Friday, May 10, 2019


Reviewed by James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company rounds off its current season with a grand production of Verdi’s 27th opera Otello. The stars of the production are Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley as Iago and the COC Orchestra conducted by Johannes Debus.

David Alden’s production is quite solid but it has enough eccentric touches to send your eyebrows to the back of your head.

Otello starts as a great love story between a black general in the Venetian army and the high-born and pure Desdemona. The story and the conflict are driven by the malevolent Iago whose hatred of Otello for passing him over for promotion leads him to destroying the loving couple. 
 Tamara Wilson as Desdemona and Russell Thomas as Otello. Photo: Michael Cooper
Finley with his big, sonorous voice and commanding presence quickly establishes vocal and personal dominance. The Venetian gentlemen Roderigo (Owen McCausland) and Cassio (Andre Haji) cower under his authoritative persona. Otello, a successful general is no fool but Iago manages to find a way to drive him insane with jealousy to the point where he follows instructions on how to murder his beloved Desdemona. Finley makes every aspect of Iago clear and alive for us.

All of that cannot be said about tenor Russell Thomas’s performance as Otello. Thomas has the physical attributes of the Moor. He is noble and impressive in the beginning and when he becomes ugly in his jealousy, he is frightfully menacing. Unfortunately, he is not always up to the vocal demands of the role. What we see physically is not translated into vocal power and emotional splendour. He is not helped by Alden’s directing and there is little passion and not enough fury in his dealing with Desdemona. In the end, and this is one of Alden’s idiosyncratic stagings, he dies “upon a kiss” about ten feet away from Desdemona.

Soprano Tamara Wilson as Desdemona is good in some of the almost Wagnerian outbursts but she does not quite measure up to all the emotional expressions demanded of the role.

The production gains a great deal from the playing of the COC Orchestra. From the initial burst of music representing the storm to the final death of Otello, we are treated to magnificent playing under the baton of Johannes Debus.

Verdi provides some heroic singing for the chorus and the COC Chorus responds with a splendid performance.

The set by Jon Morrell consists of large concrete walls that could represent a fortress or a port and they serve for all the scenes of the opera with minor adjustments. The costumes suggest 19th century attire and they are fine. 
Gerald Finley as Iago and Russell Thomas as Otello. Photo: Michael Cooper
A couple more examples of Alden’s idiosyncrasies. At one point, Otello brings an icon of the Virgin Mary on the stage and hangs it on a wall. That seems quite appropriate because we are expecting Desdemona to sing “Ave Maria.” Instead we see Cassio shooting a few darts at the Madonna and the icon is soon removed. Why the display of such sacrilege by Cassio is a mystery to me.

Otello commands Desdemona to go to bed in her white wedding nightgown. There is no bed in this production and we see Desdemona crouching on one side of the stage and Otello across at the other side. Eventually he strangles her in the centre of the stage on the floor.

Otello kills himself after realizing what Iago did to him and what he did to Desdemona. Otello usually stabs himself with a dagger and falls upon Desdemona and his last words are “a kiss…another kiss…another kiss.” In this production Otello slashes the side of his neck and falls about ten feet from Desdemona. One is grateful that he does not do the completely comic act of slashing his throat and continuing to sing but slashing the side of his neck is almost as bad and dying that far from Desdemona is pretty ridiculous.

These directorial quirks need not be more than eyebrow raisers but Alden really packs them in and I am not quite sure why. Once your eyebrows return to their natural place, some gripes aside, the production becomes thoroughly enjoyable.
Otello by Giuseppe Verdi is being performed eight times on various dates until May 21, 2019 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671.


Reviewed by James Karas

When April is almost ended, when the weather is getting warm and the birds are singing merrily and the flowers begin to bloom and spring is in the air and there is no construction or traffic jams in Toronto, it is time to think of the pleasures of operetta and turn your attention to the Toronto Operetta Theatre. As you approach the Jane Mallett Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts look up (at your peril) and don’t trip over or fall under the construction equipment that is actually not there.
Gregory Finney (Baron Mirko Zeta) with Male Ensemble 
But what is there is a production of Franz Lehar’s effervescent operetta, The Merry Widow for a paltry four performances. Yes, there were four performances.

Recent economic history, especially the less fiscally prudent countries of the European Union, have taught us that a country can tumble over into bankruptcy. That was the fate of the small but wonderful Balkan nation of Pontevedro at the beginning of the 20th century. Without a European Central Bank or IMF, its fate seemed inevitable.

But wait. Anna Glawari has a big bundle of money and if we can only convince her to marry a Pontevedrian and her money stays in the fatherland the country will be saved. Now you know what The Merry Widow is all about.

Now for the essentials. Our merry widow, Madame Glawari has to be attractive, vivacious, well-voiced, with comic talent. How about Italian-Canadian soprano Lucia Cesaroni? Darn good choice. Lehar is generally not stingy with wonderful melodies but the merry widow is especially well served including the beautiful “Vilja” that Cesaroni executes well.

A rich widow deserves a suitor worthy of her. There is a small lineup of them in the Pontevedrian embassy in Paris but none as eligible as the attaché Count Danilo (Michael Nyby). He is a dashing and carefree playboy with no money and Nyby convinces us that he is worthy of Anna Glawari on all points but we care mostly about vocal ability and acting talent and if he saves the fatherland in the bargain, so much the better.

A foreign embassy in Paris is bound to attract a number of muckety mucks and Pontevedro’s   legation is no exception. De Rosillon (tenor Matt Chittick), de St. Brioche (tenor Joshua Clemenger), de Cascada (baritone Austin Larusson) are there fulfilling their roles. The wives are more interesting especially the vivacious Valencienne (Daniela Agostino), the wife of Baron Zeta (Gregory Finney), the Pontevedrian Ambassador no less. Valencienne is very naughty, has a fan with writing on it and is in danger of being compromised. Agostino can do all of that in the role and sing very nicely.  
 Lucia Cesaroni (Anna Glawari)
Finney’s Zeta is more of a comic role than making great vocal demands. As the ambassador he has to worry about his job, his country, his wife and all those guests that keep him comically busy. His sidekick Njegus (Sean Curran), the Secretary at the Embassy, is even funnier. Curran has natural comic talent and Director Guillermo Silva-Marin makes good use of his talents.

Silva-Marin takes liberties with the libretto bringing in Premier Doug Ford, the IMF and the like. We expect it and he delivers it.

The Merry Widow is set in the Pontevedrian Embassy, in Mme. Glawari’s residence and at Maxim’s. Silva-Marin designs the lighting and set décor admittedly with meagre resources. The Embassy has a few leather chairs and some furnishings but it looks like the fiscal crisis has already has had its effect. Anna Glawari may have struck it rich quite recently because she simply has not had time to furnish her apartment. Maxim’s has a few tables but that’s about all and you should be looking at the girls in any event.

The Merry Widow by Franz Lehár was performed four times between April 24 and 28,  2019 at the Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  (416) 922-2912.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019


Reviewed by James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company has brought back John Caird’s 2013 production of La Bohème for its spring season, together with Verdi’s Otello. It is a sound decision that was greeted enthusiastically by the audience.

The revival is served superbly by the cast. Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan has a supple voice that can express emotion and soar to the high notes with ease. The night I saw the opera (April 26), we were advised that he was singing Rodolfo under the effects of a cold. There was no evidence of any adverse consequences and his performance was topnotch. After the tomfoolery of the poor artists in the attic and the arrival of Mimi, Ayan delivers a superb “Che gelida manina” combining youthful bravado with a wonderful melody and we were hooked. 
A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of 
La Bohème, 2019, photo: Michael Cooper
American soprano Angel Blue seemed initially not to have a big enough voice for the Four Seasons Centre but that impression was quickly dispelled. She starts haltingly with “Si, Mi chiamano Mimi” and pours forth her life leading to the inevitable – love. The one, two, three punch comes with the love duet between Rodolfo and Mimi, “O soave fanciulla,” and we got our money’s worth. The rest is a bonus.

Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman manages to sound sultry as Musetta, the teaser and abuser of men who has a heart of gold. Her signature aria is her “Quando m’envo” better known as Musetta’s waltz and Chuchman brings the vocal kick and manipulative bravura worthy of the show-stopper aria.

Rodolfo’s three friends deserve special mention. American baritone Lucas Meachem as the painter Marcello was vocally the most distinguished of the trio. He showed exuberance in his acting and singing as a sympathetic friend and the hapless former lover of Musetta. American bass-baritone Brandon Cedel was good as the philosopher Colline and Canadian baritone Phillip Addis as the musician Schaunard sounded as if he were not having his best day. 
Lucas Meachem as Marcello, Angel Blue as Mimì (in background), and 
Atalla Ayan as Rodolfo. Photo: Michael Cooper
David Farley’s set featured a hefty number of large canvasses in the first act. The set was turned around quickly for the scene change from the attic to a street in the Latin Quarter for the second act. The background was not well-lit nor a particularly prepossessing street scene but otherwise it was quite good. The third act scene by a tavern near the city gates at dawn looked somber. It is supposed to be snowing but, we had to settle for a few snowflakes. Clearly we have more important things to do like listening to the heart-wrenching Marcello-Mimi duet and her farewell to Rodolfo. Marvelously done.

John Caird took a conservative, traditional approach to the opera and it works superbly in the revival directed by Katherine M Carter.

Paolo Carigniani conducted the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra in a performance that got a well-deserved standing ovation. 

La Bohème  by Giacomo Puccini with libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica opened on April 17 and will be performed ten times on various dates until May 22, 2019 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019


James Karas

Torontonians have an unusual luxury this time of the year. They can see a play about the beginning of the Trojan War and an opera about events at the end of that great, mythical conflict. You remember the 1000 ships moored in the harbour of Aulis ready to rescue the gorgeous Helen, Queen of Sparta from the nefarious Trojans? Small problem: no wind to help them sail across the Aegean. Solution: sacrifice the daughter of King Agamemnon. So goes Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis as adapted by Sina Gilani as Wedding at Aulis for Soulpepper.

At the end of the war, Idomeneus, King of Crete, is returning from the war but the sea god Neptune causes a storm that threatens to swallow the king.  Solution: Idomeneus promises to sacrifice the first person he sees in Crete if his life is spared. Neptune agrees and the first person the king sees is his son. So, we start with human sacrifice of a daughter and end with the sacrifice of a son. A good plot for Mozart’s opera seria Idomeneo.   
 Measha Brueggergosman, Wallis Giunta, Meghan Lindsay and 
Colin Ainsworth. Photo Bruce Zinger
Opera Atelier holds the distinction of giving the first production of Idomeneo in North America on period instruments back in 2008. What was good then is even better now. Director Marshall Pynkoski with Set Designer Gerard Gauci and Costume Designer Marco Gianfrancesco set the opera in its 18th century roots as a work of beauty, elegance and grace. Choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg and the Artists of Atelier Ballet add to these attributes so that the entire production, in addition to all its operatic and balletic qualities, becomes a visual delight. 

Mozart is an equal opportunity composer who provides virtual concert pieces for the main characters of the opera. The cast is exemplary starting with Opera Atelier stalwart, tenor Colin Ainsworth as the unfortunate Idomeneo. He is a haunted man who has made a terrible choice. Ainsworth has a finely tuned voice and his Idomeneo expresses vocal finesse and delivery of character as much as is permitted in opera seria.

