Tuesday, June 28, 2016


James Karas
By Giuseppe Verdi (music) and Antonio Ghislanzoni (libretto)
The King                      Orlin Anastassov
Amneris                       Daniela Barcellona
Aida                             Sondra Radvanovsky 
Radames                     Aleksandrs Antonenko 
Ramfis                         Kwangchul Youn
Amonasro                    George Gagnidze 
Messenger                  Yu Shao
Sacerdotessa              Andrea Soare

Conductor                   Daniel Oren
Director                       Olivier Py
Set design                   Pierre-André Weitz
Costume design          Pierre-André Weitz
Lighting design            Bertrand Killy
Chorus master José Luis Basso

Continues until July 16, 2016 at the Opéra Bastille, Paris.

***** (out of five)
Olivier Py has directed an unorthodox and jaw-dropping Aida for the Paris Opera at the Bastille that combines outstanding singing and stupendous directing. The modern-dress production starts with flag-waving and a concentration on burnished gold and ends in debunking war and its “glory”.

Let’s start with the renowned Triumphal March. The Egyptian army under Radames has defeated the Ethiopians and the victors are returning with glory, spoils and prisoners. The orchestra led by the trumpets plays the stirring march as the victorious Egyptians parade triumphantly in front of cheering crowds. Elephants, horses and practically whole zoos have marched across the stage in a show of splendour, glory and, one must add, unlimited opera company budgets.
 Amneris looks on as Radames and Aida near their death in front of the corpses.
Py gives us nothing. He takes a vehemently anti-heroic and ironic view. As the trumpets are blaring the stirring music, we see a small triumphal arch with a half-naked torso on top waving a machine gun. Some cleaning ladies are cleaning the gold arch with mops. No victorious soldiers, no defeated prisoners, no spoils of war, no animals, nothing. A ballerina dressed in white does some dancing.

As the orchestra continues to play the march, the stage floor is raised and a subfloor appears. It is full of corpses, and soldiers wearing masks are tossing more dead bodies on the pile. This is the Egyptian triumph.

At the end of the triumphal rituals, Amneris is supposed to put a crown on Radames’s head. She does not. As the celebration continues, Egyptian soldiers using the butt of their machine guns rough up the Ethiopian prisoners and one of them is in fact knocked down and kicked. We see a picture of a bombed city projected on the rear of the stage several times during the performance. This is the result of the Egyptian victory.

Py and Set and Costume Designer Pierre-André Weitz use gold insistently for all the sets. But the use is ironic because there are cleaners on a number of occasions who spend some time cleaning and burnishing the gold with their mops. It may look like gold and glitter like gold but it mocks Egypt rather than praise it.

The soldiers wear khaki, frequently only on the bottom half of their bodies, the King and Radames have officer’s uniforms and the High Priest is dressed in the full regalia of a pope. Py does not stop there. When Radames is being tried, there is a burning cross on stage and the judges appear in Ku Klux Klan hoods. The women are dressed in black.

The singing is simply outstanding. Canadian soprano Sondra Radvanovsky sings and acts an Aida that does not miss a note. She owes duty and loyalty to her father Amonasro, the captured Ethiopian King and her beloved country as well as to Radames the man she is in love with. She pours out all her feelings in an unforgettable performance.

Tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko makes a superb Radames. His light tenor voice serves him well for “Celeste Aida” to the final duet where the couple finds apotheosis in love.

Antonenko is an impressive and sonorous Amonasro full of hatred and guile as he convinces his daughter to force Radames to betray Egypt. 

Anita Rachvelishvili is an outstanding Amneris, the princess who hopes to win the hero Radames but cannot defeat the love of Aida.                       

The Chorus and Orchestra of the National Opera of Paris are conducted by Daniel Oren with robustness adding to Py’s ironic approach to the opera.

This is a supremely well-sung production that has a potent point of view that is brilliantly expressed.

Friday, June 24, 2016


James Karas
The Threepenny Opera
by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill
in collaboration with Elisabeth Hauptmann
in new adaptation by Simon Stephens

Directed by Rufus Norris. Designed by Vicki Mortimer
Music Director David Shrubsole
Captain Machreath aka Mack the Knife
Jonathan Peacham
Polly Peacham
Celia Peacham
Chief Inspector Brown
NICK HOLDER                                                    
SARAH AMANKWAH                            

Continues in repertory at the Olivier Auditorium of the National Theatre
South Bank, London, England
**** (out of five)

The Threepenny Opera is to musical theatre what a butcher’s cleaver is to meat. It cuts through meat and bone with merciless brutality and, to mix metaphors, leaves no prisoners. Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill attacked and parodied opera, private property, capitalism, morality and the justice system (the list is incomplete) in decadent and hellish Berlin of the 1920’s with the relish of a butcher chopping a bull. What they did was a violent critique but also an artistic revolution.

Based loosely on John Gay’s The Beggar’s OperaThe Threepenny can be set in any big city but placing it in its home base of East London is just perfect. The National Theatre gives the work a robust production in a new adaptation by Simon Stephens.

Set in the underworld of Victorian England before a coronation, the play deals with the colourful, amoral, vicious criminals, corrupt police and the dregs of society. The music and songs are visceral and in-your-face just like the criminals who dominate society’s leftovers. The current production is not set in any particular period. It could be the late 19th century judging by the long dresses that the women wear but the date is irrelevant.

The opera opens with the familiar and powerful “Ballad of Mack the Knife” sung by George Ikediashi. Then we get down to business with the disgusting Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum. Nick Holder as Peachum is overweight, wears a three-piece suit and is the boss of London’s beggars whom he outfits at their cost and collects 50% of their earnings. It is a fine franchise operation, if somewhat monopolistic.

But there is competition in Captain Macheath also known as Mack the Knife (Rory Kinnear). The nicely dressed Mack is cool and efficient and his nickname has the benefit of truth in advertising with the slight drawback of lack of moral content. Kinnear has a very fine voice and he is an exuberant if vicious gentleman compared to Peachum who is somewhat of a pig.

There is a rich collection of colourful characters in this underworld. We have Peachum’s new recruit in the begging business, the pathetic Filch (Sarah Amankwah), his wife Celia Peacham (Haydn Gwynn), his daughter Polly (Rosalie Craig), Chief Inspector Brown (Peter de Jersey) and an assortment of prostitutes and criminals.

The music and the singing are striking, powerful and unsettling. This is the underbelly of London and they want you to know it. The fine cast generates energy, some comic business but overall gives a frightful impression of corruption and human abuse. 

The set by Designer Vicki Mortimer is a ramshackle of boards and covered boxes. There is no attempt at realistic theatre. It could be a warehouse or a rehearsal hall.  

Director Rufus Norris and adapter Simon Stephens make sure that this is in-your-face theatre. They want you to know that they are putting on a show (as did Brecht, of course) and that you are not watching anything resembling a realistic reenactment.

In the end you get a dynamic and vigorous production of a classic with salty language, vibrant singing and immense energy.   

Thursday, June 23, 2016


James Karas
WERTHER  by Jules Massenet
Directed by
Conducted by

Le Bailli
Benoit Jacquot.
Antonio Papano

Jonathan Summers
François Piolino
Yuriy Yurchuk
Emily Edmonds
Vittorio Grigolo
Joyce DiDonato
David Bizic
Heather Engebretson
Continues at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden,
London until July 6, 2016

**** (out of five)

Jules Massenet’s Werther starts with a Christmas carol being rehearsed in July and ends with the same carol being sung in December. In between there is high emotion and distraught, unrequited love that results in suicide. That is what sensitive poets did when they fell hopelessly in love and the woman of their soul’s passion was beyond attainment. Well, that’s what happened in the imagination of writers like Goethe in the 18th century but there were also some real life stories.
Joyce DiDonato, Jonathan Summers and Vittorio Grigolo
Werther is a Romantic poet who meets the beautiful Charlotte and he is done for. No sooner does he arrive on the scene than he bursts out with "O Nature, pleine de grâce". He attempts to declare his love to Charlotte only to be told that she is promised to Albert.

There is nothing but despair for Werther. Albert marries Charlotte and Werther sings "Un autre est son époux!" and from there it’s thoughts of suicide: "Lorsque l'enfant revient d'un voyage."

Charlotte has her share of emotionally supercharged singing especially in the Letter Scene and of course the final exit.

I mention these to point out that this opera is an emotional ride that is not easy to take without star-quality singing, Werther the opera may encourage thoughts of Werther the man in the audience. Bur the Royal Opera House would not allow that and for the current revival of  Benoît Jacquot's 2004 production it has struck gold.
The Bailli and his family having fun.
The star power is provided by Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo and American mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato. Star power is a relationship between audience and singers that turns the potentially lachrymose into the beautifully emotional. It makes you forget the creaky plot of the opera. Grigolo light and agile voice brings splendour and DiDonato is unassailable in her singing of Charlotte, the woman who loves Werther but cannot requite his passion because her high moral standards.

Baritone Jonathan Summers was a resonant and sympathetic character as the Bailli. Serbian baritone David Bizic retains his dignity despite his rising jealousy about his wife and his singing is excellent.

I cannot be as effusive about the set in the first scene. It takes place in the Bailiff’s house where his children are practicing Christmas carols. Are they in the house or in the yard? The set shows a huge gate that looks like the opening to a barn. There is no warmth or homey feeling. The indirect lighting does not help.

The second scene near the church shows a wide-open vista that is quite impressive. The third scene in the wood-panelled room gives a sense of affluence and comfort. The final scene is in Werther’s claustrophobic lodging and it is suitable.     

Massenet’s through-written music is full of emotional intensity, lyricism and longing and Antonio Papano and the fine-tuned ROH Orchestra do not miss a beat.

In short, you get a first-rate production of an opera which has some virtues no doubt but it is doubtful it works its way into the souls of many operaphiles as an absolute favourite

Sunday, June 19, 2016


James Karas

NABUCCO by Giuseppe Verdi (music) and
Temistocle Solera (libretto)
Conducted by Maurizio Benini
Directed by Daniele Abbado
Designed by Alison Chitty

Nabucco           DIMITRI PLATANIAS
Abigaille           LIUDMYLA MONASTYRSKA                
Zaccaria           JOHN RELYEA
Fenena             JAMIE BARTON
Ismaele            LEONARD CAPALBO
Anna                VLADA BOROVKO
High Priest       DAVID SHIPLEY
Abdallo             SAMUEL SAKKER

Continues until June 30, 2016 at the Royal Opera House
Covent Garden, London

**** (out of five)

Verdi’s first successful opera may not be many people’s favourite but the current Royal Opera House production surely raises the work a few rungs up the ladder of appeal.

The usual formula applies, of course. Great singers, a first rate orchestra and a thrilling chorus. No, I am not forgetting the other ingredients.

Let’s start with the chorus. There are operas where the members of the chorus have a couple of numbers, walk on the stage, sing their piece and are shepherded off to the wings. Not in Nabucco.   Verdi composed some exhilarating pieces for them and I am not referring solely to the all-too-famous Va pensiero. The chorus is bunched up in the centre of the stage when they render the legendary number but it is a mourning piece and does not call for electrifying singing like some of the other choruses. The augmented Royal Opera House Chorus is worth the price of admission alone.
Scene from Nabucco. Photo:Catherine Ashmore
The title role is sung alternately by Placido Domingo, the grand old man of opera and the relative newcomer, Greek baritone Dimitri Platanias making his Royal Opera House role debut.  He gives a signature performance. From the arrogant king to the unhinged ruler and humiliated father, he achieves simply superb vocal resonance and emotional range. Just listen to his delivery of Deh perdona  (Have mercy on a delirious father) where the great king is reduced to begging for mercy for his daughter from a slave who scorns him.

The slave is Abigaille who believes she is Nabucco’s older daughter but discovers that her parentage is less exalted. She is angry, betrayed, passionate, vengeful, destructive and power-hungry. She also has voice-wrecking vocal demands where she must display power, lyricism and perform sudden leaps up the scales. The soprano who tackles the role must deliver a bravura performance and still live to have a long career. Monastyrska does all of that and is unforgettable.

Soprano Jamie Barton is Nabucco’s real daughter and the one who has snatched the tenor. She does not face the same demands as Monastyrska but she gives a praiseworthy performance. Tenor Leonard Capalbo gives a fine accounting of himself in the role of Ismaele.

Canadian bass John Relyea sings the role of the Hebrew High Priest Zaccaria. His deep voice resonates superbly and impressively. Listen to his magnificent rendition of Del future nel bujo   (In the obscure future), his rousing sermon to the Hebrews that stirs defiance against their enemies.

Director Daniele Abbado and Designer Alison Chitty have opted for a production that has modern overtones especially with the issue of displaced people and refugees. The costumes are modern and I felt that the direction given was “come as you are and bring your children for good measure.” That is not as bad as it sounds because ordinary dress is quite suitable and many of the refugees one sees on television are not dressed better or worse than what one sees on stage at the Royal Opera House. Children are very much a part of the refugee problem and having a few of them on stage was á propos.

The set consisted of rectangular rocks and sand for much of the production. There was judicious use of projections (designed by Luca Scarzella) to dramatize some aspects of the production.

The concept behind the productions seems sound but I am not sure that the execution of it matched the intent.

Benini conducted the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House with the vigour and discipline that the music and concept of the opera demand. It was an outstanding performance.

Friday, June 17, 2016


James Karas

Philippos Alexandros by Sarantis Kassaras (music and libretto)
Directed by Theodoros Pantsios

Philippos                     George Sofialidis
Alexandros                  Apostolos Sotiroudis  
Olympias                     Anila Teli                                
Diogenes                     Yiannis Chouliaras                 
Demosthenes              Theodoros Pantsios
Dancer                         Konstantina Chouliaras
First Chorus Leader     Yiannis Vagienas
Second Chorus Leader Kostas Mylopoulos

Performed once on June 5, 2016 at the Vasiliko Theatro,
Thessaloniki, Greece

Greek opera?

Callas, Souliotis, Paskalis, Baltsa, Theodossiou. That is not a bad list of Greek singers in opera even if some of them are slightly hyphenated.

Oh, you want Greek operas? The Greek National Library has hundreds of them but the chances that you have heard or seen many of them are not great. Let’s face it, Greek opera can best be described by that fine Hellenic word oxymoron. It is a contradiction in terms.

But don’t tell composer Sarantis Kassaras that. He composed Philipos Alexandros in 1994 and the opera was not performed until December 2015 when the Greek Community of Luxembourg staged it for the first time. The opera received its Greek premiere on June 5, 2015 at the Vasiliko Theatro Thessalonikis as part of the First International Conference of the Alexander Son of Philip Greek Macedonian Society (SAFEM).

The production was an unexpected bonus at a conference dealing with the legacy of Philip II and his son Alexander the Great. The plot deals with the relationship between the two great men and the dream of uniting the Greeks under one leader to confront the mighty Persian Empire.

Apostolos Sotiroudis as Alexander is a scrawny youth who handled the vocal demands of the role without exuding heroic prowess. Baritone George Sofialidis commanded authority vocally as King Philip although I could have done without the gold leaves on his head representing his royal crown, no doubt.

Soprano Anila Teli as Oympias had a formidable regal bearing with a strong upper register and fine vocalizing throughout. Yiannis Chouliaras with his gravelly voice was a fine comic representation of Diogenis the Cynic who told Alexander to step aside because he was shading the sun.

Theodoros Pantsios in a dramatic red tunic looked every inch the fiery Athenian orator who hated the Macedonians.

The opera has a male and a female chorus. The women wore lovely white dresses of classical design that matched their voices very nicely. The men wore a motley of cloaks slung over their shoulders but sung quite well.

Kassaras’s music has traditional and modern elements. There are strong rhythmic elements as well as melodic pieces. The music is scored for piano (played by the composer who also conducts the performance), harp (Yiota Miserli), trumpet (Kostas Damianidis), saxophone (Tetiana Masmanidou) and percussion (Stefanos Gazilas). The players are from the Orchestra of the Association of Musicians of Northern Greece. The Vasiliko Theatro has no pit and the orchestra played from the side of the ample stage.

The opera was directed by Theodoros Pantsios. It has elements of baroque chamber operas in its structure and some static features.

There is a handful of opera productions in Athens but almost none in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city. The production is worth praising for that alone but for much more as well.

Oxymoron can mean sharp-dumb. If Kassaras had his choice he would remove “moron” from the issue of opera in Greece and make it a more familiar element in the Greek cultural landscape.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016


James Karas
ELEKTRA by Richard Strauss

Directed by
Conducted by
Set Designer
Patrice Chereau.
Esa-Pekka Salonen
Ruchard Peduzzi
Nina Stemme
Andrea Pieczonka
Waltraud Meier
Burkhard Ulrich
Eric Owen
Few sopranos possess the platinum lung power (steel is just not good enough) and the acting ability to handle Strauss’s Elektra. The performance is in effect an extended Mad Scene. The somewhat unhinged daughter of Agamemnon has been discarded from the royal household where her mother Clytemnestra and her new husband Aigisthus hold court. Her father was brutally murdered by Clytemnestra after his return from Troy with his concubine Cassandra. The soprano who can handle the role is Nina Stemme.

The opera opens in the courtyard of the palace where some servants are throwing chickenfeed and filling buckets of water. Another servant is sweeping the steps. It is an ordinary scene that we need to absorb until Elektra steps on the stage. What does the director for cinema Gary Halvorson do? He zeroes in on these meaningless activities as if we need close-ups of the servants and what they are feeding the chickens. This is ridiculous. We need to see the whole tableau before we observe the daughter of the great Agamemnon dressed basically in rags staring at us, clearly disturbed.

Stemme dominates the opera from the beginning as the dispossessed and bitter woman, through to her encounters with her haunted mother, to her hope for the return of her brother Orestes and her triumphal dance upon the murder of Clytemnestra and her Lover Aigisthus.

It is s searing and towering performance. We see her madness in her eyes, her face, and hear it in her voice that cascades towards us with power and amplitude.

Adrianne Pieczonka has a smaller role as Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis but she does not back off from delivering a similarly powerful performance.

Waltraud Meier as Clytemnestra is a slim and attractive as the woman who got a lover while her husband was at war in Troy and murdered him on his return. She is haunted and terrified of the consequences. She knows that if her son Orestes returns he will likely wreak vengeance on her and her lover. Meier shows us Clytemnestra trying to deal with all her ghosts while attempting to maintain her outward assurance. Again an astounding performance.

Eric Owens with his rumbling bass voice is the avenging Orestes. His fine voice stands him well but Owens lacks the vengeance and wrath required of Orestes. He is a nice guy not a retributive son.

Patrice Chereau first staged this production in 2013 at Aix-en-Provence. It is dome on a bare set consisting of a grand arch serving as the entrance to the palace and little else on the stage. There is a hole in which Elektra crawls and the modern ragamuffin costumes of the servants are appropriate without for his view of the opera.

Strauss’s music in all its power is delivered by The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen. The emphasis of the production and the performance is Elektra and with Stemme the in the title role the performance simply epochal.

Opera at its best

Elektra by Richard Strauswas shown Live in HD on April 30 and broadcast again on June 11, 2016 at select Cineplex Cinemas. www.cineplex.com/events