Friday, December 13, 2013


Jennifer Johnson Cano, Ambrogio Maestri and Stephanie Blythe in Verdi's "Falstaff." 
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by James Karas

The Metropolitan Opera delivered an exceptional production of Verdi’s Falstaff in its last transmission for 2013.

Falstaff has ten roles, 4 women and 6 men. The women easily outclass and outsmart the men and control the action of the opera around the mock-heroic fat knight.

The men with the exception of the lover Fenton are scoundrels or idiots. The women are smart, scheming and in the end triumphant.

Ambrogio Maestri made a masterful Falstaff, singing with assurance, ease and resonance. He is a big man with expressive and naturally comic features which he puts to splendid use. Despite his size, Maestri moves with grace and comic finesse. A seriously funny and fine performance.

The merry wives of Windsor, those chatty ladies who will outwit Falstaff with hilarious results, are Meg Page (Jennifer Johnson Cano), Alice Ford (Angela Meade), Mistress Quickly (Stephanie Blythe). They are not just vocally adept but are also physically perfect for the roles. Attractive, oversized, gossipy, funny. 

Lisette Oropesa and Paolo Fanala are the young lovers Nannette and Fenton who deliver some lovely singing and outwit the older generation.

Robert Carsen’s production shows imagination and brilliance in conception and execution. He sets the story of the fat knight and the merry wives in the 1950’s. The Garter Inn becomes a fancy hotel where we find Falstaff occupying a large bed with dozens of trolleys with plates and empty bottles on them strewn around. We have a glutton and a bon vivant enjoying life to the hilt. When Pistol( Christian van Horn) and Bardolf (Keith Jameson) refuse to deliver his letters to Meg and Alice, there is a bellboy who will do it. The only complaint I have about the set is that on the movie screen it did not always appear well-lit.

Falstaff’s suite is transformed into a hotel dining room of the era. After that, we find Mistress Quickly, Alice, Meg and Nannette in a huge and meticulously arranged kitchen. In the movie theatre, we are treated to a detailed view of what seem like countless kitchen gadgets and utensils.

The ladies are well-dressed or overdressed by Costume Designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel as middle-class or better women who like to laugh, giggle and plot. The atmosphere is bright and comic and Sir John’s shenanigans and Ford’s (Franco Vassallo) jealous rages complete the comic scene. Ford shows up with a detachment of cronies and searches up and down and throws everything in sight in the air and on the floor while searching for Falstaff. A well done, comic scene.

Falstaff ends up in a stable after floating up from the waters of the Thames. There is a horse munching hay while Falstaff comes to on a pile of the same stuff. The stable is transformed into the park where Falstaff is humiliated, the lovers united and the fools shown up.

Carsen has an integrated and fully-realized conception of the opera that works exceptionally well.  

Conductor James Levine has become almost a folk hero to New York audiences who greet his appearance with wild applause. He and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra deserve the ovation.


Falstaff by Giuseppe Verdi was shown Live in HD on December 13, 2013 at the Coliseum Scarborough Cinemas, Scarborough Town Centre, 300 Borough Drive, Scarborough, ON, M1P 4P5, (416) 290-5217 and other theatres across Canada.  For more information:     

Thursday, November 28, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

Christchurch, New Zealand is a devastated city under construction but judging by the production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado at the Court Theatre, it has lost none of its spirit or its sense of humour. The production’s whole is much greater than its parts and the end result is an energetic, funny and delightful evening out.

The Mikado is a perfect vehicle for satire and I doubt that there is any production that does not take liberties with Gilbert’s libretto to poke fun at just about everyone and everything in the city or country where it is produced. Director Ross Gumbley has taken full advantage of that license and takes shots at politicians, entertainers, radio and television announcers, construction work in Christchurch, even Michael Jackson’s hapless doctor. Some of the humour was lost on me being someone who had spent a mere week in the country but most of it came through and was funny. You don’t have to be from Christchurch to complain about all the roads being under construction at the same time – just drive around Toronto.

The production is done with one hand tied behind its back. A small orchestra is a minimum requirement for any production of the operetta. What does the Court Theatre have? A band! It consists of a piano, a xylophone and some drums but the players manage to produce some amazing music. The solos, duets, patter songs and ensemble pieces take over and the amalgam of sound is quite delightful. The task of orchestrating Sullivan’s music to fit the band of the Court Theatre was performed by Musical Director Luke Di Somma.

The quality of singing has its lacunae but again the overall effect is quite enjoyable. The star, even if he does not get most of the singing, is Matt McFarlane as Nanki-Poo, the son of the Mikado disguised as a ukulele player. He is handsome and wholesome and we want him to get the yummy Yum-Yum (Rachel Adams). Neither of them has stellar vocal talents but we are rooting for them. McFarlane has a pleasant midrange but does not venture much beyond. Adams tends to leap to her upper register and at times becomes somewhat shrill in that area.