His son Idamante, the intended sacrifice to Neptune, is sung by mezzo soprano Wallis Giunta. The role was written for a castrato but is frequently sung by a tenor. It can be done quite well by a mezzo soprano and Giunta with her lovely voice gives a marvelous performance as the prince who is loved by two women.
Wallis Giunta and Meghan Lindsay. Photo: Bruce Zinger
The lushly voiced and dramatic Measha Brueggergosman is back as the love-struck but ill-fated Electra. She is in love with Idamante, but he is in love with someone else. She goes from passion to being unhinged as she realizes that she is the loser of the love triangle.
Soprano Meghan Lindsay runs away with kudos for her performance as the Trojan princess Ilia. She is brought to Crete as a trophy and then falls in love with her owner. We hear her pain and her love in a vocally and theatrically superb performance.

Opera Atelier usually performs at the gorgeous Elgin Theatre but they have been squeezed out of there and sent to the Ed Mirvish Theatre up the street. It is not made for opera and the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra was hemmed in around the stage looking a bit uncomfortable. That appearance was not reflected in their playing under the baton of David Fallis.

Idomeneo is based on a less than satisfactory libretto by a cleric named Giovanni Battista Varesco and its form of opera seria does not help it. But despite those shortcomings, Opera Atelier has managed one more time to give us a production that is a feast for the eyes, a banquet for the ears and ambrosia for the soul. A highly civilized evening at the opera. 

Idomeneo by W. A. Mozart, presented by Opera Atelier, is being presented between April 4 to 13, 2019 at the Ed Mirvish Theatre 244 Victoria St. Toronto, Ontario.

Monday, February 25, 2019


Reviewed by James Karas

Every city deserves a Marshall Pynkoski and a Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg but very few have even one let alone two. Toronto does. As Co-artistic Directors of the incomparable Opera Atelier, they organized a highly civilized concert at the Royal Ontario Museum entitled The Angel Speaks.

The one-hour concert featured instrumental music, singing and ballet in a gorgeous combination. The music ranges from the baroque to the modern with Henry Purcell and William Boyce providing the former and Edwin Huizinga bringing the latter. 
Edwin Huizinga, Tyler Gledhill, Mireille Asselin, Jesse Blumberg and 
Tafelmusik members. Photo: Bruce Zinger
Soprano Mireille Asselin and baritone Jesse Bloomberg Sang pieces by Purcell (See Nature RejoicingThe Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation and An Evening Hymn. Members of the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra played the music of the two baroque composers including Purcell’s Music for a While and his Trio Sonata in F.

Edwin Huizinga’s compositions were a major part of the evening. He has composed Annunciation inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s mystical poem as translated by Grace Andreacchi. Annunciation, of course refers to the announcement by Gabriel to Mary that she will give birth to Jesus Christ. Huizinga, a prominent violinist, also composed and played Inception, a piece for baroque violin. His music is modern but looks back to the baroque in an amazing blend of the two styles. Tyler Gledhill choreographed contemporary dance to accompany Huizinga’s performance and the singing by Asselin and Blumberg. Simply remarkable.

It is worthy of note that Opera Atelier commissioned Inception and its performance at the concert was its North American premiere.   

Most of the concert pieces were accompanied by dances performed by the Artists of Atelier Ballet. The five dancers, Tyler Gledhill, Juri Hiraoka, Edward Tracz, Dominic Who and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg performed the baroque sequences which were choreographed by Ms Zingg. 

Members of the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra with Music Director David Fallis performed the music.
 Edwin Huizinga and Tyler Gledhill. Photo: Bruce Zinger 
The concert was performed in the Currelly Gallery in the Royal Ontario Museum. This is a rectangular theatre-in-the-round with several rows of seats surrounding the playing areaThe spectators were no more than several feet from the playing area.

The Angel Speaks was originally performed in the Royal Chapel at Versailles in 2017. A photograph of the performance at the Royal Chapel makes you regret ex post facto that fate did not place you there for the performance.

It was a highly civilized evening. If the intent was to showcase the work of Opera Atelier, so be it. In early April, they are producing Mozart’s Idomeneo with Measha Brueggergosman at the Ed Mirvish Theatre.  My only and persistent complaint is why are there so pitifully few productions of baroque opera in Toronto?

