Tuesday, December 30, 2014


A scene from Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by James Karas

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg has a number of unique features: it is Richard Wagner’s only comic opera; it holds the Guinness World record as the longest opera; it is an opera that manages to be of epic proportions and comic at the same time.

The Metropolitan Opera has revived Otto Schenk’s 1993 production for the last time and sent it around the world in HD. Not everyone in the theatre had the stamina to stay for the full six hours but those who did were treated to a grand production, vocally, musically and theatrically.

German baritone Michael Volle dominated the performance in the role of Hans Sacks, the humane shoemaker and mastersinger in 16th century Nürnberg. Volle’s sonorous voice is perfect for evoking Sack’s humanity, humour and decency. He maintains his dignity and generosity including the self-awareness that he is too old for Eva, the heroine of the opera. A performance that is as attractive and enjoyable as the character that Volle is playing.

South African tenor Johan Botha plays Walther von Stolzing, the knight who comes to     Nürnberg and falls in love with Eva, the goldsmith’s daughter. Knights used to get the girl by defeating the competition in battle; in Nürnberg he has to best everyone in singing. If he does, he will marry Eva. Our knight has the voice but not the knowledge and he has a few hours to master rules and compose a Prize Song. Botha has a marvelous voice displaying both romantic fervour and power. But there is a problem that may be made worse by the close-ups of watching the opera in the movie theatre.

Stolzing is the dashing knight that Eva falls in love with at first sight. We are quite used to singers who are a poor match for the way we imagine a character and critics should avoid commenting on a singer’s appearance. But in the case of Botha suspension of disbelief becomes almost impossible. He is a big man, who moves awkwardly and the idea of him as a figure of romance is hard to fathom.

German soprano Annette Dasch made a wholesome and pretty Eva with a sweet voice and even sweeter manner. The daughter of the wealthy goldsmith Pogner (done well by Hans-Peter König), she is a worthy objective for a knight or any man. Dasch knows when to look alluring and sing beautifully to give us an exemplary Eva.

Tenor Paul Appleby comes in for special praise. He is a young artist who performed the role of the apprentice David with delightful verve, energy, agility and just plain joy.  His supple voice stood him in good stead for a very good performance.

German baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle got the juicy role of the foolish and nasty Beckmesser. He wants to beat all the mastersingers and get Eva but he makes a laughingstock of himself, gets his comeuppance and does not get the girl. Kränzle gives a superb performance.

Otto Schenk’s production can be classified as traditional with the additional phrase of “they don’t make them like they used to” attached to it. The production will be retired at the end of the year and we will have to wait for the next view of the opera.

Schenk is Franco Zeffirelli with restraint and common sense. The set is by Günther Schneider-Siemssen. The opening scene in the nave of the church is grand without being ostentatious. The street scene and the interior of Sacks’s workshop are realistic and attractive, displaying a well-ordered and well-off city. The final scene is supposed to be in a meadow on the banks of a river but looks more like a wide street with rising steps.

Die Meistersinger has a demanding score and surely few conductors and orchestras can equal James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in performing it. The length of the opera is bound to get to you – concentrate on the orchestra when it does!

The Live in HD Director was Matthew Diamond who decided on exactly what we would see on the screen with sense, intelligence and taste. That is no small achievement when he is compared to some of his colleagues who think opera on the screen is a video game

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg by Richard Wagner was shown Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on December 13, 2014 at the Cineplex Odeon Eglinton Town Centre Cinema, 22 Lebovic Avenue, Toronto, Ontario and other theatres. Encores will be shown on February 7 and 23, 2015. For more information call (416)-752-4494 or visit www.cineplex.com/events.

Sunday, October 26, 2014


Reviewed by James Karas

Opera Atelier’s production of Alcina is full of magic, illusion, enchantment, transformation and love. There is an underlying layer of danger, destruction and evil that all are combined in George Frideric Handel’s 1735 opera.

When the curtain opens, we see an expanse of sand dunes. As we listen to the overture, we notice a shifting of the sand and some of the dunes are transformed into a human body. It is as if the body had been fossilized or become sand and was struggling to escape from its imprisonment like an unfinished sculpture embedded in a slab of marble. It is a startling image created by a projected video and a fine metaphor for the opera. 

Alcina is a sorceress and she rules an island where she turns discarded lovers and other people into animals and vegetables. Think of Circe of Greek mythology who did pretty much the same thing but her specialty was turning men into swine.

Alcina has six characters and a plot that goes something like this: Alcina has the knight Ruggiero in her thrall on the island. Bradamante is in love with Ruggiero and she arrives on the island with Melisso, Ruggiero’s former tutor. Their mission: free Ruggiero and Alcina’s other captives. The means: a magic ring. Bradamante is disguised as her brother Ricciardo and Alcina’s sister Morgana falls in love with him/her. We are now thirty seconds into the opera.

Morgana dumps her lover Oronte who becomes very jealous and violent; Ruggiero is unaware of what is going on remains in his world; more jealousy as the da capo arias come pouring in. Are you still with me? Probably not, in which case, listen to the arias and forget the plot twists.
Director Marshall Pynkoski does a number of things to alleviate the creaky plot. He adds some humour and a number of beautiful ballet sequences choreographed by Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg as well as some extraordinary video projections as mentioned at the beginning of this review. Film Director Ben Shirinian’s video and Gerard Gauci’s sets provide an extraordinary illustration of the text of the opera. Alcina’s palace, a view of people who have become embedded in the landscape, the transformation and liberation of imprisoned men, make up a stunning display of imaginative recreation of an opera.

All of that was not quite enough to free the opera from its complex and unsatisfactory plot but the music and arias in the hands of an excellent cast more than made up for it.

Soprano Meghan Lindsay as Alcina showed good voice even if her fury was not always convincing. Mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta sings Bradamante who is in love with Ruggiero but appears as her own brother Ricciardo. Giunta does a splendid job as a woman playing a man who lets her hair down to show us that she is beautiful and worthy of Ruggiero.
Mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy handled beautifully the pants role of the hero Ruggiero who eventually comes out of his thrall and saves the day. Alcina’s sister Morgana was sung by soprano Mireille Asselin in a prime performance.     

Bass-baritone Olivier LaQuerre has the straight-man role of Melisso, Bradamante’s guardian. He is imposing vocally and physically.
Tenor Krešimir Špicer plays the somewhat buffoonish and jealous Oronte, the commander of Alcina’s troops.   

The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra was conducted by David Fallis to its usual high standards.

This Alcina has enormous production values combined with superior singing but suffers from its unsatisfactory plot. But you can’t blame Opera Atelier for that.

Alcina by George Frideric Handel opened on October 23 and will run until November 1, 2014 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.operaatelier.com

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio San and Stefano Secco as Pinkerton. Photo: Michael Cooper

Reviewed by James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company has revived its 2003 production of Madama Butterfly in what can best be described as a mixed blessing. Brian Macdonald’s production was last seen at the Four Season Centre in 2009 and it has not fared well with the passage of time.

The best part of the production is soprano Patricia Racette’s performance as Cio-Cio San. It is a role that requires a huge emotional and a significant vocal range and Racette does a superb job as Butterfly, the 15-year old Japanese girl who marries, Pinkerton, a despicable American naval officer. She goes from blissful infatuation, to deep love, to desperation, to eternal hope, utter despair and finally suicide. Racette captures all those emotions in her bravura performance.

The most disappointing performance was that of tenor Stefano Secco as Pinkerton. His voice was not strident but it fell well short of the tone of the passionate lover of the first act. He was simply unconvincing either as a lover or a cad. To my great surprise, the audience did not take to him at all and a substantial number of usually polite Canadians booed him. An average performance does not deserve that kind of treatment.

Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong was an affectionate and dramatic Suzuki and gave an impressive performance. Baritone Dwayne Croft was a sympathetic Sharpless, the humane American Consul. His resonant voice stood him in good stead and he provided fine contrast to Pinkerton.  

Macdonald’s and Set Designer Susan Benson’s conception seemed flat and indeed almost drab. Half a dozen screens on a raised platform were practically the sum total of the set. In the background we see a faded mountain presumably on the other side of Nagasaki Harbour. The sky is gray, the sides of the stage are gray and the costumes seem unimaginative. What was simple and even attractive a few years ago no longer satisfies and we need a more imaginative production but do keep Patricia Racette.

The directing seemed careless. The Pinkerton-Butterfly duet in Act I is an ardent expression of love but physically they almost never get even close to each other. “You are the centre of the universe,” “you are mine,” “yes, for life” they sing in passionate bliss. You can’t very well have them in each other’s arms for the duration of the duet singing into each other’s dental work but the staging was decidedly awkward. There has to be sexual electricity between the two even if they are apart because they are about to have their honeymoon.
Racette rises to the occasion in the final scene when she says farewell to her child and kills herself. The libretto calls for Pinkerton to sing “Butterfly! Butterfly! Butterfly” offstage and he and Sharpless rush onto the stage. Pinkerton is supposed to fall on his knees in a possible gesture of repentance. In this production, they are not seen at the end at all. They are not needed. Racette carries the scene all by herself.      

Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini opened on October 10 and will be performed twelve times until October 31, 2014 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671. www.coc.ca

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


Amanda Majeski, Peter Mattei, Ildar Abdrazakov and Marlis Petersen. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera 

Reviewed by James Karas

The current production of Le Nozze de Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera that was broadcast from Lincoln Centre Live in HD may be one of the best ever as seen on the big screen. Director Richard Eyre and Set and Costume Designer Rob Howell have conceived and executed an extraordinary staging that is a delight to the ear, a pleasure to the eye and that is very funny as well.

As the breathless overture to the opera begins and the gold curtain opens, we see a young women wearing only a slip and clutching her bra to her chest running onto and then off the stage. A self-satisfied man in his shorts and robe saunters after her. He looks very happy for obvious reasons. The man is Count Almaviva (Peter Mattei).

The massive and ornate stage of the Met revolves and we see a woman in a large bed. She is not sleeping and she reaches over to the other side of her bed. It is empty. The woman is the Countess Almaviva (Amanda Majeski) and we know why her bed is empty.

The stage continues to revolve and we see the servants Figaro (Ildar Abdrazakov) and Susanna (Marlis Petersen) busily preparing for their wedding. The stage revolves some more and we see the servants of the Almaviva household preparing something.

All of this happens during the overture and we get a panoramic view of the plot of the opera and then some. We are aware that the Count is tired of his wife and has developed a roving eye but we never “see” him being unfaithful nor do we see the Countess in bed alone while he practicing the delicate art of infidelity. In this production we get a good glimpse.

