Thursday, April 27, 2017


James Karas

In 1966 composer Harry Somers with librettists Mavor Moore and Jacques Languirand undertook the task of writing an epic opera on Canadian themes in a country not accustomed to epic stories or even native operas for that matter. The result was Louis Riel which was first produced in 1967 to celebrate Canada’s 100th birthday. There have been a few productions of the opera since then but it has not exactly joined the standard repertoire. The COC produced it in 1975 and let it collect dust for about 41 years. Canada’s 150th birthday seemed a good time to bring it back.

Louis Riel is a sprawling work in seventeen scenes spread over about a dozen locations and covering about sixteen years. The focus of the plot is the Metis leader who was seen as a prophet, a warrior against Satan, a gifted leader of Canada’s indigenous people, a lunatic, a religious fanatic and a traitor who was eventually executed as a criminal. The plot also deals with mendacious politicians like Sir John A. Macdonald, the Catholic Church, racist Canadians and the lot of Metis and First Nations Canadians.
(l-r, foreground) Russell Braun as Louis Riel, Michael Colvin as Thomas Scott and Charles Sy as Ambroise Lépine in Louis Riel, 2017. Photo: Michael Cooper
Somers’ music is in turn dissonant, dramatic, lyrical and intense. Much of the singing is declamatory, occasionally stentorian and at times very moving. The beautiful lullaby Kuyas sung by Riel’s wife Marguerite (Canadian soprano Simone Osborn) is poignantly expressive and gorgeously rendered.

The toughest role belongs to Riel and it is done superbly by baritone Russell Braun. He has to portray the complex Riel from the religious zealot who thinks he is called by God to do His work, to the teacher and family man who is tempted to abandon politics, to the firebrand leader and in the end the person accused of treason who must choose between the defense of insanity or justification for his actions. That is a daunting array of facets that require vocal strength and tone and Braun does it with assurance and panache.

Sir John A. (baritone James Westman) dressed in red tartan and Sir George-Étienne Cartier (tenor Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure), in blue tartan, are almost comic as lying politicians. The Catholic Church is present through Bishop Taché (bass Alain Coulombe) and Baptiste Lépin (tenor Taras Chmil).

The opera is sung in English, French, Michif and Cree with surtitles in all four languages. I could not tell difference between Michif, the language of the Metis and Cree but the approach showed respect for both peoples.

There were moments when there was a great deal of dialogue moving quickly and it was difficult to follow the surtitles and watch the action on stage.          

(l-r) Peter Barrett as Col. Garnet Wolseley, James Westman as Sir John A. Macdonald, Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure as Sir George-Étienne Cartier and Alain Coulombe as Bishop Taché . PHoto: Michael Cooper
Director Peter Hinton, Set Designer Michael Gianfranco and Costume Designer made no attempt at giving us a realistic representations of the events. The set consisted mostly three walls but at times the chorus was inserted in rows of seats at the rear. The scenes in Ottawa, the church and Riel’s house made appropriate changes to indicate the locale.

Johannes Debus conducted the COC Orchestra in an impressive performance of the largely unfamiliar twists and turns of Somers’ music.

Louis Riel is remarkable by just being there. It is a Canadian opera, about a major event in Canadian history, produced by Canadians with a Canadian cast. But this is only the third time that the COC has staged it. First in 1967, then in 1975 and now in 2017. Those are very long coffee breaks. Opera goers who are used to repeated viewings and therefore familiarity with Mozart, Verdi, Puccini and the rest do not get a chance to get to know this opera. The production was greeted with mostly polite applause. If the opera was better known, the applause would have been far more enthusiastic.

Can we get a reprise, a DVD, a broadcast on television, a new production in a few years? 

Let’s hope that we will get a more timely exposure to the opera than it took for the “revival” of Louis Riel. He was executed in 1885 for treason but in 2016 his portrait was placed in the legislature building in Winnipeg and he is recognized as the founder of the province of Manitoba!

Louis Riel by Harry Somers with a libretto by Mavor Moore with Jacques Languirand opened on April 20 and will be performed seven times until May 13, 2017 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel:  416-363-6671.

Monday, April 24, 2017


Reviewed by James Karas

Toronto’s remarkable Opera Atelier has scored another remarkable cultural event with its production of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Medea. The opera was first performed in 1693 and the dynamic duo of Marshall Pynkoski (director) and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg (choreographer) give us a production that captures the drama, choreographic splendour and colour of the piece with astonishing success.

Médée is a killer role for a soprano. (Pynkoski uses the English version of Medea for the title but employees the French names for the characters and I am following his example). Soprano Peggy Kriha Dye has all the equipment to tackle the role and come out on top. Médée has enough faces to make your head spin. She killed her father and her brother because she was in love with Jason and she helped him steal the Golden Fleece. She is angry because he is about to dump her for Princess Créuse. She is furious with King Creon because he is throwing her out of Corinth where she has taken refuge, she is also a sorceress who can call on the spirits of the underworld.
 Colin Ainsworth (Jason) and Mireille Asselin (Créuse). Photo by Bruce Zinger
All of these facets make vocal and acting demands on Ms Dye. She is in love, in hate, in vengeance, in rage, in lamentation and in killing her children. She gives a stunning performance.

Tenor Colin Ainsworth plays the perfidious Jason who is in love with Ceruse, pretends to still love Médée and becomes the target of her furor and lust for revenge. Ainsworth takes on the role with vocal and physical agility and tries hard to beat the odds as Jason but he does not stand a chance.

Soprano Mireille Asselin is the basically nice Créuse who is in love with Jason and must beg Médée to restore her father Creon’s reason after she has driven him to insanity. That is a very dramatic scene as is her own death from the poisonous gown provided by Médée. A fine performance all around.

Exceptional performances are turned in by bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus as the dictatorial Creon who gets a going mad scene and baritone Jesse Blumberg as Oronte, the man who is after Créuse.

Set Designer Gerard Gauci has created a number of backdrops and effects from the monumental to the idyllic to the fiery to indicate the underworld.

As expected in French opera of the period there is generous use of dancing and Ms Zingg has choreographed a number of sequences from the elegant dance of the spirits, to dances of warriors, demons and phantoms.
Peggy Kriha Dye (centre) and Stephen Hegedus (front), with Artists of Atelier Ballet. Photo by Bruce Zinger.
Medea has a rich and highly varied score that deals with all the situations and moods mentioned above. The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra under David Fallis give a superb performance.

Medea has been quite popular with composers and there are more than fifty operas based on the myth. The most famous treatment is perhaps Luigi Cherubini’s Medea of 1797. The earliest treatment of the myth seems to be Cavalli’s Giasone of 1649 and the most recent appears to be Gavin Bryars’ Medea (1982).   

Opera Atelier is taking this production of Medea to Versailles to show them what Canadians can do. Too bad Canada is not funding more productions of baroque operas. At two a year by Opera Atelier it is pretty pathetic but don’t tell the French that. They probably think we have so many productions, we actually export them.    

Medea  by Marc-Antoine Charpentier with libretto by Thomas Corneille opened on April 22 and will be performed until April 29, 2017 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto, Ontario.

Saturday, April 1, 2017


By James Karas

The Metropolitan Opera has sent Willy Decker’s inspired production of La Traviata around the world live from the Met once again. Decker directed the opera for the Salzburg Festival in 2005 and it was shown in movie houses Live from the Met 2012. It is a production that rates the word masterpiece.

Decker almost reinvents the opera as he focuses on the characters in the tragedy which is performed on an almost bare stage with the most prominent feature being a huge clock. It is the perfect symbol for Violetta, the courtesan pursued by many but loved by none, who is under sentence of death to her illness and the clock is ticking towards her final demise.
Sonya Yoncheva as Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera. 
When the curtain opens, we see an empty stage and during the overture Violetta (Sonya Yoncheva) stumbles towards a forbidding old man with gray hair wearing a black coat. He will appear a number of times throughout the performance. In the final scene we will see him as Dr. Grenvil (bass-baritone James Courtney), the sympathetic physician who attends on Violetta, but that is not his real role in this production.

He struck me as being Charon, not just the ferryman who took souls across the Styx in Greek mythology, but the being who takes the souls of people from their deathbed. The mysterious figure in Decker’s interpretation of the opera may be the personification of death but I prefer to see him as Charon who waits for Violetta’s time on earth to run out so he can take her soul.

There are many splendid touches by Decker that illuminate the opera. The guests at the party in the opening scene are all men. Even her friend Flora (mezzo soprano Rebecca Jo Loeb) is turned into a pants role. Violetta has no friends, only clients.

For the second act scene in the country, the five couches that are all the props on stage are covered with brightly colored fabric and Violetta and Alfredo wear housecoats that match the couch covers. This is domestic bliss. They are happy, playful and in love. Charon is nowhere to be seen and the clock that is ticking towards Violetta’s death is covered.

When Giorgio Germont appears and wrecks the couple’s happiness, the couch covers are removed and the clock is uncovered to continue its relentless pace.
 Michael Fabiano and Sonya Yoncheva in La Traviata. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera. 
Yoncheva makes an astounding Violetta. She presents a tough exterior and knows that being a courtesan will not allow her the luxury of a conventional love relationship and she is equally aware that her death is imminent. But all of that goes by the board when Alfredo declares his love and proves his devotion to her. Yoncheva has a plush voice that evoked her character with splendor. The final scene where she knows she is about to die and Charon is right there to take her soul is extraordinarily moving. The clock disappears, Charon pulls back because he probably has her soul and she finds peace and almost apotheosis as we ache with sorrow at her fate.

Michael Fabiano as Alfredo makes a perfect match for her. He is tender, fragile, shy and the perhaps the type that would fall madly in love with a beautiful courtesan. This Alfredo is believable because a strong personality would more likely use Violetta as a paying satisfier of his ego and lust rather than desiring her as a wife. A clue to his character is given by an incident when he is with his father. When Alfredo resists his father’s imploring, the latter hits him across the face so hard that he knocks him to the floor.

Baritone Thomas Hampson has sung the role so many times that he can do it on automatic pilot. He does not. He is effective both in his vocal output and as the conniving father who is prepared to use emotional blackmail and violence, and as a sympathetic father and eventually friend to both Alfredo and Violetta.

Matthew Diamond directs the performance for live cinema with in measured camera shots that allow us to see the performance. He does not think La Traviata is a video game and it is a pleasure to watch a sensibly directed broadcast.    

Nicola Luisotti conducts The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in this defining production of the perennial favorite.

La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi was shown Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on March 11 and there will be encore broadcasts on April 15, 17 and 19, 2017 at various Cineplex Cinemas. For more information visit