Thursday, April 27, 2017

LOUIS RIEL – REVIEW OF 2017 CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY PRODUCTION

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!
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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. www.coc.ca

MUNSCHTIME! – REVIEW OF YPT PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Young People’s Theatre has come up with the inspired idea of staging some of Robert Munsch’s children’s stories for youngsters from 4 to 8 years of age. Stephen Colella and YPT’s Artistic Director Allen MacInnis  have adapted five stories to be acted by three actors. Cheri Maracle, Dov Mickelson and Lisa Nasson play the various roles in the stories.

The stage has a minimal set and everything depends on the story-telling and representation of the actors. We see Pigs, the story of the young Megan who is told to feed the pigs but not to let them out. Of course, she does and the pigs which she considers dumb and ugly, invade her world.
 
Cheri Maracle and Lisa Nasson in Munschtime!  Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
The story has its charm, its humour and the underlying lesson. The children in the audience had settled down and all of them seemed to be watching a familiar story acted out. The charm and the lesson were there but there was not a lot of laughs being generated.

Murmel, Murmel, Murmel tells the story of little Robin who finds a baby in the hole of her sandbox. She goes around trying to give it to someone to take care of it but nobody wants the baby. It seems to be no good to anyone until she meets a truck driver who has lots of trucks but no baby. He takes the baby and gives Robin his truck. Charming.

Love You Forever is a very moving story about maternal love from the birth of her son, through growing up, old age, death and the next generation. The love that the mother feels for her child permeates the story through all of life’s changes until her death and the beginning of the next generation as her son hugs his own child and begins to love him forever. A wonderful story.

A Promise is a Promise is about monsters who live under the ice. A child promises to go fishing in the lake but disobeys and goes fishing under the ice on the sea in Canada’s north. She starts fishing in the cracks in the sea. She is grabbed by the monsters and pulled under the ice.  She is eventually saved, of course, through parental wisdom and intervention.
 
Dov Mickelson and Lisa Nasson in Munschtime!  Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Too Much Stuff! is about the child that has just that and wants to bring it with her on the plane. She stuffs her backpack with toys against her parents’ advice with the inevitable results.

Maracle, Mickeslon and Nasson go through quick role and costume changes in front of an audience that seemed to know the stories. I felt that the children in the audience were primed for laughter and there was very little in the performances to make them laugh.

For many children this may well have been the first or one of the first times in the theatre and kudos to YPT for choosing familiar stories to introduce the future generation of theatrephiles to the great art.  
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Munschtime!  adapted by Stephen Colella and Allen MacInnis from the stories by Robert Munsch and directed by Herbie Barnes continues until May 14, 2017 at the Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. 416 862-2222. www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca

Monday, April 24, 2017

MEDEA – REVIEW OF OPERA ATELIER PRODUCTION

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.    
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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. www.operaatelier.com

Thursday, April 20, 2017

ORPHANS – REVIEW OF COAL MINE THEATRE PRODUCTION

Reviewed by James Karas

Helen and Danny live in a nice apartment and are having dinner with some white wine. They have one child but have reason to celebrate: Helen is pregnant again. 

That is the opening scene of Orphans by Dennis Kelly now playing in a terrific production at the Coal Mine Theatre in Toronto.

The happy scene is quickly broken with the entry of Helen’s brother Liam who is covered with blood. He speaks quickly, nervously, in broken sentences in a thick Cockney accent that reveals more than he says. He saw an injured man on the street, he tells his sister and his brother-in-law and he tried to help him but they start asking questions, a lot of questions, and we start doubting Liam’s version of events.

The plot of Kelly’s brilliant 2009 play shifts like the proverbial quicksand as the dynamics among the three characters change. Liam, played superbly by Tim Dowler-Coltman, looks for support from his sister, is beaten down with questioning, seethes with violence, takes the upper hand and we slowly get the revelation of a racist and indeed a monster. An admirable performance by Dowler-Coltman.
 Diana Bentley and Tim Dowler-Coltman in Orphans. Photo: Shaun Benson  
Diana Bentley as Helen goes through a number of transformations as the sister of Liam. The two were raised as orphans after the tragic death of their parents and they need to stand by each other. She tries to protect Liam but is compelled to keep asking questions about the incident with the injured stranger. Her husband Danny appears like a reserved gentleman but is he that or a coward? Again we have the shifting sand and the continuing revelations. Bentley gives a finely controlled and nuanced performance.

David Patrick Flemming as Danny appears reserved and gentlemanly, the type of character that may be described in the old phrase as having a stiff upper lip. There is more to him than that and we see him as well go through different phases as the situation unfolds. A splendid performance.

The set by Brian Dudkiewicz in the tiny theatre (it is really a converted store with about eighty seats at each end of the space with a playing area in the middle) consists of a couch and a table and chairs with a simple bookshelf. It looks pleasant enough for a young couple.

