Thursday, August 10, 2017

OKLAHOMA! – REVIEW OF 2017 GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

One would have thought that 1943 was not a particularly auspicious year for a leap in the development of the Broadway musical. World War II was raging and there was much else to preoccupy the world. Yet with the premiere of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! an advance was made in producing integrated musicals where the songs advanced the plot and acting became more important. There was precedent for this already but Oklahoma! is a good marking point.

The Glimmerglass Festival production is unfortunately disappointing in many respects. Oklahoma! has some rousing songs, outstanding dance sequels and a good plot but all of that goes to the credit of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II who largely carry the production with some exceptions rather than the other way around.

The major exception is the performance of Jarrett Ott as Curly. He enters from the back of the theatre and sings "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin' " while walking towards the stage. He has a commanding voice, an impressive presence and dominates the production like a colossus.
 Judith Skinner as Aunt Eller and Jarrett Ott as Curly in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2017 production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" 
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
The rest of the performers fall behind him at various distances. Vanessa Becerra as Laurey has a good but not particularly big voice and she is overwhelmed by Ott. To varying degrees the rest of the cast suffers the same fate. Without Ott, many would have been adequate to say the least.

There are some dramatic scenes and some comic ones with Emma Roos as the dippy Ado Annie providing some laughter.

Color-blind casting is well-established and never raises an eyebrow but in this case it did. In the first scene we see a middle-aged black woman on stage and since we are in 1906 Indian Territory, the future Oklahoma, when we see a black woman we think of a servant or worse. In this case, African-American Judith Skinner plays Aunt Eller. She does a good job but decades of not seeing a black woman of the time in a role like that struck one, quite disgracefully, as peculiar.
 

The Glimmerglass Festival's 2017 production of Oklahoma! Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Oklahoma! has a number of dance numbers including the extended “Dream Sequence” ballet. The choreography and the dancing left a great deal to be desired. I will leave it at that.

With songs like "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top," the beautiful "People Will Say We're in Love" and the rousing "Oklahoma!" you will not be left twiddling your thumbs. But we expected more from director Molly Smith and choreographer Parker Esse who either did not have the best cast or simply did not bring out the best in what they had.

No issue with conductor James Lowe and the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus.

The set by Eugene Lee purported to present a scene or a vista of the wide-open territory. There was very little of that and the set appeared plastic and unimpressive.
            _____
 Oklahoma!  by Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics) based on Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs will be performed thirteen times between July 8 and August 22, 2017 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

XERXES – REVIEW OF 2017 GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

When a program for an opera gives you a diagram of who loves whom you brace yourself for a rough trip in trying to figure out the plot. When the names of four of the seven characters begin with the letter “a” you may consider yourself licked.

Fear not. This is opera seria and these people will fall in and out of love, throw in some treachery and all will live happily ever after. Well, most of them, anyway. Yes, Xerxes of Xerxes is the Persian Emperor Xerxes who got his butt kicked by the Greeks around 480 B.C. but Handel had better things to deal with in his opera.
 John Holiday in the title role of Handel's Xerxes. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
A smidgeon of plot. Xerxes was betrothed to Amastris but dumped her. Now he loves Romilda. His brother Arsamenes also loves Romilda and she loves him (but not Xerxes). Atalanta also loves Arsamenes. She wants to trick Xerxes into marrying Romilda so she can have Arsamenes. Hint: intercept a letter and spread lies, Atalanta.

Amastris pops in disguised as a man to check out the situation. Romilda’s father Arodates checks in and all is worked out in the end.

Xerxes is a static opera with no chorus, a few duets but mostly recitatives and arias sung by the characters who tend to walk on stage, do their job and go off. There is no doubt about the beauty of most of the arias as well as Handel’s music.

Conductor Tazewell Thompson and Director Nicole Paiement have assembled a fine cast for the job. Countertenor John Holiday, Jr. leads the cast as Xerxes. He was last seen at Glimmerglass in 2015 as Giulio Cesare in Cato in Utica and again displayed his exquisite and delicate voice.
 
Allegra De Vita as Arsamenes, Emily Pogorelc as Romilda and Katrina Galka as Atalanta in Handel's Xerxes. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Mezzo soprano Allegra De Vita sings the role of the faithful Arsamenes. It is a pants role, obviously, and her low notes serve her well in a fine performance. My only minor complaint is about her costume. She is a woman pretending to be a man. Her costume should not make her look like a woman. There is enough confusion in the opera.

Glimmerglass has an extensive and redoubtable Young Artists program and five of the seven singers in Xerxes are drawn from that program. The tricky and mendacious Atalanta is in the vocal chords of soprano Katrina Galka; soprano Emily Pogorelc handles the role of Romilda; mezzo soprano Abigail Dock sang Amastris, the jilted one who appears disguised as a man.

Handel does provide a comic role in Elviro sung by bass baritone Calvin Griffin who is given scope for his comic talent as well as singing. Bass Brent Michael Smith plays Ariodates, the father of Romilda who is not involved in a love affair. I name all the Young Artists in recognition of their developing talents and fine performances.

