Wednesday, February 19, 2014


Piotr Beczala as the Prince and Renée Fleming as Rusalka. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by James Karas
Antonin Dvořák’s Rusalka, a late-comer to the Metropolitan Opera roster, was broadcast around the world on February 8, 2014. Otto Schenk’s production premiered the opera at the Met in 1993 and it has remained in the repertoire ever since.

Schenk’s productions are traditional, lavish jobs akin to Franco Zeffirelli’s. Rusalka is very much in that style and it has many virtues even if some may consider it old-fashioned by now. The first act takes place in a meadow by a lake.  Set Designer Günther Schneider-Siemssen provides a realistic-looking lake surrounded by thick brush with the water nymph Rusalka sitting among the branches of a tree. It is a dark and mysterious place.

The Canadian Opera Company produced Rusalka for the first time in 2009, directed by Dmitri Bertman with set designs by Hartmut Schőrghofer.  His cutting-edge designs, in contrast to the Met’s, featured opaque curtains and shimmering blue lighting to indicate underwater activity The set featured a revolving stage, a large round porthole, an antiseptic bedroom with florescent lights and pools of water.

The set for the second act of the Met’s production featured a realistic and opulent exterior of a castle with an impressive winding staircase and opulent gardens.

Rusalka is a lyric fairy tale that tells of the water nymph or mermaid named Rusalka (Renée Fleming) who falls in love with a Prince (Piotr Beczala) and decides to become human so she can live with her lover. Her father, the Water Gnome (John Relyea), disapproves of her decision but Rusalka is adamant and asks the Witch Jezibaba (Dolora Zajick) to turn her into a mortal. Becoming mortal is tricky and costly. Rusalka loses her voice in the process and there is worse, much worse, to come

The voiceless Rusalka (Renée Fleming without a voice?) moves in with the Prince but problems develop immediately, not the least of which is a Princess (Emily Magee) who has matrimonial plans for the Prince. Let’s go fast forward to the point where she will kiss the Prince and he will go into Charon’s boat.

It would be difficult to find a more beautiful Rusalka than Fleming. Yes, I am including physical beauty although my main thrust is her vocal performance. She strikes the perfect note as the Water Nymph (helped by Schneider-Siemssen’s sets) and her silken voice shimmers gorgeously.

Tenor Beczala has a voice that is both supple and commanding. Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea, painted green and costumed wildly was an impressive and sonorous Water Gnome in a very impressive performance.

Mezzo soprano Dolora Zajick created the role of Jezibaba in 1993 and is still at it, as effective as ever. But for dramatic performance where a look can maim or kill, there is Emily Magee as the Princess. Powerful look and dramatic voice combine for an effective performance.

Dvořák’s opera has some beautiful musical and vocal pieces but I don’t’ find its plot sufficiently varied or interesting to sustain one’s attention throughout. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra performed splendidly under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin but the music may have worked as well as a concert piece. Both Schenk’s traditional approach and the more imaginative approach by the Canadian Opera Company failed to convince me that this is an opera that I would lust to see repeatedly.


Rusalka  by Antonin Dvořák with text by Jaroslav Kvapil was shown Live in HD on February 8, 2014 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:

Sunday, February 16, 2014


(l-r) Robert Gleadow as Guglielmo, Paul Appleby as Ferrando, Wallis Giunta as
Dorabella and Layla Claire as Fiordiligi. Photo: Michael Cooper
Reviewed by James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company has struck gold with a fabulous production of Cosi fan Tutte.

The production is directed by Atom Egoyan. All one expects from a director is to reimagine an opera and create something refreshingly new and marvelous especially from a familiar chestnut. Men and women in wigs singing beautifully amid opulent sets (if the company can afford them) or stage furnishings that look as if they were borrowed from Ikea will not kill Cosi but is there not something better? Ask Egoyan.

Forget the café where Don Alfonso (Sir Thomas Allen) challenges the besotted Guglielmo (Robert Gleadow) and Ferrando (Paul Appleby) about the constancy of women. No need for a garden in a villa for the sisters Fiordiligi (Layla Claire) and Dorabella (Wallis Giunta) or rooms in their aristocratic digs. The four lovers attend a school run by Don Alfonso. They and many other students are clean-cut young people, dressed very nicely in white blazers and ties, and are taking up fencing and perhaps lepidoptery. In any event, butterflies come in handy as symbols of freedom or faith or transformation all of which add to the enjoyment and subtlety of the production.

The action takes place in the school until we move to their house where the dominant feature is  Frida Kahlo’s “The Two Fridas.”

The school setting gives the production the sense of youth, freshness and vigour while maintaining a classy atmosphere. There are some frightful productions where the lovers look like the great unwashed but Egoyan will have none of that.

Egoyan adds a wonderful depth to the seemingly light-hearted treatment of constancy and infidelity. “The Two Fridas” is a dual portrait of the artist before and after her separation from her husband. The exposed heart on the woman on the right is intact. The heart of the post-separation Frida is broken and there is blood on her dress. Separation and infidelity are not fun.

