Monday, October 30, 2017

THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO – REVIEW OF OPERA ATELIER PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

In a recent survey conducted by BBC Music Magazine “172 of the world’s finest opera singers” (according to BBC) chose The Marriage of Figaro as the greatest opera ever written.  Opera Atelier was not waiting for a survey to be  persuaded to revive its 2010 production of The Marriage of Figaro but no one can possibly complain that it did.

Director Marshall Pynkoski has chosen to produce the opera in English and use Jeremy Sams’ fluid and colloquial translation. Excellent choices. Many directors move the date of an opera forward from today to some futuristic, robotic era. Pynkoski moves The Marriage back to the era and distinctive style of commedia dell’arte. The end  result is an outstanding and thoroughly enjoyable night at the opera.
 
Peggy Kriha Dye (Countess Almaviva) and Stephen Hegedus (Count Almaviva). Photo by Bruce Zinger.
Choosing the commedia dell’arte style has many advantages. It allows for comic business, including some slapstick that provides healthy laughter. The elegant costumes by Martha Mann and colourful sets by Gerard Gauci are perfect accompaniments for Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg’s choreography. Thus we get the best of both worlds: the comic business of commedia dell’arte and the grace and sophistication of baroque.

Opera in English is still the exception and there are good reasons for being reluctant to indulge in full-scale Anglicized libretti. Jeremy Sams’ translation does illustrate some of the issues. The open vowels of “La vendetta” and the rounded o’s of “Dove sono” are not available in the English translation but some of the awkwardness we feel may be simply a matter of habit. If we heard The Marriage of Figaro, say, twenty times in Italian, hearing it in English may sound stranger than it really is. Try the reverse.  

Pynkoski has assembled a cast that can act and sing. Start with the heroes of the piece. Bass-baritone Douglas Williams as Figaro has to be wily, smart (but not as smart as his fiancée Susanna) and display vocal and physical agility. Williams delivers a delightful Figaro.

Soprano Mireille Asselin’s Susanna has intuitive intelligence, splendid vocal delivery and a marvelous comic delineation of the clever servant. Soprano Peggy Kriha Dye gives us a mature and moving Countess who married for love and lives with the Count’s gross infidelity. She sings her lament for lost love “Porgi, amor” (“Hear my prayer, humbly I beg you”) and “Dove Sono” (“I remember his love so tender”) where memory of past happiness and hopes for future joy and love blend gorgeously. I could have done with a bit less movement in the latter aria but that’s just quibbling.

Bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus’s Count Almaviva is a jealous, quick-tempered and lithe Lothario for whom a skirt is a target and fidelity is a nuisance. We enjoy his singing and shenanigans and find extra pleasure in his ultimate comeuppance which provides a scene of forgiveness and redemption that becomes a moment of grace and enchantment.
 
Mireille Asselin (Susanna) and Douglas Williams (Figaro). Photo by Bruce Zinger.
Mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel was full of hormonal energy as Cherubino. Laura Pudwell as Marcellina, Gustav Andreassen as Bartolo, Olivier Laquerre as Antonio and Christopher Enns as Basilio and Don Curio delivered the comedy and singing assigned to them unfailingly. And Grace Lee as barbarian gets to sing the aria “I have lost it, I am so stupid” very effectively.

The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra does its usual fine work under the baton of David Fallis.

A few words to dampen your enthusiasm about The Marriage of Figaro being chosen as the greatest opera everLa Boheme came in second and Tosca placed sixth. Verdi sneaked in ninth place with Otello and Wagner made the grade with Tristan und Isolde in tenth place. Chacun à son goût, as they say, but those are head-scratching choices by any operatic measuring stick.

In any event, the highest accolade one can pay to Opera Atelier’s production of The Marriage of Figaro is that it is an expression of civilization. Kenneth Clark in his famous series Civilization said that he could not give a definition of civilization but he recognized it when he saw it. You may not be able to define a stunning and wonderful opera production but when you see this Marriage of Figaro you will recognize it. And it is civilized. 
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The Marriage of Figaro  by W. A. Mozart, presented by Opera Atelier, opened on October 26 and will until November 4, 2017 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto. www.operaatelier.com

Thursday, October 19, 2017

THE ELIXIR OF LOVE – REVIEW OF 2017 CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY PRODUCTION

James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company serves us a delightful, delectable and delicious Elixir of Love with a strong Canadian flavor, scrumptious singing and most of it done by Canadians. More about the last bit further down.

Donizetti’s enchanting comedy requires five singers who must create and exude a sense of innocence, an atmosphere of geniality and a pleasant community that exists mostly in our imagination. Where can you find a place like that? Easy. Visit a small, rural town in southern Ontario on a sunny day before World War I. That is where director James Robinson sets this production. It all started in a small town in the United States but, there being no travel bans yet, they all moved to the friendlier realm of Canada. Well, Robinson changed the locale to Ontario.    
 
