestive of menace. The ramparts of Castel Sant’Angelo with the winged statute of the Archangel Michael hovering above is another example of operatic sets on a grand scale.

But along with the grand vision, McVicar pays attention to countless details that give the production an unexpected freshness. A few examples. McVicar humanizes the Sacristan (Patrick Carfizzi) be making him take snuff to calm his nerves and slightly mocking Cavaradossi. We like the Sacristan.
When Cavaradossi tries to kiss Tosca in the church, she pushes him away because they are in front of the Madonna. Then she points to a spot where the Madonna cannot “see” them and they smooch like the young lovers that they are. Tosca is burning with love, Cavaradossi tells us, and he is right and she proves it.

A scene from Act III of David McVicar's new production of "Tosca". 
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
As Scarpia is ordering his henchmen to search for Angelotti in the church, several attractive women walk by and one of them looks longingly at him. This lecher has many women on the line. In his office with Tosca, he brags of his lust and of his preference for violent sex. The word has almost gone from common usage, but Scarpia is a rapist. When he tries to rape Tosca he grabs her breast and then her crotch. This is the gross conduct of a rapist and McVicar does not shy from showing his action graphically.

Cinema director Gary Halvorson showed many scenes from below giving extraordinary details that the audience at Lincoln Center did (could) not have witnessed. I have criticized and almost shown contempt for many of his efforts in the past. This time I have nothing but praise for him.

Few words about some of the debacles that the production faced. Jonas Kaufman cast as Cavaradossi bailed out and was replaced by Grigolo who has never sung the role before. Kristine Opolais quit as Tosca. Hello, Sonya. Conductor Andris Nelsons dropped his baton and James Levine was sent to pasture over allegations of sexual misconduct. Welcome, Emmanuel Villaume. Baritone Bryn Terfel phoned in vocal fatigue – what are you doing tonight Željko?

Despite all of those mishaps, this proved to be a thrilling performance on the big screen in every respect from vision to detail, to singing and to a grand afternoon at the opera.
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Tosca by Giacomo Puccini was shown Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on January 27, 2018 at the at the Cineplex VIP Don Mills Shops at Don Mills, 12 Marie Labatte Road, Toronto Ontario M3C 0H9 and other theatres. Encores will be shown on February 17, 26, 28, March 3 and 11 2018 at various theatres. For more information: www.cineplex.com/events

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

THE RETURN OF ULYSSES – REVIEW OF ROYAL OPERA AND ROUNDHOUSE PRODUCTION

James Karas

The Royal Opera and Roundhouse have teamed up for an intriguing production of Claudio Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses. It is done at the Roundhouse and the shape of the theatre sets the tone, indeed shapes the entire production.

As its name indicates, The Roundhouse is a theatre in the round. The stage for The Return resembles a donut with the orchestra being placed in the hole. The action takes place on the perimeter of the donut of course as the singers make use of all the available space in the circle. The opera is sung in English and surtitles are displayed above the playing area.
 
The donut for the The Return of Ulysses at the Roundhouse. 
The use of a circular playing area provides for considerable mobility in an opera that can be quite static. With the orchestra being in the middle, it has a close relationship with the audience and provides a more intimate feel. There are no sets or props, of course, but the immediacy of the action makes up for that.

Monteverdi’s librettist Giacomo Badoaro uses a conventional retelling of the return of Ulysses as told in Homer’s Odyssey. Monteverdi included personifications of Human Frailty, Time, Fortune, Love and Minerva but their appearance in this production is mercifully short while a number of other deities have been deleted.

Mezzo-soprano Christine Rice was scheduled to sing Penelope but she lost her voice several days before opening night and the role was sung by Australian mezze Caitlin Hulcup. Rice walked the role and Hulcup sang from the orchestra pit. The arrangement worked quite well partly because of the position of the orchestra. Hulcup appeared relaxed and she sang beautifully. She has some luscious low notes and a splendid midrange to deliver a fine Penelope if only vocally.

The cast of a dozen singers and a large chorus perform quite well but there is some unevenness in the singing. Baritone Roderick Williams sings the heroic if initially abused Ulysses who can only reveal himself in the last scenes as the powerful warrior and loving husband of Penelope.
 Ulysses and Minvera, Photo ROH/ Stephen Cummiskey
The youthful tenor Samuel Boden arrives on a bicycle built for two to sing the role of Telemachus. He has a delicate voice and made a fine son of our hero.

Mezzo Catherine Carby with a gold breastplate to inform us that she is the goddess of war Minerva exerts power – vocal and physical - and helps Telemachus. You can’t miss her.

As we all know, Penelope was besieged by a herd of suitors who wanted to replace the long-missing king. Monteverdi gives three samples of them: Tenor Nick Pritchard as Amphinomus, countertenor Tai Oney as Peisander and bass Davis Shipley as Antinous. The three baddies cover the main voice ranges and they all get their comeuppance. Monteverdi also adds Irus, a parasite, who has balloons stuffed under his clothes and looks like the Goodyear blimp. He is sung and acted well by tenor Stuart Jackson.

