Monday, December 27, 2010


                             Ariana Chris as Cherubino, Nathalie Paulin as Susanna and Brett Polegato as Count Almaviva. 
Photo: Peter Oleskevich
By James Karas

Looking for opera in Southern Ontario is not exactly like looking for oases in the Kalahari Desert but neither are productions so plentiful that you feel you cannot see everything. The Canadian Opera Company offers seven productions, Opera Atelier provides only two and if you want to see more you will have to settle for some concert versions or see opera on the movie screen Live from the Met.

But there is another oasis, a scrapper known as Opera Hamilton that refuses to be deterred by budget deficits and offers two full productions and a concert version of opera favourites each year.

For 2010-2011, the operas are The Marriage of Figaro (October 21 and 23 2010) and a double bill of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci (April 21 and 23, 2011). In between, they offer POPERA Plus! which they subtitle a “gala super concert” (January 27 and 29, 2011) of familiar and less frequently heard arias and ensembles.

The production of The Marriage of Figaro was a delight. Not that there were no shortcomings and much of the credit belongs to Mozart. But director Brent Krysa invested the production with many nice comic touches (like Marcellina holding Figaro on her lap like a baby after she discovers he is her son) and maintained a good pace that in the end left you patting yourself on the back for being wise enough to see it.

Let’s start with the strengths of the production. Canadian bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus made a fine Figaro. He sang and acted well and handled the comic business with panache. His counterpart is Count Almaviva, sung by Canadian baritone Brett Polegato. Where Figaro is the clever and funny servant, Almaviva is the serious and dramatic aristocrat. Polegato was just that, thundering his notes with musical authority.

Susanna (soprano Nathalie Paulin) is the other quick-witted servant who can match and even surpass Figaro in cleverness. Paulin has a lovely voice but it took her a while to warm up. Initially I thought her voice may be too small for a large auditorium. But she settled in and did a fine job.

Canadian soprano Katherine Whyte’s Countess presented several problems. The Countess, in contrast with her servant Susanna, should be regal, even majestic. Her marriage to the count has gone stale and she is pensive and perhaps depressed because she feels that he no longer loves her. In fact the Count wants to seduce Susanna. In her beautiful first aria, “Porgi amor,” the Countess laments the loss of her beloved husband’s love and expresses her deep sorrow. The long phrases of the aria should be delivered with a majestic beauty that Whyte does not quite achieve. The same can be said of her singing of “Dove sono” where she asks where the lovely moments of sweetness and pleasure have gone.

The other issue with Whyte was simply sloppy directing on the part of Krysa. The Countess’s movements and manner should be in sharp contrast to that of her maid. Begowned and bejeweled, she should move with the gait of a princess not the quick steps of a servant. She does not.

Mezzo soprano Ariana Chris did a superb job in the pants role of Cherubino. He is hormonally overcharged and can usually be found where he shouldn’t be. Aside from some wonderful comic business he/she gets two marvelous arias, “Non so piu cosa son, cosa faccio” (I don't know any more what I am, what I'm doing) and “Voi, che sapete che cosa è amor” (You ladies, who know what love is) where poor Cherubino simply quivers with sexual excitement. Chris acted convincingly boyish and, as they say, delivered the vocal goods.

Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Lichti delivered Bartolo’s “La vendetta” aria with sonority and he and mezzo-soprano Lynne McMurtry’s Marcellina made a nice comic team of the would-be spoilers of Figaro’s wedding plans. Gerald Isaac sang the roles of Basilio and Don Curzio with a comic twang that was quite appropriate.

The set, designed by Susan Benson was functional. It was not big enough to fill the stage and when Cherubino jumped out the window we saw him scamper off to the wings. Once you get used to it you forget the stage and listen to the music and the singing.

The Opera Hamilton Chorus sounded thin at times and the Hamilton Philharmonic under the baton of Gordon Gerrard went through some uneven patches but gave an overall god accounting of the score.

In the end, it was a very enjoyable evening at the opera.