Simone Osborne as Adina (at left) with Gordon Bintner as Belcore 
and Andrew Haji as Nemorino (at right). Photo: Michael Cooper
Nemorino (Andrew Haji) has an ice cream truck and consumes what he sells with considerable generosity. But he is an innocent, lovable bumpkin who is love-struck with the very pretty Adina. His profession and girth, do not give him a head start in the race for Adina’s heart. Haji has a dulcet, light tenor voice and he conveys the innocence, ardour and total lovability of Nemorino perfectly.

Adina is rich, beautiful and flirtatious, the type of girl that any red-blooded Ontarian from Dundalk to Dorset would give up his acreage for. Soprano Simone Osborne embodies all the qualities we want to see in Adina and gives her an agile, honeyed voice that is an aural delight.

Sergeant Belcore is a swaggering, mustachioed recruiting officer in a well-pressed uniform that would burst at the seams if his ego were any bigger. Baritone Gordon Bintner’s voice resonates with confidence and we (almost) forgive Adina for falling for the cad.

Baritone Andrew Shore takes on the role of the quack Dr. Dulcamara who sells an elixir guaranteed to get you any woman. It is a fine comic role and Shore does a very good job in that regard. Unfortunately, he was in poor vocal form on the date that I saw the production (October 17), especially at the beginning. He was better near the end.

Soprano Laura Eberwein displayed her beautiful voice in the relatively small role of Giannetta and no doubt we will be seeing much more of her in the future.
 Andrew Haji as Nemorino in the The Elixir of Love, 2017, photo: Michael Cooper
The opera is set, as I said, in a small town in Ontario. The set (designed by Allen Moyer) focuses on the town’s bandstand, decorated with banners and flags. The town people are dressed in festive attire of the period, the sun is shining and life is good. Is it July 1, 1914? We have a cheerful, happy atmosphere with the townspeople (the marvelous COC Chorus) providing a social milieu and vocal pleasure.

Yves Abel conducts the COC Orchestra.

One does not usually make too much fuss about the origins of the cast except perhaps to add, say, Russian or America before a singer’s name. There is a difference here. Most of the cast is young and Canadian. In fact the conductor and four of the five singers (Andrew Shore s the exception) are young Canadians. This is not pointless flag waving. It is a round of applause to the COC and in general for Canada for nurturing a crop of musical talent especially in opera, a form of entertainment that is struggling to maintain and increase its fan base and is usually dominated by non-Canadians.

The Elixir of Love presents Canada on the operatic stage in every respect and does a damn good job.
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The Elixir of Love by Gaetano Donizetti (music) and Felice Romani (libretto), opened on October 11 and will be performed eight times until November 4, 2017 on various dates at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671. www.coc.ca

Thursday, October 12, 2017

ARABELLA – REVIEW OF 2017 CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY PRODUCTION

James Karas

The Canadian Opera Company has made two commendable choices for its 2017 fall season. One is Richard Strauss’s lyric comedy Arabella being produced for the first time by the COC and the other one is Donizetti’s perennial favourite, The Elixir of Love.

A fine cast led by Erin Wall in the name role, Tomas Konieczny as Mandryka and Jane Archibald as Zdenka in Tim Albery’s production goes a long way in making the production highly commendable, but no one can save the creaky and silly plot from producing twitches near the end.

Much can be said and in fact has been written about the social and political milieu of Arabella, the year in which it is set (Vienna in 1860), the time in which it was written (late1920’s) and the date of its premiere in Dresden (July 1933). But it is essentially a simple love story that demands a serious suspension of disbelief.
 Erin Wall as Arabella and Tomasz Konieczny as Mandryka in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Arabella, 2017. Photo: Michael Cooper 
Arabella is a beautiful woman who is looking for Mr. Right. She saw a foreigner gazing at her in the street and she fell in love with him on the spot. Mr. Right has been found. Mandryka, Mr. Right that is, has the benefit of being loaded, is on his way to Arabella’s residence and he is smitten by her as well. He saw her picture.

Count Waldner, Arabella’s father, is a retired officer whose main occupation now is gambling while looking for a rich husband for Arabella. The word you are thinking of was not in current use at the time but the Count has an unassailable reason for what he is doing. He is broke.
Librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal adds complications and a sense of urgency to the consummation of instant love, with the consonant need to achieve the riddance of the misunderstandings, and the aversion of bankruptcy. Mr. Right has to be found today, the last day of the Carnival, because there can be no pursuit of marital ambitions after midnight. It is Lent and fasting is imperative.
Michael Brandenburg as Matteo and Jane Archibald as Zdenka in Arabella. Photo: Michael Cooper 
In fairness, Hofmannsthal did not live to revise the libretto and he dies before Strauss had begun composing the music. Nevertheless, Strauss composed luscious, melting and radiant music for the creaky libretto that lifts the opera above the silly plot complications and common farcical elements.

Soprano Erin Wall raises Arabella above some of the traits that one would find objectionable in our heroine. She knows nothing about this man and she will live happily ever after in the forests of Croatia! Sure. Wall’s lustrous voice and assured bearing make us believe Arabella and enjoy a superb performance.

Polish bass-baritone  Tomasz Konieczny plays the rich Croatian landowner Mandryka, a bit of a country bumpkin, perhaps, who loves Arabella deeply even though he knows nothing about her. We accept him as he isthanks to Konieczny’s resonant voice and his convincing expression of love and ignore the downside.

Soprano Jane Archibald turns in a highly commendable performance as Arabella’s sister Zdenka. Zdenka causes all the complications that take too long to unravel but she deserves our sympathy. She is raised as a boy because girls are high maintenance and she is desperately in love with Matteo (a miscast Michael Brandenburg) who is desperately in love with Arabella. You get the idea.

Baritone John Fanning plays the gambling Count Waldner straight. Perhaps it is the best way to present the foolish man who is pursued by creditors and his solution is to dispose of his daughter to a rich bidder without missing a card game. Very good work by Fanning.

Set and Costume Designer Tobias needs three sets. A hotel suite where Arabella’s family resides, a ballroom and the hotel lobby for the final act. The hotel suite is aggressively gray, with no wall decorations and a sofa and a chair for furniture. The semicircular panels are turned around to create a lighter gray scene for the ballroom. And similar work is done for the final scene which is lit more brightly for the happy conclusion. The sets are simple and functional and eschew extravagant opulence. Waldner is broke, after all.

Patrick Lange conducts the COC Orchestra in this musically rich opera with a flawed libretto.
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Arabella by Richard Strauss opened on October 5 and will be performed seven times until October 28, 2017 on various dates at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671. www.coc.ca

Monday, October 9, 2017

NORMA – REVIEW OF 2017 LIVE FROM THE MET BROADCAST

James Karas

The Metropolitan Opera is back for its twelfth season of transmissions of operas from New York to the world. The broadcast of Norma is the 110th production that they have sent to people who may never visit (or afford a seat) at Lincoln Centre.

This season’s opener is a new production of Bellini’s masterpiece directed by David McVicar with an all-star cast conducted by Carlo Rizzi. The result is opera at its best.

The vocal centerpiece of the production is soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, a singer in her prime reprising a role that she has mastered. This Norma, like Radvanovsky, is a mature woman, facing major conflicts. She is a religious/political leader who must decide between war and peace with the occupying Roman army while dealing with fundamental betrayal - by her of all that she stands for with the Roman Officer Pollione and by him of her in favor of the younger priestess Adalgisa.
 Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role of Bellini's "Norma." 
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Radvanovsky rises to the vocal and dramatic demands of the role with superb mastery. Her rich and velvet voice conveys Norma’s conflicts, her maternal love, anger and pain in the face of treachery and, finally, redemption through self-sacrifice.  The apogee of Norma is no doubt “Casta diva” and Radvanovsky summons all her powers in her performance. But did she add an “e” between casta and diva? The “a” of casta does not flow into the “d” of diva smoothly without what sounded like an e in between.

The mellifluously-voice mezzo Joyce DiDonato portrays the young priestess Adalgisa. DiDonato is perfectly cast. Her Adalgisa is a youthful blonde who shows a bare shoulder that adds sexual allure to vocal splendor. It explains why Pollione is attracted to her (aside from the fact that he is a jerk) and abandons Norma, the mother of his children and a woman who has risked and betrayed all for him.

Tenor Joseph Calleja has a clarion voice and a heroic manner and he makes an ideal Pollione, a man who is interested in himself only.       

David McVicar’s new production deserves plaudits for originality, intelligence and brilliance. We start with the forest where the Druids meet by the scared oak tree to hear Norma’s decision on war and peace. But as the curtain goes up we see soldiers carrying corpses on stretchers. The peace treaty between the Romans and the conquered Druids is not holding up and we understand why the latter are eager for war.

When Norma ascends the platform to address the crowd, she reaches down and takes the hand of Adalgisa, her protégé, friend and, eventually, traitor. During “Casta diva” Adalgisa joins Norma on the platform. Marvelous touches all.
  A scene from Act I of Bellini's "Norma." Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
The scene changes to Norma’s dwelling. The set with the forest and sacred oak trees is raised and underneath it we find Norma’s residence made from the roots of the oak tree. There is a bed on which we see the children and this is Norma’s and Pollione’s lair. A simple but brilliant connection.

With the domestic scene and many other touches, McVicar directs our attention to and emphasizes the human drama as much as the political and religious issues between the Romans and the Druids. Radvanovsky and DiDonato portray flesh and blood women more than public figures in a barbaric age.

Give victory laurels to McVicar, Set Designer Robert Jones and Costume Designer Moritz Junge.

Carlo Rizzi conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in a crisp and superb performance of Bellini’s music in an overall stunning production.
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Norma by Vincenzo Bellini with libretto by Felice Romani was transmitted Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on October 7, 2017 at the Cineplex VIP Don Mills Shops at Don Mills, 12 Marie Labatte Road, Toronto Ontario M3C 0H9 and other theatres. Encores will be shown on November 4, 6 and 8, 2017 at various theatres. For more information: www.cineplex.com/events



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.
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 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.      
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 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!        
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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.