Wednesday, March 26, 2014



Reviewed by James Karas

Watching La Fille du Regiment at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, I was struck by the similarities between opera and Olympic figure skating. You see the handsome couple glide around the ice surface, leap gracefully in the air, twirl several times and land as if they were snowflakes falling to the ground.

We enjoy all of it but most attention is paid to those difficult moves, those twirls and those landings. One mistake and farewell medal contention.

La Fille has broad comedy, splendid music and some of the toughest arias in the repertoire. Donizetti was not satisfied with just a work of melodies and comic business – he wanted vocal gymnastics. What else would you call nine high Cs in one aria alone?

In the current production, as in the Olympics, there is stiff competition. In this case it is Canada v. Peru. You will recall, the Canadian pair of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir giving a breathtaking performance at Sochi. With utter objectivity, good faith and sound judgment, we expected them to win gold. They were pitch perfect in their singing …er …skating, got all the high notes (OK, there were a couple of booboos, but the others were worse) and in the end Canada ended up with silver.

The tenor in La Fille who belted out the nine high Cs for the first four performances of the current revival of Laurent Pelly’s production was Peruvian superstar Juan Diego Flórez. For the final two performances, the role was sung by Canadian tenor Frédéric Antoun. Like most of the Canadian team at Sochi, Antoun is a Quebecois. The Peruvian has sung the role of Tonio umpteen times, in fact he sang it at the Met in 2008 and that performance was broadcast around the world as part of the Met’s Live in HD series. The audience could not stop applauding at the time. It was like watching those Russian gymnasts who dominate that sport as if they own it.

Antoun was making his debut at Covent Garden and one could compare the standoff between Canada and Peru like a David and Goliath match of the vocal chords. Before we get to the singing pyrotechnics, the defining twirls in the air, so to speak, we listen with pleasure to Antoun skating around his notes with grace, and beauty. We notice that his partner Marie (soprano Patrizia Ciofi) has a big and marvelous voice. She brings energy and vocal resonance to a delightful Marie. Her voice is just a bit bigger than our Canadian hero’s.

We arrive at the crucial test of the high Cs in Tonio’s first act aria “Pour mon âme” and hold our breath. Will Canada best Peru? With poise and ease, Antoun leaps once, twice … nine times and does not miss a single beat. The audience, those relentless judges, roars its approval. In the medals ceremony, alas, as happened to Tessa and Scott the gold medal went to the Peruvian. As gracious Canadians, we accept the result but do not give up.

La Fille, as its name states, contains a regiment and Choreographer Laura Scozzi has created dance routines and comic business around Donizetti’s boisterous music.

Contralto Ewa Podleś played La Marquise de Berkenfeld. She is a crusty old woman and Podleś enjoyed showing off her low notes and indeed getting a laugh out of them. That is what a good singer/actor does in a comic opera – sing well and evoke laughter.

Pietro Spagnoli has better vocal power than comic talent, or at least he was not allowed to display the latter. Pelly had him play more a straight man than a broadly comic character.

Dame Kiri te Kanawa made a cameo appearance as La Duchesse de Crackentorp. She did some vocalizing, sang an aria, did some comic business and the audience loved her. She just turned 70 and nothing other than appreciation and applause are called for.

The set by Chantal Thomas consisted of indications of a mountainous area covered by maps in the first act and wood-paneled opulence in the second act.

Pelly moved the action from the Napoleonic Wars to World War I. The reason escapes me. War as fun and glory never existed but one is more ready to accept it as myth in the Tyrolean Alps of two hundred years ago than in the trenches of the Great War one hundred years ago. Christian Räth was the revival director.    

Despite the World War I setting, including a tank, this is a thoroughly enjoyable production be it with Flores or Antoun.

But one of my convictions is absolute and unshakeable: Tessa and Scott should have gotten the gold medal at the Olympics. As for Juan Diego, it won’t be too long before Canada produces a tenor who will consider nine high Cs in an aria as a mere warm up. And the Maple Leafs will win the Stanley Cup!


La Fille du Regiment by Gaetano Donizetti was performed six times between March 3 and 18, 2014 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London.

Thursday, March 20, 2014


Reviewed by James Karas

As the curtain goes up on Un Ballo in Maschera in Ljubljana, we see a huge staircase with three landings occupying almost the entire stage. We are listening to the overture as eight men dressed in white military uniforms emerge furtively from trapdoors in various areas of the stairs. They have their pistols out and are looking for someone. They reach the bottom of the stairs, find a chair and as they point their guns, notice that it is empty. They disperse as the overture ends.

This is the dramatic curtain-raiser that Director Vinko Möderndorfer and Set Designer Branko Hojnik have devised for Ballo. They want to emphasize the conspiratorial aspect of the opera where a few men can collude in the murder a ruler. More about this later.

Möderndorfer and dramaturge Blaž Lukan have brought the plot to a modern setting with a powerful civic leader, Riccardo, rather than an Earl or a King as in the original and revised versions. In the original version, the main character was a Swedish king but a hypersensitive censor forced Verdi to make him the Earl of Warwick, Governor of Boston, where it was presumably more acceptable to murder a high-ranking official.

The production has several alternate casts but I saw the opening night performers on March 13, 2014. Two singers stood out: tenor Branko Robinšak as Riccardo and soprano Natalia Ushakova as Amelia.

Robinšak has a marvelous lyric voice and he handled the role of Riccardo with ease. He has to be generous, passionate and remorseful as he pursues illicitly but ardently his friend’s wife (wearing the mask of a friend, of course) and gives her up with her virtue intact. Robinšak shows vocal flair and gives us a fine Riccardo.

Ushakova makes a moving and very effective Amelia. She was fine throughout but rose to the heights in “Morró, ma prima in grazia,” her emotional aria where she begs her furious husband Renato to let her see her son before he kills her for her suspected infidelity.

Baritone Jože Vidic seemed to be doing a workmanlike job as Renato until Act III where in “Eri bu che macchiavi” he bursts out with such passion and marvelous singing that his performance becomes anything but workmanlike. The joy of his life loathsomely poisoned everything and Renato expresses the ultimate loss of his life through the treachery of those he loved most: his wife and his dearest friend. 

The sorceress Ulrica emerges from the crevice between the divided stairs and looks as if she is materializes from the underworld. The stage is darkened and the conspirators lurk ominously around the stage. Slovenian mezzo soprano Mirjam Kalin looks very dramatic and acts as such but her singing was not as convincing.

The conspiratorial appearance of the officers led by Samuel (Saša Čano) and Tom (Peter Martinčič) during the overture gives way to the brilliant scene in the court or residence of Riccardo. Almost everyone is wearing white and it is a brilliant scene. For the second scene, the stairs are pulled apart in the centre, as I said, creating a dark path through which Ulrica enters. It is a dark, mysterious and dramatic scene.

The same stairs are moved to the side to create the grisly execution area where Amelia goes looking for the magic herb to kill her illicit love for Riccardo. About a dozen or so decaying corpses are lowered on the stage making the place indeed gruesome. The final scene is the masked ball where the colour red is emphasized, including the uniforms of the conspirators. Again, a brilliant tableau.

Against the usual advice about not putting children or animals on stage, Möderndorfer puts a child on stage (Amelia’s son) who is cute and steals the scene. When the men must choose who will kill Riccardo, they put their names in a toy truck. The little is asked to draw a name and he picks his father as the killer. A terrific and imaginative touch.

Conductor Marko Gašperšič took a very deliberate approach to the score and the small orchestra performed well.

Möderndorfer took possession of Ballo and gave us a fresh, imaginative, effective and exceptional production.

Un Ballo in Maschera by Giuseppe Verdi opened on March 13 and continues until March 25, 2014 at the SNG Opera in balet, Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Reviewed by James Karas

Director Bepi Morassi gives an energetic and well-sung production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice. The sets are kept to a minimum but spirits are high, the singing is generally excellent and the orchestra of La Fenice is in superb form.

Morassi and Set Designer Lauro Crisman have draped off the top and sides of the stage, lopping off about a third of the playing area. This gives the effect of a miniature theatre and the feel that you are watching a delightful play in intimate surroundings. The relatively small and ornate La Fenice helps in creating and sustaining the impression.

The set for the opening street scene where Count Almaviva (Giorgio Misseri) courts the beautiful Rosina (Marina Comparato) is sparse and almost papier mâché in keeping with the miniature theatre idea. The reduced playing area means that the set for the rest of the opera is also limited but elegant.

That sets the stage for opera buffo fun. Tenor Misseri’s approach to his role is not just lively, it is downright athletic. Not just physically, I mean vocally as well. He does not just hit his high notes, he leaps to them with fervor.

He is well-partnered by South Korean baritone Julian Kim as Figaro. In keeping with Morassi’s approach, the youthful Kim attacked the role of the wily barber with vigour and relish and sang superbly. “Largo al factotum” and largo al Julian Kim.

Italian mezzo-soprano Marina Comparato sang the lively and lovely Rosina. Comparato has a lush voice with a beautiful mid-range and an amazing low register. Fair enough that with that type of range, she is not at her best with high notes. But she is and amazing mezzo in the middle and lower registers. And as the decisive, self-assured and I-get-what-I-want young lady, she is just the type of girl you want to love.

The opera is a non-stop conveyor of melodious arias, ensembles and comedy but there are two set pieces that I wait especially to see: Rosina’s “Una voce poco fa” and the Music Lesson. “Una voce” defines Rosina’s character and the singer’s ability to handle all of Rossini’s embellishments. Here Comparato was not at her best when she had to deal with those high notes.

The Music Lesson is full of comedy and melody as the two lovers furtively express their feelings, sing beautifully and fool Bartolo as to what they are really up to. Delightful.

In Bartolo Basilio and Berta, Rossini provides three relatively minor but very juicy roles. Each is provided with comic business so necessary to the opera and an opportunity to show off their vocal dexterity.

Baritone Omar Montanari is Rosina’s foolish guardian Bartolo who wants to marry her. The old boob (Bartolo, not Montanari who seems quite young) is set up as the butt of the romantic liaison between Rosina and Almaviva. Montanari is very adept as a comic and as a singer.

Bass-baritone Luca Dall’Amico is Bartolo’s sidekick, Basilio. The tall singer with his flaxen hair in the role reminded me of Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Sir Toby’s sidekick in Twelfth Night. Dall’Amico gets to sing “La calumnia,” one of the famous arias in the opera and the repertoire and he handles the crescendos with aplomb. He also does his comic business well.      
Bartolo’s maid Berta is given some comic business and a nice aria, “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie,” and soprano Giovanna Donadini does well in both.

Giovanni Battista Rigon conducted the Teatro La Fenice Orchestra with verve and every crescendo got its due in a splendid afternoon at the opera.

Il Barbiere di Siviglia  by Gioachino Rossini is being performed eight times bteween Feebruary 20 and March 20, 2014 at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice.

Thursday, March 13, 2014


John Mark Ainsley, Rebecca Evans, Matt Casey. Photo: Clive Barda
Reviewed by James Karas

Abduction, usurpation, treachery, attempted murder are the staples of opera and all of them can be found in George Frideric Handel’s Rodelinda. But this is opera seria, 1725 vintage, and truth to tell, it can be very static.

Director Richard Jones will have none of that. His production for the English National Opera at the London Coliseum has splendid singing and a plot that moves like a gangster picture. Forget the ornate palace and the magnificent attire that these royals and would-be royals are entitled to. Jones moves the action to the 20th century with some realistic and some surreal elements.

All the characters wear dark clothes, suits for the men, long gowns for the women. I choose to think of the plot as a turf war in an organized crime family but it may just be a film noir about gangsters. Grimoaldo (John Mark Ainsley) has usurped the throne/territory of Bertarido (Iestyn Davies) and is lusting after his wife Rodelinda (Rebecca Evans). Grimoaldo is already engaged to Bertarido’s sister Eduige (Susan Bickley).

Grimoaldo’s henchman Garibaldo (Richard Burkhard) advises him to dump Eduige. Grimoaldo does and Garibaldo forms and alliance with her in his bid for power. We also have Unulfo (Christopher Ainslie) who works for Grimoaldo but secretly supports Bertarido. And that’s just the beginning.   

Handel has provided music and vocal parts to delight any audience. But the arias and duets can be sung in front of a single set in the palace with the singers’ feet nailed to the floor. The opera can almost be performed as a concert piece. Jones and Set Designer have created a multi-faceted set that allows for movement and fluidity. In the third act, for example, the stage is divided into six separate sections including a holding cell, a corridor, an office and a couple of other rooms for the good and the bad characters to wander through.

Some of the men carry daggers stuck in the front of their pants which I found rather surreal. When Grimoaldo is tempted to murder Bertarido he is provided with a sledge hammer, a torch and a huge sword. There is also a detonator used to blow up Bertarido’s monument and some use of video projections. In other words, there is no lack of activity in this production.

That in no way detracts from the essential character of the opera or diminishes the music and singing that are the hallmark of its greatness. Soprano Rebecca Evans is superb in the title role. She has some gorgeously affecting solos and duets that she performs with emotion and vocal finesse.

She is well-matched by countertenor Davies who, like Rodelinda, gets some of the finest arias and duets in the opera. His trills, his smooth transitions, the sheer beauty of his voice are simply a delight for the ear.

Kudos to countertenor Christopher Ainslie as Unulfo, the other nice guy in the opera. He displayed beauty of tone and singing to a very high degree.   

With mezzo soprano Susan Bickley as Eduige the voices go lower as the moral standards of the characters decrease. Not Bickley’s singing, I hasten to add.

The lower voices of baritone Burkhard and tenor Ainsley represent the villains and I was not as happy with them. Beside the countertenors, they did not sound as satisfactory and they certainly could not handle some of the trills as well. I may be unfair to compare them to the different voice ranges but there it is.

Christian Curnyn conducted the orchestra to gorgeous effect. The opera is sung in English in this new coproduction with the Bolshoi Theatre of Russia.


Rodelinda by George Frideric Handel opened on February 28 and will be performed eight times until March 15, 2014 at the London Coliseum, St. Martin’s Lane, London. Box office: 020 7845 9300

Friday, March 7, 2014



Reviewed by James Karas

Andrei Serban’s production of Turandot for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden is approaching its fortieth anniversary. After fifteen revivals it is still holding the stage and quite rightly so. It is opera on a grand scale with chorus and dancers the size of a small army and an array of huge, colourful  props and  powerful orchestral playing.

The title role is sung by Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin. She has sung Wagner and Strauss roles widely and Turandot, the icy Chinese princess may seem a bit off her beaten track. But with demanding arias like “In questa reggia” that require powerful expression, she is well in her vocal demesne. She does a good job and her princess displays the soprano’s strength but I am not convinced by her sudden conversion from iceberg to lover.

South Korean tenor Alfred Kim sings the difficult role of Calaf, the Unknown Prince. He has some major pieces where he has to surpass orchestra and chorus and Kim has a big enough voice to be heard. He does well in the lyrical passages but near the end he has to sing “Nessun dorma,” one of the most popular arias in the repertoire. Every tenor who got near a recording machine has put his voice on CD, vinyl or tape and can be compared to everyone else.

Kim does get the high notes but his voice is simply not sufficiently polished in the aria. You expect a perfectly clear, lyrical rendition and Kim’s performance falls just short of the wonder one expects. He was good but not great.

The finest performance is without hesitation credited to American soprano Ailyn Pérez as the slave Liu. She has a lovely voice, sweet, moving, polished and when she sings “Signore, ascolta!” our hearts melt.

British bass Matthew Rose sings the role of the old, deposed King Timur who is forced to beg with Liu. Rose sang the role with moving resonance but, despite his attempts to totter on his stick, his voice betrayed a young man with marvelous vocal chords. At the end of the opera, the frail old man drags a cortege with Liu’s dead body on it. The singing must have rejuvenated him.

As for spectacle, original director Serban and Revival Director Andrew Sinclair pull out all the stops. Huge dragons, scaffolds on wheels, a massive sword sharpening stone (there are lots of people to decapitate) a huge throne to lower Emperor Altoum (Alasdair Elliott) from the rafters, not to mention the huge crowds. There are dancers, guards, executioner’s men, wise men, phantoms, heralds, soldiers and ordinary people. We need two balconies to house the Royal Opera Chorus alone. The production can compete with the Roman Forum and the effect is stupendous.          

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under Nicola Luisotti gave an assured powerful account of the score in a production that has stood the test of time.