Sunday, May 17, 2015


(l-r) Clarence Frazer as Figaro, Andrew Haji as Count Almaviva, Charlotte Burrage as Rosina, Gordon Bintner as Don Basilio, Karine Boucher as Berta and Iain MacNeil as Doctor Bartolo. Photo: Michael Cooper
Reviewed by James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company does much more than produce operas. Through its Ensemble Studio, it also trains opera professionals. What is more the COC gives some of the students the opportunity to perform in a major production at the Four Seasons Centre before a live audience.
One of the twelve performances of The Barber of Seville (May 15, 2015) this year was given to the Ensemble with creditable results before an enthusiastic audience.

Ensemble Studio member Clarence Frazer replaced Joshua Hopkins as Figaro in the regular performance on May 13 and sang the role in the Ensemble Studio production. Like most starters, he needs some polishing in his performance but there is no reason not to expect to see him again.

The role of Count Almaviva was shared by tenors Andrew Haji in Act I and Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure in Act II. Haji has a fine mid-range but his high notes still need some development.    Set Designer Joan Guillén has created an oversized guitar on which the tenor perches when serenading Rosina in the opening scene. It is not a comfortable place to be on and loss of footing could result in a tumble on the stage. Not a good place to deliver an aria from.

Fortier-Lazure has a fine, light voice and some nice comic touches in his performance in Act II. Mezzo-soprano Charlotte Burrage sang a fine and lively Rosina but she needed to be a bit more assertive in “Una voce poco fa.” Rosina is playful and self-assured but she almost needs to show some teeth to convince us that she will be victorious no matter what the obstacles. Still a very good performance.

Charlotte Burrage as Rosina and Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure as Count Almaviva. Photo: Michael Cooper
Bass-baritone Iain MacNeil is only a first-year member of the Ensemble Studio and was given the role of the comical and foolish Dr. Bartolo. It takes some good singing and clowning to succeed in the part and MacNeil did just fine.

Rosina’a governess Berta gets to hang around for most of the evening but Rossini did write a very pleasant aria for her, “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie (“The old man seeks a wife”). Soprano Karine Boucher, a first year Ensemble Studio member, has a very attractive voice with a lilt and she gave a splendid rendition of the aria. 

Unfortunately, Director Joan Font and Costume and Set Designer Joan Guillén seem to work against her. As she was singing a couple was making a bed on top of the over-sized grand piano. They laid sheets, a blanket, a pillow and got under the blanket. This type of side-show is the hallmark of this production and it was annoying throughout the performance.

The performance is judged through the prism of seeing young singers honing their skills based on their innate talents. Unlike the regular cast, the Ensemble Studio members get only a single performance unless they replace a singer whom they are understudying.

What they do is good for everyone especially for the enthusiastic audience that gave them a standing ovation. 

The Barber of Seville by Giacomo Rossini with libretto by Cesare Sterbini was performed once on May 15, 2015 by mostly members of the COC Ensemble Studio at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671.

Friday, May 15, 2015


Scene from Act II finale. Photo: Chris Hutcheson
Reviewed by James Karas
The Barber of Seville, the Canadian Opera Company’s chestnut offering for its spring season, paired with Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung, is disappointing. The singing is uneven and Joan Font’s production is misguided.

When the curtain opens on what should be a square in Seville, we see a large beige screen on our left and a large black screen on our right. There is almost nothing else on the stage. A man waving a bottle staggers around and a woman with a hairdo that looks like the tusk of a rhinoceros is seated on a bench. I figure that they are the town drunk and bag lady. We will see them a number of times without being any the wiser about what they are doing in the opera. One conclusion is that our well-off, heroine Rosina is living on the wrong side of the tracks.

Fiorello (Iain MacNeill) and his crooners arrive to serenade Rosina (Cecelia Hall) on behalf of Count Almaviva (Alek Shrader). The drunk and the bag lady stick around and the early risers of Seville mill around the square. Eventually light is shone on the black screen and there is an opening where Rosina appears. This is supposed to be the balcony.

The scene switches to the interior of Rosina’s house and, like the square and perhaps like the current Spanish economy, it has seen better days. There is very little furniture except for a grand piano the size of a boat and a balcony that looks like scaffolding from which to paint the house. This is depressing.

Director Joan Font and Costume and Set Designer Joan Guillén have a vision of The Barber as taking place in untraditional surroundings that, unfortunately, add nothing to the opera.

Font believes in having many people milling around for no apparent reason. Some of them move robotically, others are old and have nothing to do but the stage is almost never empty of extras that have no apparent business being where they are. Is this a comment, again, on the current high unemployment numbers in Spain and people are kept around even if there is nothing for them to do?

