Sunday, January 24, 2016


James Karas

The Royal Opera, Covent Garden, seems to have struck gold with Richard Eyre’s 1994 production of La Traviata. It has been reviving it every other season since then with great success and every major soprano and tenor seem to have sung the leading roles. For the current season they have assembled three casts for the principal roles and the opera will be performed fourteen times.

Venera Gimadieva as Violetta in Richard Eyre's Royal Opera production of La Traviata, 2016. Photo by Tristram Kenton

Russian soprano Venera Gimadieva makes her debut at the Royal Opera House as Violetta and will sing most of the performances and perhaps rightly so. The night I saw her she brought the house down. Her voice is big enough to dominate the Royal Opera House with its lyrical beauty and passionate tones. When she cries, we weep as she goes from the exaltation of love to a devastating death scene where only false hope remains and it is followed by death.

Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu as her lover Alfredo Germont was a match and a foil for Gimadieva. He has a limber voice that scaled up easily with nice control and display of emotion. The final encounter and reconciliation with Violetta was splendidly moving.   

Luca Salsi made his Royal Opera debut as Giorgio Germont, the father who destroys Violetta’s and his son Alfredo’s love for the sake of his daughter’s happiness. He must exude sympathy and humanity to gain our grudging approval especially when he tells her that she can always find somebody else to love. Verdi steps in to help with “Purra siccome un angelo”, a poignant affirmation of paternal love and the even more moving “Di Provenza il mar, il suol” with which he tries to convince his son to leave Violetta for the sake of family love and duty. You need a singer with vocal resonance but also emotional conviction to persuade us of the rightness of his cause. Salsi does it all.   
The sets by Designer Bob Crowley consist of a gorgeous salon in Violetta’s house at the beginning and a stunning gambling table and sculptured ceiling in Flora’s house. The country house after Violetta’s salon and her bedroom in the final scene are of necessity threadbare. 

There have been innumerable productions of Traviata since the premiere of Eyre’s staging. From Zeffirelli’s over-the-top opulence, to Jean-Francois Sivadier’s dark, minimalist approach to Willy Decker’s dazzling “clock” staging, La Traviata has covered a lot of ground.

Eyre’s production can best be described as traditional and that is meant as a high compliment. Non-traditional approaches can vary from the brilliant approach to directorial self-indulgence. Eyre and the current cast with the brilliant playing of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under the baton of Yves Abel and Royal Opera Chorus bring an outstanding night at the opera even after repeated viewings.
La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi opened on January 16 and will be performed fourteen times until March 19, 2016 at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London, U.K. It will be shown live in cinemas on February 4, 2016.

Monday, January 18, 2016


Reviewed by James Karas

If one were to use the number of productions of an opera by the Metropolitan Opera, Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers would have to be declared extinct. The last time the Met staged this work was 100 years ago. There were other opera companies that kept the opera on life support in some places and even alive in others.

The Met has spared no expense or expertise in its current production which was beamed to the world as if New York were doing penance for its century-long neglect.

When the orchestra strike the first chords of the score, the massive curtain of Lincoln Canter goes up revealing two divers underwater. Beams of sunlight stream into the blue sea in a stunning illusion of an underwater scene and a display of technical know-how.

A scene from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.         
The Pearl Fishers needs four singers and places much work on the shoulders of the chorus. The superb Diana Damrau sings the role of the beautiful, virginal priestess Leila who comes to the pearl fishers’ camp to pray and dispel the demons of the sea that may threaten their diving. Praying with such a gorgeous voice would attract the good demons who will guard against the nasty ones.

Tenor Matthew Polenzani sings the role Nadir with ease and assurance as if he were a crooner. Nadir is paired with Zurga (baritone Mariusz Kwiecien) his childhood friend, with whom he swore to stay away from a beautiful priestess that they both fell in love with. Kwiecien has a fine voice but he does not quite have the presence that the role calls for. In the first minutes of the opera, he is seen handing out notes to the people and then calls for the election of a leader. He is “elected” unanimously. The bribery is no doubt a bit of humour inserted by director Penny Woolcock but that does not make Zurga look more than just one of the people. Not that important, of course, because his relationship with Leila and Nadir is the focal point of the opera.

And, yes, Polenzani and Kwiecien do a fine job in the deliciously melodic duet “Au fond du temple saint.”

Bass Nicolas Testé sings the role of the sombre Nourabad who catches Nadir and Leila breaking their vows. The Met chorus is at its best.

Costumes by Kevin Pollard vary from traditional Indian attire to saris, to baseball caps, sports shirts, turbans, Bermuda shorts, pants and probably other pieces that I did not notice. Two men go through the crowd wearing black suits and shirts and the only thig missing was the white collar to make them look like priests. The opera is set in the present, I guess, and we are somewhere in Asia.

The set by Dick Bird is a mass of steps, platforms and scaffolds that on the big screen seemed almost impassable.

The entire production takes place at night and we see the singers when the light zeroes in on them. There is singing and dancing and moments of happiness and I am not sure why Woolcock has decided that darkness serves the opera best.

In addition to the striking opening scene of the divers, there are projections of violent waves which perhaps justify the fishers’ fear of the sea and the elements.

Nadir and Leila are condemned to death and the crowd is pleased at the prospect of a double execution. But Zurga finds a way of distracting the people by setting their camp on fire.  Don’t pay attention to details but Zurga starts with bribery and ends with arson. On the bright side, the distraction allows the lovers to escape and we will never know Zurga’s fate.

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus under Gianandrea Noseda are at their best in delivering Bizet’s lush and highly approachable melodies.

Musically and vocally, a superb production. The set and lighting may look better in the opera house than on the screen where you see details but not the full picture. The real question is: what took the Met so long to bring back a highly viable opera in a highly enjoyable production.

The Pearl Fishers by Georges Bizet was transmitted Live in HD on January 16, 2016 at the Coliseum Scarborough Cinemas, Scarborough Town Centre, 300 Borough Drive, Scarborough, Ontario and other theatres across Canada.  It will be shown again at select theatres on February 20, 22 and 24, 2016. For more information: