Tuesday, April 29, 2014


Company of Persée. Photo by Bruce Zinger

Reviewed by James Karas

How do you bring an opera that premiered in 1682 and was staged in a revised version in 1770 for a royal wedding to full and glorious life? Remember production methods were very different then and the opera reflects its 17th century values and is rather static at times.

If the opera is Lully’s Persée, just give it to Opera Atelier and its Co-Artistic Directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg and they will deliver a production that is simply well-sung, colourful, stylized and, in a word,  brilliant.

Persée is based on the myth of Perseus and Andromeda (I will stick to the English version of all the names) who are in love but have a few impediments to deal with. The toughest one is the once beautiful Medusa who has been turned into a snake-haired monster. One look by her and you are turned into a stone.

Everything good and ill is brought about by the gods. Perseus has friends on Olympus including Jupiter who happens to be his father. With considerable help from the immortals, Perseus will try to kill Medusa. The story is a bit convoluted so let’s not worry too much about the plot outline. Beside, a god will come down from the sky at the end and set everything right.

Pynkoski and Set Designer Gerard Gauci deliver a brilliantly colourful production. From the costumes to the sets, to the monsters, to the deus ex machina, we are treated to a dazzling array of colours. There are scenes in the royal palace of Ethiopia, the bleak cave of Medusa and the gorgons, and the seacoast that have vibrant and flamboyant sets.

Choreographer Zingg provides a veritable ballet interspersed throughout the opera. The artists of the Atelier Ballet never fail to enhance the action of the opera especially when there is the smallest suggestion that the performance may become static.

True to the principles of Opera Atelier, the performance is stylized as it may have looked in the time of Louis XIV. Arms up, bent at the elbows with palms facing forward, the torso bent slightly to the side is one of the classic, stylized positions. This is not an opera that calls for naturalistic acting and Pynkoski makes extensive use of baroque conventions.

The above-noted aspects of the production may be considered as of secondary importance in many productions, but I think they play a primary role in this Persée. You can have good singers and a fine orchestra and fall short of the quality of this production without the elements provided by Pynkoski and Zingg.

The singing ranged from the exceptional to the adequate. Sopranos Mireille Asselin as Andromeda, Peggy Kriha Dye as Merope and Carla Huhtanen as Queen Cassiopeia did excellent work in their respective roles. I would have preferred a tenor with a lighter voice for the role of Perseus but Christopher Enns managed to be sufficiently heroic and vocally adept to carry the role of our hero.

Phineus is the human heavy of the opera (he too is in love with Andromeda and wants to jettison Perseus to Hades) and baritone Vasil Garvanliev did a fine job in the role.  

Bass-baritone Olivier LaQuerre sounded a bit stilted as King Cepheus and was wooden as Medusa. Pynkoski treats the scene with the monster as outright burlesque but LaQuerre was only partially successful in the part.

The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra under David Fallis and the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir performed brilliantly.

This is Baroque opera at its finest and it is no wonder that the next stop of the production will be the Royal Opera House in Versailles. It should prove a great lesson for the French on how to produce French opera. Only in Canada, eh?

Persée  by Jean-Baptiste Lully with libretto by Philippe Quinault opened on April 26  and will run until May 3, 2014 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.operaatelier.com

Monday, April 21, 2014


David Daniels as Lichas (in background), Richard Croft as Hyllus, Lucy Crowe as Iole and Kaleb Alexander as Soldier in Hercules. Photo: Michael Cooper 

Reviewed by James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company is concluding its 2013-2014season with three operas that are somewhat off the beaten track and that it has not produced before: Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, Massenet’s Don Quichotte and Handel’s Hercules. The spring season opened with the latter opera directed by Peter Sellars.

Handel called Hercules a “musical drama” and most writers seem to agree that it is neither an opera nor a secular oratorio.  As a musical drama it is largely static, contains numerous arias and some choral pieces but relatively little interaction between the characters. It looks back to Sophocles’s Women of Trachis and Ovid’s Metamorphoses for its plot about the downfall of Hercules.

Peter Sellars has brought the story to the twentieth century and turned it into a tale about soldiers, war, healing and restoration. Hercules returns to his wife Dejanira with Princess Iole, a war trophy from a city that he just destroyed. Dejanira becomes jealous of the pretty young woman and sets out to regain her husband’s love. Unknowingly, she uses a magic potion that is in fact deadly and she kills her husband.

Dejanira is wracked with guilt but she is reassured when she learns from a Priest that Hercules’s soul has ascended to Mount Olympus to dwell with the gods. Her son Hyllus marries Iole and thus the drama has a happy ending. The role of the Priest is eliminated by Sellars.             

Sellars’ idea about an American soldier returning from war and finding a process of healing and reconciliation is imaginative but hardly supported by the libretto. Sellars dresses Hercules in fatigues and at the end has him wheeled in a coffin draped in an American flag. He calls the wedding of Hyllus and Iole in a programme note “the birth of a wiser America and a different Middle East.” None of that is supported by the libretto of course, and it is an imaginative leap that unfortunately does not work.

American bass-baritone Eric Owens sings the role of Hercules. He does not appear until fifty minutes after the curtain goes up and he gets relatively few arias. Owens has a deep, resonant and powerful voice, a credible stage presence and does superb work in a significant number of roles. Listening to him in Hercules, I felt that he was in the wrong opera. His voice is great in Wagnerian or Verdian operas but it seemed to lack the suppleness to do justice to Handel.

Countertenor David Daniels was superb as Lichas, the faithful servant. His marvellous delivery was vocally and emotionally splendid.

Lucy Crowe was perhaps the best performer of the night as the hapless Iole. The high kudos goes because of her tonal beauty and affecting performance. Mezzo-Soprano Alice Coote as Dejanira proved that she has a mellow and beautiful voice with some delicious low notes. Unfortunately she ran into some shrillness in her top register.

Tenor Richard Croft as Hyllus on crutches held his own in a very fine performance.

The COC Chorus walked on and off the stage because there was something for them to sing. The addition of some hand gestures was an unnecessary extra to their fine performance.

The set consisted of a rectangle with some rocks in it. There were pieces of columns on three sides of the rectangle. Different colours were used to light the rocks and judicious lighting was used for the back of the stage. The columns give the impression of a Greek mythical location and American soldiers seem out of place.  

It is no accident that the COC has never performed Hercules before. Individual arias and choral pieces sounded beautiful and the drama sounds fine on CD. But as a stage work it has limitations. Sellars tried to overcome and even surpass those limitations by forcing an imaginative vision on the drama. Let’s just say that it was not entirely successful.

Hercules by George Frideric Handel (music), Reverend Thomas Broughton (libretto) opened on April 5 and will be performed a total of seven times until April 30, 2014 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St. West, Toronto, Ontario. www.coc.ca

Thursday, April 17, 2014


Ildar Abdrazakov as Prince Igor and Sergey Semishkur as Vladimir Igorevich in Borodin's "Prince Igor."
Photo: Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by James Karas

The mess of an opera that Alexander Borodin left after eighteen years of intermittent work on Prince Igor is legendary. His friends Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov finished it but it has never really worked satisfactorily. The Metropolitan Opera has not touched it for almost a hundred years and that is a decent gauge of the popularity of the work.

The current production by Dmitri Tcherniakov at the Met that was broadcast world-wide in cinemas may not put Prince Igor neck-in-neck with La Boheme but it does provide an unforgettable night at the opera.

Most of the credit goes to Tcherniakov. He has re-imagined and recreated the opera into an almost new work, a work that has a unity and integrity that is simply astounding. He uses basically two sets. The set for the Prologue is a Spartan, two-story room that struck me as an army barracks. In the first act the set consists of a field of poppies in the midst of which all the action takes place including the famous Polovtsian Dance.

The barracks serve, with some modifications, as a town square in the Prologue, a room in a palace, a prince’s court and the destroyed city of the of Putivl. The final scene of the razed city is quite dramatic but nothing is as memorable as the expanse of poppies.

Prince Igor is an epic opera and deals with heroism, patriotism, defeat, treachery and rebirth. There is a love interest or two but they are almost sidelines to the story. Tcherniakov molds those characteristics in a marvelous fashion to humanize Igor and to make the entire opera more humane and much less heroic and bombastic. We see the defeated, wounded and captured Igor in a huge field of poppies. We are not sure if he is dreaming, hallucinating or is in fact in this landscape. His enemy offers him his freedom for a price and he is entertained with dances of magical and surpassing beauty.

The dance is among the poppies and kudos go to Itzik Galili for his brilliant choreography.

Igor escapes from his captors and returns to his destroyed homeland wracked with guilt for not fighting to the death.

A scene from the Prologue of Borodin's "Prince Igor" with Ildar Abdrazakov as Prince Igor Svyatoslavich.
Photo: Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera

Tcherniakov uses video projections to illustrate the horrors and butchery of war. The opening scene is full of patriotic bluster about fighting the enemy for God and country and in the end we see the waste and evils of war. In short, he has taken Borodin’s messy original and created a great opera production.

He had a great deal of help. Bass-baritone Ildar Abdrazakov makes a superb Igor. He has a powerful and impressive voice with a commanding physical presence that spelled every inch a warrior prince. Tcherniakov humanizes him in later scenes until his final appearance where he seems almost beside himself with guilt.  He is capable of tenderness towards his wife Yaroslavna and gives an overall outstanding performance.

Soprano Oksana Dyka is the perfect counterpart to Igor as Yaroslavna. She is a woman in a man’s world and needs epic qualities to survive even if her main opponent is her brother Prince Galitsky (Mikhail Petrenko). Dyka delivers vocal and dramatic power in her confrontations and tenderness in her love scene with Igor. The vocal line requires relatively little colouration but the role demands lungs and a personality of steel.

There is a parallel love story between Igor’s son Vladimir (tenor Sergey Semishkur) and Konchakovna (mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili) which is notable for the latter’s forceful character and vigorous singing.

Petrenko sings the evil would-be usurper of the throne and his performance is notable for his well-done swaggering and devil-may-care villainy.

The costumes of the soldiers by Elena Zaitseva showed Red Army influence and the civilian boyars looked like apparatchiks.   

Prince Igor is notable for its choral pieces and here the one-hundred-plus Metropolitan Opera Chorus was simply superb. Unalloyed kudos go The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra under Gianandrea Noseda which performed brilliantly.

With any luck, the production will be revived many times with different casts. There are other singers who can do as well and perhaps even better in some of the roles. As usual, Gary Halvorson, the Director for Cinema, did his best to ruin what we saw in the movie theatre with his excessive clicking and frequently idiotic camera shots but that is a cross that we must needs bear.

Despite that, what will remain is the quality of Tcherniakov’s vision and interpretation. He brought coherence, humanity, originality and a personal vision to an incomplete opera and made it work brilliantly.

Prince Igor by Alexander Borodin was transmitted Live in HD on April 14, 2014 at the Scotiabank Theatre, 259 Richmond St. West, Toronto, Ontario.  For more information: www.cineplex.com/events or www.metopera.org

Friday, April 11, 2014


Reviewed by James Karas

The garret that Franco Zeffirelli built in 1981 for those starving artists seems to have been made of sturdy stuff. Thirty four years later The Met has revived his production of La Bohème yet once more and one can say with some assurance that there was not a dry eye at Lincoln Centre and in the theatres around the world where it was beamed.  

Opera thrives on legends and marvelous statistics and the April 5, 2014 broadcast added yet another tale. Soprano Anita Hartig was scheduled to sing Mimi but she became indisposed on the morning of the performance. Kristine Opalais had sung Madam Butterfly the night before and had gone to bed at 5:00 a.m. (Precision is important in these cases) and was called at 8:00 in the morning (if I recall correctly) to replace Ms Hartig. She wanted to say no but she said yes and the rest is history, and let’s get on with the review.

Opalais is a young but experienced singer who knows the role of Mimi (the legend would be juicier if a young and inexperienced soprano stepped in and a Maria Callas was born … sorry, I stray) and she had no problems vocally.

With Opalais you will not get a petite, fragile and ill-nourished Mimi but that is not crucial. My issue with Opalais is that she almost never looked anyone in the eye. This may have been nerves or concentration on the singing after being ushered to do the performance rather unceremoniously but I would have liked her to look at Rodolfo or his friends. She looked down, sideways or nowhere in particular and not on her lover or anyone else that she was interacting with. When she separates from Rodolfo in Act III, she shows more emotion to the bannister than to Rodolfo.

Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo is a superb Rodolfo. He strikes the perfect note of youthful innocence, passion and idealism. When he takes Mimi’s cold hand and tells her his dreams in “Che gelida manina” we are convinced of his rising passion even before she tells us her sad story in “Me chiamano Mimi” and the ardent duet that follows, full of emotional intensity and vocal splendour, is payment in full for tears that we will shed at the end.

American soprano Susanna Philips attacked the juicy role of Musetta with relish and aplomb. The vocal part is all her own but she has plenty of help otherwise. Dressed in a striking red velvet gown, she arrives on a horse-drawn carriage amid a large, cheering crowd. That is a grand entrance to make the Queen of Sheba jealous.

Rodolfo’s garret-mates are a well-defined individually and are a marvelous set as well. Baritone Massimo Cavalletti as Marcello sang with touching resonance and presented the artist as a real mensch. Bass Oren Gradus as the philosopher Colline gave a moving rendition of “Vecchia zimarra,” his farewell to his old coat, an act of touching generosity.

Bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi as the musician Schaunard completed the quartet of friends who engaged in tomfoolery and poignant humanity.

Zeffirelli’s over-the-top production has been the subject of endless comment. The garret of the first act gives way to the Café Momus. In fact, Zeffirelli creates a whole neighbourhood. There are crowds of people on two levels, a toy vendor, a donkey-drawn cart and Musetta’s entrance. I have seen the production a number of times and it still makes an impression on me. Seeing it for the first time, may make your jaw drop and give you a slanted view of opera.

Stefano Ranzani conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

What we saw in the movie theatres was decided by Barbara Willis Sweete. Her enthusiasm for close-ups and constant camera changes is not as pronounced as Gary Halvorson’s (and that’s not much of a compliment) but it is bad enough. There were a number of bad shots, unnecessary and annoying close-ups. In the final scene, when Marcello is singing about his brush, Sweete focuses on Rodolfo. The obvious shot of showing the two men on the screen and sitting on her hands probably did not occur to her. Just keep clicking.

La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini was transmitted Live in HD on April 5, 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: www.cineplex.com/events