Ulysses has faithful servants such as the elderly and faithful Eurycleia (mezzo Susan Bickley), Eurymachus (tenor Andrew Tortise), the shepherd Eumaeus (tenor Mark Milhofer) and Melantho (soprano Francesca Chiejina). Except for the latter who plots to get one of the suiters, the rest are sympathetic figures.

The Orchestra of Early Opera Company conducted by Christian Curnym played with exemplary fluidity the music of Monteverdi. 

Director John Fulljames had his hands full trying to organize and direct movement around a moving circle. There was a certain fluidity to the movement of the singers but there were times when some entrances and exits were not clear. Still Fulljames deserves credit for doing well in a tough situation.

The costunes by Kimie Nakano were a grab-bag of clothes that seemed to belong to no era that I could recognize. The women wore mostly black skirts. The servants wore servant’s uniforms and the men struck me as wearing whatever they showed up in for the performance.

The translation by Christopher Cowell worked reasonably well with the usual limitation of trying to sing in English a libretto that was written in Italian.

In any event, this Return had mostly positive features and many unique ones that made for a very fine night at the opera.
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The Return of Ulysses  by Claudio Monteverdi opened on January 10 and will be performed eight times until January 20, 2018 at the at the Roundhouse, Camden London. www.roh.org.uk or www.roundhouse.org.uk

Sunday, January 14, 2018

RIGOLETTO – REVIEW OF DAVID McVICAR’S ORGY AT COVENT GARDEN

James Karas

Imagine Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Judge Roy Moore and a couple of dozen other sexual predators with women available to them in a milieu where they are the law unto themselves. The result would be an orgy where the men can use and abuse the women as if they were objects and discard them at will.

That describes the opening scene of Rigoletto as directed by David McVicar in a revival of his 2001 production at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. When the lights go on, a disheveled woman comes out holding her clothes against her body. She starts crying and we know that she has just been raped or at least sexually abused. We will soon learn that she is the daughter of the courtier Monterone in the court of the Duke of Mantua where an orgy is in progress. The predatory men chase woman, grab them sexually, simulate coitus and act in an animalistic manner that is as frightful as it is abhorrent.

The women’s breasts are exposed, one man is undressed completely and the courtiers crawl on all fours as if they are jackals. Rigoletto ridicules Monterone about his daughter’s and his humiliation. Monterone’s daughter on stage is McVicar’s invention and we will see her several times crouching on the floor and being abused by the pigs of Mantua. She is damaged goods and men can do whatever their animalism inspires and their imagination conceives.
Dimitri Platanias and cast of Rigoletto. Photo: Mark Douet
Rigoletto is about the Duke’s deformed court jester who amuses his lecherous employer by ridiculing the other courtiers. It is a bad job for a man who is hiding his beautiful daughter from the moral black hole of the court.

The production has an extraordinary cast that fulfills the vocal and emotional requirements of the opera to the hilt. Baritone Dimitri Platanias has a big voice that can express contempt and deep emotion with exceptional resonance. This Rigoletto, in addition to being hunchbacked, has crippled legs and needs two canes to hobble around the stage. He expresses his scorn and ridicule of the courtiers, his deep love of his daughter Gilda, his terror at being cursed and his hatred (a major gamut of emotions) with astonishing finesse and range.

Soprano Lucy Crowe as Gilda is the picture of beauty, innocence, indeed purity, with her blonde hair and simple but attractive white dress. No wonder the Duke says he is in love with her. Crowe matches those physical attributes with a clarion voice of splendor and luster.

Tenor Michael Fabiano as the Duke and chief predator is completely amoral and feels entitled to do whatever he wants with whoever he wants. Fabiano’s vocal power and strutting leave no doubt about the Duke’s abusive abilities. He has a strong voice that he commands like a fine-tuned instrument. A delight to the ears.
 Andrea Mastroni as Sparafucile and Dimitri Platanias as Rigoletto © Mark Douet
Bass Andrea Mastroni has a deep, sonorous voice quite becoming to a principled assassin who provides a public service. Well, sort of, but if you must hire one, go to him as Sparaficile but make sure his sister, the slutty Maddalena (well dome by Nadia Krasteva) is on holiday in Bulgaria.

The set by Michael Vale is in keeping with McVicar’s raunchy interpretation. The ducal palace looks more like a large steel shed. There is not a single indication of elegance or wealth let alone civilization. Sparafucile’s place of business is understandably grungy and his street office is logically in the down-market part of town.    

I should note that the revival director is Justin Way. Stats-crazy operaphiles, may want to know that McVicar’s 2001 production has been revived seven times. The most recent revival before the current one was in 2014.      

Alexander Joel led the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in a vigorous performance of the score in a richly thought out, nuanced and superb production of Verdi’s chestnut.

And if you don’t see this production, you will have to settle for lurid stories about American politicians, business executives and stars without the benefit of music, singing and a great night at the opera.
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Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi with libretto by Francesco Maria Piave continues with some cast changes until January 16, 2018 at the at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. www.roh.org.uk