The Frida on the right holds an amulet with a portrait of her husband on it. The heart of the Frida on the right is bleeding and she cannot stem the flow.

Dorabella carries a miniature of Ferrando. In the second act of Cosi, Guglielmo’s amorous assault on her culminates in the removal of his friend’s portrait and its replacement with a pendant. They both know that they have betrayed Ferrando and describe the result as exquisite pain but Egoyan takes it one step further.    

The brilliant conception is accompanied with equally successful execution on stage and in the pit. Canadian soprano Layla Claire as Fiordiligi leads the outstanding cast. She sings the big and tough “Come scoglio” with fervour and passion. She may not have all the low notes that the aria needs but she gives a marvelous rendition and does an overall superb job in the role.

Canadian mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta is excellent as Dorabella. Canadian bass Robert Gleadow and American tenor Paul Appleby make a nice set of lovers. They appear young, full of life and hormones. Guglielmo is usually sung by a baritone but I found Gleadow’s voice provided a pleasant contrast with Appleby’s light tenor range.

Baritone Sir Thomas Allen is approaching his seventieth birthday and deserves nothing but praise. When he states as Don Alfonso that he has gray hair he does not need any help from the hair salon. No doubt age is taking a toll on him but on Alfonso is not so much a job as a cake walk for him.

Canadian soprano Tracy Dahl played a sparkling Despina. She is small, comic, energetic and just a pleasure to watch and listen to.    

Johannes Debus conducted the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra in a well-paced performance of this new and memorable production. 

Cosi Fan Tutte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte opened on January 18 and will be performed nine times until February 21, 2014 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014


A scene from A Masked Ball. Photo: Michael Cooper

Reviewed by James Karas

During the curtain calls for the Canadian Opera Company’s production of A Masked Ball at the Four Seasons, the man behind me blurted out a “boo” with such force that it startled me. Vocal disapproval of a performance or a production is not unusual in opera, but this one seemed more ferocious than most. Before we get to that barbaric review, let’s give praise where it is deserved.

Let us praise Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka for a moving, vocally stunning and flawless performance. She is Amelia, the hapless wife who falls in love with Riccardo (Dimitri Pittas) but does not want to be unfaithful to her husband Renato (Roland Wood).

Amelia and Riccardo meet in a graveyard at night and sing the gorgeous and lengthy duet “Teco io sto.” It moves from the breathless, to the ecstatic, to the sublime and makes huge demands on the soprano and the tenor. The duet displays an outstanding soprano meeting the emotional and vocal demands and, unfortunately, the comparative inability of Pittas to match her. It’s not that he has a bad voice; it’s just that he cannot keep up with Pieczonka.

For an outpouring of emotion and vocal splendour, her rendition of “Morro, ma prima” where she pleads for her husband to let her see her son before he kills her is simply outstanding.

Dimitri Pittas has a good voice at midrange but he cannot soar to the high notes as effortlessly as a first-rate tenor should. He does not have a particularly big voice and although he can do well in certain roles when paired up with a Pieczonka he simply does not measure up.

Roland Wood has a rich baritone voice and his Renato, the would-be-jilted husband of Amelia is very good. He moves from faithful servant and best friend of Riccardo to murderously jealous husband and assassin.

Mezzo-soprano Elena Manistina has the meaty role of Ulrica a.k.a. Mme Arvidson (check name of hotel below). She has a couple of dramatic arias that she delivered with relish but she was ill-served by a sorceress’s den that looked like a hotel basement. 

Soprano Simone Osborne played and sang a perky Oscar. He/she is Riccardo’s attendant who unwittingly betrays his master’s costume at the ball.     

Directors Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito created this production for Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden. The opera was originally set in Sweden and involved the assassination of a king. On the objections of the censor, the locale was changed to colonial Boston. Wieler and Morabito decided to move the action to 1950s America and squeeze a political scenario about a wise and benevolent leader concerned with racial issues and social justice while practicing infidelity. If they had called Riccardo Kennedy everyone one would have got the message without reading the programme notes. The interpretation, if you can call it that, is at best a stretcher.

The set by designer Barbara Ehnes represents the United States in the 1950's. It is meant to be the ballroom of the Arvedson Palace Hotel. On the left there is a stage at the back; on the right rear there is a bar with a balcony on top; at the front there are theatre chairs and red and white stacking chairs. The basic set, with minor changes, serves as the den of the black sorceress Ulrica, the graveyard where the gallows are and the house of Amelia in addition to a ballroom.

The costumes by Anja Rabes were modern, of course, but she showed an unusual attraction towards pajamas and housecoats. I have no idea why.

The set(s), the costumes, the general approach left one at sea as to what in the world was supposed to be going on. The singers, especially Pieczonka, and the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra under Stephen Lord gave us terrific entertainment but in the end there were some seriously flawed aspects.

No doubt the gentleman behind was simply trying to express his frustration at those unfortunate aspects of the production and he chose a less than usually civilized method of articulation.

A Masked Ball by Giuseppe Verdi opened on February 2 and will be performed eight times on various dates until February 22, 2014 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671.