What follows is even better. Eyre has set the production in the 1930’s. The revolving stage is made of ornately carved wood and gives the impression of wealth and elegance with gothic overtones. He directs the cast with meticulous care and in the movie theatre we are at a great advantage for a change. We see every gesture, grimace, double-take, slap and comic business that most people in the audience at Lincoln Centre will probably miss. This comic opera is actually very funny and I found myself laughing loudly far more frequently than I can recall.

The singing and the acting and hence the characterizations were simply outstanding. Take Abdrazakov as Figaro. He is attractive, agile, sings gorgeously and gives us a full-blooded Figaro. Marlis Petersen is a pretty, smart, quick-witted, lively and simply marvelous as Susanna.

Amanda Majeski, Marlis Petersen and Isabel Leonard. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Majeski’s Countess is icily pretty, past the blush of youth and one cans see (perhaps) why the Count has strayed. But she gains our sympathy with two great arias and the fact that she is, as she tells us, much kinder than the count. A superb performance.

Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard deserves special mention for her portrayal of hormonally overloaded Cherubino. In addition to her fine display of sexual excitement, Leonard has a rich array of facial expressions, physical movements and vocal intonations that add up to a delightful Cherubino.                
 Mattei’s Almaviva is irascible, jealous, and almost obnoxious but he redeems himself when he asks for forgiveness at the end of the opera. After the anger, commotion, threats and disarray, there is a momentary pause and his aria of repentance comes out like a hymn of grace.

James Levine celebrated the 75th time that he has conducted Figaro and it is unlikely that there is a conductor who knows the score more intimately. He and Eyre have created a production that may serve the Met for decades.

A word about Gary Halvorson. He is the Live in HD Director who decides on the shots and angles that we see in the movie theatres. I have had nothing but contempt for his work because he seems to think that the Met is broadcasting video games. For this production he allowed us to see and hear without constantly clicking on different shots. We saw the large stage only a few times and I am not sure what the production would like at Lincoln Centre. In the movie theatre, it looked great.

Le Nozze di Figaro by W A. Mozart was shown Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on October 18, 2014 at the Cineplex Odeon Eglinton Town Centre Cinema, 22 Lebovic Avenue, Toronto, Ontario and other theatres. Encores will be shown on December 6 and 15, 2014. For more information: 416)-752-4494 www.cineplex.com/events.

Monday, October 20, 2014


Gerald Finley as Falstaff (centre, on table) in a scene from Falstaff. Photo: Michael Cooper

Reviewed by James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company delivers a resoundingly successful Falstaff for its fall season. Gerald Finley dominates the production the way Herne’s Oak towers over Windsor Great Park (even if in this production the tree is left to our imagination).

The Canadian bass-baritone gives a defining performance as the exuberant, irreverent, lecherous fat knight in Robert Carsen’s brilliant imagining of Verdi’s last opera. There are times when he is the centerpiece of the opera around whom the other characters seem like simple satellites. He dominates vocally with his powerful chords and physically with his well-padded torso. He is funny and Carsen manages to keep him from becoming pathetic in the ends when the “fairies’ are supposed to basically torture him. The needling is ritualistic rather than realistic and the desired result is comic rather than cruel.

Canadian baritone Russell Braun gives a superb performance as Ford, the jealous, would-be-cuckolded husband of Alice. He disguises himself as a wealthy man in order to catch Falstaff, his supposed cuckolder and manages to be amusing in both guises. Braun sings with conviction and acts with panache. Soprano Lyne Fortin is an attractive, energetic and satisfying Alice.

French-Canadian Contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux gave an impressive performance as Mistress Quickly, one of the merry wives of Windsor. She has a marvelously rich voice and a fine comic sense. Her Mistress Quickly was a delight to see and hear.

Tenor Michael Colvin did the best in the relatively minor role of Dr. Caius by being vocally expressive and quite funny. Tenor Frédéric Antoun was good as Fenton the young lover with Simone Osborne as Nannetta, the object of his affection.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Mistress Quickly, Lyne Fortin as Alice Ford, Lauren Segal as Meg Page and
Simone Osborne as Nannetta. Photo: Michael Cooper

Much of the strength of the production lies in Carsen’s interpretation. The Garter Inn where the opera is set in 16th century England (i.e. Shakespearean’s The Merry Wives of Windsor) becomes a modern grand hotel. Falstaff is in a huge bed in a paneled room that is as big as the stage. With a few judicious rearrangements of the panels we move to the other scenes of the opera. The panels are removed for the scene in the kitchen in Ford’s house where Falstaff will be hidden in a huge laundry hamper and unceremoniously dumped into the Thames.

After being saved from drowning by the size of his belly, Falstaff ends up in the stable of the grand hotel where a horse is having dinner while our hero tries to deal with his humiliation.

Falstaff opens at a brisk speed and the tempo is maintained with necessary modulations in pace. Carsen brings out comic touches and gets the laughs and enjoyment inherent in the opera. The last scene in the park where Falstaff’s punishment could become disproportionate to his sins is handled with finesse. In the end his atonement rings false as it should. We want an irrepressible Falstaff who gets his comeuppance but is essentially unstoppable and immortal.

The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra performed energetically under the baton of Johannes debus.

This is a co-production with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, thr Teatro alla Scala, Milan, the Metropolitan Opera, New York and the Dutch National Opera. That may be a good indicator of the current state of opera.

Be that as it may, the audience gave this Falstaff an enthusiastic reception and Gerald Finley a standing ovation.

Falstaff by Giuseppe Verdi will be performed seven times between October 3 and November 1, 2014 at The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St. West, Toronto, Ontario. www.coc.ca

Monday, October 13, 2014


Anna Netrebko as Lady Macbeth, René Pape as Banquo, and Željko Lučić as Macbeth. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera
Reviewed by James Karas

The Metropolitan Opera’s ninth season of broadcasting productions from New York to cinemas around the world is under way with an exceptional revival of Adrian Noble’s staging of Macbeth. The production is dramatically intense with a triumphal finish and a fine twist in the final tableau.

The first-rate cast is dominated by the plush voice and extraordinary beauty of Anna Netrerbko as Lady Macbeth. This Lady Macbeth dominates her husband by the force of her character and the magnitude of her ambition without histrionics or overt pressure. Her physical appearance and vocal prowess establish and maintain her authority right to the end. Her Mad Scene is a model of restraint and controlled drama. The drama comes from within and not from any overt melodramatic movements. What a performance.

Baritone Željko Lučić is the ideal husband and foil for this Lady Macbeth. He appears older than her and although he falls in for her ambition, it seems as if it is not entirely in his nature. Even after he commits horrendous crimes, we never grow to hate him completely. Lučić has a wonderful voice, on the lighter side of the baritone scale, thus giving him a more humane and less threatening persona.

Bass René Pape and tenor Joseph Calleja play Banquo and Macduff respectively. They are both victims of Macbeth with Banquo being assassinated because the witches predicted that his children will inherit the throne and Macduff’s family being eliminated as a precaution. They sing impeccably.

Verdi augments Shakespeare’s witches into the dozens giving himself the opportunity to compose some outstanding choruses. The Metropolitan Opera Chorus looked like a bunch of bag ladies and the children looked like ragamuffins but all to good effect. The bag ladies carried purses which shone a light on their faces when opened. That is how they can foretell the future, I suppose, but they also sang marvelously.

Noble and Set and Costume Designer Mark Thompson deliver a dark and brooding production in modern dress with no attempt at realistic sets. The set is dominated by huge black columns that resemble tree trunks with rings of light. There are also leafless trees and for many stretches we see only a dark background. Much of the performance is done in a spotlight with red as the contrasting colour to the darkness. Blood is a dominant image of the opera, of course, with Macbeth emerging covered in blood after the murder of the king. Banquo and Lady Macbeth also appear covered in blood.

The staging is highly effective with numerous brilliant directorial touches. King Duncan’s bed can be seen on the stage between the columns. After the murder, his slit throat on the blood-spattered bed is revealed in an intensely dramatic scene.

The Met Orchestra is conducted with vigour and intensity by Fabio Luisi.

You will recall that the witches predict that Banquo’s descendants will occupy the throne of Scotland. We see Banquo and his son Fleance (Moritz Linn), the latter wearing a bright red scarf, leave the palace followed by Macbeth’s henchmen with orders to kill them. They kill Banquo but Fleance escapes.

At the end of the opera, order is restored with the crowning of Malcolm (Noah Baetge), the son of the murdered king. As the newly crowned king rises, he glances to his left and sees the boy in the red scarf. Is this the restoration of order or simply a prelude to the next battle for the Scottish crow? Marvelous touch.

Macbeth by Giuseppe Verdi was shown Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on October 11, 2014 at the Beach Cinemas, 1651 Queen Street East, Toronto, ON, M4L 1G5 (416) 699-1327 and other cinemas. Encores will be shown on November 10 and 15, 2014. For more information: www.cineplex.com/events

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


View of St. Mark's English Church, Florence.

Reviewed by James Karas

How is this for an opera season: forty-five performances of ten operas and an evening of love duets. Most opera companies don’t come even near those numbers.

Early September can be a dry month for operas in many cities. But that does not apply tp Florence, Italy where St. Mark’s Opera Company started its fall season on September 2.

Producing opera in St. Mark’s, the English Church in Florence, is like entering a boxing match with one hand tied behind your back. The odds are stacked against you but that does not mean you will not get in a lot of jabs and hooks to leave your supporters cheering.

The programme lists only four singers, a pianist and a Narrator. The latter is Franz Moser who, with his wife Ilse, founded the opera company that is now in its twelfth season. No director is listed and I will assume that Moser does that job. He is also the audience welcoming committee, the prop mover between acts and who knows what else.

Much credit goes to the singers who perform under less than ideal conditions. Elise Efremov is a lovely and lively Susanna. She sings beautifully in challenging surroundings and is spritely and comic. Alvaro Lozano has a good, big voice but he suffered from the acoustics of the Church.

Chiara Panacci was a moving Contessa Almaviva. One could see why the Count’s eye may stray toward the lively Susanna but Panacci’s rendition of her two great arias, “Porgi amor” and “Dove sono” convince us that she deserves to be treated well.

Franco Rossi as Almaviva was impressive and when caught acting like a fool with an axe in his hand, he was quite funny. Eva Mabellini  was fine vocally as a red-haired Cherubino but she was somewhat stilted in a role that requires  a body trembling with sexual excitement.

All the other characters and the chorus were deleted and as a result the opera was done in two hours including an intermission.

The vaulted ceiling of St. Mark’s Church is not opera-friendly. The piano playing of Eugenio Milazzo displayed some very intricate finger acrobatics but it suffered for coming out fortissimo because of the acoustics when less volume would have been more pleasing to the ear. The same fate befell the singers especially the strong, low registers of Rossi and Lozano. The sopranos fared better.

In the tiny playing area of the church there is hardly much room for maneuvering and the set consisted of a couch and a few essential furniture. The seats did not allow much of a view and we had to settle for seeing most things above the knees of the singers.

Yes, this is not La Scala but there is an intimacy and a sense of opera in the raw and on the inexpensive all worthwhile.       

The Marriage of Figaro by W. A. Mozart was performed on September 4, 2014 at St. Mark’s English Church, Florence, Italy.  http://stmarksitaly.com/music-arts/opera-at-st-marks/

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." 
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.
Reviewed by James Karas

If you see two goats, a rooster and bales of hay in front of a barn door on stage, you may well conclude that you are in Kansas. The map of New York State superimposed on the barn door will dissipate that illusion and you will recall that you are on the shores of Otsego Lake. So be it but what are those farm animals doing in Ariadne Auf Naxos?

In fact you are watching Francesca Zambello’s re-imagination of the Strauss/Hofmannsthal opera for the Glimmerglass Festival. The production is successful on most fronts. It is done mostly in English and the comic parts of the opera, especially the spoken sections, gain a great deal by being immediately understood by nn-German speakers. The sections involving Ariadne’s life on Naxos are sung in German and they are very effective.

Ariadne auf Naxos is set in the house of the richest man in Vienna where an opera and a comedy are to be put on to entertain guests after dinner. Scheduling problems force the host to order both to be performed simultaneously.

Zambello moves the opera from Vienna to a mansion in upstate New York and it works. We do not get a sense of the mansion because the “performances” seem to take place on a make-shift stage in the barn. Unless, the rich host keeps hay in his private theatre, that is, but the setting is effective.

The main characters appear as “themselves” and as people in the comedy or the opera that are performed in the second act. American Soprano Christine Goerke is the Prima Donna, a sort of caricature of the haughty singer, in the first act and Ariadne, the grieving princess abandoned on Naxos by Theseus, in the second act.

She has a big voice, a magisterial presence and some impressive low notes that make her a convincing Ariadne. She is interrupted by the comedians who are trying to comfort her but in the end her plush voice dominates the performance.
 Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta (center) and the ensemble in Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." 
Photo: Jessica Kray/The Glimmerglass Festival

Her comic opposite is Zerbinetta, the star of the comedy that is to be put on. She is smart, resourceful, agile, funny and a delight to watch and hear. All of which applies to soprano Rachele Gilmore. She has a purer voice than Goerke’s and the contrast between the two performers was a delight to behold.

The opera company has a tenor who plays the part of Bacchus in the “opera.” Corey Bix was not the best choice for the role. He has a small voice and his impressive physical presence could not make up for it. There were times when he was almost drowned by the orchestra and he suffered by being outsung by Goerke in their duets.

Mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin sang the pants role of the passionate and temperamental Composer. She displayed high dudgeon and tenderness as she got some instruction in reality. Martin does a very good job in the role.

Glimmerglass has an outstanding Young Artists Program and makes extensive use of the budding talents that it tries to shape. The comedians, the dryads and the other minor roles are almost all assigned to the young artists. The young artists and Glimmerglass deserve a huge bow for this.

The Glimmerglass Festival Opera was conducted by Kathleen Kelly and sounded simply marvelous. Yes, a woman conducted the orchestra and when, oh when, will we be able not to notice or comment on the gender of the conductor. Right now, women conductors are a rarity by any standard.

Zambello has found a refreshing and outstanding approach to Ariadne. We get the full benefit of the comic parts which can be drowned in a production that uses the original German. The tragic part is done superbly in its original language. Combined with the lush playing of the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra, this ends up being an exceptional and memorable Ariadne auf Naxos.

Ariadne auf Naxos  by Richard Strauss (music) and Hugo von Hofmannsthal (libretto) opened on July 19 and will be performed in repertory eight times until August 23, 2014 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San and Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton. 
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.
Reviewed by James Karas


That is my review of Francesca Zambello’s production of Madame Butterfly for the Glimmerglass Festival. I will use a few more words to describe the production for understandable reasons.

The production has an outstanding cast starting with soprano Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio San. The 15-year Japanese girl who marries Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton (tenor Dinyar Vania) can be seen as fragile, weak and the victim of her family and the American officer. Not in this production. Lee portrays Cio-Cio San as a strong woman who is genuinely in love. She has a beautiful and strong voice that carries magnificently and this Madame Butterfly dies in the end because she is strong. A brilliant and memorable performance that garnered a well-deserved standing ovation.

Vania’s Pinkerton was excellent if more the text-book variety. With his fine singing and handsome bearing, Vania gave us a well-done, haughty Pinkerton who repents his errors in the end. You can’t ask for much more and I mean of Vania, not of Pinkerton’s morality.

The role of Sharpless, the American Consul, usually does not get much attention. In this production Ukrainian baritone Aleksey Bogdanov made Sharpless into an exceptionally humane person. With his fine voice and outstanding acting, Bogdanov gave us a decent and sympathetic Consul that stood out from the rest of the people.

American mezzo-soprano Kristen Choi was a superb Suzuki and the rest of the relatively minor characters made a strong cast in this WOW production. 

The highest praise belongs to Zambello, the Artistic and General Director of the Glimmerglass Festival. The conception and execution of the production belong to her. The music is delivered gorgeously by the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra conducted by Joseph Colaneri.

Madame Butterfly is set in a Japanese house on a hill overlooking the harbour and the city of Nagasaki. Zambello and Set Designer Michael Yeargan have moved most of the action to the American Consulate in Nagasaki. There are a couple of scenes in the house on the hill but the consular offices decorated with a few desks and other such furniture are the focal point.  

There are some odd things but the conception works marvellously giving the production an American slant and feel. In the opening scene Goro the marriage broker (Ian McEuen) is showing off the house on the hill. We are in the consulate in this production and Zambello solves the problem by having Goro show a model of the house. When Sharpless complains about the hard climb, we just ignore it.

When the Bonze (Thomas Richards) appears to renounce and denounce Cio-Cio San appears the lighting changes, the furniture fades away and we are transported to the top of the hill. A few simple, translucent panels are sufficient to indicate Pinkerton’s and Cio-Cio-San’s brief love nest.

The overall effect is startling, electric, astounding. Madame Butterfly, a strong woman, in the busy American consular offices gives a very different feel from her as a poor girl on the top of a hill. She sings her moving aria “Un bel di vedremo” in the consulate rather than on the hill and it is full of passion, faith and longing.

In the final scene, she stabs herself and a blood-red curtain is lowered on the stage. Pinkerton rushes on stage, tears down the curtain and embraces Butterfly. Their little boy (the very cute Louis McKinny) rushes in and jumps on his father’s back. There is not a dry eye in the house.


Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini John opened on July 11 and will be performed a total of thirteen times until August 23, 2014 as part of the Glimmerglass Festival at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Monday, August 11, 2014


Ryan McKinny as Billy Bigelow and the ensemble in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.
Reviewed by James Karas

The Glimmerglass Festival, under its Artistic and General Director Francesca Zambello, is continuing with its established programming of one chestnut (Madame Butterfly), one less well-known work (Ariadne auf Naxos), one modern opera (An American Tragedy) and a Broadway musical (Carousel). Running from July 11 to August 24, 2014 in a picture-perfect setting on Lake Otsego near Cooperstown, New York, the Festival is the ideal companion piece for baseball enthusiasts. (No, companion piece does not mean antidote!)      

This year’s Broadway offering is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel in a production directed by Charles Newell. It is an intelligent work that, in addition to its great melodies, comedy and drama, touches on the question of good and evil and travels to the afterlife and back.

Billy Bigelow (Ryan McKinny) is a carousel barker with many unpleasant traits including ill temper, violence, and attempted robbery to his discredit. Julie Jordan (Andrea Carroll) sees his good side and marries him despite being struck by him. The robbery is botched and Billy stabs himself. He is not permitted to enter heaven because he has not done enough good and he returns here 15 years later to see his daughter and the rest of his circle.

Sharin Apostolou as Carrie, Andrea Carroll as Julie and Ryan McKinny as Billy Bigelow in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Bass-baritone McKinny gives a fine accounting of the role of Billy. We don’t like Billy but, like Julie, we want to like him. McKinny soars when he sings and we find sympathy for his character and his desire to help his daughter.

Carroll’s Julie is the soul of forbearance, forgiveness and love in a fine performance. She is matched by soprano Sharin Apostolou as Carrie, the woman who marries Enoch (tenor Joe Shadday) for practical reasons. She ends up with wealth, status and many children.

Mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel gives a superb performance as Nettie Fowler as does Rebecca Finnegan as Mrs. Mullin. Shadday fell a bit short of the vocal requirements for Enoch but overall the singing and acting were very good.

Carolina M. Villaraos as Louise and Tyler Whitaker as Enoch Snow Jr. danced the beautiful ballet sequence in the second act. Kudos to choreographer Daniel Pelzig.

John Culbert’s sets are Spartan but effective. There is the suggestion of a fishing village with very little ornamentation and the scene in heaven is done with changes in lighting and little else. You can provide elaborate sets but you don’t need them for a fine production. Mark McCullough deserves special kudos for his imaginative and highly effective use of lighting.  

Doug Peck conducts The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra in a fine rendition of Rodgers’s score.

Charles Newell directs with economy of ornamentation but with musical and emotional effectiveness.         _____

Carousel by Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics) opened on July 12 and will be performed twelve times in repertory until August 22, 2014 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Monday, July 14, 2014


Reviewed by James Karas

With Mozart, Schubert, Bach and Handel as its lead composers, this year’s opera offerings by the Aix-en-Provence Festival have a decidedly Germanic dominance. Only Rossini has no Teutonic connection. And all this on top of the World Cup.

You didn’t know that J. S. Bach composed an opera? Well, he didn’t but he did compose some 400 cantatas of which only half have survived. Conductor Raphaël Pichon and Director Katie Mitchell decided that they can fashion an opera using some of Bach’s cantatas and the result is Trauernacht or Night of Mourning. Mitchell has described the production as a meditation on death.

They have chosen parts from about a dozen cantatas and fashioned them thematically into a night of mourning by a family. Only the Father (Frode Olsen) is identified. The other four singers are identified only by their vocal range: soprano (Aoife Miskelly), alto (Eve-Maud Hubeaux), tenor (Rupert Charlesworth) and bass (Andri Bjorn Robertsson).

They are accompanied by the 11-member Ensemble baroque de l’Academie européenne de music conducted by Pichon.

There has clearly been a death in the family and the four singers sit around a simple table in a sparsely furnished kitchen. The father is a few feet behind them.

The programme opens with Johann Christoph Bach’s somber motet “Mit Weinen hebt’s an” (the only piece not by Johann Sebastian Bach). We are afflicted with sorrows from birth to death and only then do they cease, according to the motet. The programme then continues with cantatas sung by the five singers as solos or in various groupings. The singers carry out some mundane activities around the “kitchen” always moving slowly and methodically.    

The Chorus of Cantata BWV 146 continues the theme of our destiny to suffer: "Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal" (we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God). But the soprano aria from Cantata BWV 127 “Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen” (my soul rests in the hands of Jesus) gives hope of everlasting life.

The tenor and alto follow with the recitative from Cantata BWV 60  “O Schwerer Gang” (O difficult way) where fear of death and suffering is superseded by faith in a merciful God.

The programme leads to Cantata BWV 82 - "Ich habe genug" (I have enough) where the faithful has taken Jesus into his heart and is ready to join Him. The programme ends with the Chorale BWV 668 “Vor deinem Thron” (before your throne) where the poor sinner is past the sorrows of mortals and appears before God’s throne praying for His grace.

The singers have commendable voices and the instrumental performances were sound. The performance lasts 90 minutes without an intermission. The idea of creating an opera out of Bach’s cantatas is interesting and meditating on death is a sobering experience. The beauty of Bach’s music and the hope given by Christian faith make this meditation quite other-worldly and the World Cup utterly mundane.       

Trauernacht by Johann Sebastian Bach and Johann Christoph Bach opened on July 11 and will be performed a total of six times until July 21, 2014 at the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, Aix-en-Provence, France.  http://festival-aix.com/

Saturday, July 12, 2014


Reviewed by James Karas

Fate was simply not on the side of the Aix-en-Provence Festival for a couple of days this year. Perhaps that eschatological supposition is exaggerated. Let’s say that the union representing stage hands and technicians who work occasionally, “les intermittents,” went on strike. A polite strike in the end but sufficiently bad to cause the cancellation of the opening production of Il Turco in Italia on July 4.

There was a second performance scheduled for July 7 and all was well with union. It was no so with the weather as rain was forecast and playing in the open-air Théâtre de l'Archevêché, was not a good idea. They decided to transfer the performance to the Grand Théâtre de Provence and tell everyone about the switch. Somehow the message trickled through but the performance was to be a concert version or a semi-staged affair at best.

Fortunately the union and the weather cooperated and the opera was performed at l'Archevêché on July 9, 2014.

There is nothing more pleasant than seeing a production twice in three days unless, that is, you can see it three times. The concert performance was thoroughly enjoyable. The characters wore the same costumes as in the staged performance and you got some idea of what Director Christopher Alden had in mind.

Alden seems to have taken some inspiration for his conception of the opera from Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Il Turco is structured around a poet looking for plot ideas from the happenings on the beach of Naples. A Turk arrives and falls in love with the lovely Fiorilla. Don Narcisso is already in love with her and her husband Don Geronio is pretty mad about it. The Turk is followed by Zaida, a former love of his. For the poet this is pretty juicy stuff and excellent plot material.

In the concert version, Il Turco turned into Seven Characters in Search of a Director. When I saw the staged version, I confirmed that the characters in the concert performance appeared in costume. They all wore modern clothes that would be suitable in Naples, I suppose. There was nothing particularly notable about what any of them wore except for Fiorilla who was a knockout.

There was some interaction among the characters to be sure but with the stage occupied by Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble there was not much space to do very much. Under the circumstances, the cast did extraordinary work. In the end, the performers received a thoroughly enthusiastic and sustained ovation.                     

However good, it was still like kissing through a fence – something was missing. There is no substitute for a fully staged performance.

Alden converts Rossini’s “dramma buffa” into a play-within-a-play using the character of the Poet Prosdocimo as the directing mind of the unfolding events. The Poet is not just an observer of happenings; he directs and creates some of the events of the opera. He gives the characters sheets of paper containing dialogue and they read out what he has written for them. The Poet becomes the most important character in the opera.

The major characters are on stage most of the time, even when they have nothing to do. After all this is a play/opera in the making and not an actual performance.    

Who makes the poet’s plot?

Fiorilla (sung beautifully by Olga Peretyatko) is an airhead but she is a gorgeous airhead. She is also a coquette, a teaser and a sexual magnet that no sensible man could resist. She puts on a blonde wig, strips to a slip and drives men crazy. She is married to the older Don Geronio (Alessandro Corbelli) and falls in love with Selim the Turk (Adrian Sampetrean) and invites him to her house for coffee. Peretyatko brings out all these traits and in the end sings “Squallida veste e bruna,” a show-stopping aria where Fiorilla repents and sees herself as she is. With beautiful but restrained ornamentation and outpouring of emotion, her bravura performance brings the house down. In the concert performance Peretyatko fell on her knees; in the staged performance she wrapped herself in the sail of the ship that is part of the set. Both nights she was magnificent.

Corbelli, short, chubby, is the perfect comic character. He can do patter songs, comic business and deliver those funny baritone roles as if they written for him.    

Sampetrean as Selim appears just like any visitor to Naples, wearing a not-too-distinctive cap. There are no jewels on his turban, nor any fancy robes as the libretto mentions. He serves the production well vocally.        

Baritone Pietro Spagnoli, as I said, is given center stage by Alden. Even before the overture, we see him pacing up and down, looking at his typewriter, a man in distress. He is suffering from writer’s block until he sees a good story unfolding before his eyes. He controls the development of the characters until a couple of them rebel against their creator. Spagnoli is a fine acting singer who brings to life the Poet.

Don Narcisso is a puzzling character. He is in love with Fiorilla and provides one more source of fun, I suppose. He is a relatively minor character but he does get a major aria in “Tu seconda il mio disegno.” But do you bring the extraordinary tenor Lawrence Brownlee for that? Alden makes Narcisso into a pathetic non-entity in a trench coat. He walks with his head down, tilted to the side; he looks and acts like a lifeless loser. In the concert version, Brownlee walked on stage with self-assurance. In the staged performance, he had to act the role of the dummy and I am not sure why Alden cast the character as such.

By adopting Pirandellian ideas for Il Turco, Alden makes the opera more interesting and perhaps a more substantial work. Its silly plot becomes a play in the making, Prosdocimo becomes a writer in search of a plot whose characters rebel against him. Not bad for an opera whose plot seems pretty inane.  

Il Turco in Italia by Gioacchino Rossini was performed in a concert version on July 7 at the Grand Théâtre de Provence and in a fully staged version on July 9 at the Théâtre de l'Archevêché where it will be performed another five times until July 22, 2014 in Aix-en-Provence, France.  http://festival-aix.com/

Friday, July 11, 2014


James Karas

Simon McBurney has staged a daring production of The Magic Flute for the Aix-en-Provence Festival that is hard to pin down. The words that came to mind as I watched this idiosyncratic interpretation were unorthodox, high-tech, Brechtian, corporate, noir, brilliant – all of them applicable but none sufficient to describe the production.

We should recall that The Magic Flute is a play with songs written by Emanuel Schikaneder, a man of the popular theatre. He wanted a hit to make money and Mozart needed money. The Magic Flute has low comedy represented by the bird-catcher Papageno and more exalted themes like the pursuit of love, virtue and wisdom with a Masonic patina.

McBurney underplays the low comedy but everything else is there with a difference, to say the least.

Let’s begin. As the lights go on, we see glass booths on each side of the stage with technicians operating consoles and equipment. A screen is lowered and one of the technicians writes on a chalk board and his words are projected on the screen. We will see this a number of times including chalking arrows to point the direction Tamino should take. The technicians will remain on stage throughout and one of them will take a small part in the action in a tug-of-war with Papageno.  

Tamino runs on the stage from a door leading to the auditorium wearing a track suit. The menacing monster is shown on screen and we see the technicians operating the equipment. Tamino faints and the Three Ladies dressed partly in army fatigues rush in. They may be the ladies-in-waiting of The Queen of the Night but it seems that they must double up as fierce security guards. We will soon see them in more becoming black dresses.

The Ladies undress Tamino to his T-shirt and jockey shorts and he is joined by Papageno wearing a yellow jacket and carrying a step-ladder. A cartoon is shown on the video screen showing someone descending a mountain and that turns into Papageno.

The stage is dominated by a large platform that can be tilted or even raised above head level as desired. We see the technicians manipulating the platform. When we need rain, we see a technician pouring water out of a can and the streams being projected onto the screen.

When Papageno needs birds (well, he does in this production) there are about twenty actors in the production who run around fluttering pieces of paper to imitate the flight of birds. Instead of Tamino pretending to play the flute, a member of the orchestra steps on stage and plays it for him. Papageno does not have to pretend to play the glockenspiel; an orchestra member steps up to the stage and plays it for him.

I can go on describing the unorthodox or at least different ways that McBurney treats scenes in his vision of The Flute. Is it the Brechtian idea of “epic theatre,” telling a story without the pretense of being realistic? Think of Homeric recitation versus theatrical representations. The dominant colour of the whole production is black. Even when the sun is supposed to shine at the end, all we get is a chalk drawing of it.

Let’s deal with the acoustics and the singing. The Grand Théâtre de Provence suffers from some uneven acoustics which at times are more pronounced than at others. I think the problem is more pronounced on the stage, especially at the back. The Freiburger Barockorchester under Pablo Heras-Casado was outstanding with minimal effect from the uneven acoustics. 

We need a tenor to sing of the heroic, love and virtue that Tamino is seeking and we have him in Stanislas de Barbeyrac. He has the lyric voice and looks to be romantic and strong when pursuing wisdom. He falls in love on sight with the picture of Pamina (Mari Eriksmoen) and we see her likeness on the screen and approve. Yes, she has a lovely voice and is every inch a princess.

Bass Christof Fischesser is Sarastro, the High Priest of Isis. He has a voice with a magnificent middle that descends to rumbling low notes that resonate with splendour. He sings his great aria “O Isis und Osiris” to suited gentlemen seated around a huge table looking like the board of directors of a multi-national. The acoustics were against him. He sang his other great aria “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” near the front of the stage and we got the full effect of his magnificent voice.

American Soprano Kathryn Lewek was recruited to replace Albina Shagimuratova as The Queen of the Night and the Conqueror of the High Fs. This Queen is old, decrepit, bent over, using a cane and a wheelchair. She still has to sing “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” to her daughter because hell’s revenge cooks in her heart and she wants to get rid of her husband Sarastro. We may not care about him but we do want her to leap to those two high Fs and hit them with accuracy and precision. Heaven help the soprano who fails. Lewek does not fail and gives a thrilling performance.

Baritone Thomas Oliemans has the bearing and comic sense to make an excellent Papageno. He did so vocally but McBurney stayed away from the comic part of the opera with a few exceptions. There were a few laughs near the end; Papageno was allowed to interact with the glockenspiel player and the technician but overall laughter was minimal.

In the end, the performance received one of the most enthusiastic and sustained ovations I have seen in a long time.                      

The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder opened on July 2 and will be performed a total of ten times until July 23, 2014 at the Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, France.  http://festival-aix.com/