The Mikado needs comic talent more than vocal prowess and here we are in luck. Danny Avery is the Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko who will take an online course to learn his job. Avery is a fast-moving comic who does an excellent job. Roy Snow as Pooh-Bah, the High Lord of Everything Else is very funny and has a resonant voice. He holds enough positions to make up a cabinet but his chief talent is being corrupt.  Snow engages the audience directly to good effect and laughter.

Juliet Reynolds-Midgley plays Katisha, the Mikado’s daughter-in-law-elect. She is the virago who wants to marry the handsome prince and we have to find a way of disposing of her. Aha, let her marry the Lord High Executioner and keep the laughter going.

The role of the Mikado is played by a woman, Lynda Milligan. She is encased in a Union Jack and you can and should see Queen Victoria in her rather than a Japanese monarch. Milligan plays the Mikado as an overdone and comic character, full of bluster. Well done.

The Male and Female Ensembles who seem to be made up of many amateurs do an exceptional job. They sing, they dance, they cavort, and they are wonderful. The imaginative choreography was done by Stephen Robertson.

The set and costume designs were also by Robertson. The set consisted of round platforms with a raised walkway at the rear and a small bridge on the right. There was even a joke about the money being spent on costumes instead of musicians. The costumes were good.

Ross Gumbley gets the laurel wreath for his imaginative re-working of parts of the libretto, his energetic directing and the highly entertaining production.

The Mikado  by W. S. Gilbert (libretto) and Arthur Sullivan (music) opened on November 23, 2013 and will run until January 14, 2014 at The Court Theatre, Christchurch, New Zealand.         

Thursday, October 31, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

Opera Hamilton tackled a big one for its fall production: Verdi’s comic masterpiece and last opera Falstaff. The rich music and orchestration test the mettle of the best orchestras; there are some fine vocal passages but no show-stopper arias; the action takes place in five different locales that require five different sets including a set for Windsor Park.

How much of that load can a small regional company carry? In the case of Opera Hamilton, the answer is quite a lot. No doubt there were some obvious places where the production showed the strain of lack of funds and some issues with directorial choices. But in the end the production was quite enjoyable.

The thirty-piece Opera Hamilton Orchestra under David Speers was quite effective in tackling the score. The Opera Hamilton Chorus was not taxed by the score but it did its job well.

The singing was uneven but there were some highlights. Canadian baritone John Fanning played the fat knight of the title to excellent comic effect and vocal splendour. He has a fine, mellifluous voice that rolled out effortlessly and a fine command of the comic business of the lecherous and cowardly Falstaff.    

His lechery has two targets in the lovely-voiced Mistress Meg Page (Ariana Chris) and the lively Alice Ford (Lynn Fortin). The name Mistress Quickly conjures marvelous images but in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor on which the opera is mostly based and in Falstaff this is a misnomer. She is another middleclass woman rather than a lady of easy virtue for pecuniary emolument as she appears in Henry IV. The three ladies sang well as they ran around comically conjuring tricks to humiliate Falstaff.

The best singing was produced by soprano Sasha Djihanian as Nannette Ford, the sweet and pretty girl who is in love. Djihanian has a sweet and pretty voice reflecting the role she is playing and she gave us some beautiful singing. Her lover Fenton (tenor Theo Lebow) was not quite as effective vocally and appeared more oafish than ardent. But when he sang “Dal labbro il canto estasia” and the two sang “Labbra di foco!” we heard some beautiful sounds.

Bass-baritone Jon-Paul Décosse and lyric tenor Jeremy Blossey were used for broad conic relief as the lowly servants Pistola and Bardolfo. 

Canadian baritone James Westman played the jealous, scheming, stupid Ford who wants to catch his wife in flagrante delicto and marry his daughter to an older man. Westman is funny and fuming and delivers his Jealousy Aria “E sogno? O realta” with fervour.   

Director Allison Grant takes a conservative and sensible approach to the opera. She eschews cheap gimmicks in order to get laughs. (for a funny opera, it has very few belly laughs). The humour does develop naturally and there is no reason for gimmicks for the sake of laughs.

Grant chooses to underplay the final scene to the point where it becomes almost static. There may be good reason for that but there is also a missed opportunity to generate energy and humour before the curtain falls. This is the scene where Falstaff is humiliated by the townspeople disguised as elves and spirits. Thrashing an old rascal may not be very funny and Grant did not find the happy medium between cruelty and humour and settled for a rather sedate approach.

The set designed by Troy Housie consists of a series of panels hanging from the ceiling and a few essential props on the stage. The panels are manipulated to indicate locale changes but don’t look for Herne’s Oak in Windsor Park. All is left to the imagination.

The costumes were traditional Elizabethan and they were rented from Malabar.   

Falstaff is not any easy opera to produce successfully. With its lack of traditional arias, its fast movement and rich music, it is anything but an easy comic piece to sit back and enjoy. This production started slowly in the steely Dofasco Centre but picked up speed and energy in the more broadly comic scenes. When Falstaff got his first comeuppance and was dumped in the Thames there was genuine laughter.

Falstaff by Giuseppe Verdi opened on October 19 and was performed four times until October 26, 2013 at The Dofasco Centre for the Arts, Hamilton, Ontario. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


(l-r) Dimitri Pittas as Rodolfo, Grazia Doronzio as Mimì, Joyce El-Khoury as Musetta and Joshua Hopkins as Marcello. Photo: Michael Cooper 
Reviewed by James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company provides a traditional production (that is a compliment) of Puccini’s La Bohème at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Its strengths are a well sung Mimi (Grazia Doronzio) and Marcello (Joshua Hopkins), fine directing by John Caird. The set design is very good except for the first act and the orchestral playing is sound. I doubt that there were too many tears streaming down the cheeks of the audience but most people rightly enjoyed a viewing of the old weepie.

Italian soprano Doronzio appeared small and frail just as one would imagine Mimi to be. Her voice emanated from her like a flower captured in time-lapse photography. She would start slowly and tentatively as in “Mi chiamano, Mimi” and then her voice would blossom and become evocative, full of emotion and a delight to hear.

Her lover Rodolfo, sung by American tenor Dimitri Pittas was good but not as successful as Doronzio’s portrayal. The two worked well in their first act love duet “O suave fanciulla” but he was not always consistent in his singing. Pittas sounds fine in mid-range but his voice sounded strained at times in the upper register. Otherwise, he made a believable Rodolfo but unfortunately, his despairing cry of “Mimi! Mimi!” at the end of the opera was simply lost. I am not sure if it was a miscommunication between singer and conductor but the heart-wrenching shout simply misfired.

Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins sang an exceptional Marcello. His fine, sonorous voice and sympathetic portrayal of the painter stood out and was a pleasure to watch.

Caird directed the four starving artists (the other two being bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as the philosopher Colline and baritone Phillip Addis as the musician Schaunard) very judiciously, providing humour and drama, and making them believable. The friends engage in tomfoolery and a pranks against their landlord Benoit and Alcindoro, Musetta’s foolish admirer (both played by Thomas Hammons), all done in good form and adding a fine balance to the tragic love story.   

La Bohéme needs three sets: a scene in a garret where the artists live and work; a crowded street scene in the Latin Quarter and scene on a snowy morning outside a tavern on the outskirts of Paris. Set and Costume Designer David Farley has chosen to decorate the garret with a large number of overlapping canvases covering most of the rear stage. The set looks like a large storage garage instead of a cold attic. The smoke coming out of the stove in the centre of the room is a nice touch but aside from that, there is nothing to convince as that this is an attic.

The set does have the advantage of being convertible quickly into a street scene. Some of the  canvasses are hoisted up to the rafters, the other are turned around and in a matter of seconds we are at the Café Momus celebrating Christmas Eve. The first act is not particularly long and the quick set change saves us the trouble of having to wait long for entertaining second act.    

The Café Momus scene is done well with a boisterous crowd, a fine rendition of “Quando me’n vo” by Musetta (soprano Joyce El-Khoury) in a beautiful and provocative pink gown. There is a lot going on in this scene and Caird manages the whole thing with expertize. (There will be a cast change near the end of the run and El-Khoury will sing Mimi for the last four performances.)

Carlo Rizzi conducts the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and Chorus as well as the Children’s Chorus which makes a lively appearance in Act II.

Caird He handles the entire production from the intimate love scenes to the crowd tableaux soundly in this well-done production with its several issues. If only we were not cheated of the heart-wrenching “Mimi! Mimi!”

La Bohème  by Giacomo Puccini with libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica opened on October 3 and will be performed twelve times on various dates until October 30, 2013 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


Scene from COC production of Peter Grimes. Photo: Michael Cooper

Reviewed by James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company has judiciously chosen a real chestnut (La Bohéme) and a more complex if less popular work, Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, for its fall season. The latter is given a well-sung and directed production despite some faux pas in the set design and the characterization of Peter Grimes by tenor Ben Heppner.

Peter Grimes is an orchestral masterpiece that requires superb choral singing and has a richly-textures and complex plot. The title role requires a strong tenor voice and a singer with acting ability. Heppner usually has no problem in either category but in this performance, he fell short in his characterization of the hapless man.

Grimes is a fisherman whose young apprentice died during a storm at sea. Even though the death is ruled accidental, the townspeople turn on him. Peter Grimes is a loner, an outsider, who longs to belong to the community in which he is considered a misfit. As a result, he is angry and full of incipient violence as he dreams of making money and being able to marry and belong to his community.

Heppner appears like a roly-poly misfit who sings well but who displays no anger and no violence. His characterization lacks forcefulness and a Peter Grimes without those characteristics is incomplete. In fairness, I should mention that Heppner was indisposed for the opening of Peter Grimes on October 5 but took over the role on October 8 and that may have played a part in his performance or the original Director Neil Armfield (Denni Sayers was the revival director) simply miscalled the characterization of the opera’s anti-hero.

Bass-baritone Alan Held brought in the strongest performance as Captain Balstrode, the retired skipper. Held provided the vocal vigour that we expected from Heppner as well as a convincing performance as one Grimes’s few friends in the town.

Soprano Ileana Montalbetti was a very well sung and sympathetic Ellen Orford, the schoolmistress that Grimes dreamt of marrying. She exuded sweetness and humanity in the midst of the town mob and was the vision of Grimes’s possible salvation.

There is a marvelous conjunction of emotions and actions at the climax of the opera in Act 2. It is a sunny Sunday morning on a street by the sea and we hear a church service in the background. Ellen is comforting the new apprentice. Grimes wants to exploit him in order to make money and win the respect of his community. We hear beautiful bits of the Gloria and Benedicite as Grimes becomes furious and strikes Ellen. The music grows dissonant, the drums strike ominously as Grimes intones angrily “So be it – and God have mercy upon me.” His fate is sealed in a marvelous scene that is done splendidly.   

There is a silent character of a doctor in the opera sometimes called Dr. Thorp and at other times Dr. Crabbe. The libretto is based on George Crabbe’s poem The Borough and Armfield has chosen to name the character like the poet. He uses him as a silent Chorus throughout the production. Dr. Crabbe sees everything and says nothing and I found it an interesting approach by the director.

Britten makes major demands on the orchestra and the chorus and here they both performed brilliantly under conductor Johannes Debus.

The production uses a single set designed by Ralph Myers. It consists of a large room that can be an assembly area in a town hall or be converted into a tavern or a street scene. There is a stage at the back of the room that is brought forward for the scene in Grimes’s hut. The set works well for the other scenes but the hut is supposed to be an upturned boat on the edge of a cliff. In this production, it looks as if Grimes’s is living on a stage. We lose the effect of the dangerous location of the hut and the inevitable tragedy that results from it.  

The latter is a minor glitch but Heppner’s characterization is more significant. That did not prevent the production form being quite a fascinating staging of a difficult opera. 

Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten with libretto by Montagu Slater opened on October 5 and will be performed seven times on various dates until October 26, 2013 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671.

Monday, October 7, 2013


Anna Netrebko as Tatiana and cast in "Eugene Onegin."
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera. 

Reviewed by James Karas

The Metropolitan Opera launched its eighth season of Live in HD broadcasts around the world with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. This is a new production by Deborah Warner and it has, as they say, an all-star cast. You can hardly expect anything less for the opening production of the new season at the Met.

It is a well-sung staging with some extraordinarily drab sets. It struck me as more Chekhov and Gorky than Pushkin and Shilovsky in its insistence on an almost dingy and depressing country house background where these well-dressed people with very little to do apparently are headed towards inevitable tragedy.

Top kudos goes to soprano Anna Netrebko as Tatiana, the romantic teenager who falls in love with the cad Onegin. Netrebko’s Tatiana is beautiful, a touch on the plump side perhaps, but still agile physically and simply marvelous vocally. She displays all her talents in the Letter Scene alone where she goes though the gamut of emotions from distress, to uncertainty to delicious happiness and finally collapses on the floor very dramatically. This Tatiana may be an irredeemably romantic girl but she also shows strength and we simply fall in love with her.

Eugene Onegin is the handsome, brooding loner who does not want to commit himself to love and marriage. Baritone Mariusz Kwiecien has a supple baritone voice, a handsome face and a reasonable facsimile of the manners of a cad (not entirely convincing). He is easily bored and takes revenge on his friend Lenski for inviting him to a boring party by flirting with his (Lenski’s) fiancée Olga (Oksana Volkova).

Tenor Piotr Beczala sings the tragic poet Lenski and he gets some of the best arias in the opera. He gets a gorgeous love aria in Act I and sings his masterful Farewell to life in Act II when he is about to duel with his friend Onegin. Beczala breezes though his arias with splendid control and effectiveness. Lenski is sometimes presented as a portly and bespectacled poet. Beczala is handsome and debonair but in this production they put a pair of glasses on his nose to fit his character better. A splendid performance.

This production was staged originally by Deborah Warner for the English National Opera. She was not available to direct the Met’s production and Fiona Shaw was brought in to do the job at the Met. It is a well-thought out and directed production with numerous intelligent touches but, as I will complain about later, some awful sets.

When the Russian peasants sing their zesty chorus in the first scene, we are treated to a ballet sequence. When Onegin appears at the ball in Prince Gremin’s house in St. Petersburg, brooding, bored, dejected, Warner takes us a step further. Onegin is snubbed by the guests as he tries to make some contact with them. It is a marvelous scene of the cad getting his comeuppance. This is probably more effective in the movie theatre where we get close-ups of the guests at the ball turning away from Onegin.

What are Warner and Set Designer Tom Pye trying to convey with the set designs? The scenes at the Larin Estate in the country take place in a non-descript large room. It must be somewhere at the back of the house, I suppose, because the peasants enter through there and there are vegetables, flowerpots and various chairs and tables. The windows are dirty and the atmosphere is, as I said, drab.

The Letter Scene takes place in the same room instead of Tatiana’s bedroom.

The ball at the Larin Estate is equally depressing. The ballroom is large with a bad paint job, nothing on the walls and a chandelier not suitable to light up a chicken coop. Is this another Chekhovian image of a civilization nearing its end?  

We expect to see beauty and opulence at Prince Gremin’s house but we are disappointed again. The Prince’s idea of decoration consists of rows of Greco-Roman columns that look imposing without being impressive and massive without being beautiful. The Prince has money but no taste.

Valery Gergiev conducted the Met Opera Orchestra and Chorus.  
Eugene Onegin by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (libretto by the composer and K. S. Shilovsky after Pushkin) was shown Live in HD on October 5, 2013 at the Coliseum Scarborough Cinemas, Scarborough Town Centre, 300 Borough Drive, Scarborough, ON, M1P 4P5, (416) 290-5217 and other theatres across Canada. Encores on November 16 and 18, 2013. For more information:

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


David Pittsinger, Andriana Chuchman, Wynn Harmon, Clay Hilley, Wayne Hu, Nathan Gunn as Sir Lancelot and Noel Bouley. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Reviewed by James Karas

 ****   (out of five)

Camelot is one of the great products of the American theatre and the choice for this year’s Broadway musical at the Glimmerglass Festival. The choice is unassailable and the production worth the trip to upstate New York.

The musical had an almost disastrous opening in Toronto at the then new O’Keefe Centre in 1960 but it managed to find its way and become a major hit. With book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner (based on the novel The Once and Future King by T. W. White) and music by Frederick Loewe, Camelot has a marvelous plot containing pomp, circumstance, love, pageantry and an interest in power and justice. It is all based on the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table but what really matters, of course, is that the beautiful Guenevere falls in love with the French knight Lancelot.  It ends tragically for all and the only thing that remains is the legend.

Camelot needs a superb King Arthur who for many of us must compete with the voice of Richard Burton, the original creator of the role. The answer for this production is bass-baritone David Pittsinger who wins the insidious comparison by making the role his own. He has a sonorous voice and when he sings “I wonder what the king is doing tonight” and explains the joys of his kingdom to Guinevere in “Camelot,” he is simply splendid. Pittsinger gives us a humane, sympathetic and marvelous King Arthur.

Canadian Andriana Cuchman makes a beautiful Guenevere. She is sassy and funny when necessary, moving and passionate when in love and a pleasure to see and hear. She goes from “The Lusty Month of May” to “I loved you once in silence” with perfect intonation.

Baritone Nathan Gunn has a marvelous voice and his Lancelot is duly heroic but I have a couple of complaints. Lancelot enters with a big paean to knightly virtue and (unintentionally) human arrogance with “C’est moi”. He needs to overwhelm the audience and here Gunn’s voice falls a bit short in size if not in quality. Glimmerglass, to its great credit, does not use microphones, but in this instance, I wish they had.

The second observation is that Director Robert Longbottom (or was it just a perverse reaction from the audience) found humor in “C’est moi” as Lancelot listed his achievements, including physical perfection. Humour takes away from the beautiful song. Other than that, Gunn made a Lancelot worthy of his self-description.

Wynn Harmon doubled as Merlin and Pellinore, two juicy roles for a character actor and he did well in both.

Jack Noseworthy is a thoroughly villainous Mordred who enjoys being nasty. When he sings about “The Seven Deadly Virtues” he does so with delicious conviction.

The sets by Kevin Depinet were suitable without being grandiose. We see the Castle of Camelot in the background during the outdoor scenes and the interior living quarters are modest. The costumes by Paul Tazewell, from the attire of the heroic knights to the beautiful gowns of the ladies at court, are splendid. 

The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus under James Lowe performed heroically as becomes the tenor of the musical and all one can do is repeat that this is an outstanding production of a great musical.

Camelot by Alan Jay Lerner (Book and Lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (Music) opened on July13 and will be performed fourteen times until August 23, 2013 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or

Monday, August 12, 2013


                                      The chorus in The Flying Dutchman. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.
Reviewed by James Karas

Francesca Zambello, the Artistic and General Director of the Glimmerglass Festival, delivers a thoughtful, thought-provoking and simply brilliant production of The Flying Dutchman for 2013 season of this American showcase near Cooperstown, New York.

The Glimmerglass Festival takes note of the 200th anniversary of the births of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner by producing early works by both of them. Wagner gets the birthday cake for his 1843 opera whereas Verdi is honoured with King for a Day, equally unknown as Un Giorno di Regno.   

The Flying Dutchman, like most operas, can be and has been subjected to all kinds of treatments by different directors. The question was: what will Zambello and the Glimmerglass people bring to this work. The answer came quickly, during the overture before the curtain went up. They have a great deal to offer and they in fact deliver an outstanding production.

The first indicators come during the performance of the overture by The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra. Conductor John Keenan establishes control of the music and the orchestra and delivers a performance of sustained power and clarity. This feat is even more impressive because it is a relatively small orchestra.

When the curtain goes up, we hear the music of the violent storm but also see a woman tossing in bed. We realize that the storm and the rest of the plot are a dream sequence of Senta’s (Melody Moore). Senta is fascinated by the story of the doomed Dutchman who is condemned to sail the seas until he finds the love of a faithful woman. She wants to be that woman and she dreams of his arrival.