The Marriage of Figaro by W.A. Mozart was performed on October 21 and 23, 2010 at The Great Hall, Hamilton Place, Hamilton, Ontario. Tel. 905 527-7627

Monday, December 20, 2010


Last Saturday’s (December 11, 2010) broadcast of Verdi’s Don Carlo on large screens started at 12:30 in the afternoon and did not finish until after five. There were two intermissions but make no mistake this is grand opera in conception, execution and chronological demands. Verdi makes it all worthwhile even if New York’s Metropolitan Opera has made some serious faux pas in the assembling of an otherwise grand production.

For his 25th opera Verdi tackled some large themes and subjects that were close to his heart: political oppression, national unity, foreign domination and a few well-placed kicks in the groin of the Catholic Church. A love story is de rigueur and two ardent lovers are provided who fall in love at first sight but she is forced to marry his father!

Plot? Well, Don Carlo, the heir to the Spanish throne is madly in love with Elizabeth, the daughter of the King of France. For state reasons, Elizabeth marries King Philip of Spain, Don Carlo’s father. They still love each other despite the marital arrangements. Princess Eboli is also in love with Don Carlo and we have the perfect trio for an opera.

On the international scene, we have the oppressed Flemish people who want some elbow room. They have a champion in Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa. The Catholic Church enters in the hideous guise of the Inquisition and a few Flemish people are burned at the stake. It is all very dramatic and the perfect if somewhat overlarge subject for an opera.

The current production is by Nicholas Hytner, the Artistic Director of Britain’s National Theatre and it is designed by Bob Crowley.

For Don Carlo you need half a dozen singers some of whom need to have the stamina of vocal Marathoners with an orchestra that can deliver the richly textured music. The Met does exceptionally well in this department. Our hero Don Carlo who is rarely off stage is sung by tenor Roberto Alagna. He does an exceptional job despite the heavy demands of the role. He is still young enough to look acceptable as a hero and deserves full marks for his performance.
Our heroine is the hapless Elizabeth who finds the love of her life only to be told that she has to marry his old father for political reasons. She is the prize or price for the peace treaty between France and Spain.

Soprano Marina Poplavskaya has a fine voice and sang with exceptional beauty and vocal control. The problem with her is that she has a charmless face with disproportionately large jaws and taut skin that seems impervious to the expression of emotion. She can hardly smile and knitting her eyebrows was the height of her emotiveness.

Baritone Simon Keenlyside sang an outstanding Rodrigo, Don Carlo’s friend, who tries to be a good subject as well. Bass Ferruccio Furlanetto sings the despotic King Philip who does have one major aria of introspection, “Ella giammai m' amò!” (She never loved me!). He realizes that Elizabeth never loved him and that he will only find peace when he dies. He sings with assured sonority throughout and looks and acts his part.

If the king has at least a moment of introspection and humanity, the Grand Inquisitor has none. Dressed in the flowing red robes of a Cardinal, bass Eric Halfvarson exudes raw power and unrelenting evil. When he first appears, his hands shake as if he is suffering from Parkinson’s but Halfvarson soon forgets the Inquisitor’s illness. He should either kept it up on never started it. His shaky voice is sufficient indication of his dotage.

Mezzo soprano Anna Smirnova is a generously proportioned and powerful Princess Eboli who at one point sings about the curse of being beautiful. The Princess who is in love with Don Carlos is a nasty piece of work and Smirnova does a good job at bringing this character out.
Don Carlo opens in the forest of Fontainebleau in the winter where Don Carlo and Elizabeth are separately lost. A few trees and some snow on the ground will do and let’s get on with Don Carlo’s opening aria “Fontainebleau! Foresta immense e solitaria” where he tells us that he saw his beloved’s smile. We never see her smile but let’s not quibble. They do treat us to a great duet and we are on our way.

The rest of the sets were inept, inappropriate, invisible and downright annoying. Take the scene outside the monastery of St. Just. The chorus of ladies-in-waiting sings about a shady pine grove where a fountain cools the heat of summer. There is a reddish panel in the background and some barely visible cypress tress on the side. It is dark and dreary and one wonders what the hell were Hytner and Crowley thinking of. You can have light and colour without taking away from the seriousness of the opera.

Gary Halvorson does not help things. He is the man responsible what we see on the big screen. He has not figured out yet that the broadcast of an opera is not like playing a video game. If you keep changing shots and angles with appalling frequency you are guaranteed to get some stupid shots not that frequent changes is not sufficiently stupid in itself.

You need to get used to this idiocy and I have made some strides but am not quite there. Bad sets and bad camera angles can affect but cannot ruin a grand production and this one is decidedly worth seeing.

Don Carlo by Giuseppe Verdi was shown live in theatres on December 11, 2010 and will be shown again in various theatres on January 22 and February 14, 2011.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Anna Netrebko and John Del Carlo in "Don Pasquale." Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

A rich old bachelor wants to marry a beautiful young woman. She is in love with a handsome young man and the two must outwit the old fool. There is a clever go-between who will devise a plot to get rid of the old codger and unite the young lovers.

Sounds familiar and in fact could be Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Close enough but in this case we are talking about Gaetano Donizetti’s comic masterpiece Don Pasquale. The opera premiered in Paris in 1843 and was one of the last bel canto operas to be composed. It is also one of the best.

The Metropolitan Opera has an all-star cast for its production at Lincoln Center and, for us less lucky mortals, in movie theaters around the world Live in HD. The production is lively, brisk, funny, well sung and provides several hours of supreme entertainment. One does miss the ambiance of Lincoln Center and New York but you can’t have everything.

Don Pasquale wants to punish his nephew Ernesto for not marrying the woman he has chosen for him. He decides to marry the beautiful widow Norina. But she is in love with Ernesto and we have Dr. Malatesta, the plot mover, who will disguise Norina as a virtuous convent-trained girl and marry her off to Don Pasquale. She will turn into a bitchy spending machine and drive Don Pasquale crazy. He will get rid of her and she will marry Ernesto and we or maybe just they will live happily ever after.

The opera is a storehouse of marvelous melodies, gorgeous arias, duets and trios and some of the fastest patter songs you ever heard. One of them (the duet with Don Pasquale and Malatesta near the end of Act III) is such a perfect example of machine-gun speed parlando delivery, that the singers stop and provide an encore on the spot. Not an everyday occurrence but it was certainly a crowd pleaser.

The star of the show is clearly soprano Anna Netrebko as the widow Norina. There are no qualms about heaping praise on Netrebko's lustrous voice but there was a question mark about her doing this role. Opera buffa is not her natural territory but she showed that she has considerable comic flair and she handled the role with gusto. Her Barbie-doll pretty face is not capable of great expressiveness but she is still a pleasure to watch and a sheer delight to hear.

Bass John Del Carlo sang the name role. He is a Falstaffian comic actor and singer who seems to have been born for the role. He has an expressive face and a voice that is suited to the foolish old man who convinces himself that he can marry a feisty widow.

Tenor Matthew Polenzani is the perfect Ernesto, the young lover who would rather be disinherited by his uncle than marry a woman he does not love. He is earnest, passionate and sings with a lover’s conviction.

The conniving Dr. Malatesta is sung by baritone Mariusz Kwiecien. He is vocally excellent but appears a bit young for the role. I think of him as a Figaro figure but he lacks the barber’s wiles and humour. For some reason he wore sunglasses and I can only assume it was because the lights bothered his eyes and not because the director or designer decided the character needs them.

The main setting for Don Pasquale is a room in his house. Designer Rolf Langenfass’s set gives the impression that Don Pasquale’s house is full of dilapidated furniture occupied by a slob. He should hire a cleaning lady, you say, but he has all those servants. What are they doing? Why the mess? Whatever the answer, the messy set adds nothing to the production.

Director Otto Schenk sticks to a traditional production that lets you enjoy the myriad of melodies and comic business from one of the best examples of the genre.

Gary Halvorson’s handling of the camera angles and close ups was sensible and you could enjoy an outstanding production and start saving for a trip to New York to see the real thing.

The production will be shown in movie theatres again on December 4, 2010 and on January 17, 2011. Go to or for more information.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


Mireille Asselin & Thomas Macleay in Handel's Acis and Galatea. Photo: Bruce Zinger

Reviewed by James Karas

****1/2 (out of five)

For its 25th season, Opera Atelier offers two 18th century works, namely Handel’s Acis and Galatea and Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. The first is playing now at the Elgin Theatre; for the second you will have to wait until April 2011.

For the 1732 production of the pastoral opera Acis and Galatea, the advertisement read that “there will be no Action on the Stage, but the scene will represent in a Picturesque Manner, a rural Prospect, with Rocks, Grottos, Fountains and Groves.”

The current production of the work by Opera Atelier pays no heed to the early advertisement and co-artistic directors Marshal Pynkoski an Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg have produced a delightful version of the work. There is considerable humour and action on the stage in the form of dances choreographed by Ms Zingg but unfortunately very little evidence of groves and fountains. More about that later.

Acis and Galatea was first performed in 1718 and it was George Frideric Handel’s first dramatic work in English. His librettist John Gay based the wok on Ovid’s Metamorphoses and tells of the love triangle of Acis, Galatea and Polyphemus. Galatea is a Nereid, a sea nymph, one of the 50 daughters of Nereus, the god of the sea.

Somehow she finds herself in Arcadia or Sicily and the semi-divine Galatea has fallen in love with a mortal named Acis. The one-eyed, man-eating Cyclops Polyphemus is also in the same neighborhood and he has fallen in love or more accurately in lust with Galatea. (this is before he took up sheep rearing full time on the island of the Cyclops and dined on some of Odysseus’s men). Polyphemus’s father is the god Poseidon and you know things will not turn out well for the mere mortal Acis.

Acis and Galatea has been variously described as a masque, a serenata, a pastoral and a pastoral opera. It has a number of melodic arias, duets and choruses that tell the story of the love of Acis and Galatea and the fate of the mortal lover in the hands of Polyphemus. There is a fourth character named Damon who is sometimes described as a Shepherd but Pynkoski has wisely chosen to have him played as spirit. He comments on the action and is a connecting link in the plot.

The delight of the evening is soprano Mireille Asselin’s Galatea. Ms Asselin has a lovely voice, rich in tone and colour and she was a pleasure to watch and hear. She was well-matched by tenor Thomas Macleay as Acis. Handel does not require lung-stretching vocal histrionics but he does demand beauty of tone and Macleay delivers some marvelous singing.

Pynkoski has chosen to present the Cyclops Polyphemus as a comic character rather than as a straight villain. Polyphemus is larger than life and he must be either a terrifying monster or a comic burlesque of a monster. Bass Joao Fernandes struts on the stage and overacts as becomes a clownish monster and produces some laugher but he is not larger than life. His singing was good but the character needed to take a more extreme shape to be satisfactory. Tenor Lawrence Wiliford was sprightly physically and vocally as the spirit Damon and a good example of a properly conceived character.

The Tafelmusik Chamber Choir gets some of the best parts of the opera and from the opening chorus of “Oh, the pleasure of the plains” to the final “Galatea, dry thy tears” is simply superb. The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra under the baton of David Fallis is matchless in this repertoire.

The opera has a large number of solo airs and if the singers were allowed to simply sing their numbers there will indeed be no Action on the Stage. Leave it to Choreographer Zingg to devise dances for the Atelier Ballet to accompany the singing. The production becomes a ballet as well as a pastoral opera.

The single backdrop that serves as a set for the entire production looks more like a decaying gothic castle on “a dark and stormy night” rather than anything that remotely resembles any notion one might have of Arcadia. When the choir sings of the pleasures of the plains, there are none to be seen. The center looks like the opening to a cave with overhanging rocks. The sky is dark and menacing and there is no hint of groves. Even the animals that are come bouncing across the stage seem to be running away from an approaching storm rather than happily romping through the dales of Arcady.

Aside from those two complaints, this is a superb production in period style that is worth seeing more than once. By happenstance, I saw it twice and enjoyed it even more the second time.

Acis and Galatea by George Frideric Handel, presented by Opera Atelier, opened on October 30 and will be performed seven times until November 7, 2010 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto.