Monday, February 20, 2017


By James Karas

The Metropolitan Opera is treating its world-wide audience in movie theatres with a new production of Roméo et Juliette directed by Bartlett Sher.

There are a number of things that did not fare well as they travelled from New York to us who sat in movie houses but the most important aspects of the production did. That is the singing from soprano Diana Damrau as Juliet and tenor Vittorio Grigolo as Romeo.

The silken-voiced Damrau makes an outstanding Juliet. She is vivacious, playful, deeply moving and sufficiently young-looking to be convincing. She is perfectly matched with tenor Vittorio Grigolo who displays the same physical attributes of youth and vivacity as her and has that marvelous voice that can scale the octaves with tonal beauty and assurance.
Mikhail Petrenko as Friar Laurence, Vittorio Grigolo as Roméo, and Diana Damrau as Juliette in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
In their duets and solo arias we see their ardour, their enthusiasm and, in the end, their tragedy with pleasure and tears.

They have fine help. The 29-year old Torontonian baritone Elliot Madore plays a firebrand Mercutio who delivers the Queen Mab aria, “Mab, la reine des mensonges.” He endows it with vigour, vivacity and marvelous touches.

Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko sang a sympathetic Friar Laurence and British mezzo-soprano Diana Montague made a splendid Gertrude, Juliet’s nurse.

This is a new production for the Met directed by Sher who is a man of the theatre with considerable experience in staging operas. He sets the opera in the 18th century. The ruffles, three-cornered hats, wigs for the men of rank, elegant gowns for the women bespeak a high society of wealth and class. All designed by Catherine Zuber.

The set designed by Michael Yeargan features the exterior/interior of an impressive three-story palazzo with monumental columns, balconies and large windows. It serves as the background for the entire performance. Before Juliet visits Friar Lawrence, he appears on stage dragging a cart and he sets up his chapel on a raised part of the stage. For the final scene in the crypt some large stands are placed on the stage on one of which Romeo and Juliet will act out their final tragic scene.

There is nothing wrong with this. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London performs plays on the same background with necessary props being brought in. The issue was that we in the movie theatre could hardly see the background much of the time. Everything happens during the night in the opera, it seems, and the lighting for the broadcast is simply inadequate. The audience in Lincoln Center may have seen something different than the rest of us but one cannot be sure.
 Vittorio Grigolo as Roméo and Elliot Madore as Mercutio in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. 
Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
The main problem, as always it seems, in watching Live from the Met, is cinema director Gary Halvorson. Sher wants the production to be paced briskly and energetically. Good choice but with Halvorson changing camera shots as if he were playing a video game, brisk becomes frenetic and close-ups become embarrassing. If you do not want to see Grigolo’s larynx, close your eyes. Halvosron, sees nothing wrong with giving us a close-up of Damrau or Grigolo that covers the almost entire screen. The singing and the acting take place in context but that fact seems to have escaped Halvosron. He shows random and unbelievably numerous shots like a child with ADD. That is my rant about him for the day.

This production is new for the Met but it is in fact a La Scala production that was initially seen in Salzburg in 2008. A DVD of a live performance with Rolando Villazon as Romeo and Nino Machaidze as Juliet is available from Deutsche Grammophon. There is superlative singing and orchestral playing under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Seguin but the interesting point for this review is the handling of the recording by Brian Large. You can judge what a sensible director does with changing shots as compared to the unbearable treatment from Halvosron.  

Roméo et Juliette by Charles Gounod will be broadcast again at various theatres on February 27 and March 1, 2017. For information about future broadcasts visit or

Saturday, February 18, 2017


By James Karas

The second production offered by the Canadian Opera Company for its winter season is a revival of Tim Albery’s 2006 staging of Die Gotterdammerung.

The final scene of the opera as Wagner described it, can hardly be imagined let alone staged but the current production brings it home with outstanding splendour. In the closing moments, we hear (and imagine) Brünnhilde’s ecstatic leap into the fire, we see the immolation reflected in the faces of the chorus. The surging and spectacular music slowly recedes as does the fire and we see the Rhine flowing calmly, the Rhinemaidens regain the ring as the music becomes extraordinarily beautiful and sweet. When Conductor Johannes Debus lowered his baron for the final chord, the audience burst out into applause and a standing ovation.

 (l-r) Ain Anger as Hagen, Ileana Montalbetti as Gutrune, Andreas Schager as Siegfried and 
Martin Gantner as Gunther. Photo: Michael Cooper
In other words the star of the evening was the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and Debus. They played Wagner’s incomparable score with all its grandeur, ecstatic beauty and serene splendor magnificently.

The singing was generally outstanding. Austrian tenor Andreas Schager sang a heroic and vocally and physically impressive Siegfried. American soprano Christine Goerke sang a powerful Brünnhilde. She is a relatively recent arrival to Wagnerian roles but she dominated the performance with her Nilssonesque stamina and dramatic expression. She soared over the orchestra in a singularly impressive performance.

On the baddy side (the characters not the performers), Estonian bass Ain Anger carried the laurel wreath for his portrayal of the nasty Hagen. Anger brought out the manipulative, power-hungry character of the villain with superb panache. German baritone Martin Gantner provided comparison and contrast as Hagen’s half-brother Gunther in a well-delineated characterization of the Gibichung. Gunther is inadequate, envious, devious but incapable of going for the jugular and under the thumb of Hagen. 

Tim Albery’s production falls squarely into the modern-dress, unheroic trend of Wagnerian productions. Otto Schenk’s production for the Metropolitan Opera, with its grandiose sets and traditional costumes held sway for over twenty years at the Metropolitan Opera to be replaced by the quirky Robert Lepage version. Many productions at Bayreuth have attracted very loud boos and I know people who refuse to go to the Festival because they consider the productions “Eurotrash.” Last year, one production of the Ring was set in a motel on Route 66 and it was all about oil around the world.
Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde. Photo: Michael Cooper 
Albery is somewhere in the middle. When the curtain opens we see cables running across the stage symbolizing The Ropes of Destiny spun by the none-too-exciting Norns. The next scene is the morning after the honeymoon night of Siegfried and Brünnhilde where our hero reveals that he had some performance anxiety during the night. The only prop is a bed and we will see it several times before the end of the opera. It is carried on stage even when Siegfried is assassinated. There are some lighting effects and hanging neon lights.  

The hall of the Gibichungs is furnished with Ikea furniture and in the later scene there is a huge boardroom table. Hagen and Gunter have a lot of staff (the whole Chorus, in fact) and they are all dressed in gray suits. When they are summoned to war-like behavior, they toss their jackets on the floor and jump on the large table.

Except for the scenes in the hall of the Gibichungs the back of the set is dark and the props are minimal. Siegfried wears a leather jacket over a T-shirt but he does dress up for his wedding. The women wear mostly gowns that do not draw attention to their attire.

The point here is that the costumes made very little difference after one noticed them. The music and the singing are so overwhelming that you are drawn into the drama completely and cease noticing or caring about the set or what anyone is wearing.

A great night at the opera.                     
Die Gotterdammerung by Richard Wagner being performed seven times between February 2 and 25, 2017 at the Four Seasons Centre, 145 Queen St. West Toronto.

Monday, February 13, 2017


By James Karas

La Monnaie’s production of Madama Butterfly is aggressively different, has some fine singing and a few head scratchers. The production is in the Palais de la Monnaie, Tour & Taxis, the company’s temporary home while the main house in central Brussels is being renovated.

A blank white screen goes up for the action to begin and a woman in a gray wig, wearing a Japanese costume, goes to the left side of the stage. During the hubbub of the opening scene Cio-Cio San a.k.a. Madama Butterfly enters and she is a marionette handled by three marionettists. This will be the evening’s Cio-Cio San but the singing will be done by the woman on the side, soprano Alexia Voulgaridou. 
Alexia Voulgaridou as Cio-Cio San and Aris Argiris as Sharpless. © Baus
Goro (Riccardo Botta) is showing Lieut. Pinkerton (Marcelo Puente) the house overlooking Nagasaki harbor that he and his bride will occupy but there is no house, just a couple of screens hanging from the ceiling. The arrival of Cio-Cio San’s friends and relatives is severely restricted. What we get is almost a concert performance of the opera for most part.

This is not your usual Madama Butterfly.

The production is by Kirsten Dehlholm and Hotel Pro Forma, a Danish theatre company that has been producing some revolutionary theatrical work for the past thirty years. Hotel Pro Forma, according to one source, espouses “the concept of theatre with strong visual and artistic effects … a fusion of visual arts, architecture, performance, digital interactions and theatre.”

Cio-Cio San, as an old woman is telling us the story of Cio-Cio San the thirteen-year old girl who married an American Navy lieutenant. We know that Cio-Cio San dies at the end of the opera but Dehlholm, it seems to me, wants to apply the Brechtian concept of epic theatre by insisting on narrating the story rather than attempting the classic representation of “real life” on the stage. It is theatre or opera at arm’s length.
AlexiaVoulgaridou (Cio-Cio-San) © Baus
The production is quite faithful to the approach. The set by Maja Ziska is unrealistic and unengaging. There is no attempt to make us feel we are in a specific locale. Cio-Cio San’s relatives look like they are from a space movie, perhaps Ninjas and let’s say their costumes are outlandish.

The problem is one of incongruity. Old plays and old operas are reimagined constantly just as old wine is put into new bottles but the objective I think is to bring out the best in the old play, opera or wine. In the case of Madama Butterfly, we want to see and feel the emotional impact of the opera not to have it defeated.  Here are some thoughts arising from the production that may be seen to work in the wrong direction.

Voulgaridou barely moves except for one time when she slashes a blank screen. She does some of her singing sitting down. The three marionettists move the puppet Cio-Cio San around. I imagined Odysseus telling his adventures to the court of King Alkinoos with some actors or puppeteers re-enacting some of his adventures. You listen to Odysseus but watch the show. That is in effect the idea of epic theatre. Is this a legitimate approach to Madama Butterfly?

There is minimal interaction among the characters and the distinct preference is for the main singers to stand still and do their job. I think there is more freedom in a concert version than there was in this fully staged production.

Cio-Cio San’s son is a rather chubby marionette and, understandably perhaps, she does not have any contact with him. Voulgaridou sings a heart-wrenching “Tu, piccolo Iddio” as she says goodbye to her son but there is no correspondence between her voice and words and the actions of her alter ego, the marionette.
Marcelo Puente (F.B. Pinkerton), Marta Beretta (Kate Pinkerton), AlexiaVoulgaridou (Cio-Cio-San) © Baus
In the final scene, when she stabs herself and falls to the ground, Pinkerton and his wife Kate (Marta Beretta) rush in and simply stop a few feet away from her. There is no emotional reaction and falling on his knees by the creepy Pinkerton. The puppet of the little boy is blown up into a huge balloon reaching to the top of the stage and the intended effect escaped me.

Voulgaridou, despite the constraints put on her, sings with incredible power and emotional punch. You forget the disconnect between the teenage bride waiting with unbelievable longing for her beloved to return and the sterile puppet being moved around. She is a soprano at the top of her game and able to perform under challenging conditions.

Mezzo soprano Ning Liang gives a superb performance as Suzuki. Tenor Marcelo Puente is not at his best perhaps because he is hampered from much physical movement. His feet may not have been nailed to the floor boards but at times it looked as if they were. His middle was fine but his high notes were a struggle.

Baritone Aris Argiris sang the role of Consul Sharpless. He handles the vocal part without any difficulty but what caught my attention was his costume, a ridiculous beige suit and hair half-way down his back. This was a ludicrously unconsular attire and I have no idea what effect it was supposed to produce.

The Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie were conducted by Bassem Akiki and I should note the acoustics of the temporary quarters leave a lot to be desired.

In the end you have a choice. You can view the production as a bold, experimental jump into something different, something that will encourage thinking and esthetic experimentation. Or you can look at it as directorial self-indulgence that does not enhance your enjoyment of this opera.

See the production and choose.

Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini opened on January 31 and will be performed until February 14, 2017 at the Palais de la Monnaie, Tours & Taxis, Brussels, Belgium.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017


By James Karas

The English National Opera has revived Jonathan Miller’s production of Rigoletto at the London Coliseum. This production premiered in 1982 and that may rate as Methuselahian longevity in operatic production history but Franco Zeffirelli’s La Boheme (1981) may claim priority. An attempt to replace it was quickly shelved.

Miller imagined Rigoletto as taking place in New York’s Little Italy during the 1950’s where the show was run by the Mafia. The Duke of Mantua becomes a Mafia don and everyone is having a grand time is a classy bar where Rigoletto is the caustic bartender. He lives in a tenement with his daughter across the street from Ceprano (Andri Bjorn Robertsson), the man whose beautiful wife (Joanne Appleby) the Don fancies and whom Rigoletto ridicules.
Nicholas Pallesen and Sydney Mancasola in Rigoletto from ENO
Placing the opera in a Mafioso setting was an inspired idea and there have been numerous re-imagining since them. The latest Metropolitan Opera production set the opera in a Las Vegas casino. In Miller’s Little Italy the men are dressed in well-pressed suits, the women wear beautiful gowns and the atmosphere of power and decadence under the control of an absolute boss works well.

