La Scena Musicale

Monday, January 11, 2010

This Week in Toronto (Jan. 11 - 17)

Photo: Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca burns up the stage in a new Metropolitan Opera production of Bizet's Carmen, coming to your nearest participating Met in HD Cineplex on Saturday Jan. 16 at 1 pm. (photo courtesy of Metropolitan Opera)

Now that we are into the second full week of the new year, the winter concert season is in full swing. Since Mozart's 250 anniversary celebration in 2006, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra has turned January into more or less a "Mozart Month". Last year we had concert performances of Die Zauberfloete. This year's offerings, billed as Mozart@254, are a little more modest in scale but hopefully just as enjoyable. On January 13 and 14 at 8 pm at Roy Thomson Hall, and January 17 at 3 pm at the George Weston Recital Hall in North York, Peter Oundjian conducts a mixed program consisting of Symphony No. 25, a horn concerto with soloist horn player Neil Deland, the famous concert aria Ch'io mi scordi di te....Non temer, amato bene with soprano Shannon Mercer, and the even more famous Piano Concerto No. 21, which for years was called the "Elvira Madigan" because the gorgeous slow movement was used in the soundtrack of a 1967 Swedish film by that name. Interestingly there is absolutely no mention of the film in the TSO promotional material, so I guess with the passage of time, this little bit of trivia is forgotten. The pianist is Jonathan Biss. At the intermission on January 13 and 14, audience members will get an opportunity to hear the performers speak about the program. On Jan. 14 at 7:15 pm, broadcaster Rick Phillips will give a pre-concert talk in the lobby. On Saturday Jan. 16 at 7:30pm, the National Arts Centre Orchestra visits Roy Thomson Hall. Pinchas Zukerman does double-duty as conductor and violin soloist in Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 "Turkish". Also on the program is Clarinet Concerto in A Major (second movement) with soloist Kimball Sykes. The beloved Canadian baritone Russell Braun sings Songs for an Acrobat, a cycle of love songs by Linda Bouchard. This is a "Casual Concert", with no intermission and a chance to mingle with the performers after the show in the lobby with live music.

On January 14 at 8 pm at the St. Lawrence Centre, Music Toronto presents a joint recital featuring cellist Rachel Mercer and pianist Minsoo Sohn. Mercer plays on 1696 Stradivarius cello on loan to her from the instrument bank of the Canada Council. Korean pianist Sohn is the first Laureate of the 2006 Honens International Piano Competition in Calgary. On the program are cello sonatas by Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and Schostakovich. Tickets are a real bargain at $15!

On Tuesday in Walter Hall at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto, soprano Leslie Ann Bradley gives a noon hour recital. Those of you who followed the Montreal International Vocal Competition may remember her in the semi-finals three years ago. She is the recipient of the Charlotte and James Norcop Song Prize at the Faculty. No information on the program is available - I went to the U of T Faculty of Music website and found no details whatsoever, not even the name of the singer!

On Sunday, Jan. 17 at 2 pm in Mazzoleni Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music on 273 Bloor Street, cellist Bryan Epperson, principal cello of the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, together with pianist Dianne Werner, give a recital of Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, and Panufnik. It is a good opportunity to hear the excellent Epperson out of the pit and on the main stage.

And as the photo at the top of my post makes clear, this Saturday is another must-see event from the Met in HD series - a new production of Bizet's Carmen starring Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca and French tenor Roberto Alagna. Originally the Carmen was supposed to be Angela Gheorghiu, but she bowed out because she didn't want to sing opposite her estranged husband Alagna now that they are divorcing. I don't miss her one bit - I'd much rather hear a genuine mezzo in this role any day. However, if you are a Gheorghiu fan, she is scheduled to sing two performances later in the run, opposite German tenor sensation Jonas Kaufmann. This is worth attending for Kaufmann's Don Jose alone. Micaela is Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli and Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien is Escamillo. Canada's own Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducts. Preliminary reports from opening night praised Garanca and Nezet-Seguin, with a mixed response for Alagna. Frittoli and Kwiecien were both tepidly received. But I am sure everyone will give his/her all for the telecast. Not to be missed!

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Friday, August 28, 2009

Get Ready for an exciting 2009-10 Met Live in HD

Karita Mattila as Tosca ready to jump to her death in Puccini's perennial favorite that opens the 2009-10 Met in HD Season (Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Opera)

While Canadians lament the end of summer and warm weather, we welcome the start of the much anticipated musical season. Now in its fourth year, the Met in HD has become a Saturday ritual for many of us. To be able to sample the best the Met has to offer, in air-conditioned comfort at a Cineplex theatre near you is something that opera lovers could only dream about a few short years ago. I have been attending these shows since The Magic Flute in its first season. This season, for the first time, patrons can purchase *reserved seats* in advance. This is a huge improvment. You no longer have to wait in line an hour ahead of time to get your desired seats. As I understand, since the tickets went on sale last week, business has been extremely brisk. Be sure to secure your seats before they are all gone. Here is the press release sent to me by Cineplex Entertainment with the details of the shows and the locations.


Escape to the Ultimate Stage Spectacle The Met: Live in HD at Select Cineplex Entertainment Theatres

Advance tickets for 2009-10 series available Friday, August 21st

Toronto, ON (CGX.UN) – August 19, 2009 – Cineplex Entertainment is showcasing another great season of opera! Now in its fourth season, the wildly popular and award-winning The Met: Live in HDseries continues with nine live opera performances for the 2009-10 season. Shown in High Definition and Digital Surround Sound, all nine performances start at 1 pm EST beginning with Puccini’s Toscaon Saturday, October 10, 2009 and, for the first time, guests will be able to enjoy reserved seating at select Cineplex Entertainment theatres.

“We are pleased to have The Met: Live in HD series return for a fourth season to Cineplex Entertainment theatres across the country. The series has captivated our guests and their interest continues to grow with the performances becoming a familiar ritual on Saturday afternoons at our theatres,” said Pat Marshall, Vice-President, Communications and Investor Relations, Cineplex Entertainment. “This year, we have once again expanded the number of theatre locations by 10 per cent and, for the first time ever, added reserved seating at select locations as an added convenience for our guests to experience world class opera.”

Beginning Friday, September 4th individual tickets are available online at as well as at participating theatre box offices. Admission prices vary by location. SCENE and Met Opera members enjoy priority access with an exclusive advance ticket window for the 2009-10 series beginning Friday, August 21st at participating theatre box offices. Membership in the SCENE program is free and guests can apply online at For information on The Met Opera in New York or to obtain tickets or membership information, visit or call 1-800-Met-Opera (1-800-638-6737).

Season tickets can be purchased in person only at any of the participating theatres. Guests that purchase season tickets for all nine performances will receive a 15% discount off the purchase price, a 10% discount when purchasing tickets to any five or more performances and a 5% discount when purchasing tickets to any three or more performances. A special group rate is also available for groups of 20 or more. For more information on group rates, call 1-800-313-4461 or

Beginning Saturday, October 10th, the following performances will be shown live from New York at 1 pm EST at select Cineplex Entertainment theatres:

Saturday, October 10, 2009: TOSCA – Director James Levine, who conducts this new production of Puccini’s Tosca, tells the story of three people – a famous opera singer, a free-thinking painter and a sadistic chief of police – caught in a net of love and politics. Soprano Karita Matilla sings the title role for the first time outside her native Finland, Marcelo Ấlvarez as Cavaradossi and Juha Uusitalo as Scarpia.

Saturday, October 24, 2009: AIDASet in ancient Egypt, Verdi’s Aida is both a heartbreaking love story and an epic drama full of spectacular crowd scenes. Violeta Urmana stars in the title role of the enslaved Ethiopian princess, with Dolora Zajick as her rival. Johan Botha plays Radamès, commander of the Egyptian army and Daniele Gatti conducts. Among the score’s highlights is the celebrated Triumphal March.

Saturday, November 7, 2009: TURANDOTDirector Franco Zeffirelli’s breathtaking production of Puccini’s last opera is a favourite of the Met repertoire. Maria Guleghina plays the ruthless Chinese princess of the title, whose hatred of men is so strong that she has all suitors who can’t solve her riddles beheaded. Marcello Giordani sings Calàf, the unknown prince who eventually wins her love and whose solos include the famous “Nessun dorma”.

Saturday, December 19, 2009: LES CONTES D’HOFFMANN – Offenbach’s fictionalized take on the life and loves of the German romantic writer E.T.A Hoffmann is a fascinating psychological journey. Met Music Director James Levine conducts a stellar cast including Anna Netrebko as the tragic Antonia, Kate Lindsey as the ambiguous Nicklausse and Alan Held as the demonic four villains. Tony Award winner Bartlett Sher directs this new production.

Saturday, January 9, 2010: DER ROSENKAVALIER Strauss’s comic masterpiece of love and intrigue in 18th-century Vienna stars Renée Fleming as the aristocratic Marschallin and Susan Graham in the trouser role of her young lover. Music Director James Levine conducts a cast that also includes Kristinn Sigmundsson and Thomas Allen.

Saturday, January 16, 2010: CARMEN One of the most popular operas of all time, Carmen “is about sex, violence and racism – and its corollary: freedom,” says Olivier Award-winning director Richard Eyre about his new production of Bizet’s drama. Elīna Garanča plays the seductive gypsy of the title in her role debut, opposite Roberto Alagna as the obsessed Don José.

Saturday, February 6, 2010: SIMON BOCCANEGRA Four decades into a legendary Met career, tenor Plácido Domingo makes history singing the title role in Verdi’s gripping political thriller, which is written for a baritone. Adrianne Pieczonka, Marcello Giordani and James Morris are his co-stars in this moving and tragic story of a father and his lost daughter. James Levine conducts.

Saturday, March 27, 2010: HAMLET Simon Keenlyside and Natalis Dessay bring their extraordinary acting and singing skills to two of the Bard’s most unforgettable characters in this new production of Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet. For the role of Ophelia, the French composer created an extended mad scene that is among the greatest in opera.

Saturday, May 1, 2010: ARMIDA This mythical story of a sorceress who enthralls men in her island prison has inspired operatic settings by a multitude of composers. Renée Fleming stars in the title role of Rossini’s version, opposite no fewer than six tenors. Tony Award winner Mary Zimmerman returns to direct this new production of a work she describes as “a buried treasure, a box of jewels”.

Cineplex Entertainment will also be showing encore presentations at select theatre locations at 1 pm EST for guests who may not be able to attend the live transmission or who simply want to watch it again. The encore presentation schedule is as follows:

Saturday, October 31, 2009 – Puccini’s Tosca

Saturday, November 21, 2009 – Verdi’s Aida

Saturday, December 5, 2009 – Puccini’s Turandot

Saturday, January 23, 2010 – Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann

Saturday, March 6, 2010 – Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier

Saturday, March 13, 2010 & Sunday, April 11, 2010 – Bizet’s Carmen

Saturday, March 20, 2010 – Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra

Saturday, April 24, 2010 – Thomas’s Hamlet

Saturday, May 22, 2010 – Rossini’s Armida

Cineplex Entertainment will present The Met: Live in HD at the following select theatres throughout Canada:


SilverCity Coquitlam Cinemas (Reserved Seating)

170 Schoolhouse Street

Coquitlam, BC

SilverCity Riverport Cinemas

(Reserved Seating)

14211 Entertainment Way

Richmond, BC

SilverCity Victoria Cinemas

(Reserved Seating)

3130 Tillicum Road

Victoria, BC

Scotiabank Theatre Vancouver

(Reserved Seating)

900 Burrard Street

Vancouver, BC

Galaxy Cinemas Nanaimo

213-4750 Rutherford Road

Nanaimo, BC

Cineplex Odeon Park & Tilford Cinemas (Reserved Seating)

200-333 Brooksbank Avenue

North Vancouver, BC

Colossus Langley Cinemas

(Reserved Seating)

20090 91A Avenue

Langley, BC

Famous Players 7 Cinemas

2306 Highway 6

Vernon, BC

Famous Players 6 Cinemas

172-1600 Fifth Avenue

Prince George, BC

Famous Players Orchard Plaza Cinemas

160-1876 Cooper Road

Kelowna, BC

Cineplex Odeon Aberdeen Mall Cinemas

700-1320 Trans Canada Highway

Kamloops, BC

SilverCity Mission Cinemas

32555 London Avenue

Mission, BC

Cineplex Odeon Victoria Cinemas (Reserved Seating)

