Saturday, February 21, 2015


Piotr Beczala as Vaudémont and Anna Netrebko as the title character in Tchaikovsky's Iolanta. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by James Karas

It is not easy finding a partner for Bluebeard. As a Duke he has been through four wives, at least, with unpleasant results for all. Poor man, finding a good wife is not easy. As an opera, it is just as difficult finding a suitable companion for Bluebeard’s Castle. The good ones are married or in a relationship and the rest are unsuitable for many reasons including the fact that they may suffer the same fate as the women who share his castle ever so briefly.

The Met has found the perfect match for both the Duke and the opera without even going to an internet dating site. The choice fell on Tchaikovsky’s never-before-seen-at-the-Met Iolanta. The 1892 one-acter has some lush music, a few good arias and many opportunities for colourful staging.

Director Mariusz Trelinlki and Set Designer Boris Kudlička give us a captivating production in modern dress that keeps the fairy tale elements of the opera.

The fairy tale is set in 15th century southern France where we meet Iolanta (Anna Netrebko), a blind princess who is unaware of her sightlessness. She is betrothed to Robert (Alexey Markov) who is supposed to be a duke but in his bowtie, quilted jacket and skis, he looks very undukish. Robert and the knight Vaudémont (Piotr Beczala) lose their way in the forest and alight on Iolanta’s “cottage.” Robert does not know who she is (it was a childhood betrothal) and he is spoken to another in any event), Vaudémont falls in love with her and the rest is fairy tale opera.

The strength of this staging, aside from its production values, lies in the singing of Netrebko and Beczala. The soprano and the lyric tenor shine in their roles from blind princess groping around and wondering what she is missing, to the tenor falling in love with her to luscious music. There is a touching recognition scene where Iolanta realizes that she is blind thus opening the way for her to regain her sight.

Baritone Alexey Markov as Robert gives an expressive and impassioned aria in praise of Mathilde, his real love. Bass Ilya Bannik is a commanding King René, Iolanta’s father.

Iolanta lives in a cage, (well, she is a princess with servants so maybe it is a fancy cottage), in the forest which occupies a small part of the stage. Live I HD Director Gary Halvorson is content to focus on the cage and give us infrequent and unsatisfactory glimpses at what lies around it. There are some trees and the background may even change but don’t expect Halvorson to show it to you.

In spite of him, this is a very enjoyable production of this rarely produced opera.

Nadja Michael and Mikhail Petrenko - Photo Metropolitan Opera  

Béla Bartok’s Bluebeard in Trelinlki’s production opens at the edge of a dark and gloomy forest. A well-dressed man stands beside a mound of earth surrounding a hole, and a shovel. We see car lights and a beautiful blonde woman wearing a stunning gown approaches. She is Judith (Nadja Michael), the Duke’s new wife and a woman in love.

That is just the beginning of this brilliantly directed and designed production. The same team produced Iolanta with strikingly similar and successful points of similarity.

Bluebeard (Mikhail Petrenko) is handsome and almost business-like. He gives Judith the choice of leaving him but she insists that she will stay because she loves him. His singing is controlled, resonant and seething with evil. He is a total psychopath.

Nadja Michael has a deep almost sultry voice that gives a convincing portrayal of a strong woman with driving curiosity and inexplicable love. She is a marvelous Judith.

As with Iolanta, Bluebeard’s Castle has outstanding production values. Every door that the hapless Judith opens is a drama in itself. From the torture chamber to the armoury, to the garden and finally the room where the former wives are stored, we a see a brilliantly imagined castle.

The last scene of this production is the most dramatic. Bluebeard’s former wives come to life in an eerie and frightful fashion. They are the walking dead. We are back where we started by the shovel, the mound of earth and the hole. It is in fact a grave and this time there is a half-buried woman in it. It is Judith wearing the same gown that we saw at the beginning. Bluebeard gives her a passionate kiss and promises to love her forever.

When you get such outstanding singing, brilliant orchestral playing conducted by Valery Gergiev  combined with brilliant directing and design, you have opera at its best.

Let’s hope that Iolanta and Vaudémont get along just fine and she does not leave him for Duke Bluebeard.            

Iolanta by Peter Tchaikovsky and Bluebeard’s Castle by Béla Bartok were transmitted Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on February 15, 2015 at the Cineplex VIP Don Mills Shops at Don Mills, 12 Marie Labatte Road, Toronto Ontario M3C 0H9 and other theatres. Encores will be shown on April 11 and 13, 2015. For more information:

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


A scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of Die Walküre, 2015. Photo: Michael Cooper

James Karas

Infidelity, incest, immorality, divine transgression and divine retribution, lust for flesh and power, and the bodies of a few heroes strewn around the stage is all in a day’s work for Wagner. Or 4 hours and 45 minutes, to be more precise, which is how long the current production of Die Walkűre by the Canadian Opera Company takes to give us all those events.

Atom Egoyan’s production has some brilliant touches and some takes that leave you scratching your head.

The set by Michael Levine consists of a mass of steel girders and lights at the top and on the sides of the stage that look like a scene under a bridge. A corner of a stucco building is visible at the back but I could not make out what it was supposed to represent. Is it Valhalla as viewed from under the bridge that was constructed for the gods to enter their grand abode in Das Rheingold? In any event, with some variations, the set serves for the whole opera from Hunding’s hut to the top of the rock where Wotan puts Brűnhilde to sleep and surrounds her by fire. The set is the head scratcher. Asie from that, Egoyan's production is simply superb.

