Wednesday, May 11, 2022

THE MAGIC FLUTE – REVIEW OF CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY’S 2022 PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

When Papageno, the naïve and loveable bird catcher, sees the pretty Papagena who is to become his wife, he exclaims a loud and gleeful WOW. That is what tenor Gordon Bintner does in the current production of The Magic Flute presented by the Canadian Opera Company at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto.

WOW is the most precise and laudable review one can give to a performance. There is a problem with using that word as the definitive and only description. No, not for the performers but for the critics who would join the unemployment line and the papers that may have to deal with blank  pages. Fortunately for reviewers and unfortunately for performers, WOW is rarely used as a definitive judgment of a production. Alas, the same applies to this production of Mozart’s sixteenth opera. It has some virtues but for some reason it simple fails to grab us.

This is a revival of the COC’s  2011 production of The Magic Flute which was originally directed by Diane Paulus. The same production was staged in 2017 and is currently revived by Anna Theodosakis.

Paulus presents the opera as a play-within-a-play. In a program note she states that “The entire play-within-a-play is presented in the open space of a nobleman’s garden, itself a place of enchantment and symbolic power during this historical period.” The story is enacted in an elaborate labyrinth of hedges on the grounds of the estate. It is a good idea and a fine place to enact a fairy tale.

Set and costume designer Myung Hee Cho handles numerous scene changes from gardens, to mountains, to groves, to Temple of Wisdom astutely and economically with lighting changes and moveable hedges.

I should declare my view of the opera. It was first produced in 1791 in the Theatre auf der Wieden, outside of Vienna and its censors. The libretto was by Emanuel Schikaneder, a man of the popular theatre. He was interested in making money and not producing high art. The Magic Flute is a Singspiel, a play with songs or simply a popular musical. It may have some of Mozart’s best music and contains some highfalutin ideas about wisdom, goodness, bravery and some other virtues practiced by Masons. That sounds heavy-handed but it is not because the music and beautiful songs do not allow it to become anything but wonderful and there is hilarious comedy to carry you to the triumphal end.

Diane Paulus’s production does not fully succeed as such. When Papageno yells WOW at the sight of Papagena he gets a big laugh but Paulus does not take advantage of the many opportunities for comedy in the opera. Papageno’s attempt at suicide, should have the audience roaring with laughter. Here it produced a little more than polite enjoyment. No fault of Bintner who needed better direction to be hilarious.

The quality of the singing had some inevitable variations but it was overall very sound. Caroline Wettergreen gets high marks for surviving the tortuous Aria of the Queen of the Night. Yes, that’s the one that has a two-octave range and she expels those high Fs as if they were poisoned arrows. But go past that and look at her daughter Pamina’s reactions as the Queen demands that she kill her father and, far worse, the vile and malevolent curses that she spouts if she fails to do so. Wettergreen deserves to be judged with the power of her performance and not just the high notes. She is brilliant overall. 

She contrasts beautifully with her estranged husband Sarastro sung by bass David Leigh.  

Dressed in gold, he is the epitome of wisdom and rectitude. He sings “O Isis und Osiris” and “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” with steady resonance and sonority and we enjoy every note of them.

Our hero Tamino was in the hands and vocal chords of tenor Ilker Arcayűrek while the heroine Pamina is assigned Anna-Sophie Neher. They both have lovely voices and we share in their “suffering” as they are sorely tried as they progress through the hardships on their way to the Temple of Wisdom which I translate to be as a happy marriage and a happy life.

The COC Orchestra and Chorus shone under the baton of Patrick Lange.

The problem was that on the day I saw it, the performance seemed to be weighed down and did not engage the audience. The curtain calls’ reactions ranged from polite to positive was with some nuggets of enthusiasm.  

As I said, Papageno’s WOW got one of the biggest laughs. How I wish I could have reviewed the entire production with that one word.

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The Magic Flute by W. A. Mozart (music) and Emanuel Schikaneder (libretto) is being performed seven times from May 6 to 21, 2022 at the Four Seasons Centre, 145 Queen St. West Toronto. www.coc.ca

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

ARIADNE AUF NAXOS - REVIEW OF MET OPERA PRODUCTION TRANSMITTED LIVE IN HD

 Reviewed by James Karas

The transmission of live performances from the Metropolitan Opera is back and a redoubtable production of Ariadne auf Naxos was available in theatres across Canada on March 12, 2022. We are amid an invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the event is uppermost in many people’s minds. Host Matthew Polenzani expressed his support for the Ukrainian people and the Met’s General Manager Peter Gelb did the same at greater length. He did not mention it, but the Met has cut off ties with Russian supporters of Putin including superstar Anna Netrebko. Bravo to the Met.

Elijah Moshinsky’s impressive 1993 production of Ariadne auf Naxos has been brought back by revival director Stephen Pickover with a splendid cast and it is a musical and vocal stunner.

Composer Richard Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal had the ingenious idea of merging low comedy with high opera or commedia dell’arte with Mozarto-Wagnerian high art and, depending on your taste, you may find it exhilarating or a work with an identity issue.

In any event, the richest man in 18th century Vienna is feasting his friends to a lavish dinner and subsequent entertainment with performances of a tragic opera, a musical comedy and then fireworks. Time becomes tight and the host orders that the tragedy and the comedy be performed together lest time runs out for the fireworks.

In the Prologue we meet the artistes of the comedy and the tragedy feuding and throwing temper tantrums at the suggestion that their pieces are to be cut short and performed simultaneously with the other. The Prima Donna (later Ariadne, sung by the inimitable Lise Davidsen) has a fit and the Composer (Isabel Leonard) goes ballistic. But the latter calms down and the lovely-voiced Leonard sings an exuberant paean to the sacred art of music.

The opera of the title begins and we find the distraught princess Ariadne on the island of Naxos. She saved Theseus from the man-eating Minotaur in Crete and he promised her the world and then dumped her on a desert island. Lise Davidsen sings the melancholy “Es gibt ein Reich” (There is a kingdom) where she imagines a quiet place of death. Strauss and von Hofmannsthal find a way of getting her off Naxos in a happier mood than Theseus left her.


The orchestra and the superb cast give us an outstanding production but the star is unquestionably soprano Lise Davidsen. She has a luscious and expressive voice and she displays her low notes and her ability to leap to the high notes in a single phrase with impeccable ease. This is an Ariadne to take her place in the pantheon of memorable singers.  

The final duet sung by Davidsen and tenor Brandon Jovanovich as Bacchus is a marvel of sustained vocal achievement and musical beauty. Jovanovich uses his vocal prowess and dexterity to bring Ariadne out of her catatonic morass and lead her into the sunset and perhaps apotheosis. Bravura singing.

Ariadne’s companions on the island are three nymphs, a Nyad (Deanna Breiwic), a Dryad (Tamara Mumford) and Echo (Maureen McKay). They are put on stands well above the stage floor and look as if they are wearing long dresses. They are beautiful and dramatic.

The comedians are kept busy trying to entertain the unhappy Ariadne. Their leader Zerbinetta (done to perfection by Brenda Rae) works the hardest. Rae has the movements and mannerism of a natural comic and she can sing. Zerbinetta and her talented and acrobatic troupe, Harlequin (Sean Michael Plumb), Truffaldin (Ryal Speedo Green), Scaramuccio (Alok Kumar) and Brighella (Miles Mykkanen) do their best. Rae sings Zerbinetta’s signature aria “O great princess” with flair and humour. She tells Ariadne that men are faithless monsters and she does not subscribe to fidelity by any measure. It seems that only a god can convince Ariadne.

The sets by Michael Yeargan consist of two areas. The Prologue is the basement of the house of the richest man. We see the large staircase on the side and that tells us where we are. For the scene on Naxos, we see the area for Ariadne’s “cave” with lighting changes and room for acrobatic activities by the comedians.

Ariadne auf Naxos has a complex score that reaches back into operatic history and with Wagnerian connections. Marek Janowski conducts the Met Opera Orchestra in a performance that can serve as a full concert.

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Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss was transmitted Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on March 12, 2022, at various  Cineplex theatres. An encore will be shown on April 9, 2022. For more information: www.cineplex.com/events/

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of the Greek Press. This review appeared in the newspaper first.


Wednesday, February 10, 2021

THE MAGIC FLUTE - REVIEW OF STREAMING OF PARIS OPERA PRODUCTION

James Karas

The Magic Flute was the brainchild of Emanuel Schikaneder, an extraordinarily talented man of popular theatre in Vienne in the latter half of the 18th century. That happens to coincide with the life of Mozart and Schikaneder wanted to put together a money-making singspiel based on his libretto for his Theatre auf der Wieden in a suburb of Vienna.

The opera with singing and spoken dialogue had other contributors to the libretto including fairy tales and a healthy dose of the philosophy of freemasonry. The Magic Flute opened on September 30, 1791 and was a big hit. It would almost certainly have joined the countless other hits of the era on the dusty shelves or dustbins of history were it not for the magical music composed by Mozart.

Some 230 years later, the Paris Opera has produced the work in an empty Opéra Bastille trying to observe some Covid-19 protocols. The effects of the disease are everywhere, and the news delivers frightful numbers of infections and deaths. Director Robert Carsen’s 2014 production zeroed in on the idea of death in general and in the opera in particular and it inadvertently takes full cognizance of what is happening during the current pandemic. The idea and the reality of the death of millions of people is all around and a more appropriate production can hardly be found.

In the opening scene our hero Tamino collapses near some mounds in the clearing of the forest. The mounds will turn out to be graves. The nasty Monostatos who will try to rape the lovely Pamina is a gravedigger. Graves will appear several times in the production as will a human skeleton and a skull. No one will miss the reference to the gravediggers’ scene from Hamlet when a skull is greeted with the words “Alas, Poor Yorick!” The appearance of coffins, black costumes and funereal veils will impress on us the idea of death.

Carsen uses modern costumes almost entirely black or white in conjunction with death as well as the moral lessons of the opera. The Magic Flute is a morality tale. Light, white, love, virtue, truth, and good are posed against darkness, black, hatred, vice, lies and evil. That is what fairy tales tell us and the freemasons, we suppose, stand for.

In the background we have the projection of a green forest. Its colours will change to brown, snow-covered white and barren to indicate the passage of time and the change of the seasons.

An aggressive morality tale amidst graves and coffins could be a fail-poof formula to keep people away from a production even during a lockdown. This production is nothing of the kind. It stands as an interesting view of the opera and a sheer pleasure to watch and hear.

The cast may not be from the top tier of singers, but their performance is superb. Tenor Cyrille Dubois is the heroic Tamino and he does a fine job in the role. He pursues the lovely Pamina, sung by soprano Julie Fuchs with a delicious voice and youthful ardour.

The comic relief is provided by the agile and irreverent Papageno of bass-baritone Alex Esposito who has made a career of singing comic character roles and he makes it perfectly obvious why in this performance.

Soprano Nina Minasyan is the Queen of the Night and she handles the regal rage and leaps across the two octaves of her mainstay aria. Sarastro (bass Nicolas Testé) is her opposite as the symbol of love and wisdom that he displays with sonorous beauty in his fine arias "O Isis und Osiris" and ‘In diesen heil'gen Hallen.”

The grave-digging, shovel-carrying and would-be rapist Monostatos is in the hands of Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke. Carsen does not overdo him because someone who tries to rape a woman does not need to be exaggerated.

The orchestra and chorus of the Paris National Opera were conducted by Cornelius Meister. 

Performing to an empty house during a pandemic has definite drawbacks. All involved, including the orchestra try to wear masks. That works for the strings, but the wind instrument players can’t very well blow in a flute. The chorus wears masks and sings with gusto. I could not tell if they were pre-recorded or if they managed to sound that good with their mouths covered. The main singers did not wear masks and social distancing was not exactly adhered to.

Whether you absorb the masonic virtues of strength, goodness, veracity, love and wisdom is up to you. You should enjoy this production done under difficult circumstanced, regardless of your moral standards. 

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The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is streamed by the Opéra national de Paris until February 22, 2021 with some cast changes. For more information visit: https://chezsoi.operadeparis.fr/products/the-magic-flute or  https://www.operadeparis.fr/

Friday, December 18, 2020

MADAMA BUTTERFLY – REVIEW OF GREEK NATIONAL OPERA PRODUCTION

By James Karas

This is a review of Madama Butterfly produced by the Greek National Opera and streamed around the world.

No, that is not a misprint. There is a Greek National Opera (GNO) that is alive and kicking. It has a stunning new home in the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre in Athens, and it is has produced and telecast a redoubtable production of Madama Butterfly. More about Greek opera later.

Performances of Madama Butterfly started in October and a recording was made in November just before all events were cancelled due to Covid-19. To their great credit they have decided to stream the recorded performance and remind us of the existence of the Greek National Opera.