Sara Jean Tosetti has designed some lovely gowns for the ladies. The set by John Conklin consists of three raised platforms and some hanging panels in the background. Changing light effects by Robert Wierzel provide plenty of color.      
           _____
 Xerxes by George Frideric Handel (music) and Nicolo Minato and Silvio Stampiglia (libretto), is being performed seven times between July 15 and August 18, 2017 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Monday, August 7, 2017

THE SIEGE OF CALAIS – REVIEW OF 2017 GLIMMERGLASS FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

The Glimmerglass Festival is in full swing and provides a cultural experience of the first order in a bucolic setting which might make you think of Arcadia. Where else do you find pastoral harmony and cultural pleasure? For the uninitiated, the Festival takes place on Lake Otsego a few miles from Cooperstown, N.Y. Yes, that is where the Baseball Hall of Fame is but you do not need Special Dispensation to go to both. Seeing the heroes of baseball, operas and a myriad of other cultural activities have been proven to provide have spiritual, emotional and physical benefits. Try getting that in front of a picture of Babe Ruth.

The Siege of Calais, Donizetti’s 48th opera, was a hit in Naples when it premiered in 1836. It did okay until 1840 and then it was mothballed for a nifty 150 years. It was resuscitated by Opera Rara and was even produced on stage. The uncontrollable desire, not to say ambition, to produce the opera in the United States took a few years, until July 2017 to be precise, when the Glimmerglass Festival raised the siege and produced it.
 
The Glimmerglass Festival's 2017 production "The Siege of Calais." Photo: Carrington Spires/The Glimmerglass Festival
The Siege of Calais is quite a remarkable work partly for historical reasons (Donizetti trying to break into the Parisian market with a “French” opera – it did not work) and partly as an opera that deserves to be produced on its own merits. It needs some dramaturgy (it has a third act that requires surgery amounting to excision) but Francesca Zambello, the Artistic and General Director of the Glimmerglass Festival and Music Director Joseph Colaneri have done the judicious editing that resulted in a brisk and fine production of the neglected work.

The siege refers to the blockade of the French port city by the English army under King Edward III in 1346 that resulted in its capitulation in about a year. As such it was an ordinary siege except for the fact that Edward agreed not to slaughter the citizens provided that six nobles agreed to be executed. That and Rodin’s famous statue of “The Burghers of Calais” has helped raise the garden-variety siege into something of mythical proportions.

Librettist Salvadore Cammarano tells the story through Eustachio, the Mayor of Calais, his son Aurelio and the burghers. Emotional punch is delivered by the fate of the people but it is enhanced by the presence of Aurelio’s wife Eleonora and his young son. When Edward demands six victims Eustachio, Aurelio and four others volunteer. The tragedy is averted by the entrance of Edward’s wife Queen Isabella. The six may be saved but the residents know that they have lost everything.
 
Aleks Romano as Aurelio, Rock Lasky as Filippo, and Leah Crocetto as Eleonora in "The Siege of Calais." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
American mezzo-soprano Aleks Romano leads the cast in the pants role of Aurelio. She sings with assurance and conviction in one of the best portrayals of a man by a woman. She has the gait, movements and mannerisms of a man. That is the least of her accomplishments because she has a firm, commanding and marvelous voice to give a memorable performance.

She is well-matched by soprano Leah Crocetto as her wife Eleonora who has a large, indeed powerful, voice such that when she belted out some phrases in the small Alice Busch Opera Theatre she sounded as if she could shatter glass.

Adrian Timpau as Eustachio has an impressive, big voice but unfortunately it displayed strength without color.

Michael Hewitt replaced ably Harry Greenleaf as King Edward and gave a fine performance as did Helena Brown as Queen Isabella. Donizetti provides a wealth of choral music and The Glimmerglass Festival Chorus performed impressively. 

Zambello sets the production in a modern city that has been gutted by bombs. There are numerous examples of such cities in the news almost daily and the setting could not be more appropriate. Scenery Designer James Noone set consists of a revolving shattered building for most of the performance with the exception of a wall representing Calais on the outside.

The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus perform under the baton of Joseph Colaneri.

Donizetti as a composer had many virtues and not a few drawbacks. The Siege of Calais is by no means one of his best operas but it deserved to be produced.

Only at Glimmerglass, eh!        
            _____
The Siege of Calais by Gaetano Donizetti (music) and Salvadore Cammarano (libretto), is being performed eight times between July 16 and August 19, 2017 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or www.glimmerglass.org

Sunday, July 16, 2017

DON GIOVANNI – REVIEW OF 2017 AIX-EN-PROVENCE FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

Conductor                                           Jérémie Rhorer
Stage Director                                    Jean-François Sivadier
Stage Designer                                   Alexandre de Dardel
Costume Designer                              Virginie Gervaise
Lighting Designer                              Philippe Berthomé

Don Giovanni                                     Philippe Sly
Leporello                                            Nahuel di Pierro
Donna Anna                                        Eleonora Buratto
Don Ottavio                                        Pavol Breslik
Donna Elvira                                      Isabel Leonard
Zerlina                                                Julie Fuchs
Masetto                                               Krzysztof Baczyk
Il Commendatore                                David Leigh

Chorus                                                English Voices
Orchestra                                            Le Cercle de l'Harmonie

At the Théâtre de l'Archevêché, 26 Rue Gaston de Saporta, Aix-en-Provence, France, for eight performances from July 6 to 21, 2017

Jean-François Sivadier’s production of Don Giovanni for the Aix-en-Provence Festival may be described as Apostolic. There are a number of names that may be apt but the last scene which is fresh in my mind suggested that word.

When the flames engulf Don Giovanni (which in this production they do not) the other characters show up and celebrate the end of the life of an evildoer and things return to normal. In Sivadier’s production, Don Giovanni is centre-stage, almost naked with long blond hair. Leporello grabs him from behind at one point and he spreads out his arms. This is Christ on the cross.
 
He stands in the middle of a bright spotlight. In an earlier scene the word LIBERTA appeared on the back wall of the set, in large red letters except for the letter “t” which is in the form of a cross. In the final scene, Don Giovanni’s jacket is hung on that cross.

After standing still for a few minutes in the bright spotlight, he gets a rush of energy and does some athletic movements and remains on the stage. He is not engulfed by anything of course and I wondered if the bright spotlight and the other indicia are supposed to tell us that Don Giovanni was not only not punished but was transfigured.

The Christ figure is preceded by Don Giovanni as a circus clown with a ridiculous blond wig. He looks pretty unattractive most of the time and I thought this man may not be able to hire an hourly sex worker, let alone cause women to become enamored and indeed obsessed with him past all understanding. 

This is a new production of the opera and Sivadier wants to put his stamp on it. In most respect the attempt misfires and the result is a largely unpleasant performance.

A few more points may have to suffice. The peasants are very happy that Masetto and Zerlina are getting married and they are wearing traditional country clothing. But they decide to boogie. Good grief. The costumes and the sets are of no help in giving us the age when the opera takes place unless it is at the time of Christ. That neither helps nor is it convincing but the opera  does take place at one time or another.  
 
Sivadier seems to think that singers should address the audience regardless of the suggestions of the music and the libretto. When Don Giovanni sings “Là ci darem la mano’ to the peasant Zerlina, he is trying to seduce her. Sivadier positions them across the stage as if they are addressing the audience. This happens many times and if there is a reason for it, it escaped me completely.

The set itself is incomprehensible to me. A large square platform, tilted towards the audience dominates the set. There are some curtains that are raised and lowered and several gold banners for Leporello and Don Giovanni to hide behind when they are horsing around with the ladies. There are some colourful lights as well.

People appear on stage, walk around and disappear. I did not get what they were supposed to represent or what Sivadier was trying to tell us.

Sly as Don Giovanni was not convincing as a lover, or a seducer, or Christ figure. He may have done well as a clown but that was the last thing I wanted to see. Among these shenanigans he managed to sing well.

Isabel Leonard as Donna Elvira starts out by calling Don Giovanni a traitor, a liar and a villain. Those accusations need fury in her voice which she did not apply.  Eleonora Buratto does a good job as Donna Anna but she does not seem to communicate well with the sappy Don Ottavio. He does find his voice and delivers promises that do not convince Donna Anna and she dumps him.

Fuchs as Zerlina was a sheer delight with the slight tremolo in her voice as the street-smart country lass marrying the oaf Masetto. The ones that never failed were the English Voices.

Conductor Jérémie Rhorer started Le Cercle de l'Harmonie orchestra at a very leisurely pace but did pick up speed.

The best that can be said for the production is that it is a headscratcher and I will leave it at that.

Friday, July 14, 2017

CARMEN – REVIEW OF 2017 AIX-EN-PROVENCE FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

Conductor                                           Pablo Heras-Casado
Stage Director and Designer              Dmitri Tcherniakov
Costume Designer                              Elena Zaytseva
Lighting Designer                              Gleb Filshtinsky
Spoken Dialogue rewritten by           Dmitri Tcherniakov

Carmen                                               Stéphanie d'Oustrac
Don José                                             Michael Fabiano
Micaëla                                               Elsa Dreisig
Escamillo                                            Michael Todd Simpson
Frasquita                                             Gabrielle Philiponet
Zuniga                                                 Christian Helmer
Moralès                                               Pierre Doyen
Le Dancaïre                                        Guillaume Andrieux
Le Remendado                                    Mathias Vidal*
L'Administrateur                                Pierre Grammont

Chorus                                                Chœur Aedes
Children's choir                                  Maîtrise des Bouches-du-Rhône

Orchestra                                            Orchestre de Paris

At the Grand Théâtre de Provence from July 4 to July 20, 2017.

Before the performance of Carmen begins, the audience is given a warning. There is an appearance of danger during the performance. It is part of the production and not real, we are told.
           
As you enter the auditorium of the Grand Théâtre de Provence in Aix-en-Provence for Carmen you notice that the stage is decorated with black leather chairs, coffee tables, a water fountain and closed circuit cameras. This looks like the waiting room of a large enterprise yet you have come to see Bizet’s opera which you know is not set in a waiting room. You will soon realize that this is the set for the entire opera and it is in fact the waiting room of a psychiatric hospital

Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov has turned Bizet’s opera into therapy session for an emotionally disturbed man. I can only describe the transformation as a work of a genius even though I have some reservations about it. How does he do it?

A man and a woman walk into the waiting room and they are met by someone. The couple have come for help with the man’s emotional issues. He wears a blue suit and she has an elegant pink coat. They are told that they will participate in a performance of Carmen as a therapeutic vehicle for the husband. He will take the role of Carmen and she will play Micaela.

The overture begins and we watch a performance of Carmen all in the waiting room. We are reminded a number of times that this is not a performance of Carmen per se but a production in which  hospital staff, including Carmen and the couple who seek help, are performing in order to cure the husband. This does require a few liberties with the libretto which Tcherniakov takes care of but the objective of the performance is always clear.

The problem is that we are removed from the “reality” of the opera and watch an unreal production for a specific purpose. We hear the children’s chorus but there are no children to be seen. The march of the soldiers is indicated by “the hospital staff” who are participating in the therapy but they are dressed in their work clothes and that is all we see in terms of costumes.

Carmen is limited in her dancing and sexually provocative performance because Lillas Pastia’s tavern is the waiting room and we feel the distance between the realities almost throughout. I say almost because by the end of the performance the pretend and the real Carmen blend into a powerful and wrenching conclusion to the opera that is emotionally draining.

Soprano d’Oustrac has some constraints in her performance. She has a lustrous and luscious voice and can be sexually magnetic but she knows that she is only acting. When the patient’s (as Don José) passion gets too “real” she walks off the stage only to be told that she is a professional and must finish the job. She does not do any dancing but her performance is astounding and by the end there is no “real” or real Carmen just a great performance that garnered an extended and well-deserved standing ovation.

Tenor Fabiano as the patient/Don José has in effect a much better acting opportunity than  a straight Don José. He wants to be sensible and stay with his nice wife who plays Micaela but he cannot control himself. He is thus doubly dramatic as a man and a patient in a performance that leaves you breathless. He has great vocal and emotional impact of the highest order.

We are taken in by Dreisig as the sympathetic wife who takes her husband to seek help and as the lovely and innocent Micaela who, as the latter, is dumped because Don José falls for the loose cannon known as Carmen and as for the former…well, we can only imagine what she must have gone through with him to find herself in a psychiatric hospital, performing in an opera no less.

American baritone Simpson is just what the doctor ordered for an Escamillo, be it as hospital staff or real. Dressed in a white suit, he is heroic, self-assured, vocally superb and utterly romantic and seductive. He will never need a psychiatrist.

The taking of directorial liberties with established works has come under severe criticism but there are examples like Tcherniakov’s productions where the dabbling with the familiar produces a work of genius that most of us could not have imagined.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

ERISMENA – REVIEW OF 2017 AIX-EN-PROVENCE FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

Conductor                                           Leonardo García Alarcón
Stage Director and Lighting               Jean Bellorini
Stage Designer                                   Jean Bellorini et Véronique Chazal
Costume Designer                              Macha Makeïeff
Make-up and hairstyling                    Cécile Kretschmar

Erismena                                            Francesca Aspromonte
Idraspe                                               Carlo Vistoli
Aldimira                                            Susanna Hurrell
Orimeno                                            Jakub Józef Orliński
King Erimante                                  Alexander Miminoshvili
Flerida                                              Lea Desandre
Argippo                                            Andrea Vincenzo Bonsignore
Alcesta                                             Stuart Jackson
Clerio Moro                                      Tai Oney
Diarte                                                Jonathan Abernethy

Orchestra                                            Cappella Mediterranea

At the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, 21 rue de l’Opera, Aix-en-Provence, from July 7 to July 21, 2017

Erismena is an opera by Francesco Cavalli that was a big hit in 1655. Its popular appeal has dropped somewhat since then and it is almost never produced these days. But the Aix-en-Provence Festival is giving this rarity an outstanding production and the Festival  gets a laurel wreath for intelligent and aggressive programming. A world premiere of Pinocchio, an opera by Philippe Boesmans, the production of a very early opera and three familiar works, CarmenDon Giovanni and The Rake’s Progress, cover a lot of ground, to say the least.

Erismena is a product of its period. A complex story is told through accompanied recitatives and “songs” but this is before the development of the aria so don’t expect lengthy da capo cadenzas.
 
The language of the opera is ornate, colourful and formulaic. All emotions are extreme. They love, adore, die, suffer, and languish on extraordinary levels and at great length. We accept the mode of expression as a relic of the early years of opera.

The plot is almost impossible to digest by trying to read a synopsis or follow the English surtitles of the performance that is sung in Italian. Director Jean Bellorini tries to be helpful by inserting a scene at the beginning where King Erimante of Media, after defeating the Armenians, dreams of his crown being stolen from him by a knight.

Erismena is in love with Idraspe who dumped her. She disguises herself as an Armenian soldier and goes in search of him but is wounded. She is taken to the court of King Erimante. The disguised and brave Erismena is entrusted to the slave Aldimira. And, you guessed it, Aldimira falls in love with Erismena.

Prince Idraspe shows up in Media disguised as Erineo and he is in love (provide your own adverbs) with Aldimira. Idraspe as Erineo is ordered to poison Erismena but she recognizes him and passes out, ergo no poisoning. Stay with me. Erismena pretends to be her own brother out to find Idraspe. Aldimira has a deal: I find Idraspe, you marry me.

That puts a kibosh on King Erimante’s plan to marry Aldimira and he throws Aldimira and the disguised Erismena in jail. They all escape and are caught and the King orders Idraspe/Erineo and Erismena to kill each other. At which point Erismena bears her breasts to show that she is a woman. Idraspe goes through a quickie metamorphosis (I love you; forgive me). She does and we all find out that Erismena is the king’s daughter.

I have given you only one strand of the plot. There must be another dozen of them but who is counting. There are ten characters and every one of them has a convoluted story.
 
The singing is quite marvelous even without the lengthy arias and coloratura cadenzas.  Soprano Francesca Aspromonte has a sumptuous voice and she gives a marvelous performance in a role that requires a lot of running on and off stage. That is true for all the cast. The other soprano in the cast is Susanna Hurrell who gives an equally fine performance.

There are two countertenors in Carlo Vistoli as Idraspe and Jakub Józef Orliński as Prince Orimeno (who is dumped by Aldimira but he eventually marries her). Always a delight to hear finely tuned high male voices. The King is sung by Alexander Miminoshvili, a bass baritone as becomes the rank of the role.

Tenor Stuart Jackson plays the old nurse Alcesta. He is a big man dressed in a purple dress and provides a bit of comedy. I thought Alcesta would provide quite a few laughs but that simply did not fully materialize.      

The sets by Jean Bellorini and Véronique Chazal were minimalist, sometimes consisting of a couple of chairs and at times using a platform and effective lighting to indicate dreams. The costumes by Macha Makeïeff were of no particular time period but they may be described as modern. Dresses, kilts, skirts, a fur jacket, some colourful shoes, they went all over the place.

One of the big delights was the tiny Cappella Mediterranea orchestra conducted by Leonardo García Alarcón. They provided a wonderful treat of 17th century music that made you accept the plot twists without wincing.
 A fascinating night at the opera.

Monday, July 10, 2017

PINOCCHIO – REVIEW OF 2017 AIX-EN-PROVENCE FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

James Karas

Conductor                                           Emilio Pomarico
Director                                              Joël Pommerat
Set and Lighting                                 Éric Soyer
Costumes Designer                            Isabelle Deffin
Video                                                  Renaud Rubiano

Manager of Theatre
Company and Circus etc.                   Stéphane Dégout
The Father, The School
Master etc.                                          Vincent Le Texier
The Puppet                                          Chloé Briot
The Cabaret Manager, The
Judge, The Donkey Dealer etc.          Yann Beuron
The Cabaret Singer, The Naughty
Pupil                                                   Julie Boulianne
The Fairy                                            Marie-Eve Munger
Stage musicians
Fabrizio Cassol (saxophone, imrovisation coordination), Philippe Thuriot (accordion), Tcha Limberger (violin)

Orchestra                                            Klangforum Wien

At the Grand Théâtre de Provence from July 3 to July 16, 2017
           
The Aix-en-Provence Festival is in full swing with an astonishing array of events in a mere three weeks (July 3 to 22, 2017). Six operas are featured starting with Pinocchio, a new work by Philippe Boesmans receiving its world premiere. And that is just a part of the cultural wealth available. Let’s start with Pinocchio.

The libretto by Joël Pommerat is based on the classic fairy tale by Carlo Collodi. The librettist also directs the production. Pommerat tells the story of the wooden puppet whose nose grows frightfully when he lies. The telling is through a Homeric-type bard, the manager of a travelling theatre company, who is blind, narrates, sings and guides us through the story. He illustrates his darkness for us and we see the story through his own “sight” or darkness.
 
Pinocchio and the Fairy
The tale is also a picaresque story full of adventures as Pinocchio goes through a number of episodes from meeting murderers and a fairy, to going to prison and joining a circus as a donkey, to going to school and finally “growing up.” The picaresque is wrapped in a morality tale (after all it is a children’s story) with lessons like obey your parents, go to school and don’t lie, especially do not lie.   

Boesmans has composed a variety of musical styles from recitative, to singing, to some gypsy music as well as some operatic flourishes. Soprano Chloé Briot plays Pinocchio, the rascally puppet who goes through all kinds of misconduct until he is reconciled with his kind Father (bass-baritone Vincent Le Texier).

Pinocchio is dressed in a black coat with a hood over his head and a white mask over his face. We do not seem him as a boy until near the end when he has gone through the transformation of becoming the hero of a morality tale. Briot does an excellent job in the role.

Except for the Fairy, the other main members of the cast take several roles each. Stéphane Dégout in addition to being the manager of the travelling theatre company, also appears as a criminal, a murderer and the manager of the circus. He is quite superb both vocally and as a master of ceremonies, a bard and criminal.

Le Texier plays a murderer, an amusing and exasperated school teacher and the kindly old father who gives “birth” to Pinocchio when his beloved tree is felled by a storm.     

Tenor Yann Beuron plays the Judge, the donkey merchant and cabaret manager and two other roles. Mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne is the cabaret singer and the naughty pupil with some opportunity for humour. Soprano-Marie-Eve Munger plays the Fairy and she gets some of the operatic flourishes as she lectures Pinocchio. A fine cast.

With some exceptions, this is a dark show, full of shadows and smoke. Most of the story is acted in small spaces. There is generous use of projected videos that add tremendously to the dark, ominous atmosphere of the adventures through which Pinocchio passes. The lighting by Éric Soyer is magnificent in adding to the atmosphere of the opera.
Pinocchio in school
There is a band on stage who(which) play(s) some rousing traditional music. The Fairy, in a long white dress, stands high above the characters on the stage. These are almost the only occasions when the darkness of the production is relieved. The murderers look like Ku Klux Klan members.

The Klangforum Wien was conducted by Emilio Pomarico.

Pinocchio seems to be intended for children and adults. There were numerous children, perhaps as young as six years, in the audience and I am not sure how much of the story they got or enjoyed. There was a youngster sitting beside me who spent most of the time making comments or asking his mother questions about the production. (A future critic?) His mother tried to keep him quiet to no avail and then stuck a lollipop in his mouth. That restrained his commentary for a while but it was replaced by slurping. She must have given up as they did not return for the second act. That was probably the only questionable review that the performance received.



Tuesday, July 4, 2017

MITRIDATE, RE DI PONTO - REVIEW OF ROYAL OPERA HOUSE 2017 REVIVAL

James Karas

Mitridate, re di Ponto is an early opera seria by Mozart that is beautifully sung, marvelously directed and superbly played at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. These succinct praises are not frequently or obviously associated with this opera, but more about that later.

Opera seria, of course, means arias to express emotions and recitatives to advance the plot. There is no chorus and almost no ensemble singing except for a couple of duets. For example, when Sirafe and Aspasia sing the duet “Se viver non degg’io” (If I cannot live), they face the audience, walk around the stage and never really relate to each other.
 Bejun Mehta and Albina Shagimuratova in Mitridate; re di Ponto at Royal Opera House, London
The genre was dumped in the latter part of the 18th century but there is no reason to put our nose up because style and substance changed. Mitridate is enjoyable on its own regardless of any shortcomings or prospective changes in style.  In other words, look upon the donut and not upon the hole.

A smidgeon of plot. King Mitridate has two sons who don’t get along; to wit Farnace wants the king’s job and his fiancée Aspasia and Sirafe who also wants Aspasia. Meanwhile Mitridate who is supposed to be dead but is not, imports Princess Ismene as a wife for Farnace. Aspasia loves Sirafe, Farnace does not want Ismene and, well, you get the idea. Love, honour and treachery in opera seria are analogous to riding a bicycle: once you learn it you never forget it but you can change as many bicycles as you want.

The performances are vocally outstanding. American tenor Michael Spyres takes on the name role with aplomb. He has a light tenor voice that is flexible and reaches the high notes with ease. Many of the arias are done at a brisk pace but there some very moving moments. Mitridate has some nasty characteristics but near the end he becomes noble and forgiving and Spyres rises to the occasion with beautiful emotional cadences. This is a five-star Mitridate.

Soprano Albina Shagimuratova with her sumptuous voice gives us an Aspasia of vocal splendour. When she sings the recitative “Ah ben ne fui presage” (Ah my foreboding was justifiedand the cavatina “Pallid' ombre" (Pale shadows) she reaches an expressive and lyrical majesty that clearly presages “Dove sono.” 

Soprano Lucy Crowe sang the Princess Ismene. She is given to Mitridate as a slave and she tended to tilt her head to the side and I thought it was an indication of humility and servitude. Her singing and portrayal is highly accomplished.

Georgian Soprano Salome Jicia and American countertenor Bejun Mehta sang the sons Sirafe and Farnace, respectively. The boys go through love and hate, treachery and reconciliation without hesitation. That’s their operatic problem as characters but Jicia and Mehta display only vocal flexibility and finesse in their performances.

This production first surfaced in 1991 which was also the first time Mitridate was seen at the Royal Opera House. It is an imaginative and remarkable staging directed by Graham Vick. It never feels static and you are engaged in the plot however convoluted it may appear.
Michael Spyres as Mitridate and Albina Shagimuratova as Aspasia in Mitridate, re di Ponto 
Photo ROH© Bill Cooper
Designer Paul Brown uses stark red panels that can be moved around and a red floor. It is an arresting image that works well. The costumes are another story. They are colourful, conspicuous and eye-catching. But, some of those costumes looked like portable scaffolding for drying clothes. After you see them a couple of times and you giggle, you just ignore them.