Baritone Nicholas Pallesen is young and impressive as Rigoletto. When he struts around the stage begging the heartless Mafiosi for his daughter he is moving and when he discovers the trick played on him at the end of the opera he is heart-wrenching. A fine vocal and acting performance.

Sydney Mancasola is an up and coming lyric soprano that gives a good accounting of herself as Gilda. She has the same constraints as the others in singing in English but we like her voice and believe that as Gilda she is nice girl but not too swift in her love of the dissolute Mafia boss.

Tenor Joshua Guerrero made his London debut with this production and he displayed the swagger and devil-may-care attitude of the Don with gusto. He is a young singer honing his skills and deserves kudos for his singing especially executing “La donna è mobile” in a “strange” language.

The question of whether opera should be sung in English rather than its language of composition is not discussed as frequently now as it used to be. The arrival of surtitles has made watching non-English opera much easier. Besides even opera sung in English, relies or surtitles to be properly understood.

The production is sung in English with surtitles because without them we will not understand every word that is sung and not know exactly what is happening.
 Joshua Guerrero and Sydney Mancasola
What is the effect of listening to a familiar work in English? It is mixed. The initial issue is that we are simply used to hearing Rigoletto performed in Italian. Many of the arias are very familiar with the result that we know some of the lyrics by heart. But even if we get past familiarity, there are issues.

The fundamental issue is the difference between the structures of Italian and English. We need the musicality of Italian and those open vowels that let the singers belt out those notes and emotions with abandon. When sung in English it frequently sounds like the singer is fighting impediments as if going through mud when he needs a flat meadow. A simple phrase like “io l’amo” with that “a” and “o” gives the singer scope for expression. Try singing “I love him” and you get some mileage from the “o” and feel you have tripped over something when you try to get anything out of “him.” Try singing “mia figlia” and then “my daughter” and you get a further idea of the difficulty.

Nevertheless the singers in this production soldiered on and we followed them despite the obvious difficulties.

The ENO Orchestra was conducted by Sir Richard Armstrong. Patrick Robertson and Rosemary Vercoe were the designers.

If the production has not aged, Jonathan Miller gives a good impression of being past middle age. The 82-year old, leaning on a cane, came on stage with Elaine-Tyler-Hall, the Revival Director, for a bow and was greeted with a thunderous ovation. Well deserved.    
Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi, directed by Jonathan Miller, opened on February 2 and will be performed nine times in repertory on various dates until February 28, 2017 at the London Coliseum, St. Martin’s Lane, London.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017


By James Karas

Richard Eyre’s production of La Traviata at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden has proven its staying power by being revived fourteen times since its first performance in 1994. Judging by the pact houses of the current performances managed by Revival Director Andrew Sinclair the ROH may be in no rush to replace it.

The revivals are performed by different casts, of course, and a large array of sopranos, tenors and baritones have taken up the major roles. The current cast is headed by Canadian-Lebanese soprano Joyce El-Khoury who gives a stunning performance. (Torontonians saw her as Mimi in La Bohème in 2013 and as Violetta in La Traviata in 2015). She has an exceptionally beautiful voice that can express deep emotion and move the audience to tears. She did superb work throughout the evening but her last scene where she realizes that she is dying and sings “Addio, del passato” she brings the house down. One may add that being beautiful does not hurt her portrayal.
Sergey Romanovsky and Joyce El-Khoury in La Traviata. Photo: ROH / Tristram Kenton
Russian tenor Sergey Romanovsky makes his Royal Opera debut as Alfredo Germont who goes from ardent lover to jerk but repents his misconduct and Violetta dies in his arms. He has a supple and mellifluous voice and sings with ease and total assurance. He makes it sound as if it takes no effort to sing the role. It is and he does commendable work.

Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont gets two unforgettable arias,"Pura siccome un angelo” and “Di Provenza il mar, il suol.” Sandwiched between them is his scene with Violetta where he has to convince the deeply in love woman to give up Alfredo and her happiness. He needs to be moving, convincing without becoming maudlin or tyrannical. Verdi provides the music and Polish baritone Artur Rucinski sings with melodic resonance and conviction. Rucinski first sang the role at the Royal Opera House in 2014 and he seems to have made it his own.
Joyce El Khoury and Artur Rucinski in La Traviata. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Designer Bob Crowley provides dramatic and opulent sets for the salons in Violetta’s and Flora’s houses respectively. Violetta’s salon features a large room with a circular sofa with a dramatic dome. This is living (and stage décor) on a grand scale. Flora’s pad is shock of red velvet where some Spanish dancers entertain the men who gamble in a casino atmosphere. The set in the country house represents the bankrupt state of Violetta’s and Alfredo’s accommodation with bare walls and pictures on the floor ready for the pawn shop.

