Monday, May 8, 2017


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.

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.

Friday, May 5, 2017


James Karas

Oscar Straus and Leopold Jacobson recognized a good story when they saw one. The good story was Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man. Jacobson crafted the libretto, Straus composed the music and the result was the delightful operetta The Chocolate Soldier which opened in 1908 in Vienna.

Toronto Operetta Theatre’s General Director Guillermo Silva-Marin recognizes a good operetta, he produces it. Silva-Marin knows more about operetta than just about anyone south of Thunder Bay and he didn’t exactly stumble onto The Chocolate Soldier during the last eclipse of the moon but he has produced a highly enjoyable staging at the St. Lawrence Center for the Arts. For Torontonians operetta equals Silva-Marin.
 (in the middle) Jennifer Taverner as Nadina, and Cian Horrobin as Alexius, with TOT Ensemble. Photo: Gary Beechey
The chocolate soldier is Bummerli, a Swiss in the Serbian army of 1885 who breaks into the bedroom of the lovely and romantic Nadina, a Bulgarian. Serbia and Bulgaria are at war, you see, and Nadina is the daughter of Colonel Popoff, the leader of the Bulgarian army.

Bummerli is a “coward” and he asks for chocolates and you may guess correctly that despite appearances to the contrary, the Swiss “coward” and the Bulgarian beauty do not go to war.

But Nadina is engaged to be married to the heroic Alexius who just won an extarordunary victory by leading a cavalry charge against the Serbian canons. Keep it to yourself, but the reason he charged was because his horse ran away with him and he won because the Serbians had no ammunition.

Straus has provided some beautiful, surcharged romantic arias, some patriotic songs, a few arguments and misunderstandings, and a good dose of humour until all wrinkles are worked out and they live happily ever after. No, I will not tell you how it ends and no peeking at a summary of the plot.

What do you need for a successful production? A lovely Nadina, with a beautiful voice is indispensable. She should make you want to live in Bulgaria of yore. Soprano Jennifer Taverner does all of that. She starts by gushing about “My hero,” goes through her “Alexius the Heroic” phase of her life and…well, I can’t tell you the rest but you will be glad you saw and heard Ms Taverner in the role. 
Gregory Finney (Popoff) and Eugenia Dermentzis (Aurelia). Photo: Gary Beechey
Get an anti-heroic or perhaps heroic Bummerli and baritone Michael Nyby fills the bill. He has a well-honed voice and sings with apparent ease. He is manly enough to say that he is a coward and romantic enough to pretend that he is not.  

The heroic Alexius played by tenor Cian Horrobin as a strutting, papier-mâché fool was a bit overdone and failed to be funny. His voice reached for the high notes and succeeded but in this case, the question of whether the tenor will get the girl remained wide open.

Baritone Gregory Finney plays the comic martinet role of Col. Popoff. Finney is a naturally funny actor and he got most of the laughs of the performance. He and the production should have gotten more laughs but perhaps it was the type of audience that was difficult to engage during the performance that I saw.

The lusciously-voiced Eugenia Dermentzis sang the role of Aurelia, Nadina’s mother and the Mascha, the competitor for Alexius’s heart was sung by the sweetly-voiced Anna Caroline Macdonald.

Peter Tiefenbach conducted the handful of musicians that are listed as an orchestra. The amazing thing is not how few they are but how well they perform. The chorus is equally good.

A couple of observations about Silva-Marin’s directing. On some occasions characters spoke directly to the audience even when they were addressing another person on the stage. Some of the humour, as I said, misfired. But aside from that this is a commendable production of a fine operetta. Considering the resources on hand for TOT, their productions, it is worth repeating, are done with one hand tied behind their back. The point is not the obstacles but their persistence and success. They should be performing at the Winter Garden with a full orchestra and more productions and performances.
The Chocolate Soldier by Oscar Straus (music), Leopold Jacobson and Rudolph Bernauer (original book and lyrics), adapted and arranged by Ronald Hanmer, played from April 26 to 30, 2017 at the Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street EastTorontoOntario. Tel:  (416) 922-2912.