The production features Albanian Soprano Ermonela Jaho as Cio-Cio San (Madama Butterfly), the 15-year-old Japanese geisha who falls hopelessly in love with Lieut. Pinkerton of the United States Navy. She delivers a splendid Cio-Cio San. Not only does she sing with sterling vocal beauty but invests the role with emotional depth that is exhilarating and heart-breaking. We see the happy bride who is in love and will do anything to please her lover. In “Un bel di vedremo” she imagines Pinkerton’s return after having been abandoned three years before. There is longing, playfulness, beautifully imagined happiness, all done superbly by Jaho.

Ermonela Jaho as Madama Butterfly

The tragic end is yet to come when she realizes the extent of Pinkerton’s perfidy and she has to give up her son and then her life. A performance full of vocal beauty and pathos.

Italian tenor Gianluca Terranova played Pinkerton as an arrogant, self-centered, amoral, “ugly American” who “marries” a young girl to satisfy his lust. Butterfly is a temporary wife, and he can get rid of her on a month’s notice when he has a real wedding with an American girl. Terranova is fine as a swaggering scoundrel and his voice soars to the high notes of his braggadocio. Director Hugo de Ana has him dressed all too casually in an open shirt and slacks. It does not quite befit a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy who is most likely to wear a dress uniform.

Baritone Dionysios Sourbis as the American Consul Sharpless appears more nervous than sympathetic at the start, but he eventually sings and acts like a mensch when the extent of Butterfly’s tragedy strikes him in the face.

Mezzo-soprano Chrysanthi Spitadi deserves kudos for her performance as Butterfly’s faithful servant Suzuki. She sees and knows the truth and tries to help the besotted Butterfly. A completely sympathetic character done well by Spitadi.

Hugo de Ana gives us a classic, conservative production that has many fine details. For example, Butterfly has an icon, a rosary and wears blue jeans. She has renounced her entire cultural background to become an American wife and please Pinkerton. The final scene is done with deep pathos with Butterfly’s suicide handled with effectiveness and restraint.

De Ana goes overboard with some of his costumes for Butterfly’s visitors. Yamadori (Marios Sarntidis) and Bonzo (Yianni Yannisis) don huge, ridiculous wigs. The rest are mostly tasteful and there are some beautiful Japanese costumes.

The set is fairly Spartan but appropriate with skeletons of structures and backdrops indicating the port and appropriate lighting. There is judicious use of video projections especially during the interminable intermezzo.

Lukas Karytinos conducted the Orchestra of the GNO. Because of Covid-19, the size of the orchestra was reduced but it still sounded excellent. Unfortunately, there seems to be a problem with the hall’s acoustics. While the orchestra sounded fine, there was a difference in volume coming from the stage. The singers were never overwhelmed but there were times when it was difficult to hear them. When the main characters sang at full throttle, there was no issue. At other times there was.

Giorgos Koumendakis, the GNO’s Artistic Director, advises that more productions will be televised starting January 2021. That is an incredible step forward for Greek culture.

The Greek National Opera was formed in 1939 and it had its first production on October 25, 1940. In attendance were numerous notables including the Italian Ambassador to Greece, Emanuele Grazzi. He is the one that three days later, in the middle on the night of October 28, 1940 visited Dictator Ioannis Metaxas and delivered Italy’s ultimatum. By the morning, Greece had entered World War II. This production of Madama Butterfly marks the 80th anniversary of the 1940 opening.

There have been many productions since 1940 but very few have merited international attention. A young girl named Mary Kalogeropoulos sang on its stage during the war. She left Greece and went to Italy and became Maria Callas. There are many world-class singers and musicians, and all should be brought to Athens to make the world notice the GNO.

The GNO already has a large roster of in-house singers, dancers, musicians and behind-the-scenes personnel. It promises to telecast more productions to the world. We wait with anticipation and hope.  _______________

Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini is being streamed by the Greek National Opera. For more information go to:  https://www.nationalopera.gr/ or  https://tv.nationalopera.gr/

 

Monday, December 14, 2020

TOSCA – 1978 MET PRODUCTION STREAMING AND MUCH MORE

 Reviewed by James Karas 

Have you heard or seen Tosca recently? How many times? Have you heard Maria Callas in her 1953 recording?

New York’s Metropolitan Opera offered us another chance to see Tosca by streaming its 1978 production. It is part of its daily streaming of productions new and old during the pandemic. It is a redoubtable show by any standard, but you may wish to complain about the pre-digital age video. You should not.

