Wednesday, December 30, 2015


James Karas

Toronto Operetta Theatre deserves credit for plugging a hole in the amusement availability gap between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. This year’s lifter-upper is Sigmund Romberg’s The Student Prince. It is an energetic and enjoyable production done, as usual for TOT, on a modest budget.

If the “Overhead moon is shining,” and you are in your “Golden Days” of “Student life” and “Drink, drink, drink” when the garlands are bright deep in your heart in Heidelberg then you are in operettaland or in Karlsberg watching The Student Prince. If all of those things are happening to you and you are not at the St. Lawrence centre, you are delusional.

                Stefan Fehr, Jennifer Taverner, Adam Norrad and Ernesto Ramirez. Photo Gary Beechey
The classic 1924 operetta is based on Old Heidelberg, a play by German playwright Wilhelm Meyer-Förster with book and lyrics by Dorothy Donnelly. Director Guillermo Silva-Marin takes advantage of the beautiful melodies, the rousing ensemble songs, the comic elements and the romantic entanglements to provide an entertaining evening at the theatre.

The student prince of the title, sung by Mexican tenor Ernesto Ramirez, is sent to Heidelberg University to study. He meets some rowdy students and Kathie, the innkeeper’s lovely niece.  I will let you fill in some of the blanks about what happens after that. Ramirez has lovely voice and he can sing piano and even better forte where he belts out his lyrical phrases. My only complaint about him is his enunciation. He can use a bit more drilling to cease obscuring parts of some words.  

Soprano Jennifer Taverner is the winsome Kathie – lively, sweet-voiced and the type of girl a prince will fall for, put her “Deep in my heart” and dream of living happily-ever-after with her alone.

Three members of the female vocal ensemble take on solo roles as well and do a good job, namely: soprano Carrie Parks as the haughty Grand Duchess Anastasia, mezzo soprano Dina Shikhman as Princess Margaret, a woman who knows how to get her man, and mezzo soprano Katerina Utochkina who has a similar talent.

The operetta has its share of comic characters from the overbearing but ineffective prince’s valet Lutz, (played struttingly by Sean Curran) to the waiter Toni (Ryan Moilliet) to the students and members of the Saxon Corps. Some of the comic business misfired but the audience enjoyed the comedy overall.

Bass-baritone Curtis Sullivan sang with his usual resonance, the role of the humane Doctor Engel.

Derek Bate conducted the small orchestra, almost a band really, which nevertheless gave a spirited performance of the score.

Toronto Operetta Theatre is in its thirtieth year and it bears repeating that it is the conception, creation and continuation of Guillermo Silva-Marin. For The Student Prince, he is credited with stage direction, décor and lighting design. The production succeeds because of his talents but suffers from shortage of funds. More funding would provide better decor from the few items to indicate a palace antechamber, an inn garden and a palace. A bigger orchestra would help and a more plush theatre would be a definite asset.

He does a great deal with the sparse resources at hand. Toronto owes him a great debt for bringing and keeping operetta in the city almost single handed.

TOT’s next production will be Los Gavilanes by Jacinto Guerrero, a zarzuela dating from 1923, that, as happens so often, will be getting its Canadian premiere.          

The Student Prince by Sigmund Romberg opened on December 27, 2015 and will be performed five times until January 3, 2016 at the Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  (416) 366-7723. or

Tuesday, November 24, 2015


By James Karas

August Strindberg’s 1888 one–act tragedy Miss Julie has inspired numerous adaptations and productions including several operas. Belgian composer Philippe Boesmans composed a one-act chamber opera in 2005 based on a libretto by Swiss director Luc Bondy and director and playwright Marie-Louise Bischofberger which was produced in a number of European cities with considerable success.

That did not put it on the radar of any North American opera or theatre company except for Matthew Jocelyn, Canadian Stage’s Artistic and General Director. Jocelyn has made it his mission to expand Torontonians’ theatrical horizons, come hell or high water and he has seen both over the last five years. But he has not lost his nerve and is forging full speed ahead.

Lucia Cervoni and Clarence Frazer in Julie. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Julie, as the opera is called, has now received its North American premiere at the Bluma Appel Theatre in a production by Canadian Stage in association with Soundstreams, a major presenter of new Canadian music.  

The interaction among the three characters of the play has many layers and complex motivations but the central issue is sexual attraction. Julie (Lucia Cervoni) is the daughter of a Count and she is sexually attracted to Jean (Clarence Frazer), the valet. Jean has a relationship with the servant Christine (Sharleen Joynt) and we have a ménage á trois with a difference.

Boesmans’ avant-garde music shapes and punctuates the dialogue of the three characters and it is shaped by it. There is obviously a large variety of musical phrases but the diction of the dialogue is maintained. Mezzo soprano Cervoni, baritone Frazer and soprano Joynt handle their roles vocally with ease and their characterization is sound.

Jean and Julie consummate their relationship with utter good taste without allowing their lust to shock the censors and cause them to forbid public performances as it did when the play was first produced. As may be expected, the relationship does not work out, and in the play Jean gives Julie a straight razor and she goes off the stage with it in her hand. In the opera he gives her an extension cord and in the final tableau we see her in silhouette wrapping the cord around her neck. Very effective.
 Sharleen Joynt and Clarence Frazer in Julie. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Musical Director Leslie Dala conducts the 18-piece chamber ensemble adroitly through Boesmans’ largely unfamiliar musical style where what we associate with traditional opera is left out completely. Don’t look for Puccini or Verdi, in other words.

