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.