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 EastTorontoOntariowww.canstage.com

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: www.cineplex.com/events