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with the recitative from Cantata BWV 60  “O Schwerer Gang” (O difficult way) where fear of death and suffering is superseded by faith in a merciful God.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

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.

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.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014


By James Karas

The Aix-en-Provence Festival offers five operas among many other cultural events during its 66th season. All of it is done in three weeks in July. One of the operas is Georg Frideric Handel’s 1735 masterpiece Ariodante.

Director Richard Jones and Set and Costume Designer Ultz give this opera seria an idiosyncratic production that has many points of interest but a few head-scratchers as well.

The plot. The knight Ariodante is in love with Princess Ginevra and her father, the king, approves. Everyone is happy but Polinesso, the Duke of Albany, who wants her. Ginevra’s lady-in-waiting, Dalinda, is in love with Polinesso. He asks her to dress like Ginevra and be seen by Ariodante with him. She does, they are seen and Ariodante is ready to commit suicide at the thought that he was betrayed. Needless to say, all will be resolved in about four hours and love will triumph.

Handel has provided some magnificent arias and ensemble pieces for everyone. The vocal demands are high especially in arias that have a few lines repeated many times. They require vocal modulations and trills that are taxing but simply gorgeous when done well.

English mezzo soprano Sarah Connolly tackles the role of Ariodante. She has a beautiful voice and does a fine job but I think more passion and modulation is needed in some of her arias. When she sings “Scherza, infida”  (Laugh, unfaithful one) after discovering that Ariodante has been betrayed by Ginevra, I want more heart-breaking passion, anger, resolve and raw pain. It may be the size of her voice but here were times when she did not seem to be firing on all cylinders.

Soprano Patricia Petibon as Ginevra has moments of bliss and despair and a mad scene to boot. This is not a mad scene to compete with the Lucias and Lady Macbeths of the19th century but she weaves a convincing vocal and acting representation.

Most interesting is the portrayal of Polinesso by contralto Sonia Prina. Acceding to Jones, Polinesso is a perfidious cleric, grey-haired, hypocritical and evil. He reminded me of Tartuffe. Prina has beautiful low notes but she had a bit of difficulty manoeuvring through her trills at the beginning. She settled down into a fine performance as the dirty old man.

The secondary characters more than held their own. Bass Luca Tittoto handled the low notes of the King with no difficulty and tenor David Portillo held the middle range as Lurcanio with the high notes given to Sandrine Piau as Dalinda. Well done.    

Ariodante, originally set in the royal palace in Edinburgh in 8th century Scotland, is moved to the present and takes place in what looks like a farmhouse. The single set has four playing areas, visible at all times, with imaginary walls. There is a small entry corridor on the left, a kitchen area, a large room with a table and chairs, and a small bedroom on the right. This is a modest residence and there is nothing to indicate that it is the palace of the King of Scotland. It clearly is not.

The King wears a kilt and pipes appear for a few moments. Aside from that there is no indication that we are in Scotland. Aside from the kilt and the white hat of a naval officer worn by one of the characters, the costumes are non-descript modern clothes with perhaps a rural flavor.

In order to get Dalinda to dress up as Ginevra, Polinesso puts a potion in Ginevra’s drink and she collapses, unconscious. A very nice invention by Jones. Then Ariodante discovers Dalinda as Ginevra and Polinesso dallying and goes into his “why-am-I-still-alive” recitative before going over the edge in “Scherza infida.” In the meantime Polinesso is trying to seduce Dalinda in the bedroom and the two must get rid of Ginevra. They throw her under the bed and soon disappear there themselves. Ariodante is left alone for the aria, of course. Jones is trying to enrich the story but on this occasion it is a bit awkward.

Having Polinesso as a cleric in a black robe, is a brilliant move. There are heavy religious overtones in the production from prayers to bibles. Jones is a man of detail and he develops the idea of Polinesso as a cleric completely.

After each act, Handel calls for a ballet. At the end of the happy first act, shepherds and shepherdesses are supposed to dance for the amusement of Ariodante and Ginevra. At the end of the second act, the mad Ginevra is to have nightmares. At the end of the opera, we are supposed to have happy dancing because all is well.

This production has the fine English Voices but no corps de ballet. The chorus members manage a few steps of Scottish dancing and then we have puppet shows between the acts. The marionettes are, among other things, fecund and upon being placed under a blanket produce baby marionettes. I have mixed feelings about what the puppets added to the production and would not have missed them or the ballet.

There can be no complaints about Freiburger Barockorcheter conducted by Andrea Marcon. Their performances were superb.

Jones and Ultz have achieved a dramatic re-imagination of Ariodante that has some brilliant touches, some brow-raising moments and some awkward scenes. Doing that with and 18th century opera, set in 8th century Scotland and keeping us entertained and enthralled for four hours, can only be classified as a major achievement.      

Torontonians who are not in Aix-en-Provence this July will be able to see this production in the next few years done by the Canadian Opera Company. Otherwise, they will have to wait until the Lyric Opera of Chicago produces it. The COC, Lyric and the Dutch National Opera are co-producers of Ariodante.

Ariodante by Georg Frideric Handel opened on July 3 and will be performed six times until July 18, 2014 at the Théâtre de l'Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France.