780 Yates Avenue

Victoria, BC


Scotiabank Theatre Chinook

6455 Macleod Trail SW

Calgary, AB

Galaxy Cinemas Red Deer

357-37400 Highway #2

Red Deer, AB

Cineplex Odeon South Edmonton Cinemas

1525-99th Street NW

Edmonton, AB

Cineplex Odeon North Edmonton Cinemas

14231 137th Avenue NW

Edmonton, AB

Scotiabank Theatre Edmonton

8882-170 Street

Edmonton, AB

Galaxy Cinemas Lethbridge

501-1st Avenue SW

Lethbridge, AB

Galaxy Cinemas Medicine Hat

3292 Dunmore Road SE

Medicine Hat, AB

Cineplex Odeon Eau Claire Marketplace Cinemas

90-200 Barclay Parade SW

Calgary, AB

Famous Players Westhills Cinemas

165 Stewart Green SW

Calgary, AB

Cineplex Odeon Grand Prairie Cinemas

10330-109th Street

Grand Prairie, AB

Cineplex Odeon Crowfoot Crossing Cinemas

91 Crowfoot Terrace NW

Calgary, AB


Galaxy Cinemas Regina

420 McCarthy Boulevard N

Regina, SK

Galaxy Cinemas Moose Jaw (NEW)

1235 Main Street N

Moose Jaw, SK


SilverCity Polo Park Cinemas

817 St. James Street

Winnipeg, MB

Galaxy Cinemas Saskatoon

347 2nd Avenue

Saskatoon, SK

SilverCity St. Vital Cinemas

160-1255 St. Mary’s Road

Winnipeg, MB


Scotiabank Theatre Toronto

(Reserved Seating)

259 Richmond Street W

Toronto, ON

Cineplex Odeon Queensway Cinemas (Reserved Seating)

1025 The Queensway

Etobicoke, ON

SilverCity Yonge-Eglinton Cinemas (Reserved Seating)

2300 Yonge Street

Toronto, ON

Cineplex Odeon Sheppard Grande Cinemas (Reserved Seating)

4861 Yonge Street

Toronto, ON

Alliance Atlantis Beaches Cinemas

1651 Queen Street East

Toronto, ON

Colossus Vaughan Cinemas

(Reserved Seating)

3555 Highway 7 W

Woodbridge, ON

Coliseum Scarborough Cinemas (Reserved Seating)

300 Borough Drive

Scarborough, ON

Coliseum Mississauga Cinemas (Reserved Seating)

309 Rathburn Road W

Mississauga, ON

SilverCity Brampton Cinemas

50 Great Lakes Drive

Brampton, ON

SilverCity Richmond Hill Cinemas (Reserved Seating)

8725 Yonge Street

Richmond Hill, ON

SilverCity Fairview Mall Cinemas (Reserved Seating)

1800 Sheppard Avenue E

Toronto, ON

Cineplex Odeon First Markham Place Cinemas (NEW)

3275 Highway 7

Markham, ON

Cineplex Odeon Aurora Cinemas (NEW)

15460 Bayview Avenue

Aurora, ON

SilverCity Newmarket Cinemas

18151 Yonge Street

Newmarket, ON

Cineplex Odeon Niagara Square Cinemas

7555 Montrose Road

Niagara Falls, ON

Cineplex Odeon Oshawa Cinemas

1351 Grandview Street N

Oshawa, ON

Cineplex Odeon Gardiners Road Cinemas (Reserved Seating)

626 Gardiners Road

Kingston, ON

SilverCity Sudbury Cinemas

355 Barrydowne Road

Sudbury, ON

Galaxy Cinemas Barrie

72 Commerce Park Drive

Barrie, ON

Galaxy Cinemas Cornwall

1325 Second Street E

Cornwall, ON

Galaxy Cinemas North Bay

300 Lakeshore Drive

North Bay, ON

Galaxy Cinemas Midland

9226 County Road 93

Midland, ON

Galaxy Cinemas Brockville

2399 Parkedale Avenue

Brockville, ON

Galaxy Cinemas Owen Sound

1020 10th Street

Owen Sound, ON

Cineplex Odeon Ajax Cinemas (NEW)

248 Kingston Road

Ajax, ON

Galaxy Cinemas Peterborough

320 Water Street

Peterborough, ON

Galaxy Cinemas Sault Ste. Marie

293 Bay Street

Sault Ste. Marie, ON

Galaxy Cinemas Orillia (NEW)

865 West Ridge Boulevard

Orillia, ON

Famous Players Belleville 8 Cinemas

160 Bell Boulevard

Belleville, ON

Cineplex Odeon Devonshire Mall Cinemas

3100 Howard Avenue

Windsor, ON

Galaxy Cinemas St. Thomas

417 Wellington Street

St. Thomas, ON

Galaxy Cinemas Orangeville

85 Fifth Avenue

Orangeville, ON

SilverCity Oakville Cinemas

(Reserved Seating)

3531 Wyecroft Road

Oakville, ON

Galaxy Cinemas Collingwood

6 Mountain Road

Collingwood, ON

SilverCity Burlington Cinemas (Reserved Seating)

1250 Brant Street

Burlington, ON

SilverCity London Cinemas

(Reserved Seating)

1680 Richmond Street

London, ON

SilverCity Thunder Bay Cinemas

850 North May Street

Thunder Bay, ON

Cineplex Odeon Barrhaven Cinemas (NEW)

131 Riocan Avenue

Barrhaven, ON

Coliseum Ottawa Cinemas

(Reserved Seating)

3090 Carling Avenue

Ottawa, ON

Cineplex Odeon South Keys Cinemas (Reserved Seating)

2214 Bank Street

Ottawa, ON

Galaxy Cinemas Waterloo

550 King Street N

Waterloo, ON

Galaxy Cinemas Cambridge

355 Hespeler Road

Cambridge, ON

Galaxy Cinemas Guelph

485 Woodlawn Road W

Guelph, ON

Galaxy Cinemas Milton (NEW)

1175 Maple Avenue

Milton, ON

SilverCity Hamilton Mountain Cinemas(NEW)

795 Paramount Drive

Stoney Creek, ON

Cineplex Odeon Westmount & VIP Cinemas (NEW) (Reserved Seating)

755 Wonderland Road S

London, ON

Galaxy Cinemas Brantford

300 King George Road

Brantford, ON

SilverCity Ancaster Cinemas

771 Golf Links Road

Ancaster, ON

Famous Players Lambton 9 Cinemas

1450 London Road

Sarnia, ON

SilverCity Gloucester Cinemas

(Reserved Seating)

2385 City Park Drive

Gloucester, ON


Cineplex Odeon Brossard Cinemas (Reserved Seating)

9350 boul. Leduc

Brossard, QC

Cineplex Odeon Ste. Foy Cinemas (Reserved Seating)

1200 boul. Duplessis

Ste. Foy, QC

Colossus Laval Cinemas

(Reserved Seating)

2800 rue Cosmodôme

Laval, QC

Scotiabank Theatre Montreal

(Reserved Seating)

977 rue Ste-Catherine O

Montreal, QC

Coliseum Kirkland Cinemas

(Reserved Seating)

3200 rue Jean Yves

Kirkland, QC

Galaxy Cinemas Victoriaville

1121 Jutras Est

Victoriaville, QC

Starcité Montreal Cinemas

(Reserved Seating)

4825 ave. Pierre de Coubertin

Montreal, QC

Galaxy Cinemas Sherbrooke

4204 rue Bertrand

Rock Forest, QC

Cineplex Odeon Beauport Cinemas (Reserved Seating)

825 rue Clemenceau

Beauport, QC

Cineplex Odeon Latin Quarter Cinemas (Reserved Seating)

350 rue Emery

Montreal, QC

Gatineau 9 Cinemas

120 boul. de l’Hôpital

Gatineau, QC

Cineplex Odeon Boucherville Cinemas

20 boul. de Montagne

Boucherville, QC

Galaxy Cinemas Fleur-de-Lys

4520 boul. des Récollets

Trois Rivieres, QC


Lux Cinema Landmark

229 Bear Street

Banff, AB

Max Cameron Theatre

5400 Marine Avenue

Powell River, BC

Art Spring

100 Jackson Avenue

Salt Spring Island, BC

Rene M. Caisse Theatre

100 Clearbrook Trail

Bracebridge, ON

Capitol Theatre

20 Queen Street

Port Hope, ON

Cinema Elysée

160 rue Simonds nord

Granby, QC

Carrefour 10

220 rue Beaudry Nord

Joliette, QC

Carrefour du Nord St-Jérôme

900 rue Grignon

St-Jérôme, QC

Cinema Jonquiere

2445, rue St-Dominique

Jonquiere, QC

Cinema St-Laurent

8333 rue Industrielle

Sorel-Tracey, QC

Rialto Landmark

2655 Cliffe Avenue

Courtenay, BC

Pen Mar Centre Landmark

361 Martin Street

Penticton, BC

Salmar Classic Theatre

360 Alexander Street

Salmon Arm, BC

Raven’s Cry Theatre

5559 Sunshine Coast Highway

Sechelt, BC


224 Main Street

Picton, ON

Capitol Theatre

4920 – 52nd Street

Yellowknife, NWT

RGFM Drummondville

755 rue Hains

Drummondville, QC

Cinema Pine

24, rue Morin

Sainte-Adèle, QC

Cinema St. Eustache

305 Avenue Mathers

St. Eustache, QC

Cinema Triomphe

1100, rue Yves-Blais

Lachenaie, QC

For a list of theatre locations showing the encore performances, visit

About The Met

Under the leadership of General Manager Peter Gelb and Music Director James Levine, the Met has a series of bold initiatives underway that are designed to broaden its audience and revitalize the company’s repertory. The Met has made a commitment to presenting modern masterpieces alongside the classic repertory, with highly theatrical productions featuring the greatest opera stars in the world.

The Met’s 2009-10 season features eight new productions, four of which are Met premieres: Janáček’sFrom the House of the Dead, Verdi’s Attila, Shostakovich’s The Nose, and Rossini’s Armida. The other new productions are Puccini’s Tosca, Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Bizet’s Carmen, and Thomas’s Hamlet.

Building on its 78-year-old international radio broadcast history – heard over the Toll Brothers-Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network – the Met uses advanced media distribution platforms and state-of-the-art technology to reach audiences around the world.

The Emmy and Peabody Award-winning The Met: Live in HD series returns for its fourth season in 2009-10 with nine transmissions, beginning October 10 with Tosca starring Karita Mattila and ending with Armida starring Renée Fleming on May 1. The Met recently introduced Met Player, a new subscription service that makes much of its extensive video and audio catalog of full-length performances available to the public for the first time online, and in exceptional, state-of-the-art quality. Metropolitan Opera Radio on SIRIUS XM Radio broadcasts both live and rare historical performances; the Met on Rhapsody on-demand service offers audio recordings; and the Met presents free live audio streaming of performances on its website once every week during the opera season with support from RealNetworks®.

The Met has launched several audience development initiatives, including Open House dress rehearsals, a popular rush ticket program, reduced ticket prices, Gallery Met, and an annual Holiday Series presentation for families. For more information, please visit:

About Cineplex Entertainment

As the largest motion picture exhibitor in Canada, Cineplex Entertainment LP owns, leases or has a joint-venture interest in 129 theatres with 1,328 screens serving more than 63.5 million guests annually. Headquartered in Toronto, Canada, Cineplex Entertainment operates theatres from British Columbia to Quebec and is the largest exhibitor of digital, 3D and IMAX projection technologies in the country. Proudly Canadian and with a workforce of more than 10,000 employees, the company operates the following top tier brands: Cineplex Odeon, Galaxy, Famous Players, Colossus, Coliseum, SilverCity, Cinema City and Scotiabank Theatres. The units of Cineplex Galaxy Income Fund, which owns approximately 99.6% of Cineplex Entertainment LP, are traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange (symbol CGX.UN). For more information, visit


For more information, please contact:

Pat Marshall Georgia Sourtzis

Vice President, Communications Manager, Communications

and Investor Relations Cineplex Entertainment

Cineplex Entertainment 416-323-6728



Saturday, May 23, 2009

This Week in Toronto (May 23 - 29)

The bursts of musical activities this spring seem to be subsiding.  The Canadian Opera Company's mainstage season comes to an end this weekend, with the final performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream today. Tomorrow afternoon is the last performance of La boheme
For those who missed the showing of Met in HD La Cenerentola with the scintillating Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca, the encore performance takes place today, at 12:30 pm, at selected Cineplex theatres in the GTA. 

For something a little different, I can recommend the world premiere run of The Shadow, put on by Tapestry, with performances at the Berkely Street Theatre Downstairs from May 21 to 30. I attended the opening on Thursday and was thoroughly entertained. The Shadow is a morality tale with a twist. Set in Barcelona, a poor postman, Raoul (acted and sung magnificently by baritone Peter McGillivray) assumes the identity of a rich suitor to win the hand of a beautiful woman (Carla Huhtanen) by borrowing money from a loan shark, played by Theodore Baerg.  When he is unable to repay the loan, a shadow (sung and acted with striking effectiveness by countertenor Scott Beluz) haunts the poor guy. Set and costume designer Camellia Koo has come up with an ingenious unit set that captures the flavour of Barcelona, and the use of a turntable allows seamless scene changes.  The libretto mixes an essentially serious story with a surfeit of humour - some of which perhaps were unintended. The music is a little too percussion-heavy for my taste, but there were some lyrical moments.  The vocal writing is very challenging - for example, the main character of Raoul/Hernando goes from basso profundo low notes all the way up to falsetto highs.  The singers, especially McGillivray, gave their all on opening night, and their voices were almost too big for the intimate space of the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs. It was a really enjoyable evening and I can highly recommend it.

And finally, you can catch the proceedings of the 2009 Montreal International Musical Competition (Chant 2009) right at your computer.  Espace Musique is carrying it live.  The semifinals started last evening, and continues today (Saturday) at 1:30 pm and 7:30 pm. Sixteen candidates, including six Canadians, are set to impress the judges.  Eight will go on to the two-day finals on Monday and Tuesday. You can follow the drama at

Labels: , ,

Friday, May 8, 2009

This Week in Toronto (May 9 - 15)

Isabel Bayrakdarian

Photo: Dario Acosta

A concert of interest this week is the appearance of Isabel Bayrakdarian as soprano soloist with the Amici Chamber Ensemble, in a program of Schubert and Tango - talk about eclectic programming! It takes place on Sunday, 3 pm at the Glenn Gould Studio. (There is a pre-concert chat with host Keith Horner at 2:30 pm, so be sure to arrive early!) This is the Ensemble's last concert of the season. On the program are three Schubert pieces - Sonatensatz in B-flat Major D28, Notturno, Piano Trio in E-flat Major D897, and Rondo for Violin & Piano D895. I seem to recall that Schubert's Shepherd on the Rock was originally announced but it is no longer being performed - too bad. The Tango half of the concert features Bayrakdarian singing tangos from around the world, including pieces by Carlos Gardel, Astor Piazzolla, and Kurt Weill, among others. Members of the Amici Ensemble include Joaquin Valdepenas (clarinet), David Hetherington (cello), and its newest member, Serouj Kradjian (piano), replacing the retired Patricia Parr. Kardjian happens to be the husband of Bayrakdarian, and he is very much involved in the research and arrangements of a lot of the repertoire sung by Bayrakdarian, including the recent project of Gomidas Songs. Any performance by Bayrakdarian and Kradjian is a treat, so this concert is not to be missed!

On Saturday, the Met in HD wraps up with Rossini's La Cenerentola, starring the Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca as Angelica. She is currently one of my very favourite singers - a wonderful high mezzo with fabulous musicality and perfect technique, combined with personal beauty and alluring stage presence - what more does one want? Partnering her is American tenor Lawrence Brownlee. I've only heard him once, in the Montreal Gala about seven years ago, and he sings with bright tone and a stratospheric top along the line of a Florez. With the absence of the Peruvian in this Met revival, Brownlee is the next best thing. The opera also stars the inimitable Alessandro Corbelli. The show is carried in the usual Cineplex locations across Canada. For more information, go to Tickets can be purchased online at