American tenor Clifton Forbes sang the role of Siegmund even though he was indisposed. He struggled through the performance and deserves credit for that but further comment is uncalled for.

American soprano Christine Goerke has a big, clarion voice and sang a superb Brűnhilde. She dominated the scenes that she was in and was especially effective with the Valkyries. When Brűnhilde approaches Siegmund to inform him of Wotan’s decision that he must die, she raises a white sheet to her body and flames cover her torso. It is marvelous touch by Egoyan that foreshadows Brűnhilde’s fate. 
Clifton Forbis as Siegmund, Dimitry Ivashchenko as Hunding and Heidi Melton as Sieglinde. Photo: Michael Cooper

Danish baritone Johan Reuter did not make the ideal Wotan. His voice is marvelous in the lower register but it tended to show strain in the upper notes. Part of the problem is that his voice is simply not big enough to go over the orchestra when it is playing at full force. Wotan needs to have an over-powering voice befitting a god. Reuter did not manage those heights all the time.

Russian bass Dimitry Ivashchenko made a superb Hunding. He was vocally strong and resonant and physically threatening. He was well-matched with American soprano Heidi Melton as Sieglinde. She has a big, lovely voice and she showed fear, tenderness and courage as the wife of the boor Hunding and the loving sister/wife of Siegmund.
At the end of the opera, Wotan punishes Brűnhilde for her defiance of his orders to allow Hunding to kill Siegmund by placing her atop of a rock surrounded by flames. She will sleep there until a hero rescues her. Wotan’s Farwell to Brűnhilde is one of those great scenes in opera that one could wait not four but forty hours to see it. In this production there is no rock and Brűnhilde simply lies on the ground. But Wagner’s grand music played brilliantly by the COC Orchestra conducted by Johannes Debus provides a brilliant moment. As the scene winds up, the Valkyries descend of the stage carrying flaming torches. They surround Brűnhilde as if paying homage to the great Valkyrie and place the troches around her body. Brűnhilde is indeed protected from cowards until a great hero comes to rescue her.

See this exceptional production and wait until next year for the sequel.    

Die Walküre by Richard Wagner opened on January 31 and will be performed a total of seven times until February 22, 2015 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671.

Sunday, February 8, 2015


Vittorio Grigolo in the title role and Christine Rice as Giuletta in Offenbach's "Les Contes d’Hoffmann."
Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by James Karas

Jacques Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, with its sprawling libretto, numerous characters, several settings and some complex psychological curves, is not an easy opera to produce successfully. Offenbach died during rehearsals of the first production and people have been tampering with the work ever since.

Bartlett Sher put his own imprimatur on the opera in his 2009 production for the Metropolitan Opera which has been remounted in New York and shown Live in HD around the world.

Sher gives us a dark, forbidding, almost macabre reading of the opera. Much of the time we see the faces of people dressed in back with white shirts on a dark background. I felt as if I were seeing ghosts. What the audience in Lincoln Centre saw may have been very different because the background set may have been more visible but it is impossible to say.

At the beginning of the performance we see the Muse dressed in a beautiful dress. Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsay makes a stunning Muse with her dramatic face and splendid voice. She soon puts on a black suit and becomes Hoffmann’s friend Nicklausse.  

The tortured and complex poet Hoffmann is played by tenor Vittorio Grigolo. Grigolo has youthful good looks that combine innocence and passion. Hoffmann is a man in pursuit of many things that are symbolized by love for a woman or several women. Hoffmann falls in love with the mechanical doll Olympia, the doomed singer Antonia who will drop dead if she sings and the courtesan Giulietta who does what courtesans do – dumps him for another man. Grigolo handles the role superbly both as an actor as the ever-searching and failing man and as a virtuoso singer who must display passion, lyricism and some sarcasm.    

Thomas Hampson as Dapertutto and Christine Rice as Giuletta in Offenbach's "Les Contes d’Hoffmann."
Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Bass-baritone Thomas Hampson plays the four villains who haunt Hoffmann’s every affair until he (Hoffmann) destroys himself. Hampson has an imposing physique and an equally imposing and impressive voice. He gives the villains a haunting presence and us a superb performance.

The doll Olympia is sung and performed by Erin Morley. Morley has to adopt the awkward mechanical steps of a doll and sing; she derives full marks for evocative singing and acting.

Soprano Hibla Gerzmava sang the roles of Antonia and Stella, the latter being the woman he is in love with at the beginning of the opera and the one who leaves him dead drunk at the end. Gerzmava has a big and commanding voice and her portrayal of the two singers was convincing.

Christine Rice sang the beautiful but unfaithful Giulietta with beauty and fidelity.

Yves Abel conducted the Met Opera Orchestra.

Les Contes d’Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach was shown Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on January 31, 2015 at the Cineplex Odeon Eglinton Town Centre Cinema, 22 Lebovic Avenue, Toronto, Ontario and other theatres. Encores will be shown on March 28 and 30, 2015. For more information call (416)-752-4494 or visit