There is some precedent for this interpretation of the plot. In the 1978 production at Bayreuth directed by Harry Kupfer, The Flying Dutchman was presented as a figment of Senta’s imagination.

Zambello with Set Designer James Noone and Costume designer Eric Teague chooses a straightforward and very effective way of telling the story. The ship is indicated by some scaffolding and ropes that are used by the sailors. The same ropes act as the walls of Daland’s house.

The singing is first-rate starting with bass-baritone Ryan McKinny in the title role. The Dutchman is a deeply troubled man, a myth one should say, who is seeking something that can only be granted in a dream or an imaginary world. McKinny has the vocal power and coloration to make a convincing Dutchman and gives a sterling performance.

Melody Moore as Senta makes a perfect match for the Dutchman of her dreams. She is fascinated by his story while awake and we see her clutching his portrait and talking about her dreams of him. Moore has a dramatic voice that she uses to great effect.

Bass Peter Volpe is an excellent Daland. His Daland is a greedy busybody who is prepared to sell his daughter. We can credit the character with having some affection for his daughter and recognize Volpe’s singing and acting for the fine job that he does with this less than admirable personality.

Jay Hunter Morris sings the role of the hapless Erik who is a decent man and a very good tenor but still does not get the girl. A fine job by Morris.  

At the start of this production, we see silhouettes of women on the ropes of a ship in the background. We also see, as I said, Senta tossing in her bed. Near the end, Senta, strangles herself in the same bed with the ship’s ropes rather than throwing herself into the sea as called for in the libretto. 

We then see the same silhouette of her as in the opening scene together with the Dutchman rising above the waves. The Dutchman and Senta have found love through transfiguration.

An astounding production.

The Flying Dutchman by Richard Wagner opened on July 6 and will be performed twelve times until August 24, 2013 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or

Thursday, August 8, 2013


Soprano Nadine Sierra and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo in Stabat Mater. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Reviewed by James Karas

PASSIONS is the title of a double bill presented at the Glimmerglass Festival. It is in fact a triple bill consisting of Stabat Mater by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi and two pieces by David Lang, The Little Match Girl Passion and When We Were Children. The Lang and Pergolesi pieces have some things in common but in the end they are completely different.

The Stabat Mater is, of course, a musical setting of the suffering of the Virgin Mary. The idea and the image of Mary standing by the cross of her crucified Son has enthralled hundreds of composers who have tried to give musical expression to her agony.

Director and Choreographer Jessica Lang has created a stage work from Pergolesi’s beautiful music. The vocal parts are taken by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and soprano Nadine Sierra. They are simply outstanding as they sing of the pain of the Virgin. The Latin of the hymn is very simple and the expression of pain and grief straightforward but Pergolesi raises the simple verses into something ethereal and extraordinary.

Lang has choreographed a moving ballet around the music and singing enhancing the vocal expression of Mary’s anguish. The eight dancers roll on the floor, undulate their torsos and provide an extravaganza of motion that is simply marvelous.

Set designer Marjorie Bradley Kellog has largely taken Christianity out of the most of Christian of settings. The action takes place in an inverted V on the stage and the most prominent feature of the set is a denuded tree trunk in a vertical position. Another trunk is lowered in horizontal position and there is an indication of a cross but the production eschews obvious references to Christianity. The two trunks take various positions as they are maneuvered but they never take the true form of a Christian cross or indicate the crucifixion directly.

Speranza Scapucci conducts The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra in a crisp and precise performance of the Baroque music. The production is a marvel of concision and imagination where a piece of sacred music is turned into a universal paean to suffering.

From Pergolesi we move to David Lang’s new composition, When We Were Children. The Glimmerglass Festival Children’s Chorus lines up across the stage and sings a choral piece based on 1 Corinthians 13:11. In the King James Version it reads:  When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. Lang uses many variations of St. Paul’s words for his piece.

The Little Match Girl Passion is more ambitious. The story is based on Hans Christian Anderson’s   The Little Match Girl and it is dramatic enough. A little girl is selling matches on the streets of New York on New Year’s Eve. No one is buying her matches and she starts lighting them one by one. They provide little warmth and she dies of cold and is transfigured.

There is a vocal ensemble of four (Julia Mintzer, James Michael Porter, Lisa Williamson and Christian Zaremba), all members of the of Glimmerglass’s Young Artists Program. Aside from some percussion accompaniment, the singing was done a capella. This is no doubt a matter of taste, but Lang’s music did nothing for me. It was repetitive, monotonous and unmoving. I hasten to add that Lang won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for The Little Match Girl Passion. As happens so often, there is no accounting for taste and I mean mine.

Passions  a double bill consisting of Stabat Mater by Giovanni Pergolesi and The Little Match Girl Passion and When We Were Children by David Lang opened on July 20 and will be performed eight times until August 20, 2013 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or

Monday, July 22, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

The year’s grand production by the Aix-en-Provence Festival at the aptly named Grand Théâtre de Provence is Richard Strauss’s Elektra. The Orchestre de Paris is conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the production is directed by Patrice Chereau. The result is a simply outstanding production of a great opera.   

Elektra strikes me as an extended Mad Scene for its main character. The rest of the cast has to work under two impediments: Strauss’s powerful, sometimes overpowering music and the dominance of the performance by Electra.

German soprano Evelyn Herlitzius has the lung-power, acting ability and the extraordinary voice to dominate the performance. In the opening scene, she is released from a pen and stumbles onto the stage where there is a hole for her in the centre. She is at least unbalanced if not completely deranged and wears slacks and a blouse. She is no princess. There are moments of lucidity, psychotic glee, frenzied dancing and vocal prowess that add up to a stupendous performance by Herlitzius.

Electra, of course, is the daughter of Agamemnon who was murdered by his wife Clytemnestra upon his return from Troy. Electra is full of rage and hatred and she is reliving her father’s murder every day as she waits to wreak vengeance by killing her mother.

Chrysothemis does not share her sister’s maniacal desire for revenge. She wants vengeance but she also wants life. Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka gave a dramatic and well-balanced performance but like the rest of the cast with the exception of Herlitzius on occasion she faced the problem of the lack of balance between pit and stage.

Strauss’s music is powerful and only singers with steel-plated lungs need to apply for most of the roles in Elektra. That being said, the conductor needs to balance the orchestra and the singers. Pieczonka can more than stand her ground vocally but much of Chrysothemis’s singing is not done at full throttle and there were times that the orchestra almost overpowered her. This holds true for most of the other singers as well.

Mezzo soprano Waltraud Meier was the pleading, haunted Clytemnestra. Like Electra, she is haunted by her husband’s murder and is seeking a means of purging her nightmares. A sacrifice to the gods is the only solution – her sacrifice! Meier captures the conflicting personality and sheer evil in a fine performance.

Russian bass Michail Petrenko sang Orestes, a role that is a foil for Electra and American tenor Tom Randle sang Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover. They did well.

In passing, I want to mention Sir Donald McIntyre’s appearance as an Old Servant. From Wotan in the 1976 Ring directed by Chereau at Bayreuth to a servant in Elektra is quite a distance. But Sir Donald, at 78, looked good and it was a treat to see him.

Subject to my comments about the need for better balance between pit and stage on occasion, the performance of the Orchestre de Paris was simply incomparable. Elektra is as much a full concert as an opera and Salonen brings out the thunder and the maniacal nuances of Strauss’s score.

Chereau and his designer Richard Peduzzi (the same one who designed the 1976 Bayreuth Ring, if you will), use a stark, monochromatic set for the production. Chereau adds his own touches.  Orestes brings out his mother’s body after he kills her with a hatchet and leaves it on stage. Aegisthus is normally murdered behind the scenes, but in this production he meets his end on stage by Electra.

A final touch of directorial finesse comes at the end when Orestes leaves the stage and goes into the same pen from which Electra emerged at the beginning of the opera.

A great and memorable night at the opera.

Elektra by Richard Strauss (music), Hugo von Hofmannsthal (libretto) opened on July 10 and will be performed five times until July 22, 2013 at the Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, France.

Sunday, July 14, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

For its 65th season, the Aix-en-Provence Festival commissioned a new opera that had its premiere at the outdoor theatre of the Domaine du Grand Saint-Jean in the countryside of Provence. The House Taken Over is a fascinating piece that has an equally fascinating provenance. The opera is composed by Vasco Mendonça on a text by Sam Holcroft.

The House has only two characters, Hector (Oliver Dunn) and his sister Rosa (Kitty Whately) who live in a large family house in Argentina in the 1940s. Although they have names, they are referred to as Brother and Sister and they live according to well-set routines that have become ritualistic. They have breakfast, clean the house, open the curtains, cover the family portrait to protect it from the sunlight as if they were almost automatons. Sister is what one would have described as an old maid at one time. She is dressed very conservatively and when not in view of her brother she knits shawls and affectionately embraces a doll.

The routine of the siblings is broken by what is announced in the title of the opera. They hear noises and the house is slowly taken over by someone or something or perhaps simply their own fears. The occupation proceeds until they are left with only a small vestibule where it is impossible to live.

This frightful progression is captured by the text and the music of Mendonça. He seems to have taken his cue from Hamlet to suit the music to the word, the word to the music without overstepping the modesty of nature. There are frightful “noises” when parts of the house are taken over which are represented by dissonant and agitated music. There are segments when the siblings carry on their routines; when Rosa knits or cuddles her “baby;” when the two are frightened or arguing. Mendonça shapes his music to these moods and events.

Holcroft’s text is in simple English reflecting the relationship of a brother and a sister caught in the family home under strange and frightful circumstances. The opera is sung in English.

English baritone Dunn, in a beard and sweater, is a bachelor, not old but perhaps past his prime who lives an almost robotic life with his sister. The two seem to have some inner life through reading and dreaming but externally their existence is pathetic even without the slow invasion of their house.

Whitely and Dunn did fine work and were convincing as the besieged couple.

Alex Eales designed a fine set consisting of a dining room and a kitchen. The set is turned around and becomes a vestibule for the final scene.

Katie Mitchell, a highly experienced theatre director, treated the opera as a stage play with excellent results. She orchestrated the movements of the characters and paid close attention to the details of their existence.

Etienne Siebens conducted the Asko/Schönberg Ensemble of thirteen musicians who sounded superb.
Now as to provenance. The opera is based on Casa Tomada, a novella by Argentinian writer Julio Cortazar. The text was prepared by English playwright Sam Holcroft. The music was composed by Vasco Mendonça who is Portuguese. The opera was commissioned by the Aix-en-Provence Festival but it is a coproduction of five other organizations spanning a swath of Europe. It is put together with support from the Cultural Programme of the European Union.

And this is for an opera that lasts one hour.

Now that is what I call international cooperation!

The House Taken Over by Vasco Mendonça opened on July 6 and will be performed sixn times run until July 17, 2013 at the Domaine du Grand Saint-Jean near Aix-en-Provence, France.

Friday, July 12, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

Elena is an opera by Francesco Cavalli that was first performed in 1659 and has not been staged since then. Leave it to the Aix-en-Provence Festival to dig it up and give it a full blooded performance at the small Théâtre du Jeu de Paume. There may be good reasons for ignoring the opera for so long but don’t tell that to the Aix people who have produced it. They deliver a masterful and enjoyable production despite some wrong-headed choices.

Elena of the title is none other than Helen of Troy but that was in the future. Cavalli’s opera deals with Helen’s marriage to Menelaus, King of Sparta. The plot is full of twists as various suitors vie for the hand of the most beautiful woman in the world. There are some wonderful melodies and set pieces and the whole thing eventually ends in happy marriages – for the time being, in any event.

The opera opens with a Prologue which presents a version of the Judgment of Paris where the three goddesses, Juno, Athena and Venus, compete for the Golden Apple. Paris is not in the opera but thanks to the involvement of Discordia, the apple goes to Venus, and June and Athena swear that, although Helen will marry Menelaus, she will be taken away from him.

Director Jean-Yves Ruf treats the Prologue as a burlesque. The goddesses appear in hairstyles that are from Mad Magazine. They shove each other around and give the impression that we have a comic opera in the style of Offenbach’s La Belle Helene. Cavalli called the opera a “dramma per musica” and I think he wanted us to take his piece, if not seriously, certainly not as burlesque. The rest of the production does not suit the treatment of the Prologue.

The convoluted plot centers, more or less, around the wooing of Helen by Menelaus, Theseus and Menestheus. Menelaus cross-dresses as an Amazon called Elisa in order to get closer to Helen. A bunch of men fall in love with Elisa. Theseus’s real Amazon wife Hippolyta appears and she wants to kill her husband and by this time you are having the time of your life trying to figure out who is what, who is chasing whom and in what part of mythical Greece you are in. The libretto was started by Giovanni Faustini and finished by Nicolo Minato before a good editor got his hands on it to straighten it out. It is badly in need of streamlining and slashing but it is a bit late for that now.

Grab what you can of the central plotline and listen to the music and the singing and you will discover why the opera is worth producing. Cavalli is unfailingly melodic, inventive and simply beautiful in his musical settings.

Start with Hungarian soprano Emöke Baráth who sings the roles of Helen and Venus. She is a pretty blonde with a beautiful voice. Cavalli gives her some lovely melodies and her ringing and luminous voice delivers them to perfection.

Rumanian countertenor Valer Barna-Sabadus is a scrawny young man with a simply beautiful voice. His stage presence leaves something to be desired but his singling is simply gorgeous. His hair (and that of some others) could have used some attention if not some shampoo. He seemed to belong nowhere physically but was saved by his vocal ability.

Portuguese tenor Fernando Guimarães with his deeper voice provided a nice contrast to the countertenor pursuer of Helen. He played Theseus who is married to the Amazon Hippolyta. The latter is sung by Solenn’Lavanant Linke, a woman of some stature well suited to the role.

There is scant characterization in the opera with perhaps the exception of Iro, the buffoon. Tenor Emiliano Gonzalez Toro delights in the role which gives a bit more scope than the lovers have.

Thirteen singers with some doubling up take on more than twenty characters in the over-crowded opera but all find some opportunity to display their talents.

The stage design by Laure Pichat consists of a few wooden panels on stage for the first part and some streamers to indicate the forest in the second part.

Costume Designer Claudia Jenatsch has chosen clothes that seem to fit no time period that I could discern. There are hints of medieval knights’ costumes in Castor and Pollex’s clothes; Renaissance costumes for some but overall the idea seems to be they are mythical figures and they can wear whatever they want. The unkempt hair on some did not help the general appearance.

The Cappella Mediterranea Orchestra under Leonardo Garcia Alarcon was one of the stars of the evening. They played with extraordinary finesse they gave us the best part of Elena: Cavalli’s music.

Director Jean-Yves Ruf had some tough choices to make with a problematic opera. Most of his choices worked well despite some arguable ones. The opera has its shortcomings but it was a delight to see its reappearance after so many centuries   


Elena by Francesco Cavalli opened on July 7 and will be performed on various dates until July 19, 2013 at the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, Aix-en-Provence, France.