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.

Saturday, July 11, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

The Aix-en-Provence Festival has brought back Robert Carsen’s 1991 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and one can only be grateful for the reprise.

Midsummer is one of Shakespeare’s most lyrical, poetic and funny plays and most people have views about it from the theater. Benjamin Britten and his partner Peter Pears kept about half of Shakespeare’s text and fashioned an opera with some sinewy and melodic music that is worthy of the bard’s poetry. The play deals with spirits who need ethereal music, lovers who deserve romantic notes and rustics who demand down to earth tunes. Britten provides them all.

                     Scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo copyright: Patrick Berger

Carsen and Set Designer Michael Levine take their inspiration from the title and create an atmosphere that is indeed a dream.

The entire stage of the Théâtre de l’Archevêché is a converted into a huge bed covered with a green blanketThat is where people usually dreamLater in the play the one bed is replaced with several beds and at one time the beds are hoisted up in the airThis is a world of fairies, miraculous transformations, love and some artisans rehearsing a play, all taking place in the forest.

We have the fairies Oberon (Lawrence Zazzo) and Tytania (Sandrine Piau) quarreling and he decides to punish her by applying the juice of a flower to her eyes that will make her fall in love with the first creature that she sees. Countertenor Zazzo and soprano Piau make a marvelous couple in war and peace.

We have two Athenian couples in the forest who are quarreling about who loves whom. Lysander (Rupert Charlesworth) loves Hermia (Elizabeth DeShong) but so does Demetrius (John Chest). Helena (Layla Claire) loves Demetrius but the magic juice makes Lysander fall in love with her. Don’t worry about the details but the foursome will treat you to a lovers’ quarrel that is simply hilarious as well as musically wonderful.

The artisans of Athens go to the forest to rehearse Pyramus and Thisbe a play that they want to put on for the wedding celebrations of Theseus (Scott Conner) and Hippolyta (Allyson McHardy). This is a chance for broad comedy and Carsen makes the best use of it. Brindley Sherratt is a hilarious Bottom, a braggadocio who wants to play all the roles in the play. He is the one who is turned into an ass and Tytania falls in love with him.

Scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo copyright: Patrick Berger

Brian Bannatyne-Scott plays the illiterate Snug who gets to play the lion in a funny but also touching way.

Miltos Yerolemou practically steals the show in the non-singing role of Puck. He is the mischievous creature who puts the juice in the eyes of the sleeping Tytania and in the eyes of the wrong lover thus causing comic havoc. Yerolemou practically flies around the stage and has enough comic talent to almost upstage first-rate opera singers.

The Trinity Boys Choir make marvelous fairies and even better singers. Britten composed some beautiful music for them.

The Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Lyon under Kazushi Ono and the cast with the Choir provide an evening that is full of charm, poetry and music – the sort of thing perhaps that one can only experience in a dream.

A Midsummer Night’s Dre by Benjamin Britten opened on July 4 and will be performed seven times until July 20, 2015 at the Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France.

Friday, July 10, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

The opera Svadba has travelled a long way to score a major success at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. It started in the summer of 2011 at the Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto commissioned by the Queen of Puddings Music Theatre and was honoured as the “Outstanding New Musical/Opera by the Dora Mavor Moor Awards. Yes, all of that happened in Toronto.

Scene from Svadba. Photo copyright: Bernard Coutant

Svadba in Serbian means wedding and the opera was composed by Ana Sokolović, a Canadian of Serbian origin. It is based on the simplest of ideas. Six friends get together the night before the wedding of one of them and sing, dance and play games. They sing     cappella on basically a bare stage. This is usually described as a bridal shower and although I have never been to one, I would have not thought that it is material for 55 minutes of beautiful and moving singing, dancing and some horsing around. It is and then some.

The six friends are Milica (Florie Valiquette) the bride, Danica (Liesbeth Devos), Lena (Jennifer Davis), Zora (Pauline Sikirdji), Nada (Andrea Ludwig) and Ljubica (Mireille Lebel). They are amazingly talented and sing as well as perform the other functions of the opera superbly.

The opera which receives its first staging in Europe opens with the six women marching determinedly to the front of the stage and singing almost angrily at the start about the marriage and loss of their friend. The mood changes a number of times as the seven songs are performed. They play blind man’s bluff, they dance, they joke, they dress in their bridesmaids’ dresses and sing some gorgeous and some nonsensical tunes.

                                       Scene from Svadba. Photo copyright: Bernard Coutant

The songs tell a story beyond the love of friendship and the loss as a result of marriage. Milica is an only daughter and her mother promised her to someone called Jovan but Milica wants Ilija.

Milica is dressed as a bride and sings a song of such exquisite beauty about the inescapable and inexorable loss that marriage brings. The mother who knows about love and loss bids her beautiful daughter to go and not to return. It is a moment of supreme beauty.