The orchestra of the Royal Opera House was conducted by Christophe Rousset and played with finesse.

When Mozart composed Mitridate, he already had four operas under his belt and eighty-two other compositions. You can hardly call him the new kid on the block until you realize that he was fourteen years old at the time. The opera premiered at the Teatro Regio Ducale in Milan in 1770 conducted by Mozart. After that it was ignored for a couple of centuries. It was discovered late in the 20th century and has received a good number of productions and recordings. Now we can sit back and feel superior to…whatever. Or just enjoy a fine opera in a superb production.
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Mitridate, re di Ponto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (music) and Vittorio Amedeo Cigna-Santi (libretto) opened June 27 and will play until July 7, 2017 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, England. www.roh.org.uk

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

L’ELISIR D’AMORE - REVIEW OF ROYAL OPERA HOUSE 2017 REVIVAL

Reviewed by James Karas

You may recall Lady Bracknell’s admonition to Mr. Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest upon being told he has lost both his parents: ‘To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.’

The Royal Opera House can hardly be accused of carelessness but it did lose the soprano and the tenor in one day of the performance of L’Elisir d’Amore.

Lady Bracknell further demanded that he ‘make a definite effort to produce at any rate one parent, of either sex, before the season is quite over.’ The ROH did not have such luxury and in fact had to find a soprano on the day of the performance and a tenor between scenes.
 Photo of scene from L'Elisir d'Amore with different principals. Photo: Bill Cooper
During the day an email message advised that soprano Aleksandra Kurzak had withdrawn from singing the role of Adina due to illness and the role was to be taken by Jennifer Davis. At the end of the first scene after the performance began, we were informed that tenor Roberto Alagna could not finish it and that he would be replaced by tenor Ioan Hotea.

This production of Donizetti’s masterpiece of love, innocence and quackery was first directed by Laurent Pelly in 2006 and it has been revived numerous times since then. The current revival director is Daniel Dooner. Pelly set the opera in an agrarian Italian village in the 1950s. There are bales of hay, a tractor, a harvester and the ambience of a peaceful village. The men drive Vespas and the main concern is love and the promises of the quack Doctor Dulcamara.

We were not short changed at all by the replacement of Alagna by the Romanian tenor Hotea. Hotea may lack Alagna’s darker shades but he gave us a youthful and energetic Nemorino that was a  delight.  He has a marvelous, light voice in the style of Juan Diego Flores that showed beauty and agility. This Nemorino is pure innocence, love and vulnerability and deserves to get the girl.

Irish soprano Jennifer Davis as Adina wowed us with her tonal beauty and tenderness. Her Adina showed innocence and cunning and we enjoyed every note of Donizetti’s incomparable melodies.

Italian bass baritone Alex Esposito sang the role of the mountebank Doctor Dulcamara, a quack, a fast buck artist who is crooked but likable, sleazy but not evil. Esposito does it all with a glint in his eye and a sonorous voice in his larynx.
Nemorino’s competition for Adina is Sergeant Belcore, an arrogant martinet sung by Czech bass-baritone Adam Plachetka. No complaints about Plachetka’s vocal and acting performance but we are glad he does not get the girl. 

Donizetti provides a wealth of choral music and the Royal Opera Chorus is shown at its best. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under Bertrand de Billy is superb.
  
L’Elisir d’Amore is a delightful opera, a comedy that produces laughter even through surtitles. Pelly’s conception and its execution by an outstanding cast, orchestra and chorus makes for a wonderful evening at the opera.

You disagree with Lady Bracknell at your peril but on this occasion you may risk it. To lose…a soprano and a tenor…was neither tragic nor careless and it did not detract from the performance.
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L’Elisir d’Amore by Gaetano Donizetti (music) and Felice Romani (libretto) played from  May 27 to June 22, 2017 on various dates with cast changes at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, England. www.roh.org.uk

Monday, June 5, 2017

HMS PINAFORE – REVIEW OF 2017 STRATFORD FESTIVAL PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

HMS Pinafore is the Stratford Festival’s second musical offering this year and this one is done in the more intimate Avon Theatre.  Savoyards will tell you that there are few more delicious evenings at the theatre than a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. From the first line of the Chorus who “sail the ocean blue,” to the love madrigals, to Sir Joseph’s patter song “I am the monarch of the sea” to the joy and rapture and orb of love that bring serenity at the end, this is a work to be relished. The production is quite successful subject to some questionable choices by the director.

Sir Joseph, the First Lord of the Admiralty who never went to sea as played by Laurie Murdoch steals the show. He gets some of the most memorable tunes and comedy and Murdoch is splendid in the role.
 
 Members of the company in HMS Pinafore. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann. 
Steve Ross is funny as Captain Corcoran, the commander of HMS Pinafore. He is Middle Crust and wants his pretty daughter Josephine (Jennifer Rider-Shaw) to marry the Upper Crust Sir Joseph. She is in love with the Lower Crust sailor Ralph (Mark Uhre) and you got the whole plot. But do pay attention to Little Buttercup because Lisa Horner is very entertaining as a bumboat woman and she (the character not Lisa) may provide a solution to the class issue.     

Rider-Shaw has a beautiful voice that she uses to fine effect. She can rev her vocal chords to high gear with ease while maintaining control of the melody. Uhre’s Ralph sings movingly and forlornly as a stage lover and deserves to get Josephine no matter what his social niche.
 
Members of the company in HMS Pinafore. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann. 
There is a chorus of sailors and Sir Joseph’s sisters, cousins and aunts who sing the ensemble songs. The sailors can mop a deck and dance and sing something fierce.

Lezlie Wade takes care of the directorial details and Patrick Clark designed the costumes. Easy for the sailors and very beautiful for the ladies.      

Wade and Set Designer Douglas Paraschuk have the operetta open with a picture of the exterior of the stately Portsmouth Manor and give some frantic activity in the interior of the grand house. Parts of the set is removed and we see the quarter-deck of the ship. Quite impressive but the programme tells us that the manor-home is a naval hospital.

A naval hospital in World War I? What is the point of setting a silly love story with wonderful music and humour in a hospital during a war? I have no idea except to toss the notion of directorial attempt to give a personal twist to the production. It does not work but lucky for us HMS Pinafore is unsinkable.
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 HMS Pinafore by Gilbert and Sullivan opened on May 31 and will run until October 21, 2017 at the Avon Theatre, 99 Downie St, Stratford, ON N5A 1X2. www.stratfordfestival.ca

Monday, May 8, 2017

TOSCA – REVIEW OF COC REVIVAL OF PAUL CURRAN PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company wraps up its 2016-2017 season with the second revival of Paul Curran’s production of Tosca. It is a highly praiseworthy production that has stood the test of time very well.

The COC has assembled a first rate cast led by Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka in the title role with tenor Marcelo Puente as Cavaradossi and bass-baritone Markus Marquardt as Scarpia. The latter two are making their COC debus while Pieczonka sang in the 2008 revival of this production.

Much depends on the soprano who plays the lead role and handles the passionate, histrionic and highly dramatic Tosca. She is jealous, suspicious and loving in the first act. Her over-the-top jealousy and suspicions elicited some laughter. In the second act she is the diva who is forced to hear her lover being tortured as the malevolent Scarpia tries to seduce her. He wants her body in exchange for Cavaradossi’s life. In the third she is heroic as she celebrates the imminent release of Cavaradossi and their escape to freedom.
Adrianne Pieczonka as Tosca and Markus Marquardt as Scarpia in Tosca. Photo: Michael Cooper
Her sumptuous voice is lyrical, passionate and dramatic as she goes through the various stages. “Vissi d’arte” is Tosca’s signature aria, a recollection of a life for art, beauty, faith and humanity wrecked by a malicious officer of the law. Even God has forsaken her. My one complaint is about her performance in the scene where she stabs Scarpia. After inflicting psychological torture on her and getting her to finally submit to his lechery, Tosca kills her tormentor. It is a moment of supreme triumph and horror. She taunts him as he is dying and when she sings “Die …die…die” I wanted to hear a scream filled with venom and triumph. Pieczonka was dramatic but fell short of the possibilities of the scene.

I wonder how effective it would be if, after her last expression of contempt and victory, “And before this man, all Rome trembled!” she spits on him?

Puente sang an impressive Cavaradossi. In his moment of triumph when he hears that Napoleon has conquered Rome, Puente belts out and holds “Vittoria” and sings joyously about freedom. In “E lucevan le stele,” his beautiful aria before his death, he remembers falling in love with Tosca, her embrace, her languorous caresses and her radiant beauty. He sings with so much pathos, longing and beauty that he brought the house down.
 
Adrianne Pieczonka as Tosca and Marcelo Puente as Cavaradossi in Tosca. Photo: Michael Cooper
Marquardt is a business-like creep which increases his malice and lust by not being overdone. He is a man who knows his power and is free to treat and mistreat people at will. Marquardt succeeds in his portrayal vocally in his assured singing and as a character in his display of evil.

Curran and Set and Costume Designer Kevin Knight take a conservative approach to the opera. The church of Sant’Andrea della Valle in the opening scene is monumental with two large columns dominating the set. The columns are moved to the side opening the whole stage to the entry of a very sumptuously attired chorus that delivers a rousing end to Act I.

Scarpia’s office in Act II is elegantly furnished as becomes its powerful occupant. The     ramparts of Castel Sant’Angelo where Cavaradossi is executed and from which Tosca jumps to her death are impressive and appropriate.

The COC Orchestra is conducted by Keri-Lynn Wilson who has many virtues as a conductor in addition to doing a superb job. She is a woman (yes, they are still a rarity on the podium), she is Canadian and she is making her debut with the COC. What more do you want?

An overall outstanding production of one of the most popular operas.
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Tosca by Giacomo Puccini opened on April 30 and will be performed twelve times with some cast changes until May 20, 2017 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671. www.coc.ca