Saturday, January 31, 2015


Scene from Canadian Opera Company production of Don Giovanni, 2015. Photo: Michael Cooper, Canadian Opera Company.

Reviewed by James Karas

***** (out of five)

Some bomb.

Many do it well.

A few do it terrifically.

A handful do such dazzling work that it amounts to creating a masterpieces from a masterpiece.

I speak of opera directors and especially of Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov’s production of Don Giovanni for the Canadian Opera Company. All of us have preconceived notions of the legendary seducer including the way he is presented by Mozart. He is handsome, dashing, gallant, quick of mind and foot, amoral and fearless. A heroic figure if there ever was one.

Tcherniakov presents almost the opposite; almost a parody of the heroic figure. His Don Giovanni is an older man, who goes through the mechanics of seduction but is in fact a dried up drunkard to whom women are attracted but who has nothing to offer them.    

Tcherniakov sets the opera in the Commendatore’s paneled library and changes many of the relationships of the characters in order to justify their presence in that house. Donna Elvira becomes Donna Anna’s cousin and Don Giovanni’s wife. Zerlina is Donna Anna’s daughter from a previous marriage and Leporello is a relative of the Commendatore.

Every scene contains an unexpected and at times surreal interpretation of the opera. In the opening scene Don Giovanni is famously seducing, even raping the Commendatore’s daughter. Not so. Donna Anna is trying to seduce him and when her father shows up Don Giovanni simply pushes him away.

After Masetto gets a thrashing from Don Giovanni, Zerlina, ever the master manipulator, comforts him with the soothing aria “Vedrai, carino.” She is supposed to sing to Masetto, of course, and finish the aria by putting his hand on her heart. In this production, she takes Don Giovanni’s coat from Leporello and sings to it. The woman is in love irrationally and completely with Don Giovanni.    

In Act II Don Giovanni sings the gorgeous serenade “Deh! Vieni alla finestra,” with mandolin accompaniment, to Donna Elvira’s maid. In this production Don Giovani is drunk and alone as he sings and dances. He sings to no one and his movements suggest the Dance of Death.  It is one of many utterly surreal and captivating scenes in the production.   

Baritone Russell Braun has a pleasant if not big voice. It is well suited to the spent and dispirited Don Giovanni. He is a womanizer on automatic pilot, going through the motions but only a shadow of his former self. Braun’s voice contrasted with Kyle Ketelsen’s rich bass-baritone voice in the role of Leporello. Ketelsen gave us a Leporello with panache and devil-may-care attitude and some of the best singing of the evening.

Soprano Jane Archibald was a finely done Donna Anna, a sex starved woman who is trying to have sex with Don Giovanni and her hapless fiancé Don Ottavio. She sang better than she was able to exude the lusty sexuality of her character.

Don Ottavio is a wimp and is best if sung by a light tenor who is full of promises but is ineffectual. He has some beautiful arias. Unfortunately Michael Schade gave us an Ottavio who was more gruff than lyrical and his arias floated when they should have soared.

Jennifer Holloway as Donna Elvira displayed some vocal beauty and emotion but could not give us the anger that is inherent in a betrayed woman. She may still be in love with Don Giovanni who seduced her and abandoned her but her rendition of “Mi trade” (I was betrayed) needs some more punch.

Zerlina is not the sweet country girl but a smart teenager who becomes obsessed. With Don Giovanni and her ‘Batti, batti” and “Vedrai, carino” arias are given original and unexpected interpretations. Brava to Sasha Djihanian for superb work.

The Commendatore comes in for special treatment by Tcherniakov but bass Andrea Silvestrelli sings the last scene in a disappointing colorless monotone.  

Michael Hofstetter conducted the Canadian Opera Company Opera.

This is a co-production with Festival Aix-en-Provence and Teatro Real Madrid and Bolshoi Theatre Moscow. It was performed in Aix-en-Provence in the summer of 2010 and 2013. One measure of the quality of the production may be the fact that I saw both Aix productions and could not wait for it to arrive in Toronto.