The opera is staged expertly by Ted Huffman and Zack Winokur with musical direction by Dảirine Ni Mheadhra. This new production by the Aix-en-Provence Festival is coproduced with five other European opera companies and will therefore be around for some time.

The best news is that Sokolović has been commissioned by the Canadian Opera Company to compose an opera based on a libretto by Michel Marc Bouchard. Stay tuned.      

SVADBA by Ana Sokolović opened on July 3 and will be performed eight times until July 16, 2015 at the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, Aix-en-Provence, France.

Thursday, July 9, 2015


Reviewed by James Karas

The 67th edition of the Aix-en-Provence Festival opened with Katie Mitchell’s production of Alcina. The production is worthy of many superlatives but I prefer to grant it the ultimate accolade and say it has the touch of genius. I choose the word with care and do not toss it carelessly as it is done in some media.
   A view of the set of Alcina. Photo copyright Patrick Berger)

Mitchell has gone beyond a brilliant recreation of a baroque opera. She has taken a huge leap of the imagination and added a level to Handel’s work that few directors could have conceived and even fewer executed.

Alcina, as we know, opens by the mouth of a cave surrounded by rugged mountains. The medieval story unfolds as Bradamante (Katarina Bradić) disguised as her brother Ricciardo and her companion Melisso (Krzysztof Baczyk) meet the sorceress Morgana (Anna Prohaska). Morgana falls in love at first sight with the disguised Bradamante.

Mitchell and her designer Chloe Lamford set the opera around the 1920’s and the present. The opera opens in a palatial room with a large bed in the centre. A couple is engaged in what couples are engaged in when in bed and servants are milling around. The couple, we will learn, is the sorceress Alcina (Patricia Petibon) and her prisoner and lover Ruggiero (Phillippe Jaroussky) but for the time being they make a quick exit.

Two men looking like commandos enter the room. They wear bulletproof vests, point guns and look as if they could blow up the place. They are Bradamante and Melisso. Morgana falls in love with “Ricciardo” but in this production she expresses it in more earthy style by being tied to the bed, arms and feet, legs open, in a very explicit carnal invitation. Her aria “O s’apre il riso” speaks of temptation, her body screams of lust. The production gets sexually pretty explicit and Morgana seems to enjoy a bit of S&M.

The leap of the imagination that Mitchell has taken is to place part the opera in the 1920’s. Alcina turns her lovers into animals, rocks and trees like Circe. But the another part of the opera takes place in the present and Alcina and her sister Morgana are old, ugly women. They step from the palatial room into ugly spaces on each side and they change from being young and beautiful to being old and ugly. They are practicing magic on their guests and on themselves until their ability to cast spells is broken. Mitchell has added a whole new layer to the opera.

There are three playing areas on the main stage and two above them. On the upper tier there is a veritable transformation lab where humans are converted in beasts, rocks and plants. The sorceresses change from young to old by walking through magic doors. There is a great deal of bustle on stage and at times there is something going on in four places.

The result is an astoundingly original view of the opera that may have left some people in the audience gasping to follow what was going on. It is the only reason I can think of for some of them booing the creative team after giving a thunderous approval to the singers and the orchestra.

Brilliant conception can mean bugger-all without a stunning cast and orchestra and here it is all one can hope for.

Alcina is a complex character capable of evil and perverted love with prodigious vocal demands. French soprano Patricia Petibon gives a signature performance with vocal ardour and strength. Handel gives her the best arias of the opera and she sings with a vocal and emotional non pareil.

Morgana, her sister and partner in love and crime is ably sung by Austrian soprano Prohaska. She loved the decent Oronte (done well by tenor Antony Gregory) until she fell for Ricciardo and she can sing quite splendidly and emotively as in “Credete al mio dolore” where she brings her former lover to his emotional knees.

Serbian mezzo-soprano Katarina Bradić as Bradamante switches from pretending to be a man to being a beautiful woman. The transformation takes place in front of us as her commando outfit is exchanged for a red dress. Her voice descends easily into lush contralto territory and rises into soprano range with ease. A superb performance.

The whole story is about the faithful Bradamante going in search of her fiancé Ruggiero sung by the inimitable countertenor Phillippe Jaroussky. He is part of a small number of first rate singers who can reach the heights and achieve the delicacy of the male voice in upper vocal ranges. The role was originally sung by castrati and in modern productions is usually performed by mezzo-sopranos. Jaroussky performs it with ease and panache.

Conductor Andrea Marcon and the Freiburger Barockorchester got one of the most thunderous ovations. Well-deserved for a marvelous rendition of the score.

The wreath, however, goes to Katie Mitchell for conception and execution that goes far beyond ordinary brilliance and, it bears repeating, displays nothing less than a touch of genius.

Alcina by Georg Frederic Handel opened on July 2 and will be performed seven times until July 20, 2015 at the Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, France.