Daniele Rustioni conducted the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and the Royal Opera Chorus in this traditional but classic approach to this most popular of operas.

La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi, directed by Richard Eyre, will return to the Royal Opera House for its summer season for eight performances from June 14 to July 4, 2017.

Sunday, February 5, 2017


Reviewed by James Karas

For its winter season, the Canadian Opera Company has revived its 2011 production of The Magic Flute. What is the most interesting and most impressive thing about the production? You will never guess it but it is this: it is an all-Canadian production. Okay, there are a few “visitors” but the fact that the COC can produce an opera with mostly Canadian talent is worthy of applause and a positive omen for operaphiles.

Director Diane Paulus has an interesting approach to the opera. (She comes from that great neighbour, business partner and marvelous ally, the United States – we have to say that these days). She imagines the first act of the opera as a play-within-a-play. There is a small stage in a place with lots of people milling around. It could be the interior of a stately house but with so much people traffic it could be even outside.
 Owen McCausland as Tamino and Kirsten MacKinnon as Pamina in 
The Magic Flute, 2017, Photo: Michael Cooper
In any event, there are some very colorfully dressed people (the chorus) and a young man appears pursued by a monster - a white pretend-reptile. He is, of course, Prince Tamino (tenor Owen McCausland) who is rescued by Three Ladies and meets the bird catcher Papageno (baritone Phillip Addis). Tamino is shown a picture of Pamina (soprano Kirsten MacKinnon), falls in love with her and we are off to the races or at least to her father Sarastro’s (bass Matt Boehler) palace.        

The smaller playing area of the play-within-a-play gives way to more monumental sets, statues of guard lions, colour effects, magical scenes and wrought iron gates and high hedges with an impressive structure in the back. Moveable hedges are used in different configurations for scene changes as Tamino and Papageno go through arduous trials in order to become worthy to join the brotherhood of The Temple of Wisdom.

The Magic Flute calls for numerous scene changes from the Palace of Wisdom to gardens, to mountains, to groves which can mostly be hinted at but the set by Myung Hee Cho works quite well with judicious use of lighting, the hedges and other paraphernalia.
 Phillip Addis as Papageno (far left), Michael Colvin as Monostatos (centre) and 
Kirsten MacKinnon as Pamina. Photo: Michael Cooper
The singing by mostly members from the COC Ensemble Studio is commendable if somewhat uneven. McCausland showed vocal agility and beauty as Tamino. He does not have a big voice but he was a delight to watch. Kirsten MacKinnon sang a sympathetic and sweet Pamina.

Bass Matt Boehler has the rumbling low notes to make a fine Sarastro but he was not at his best in “O Isis und Osiris” one of the role’s main arias. The orchestra threatened to overwhelm him and he just managed to keep up with it. He did much better with “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” where he plunges into the low notes and maintains control of the melody. Splendid.

Baritone Phillip Addis does well as the comic Papageno but he has to put up with delayed reaction as we read the surtitles to get the joke. How much better and funnier it would be if the dialogue were in English. We can’t blame him but do give him credit for fine acting and singing. His interaction with the delightful Papagena of Jacqueline Woodley is a pleasure to watch.

The Queen of the Night is like a big target in a shooting range. Everyone has heard the highly distinctive “Der Hölle Rache” (even if they can’t remember the name) where the soprano has to belt out those high notes as she orders her daughter to kill her father Sarastro. Soprano Ambur Braid does just that with passion and murderous defiance.

The Magic Flute has some thrilling choruses from the solemn march of the priests to the final “Hail” to Tamino and Papageno who have fought bravely and are rewarded with eternal wisdom and beauty. Kudos to the Canadian Opera Company Chorus and the Orchestra conducted by Bernard Labadie.

The Magic Flute was first produced in 1791 in the rough-and-ready Theater auf der Wieden in a suburb of Vienna.  Emanuel Schikaneder, the librettist and producer, was a man of the theatre with a taste for spectacle and broad comedy. The Magic Flute has all of those things and much more of course but would it not be nice if we understood all the nuances, comic, Masonic and serious? Let’s satisfy the purists with keeping the arias in German and let the rest of us have fun with the dialogue in English. Deal?   

The Magic Flute by W. A. Mozart (music) and Emanuel Schikaneder (libretto) is being performed twelve times from January 19 to February 24, 2017 at the Four Seasons Centre, 145 Queen St. West Toronto.