Tcherniakov’s take on the opera does not seem to arouse excitement in everybody. The night I saw it Torontonians managed to mute their excitement and the standing ovation that the production deserves. It was perhaps just a display of Canadian reticence if the face of something extraordinary.

Don Giovanni by W. A. Mozart opened on January 24 and will be performed a total of ten times until February 21, 2015 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


Renée Fleming as Hanna, Kelli O'Hara as Valencienne, and Alek Shrader as Camille de Rosillon in                           

Lehár's  The Merry Widow. Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by James Karas

The Metropolitan Opera has successfully married two very suitable candidates for nuptials: operetta and Broadway. The question is why did it take so long?

Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow almost defines the operetta genre and when done well it can provide a delightful night at the theatre. The Broadway musical is one of the largest components of the New York entertainment industry not to mention that it is a uniquely American contribution to culture. What it lacks in snob appeal it makes up for in energy, popularity and just plain fun. What operetta has in high cultural experience it often lacks in fun especially if done in a foreign language.

The Met has brought in Broadway Director and Choreographer Susan Stroman to create a Merry Widow that is full of energy, humour, high kicking dancing and a visual and aural pleasure.

The production is done in English avoiding the easiest way of killing this operetta which is to do it in German. The cast is uniformly superb with some excellent singers and dancers and just as importantly genuinely funny actors.

Soprano Renée Fleming has the role of Countess Hanna Glawari and surely she is everybody’s dream of a merry widow. Hanna is lively, beautiful and, thanks to her husband’s uncommon good sense in dying on their wedding night, loaded. Make that is in possession of twenty million whatevers, a sum sufficient to save the fatherland Pontevedria from bankruptcy. Fleming looks like a mature woman and that is a bonus on top of her silken voice.

With those looks and that bank account, Hanna has many suitors but the fatherland can only be saved if she married a Pontevedrian. That would be Count Danilo, an attaché at the Pontevedrian embassy in Paris, who prefers Chez Maxim’s to the office. Baritone Nathan Gunn is tall, dark and handsome, to coin a phrase, say, and with his powerful voice and swaggering manner fits the role. Gunn has made his reputation in the opera house but he is equally adept singing on Broadway, therefore, an ideal part for “this” match in every way.

Veteran baritone Thomas Allen is the foolish ambassador Baron Mirko Zeta. The vocal demands are not onerous and he gets the laughs as a gullible and cuckolded husband. His wife Valencienne is played by Broadway star Kelli O’Hara who is lively, funny and a delight to the ear and the eye.

Tenor Alek Shrader comes from the world of opera and he is handsome, sings well and looks like the perfect candidate for Hanna’s hand and fortune but as Camille de Rosillon he is unsuitable - he is French. Besides, the only reason he wants to marry Hanna is so he can have Valencienne i.e. make it respectable to be seen with another man’s wife.

Carson Elrod played the delightful nincompoop Njegus, an employee at the Pontevedria embassy, who always managed to put his foot in his mouth and produced laughter. 

Aside from the performers that I mentioned, the marriage of Broadway and operetta is effected by Stroman by giving the production a marvelous mixture of the two related forms. The outstanding Broadway dancers, the Met chorus, the humour, the energy and approachability of the operetta are all meticulously combined by Stroman to give us sheer entertainment. The Met Opera Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis added to the enjoyment.

The art-nouveau sets designed by Julian Crouch and the gorgeous costumes by William Ivey Long create an atmosphere of opulence, grace and beauty that exists only in our imagination and now on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.

The Merry Widow by Franz Lehar was transmitted Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on January 17, 2015 at the Cineplex VIP Don Mills Shops at Don Mills, Toronto Ontario and other theatres. Encores will be shown on February 28 and March 2, 2015. For more information: