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.

Monday, July 4, 2016


James Karas
By Maneim Adwan (muisc) and Fady Jomar and Catherine Verlaguet (libretto)
Theâtre de Jeu de PaumeAix-en-Provence
                                                July 1 to July 17, 2016

Conductor                               Zied Zouari
Director                                  Olivier Letellier
Set Designers                          Eric Charbeau et Philippe Casaban
Costumes                                Nathalie Prats

Kalîla                                      Ranine Chaar
Dimna                                     Moneim Adwan
The King                                 Mohamed Jebali
The Queen Mother                 Reem Talhami
Chatraba                                 Jean Chahid

Violin                                      Zied Zouari
Cello                                       Yassir Bousselam
Clarinet                                   Selahattin Kabaci
Qanun                                     Abdulsamet Çelikel
Percussion                              Wassim Halal

***** (out of 5)

Kalîla wa Dimna is an opera in French and Arabic by Moneim Adwan that was commissioned by the Aix-en-Provence Festival and received its world premiere on July1 2016. Now count how many “firsts” there are in the last sentence.

The “firsts” are irrelevant, of course, and what counts is that this is a delightful opera that tells a compelling story, has wonderful music and receives a splendid production in the tiny Jeu de Paume theatre in Aix directed expertly by Olivier Letellier.
 Kalîla wa Dimna (2016 © Patrick Berger / Artcomart)
The story or series of stories have their roots in India some twenty-four hundred years ago. Fady Jomar and Catherine Verlaguet have based their libretto on an 8th century translation of the stories by the Persian Ibn al-Muqaffa.

In a mythical kingdom, Dimna becomes a counselor of the king and attempts to use the relationship for personal gain. His sister Kalîla senses the dangers of his actions and tries to dissuade him but to no avail.

But there is trouble in the kingdom in the guise of a poet called Chatraba who is very popular with the people and sings to them about their sufferings and injustice. Dimna brings Chatraba to the king and a friendship develops between the two men. Dimna is determined to bring an end to it.

Kalîla and the King’s mother try to warn Chatraba about Dimna’s machinations by telling him the fable of the wolf, the crow, the jackal and the camel.  Dimna lies to the king about Chatraba and in the end the poet is put to death. The King finally opens his eyes and there is a promise of justice. The opera ends as it began with a beautiful song of freedom.

This story is told in Arabic with the beautiful narrative power of Kalîla (Ranine Chaar) and the five characters sing a variety of songs in Arabic. Many of the songs have the flavour of ballads accompanied by the beautiful melodies played by the five musicians. We hear the mellow sound of the clarinet especially in its lower range, the deep sound of the cello, and the rich chords of the violin. There is also a quanun, a stringed instrument related to the zither that produces a wealth of splendid music. 
Kalîla wa Dimna (2016 © Patrick Berger / Artcomart)
Understandably, all the songs and music have an Arabic flavour that is melodic, expressive and splendid. There are long arching phrases, plaintive sounds and angry expressions that the singers, especially Chaar, handle with ease. There is protest – if you kill a poet, he will come back a thousand times – and a push towards justice. If Dimna is guilty of something, he should be arrested and tried rather than summarily executed like Chatraba.

All the characters are dressed in modern clothes. The Queen Mother and Kalîla wear long dresses but the costumes do not suggest anything exotic. The set consists of white stands that are simple and functional.

The production lasts an hour and a half and it is the most delightful ninety minutes to be had almost anywhere.

Saturday, July 2, 2016


James Karas

Conductor                   Louis Langrée
Director                      Christophe Honoré
Set Designer               Alban Ho Van
Costumes                    Thibault Vancraenenbroeck
Lighting                      Dominique Bruguière

Fiordiligi                    Lenneke Ruiten         
Dorabella                    Kate Lindsey
Despina                       Sandrine Piau
Ferrando                     Joel Prieto                  
Guglielmo                   Nahuel di Pierro        
Don Alfonso               Rod Gilfry                 
Chrous                        Cape Town Opera Chorus
Orchestra                    Freiburger Barockorchester

*** (out of 5)

The performance finished at about 1:10 in the morning and at 3 hours and 40 minutes that is approaching Wagnerian duration. The singers, the chorus, the conductor and the orchestra all received enthusiastic ovations. The director and the creative team walked on the stage and were greeted with resounding and extended boos.

We were watching Mozart’s delightful Cosi Fan Tutte, the opening production of the 68th edition of the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in that beautiful medieval city.

Opera directors in general and European ones in particular have for some years now been pushing the envelope as it were in producing classic works in most unlikely versions. Wagner’s Ring in a gas station, Rigoletto in Las Vegas, Zaide in a third-world sweatshop, The Abduction from the Seraglio set among the jihadists and ISIS are just a few examples that come to mind.   

A scene from Cosi fan Tutte?
As the curtain opens we are ready for a new production of Cosi directed by Christophe Honoré, known better as a writer and film director and fairly new to opera. But instead of hearing the lilting and uplifting overture played by the Freiburger Barockorchester under Louis Langre we listen to some strange song played on an old turntable. There is a rundown building and a fire burning in a cutoff barrel. We see a couple of white men milling around and abusing  a couple of black women. Abusing consists of manhandling, grabbing and in one instance pulling the woman to the side and …well, was she just sitting on his lap or was she being quietly raped?

The setting is a colonial village somewhere in Africa. The soldiers wear fezes but the natives are black so you can decide where we are. The only way to treat the natives, especially the women, is by pushing, grabbing them by the hair, shoving them to the side or hitting them. None of the colonial overlords need mistake them for people. Without putting too fine of a point on it, the locale is a slum.

Oh yes, Mozart’s opera. To jog your memory, Ferrando and Guglielmo who are not black, live in that village and are madly in love with the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi and swear that their loves could never be unfaithful to them. Their older and wiser friend Don Alphonso is willing to bet that, yes, they can and will be unfaithful because cosi fan tutte, all women are like that.

Dorabella and Fiordiligi at home?
The ruse is to send the men off to war and have two Albanians (Guglielmo and Ferrando in disguise) visit and successfully court the ladies. Don Alphonso is assisted in his plot by the clever and lovable servant Dorabella.

Back to the slum, please. The question is: what is the relationship between Mozart’s music, Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto, the social stratum in which the story takes place and a slum in colonial Africa? Can the two be made to coexist? Can you superimpose a foreign culture of cruelty, abuse, inhuman treatment of natives on an opera that deals with love, humour and some silly game-playing by people who have not much else to do?

If Honoré wanted to draw attention to himself, he has certainly succeeded. Many reviews may be similar to mine and talk mostly about him. Did I mention the wonderful singing? Soprano Lenneke Ruiten as Fiordiligi and mezzo soprano Kate Lindsey as Dorabella are lithe young singers with supple voices and physical agility. They would have delighted us if only they had not moved to the slums and adopted the dress code and some of the manners of that world. They have servants including the white Despina of Sandrine Piau who usually enchants us. Again her singing and acting are superb but what is she doing in that milieu?

Guglielmo and Ferrando are transformed into unrecognizable Albanians by making the black. Bass di Pierro as Guglielmo and tenor Prieto as Ferrando were youthfully arrogant and emotional as becomes lovers and vocally expressive as Mozartian singers should be. Don’t worry about the black make-up. Gilfry as Don Alfonso missed a couple of beats but he straightened out and joined the crowd in bad manners but good singing.  

Conductor Louis Langrée and the Freiburger Barockorchester stuck with Mozart and they were a delight to hear.

Cosi Fan Tutte continues at the Théâtre de l'Archevêché until July 19, 2016 in Aix-en-Provence, France.