Set Designer Alain Lagarde provides a black curtain for background which acts as a mirror as well. The kitchen set is good and it provides the “naturalism” that Strindberg wanted without being slavishly realistic.

The driving force behind the production is Matthew Jocelyn for bringing a work that has the familiarity and approachability of a play that was written in 1888 with the unknownness of a recent, avant-garde work that is being produced here for the first time. 
Do you want to compliment or criticise him for this or just leave it hanging? 
Julie by Philippe Boesmans (music), Luc Bond and Marie-Louise Bischofberger (libretto) adapted from August Strindberg play, opened on November 17 and will run until November 29, 2015 at the Bluma Appel Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street

Tuesday, November 3, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

Otto Schenk’s production of Tannhäuser for The Metropolitan Opera is 38 years old and it may be a throwback to a style that is more derided than emulated these days. It may be called loosely “realistic” but it is opera on a grand scale and a production that is a thrill to watch.

Wagner’s fifth opera opens in Venusberg, the abode of the goddess of love where the knight Tannhäuser has spent a year having the time of his life. Set Designer Gunther Schneider-Siemssen provides a grandiose grotto with rising bluffs in the background. The lighting was not perfect and we missed the full effect of the set in the movie house. This is a place for carnal pleasure and perhaps even orgies.
 Peter Mattei as Wolfram, Johan Botha in the title role, Günther Groissböck as Landgraf Hermann and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Elisabeth in Wagner's Tannhäuser. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

Choreographer Norbert Vesak gives a sensuous ballet sequence that is erotic to the point of decadence. Muscular men and gorgeous women dance with erotic wildness and Dionysian abandon.

The scene in the valley near Wartburg castle is equally grandiose. Mountains can be seen in the distance and there is a dirt road leading upward into the mountains and down into the valley. The castle of the next act is drawn on a similar scale. This is grand opera on a grand budget.

The singing is generally outstanding. Soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek has a mellifluous voice and her Elisabeth shows passion and compassion. She scales the Wagnerian heights and appears to sing quite effortlessly.

Tenor Johan Botha has a fine voice but his Tannhäuser is problematic. Botha’s acting skills can charitably be described as limited. His facial expression remains practically unchanged through most of his performance. He does break into a mirthless smile on occasion and he attempts some emotional expression near the end of the opera with very little success.  His body language is almost non-existent and he barely moves his arms when singing. In other words he looks like a lump that can sing.

Botha suffers in comparison to baritone Peter Mattei in the role Wolfram. Mattei has an impressive and expressive voice but he is also an effective actor. He sings and moves with ease. His face and body movements express what he is singing and he gives us a sympathetic characterization. On the other hand, Botha’s Tannhäuser never gains our sympathy.     
Mezzo soprano Michelle DeYoung made a visually and vocally stunning Venus. The goddess dominates the first act of the opera and the singer must do some impressive vocal somersaults that require unerring agility and amplitude.

Wagner composed some stunning and some loud choruses for Tannhäuser and the Met chorus does quite a stupendous job.

The Met Opera Orchestra under James Levine deserves to be described as mighty. Hearing the overture to Tannhäuser alone is almost worth the price of admission. Well, I exaggerate but not by much.

Tannhäuser has some unpleasant aspects. The knight’s trip from a life of carnal pleasure in it to practically a brothel to severe piety is unconvincing not to say nauseating. Then there is Elizabeth’s faith in him and let’s not forget his pilgrimage to Rome to seek absolution from the Pope and coming home empty-handed! Are we supposed to take these things seriously?

Schenk’s production, the outstanding singing and the mostly fine performances of the singers and the great Met Orchestra iron out many of the problems and you end up enjoying the opera despite some of its shortcomings.

Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner was transmitted Live in HD on October 31, 2015 at the Coliseum Scarborough Cinemas, Scarborough Town Centre, 300 Borough Drive, Scarborough, ON, M1P 4P5, (416) 290-5217 and other theatres across Canada.  There will be encore broadcasts on January 9, 11 and 13, 2016. For more information:

Wednesday, October 28, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company’s choices for its second production for 2015-2016 can best be described as bold, innovative and commendable. It is advertised as Pyramus and Thisbe, a world premiere of a Canadian opera by Barbara Monk Feldman but there is more than that.

The first piece of the programme, which lasts only an hour and twenty minutes, is Lamento d’Arianna, a scene for solo soprano and orchestra and the only surviving fragment from Claudio Monteverdi’s second opera L’Arianna. Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo sings the role of Ariadne, the Cretan princess who showed Theseus how to kill the dreaded Minotaur and find his way out of the Labyrinth. Theseus promised to marry her but on his way back to Athens he abandoned her on the island of Naxos.
Phillip Addis as Tancredi and Krisztina Szabó as Clorinda. Photo: Michael Cooper
Szabo as the betrayed and grief-stricken Ariadne sings of her love for Theseus, her anger and her desolate state. She is alone on an empty stage with only a chair to sit on. The music and the singing are elegiac, plaintive and heart-wrenching with bursts of anger when she curses her betrayer. A beautifully rendered piece.

The second part of the programme is Il combattimento di Tancrdi e Clorinda, a piece for three voices from another Monteverdi opera. The three voices are Szabo as Clorinda, baritone Phillip Addis as Tancredi and tenor Owen McCausland as Testo. Il combattimento has a plot. The Christian knight Tancredi does battle on the walls of Jerusalem with an infidel. He wounds the infidel who reveals that she is in fact his beloved, Clorinda – an infidel. She asks to be baptized before she dies on a note of Christian forgiveness.

Testo gives us a blow-by-blow description of the battle but the narrative rarely matches what the two warriors are doing. No problem. We are there to listen to the singing and not watch a brawl.

(l-r) Owen McCausland as the Narrator, Krisztina Szabó as Thisbe and Phillip Addis as Pyramus. Photo: Michael Cooper
The last work and I suppose the pièce de resistance of the evening is Barbara Monk Feldman’s Pyramus and Thisbe. Although the lovers are called Pyramus (Addis) and Thisbe (Szabo) we are quickly disabused of any notion that this is a retelling of Ovid’s tale of the tragic lovers or Shakespeare’s hilarious take on them in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.     

Monk Feldman treats the lovers’ story as a tone poem sung in a slow, deliberate, often dream-like fashion. In addition to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Monk Feldman uses William Faulkner’s The Long Summer, St. John of Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul and Rainer Maria Rilke’s Die Sonette an Orpheus. The opera is sung mostly in English but there are sections in German and Latin.

The slow and deliberate pace used almost throughout the opera eventually becomes ponderous. Banal phrases seem to take a very long time to sing. There are some beautiful passages for the singers and the chorus but not enough to keep one from looking at his watch.

Director Christopher Alden takes a minimalist approach to the three pieces and that is commendable. Ariadne’s lament does not need any movement and the last thing we want is a swashbuckling scene between Tancredi and Clorinda. Pyramus and Thisbe as a tone poem for the stage is not entirely satisfactory.
Pyramus and Thisbe  by Barbara Monk Feldman opened October 20 and will be performed a total of seven times until November 7, 2015 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671.

Monday, October 26, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

Opera Atelier is celebrating its 30th Anniversary Season with a revival of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Armide. And why not? Co-Artistic Directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg know a good thing when they see it.

The last production of Armide in 2012 went to the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York. The current revival is travelling to the Royal Opera House at the Palace of Versailles in November.   
Colin Ainsworth (Renaud) and Peggy Kriha Dye (Armide). Photo by Bruce Zinger
Armide premiered in Paris in 1686 and it has characters with magical powers, demons, a visit to the Underworld and a Water Nymph. And that is an incomplete list. We have Renaud, a Christian virgin knight versus Armide, a Muslim, virgin warrior. She is a sexual magnet who is immune to attraction (except to Renaud) and Renaud who is just as immune except when influenced by magic. You get the idea.

Armide is opera as well as ballet and the problem is how to get everything on stage and have a successful production. You need magic. This production is a masterly exercise in operatic and balletic magic by Pynkoski and Lajeunesse Zingg. The style is, we assume, high baroque and Lajeunesse Zingg as choreographer inserts graceful dance routines that blend with the action. Did I say it is magical?

Soprano Peggy Kriha Dye is Armide, the virgin princess who has walloped the Christians during the First Crusade but has not captured Renaud, the greatest knight whom she hates and loves. Today we would call her conflicted but don’t tell Lully that. Kriha Dye gives us a well-crafted portrait of the tragic princess.

Tenor Colin Ainsworth is the perfect Baroque opera hero and with his beautifully toned voice, the ultimate heroic knight. Armide’s magic magnetism makes him fall in love with her but his knights manage to break the spell with their own brand of magic.

The company of Armide. Photo by Bruce Zinger
The cast gave noteworthy performances. Carla Huhtanen and Meghan Lindsay were elegant and vocally beautiful as Armide’s companions. Baritone Daniel Belcher sang Hatred and guarded the Underworld with verve and panache. Bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus did a fine job as Hidraot, Armide’s uncle who recommends marriage for her.      

The set by Gerard Gauci, the lighting by Bonnie Beecher and the costumes by Dora Rust d’Eye show fine eyes for colour, elegance and variety. The opera may be set in medieval Damascus but we see the splendours of Versailles on stage from the gorgeous gowns to the graceful dancers of the Atelier Ballet.
David Fallis conducts the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra performing to its usually high standards Lully’s score on original instruments.          

If you feel you are impervious to opera the way Renaud and Armide thought they were impervious to love go and see this production and you will find yourself begging for more.

Armide  by Jean-Baptiste Lully with libretto by Philippe Quinault based on Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered opened on October 22  and be performed six times until October 31, 2015 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto, Ontario.

Sunday, October 18, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

During the overture to the current production of La Traviata by the Canadian Opera Company, we see a woman putting on a fancy gown before the guests arrive for a fancy party. The guests enter the semicircular room with a large table in the middle. Director Arin Arbus and Lighting Designer Marcus Doshy let us see the guests but they also emphasize their shadows against the back wall. Are they more shadows than real people?

The woman putting on the gorgeous gown is the courtesan Violetta and is she simply, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, preparing a face to meet the faces that she will meet? Is she also a shadow until she falls in love and for a brief interlude in her life becomes a human being? We will see the shadows of people again but let’s examine the rest of production first. 

Robert Gleadow as Dr. Grenvil and Ekaterina Siurina as Violetta. Photo: Michael Cooper
La Traviata requires a soprano with considerable vocal and emotional range, a tenor who can be convincingly passionate and a baritone of gravitas and vocal resonance.

The Canadian Opera Company has scored a home run with Russian SOPRANO Ekaterina Siurina as Violetta. She establishes dominance quickly and her expressive voice goes from the flirtatious to the passionate and finally to a heart-breaking scene. The flirtatious shadow has become a woman of passion, generosity and nobility.

Baritone Quinn Kelsey sings the role of Giorgio Germont, the father who must convince Violetta to leave his son. His daughter’s engagement will be called off if her fiancée finds out Violetta’s former profession. The role requires vocal splendour, conviction and emotional strength to convince a woman to abandon her true lover. Kelsey has it all.

Kelsey sings “Di Provenza il mar il suol,” one of the most famous and familiar arias in the repertoire. The father appeals to his son’s loyalty to native land, home, family and his sense of honour. Kelsey captures the emotional appeal and resonant beauty of the area with splendour.
Quinn Kelsey as Germont and Ekaterina Siurina as Violetta. Photo: Michael Cooper
Tenor Charles Castronovo was good but not entirely successful as Alfredo Germont, Violetta’s lover. His voice may be fine but he did not find the emotional wavelength that we expect of a man deeply in love. 

The overall production is excellent and highly interesting. As I said, the first scene at the party in Violetta’s apartment featured an unadorned background where the silhouettes of the guests were projected. The set for Violetta’s and Alfredo’s country house consisted of two painted panels and a settee. For the final scene, we return to Violetta’s barren apartment where Verdi finds a way to release pathos, beauty, defiance, love and emotion of surpassing splendour.

Unlike Prufrock, Violetta and Alfredo have found love, they have heard the mermaids sing to them, they have ceased being mere shadows of human beings and amid the sorrow, guilt and pain of the final scene, Violetta cries out a defiant “gioia” with her last breath.  

The COC Orchestra is conducted by Marco Guidarini. 

This new COC production is co-produced with Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera.

Go see it!

La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi opened on October 8 and will be performed a total of eleven times until November 6, 2015 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671.

Monday, August 10, 2015


James Karas

Antonio Vivaldi composed Cato in Utica in 1737 and it had its America premiere this summer at the Glimmerglass Festival. The problem is not with the quality of the opera rather than with the fact that the music for Act I is missing. There is a way of getting around it by adding some music from other Vivaldi compositions and some explanatory notes. The effort is worth it.

Cato in Utica is the loosely based story of the Roman senator who tried to stand up to the dictatorial Julius Caesar on republican principles. Cato went to Utica, Numidia in North Africa with his daughter Marzia and Emilia, the widow of Pompey whom Caesar murdered.   
John Holiday as Caesar and Megan Samarin as Marzia in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2015 production of Vivaldi's "Cato in Utica." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

As creaky plots go, this one can use an extra dose of lubricant. You can draw a diagram of who loves or does not love whom. Cato wants his daughter to marry Arbace, the Prince of Numidia. Arbace wants to marry Marzia but she loves her father’s enemy Caesar. Caesar’s lieutenant Fulvio is in love with Emilia who wants to kill Caesar. 

The opera consists of a string of solo arias connected by recitatives. There is no chorus, no ensemble singing not even a duet. The enemies and lovers walk on and off the stage without much sense of why they are there. They sing, walk off and return for their next big aria.

There are some beautiful arias and the production has a marvelous roster of singers with an unfortunate exception. I was most impressed with the performance of mezzo-soprano Sarah Mesko as the aggrieved and vengeful widow of Pompey. She wants to get Caesar. She has a velvety voice that combines flexibility, beauty and strength. She has a good stage presence and seems to be at the early stages of her career. We want to hear her again.

Countertenor John Holiday Jr. sang an outstanding Caesar after the initial surprise at his appearance. He is a muscle-bound African-American and on first sight I expected him to have a deep voice like, say, Eric Owens, whom I heard the night before. A high-pitched countertenor voice seemed incongruous but you get over the incongruity after listening to a few bars. He has a number of long arias where he expresses his love for Marzia and his disagreements with Cato. He was outstanding.

Mezzo-soprano Megan Samarin played what we would call the conflicted Marzia who is damned by her father for loving his enemy. Samarin showed great vocal and physical agility. She is one Glimmerglass’s Young Artists with a lovely voice that holds much promise.

Thomas Michael Allen as Cato, Eric Jurenas as Arbace and Megan Samarin as Marzia in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2015 production of Vivaldi's "Cato in Utica." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Mezzo-soprano Allegra De Vita as Fulvio and countertenor Eric Jurenas as Arbace are Young Artists as well that performed well. Both are getting early exposure that stands them and the Festival in good stead.

Tenor Thomas Michael Allen was a disappointing Cato. Baroque opera does not appear to be his forte and he seemed uncomfortable in the role and the arias assigned him came out unsatisfactorily.

The set by John Conklin consisted of what looked like a Roman ruin with an archway opening to the back. The opening provided a space for variations in lighting and vignettes of open sky and monuments.

The opera can be almost completely static with the singers stepping up to the lights, as they used to say, and singing their arias between recitatives. Director Tazewell Thompson reduces the static effect by making the singers move around the stage and interact with each other. It works.

The fine performance of the Glimmerglass Orchestra conducted by Ryan Brown was an essential ingredient in bringing to a full run an opera with a missing limb.

Cato in Utica by Antonio Vivaldi opened on July18 and will be performed  nine times until August 22, 2015 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or

Saturday, August 8, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of The Magic Flute uses a bold if not always successful adaptation of Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto by Kelley Rourke and is directed by Madeline Sayet.     

Tamino, the prince in the original opera, is a harried office worker in a large city who escapes from the hustle and bustle of the urban jungle and goes to live in the forest. He wears a modern suit and most of the other characters are dressed in modern attire.

Sean Panikkar as Tamino and So Young Park as Queen of the Night. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Tamino runs into some unusually large and annoying insects and faints. The frightful monster of the original libretto is dispensed with. He is rescued by Three Ladies who serve the Queen of the Night. The bird catcher Papageno comes out but looks more like an employee of the Forestry Department than a wild man who is also funny.

The same changes are made throughout the production and the result is not always happy. Rourke brings in modern references and the production tries to make The Magic Flute more approachable and modern at the cost of the magic which is the whole point of the opera. There may be some who prefer modernity, of course.

The production is sung in English and that has the advantage of being understandable and the drawback of the lyrics not always fitting the music. Mozart composed music for specific words and if you cannot find an English word with the same number of syllables and accent the result is awkward. The singer is forced to rush over the extra syllable of the English word and the listener cringes. The best solution is the compromise: spoken words in English, arias in German.

Tenor Sean Panikkar made a good Tamino. He sang well but without as much passion as one would expect. Are office workers less effusive than mythical princes?

Sean Panikkar as Tamino, Soloman Howard as Sarastro and Jacqueline Echols as Pamina. 
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Baritone Ben Edquist as Papageno has a fine voice and natural comic talent which seemed not to be put to best use. Papageno has many opportunities for comic business and double-takes and for some reason Sayet made little use of them.

Soprano So Young Park gives a dramatic and vocally accomplished performance as The Queen of the Night. The production hampers her into singing like an irate mother rather than an exemplar of regal wrath on a grand scale.

Monostatos is an interesting character who can be played as ridiculous or pretty nasty as a potential molester. In this production he registers as a minor nuisance and tenor Nicholas Nestorak was not given much chance to show what he can do with a character like that.

Bass Soloman Howard sang an exceptional Sarastro. He has a commanding voice with stupendous low notes to give us an impressive High Priest of Isis and Osiris. Rourke calls him a guide, if memory serves me correctly, which is a significant demotion.

The Glimmerglass Festival Chorus was placed on the balcony on each side of the stage. They sang magnificently and their position just above us gave the feeling that their voices embraced us. Marvelous.

The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra was conducted by Carolyn Kuan and there can be no complaints about their performance.     

The conductor, the director and the libretto adapter of this Magic Flute are all women. There will come a time, we hope soon, when the gender of these people in an opera production will be unnoticeable and unimportant. No doubt there are operas that are directed, conducted and the libretto adapted by women but I am not aware of any. I need hardly add that the Artistic and General Director of the Festival is Francesca Zambello.

Let’s hear it for the Glimmerglass Festival!

The Magic Flute  by W. A. Mozart (music) and Emanuel Schikaneder (libretto adapted by Kelley Rourke) opened on July10 and will be performed  twelve times until August 23, 2015 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or

Wednesday, August 5, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

The Glimmerglass Festival, on the shores of Lake Otsego, near Cooperstown, New York, is delivering four major opera productions for its fortieth season. They are Verdi’s Macbeth, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Vivaldi’s Cato in Utica and Leonard Bernstein’s Candide.
 The Women in "Macbeth." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Director Anne Bogart shows what a fertile imagination and intelligence can do with an old chestnut and not one of Verdi’s best operas, Macbeth. As the orchestra starts playing the overture, we see some women near the stage as other women go down the aisles greeting each other. They are working class women, wearing hats and carrying bags. All twelve get on the stage and we realize that they are the witches.

In the first scene in Macbeth’s castle, they emerge wearing servants’ clothes. They are the maids in the Macbeth household. No wonder they know so much about the Macbeths. When Lady Macbeth finishes reading the letter from her husband she hands it over to one of the maids/witches. Almost the last word in the opera is sung by the same dozen witches, lined up on the stage as at the beginning. They sing a hymn of praise and love to God. Now that is irony. Brilliant.

Soprano Melody Moore as Lady Macbeth dominates the singing of the production. She is domineering, powerful and vocally superb. She belts out her notes like stingrays with authority and evil splendour. The only problem I had with her was during the sleepwalking scene. The horn that punctuates her singing was a bit louder than her voice and I found it slightly disconcerting.

Bass baritone Eric Owens as Macbeth made a fine contrast to Lady Macbeth. He is supposed to be bloody, bold and resolute but, to use an á propos term from the world’s baseball capital, he was 0 for 3. Owens’ Macbeth has ambition but not the stomach for it. He stoops, he crouches and goes down on his knees like a tyrant who lacks the total evil and bearing displayed by his wife. Owens’ rumbling voice served him well in a fine performance.