Tosca requires three topnotch singers: a soprano, a tenor and a baritone. With some exaggeration one can state that almost every topnotch soprano, tenor and baritone has recorded Tosca, many more than once, but more about that later.

Maria Callas

The production streamed for us featured Shirley Verrett as Tosca, Luciano Pavarotti as Cavaradossi and Cornell MacNeil as Scarpia. That is star power. Verrett started as a mezzo but had the high notes to sing soprano roles and she does a stunning Tosca. She has a richly toned voice and dramatic talent, and her Tosca has grand emotional depth and strength. She is coy and jealous in the beginning but progresses into a woman who is deeply in love in the duet with Cavaradossi. Her “Vissi d’arte” is almost a prayer and we relish her murder of Scarpia as she glorifies in her stabbing and cries “Muori donato! Muori, Muori!”

Luciano Pavarotti, who dominated the tenor repertoire, made his Met debut in the role of the heroic Cavaradossi. He sings with ease and assurance and his splendid middle range is a delight while the high notes seem to come effortlessly. Much younger then, he is physically adroit and gives us a memorable Cavaradossi.

Cornell MacNeil was one of the foremost baritones of the era and interestingly was directed by another outstanding Scarpia – Tito Gobbi. Gobbi sang Scarpia in perhaps the greatest recording of Tosca, the one with Maria Callas in 1953. MacNeil as Scarpia is made to look like Gobbi did in the role especially in the 1964 production at Covent Garden. That production, with Maria Callas of course, was directed by Franco Zeffirelli part of it is available on YouTube.

Gobbi’s adept production is Zeffirellian in its approach. He wants us to see details of the church in the first act and the room in the Palazzo Farnese in the second act as well as a giving us a good impression of the Castel Sant’ Angelo in the third act.

Zeffirelli produced his version of Tosca at the Met in 1985 and it was revived numerous times for the next 25 years. It starred Hildegard Behrens, Placido Domingo and Cornell MacNeill. It is lavish, opulent, stunning, vocally and physically. Enough said. Just see it.

Zeffirelli’s unforgettable production was replaced by Luc Bondy’s staging in 2009 and it was roundly booed. In 2017 Bondy’s production was replaced by one directed by David McVicar. The latter avoided Bondy’s pitfalls and gave a traditional production laden with many fine details that made it look fresh. It was a success.

Opera listeners come in several categories. Normal people who see and listen to standard repertory productions. They come in various gradations of dedication to the art. In the other extreme are the opera buffs or aficionados. There dedication has no bounds – they are nuts – who want every recording of their favourite opera or singer and argue about her high notes, his wobbly low notes and everything in between.

If you see one production of, say, Tosca, you want to see a couple more, no? Yes. But which one do you choose? In 1978, a critic reviewed recordings of Tosca and listed a mere 24 complete recordings starting in 1920. That is a pittance, and most aficionados would have had no difficulty acquiring most of them. Digital recordings, videos and streaming arrive, and the number of recordings goes through the roof. It seems that there are more than 250 recordings of Tosca today. Trying hearing, seeing or buying most of them!

But mention Tosca and all afficionados will immediately point to the 1953 Callas, Gobbi and Giuseppe di Stefano recording. It is spectacular in every aspect and listening to the enhanced CD has the advantage of letting you imagine the action. As I said almost every soprano has recorded Tosca and you will not go wrong with Leontyne Price, Renata Tebaldi, Montserrat Caballe and many others. But like a Muslim going to Mecca, you cannot go though life by not hearing that recording.

There is no shortage of Tosca recordings available on DVDs and on YouTube. In 1976 Gianfranco de Bosio made a notable film with Raina Kabaivanska, Placido Domingo and Sherril Milnes in the main roles. It has the advantages of a movie without interfering with the music or the libretto We see the exteriors and interior of Sant’ Andrea Della Valle Church, get a view of the Palazzo Farnese as well as the Castel Sant’ Angelo. The great scenes are a bonus to the stunning performances of the young singers. A couple of hours well spent.

But things do not always work out. If you want to see the “big names” together in a production that stinks, see Tosca in the 2000 production at the Teatro dell’ Opera di Roma. The stage looks like something you find in a high school auditorium. It has no real orchestra pit and the musicians are encroaching on the playing area which is tiny. The set is pathetic, what you can see of it when the camera is not relentlessly zeroing in on the faces of the singers.

 It was the 100th anniversary of the opera and Franco Zeffirelli directed it. He did not have much to work with and crammed whatever he could on the tiny stage. Venezuelan soprano Ines Salazar as Tosca sang forcefully and well but she looked like she just stepped out of the shower and had no time to do her hair. Luciano Pavarotti sang Cavaradossi and wowed the audience. They gave him thunderous applause and Juan Pons was Scarpa. Fine singing but simply awful production values.

Covid-19 is making life hell but a few hours with Tosca, Maria Callas and a few others like her and life will seem a lot better.

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James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press. This review appeared first in the newspaper

Friday, February 14, 2020

HANSEL & GRETEL – REVIEW OF 2020 COC PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas
           
The Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel & Gretel has so many virtues one feels downright churlish to mention some of its less admirable aspects. Alas, we must deal with both.

Richard Strauss by happenstance conducted the first production of the opera and he declared it a masterpiece without hesitation. That is about as good as a Good Opera Seal of Approval as you could get in 1893 and not too many people have taken issue with the quality of the work.

It is based on the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm which Humperdinck’s sister Adelheid Wette molded into a libretto and it was a hit from the start. With its wealth of gorgeous melodies and luscious music, the story of children in the forest with a Sandman, a Dew Fairy and a Witch with unique gastronomic tastes, it can hardly fail.
 Emily Fons as Hansel and Simone Osborne as Gretel. Photo: Michael Cooper
The singing is superb. Canadian soprano Simone Osborne (a regular with the COC since 2013) has a clarion voice and sings a gorgeous Gretel. American mezzo-soprano Emily Fons has a big and lusty voice and as Hansel makes a perfect partner for Osborne.

Hansel and Gretel are of course children and Osborne and Fons, though young, are not. Their costumes indicate their youth but that is not enough. They have mastered the movements, mannerisms and gestures of children to the point where we never doubt that they are children. Amazing performances.

Ontarian operatic veterans Kristina Szabo and Russell Braun handle the roles of the mother Gertrude and the father Peter with their usual assurance and exceptional singing.

The role of the Witch, usually sung by a mezzo-soprano, is given to Torontonian tenor Michael Colvin who approaches the meaty part with relish. He wears a very colourful, clownish costume and sings with nasty delight. Marvelous.

The young Canadian soprano Anna-Sophie Neher is cast as both The Sandman and The Dew Fairy and gets to sing some of the most beautiful arias of the work. She does superb work with her deliciously lyrical voice.

Johnannes Debus conducted the COC Orchestra and did more than justice to Humperdinck’s marvelous and superbly orchestrated score.

The production is directed by Joel Ivany with set and projection designs by S. Katy Tucker, costume designs by Ming Wong and lighting design by JAX Messenger.

They have set the opera unapologetically in an apartment building in Toronto occupied by people of the lower rungs of the economic ladder. We are treated to panoramic views of the city and the apartment building where we see through the windows of numerous units. Then we zero in on several apartments on two floors. Those apartments are the central but very changeable set of the production.

We are treated to extensive use of projections and a kaleidoscope of colours that are eye-catching and impressive. There is some indication of a forest in the midst of all this but it quickly disappears and we are kept so busy looking at everything else that we hardly notice the forest.
 
A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Michael Cooper
Then it gets murky and confusing. We know the fairy tale and we know the plot of Hansel and Gretel. Ivany has something happening in one or two apartments at most times and there are occasions when I have no idea what is happening there. Hansel and Gretel are dealing with the Witch below and someone in the upper apartment is drinking something that he took from the fridge and a woman in another apartment is doing something else. I try to ignore them but what in the world are they doing?

Hansel and Gretel’s first meeting with The Witch takes place in the corner of the stage and they stay there for a while. Why? The oven in which the children are to be roasted is a large wooden cabinet. We don’t need anything more graphic, thank you. But what is Peter doing coming on the stage, getting in the oven and shaking it? Who is the woman that comes in from the other side of the stage and speaks with The Witch and disappears? What did I miss?

Did I tell you about the cute dog in the upper apartment? And my companion noted that the children go and sleep in a strange man’s apartment. “Shouldn’t we be calling social services?” she asked.