Font’s idiosyncratic production received little help from the uneven singing. The performance that I saw (May 13) had several cast changes. Baritone Clarence Frazer replaced Joshua Hopkins as Figaro. Frazer has a light baritone voice and did reasonably well in the role. He was uncertain of his moves as in “Largo al factotum” where he should establish his assertiveness and energy but looked rather uncomfortable instead.

Tenor Alek Shrader was a disappointing Count Almaviva. His voice was strained where it should have been mellifluously lyrical and flat where it should have soared. He was clearly not at his best.

Mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall was a vivacious and attractive Rosina. She did a good job delivering her signature cavatina “Una voce poco fa” and her performance was one of the most satisfactory of the evening.

Baritone Renato Girolami sang well as the foolish Doctor Bartolo and showed a fine comic sense for the role. Bass Robert Gleadow as the music teacher Don Basilio has a deep and impressive voice combined with comic turns and he did well especially in his character’s signature aria “La Calumnia.”

The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra under the baton of Rory Macdonald did not suffer from any of the issues that diminished one’s enjoyment of the opera. They were splendid.

From the drab sets to the tiresome appearance of people in scenes where they have no business to the uneven singing, this was not a Barber of Seville to remember with unalloyed pleasure.

The Barber of Seville by Giacomo Rossini with libretto by Cesare Sterbini opened on April 17 and will be performed twelve times until May 22, 2015 on various dates at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


John Relyea as Duke Bluebeard and Ekaterina Gubanova as Judith. Photo: Michael Cooper

Reviewed by James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company is wrapping up its current season with a triumphal revival of Robert Lepage’s 1993 productions of Béla Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung

Lepage, Set and Costume Designer Michael Levine and Lighting Designer Robert Thomson give both operas dark, forbidding, mysterious and frightful atmospheres. Indeed the world they create is surreal, psychotic and incomprehensible.

Bass John Relyea is an impressive and imposing Bluebeard. Dressed in a buttoned-up officer’s uniform, he looks like an aristocratic gentleman. Relyea has a deep, rolling voice that is expressive and threatening but shows tenderness as well. He has a house full of horrors but he keeps asking Judith if she is afraid. The opera leads inevitably towards the sixth and seventh doors that will seal her fate as the wife of the Duke. Relyea gives an impressive performance vocally and looks like a self-possessed, mysterious, aristocrat who hides much evil and many secrets behind a civil façade.

Mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova is a strikingly blonde Judith who insists that she is not afraid of the Duke and that she loves him. Her driving curiosity pushes her to the final door of the castle where she will find her position in the Duke’s universe.

Gubanova showed great emotional intensity as she moved from one door to the next. Her voice was not always as strong as one would have liked, but she gave a signature performance in a tough role.

Lepage sets Bluebeard’s Castle in early twentieth century Europe. For both operas the stage is set in a gold frame and darkness dominates every scene. The seven doors of Bluebeard’s castle are shown as silhouettes of brightly lit keyholes on both sides of the stage. A concrete wall dominates the right side of the stage and Judith opens the doors on the left side.

We see mostly Judith’s reaction to what lies behind the doors except when she opens the fifth door and we see a vista of the Duke’s empire projected in a kaleidoscope of colours.

Blood is a central image in the opera but Lepage does not dwell on it. There is blood on Judith’s wedding dress and there are projected images of blood but darkness remains the overriding impression.

It is a stunningly well-sung, well-conceived and well-produced staging of the opera.
Krisztina Szabó as the Woman and Mark Johnson as the Psychiatrist (in background). Photo: Michael Cooper

Erwartung (“Expectation”) is a one-act monodrama in which a Woman is searching or expecting a man, her lover. She is searching in the dark with the same concrete wall as in Bluebeard as a main feature of the set.

There is a man in a white coat taking notes for a while and people emerge horizontally from the wall. There is a cot on the stage that looks very much like a hospital bed. The woman is hallucinating or is mentally disturbed. We do not know as she continues her search and finds a man. He is her lover but he apparently has a mistress.

Schoenberg wrote some extraordinarily dramatic music for this opera that keeps you enthralled for the half hour that it lasts.

Mezzo soprano Kristina Szabo goes through all the emotional permutations that the Woman suffers with powerful singing and acting. This is opera in a different dimension.

The two operas take two hours to perform including an intermission. They have many points in common and Lepage’s production capitalizes on them to give us a unified whole of two different works.

The COC Orchestra under Johannes Debus produces outstanding performances of Bartok’s and Schoenberg’s complex music.

The result is a great night at the opera.      

Bluebeard’s Castle by Béla Bartok and Erwartung by Arnold Schoenberg opened on May 6 and will be performed seven times until May 23, 2015 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671.