Melody Moore as Lady Macbeth and Eric Owens. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Bass Soloman Howard provides another example of contrast. Unlike Macbeth, he is straight-backed with a martial bearing and commanding vocal performance.  He sings his great aria Come dal ciel precipita” (How the shade falls from heaven) with sterling resonance.  

The production is done in modern dress circa 1940s and the supernatural is eschewed. The witches, as I said, are “ordinary” women with a huge streak of nastiness. They know how Macbeth and Lady Macbeth think and they can predict the future by reading their employers’ minds. When Verdi said that Macbeth has only three characters, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and the Witches he was pointing to the psychological truths represented by the latter rather than any supernatural powers they may be deemed to possess. Bogart has capitalized on this idea with marvelous results.
The scenery by James Schuette is minimalist. The walls of the stage have black panels with red roses painted on them for most of the production. There is a large, revolving panel in the centre of the stage with three doors on it. It is dark on one side for outdoor scenes and is turned around to show brighter colours and lights for interior scenes. Nothing lavish but it does the job.

The emphasis in costumes, lighting and sets is on the somber and black except for the painted roses which clearly represent blood.

The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus come in for special praise for their brilliant performance. Huge ovations for conductor Joseph Colaneri and Chorus Master David Moody.

The final assessment is that this is a well-sung and well thought out production with some original and obviously unexpected twists that make for a terrific night at the opera.     

Macbeth by Giuseppe Verdi opened on July11 and will be performed ten times until August 22, 2015 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or

Sunday, July 19, 2015


By James Karas

Adriana Lecouvreur has been called perhaps one of the most underrated of operas. Francesco Cilea’s dramatic piece was a big hit in 1902 when it opened with Enrico Caruso. It has not exactly disappeared from the boards since then but it is more often produced as a vehicle for a diva than for its inherent virtues. The current production by the Opéra national de Paris at the Opéra Bastille in Paris should remove any thoughts of it not deserving more frequent staging. And as for a vehicle for a diva, its reputation remains intact.

Marcelo Alvarez and Angela Gheorghiu.  Photo © Vincent Pontet

If Adriana is a great vehicle for a diva then it is tough to find too many singers who can surpass Angela Gheorghiu in vocal magnificence, stage presence and physical loveliness. In this opera it is as if diva Gheorghiu is playing herself as Comédie-Française star Adriana.

Adriana Lecouvreur tells a fictionalized story about the real actress Adriana (1692-1730). The plot is not easy to summarize in a few words but it is easy to follow on stage. Adriana is in love with Count Maurizio (Marcelo Alvarez). Stage manager Michonnet (Alessandro Corbelli) is in love with Adriana but he gets nowhere.

There is a Prince (Wojtek Smilek), a Princess (Luciana D’Intino) and an Abbé (Raúl Giménez). Pay attention to the Princess!

Tenor Alvarez sings with passion and conviction. His Maurizio is virile and Alvarez has the vocal chords to give us a splendid representation of Adriana’s lover.

Baritone Alessandro Corbelli is a master of comic roles but in this opera he is a down-to-earth stage manager, getting on in age and reaching for the stars by declaring his love for Adriana. His Michonnet is out of his league as a lover but Corbelli’s resonant voice gave us a well-sung and sympathetic character.
Scene from Adriana Lecouvreur.  Photo © Vincent Pontet

Mezzo soprano Luciana D’Intino gets the terrific role of the Princess who is in love with Maurizio and, since he rebuffs her, a very jealous woman. D’Intino has a commanding voice and a delivery that should make you watch your back. She sees her enemy and Adriana gets poisoned flowers from her.

Daniel Oren conducted the orchestra and chorus of the Paris national Opera.

Director David McVicar and Designer Charles Edwards take a pleasantly conservative approach to the opera. Adriana is a backstage drama with scenes in a posh villa and a sumptuous palace as well. The final scene is in Adriana’s house. The first scene backstage at the Comédie-Française starts with a great deal of hubbub with racks of costumes being moved around but we finally settle down in Adriana’s dressing room and the drama gets under way.

The second and third acts are more ostentatious as becomes the status of their owner. The problem I have is with the final act in Adriana’s house. It looks like an unfinished barn (it is the back of the stage of the Comédie-Française). If there was a reason for making her live in such drab surroundings, it escaped me.

Adriana dies in the end and she takes her time about it. But with a satin voice like Gheorghiu’s she is entitled to take as long as she wants.

It is worth noting that this is a coproduction with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the Gran Teatre de Liceu, Barcelona, the Vienna Staatsoper and the San Francisco Opera. That’s how many opera companies jump to attention when Angela Gheorghiu is available for a role. The Royal Opera House production was recorded in 2010 and is available on DVD with Jonas Kaufman as Maurizio.

A great night at the opera.   

Adriana Lecouvreur by Francesco Cilea ran from June 23 to 15, 2015 at the Opera Bastille, Place de la Bastille, 75012 Paris, France.

Friday, July 17, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

The current production of Gluck’s Alceste at the Palais Garnier by the National Opera of Paris has an unusual section in the credits page. It lists five cartoonists and erasers. 

The production is a reprise of Oliver Py’s 2013 staging and it is simply outstanding.

French soprano Véronique Gens gives a superb performance as Alceste, the woman who is prepared to die so that her husband Admetus may live. Gens has a flexible but strong voice and she sings and acts a powerful and sympathetic Alceste.
Staphane Degout and Veronique Gens. Photo copyright: Julien Benhamou

Tenor Stanislas de Barbeyrac plays a youthful-looking and rather straight-laced Admetus. He is a hard character to take. When the gods tell him his time on earth is up but he can stay alive if he can find a replacement for himself in Hades he goes for it. His wife steps into the breach. Admetus’s conduct is not de Barbeyrac’s fault and the singing is all his.

Baritone Stéphane Degoot made an awesome High Priest of Apollo and an (almost) comic and stentorian Hercules. The High Priest calls for an authoritative voice becoming his position and Hercules is a braggart who can easily be made into a buffoon. Degoot did splendidly in both roles. In high hat and dressed in black, Hercules was kept within decent bounds even if he does produce a dove out of his hat.

Bass Tomislav Lavoie handles the roles of Apollo a herald and the bass Coryphaeus or Leader of the People with Kevin Amiel singing the tenor Coryphaeus and Chiara Skerath the soprano Coryphaeus.

The Orchestre des musiciens du Louvre Grenoble was conducted by Marc Minkowski, one of the masters of the baroque repertoire with remarkable results.

The most interesting aspect of the production is Py’s approach. The production is aggressively black and white. Staircases are rolled on and off the stage. In the opening scenes, the about-to-die Admetus is shown in a hospital bed. Francois Lis who doubles as the voice of the Oracle and a god of the underworld wears a white hospital coat and gives a heart massage to Admetus as if he just suffered a heart failure.

Stanislas Barberyac as Admetus. Photo copyright: Julien Benhamou

The palace of Thessaly is a very busy place and that is without taking into account the home decorators. They are the five cartoonists that are kept busy almost throughout the performance sketching with chalk on huge black panels on the back and sides of the stage. They also have a penchant for writing brief messages such as “La mort n’existe pas” when Hercules is around and “désespoir politique” when Alceste is grieving for her husband and children.

The bulk of their sketching is of various subjects such as the Palais Garnier usually using long sticks to reach the higher points of the panels. As soon as something is drawn, the sponge mops come out and it is erased. There is a danger of watching the cartoonists instead of the singers. In other words it was interesting but perhaps over the top.

The idea must have originated with Set and Costume Designer Pierre-André Weitz. He is one of the drawers-erasers and in all fairness the other four should be mentioned: Mathieu Crescence, Pierre Lebon, Leo Muscat and Julien Massé.

Other than some doubts about the efficacy of the sets, I found it a thrilling night at the opera.

Alceste by Christoph Willibald Gluck opened on June 16 and ran until July 15, 2015 at the Opéra national de Paris, Palais Garnier, 8 Rue Scribe, 75009 Paris, France.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

The Aix-en-Provence Festival has achieved a double triumph in its productions of two one-act operas. They are Peter Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and Igor Stravinsky’s Persephone. Both operas are directed by Peter Sellars and his idiosyncratic approach which can range from the bizarre to the brilliant is in this instant, well, simply brilliant. Sellars and Set Designer George Tsypin and Lighting Director James F. Ingalls have found points of similarity between the very different works and the productions and performances are outstanding.

Scene from Iolanta. Photo copyright Pascal Victor

Iolanta (Ekaterina Scherbachenko) is a blind princess who is kept ignorant of her sightlessness.  She lives in the forest and her father King Rene (Dimitry Ulyanov) threatens with death anyone who will disclose to Iolanta that she is blind. A knight named Vaudémont (Arnold Rutkowski) arrives with his friend Robert (Maxim Aniskin) and falls in love with the princess. Robert was betrothed to Iolanta in childhood but he is in love with someone else. Dr. Ibn-Hakia (Willard White) cures her of her blindness and the fairy tale ends happily.

Russian soprano Scherbachenko sings a marvelously moving and affecting Iolanta. She and tenor Rutkowski sing some gorgeous arias. Ulyanov has a powerful bass voice and made a very strong and assertive king. Jamaican baritone White has been around the block many times but he holds his own with an expressive performance.

Major credit for the production is due to Sellars. The set consists of little more than four doorways with some decorative figures on top. Lighting is of great importance. Iolanta lives in darkness and there is very little movement. The change in lighting emphasizes the darkness and stillness of her world. We see shadows and silhouettes. The costumes are almost entirely black.

At the end all is resolved and the chorus sings a capella a sublime hymn to the Holy Trinity. This is followed by a rousing Gloria to bring the opera to a glorious end.

Sellars uses the same set for Persephone but with different lighting and effects. The opera is based on a poem by Andre Gide and tells the story of the abduction of the daughter of the goddess Demeter by Pluto, the god of the underworld.

Scene from Persephone. Photo copyright Pascal Victor

The opera is part recitation, part singing and part ballet. Eumolpus, the son of Poseidon and founder of the Eleusinian Mysteries, recites part of the story from Homer about the abduction of Persephone. He is an old man leaning on a white stick and tells/sings the story, we can assume, like a Homeric bard. American tenor Paul Groves does well in the role.

Actress Dominique Blanc plays the role of Persephone with considerable dramatic effect. The rest of the opera is performed by a Cambodian dance group called Amrita Performing Arts. Sathya Sam dances Persephone, Sodhachivy Chumvan dances Demeter, Chan Sithyka Khon is Pluton and Narim Nam takes on the roles of Mercury, Demophon and Triptolemos. They dance in classic Cambodian style with economical but expressive movements.

The opera has three tableaux: The Abduction of Persephone, Persephone in Hades and the Rebirth of Persephone.

Teodor  Currentzis conducted the orchestra and chorus of the Opéra national de Lyon in exceptional performances of Tchaikovsky’s and Stravinsky’s music.

Sellars created these productions for the Teatro Real de Madrid in 2012 and one can only applaud the Aix Festival for reprising them. Is anyone listening in Toronto?

From Hades to Cambodia, from medieval Europe to 19th century Russia, not to mention 1930’s Paris and recent Madrid – all those disparate elements gathered in Aix-en-Provence for a hymn of praise and glory and a great night at the opera.     

IOLANTA by Peter Tchaikovsky and PERSEPHONE by Igor Stravinsky opened on July 5 and will be performed five times until July 19, 2015 at the Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, France.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

The Abduction from the Seraglio is a comic opera, a Singspiel that combines songs and spoken dialogue. As its title suggests, it does involve the snatching of some prisoners from the hands of those dastardly Ottomans but all is based on love, good humour and a happy ending. That is how Mozart’s opera is usually treated but that does not jive with director Martin Kušej’s conception of the work as presented at the Aix-en-Provence Festival.  

 Photo copyright: Pascal Victor
Kušej politicizes the opera as if it were just composed as a comment on the current murderous activities of ISIS and the jihadists. In the original libretto, Belmonte (Daniel Behle) arrives at the palace of Pasha Selim in search of his fiancée Konstanze (Jane Archibald), her servants Blonde (Rachel Gilmore) and Pedrillo (David Portillo). They were captured by pirates, you see, and sold to Pasha Selim (Tobias Moretti) who keeps the women in his harem and uses Pedrillo as a handyman or something.

Kušej has moved the action from the eighteenth century to the end of World War I and instead of a palace Belmonte arrives at an army tent in the desert. The tent, the endless stretch of desert and the sweltering sun (hot enough to fry your liver) constitute the set for the production.

Belmonte is met by the usually blustering and buffoonish palace guard Osmin (Franz Josef Selig) who in this production is about as funny as a beheading jihadist.

The palace/tent guards are right out of the current news with the black robes, turbans and kerchiefs wrapped around their faces. I hoped that none of them forgot to change into their ordinary clothes after the performance for they were almost certain to be shot by the ubiquitous and alert French police. 
                                                                            Photo copyright: Pascal Victor
The opera is sung in German but the prisoners are given a dash of phrases in English which are in fact amusing. Pedrillo is buried up to his neck in the scorching sand and no one seems much concerned as they continue with their plot to escape. Finally he yells “stop with your f…g singing” to Belmonte to no effect.

Once you swallow without digesting the politicization of a comic work, the performances are quite good. Soprano Archibald  has some wonderfully melodic and moving arias including the long and anguished "Traurigkeit ward mir zum Loose"  where she grieves for her sorrowful fate. A sublime aria meets a sublime voice. Selim is in love with her but she is faithful to Belmonte. She would rather die than be unfaithful but Selim threatens with tortures of every kind. You see where a scorned lover’s threats become an ISIS menace, if you are so minded.

Tenor Daniel Behle is a lightly voiced Belmonte and a typically ardent lover who sings of the power of love in the tough and florid aria “Ich baue ganz auf deine Starke.” Belmonte has not been briefed on the power of oil and Western treachery after World War I and his ignorance has no effect on Behle’s superb performance.

Gilmore as Blonde and Portillo as Pedrillo perform with lighter more comic style as become their roles and do excellent work.

Bass Selig has a marvelously rumbling bass voice and he would make a superb buffoon in a comic opera. Here we are supposed to take him seriously as a murderous psychopath and a threat to civilization.

Jérémie Rhorer conducted the Freiburger Barockorchester and MusicAeterna (the choir of l’Opéra de Perm) and they were not briefed on the fact that the production was political commentary. They played and sang Mozart’s marvelous composition with no regard to Middle East anxieties.

When the lovers escape from Selim’s palace they are quickly captured by the alert Osmin. Selim in a gesture of humanity grants them their freedom. When they escape from the tent in the desert in the current production, they trudge through the desert for four days before they are apprehended. They are returned to Selim who forgives them in a gesture of reconciliation and orders Osmin to escort them to the border of their country.

According to the program “when he comes back, Osmin throws a bloody gift at the feet of the pasha.”

Before the beginning of the performance, Bernard Foccroulle, the Director General of the Festival announced that there were a couple of changes to the production. One scene would have showed simulated beheadings of Europeans. The other was that of the “bloody gift” which was to be the heads of the lovers. We were spared the pleasure.

No doubt there is an opera out there that can satisfy Kušej’s need for commentary on current affairs  But please leave Mozart alone.

The Abduction from the Seraglio by W. A. Mozart Georg opened on July 3 and will be performed seven times until July 21, 2015 at the Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France.