At an hour and a half with no intermission, with numerous changes in the relations among the three main characters, the play presents considerable difficult in maintaining a taut pace and unfailing performances. The credit for that goes to director Leona Morris for delivering a gem of a production.

The fourth character is the play Shane, the couple’s young boy, played by Cody Black.

When we have become fully aware of Liam’s character and get a glimpse of the world or at least his version of the world, we and Helen and Danny have seen something dreadful. Helen’s reaction goes from the celebration of her pregnancy in the opening scene to considering abortion at the end.

An outstanding night at the theatre.
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Orphans by Dennis Kelly opened on April 12 and will run until April 30, 2017 at the 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

OUR MARIA CALLAS – REVIEW OF TSOKAS’S FILM ABOUT THE GREAT SOPRANO

Reviewed by James Karas

Babis Tsokas, the Greek-Swedish director, describes his film Our Maria Callas about the famous soprano as a dramatized documentary. That looks like an oxymoron but as it turns out that it is in fact a documentary with dramatized sections.

The film concentrates on the personal history, the tragic life and the Greek roots of the great singer. Her artistic achievement is mentioned and we hear her voice in the background singing some of her signature arias but the film is an homage to the tragic woman who achieved greatness in art but rarely found happiness.

Tsokas, born in 1945, immigrated to Sweden in 1969 and like many immigrants searches his roots. He does the same thing with Callas. Her paternal roots are in a village called Neochori in Messinia. Tsokas finds the ancestral Callas home in the village which looks like a house in Syria that was just bombed. 
 Tsokas (left) filming Myrto Kamvisidi

Maria never lived in that village because her parents left for the United States in July 1923 after the death of their son Vassilis and perhaps because of it. Maria was born in New York on December 2, 1923. She visited the village of her roots during World War II. Tsokas emphasizes Callas’s “Greekness” throughout the film and looks to the tragic aspects of her life as being akin to the fate of some of the heroines of Ancient Greek tragedy.

The importance that Tsokas places on Callas’s Greekness ranges from her singing a traditional Greek song in her youth, to the time she spent in Greece between 1937 and 1945 and visited Neochori, and to her consciousness of being Greek throughout her life.  When she is betrayed by tycoon Aristotle Onassis (he famously dumped her for Jackie Kennedy) Tsokas thinks of the betrayed as a parallel to Medea’s fate who hurls curses at the treachersous Jason who abandons her for a princess.

Maria’s mother showed little affection for her and always favored her sister Jackie. Relations between the two deteriorated so drastically that in the end her mother did not even attend Maria’s funeral.

Tsokas uses film clips and still photos from the life of Callas and dramatizes some parts in black and white and others in colour. He uses Myrto Kamvisidi to play Callas. She has is a strikingly beautiful face that bears some resemblance to Callas (who was not beautiful) and she speaks lines attributed to the soprano as well as singing a lullaby. There is no attempt for her to act out Callas’s histrionic side but she does illustrate some events in the life of Callas.
 Tsokas and Kamvisidi
One of the touching scenes that Tsokas recreates with Kamvisidi is Callas’s visit to the Chapel on the private island of Scorpios where Onassis is buried. She is carrying flowers for his tomb but the chapel is locked and she is forced to simply leave the flowers behind. Onassis was the love of her life. She had been married to Giovanni Battista Meneghini   and Tsokas gives an image of a loving couple where he adores and protects her and she loves him but more like a father than passionate mate. There is a darker side to the controlling Meneghini but there is no doubt that he helped her career and her letters to him show deep emotion.   

Tsokas used over two hundred volunteers and all the actors, except Kamvisidi, were amateurs and were used more to illustrate scenes than to act in them. We visit some of the cities of Callas’s triumphs (New York, London, Paris, Milan, and Verona) as well as residences in Greece and Paris.

We get an engrossing picture of the woman behind the voice and the legend. Tsokas views Callas’s life as tragic. The applause, the adulation and the fame were inevitably followed by a lonely evening at her apartment. Tsokas attributes some of her emotional turmoil and depression to her loveless relationship with her mother, her tragic relationship with Onassis and her failure to produce any children.

Tsokas I think sums up her life by reference to one of the arias that she sung so gloriously: Vissi d'arte from Act II of Puccini’s Tosca. Tosca, a singer, who is about to sacrifice her life for her lover sums up her life in words that are applicable to Maria as well. “I lived for my art, I lived for love. I never did harm to a living soul!”

Callas was supreme in her art, unfortunate in her love and a woman of the Greek diaspora whose life and achievement stretched from the valleys of Messinia to the plains of ancient Attica and around the world.   
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Our Maria Callas, a film directed by Babis Tsokas was shown at the Polymenakio Cultural Centre 30 Thorncliffe Park Drive, Toronto, ON M4H 1H8 on April 3, 2017.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS – REVIEW OF MUSICAL AT ROYAL ALEX

Reviewed by James Karas

Laura Henderson gained fame and notoriety in the 1930’s by showing naked breasts in her theatre in London.  She became the subject of the 2005 film Mrs Henderson Presents in which she was played by Judi Dench. The story proved too good to be ignored and a musical based on it appeared in 2015 and is now playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.

Mr Henderson had the misfortune of dying in 1919 but had the decency to leave the feisty Mrs Henderson with a hefty pile of money. She used it to buy a theatre and hired a no-nonsense manager to run it. The Windmill Theatre in London’s West end was not a success and something had to be done about it. How about some naked breasts?
 
The cast of MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS ©2017, Cylla von Tiedemann
In conservative, censored England of the 1930’s that was unlikely to be allowed but, one could see paintings of naked women in the museum. Botticelli, Raphael, Rubens and many other artists celebrated nudity, so why not bare breasted women in the theatre? It was acceptable to do that provided the women stood still as if they were paintings.

There are a few good lines about nakedness in the musical. When you go below, far below the breasts you reach the pudendum which is a foreign word that few can understand. Well, call the area the Netherlands and make it more acceptable with the use of conservative hair dresses.

How Mrs Henderson and Van Damm got around the restriction on nudity in the theatre is the most famous aspect of the story, but it is by no means a central concern of the musical. This is a story about London in the late 1930’s and during the war, about backstage life in a theatre that produced continuous revues, about love, loss and a couple of interesting characters.

Tracie Bennett as Mrs Henderson and Peter Polycarpou as the manager Vivian Van Damm dominate the performance. Mrs Henderson is crotchety, tough, humane, difficult to get along with and in the end a bit of a theatrical legend. Bennett has a husky voice that she uses to good effect in an enjoyable performance.
 
Tracie Bennett and Evelyn Hoskins in MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS ©2017, Cylla von Tiedemann
Polycarpou as Van Damm is a good match for Mrs Henderson as a man of the theatre who has to deal with financial and artistic issues and we admire the relationship that he forges with his boss.

There is a touching love story involving Eddie (Matthew Malthouse) and Maureen (Evelyn Hoskins) who sing “What a Waste of a Moon” and bring home the effects of war. We have a seen in the London Underground where people hid during the bombing of the city as well as the determination to carry on. Mrs Henderson’s theatre was the only one that did not close during the war.

The set by Tim Shortall shows the backstage of Mrs Henderson’s theatre as well as the open roof garret and the underground to good effect.

The costumes by Paul Wills are colourful for the performers and appropriate for the other characters. The choreography by Andrew Wright has the fine feel of British music hall dancing perfectly matching what we would have wanted to see if we were there some eighty years ago, give or take. Full credit to director Terry Johnson.

The music by George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain ranges from recitative to almost ballad and the lyrics by Don Black are appropriate. The book by Terry Johnson tells the story well with good humour, dramatic scenes and touching romance that make for a very pleasant night at the theatre.
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Mrs Henderson Presents by Terry Johnson (Book) Don Black (Lyrics),  George Fenton and Simon Chamberlain (Music), continues  until April 23, 2017 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St. W. Toronto, Ont. www.mirvish.com

Friday, March 31, 2017

BOYS WITH CARS – REVIEW OF YPT PRODUCTION OF ANITA MAJUMDAR’SS PLAY

By James Karas

Boys With Cars, now playing at the Young People’s Theatre, is written, choreographed and performed solo by Anita Majumdar. If you are not impressed by such a display of talent and ability, well, you should be.

The play deals with the world of teenage girls in a high school in Port Moody, B.C. Naz is of Indian origin and Port Moody Secondary School is largely white. Majumdar takes us though the angst and experiences of teenagers that are even worse for girls of different racial origin.
 
Relationships with boys play a central role. Naz has a boyfriend called Lucky who breaks off the relationship when she “fools around” with his friend Buddy. How do boys view girls? The macho, sexist, demeaning attitude of men towards women and boys towards girls that some of us would like to see as something from the past is very much alive and thriving in the Vancouver suburb of Port Moody (and the rest of the country for that matter).

Bullying, the question of consent and the horrors of growing up are all brought forth by Majumdar. If a girl is raped, can it be considered her fault?

Majumdar is an extraordinary dancer and she performs some beautiful numbers that she has choreographed.

The second half of the play focuses on Candace, the blonde, popular student who gives lessons on YouTube about dress and makeup. The worlds of Naz and Candace seem totally separate but they are also similar. She is nasty and competitive with boys, especially Buddy, being her target and a way of one-upping Naz.

The audience consisted almost entirely of high school students the afternoon that I saw the production. They were attentive and during the Q&A period following the performance showed an admirable grasp of the issues presented in the play.

Majumdar explained that it took her about 10 years to write the play which in this version for young people combines two plays from The Fish Eyes Trilogy - Boys with Cars and Let Me Borrow That Top. 

A highly praise-worthy production for teenagers.
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Boys With Cars by Anita Majumdar runs from March 23 to April 1, 2017 at the Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario. 416 862-2222. www.youngpeoplestheatre.ca