The Angel Speaks was performed once on Thursday, February 21, 2019 and will not be performed again as far as I know but you can ask Opera Atelier if it will be repeated.

Monday, February 11, 2019


James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company has very wisely revived Atom Egoyan’s 2014 production of Cosi Fan Tutte to go along with Richard Strauss’s Elektra for its winter season. It is a highly enjoyable and brilliant production and the only thing for you to do is high-tail it to the Four Seasons Centre for tickets. However, I will make a few comments on it.

There are two images that will mark this production in seeing it and in memory. The first is a large reproduction of Frida Kahlo’s surrealist painting The Two Fridas and the other is the setting of the opera in a school for lovers. 

Cosi Fan Tutte is about love, fidelity, treachery and reconciliation. You remember Ferrando and Guglielmo are in love (that does their passion an injustice) with Dorabella and Fiordiligi. They will not brook any doubt about the depth and constancy of their loves. Needless to say, the young ladies reciprocate in equal measure. Are women fickle? Don Alfonso bets that they are and to prove his point he has the men appear disguised as Albanians and woo the women. Guess what?
Johannes Kammler as Guglielmo, Emily D’Angelo as Dorabella, Kirsten MacKinnon 
as Fiordiligi and Ben Bliss as Ferrando. Photo: Michael Cooper
Love is a matter of the heart and the lovers in Cosi talk of broken hearts and ripping out hearts at the thought or fact of infidelity. Kahlo’s Two Fridas is a double self-portrait of the artist wearing a European dress, with an anatomically visible heart and a vein dripping blood on one side and of herself wearing a traditional Mexican dress, perhaps a broken heart and holding a portrait of her estranged husband in her hand. .

The two sisters of Cosi are very much alike but they are also very different and one can draw parallels between them and the two Fridas.   You can make whatever you want of the portrait as it relates to the production, but Egoyan makes sure that you pay attention to the details of the painting.

Rather than a café, Egoyan with Set Designer Debra Hanson, sets some of the action in a school for lovers. The “students” will make up the chorus and provide some humorous appearances. And you will see numerous large size butterflies and they can mean whatever you want but you may wish to think of them as symbols of freedom.

If you want to ignore all the above, you will still enjoy an effervescent, marvelously sung production. Start with soprano Kirsten MacKinnon as Fiordiligi, the sister who refuses to fall for the pursuing “Albanian.” She tells us she is solid as a rock in the octave-leaping aria “Come scoglio immoto resta” only to live to sing the gorgeous “Per pieta” asking for forgiveness.
 A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Così fan tutte, 2019, photo: Michael Cooper
Mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo as Dorabella is more easily convinced to fall for the Albanian visitor but we like her for her practical and perhaps even modern thinking about love. All protestations to the contrary, she understands human nature and the attraction of love at hand over love in the absence of a lover. Well sung, well done.

Tenor Ben Bliss and baritone Johannes Kammler as Ferrando and Guglielmo respectively are classic lovers, full of passion, hot wind, irrational thinking and splendid singing.  Baritone Russell Braun who sang Guglielmo in 2014 takes on the role of the philosopher Don Alfonso.

No Cosi is complete without a very good Despina. She is the sisters’ maid and plotting partner of Don Alfonso. Soprano Tracy Dahl is a spitfire of a singer and performer in the role. She is funny, sings with great verve and moves with amazing speed. A delight to see and hear.

Bernard Labadie conducts the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and Mozart’s music is a sheer pleasure to hear.

With Egoyan at the helm, you may want to describe the production as the thinking man’s Cosi Fan Tutte but that may discourage some people from seeing it. Like the lovers at some point, you can enjoy the opera without thinking, if you so choose.     

Cosi Fan Tutte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte opened on February 5 and will be performed eight times until February 23, 2019 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671.

Monday, February 4, 2019


James Karas

“Disgusting” and “degenerate” are the words used to describe Richard Strauss’s Elektra. No, not the current production by the Canadian Opera Company (which is quite thrilling) but its first staging in England in 1910.

Strauss’s 4th opera, by turning Greek mythology on its head, has aroused incredible passions, but the complex score and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s masterly libretto provide a powerful operatic experience.

Strauss and Hofmannsthal throw the idealized view of Greek culture into the dustbin. Their Elektra although based on Sophocles’ play features a woman who is unhinged and whose sole mission in life is revenge. Her father was brutally murdered by her mother Klytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. Now Elektra wants to kill both of them.
 Christine Goerke as Elektra (at left) in a scene from the COC's production of 
Elektra, 2019, photo: Michael Cooper
 Director James Robinson in the revival of his 2007 production takes a middle road in his portrayal of Elektra. He does not overplay her madness or the squalor of her life but gives us a woman who is consumed by hatred and a desire for revenge but who is not completely deranged. 

Soprano Christine Goerke (a notable and well-known Wagnerian, especially to Torontonians) delivers a powerful and obsessed Elektra. She is on stage longer than the rest of the characters and from her opening howl of “Agamemnon” to her final eruption of joy at the end, she dominates the production. Robinson does not make much of Elektra’s final dance of triumph before she drops dead. This is not Salome but the scene could use a few more dramatic steps. 

Elektra is very much an orchestra versus the singers opera and unfortunately there were a few occasions when the orchestra overshadowed not to say drowned out Goerke. They struck me as unnecessary lapses in balance between stage and pit and did not detract from Goerke’s overall thrilling performance.

Soprano Erin Wall sings Chrysothemis, Elektra’s sister, who dreams of a life that involves children and is not consumed by hatred. Wall is better known for lyric soprano roles and Strauss puts the same vocal requirements on Chrysothemis as he does on Elektra. Happily, Wall belts out her part with power and resonance and shows that she can handle Strauss as well as Mozart.

Soprano Susan Bullock who sang Brunnhilde in the COC’s Ring Cycle of 2006-2007, sings the role of the troubled Klytemnestra. After the description by Elektra of how Klytemnestra murdered Agamemnon in the bath with an axe, our sympathy for her is limited but Bullock makes her more pathetic than loathsome. For those with long memories, Bullock sang Elektra in COC’s 2007 production.

Her lover Aegisthus (tenor Michael Schade) gets no sympathy as a character but Schade gets kudos for his performance.

Bass Wilhelm Schwinghammer plays Orestes, the key person in effecting the revenge and the most important male role in the opera as the instrument of revenge. Otherwise it is a relatively small role but the recognition scene is done well and Orestes does his job as does the singer.
A scene from the COC’s production of Elektra, 2019, photo: Michael Cooper
The set by Derek McLane is a challenge to understand. A few steps lead to the courtyard of the palace where the floor is tilted to the right. There is a wall with two entrances on the right which are rarely used and what looks like a garden shed at the rear. This is Klytemnestra’s entrance and when the door is opened we see gilded walls. The set may well represent the confused interior of Elektra’s mind. 

The costumes by Anita Stewart are 19th century dresses for the women and black suits of the era for the men. This is not a throwback to fifth century Athens but an original view of the Greek myth

Elektra may well be described as an opera starring the orchestra and some outstanding singers. Strauss demanded a large orchestra and from the opening thunderclap of Agamemnon’s motif to the final dance sequence and death of Elektra the music is electrifying. Johannes Debus and the COC Orchestra perform magnificently.

The ills of the mythical House of Atreus lasted for five generations have been around since the dawn of western civilization. They have inspired countless works including over 100 operas alone. Klytemnestra is queen of Argos or Mycenae not of Thebes as stated in the programme. The version of their story that inspired Strauss and Hofmannsthal about a century ago reached back across the eons to shock people in 1910 and thrill us in the 21st century.

Go see it.  

Elektra by Richard Strauss opened on January 26 and will be performed a total of seven times on various dates until February 22, 2019 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671.