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: