Thursday, October 27, 2016


Reviewed James Karas

Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas has the dubious distinction of being first performed by the girls at a boarding school in Chelsea run by a dancer and choreographer. The date is uncertain and the closest scholars get is to state that it was before December 1689. The opera is frequently described as a masterpiece or the best opera in English which may explain why it was not produced in England for almost 200 years (1704 – 1895). Even then it was not until the latter part of the twentieth century that it started being produced regularly.

The opera is an ideal vehicle for Opera Atelier. It has some beautiful music, of course, but it provides plenty of opportunities for the Artists of Atelier Ballet and the Opera Atelier Chorus. Most of the pieces are quite short, perhaps to accommodate the abilities of the young girls who first performed it, and its vocal requirements are below the stratosphere.
Wallis Giunta and Christopher Enns. Photo Bruce Zinger 
Bring on Director Marshall Pynkoski, Choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, Set Designer Gerard Gauci and Costume Designer Michael Legouffe, experts in the production of Baroque opera, and watch the results.

The first thing Pynkoski does is add a prologue that puts the plot of the opera in context. Not all of us remember the story of Dido Queen of Carthage as related by Virgil in The Aeneid. Actor Irene Poole, in a delightful and sprightly performance, brings us up to snuff by reading parts of The Aeneid in the voices of Virgil, Juno, Neptune and Aeolus. 

There are a number of dances indicated in the badly preserved score but Zingg adds a few more using Purcell’s music. 

Pynkoski and Zingg are thus able to produce an integrated opera-ballet that flows naturally from the plot and the music. The production combines the artifice, gestures and poses of baroque dance and the splendid music and singing of the period. There is great emphasis placed on colour and spectacle but the latter is not exaggerated. We see elegance, beauty and grace. 

Mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta sings the role of the unhappy Dido, a widow who has fallen in love with the Trojan Aeneas who will eventually abandon her. We know that because he has to found Rome, you see, and it is a job ordered by the gods. In her first aria “Ah, Belinda” Dido sings of her turmoil expressed in librettist Nahum Tate’s terse couplets. Giunta does superb work in the role especially in the signature aria of the opera, the moving lament “When I am laid in earth.”     

Soprano Meghan Lindsay is Dido’s faithful confidante Belinda. Lindsay is a highly accomplished singer of Baroque roles and her supple and velvety voice was on fine display in this opera. 

Well-tuned and well-toned tenor Christopher Enns is our hero Aeneas who must love and leave because he is to other business bound. A fine performance by Enns.

Mezzo-soprano Laura Pudwell, and sopranos Ellen McAteer and Karine White get the fun roles of the Sorceress and the First and Second Witches respectively. They are the baddies who want to destroy Dido but provide good entertainment while at it.

The Toronto Children’s Chorus Choral Scholars harping back to the school girls who sang in the first production of Dido no doubt, joins members of the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir and the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra conducted by David Fallis and they do superior work.

Dido is a relatively short opera and can be performed in less than an hour. With the addition of a Prologue and some dances, it lasts for an hour and a half and I found myself hoping for more. The music, singing and dancing with the colourful sets and costumes create a mesmerizing effect and an enchanting night at the opera.

Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell runs from October 20 to 29, 2016 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge St. Toronto, Ontario, M5B 1M4.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016


**** (out of 5)

By James Karas

Georg Frideric Handel’s 1735 masterpiece Ariodante gets a great deal of praise but relatively few productionsThe Canadian Opera Company remedies the latter situation for Torontonians by producing a highly imaginative and sound production by director Richard Jones.

When the overture begins and the stage lights go on, we see a large, ordinary table and chairs in an ordinary room.  A cleric is admitted into the room where people are sitting around the table. He begins to conduct what looks like a Bible class silently. He gesticulates a great deal and points towards heaven like a zealous televangelist. The people are dressed in modern clothes of no particular distinction but one man is wearing a kilt.
A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Ariodante, 2016, photo: Michael Cooper
The latter scene is not in Handel’s opera but is an invention of Jones who gives Ariodante a fascinating and highly original interpretation. 

We will soon discover that the cleric is Polinesso, the Duke of Albany and the man in the kilt is the King of Scotland. In the opera Polinesso is the bad guy but in Jones’s production he is a creep. As a cleric he is a Tartuffian fraud and as a human being he has Trumpesque proclivities towards groping which progress into serious sexual assault and perhaps rape. Nice guy. 

The plot begins to unfold. Ariodante is a prince in love with Ginevra the daughter of the King. Polinesso professes love for Ginevra (she tells him to go to Hades) while Dalinda, her servant, is madly in love with him. In order to achieve his objectives of (a) getting rid of Ariodante, (b) marrying Ginevra and (c) grabbing the throne of Scotland, Polinesso arranges for Dalinda to dress like Ginevra and have Ariodante see them in Ginevra’s bedroom in a compromising position and hello objectives. Almost. 

Polinesso gives Ginevra a potion that knocks her out (Jones’ invention). Ariodante does see “Ginevra” being unfaithful and is so distraught he is ready to commit suicide (and is reported dead), the King disowns Ginevra, she is beside herself with grief …and if this sounds like something out of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, yes, it is. But stay tuned for the happy resolution to all of these entanglements and be prepared for a surprise that, like the scene with Polinesso as an evangelist, is the invention of Jones.
Jane Archibald as Ginevra (on bed) with Alice Coote as Ariodante and Johannes Weisser 
as the King of Scotland (in front row). Photo: Michael Cooper
Handel provides an outpouring of recitatives, arias and duets that go through a gamut of emotions. From the expressions of blissful love and happiness of Ginevra and Ariodante, to scenes of grief, treachery, despair, disgusting behaviour, this opera has vocal and musical demands that demand extraordinary talents. The COC has them.

Red-haired soprano Jane Archibald leads the cast as Ginevra. She begins by making herself beautiful and declaring her love for Ariodante but changes her tune to rebuffing Polinesso if gruff terms. After some blissful moments with Ariodante she is crushed, disowned and goes mad. That is a great deal of vocal and emotional ground to cover and Archibald is simply splendid at it.

Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote sings Ariodante, a role initially assigned to a castrato. Ariodante wears baggy pants and of course is anything but a feudal knight. Coote makes us feel his happiness and his pain and we get over the incongruities of feudal references in a modern setting.           

Mezzo-soprano Varduhi Abrahamyan excels vocally as the louse Polinesso and convinces us to dislike him intensely. Soprano Ambur Braid displayed impressive tone and range as the foolish Dalinda.  

The opera calls for a number of ballet sequences but the dancing in this production is mercifully cut to a minimum. Jones does add some puppet sequences which, if I understood them correctly, show Ariodante and Ginevra consummating their marriage and having children. It’s done very tastefully but struck me as quite incongruous especially considering the end of the opera as interpreted by Jones.

The set by Designer Ultz is quite brilliant. The whole production is done on a single set that shows a small entrance on the right leading to the large room with the table. Ginevra’s bedroom on the right is separated by an imaginary door and it all works superbly. 

Johannes Debus, the COC’s Music Director, conducts the COC Orchestra to the high standard that we have come to expect. 

At four hours Ariodante approaches Wagnerian length and there were people in the audience who would not have objected if some of the arias with the numerous repetitions were made a bit shorter.

Near the end of the performance when we expect the inevitable reconciliation and celebration of the nuptials of our hero and heroine, Jones has something else up his sleeve. 
A large banner is brought on the stage with the Biblical quotation: “And the Lord God said: It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a helper fit for him.” 

Dalinda steps outside and is no longer part of the festivities.

Ginevra takes a suitcase and goes out on the road trying to thumb a ride.

In a single stroke the entire tenor of the opera is changed. Ginevra and Dalinda rebel against the conventions stipulated by the libretto. They become free woman. 


Ariodante by Georg Frideric Handel is being performed seven times between October 16 and November 4, 2016 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671.

Thursday, October 20, 2016


**** (out of five)

Reviewed by James Karas

 Any opera company that dares to produce Tristan und Isolde had better be armed with heavy vocal, orchestral and artistic artillery to match operatically what the Prussian army could do militarily. Not to mention a bank account that may surpass the budget of some small countries. Companies like that can be numbered on one hand with New York’s Metropolitan Opera being at the front of the line.

The new production of Tristan und Isolde, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and directed by Mariusz Treliński, is bold, innovative and brilliant. The three critical components of the opera are delivered by the top tier talents in the industry. Sir Simon Rattle, the out-going conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and the Met orchestra gave a stellar performance of Wagner’s complex and lengthy score.  
 Stuart Skelton as Tristan in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Photo by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.
Soprano Nina Stemme is at the top of the rarified field of Wagnerian singers. As Isolde she displayed vocal power, immense stamina and variation of tone for the gamut of emotions that the captured Irish princess expresses as she is being transported by Tristan, the man who killed her betrothed and whose life she saved. Wagner piles up vocal and emotional demands that only the best singers can tackle and Stemme is clearly one of the best.

Tenor Stuart Skelton is relatively new to the role of Tristan but he has the full vocal prowess and control that it demands. His Tristan is a modern naval officer who falls in love with Isolde, the woman that he is bringing to marry King Marke, the man who has appointed him as his heir. The troubled Tristan has another side, at least in this production: he kills Isolde’s betrothed Morold with his pistol at point blank range while the victim is blind-folded and tied up. That qualifies as a war crime.  A great performance by Skelton.

Mezzo soprano Ekaterina Gubanova sings Brangäne, Isolde’s faithful and sympathetic servant. Gubanova holds her own and gives a first-rate performance in the role. Bass René Pape sings the role of the troubled and betrayed King Marke, the man who gave everything to Tristan but was betrayed by him. Pape has a resonant bass voice that emanates his decency pain and generosity as Marke.    

What gives the production perhaps an even greater “wow” review is the production values brought by Treliński with Set Designer Boris Kudlička, Lighting Designer Marc Heinz and Projection Designer Bartek Macias. 

Nina Stemme as Isolde in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Photo by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera.
What we see first is a radar screen and then a modern battleship navigating a raging ocean (and a perfect image of the raging emotional turmoil of the main characters). Images of the radar screen, the violent waves and the battleship will recur regularly throughout the five-hour performance. The dominant colour is gray.

The characters wear modern clothes. Tristan and Marke are in naval officers’ uniforms. The sailors with the black berets could pass for commandos. They engage in pretty egregious sexual harassment of Brangäne and it may be a directorial whim that we could have done without. Brangäne is dressed tastefully and attractively, whereas Isolde in black slacks and a coat looks like a suburban mother who threw something on so she can take the children to school on time. Both Tristan and Isolde smoke making them, I suppose, just ordinary mortals who will eventually shed their normality and mortality in love/death.    
The stage is divided into a number of sections for the scenes on board the ship. We see Isolde in her suite on the ship which alternates with the iron stairs leading to different decks as well as the helm.

The second act takes place in the hull of the ship where barrels full of explosives are stored. The final scene in Tristan’s castle looks like a hospital room where the hero recalls his past as he dreams or imagines Isolde arriving. In his coma, he sees much more that adds to the brilliant interpretation by Treliński.

The lovers beat death with death. All was caused by the love potion. In death there is reconciliation, redemption and apotheosis through the power of love and Wagner’s music.

Where did the five hours go?
Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner was transmitted Live in HD form the Metropolitan Opera on October 8, 2016 at the Cineplex VIP Cinema, Don Mills Shops, Toronto and other theatres across Canada.  It will be shown again in select theatres on November 12, 14 and 16, 2016. For more information:         

Friday, October 14, 2016


James Karas

Familiarity in opera breeds enthusiasm, strong opinions and a full house. That is the expected reaction to the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Bellini’s Norma as the centerpiece of this fall’s two productions.

Producing Norma without a star soprano versed in the bel canto repertoire will not bring the end of the world but it may have deleterious effects on the opera company and its artistic director. Alexander Neef, the COC’s General Director, need not worry about his job and Torontonians can hold their head high about the quality of opera in their congested city.

 (in foreground) Russell Thomas as Pollione and Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma. 
Photo: Michael Cooper

Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky has the vocal range, tonal beauty and acting ability to deliver an extraordinary Norma and she does not disappoint. There are many ways of playing Norma, the Druid priestess who betrays everything by falling in love with a Roman proconsul, the enemy of occupied Gaul. As if that were not bad enough, she has two children by him and he has tired of her and fallen in love with a young novice priestess named Adalgisa. Try counting the emotional turmoil that Norma must express – the betrayed lover, the illicit mother who thinks of murdering her children, the deceived friend and the treacherous priestess who has betrayed her people.

There is wide latitude for a soprano to deliver a melodramatic, almost histrionic Norma or a deadly one of the singer lacks the vocal and acting prowess that the role demands. Radvanovsky maintains a mostly regal composure that is both noble and emotionally searing. From finding out that her friend Adalgisa is in love with Pollione to confessing to her followers that she has betrayed them and stepping into the pyre, this Norma does it all with poise and emotional grandeur.

Tenor Russell Thomas is terrifically fine foil for this Norma. He has a splendid voice and his Pollione grows from the deceiving lover into a noble man who joins Norma in love and death in the ultimate moments of the opera.

Mezzo soprano Isabel Leonard’s Adalgisa is a decent woman who has betrayed her faith and her friend but she finds nobility as well. Vocally Leonard does superbly and she is a pleasure to hear especially in her duets with Norma where the two voices provide both contrast and similarity in tone.

Baritone Dimitry Ivashchenko is a commanding Oroveso, the High Priest and father of Norma, with impressive resonance and presence.
 Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma. Photo: Michael Cooper
Director Kevin Newbury and Set Designer David Korins have a particular approach to the opera. The set consists of four massive pillars with heads of bulls on top of two of them. The forest of the Druids consists of bare trees and the mistletoe that Norma cuts is white. The dominant colour is almost entirely gray with flashes of red and blue at the back of the stage. The gates that close off the back of the stage when we are not in the forest make the place look like a large storage garage.

In the second act the head of a huge bull appears on the left side of the stage. It looks like a Trojan Horse or perhaps a Trojan Bull. It has only one horn that points menacingly downwards. I did not get the symbolism of the bull whose base in the end served as the pyre on which Norma and Pollione meet their fate. There was a cart with a raised platform as well and it served as a sort of pulpit for Norma and Oroveso. I am not sure that it was necessary or if it added anything to the production. Newbury seems to think that snowflakes are a good idea but, again, I am not convinced that they did anything.

The orchestra and chorus under the baton of Stephen Lord did a great deal with Bellini’s melodic and often lush music.

Radvanovsky gives a defining performance as Norma with superb singing from the rest of the cast. You may forget some of the sets but you will not soon forget Radvanovsky’s performance. 

Norma by Vincenzo Bellini with libretto by Felice Romani opened on October 6 and will be performed eight times until November 5, 2016 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671.

Saturday, August 13, 2016


James Karas

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street did and still does well as a Broadway musical since it opened in 1979. But it does just as well and perhaps better on the operatic stage. The Glimmerglass Festival has chosen it as its “musical” for this year’s roster of productions. It proved a wise choice in a highly praiseworthy production.

The production has the benefit of superb singers and an accomplished orchestra but it relies on pared down sets.
Luretta Bybee as Mrs. Lovett and Greer Grimsley in the title role of The Glimmerglass Festival's 
production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
In the opening scene, we see the cast in their “street clothes” and they take their costumes from a clothes rack to become the chorus of the opera. Set designer Andrew Cavanaugh Holland provides two moveable walls which serve as the backdrop for most of the performance with some variations for the asylum scene and the “end” of Mrs. Lovett.

Sweeney Todd is billed as a thriller and it reaches back to Jacobean revenge tragedies where murder, dismemberment and far more grotesque doings are the order of the day. Benjamin Barker was a barber on Fleet Street in London but he was transported to Australia by Judge Turpin on trumped up charges. His crime was having a pretty and virtuous wife that the judge desired. Now he returns to London disguised as Sweeny Todd to wreak vengeance.

He meets the inimitable Mrs. Lovett who runs a pie shop and she knows Barker’s story. They team up to avenge Sweeney and save his lovely daughter Johanna (Emily Pogorelc) who is the judge’s ward and on whom the judge has lecherous designs. As a barber, Sweeney has the perfect method of disposing of people’s souls with his sharp razor. Bodies are a bit more cumbersome but, you see, good meat is hard to come by and Mrs. Lovett needs a lot of it for those delicious pies.

Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley leads the cast as the grim and murderous Sweeney in search of his wife, his daughter and justice. He has a threatening manner and vocal power as he slashes his victims’ throats. 
L to R: Emily Pogorelc as Johanna, Harry Greenleaf as Anthony Hope, Greer Grimsley in the title role, Peter Volpe as Judge Turpin and Bille Bruley as Beadle Bamford in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.
Mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee as Mrs. Lovett makes a perfect partner for Sweeny. If he is after revenge, she is after money and more. Bybee performs with gusto the lurid role and sells delicious pies made with human flesh with sheer pleasure. She is just the type of woman your mother wants you to bring home.

Bass Peter Volpe plays the despicable Judge Turpin who wants to marry his young and beautiful ward Johanna, Sweeney’s daughter. Volpe sings and acts well and when Turpin gets a well-deserved close shave we are almost eager to order a meat pie from Mrs. Lovett the next day.

There are several performers from Glimmerglass’s Young Artists Program that deserve credit for praiseworthy work. They are tenor Christopher Bozeka as the caricature of the operatic singer Adolfo Pirelli, tenor Nicholas Nestorak as the toady Tobias and tenor Bille Bruley as the ass-kissing Beadle Bamford. The opera seethes with disgusting characters but Glimmerglass is rich in having singers to do justice to the roles.

The lovely voiced soprano Emily Pogorelc deserves special praise as Johanna Barker who, with baritone Harry Greenleaf, another talented young artist, provided the love interest and decency in the moral cesspool of the opera.

Director Christopher Alden had a fine cast but limited stage props to work with.  He does a fine job with a few movable panels.

The chorus’s movements are well choreographed and the production works well.

The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra under John DeMain performs superbly.
Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street  by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and Hugh Wheeler (book adapted from the play by Christopher Bond) opened on July 9 and will be performed nine times until August 26, 2016 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or

Friday, August 12, 2016


Reviewed by James Karas

The Thieving Magpie (La Gazza Ladra, for sticklers) is a delightful opera that gets a rousing and captivating production directed by Peter Kazaras at the Glimmerglass Festival.

Rossini’s 1817 romp has been assigned a number of tags but I think it is an opera buffa at heart but more about this later.

Plot main: The lovely servant Ninetta (Rachele Gilmore) loves her employer’s son Giannetto (tenor Michele Angelini). Fabrizio, his father, approves; Lucia, his mother does not because she thinks Ninetta is a thief because of missing silverware. Subplot one: Ninetta’s father Fernando arrives as an army deserter sentenced to death. Subplot two: The town mayor has his eye on Ninetta and is prepared to blackmail her. We have about two and a half hours to enjoy the opera and solve all these problems.
Rachele Gilmore as Ninetta, Ensemble member Simon Dyer, Musa Ngqungwana as Gottardo, Calvin Griffin as Fabrizio Vingradito, Michele Angelini as Giannetto and Leah Hawkins as Lucia in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of "The Thieving Magpie"
Our main concern is Ninetta who stands accused of theft, must protect her father and defend herself from the lecherous Mayor. Get a grip on yourself because she is convicted and sentenced to death. Soprano Rachele Gilmore with her delicious voice, vivacious manner and strong character leaves no doubt that she will pull through but she does come awfully close to losing all.

Angelini as Giannetto looks and sound like a tenor that came from central casting, as they used to say. Tall, faithful, ardent, with a martial bearing and high notes that just fly from his chest, he never leaves us in doubt that Ninetta and their love will triumph.

Bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana sings exceptionally well as the lecherous and corrupt Mayor but let the latter have Ninetta? We wouldn’t trust him with a plastic magpie let alone an anthropomorphic or ornithological one.   
   Leah Hawkins as Lucia, Calvin Griffin as Fabrizio Vingradito, Michele Angelini as Giannetto and members of the ensemble in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of "The Thieving Magpie"
Bass-baritone Dale Travis was disappointing as Ninetta’s father Fernando. He sounded almost hoarse and off his voice. Soprano Leah Hawkins was an authoritative Lucia and bass-baritone Calvin Griffin was her nice and obedient husband in good performances.   

You can’t have a thieving magpie without a magpie and that can be a plastic one in a cage or a dancer. Kazaras has choreographer Meg Gillentine in an ornate “magpie” costume greet the patrons as they take their seats in the theatre. She has a large cage on the stage and she dances in and out of it in a delightful performance.

The opera is set in and around the spacious courtyard of Fabrizio’s house and outside the jail cells of the town. Set Designer Myung Hee Chung has her own idea for the large yard and the town setting. A large wreath (or is it the outline of a cage?) enfolds the front of the stage with a vista of blue sky in the background. The scene does change for the jail scene but the simple idea of the wreath remains.

The Thieving Magpie has been described as a melodrama, a rescue opera, a tearjerker, a tragedy, a comedy and no doubt some other names. It is a classic comedy. The old try to interfere with the course of true love of the young; a dirty old man does the same; integrity is questioned but in the end wins. The usual obstacles of comedy are all there as is the happy ending.

Kazaras does excellent work with all of those elements. The opera can take well over three hours to perform. He cuts it down to less than two and a half hours excluding intermission.

The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Joseph Colaneri maintain a brisk pace from the drum roll of the overture right up to the happy ending.

A simply delightful evening at the opera.

The Thieving Magpie by Gioachino Rossini (music) and Giovanni Gherardini (libretto) opened on July16 and will be performed eight times until August 25, 2016 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or

Thursday, August 11, 2016


James Karas

The Glimmerglass Festival’s chestnut offering this year is Puccini’s La Bohème. Yes, the one where she coughs in the first scene, dies in the last and there isn’t a dry eye left in the house. And rightly so.

Director E. Loren Meeker and designer Kevin Depinet have set the opera in the Paris of the Belle Époque, the Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec which was beautiful, colourful, and full of life and joy. This is the image conveyed successfully in the Café Momus scene in the Latin Quarter. Depinet makes full and very intelligent use of the small stage of the Alice Busch Opera Theatre to convey a vivacious party atmosphere without the paraphernalia one sees in larger houses. More about this later.

 Rhys Lloyd Talbot as Colline, Brian Vu as Schaunard, Raquel González as Mimì, Michael Brandenburg as Rodolfo and Hunter Enoch as Marcello in The Glimmerglass Festival production of Puccini's "La bohème." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
How about our Mimi? Soprano Raquel González breaks our hearts very easily. Sure her candle goes out and she knocks on Rodolfo’s loft door, but after that she sees what she wants and goes for it. She drops her keys and makes sure her candle stays outRodolfo sees what he likes too and a couple of arias and a duet later, it is love at first sight.

González sings sweetly, lovingly, effortlessly. Her outpouring of emotion from “Mi chiamano Mimi” to “Donde lieta usci” to the final love duet is delivered with vocal beauty and deep feeling that goes straight to our heart.

What about the object of her love – Rodolfo? We are not sure about his character, especially his jealousy, but that is not our concern here. Tenor Michael Brandenburg does well in his protestations of love when in the midrange of his voice but he does not always do as well in his high notes. He is quite ardent in the beginning and in the end but what he does well emotionally he does not always match vocally.
Hunter Enoch as Marcello, Vanessa Becerra as Musetta, Brian Vu as Schaunard, Michael Brandenburg as Rodolfo and Raquel González as Mimì in The Glimmerglass Festival production of Puccini's "La bohème." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
His loft-mate Marcello, baritone Hunter Enoch, makes a significant vocal impression in the relatively minor role. His voice resonates with emotion and beauty in a fine performance. Bass-baritone Rhys Lloyd Talbot as the philosopher Colline and baritone Brian Vu as the musician Schaunard (both Young Artists) do fine work as Rodolfo’s rowdy but decent friends.

Soprano Vanessa Becerra (another Young Artist on her way up) as Musetta showed spunk and gave us a very vivacious flirt.

The loft of the first act is well-designed with its entrance from a door on the floor. The scene at the gates of Paris is realistic and appropriate. The relatively short scene in the loft where Mimi and Rodolfo meet and go to the café in the Latin Quarter usually requires an interval to change the set. In this production no interval was needed and (the set was changed in a matter of seconds. Bravo for the entire design including the quick change.

Joseph Colaneri conducted the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus.

Meeker deserves kudos for his conception and execution of this familiar work. He stays the middle course without any off the wall takes and gives us exactly what Puccini intended. A tragic love story, well sung, well done and well wept.   

La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini (music) and Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa (libretto) opened on July 8 and will be performed thirteen times until August 27, 2016 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or

Wednesday, August 10, 2016


James Karas

The Glimmerglass Festival on the shore of Lake Otsego is up and running for its 41st season. A few kilometers away from Cooperstown and the museum that honours people who hit balls with a bat, it provides cultural nourishment, intellectual pleasure and spiritual enrichment for modest people who enjoy opera. You may roll your eyes now.

One of this year’s eclectic choices is The Crucible by composer Robert Ward and librettist Bernard Stambler. It gets a superb production conducted by Nicole Paiement and directed by Francesca Zambello.

 The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Robert Ward's "The Crucible." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
The Crucible is, of course, based on Arthur Miller’s 1953 play that deals directly with the Salem witch trials of 1682 but more cogently with the American witch trials of the 1950’s under Senator McCarthy.

Ward and Stambler captured and indeed heightened the dramatic events of the play. Nicole Paiement conducts the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra in an intense and nuanced performance emphasizing every dramatic chord.

The singing is affecting and frequently outstanding if just as frequently uneven. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton gave perhaps the best performance as Elizabeth Proctor, a troubled woman who betrays her husband while trying to save him. Her marvelous voice conveyed pathos and she gave us an Elizabeth that we fully sympathized with. A nice combination of vocal beauty and acting ability.

Baritone Brian Mulligan has the taxing role of John Proctor, a practical farmer who committed a sin and is caught in the maelstrom of insanity led by a few girls. He is caught up in the vortex of religious fanaticism, vengeance and greed that will lead to his death. In the end he rises to heroic if tragic stature in a fine performance by Mulligan.

Tenor Jay Hunter Morris sang the role of the Judge Danforth, the man who arrogates to himself the role of God’s spokesman and Satan detective. Morris may have been having a bad night but he sounded strained at times even though he never failed to be dramatic.
Jamie Barton as Elizabeth Proctor, Brian Mulligan as John Proctor and Maren Weinberger as Mary Warren in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Robert Ward's "The Crucible." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Most of the cast of The Crucible comes from the Festival’s Young Artists program and their performances were overall admirable. Most notable were soprano Ariana Wehr as Abigail Williams, baritone Michael Miller as the nasty Thomas Putnam, mezzo-soprano Helena Brown as Rebecca Nurse, and Maren Weinberger as Mary Warren.   

Zambello’s production is taut but Spartan. The set by Neil Patel consists of bare gray walls with windows that serves for interior and exterior scenes. The only change is the scene between John Proctor and Abigail where the same gray motif prevails but there is a fallen tree in the background.

The staging is done expertly and the drama proceeds to its ultimate climax inexorable and dramatically.

A superb night at the opera.  

And speaking of baseball, some of you American aficionados may wish to acquaint yourselves with opera. The World Series is coming faster than a curve ball and where will you go when the Blue Jays clobber all the American teams? Remember, the lights go down during an opera performance.   
The Crucible  by Robert Ward (music) and Bernard Syambler (libretto) based on Arthur Miller’s play opened on July 23 and will be performed nine times until August 27, 2016 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or

Thursday, July 21, 2016


James Karas

**** (out of five)

Among the numerous shows offered by the 2016 Athens and Epidaurus Festival, West Side Story may be one of the most desirable especially for aficionados of Broadway musicals. But you have to be in Athens on the right three days. The lucky ones got to see a robust, indeed quite thrilling production of the classic American musical at the gorgeous Athens Concert Hall.

The ads for the production headline the Camerata Orchestra of the Friends of Music and indeed the group and its conductor Yorgos Petrou deserve a large portion of the credit for the success of the production. In addition to conducting, Petrou is credited with translating the dialogue and shares credit with John Todd for directing.

Let’s begin with a salute to Petrou and the Camerata. He conducted with vigour and the orchestra delivered a full-blooded performance of Leonard Bernstein’s varied and stimulating score. The score has some beautiful melodies but much of the music is visceral and simply astounding. If there is one complaint it is that when the orchestra played fortissimo, they almost drowned out the singers. There was a minor issue, in other words, of the balance between pit and stage.      

West Side Story has a rich variety of solo and ensemble singing, dancing and even a ballet sequence. They would tax the resources of the finest theatrical company let alone a largely ad hoc group of performers for only three performances. There may have been some rough edges in the coordination of the dances but overall the Jets and the Sharks, the warring New York gangs of “Americans” and Puerto Ricans, were athletic, realistic and quite good. The ballet sequence was equally well done and enjoyable.

West Side Story is, of course, an American version of Romeo and Juliet in which Tony (Yiannis Kolyvas) falls in love with the lovely Puerto Rican girl Maria (Marina Satti). He is a former Jet and her brother Bernardo (Andreas Voulgaris) is the leader of the Sharks.

Kolyvas represents love, passion and decency. He sings “Maria,” the most beautiful name he ever heard with glee and wonderful emotion. It is not an easy songs but Kolyvas does a fine job with it. His and Satti’s rendition of “Tonight” is equally splendid. When Maria sings “I feel pretty” we agree with her and in the end when tragedy strikes we cry with her.

Marina Satti plays an effective and lovely Maria. When she sings “I feel pretty” no one disagrees with her and when she expresses her love for Tony she has the audience rooting for her. A Maria to love and to cry for.

Eleni Stamidou gets the juicy role of Anita, the Puerto Rican girl who cannot be put down. She defends America with its faults and is a pleasure to watch. Anita is also the woman who is ritually raped by the Jets in the basement of Doc’s drugstore. Her departure is highly dramatic but I wish she had spat on the creeps as she left.

Kostas Koronaios played the sympathetic Doc who watches disgusting behaviour and can do nothing about it. Christos Simardanis was a tough no-nonsense Lt. Schrank and Thodoris Skyftoulis played the ineffectual Officer Krupke.    

Paris Mexis relied on brightly painted panels for his stage design. Part of the stage of the Concert Hall can be moved up and down to create a playing area above for the balcony scene. The New York skyline is shown at times and with Yorgos Tellas’s judicious lighting the effect was colourful and appropriately unrealistic.

Having the cast miked has become almost de rigueur in musicals and sometimes even in straight plays and there is probably nothing we can do about it. The Concert Hall is large and it may be essential to have mikes to go past the pit. But the mikes in this production were taped on the side of the faces of the actors and they looked like unhealthy tumours. Inevitably what we heard was what the loud speakers delivered. There are modern miking systems which have not reached Athens.

Petrou chose quite sensibly to translate the dialogue but let the songs be sung in English. The production generated energy, beautiful singing, fine dancing and had the audience in its metaphorical hands. A thoroughly enjoyable evening at the theatre.

West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein (music) Arthur Laurents (book) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) played on July 16, 17 and 18, 2016 in the Alexandra Trianti Hall of the Athens Concert Hall, Vasilissis Sofias Street, Athens, Greece

Wednesday, July 6, 2016


By James Karas

Composer                   Georg Frideric Handel
Librettist                     Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili
Conductor                   Emmanuelle Haïm
Director                      Krzysztof Warlikowski
Set and costumes        Malgorzata Szczesniak
Dramaturge                 Christian Longchamp
Lighting                      Felice Ross
Choreography             Claude Bardouil
Video                          Denis Guéguin

Bellezza                      Sabine Devieilhe
Piacere                        Franco Fagioli
Disinganno                 Sara Mingardo
Tempo                         Michael Spyres
Orchestra                    Le Concert d’Astrée
Continues at the Théâtre de l'Archevêché until
July 14, 2016 in Aix-en-Provence, France.

**** (out of 5)

Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno premiered in Rome in the year of Our Lord 1707, a time when Our Lord’s representative on earth, the Pope, had banned productions of opera in the Eternal City. Handel had music in his blood and composed something that His Holiness would permit: an oratorio. Not just any work on religious themes but a rousingly Catholic promotion piece based on a libretto by Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili.

The title means the triumph of time and enlightenment and the oratorio is an allegory sung by Time, Enlightenment, Beauty and Pleasure. As becomes an oratorio, the four figures debate the virtues and vices of their namesakes and if you have not guessed who will win the argument you will probably end up in Hell.
Beauty (in the center) is watched by Pleasure while Enlightenment and Time sit by
Director Krzysztof Warlikowski was given this static work and instructed to produce it for an opera festival where listening to Handel’s music and four accomplished singers for two and a half hours may not prove as uplifting as His Eminence hoped for or the audience paid for. As the list of credits indicates, Warlikowski decided to convert the oratorio into an opera.
We start with a video of an orgiastic party. We see young people dancing, drinking, passing out and being taken to the hospital in a wild display of erotic pleasure and decadence. All in modern dress and in today’s decadent world.

The stage of the Théâtre de l'Archevêché is divided by into two banks of seats with a glass enclosure in the middle.

We meet Bellezza (Beauty) admiring herself in the mirror (there is no mirror but who cares) worried that her looks may not last forever but Piacere (Pleasure) assures her that she will always be beautiful. Beauty is dressed in a leather jacket and she looks like she may have been employed in the oldest profession. Pleasure is in a hospital bed and he may not have taken a bath for a while. We are not thrilled by them as representatives of what (most of) our hearts desire.

Tempo (Time) and Disinganno (Enlightenment) arrive to inform us that beauty is fleeting and there are more important virtues. Time looks like he could have just left a doorway in the Cours Mirabeau where he slept and Enlightenment with her fur coat looks like she espoused her new calling because there was not much left of her old attractions. In short, all of the allegorical figures look like wrecks so far.

The ‘illustrated” version of the oratorio provided by the director continues with a good number of beautiful women, stunningly dressed parading in the glass enclosure in the centre of the stage. Was there a man or a woman in the audience who did not say to hell with the moral strictures of Time and Enlightenment, that is where I want or want to be? No doubt, I was the only one.
 Beauty being visited by Time
It should be noted that while the beautiful women are on stage, Time sings about funeral urns which enclose what used to be beauties but who have become ghastly skeletons but at that time he is totally unconvincing. The visual illustrations of pulchritude beat moralizing hands down.

In the second half, Time and Enlightenment spruce up their appearance but they are a long way from convincing to adopt what they say which may not be the same as what they do.

Il Tempo contains a great deal of music and singing and the vocal mettle of the principals is tested and triumphs.

The sermon becomes heavy handed at times. The tears of the poor become pearls in heaven we are told and the oratorio is about saving our soul. The message is never in doubt but in the end it is clearly stated and Beauty repents and sees the true light of God. That is what the text says but this Beauty knows better: she commits suicide.

Seeing a woman conduct an orchestra is still a relative rarity and a continuing disgrace. Emmanuelle Haïm does a brilliant job of conducting Le Concert d’Astrée in Handel’s wonderful score.

Warlikowski took a tough task of converting a preachy oratorio into a superb opera. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016


James Karas

Conductor                   Esa-Pekka Salonen
Director                      Katie Mitchell
Set Designer               Lizzie Clachan
Costumes Designer    Chloé Lamford
Lighting                      James Farncombe
Dramaturge                 Martin Crimp

Pelléas                        Stéphane Dégout
Mélisande                   Barbara Hannigan
Golaud                        Laurent Naouri
Arkel                           Franz Josef Selig
Geneviève                   Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo
Yniold                         Chloé Briot
Doctor                         Thomas Dear

Choir                           Cape Town Opera Chorus
Orchestra                     Philharmonia Orchestra

At the Grand Théâtre de Provence from July 2 to July 16, 2016

***** (out of 5) 
Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is a complex opera replete with symbolism, impressionistic music and a mythical world that is somewhat unfamiliar. Director Kate Mitchell has taken all of that and turned it inside out (perhaps more precisely, given us a cross-section view) in a production that is riveting, stimulating and quite confusing.

Mitchell has taken King Arkel (Franz Josef Selig) and the Kingdom of Allemonde with its forest, castle, dark cave, fountain, and tower and transferred them to the modern house of a wealthy gentleman. In the opening scene we see a bride in a well-appointed room with a large bed. She steps out into a hall, a curtain closes the room from our view temporarily, some branches are attached to the bed and the story begins with the beautiful and mysterious Mélisande (Barbara Hannigan) meeting Golaud (Laurent Naouri), the grandson of the king “in the forest.”

Opening scene with Barbara Hannigan as the bride Melisande. Phot: Patrick Berger/Artcomart
We soon realize that there are two Mélisandes. One is the soprano singing the role and there is a duplicate that appears quite frequently. Does Mélisande have a split personality? Is one of them the truthful Mélisande and the other the mendacious one? Is she torn between love for her husband Golaud and love for her Pelléas (Stephane Dégout)? How many other possible explanations are there? More on this later.

The story of the opera is quite simple in bare outline. Golaud and Mélisande meet and marry. She meets Goloud’s brother Pelléas and falls in love with him. Their love is discovered and the inevitable conclusion follows. Well, not quite as far as Debussy and librettist Maurice Maeterlinck are concerned. And things get considerably more complex when Mitchell takes over. 

Golaud, Pelléas, their mother Geneviève (Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo) and Arkel appear in scenes where they are not expected or included in the libretto. When Pelléas and Mélisande go into the dark cave, Mélisande sees three poor people asleep and becomes frightened. The three people in Mitchell’s interpretation are Arkel, Genevieve and Goloud’s son by a previous wife, Yniold (Chloe Briot). Is this her guilty conscience making her see things?

The two Melisandes and Golaud in the death scene. 
There are dozens of fascinating instances like this but I will describe only the death scene. Pelléas and Mélisande go the fountain (in this case a cross section of an empty swimming pool). She undresses to her bra and panties and he wears only underwear. They express their love and as he sits on the floor she puts her legs over him. They are making love and on the point of orgasm, Golaud appears and slashes Pelléas' throat and injures Mélisande.

In the next scene Mélisande is on her deathbed but not from the injury from Golaud. As Mélisande is lying in bed Golaud appears and the “other” Mélisande jumps in his arms. In the meantime, Pelléas or I suppose his ghost appears. The “death” is moving but long with one Mélisande being bathed in light as if she were being transfigured while the other Mélisande is dying in bed. The former one leaves the room and we assume that the latter has died. Wrong. She sits up.

Most of the singing is done by Pelléas, Mélisande and Golaud with meritorious contribution by Arkel and lesser quantity by Genevieve and Yniold. Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan takes on the tough role of Mélisande with fearless conviction. She needs a supple and beautiful voice and be mysterious, passionate, mendacious and secretive. A stupendous performance.

Baritone Stéphane Dégout sang an excellent Pelléas, a man confused and confusing like the rest of the characters. The jealous husband Golaud is handled by bass-baritone Laurent Naouri who must show anger and some innocence when he sees childish play instead of the reality of what is happening between his wife and his brother.

Bass Franz-Joseph Selig with his rumbling and well-controlled low notes does an unfailingly good job as Arkel.         

The sets by Lizzie Clachan have the entire action take place in room-size spaces on the stage. They show great versatility in having quick changes made to the basic set by having a curtain pulled over and then back.

The Philharmonia Orchestra was conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen.

With superb performances by the orchestra and the singers, this was Katie Mitchell’s show - imaginative, brilliant, stupendous and confusing. One should see it several times to begin absorbing its wealth of symbolic, psychological and theatrical depth.