All of this was unnecessary, annoying and confusing. It has the effect of making the post-performance conversation focus on the needless aspects instead of the main point which was a splendidly sung and otherwise wonderful production.
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Hansel and Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck is being performed seven times between February 6 and 21, 2020 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671. www.coc.ca

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press

Saturday, January 25, 2020

THE BARBER OF SEVILLE – REVIEW OF 2020 COC PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas
           
The Canadian Opera Company dispels Toronto’s winter blues with a delicious production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. There may have been the odd, minor glitch but this was a highly enjoyable and splendid production.

The opera has a vocal, musical and comic momentum that can be built on with sufficient changes of pace that can take and keep the audience entertained in the wonderful world of Seville of no particular era. There we find Dr. Bartolo, an old fool who wants to marry his lovely ward Rosina for her money and much more. There is Almaviva, a handsome count who is stricken by Rosina’s beauty and has fallen hopelessly in love with her. There is Basilio, a foolish and corrupt singing teacher and, of course, the incomparable, versatile, ever-inventive town barber and factotum Figaro.
 
Emily D’Angelo as Rosina, Joel Allison as Fiorello, Santiago Ballerini as Count Almaviva 
and Vito Priante as Figaro in of The Barber of Seville, 2020. Photo: Michael Cooper
Rossini provides some incredible music, arias and ensemble pieces integrated with comic scenes nonpareil. All you need is the musicians and cast to deliver. Let’s start with the highly alluring Rosina in the hands and vocal chords of mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo. A Toronto girl! We get to know her (and love her) when she introduces herself in her cavatina “Una voce poco fa.” With energy, panache and sumptuous singing D’Angelo’s Rosina tells us that she is in love with Lindoro and swears that she will have him. She has a thousand tricks up her sleeve and she will not be trifled with by nobody, no how. And the music lesson where she and Lindoro practice an aria is a scrumptious love scene.  Clear?

Lindoro is the Count Almaviva in disguise and Argentinian tenor Santiago Ballerini better be good to deserve a woman like Rosina. Ballerini rises to the occasion with a mellifluous midrange and well achieved high notes. At the beginning, we had a few worrisome moments when we thought we may not be able to hear him (we have to hear you even if you are singing pianissimo) but that concern was dissipated quickly and he turned in a fine performance.   

The ardent lovers have opposition to overcome but they also have a powerful ally and the most famous facilitator in opera, Figaro. Italian baritone Vito Priante as Figaro gets one of the most famous entrances with his “Largo al factotum,” a tongue twister of a cavatina that reflects the master schemer. He is far more than a mere factotum. Priante displays comic talent, vocal versatility and gives a superb performance.

Doctor Bartolo is the old geezer who wants the young beauty. He is a comic figure who brings the laughs and has some sonorous singing to do. Italian baritone Renato Girolami does both in a hugely creditable performance. He sang the role in the 2015 production of The Barber of which this is a revival.

His not-too-reliable partner is Basilio done exceptionally well by American bass-baritone Brandon Cedel. He is a reprehensible chap, a master slanderer and a treacherous friend and Cedel sings the role with vocal resonance and agility.

Canadian mezzo-soprano Simona Genga kicks butt in her performance as Rosina’s old maid servant Berta. It’s a small role but she has the beautiful aria that parodies love as a crazy mania in “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie” (The old man seeks a wife). She did a wonderful job and the audience loved her.

The chorus was impressive and the COC Orchestra equally good. The conductor is Speranza Scappucci, a woman. Regretfully and shamefully, we are a long way from not noticing the gender of the conductor but at least there is some progress. 
Santiago Ballerini as Count Almaviva (right) in The Barber of Seville, 2020. 
Photo: Michael Cooper
The production is directed by Joan Font with set and costumes by Joan Guillén. The directing was excellent for the reasons stated above. But what was the woman sitting on the right side of the stage during the opening scene doing? She never really leaves the stage and she goes from a minor annoyance to being ignored but Font no doubt had something in mind when she put her on,

The costumes were mostly appropriate if not time sensitive. The military uniforms did the job, Rosina wore a nice white dress and the rest were of little concern. But what were those growths on the top of the heads of some of the servants? Are they tufts of hair or Italian sausages?

The set at the beginning shows a vaguely black background and a structure on one side. Change of lighting turns it into Rosina’s residence. Once we are inside her house, the music and singing carry us through and the set becomes of secondary interest.

The gripes are minor compared to the thoroughly enjoyable production that got a well-deserved standing ovation.
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The Barber of Seville by Giacomo Rossini with libretto by Cesare Sterbini is being performed eight times between January 19 and February 7, 2020 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671. www.coc.ca

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press