The Canadian Opera Company continues with performances of La boheme and A Midsummer Night's Dream, now that Simon Boccanegra has concluded its run last evening. The Verdi was one of the best shows I have seen at the COC in recent years - its thirty year absence was worth the wait! I attended the opening night of the Britten, and was struck by the beauty of the production. Aesthetically it reminds me a little of the COC Pelleas. No, the music isn't easy, or even as accessible as early Britten like Grimes. It is a connoisseur's piece, and sadly like Pelleas last time, there was a substantial exodus at intermission. Too bad as they missed a scintillating Act 3 with its hilarious comic turn. Thanks to the youthful cast made up of mostly COC Ensemble artists, they managed to make it come alive.

Labels: , , , ,

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Met Player Free Weekend Ends May 3

This weekend, the Metropolitan Opera is offering a free trial of its Met Player, which is an online streaming service that allows access to over 200 audio video performances including 20 of its recent HD productions from the first three seasons of The Met: Live in HD series.

The trial started on May 1 and ends on Sunday, May 3. Visit to register, no credit card information is required.

For more information, read the press release. will review the Met Player in a future blog.

Wah Keung Chan

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Met in HD: Lucia di Lammermoor

Soprano Anna Netrebko as Metropolitan Opera's Lucia di Lammermoor

(photo: Ken Howard)

The Met in HD telecast of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor was one of the most anticipated events of this opera season. Dubbed the "Dream Pair" by the German-Austrian press, Russian soprano Anna Netrebko and Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon have captured the imagination of the opera public, to a greater degree than even the "premiere stage couple" Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna. Never mind that Netrebko and Villazon are married/attached to other people, opera buffs lapped up morsels of rumours about their potential romantic attachments, even though such rumours were likely the products of their respective publicists or overzealous recording executives! In any case, any performance starring AN and RV guarantees a sold out house. The pregnancy of Netrebko by Uruguayan baritone Erwin Schrott last year finally silenced the gossip columns. Their return to the Met this season marked her first since giving birth last September, and his first since suffering a much publicized vocal crisis. So all the stars were seemingly aligned for the operatic event of the season.

Alas, it came as a bitter blow to their fans that the telecast was without Rolando, who fell victim to - officially, at least - a cold. It was well documented that at the first performance on Jan. 26, Villazon was having vocal trouble right at the start and it didn't let up. In Edgardo's dramatic outburst following the Act 2 concertato, he could not sustain the high tessitura and stopped singing right in the middle. Conductor Marco Armiliato halted the orchestra, with the audience sitting in stunned silence for about 8 seconds. Villazon re-attacked the b-flat and managed to finish the scene. Peter Gelb came out at intermission to announce that the star tenor was not feeling well but would finish the performance. He was warmly received at the final curtain, more a sympathy vote than applause for the excellence of his vocalism. Those in attendance commented on how thin and wan Villazon looked, as if he was suffering from poor health. The second performance three nights later did not go any better. A day later, it was announced that Italian tenor Giuseppe Filanoti, who was in town to sing the Duke in Rigoletto, would replace Villazon. The saddest part was the news that the all-important telecast would be taken by someone else, in this case Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, who was in town to sing Lensky in Eugene Onegin. Beczala had previously sung the Met production with German soprano Diana Damrau, so it was not a problem for him to step at a moment's notice.

I admit arriving at the Sheppard Grande a bit disappointed at the prospect of no Rolando Villazon. But any disappointment was quickly erased the moment Beczala opened his mouth to sing. I had heard him last July in Munich as a pleasant if somewhat generic Werther. Well, as Edgardo, Beczala was spectacularly good. He sang with clarion tone, the timbre suitably Italianate, and he acted with conviction. He had excellent chemistry with Netrebko. Just to refresh my memory of him, I watched his Paris Opera Die Zauberfloete from 2001 for comparison. He sang beautifully but was too persistently loud as Tamino, so he has improved a lot over the years. His Edgardo was an altogether winning performance. As to Netrebko - having given birth just a few months earlier, she looked more zaftig than the usual Lucia. There was much nitpicking on various blogs about her singing of Lucia. Her assumption of this role in Munich Opera a couple of seasons ago was met with very lukewarm press. But I feel on this Saturday afternoon, she rose to the challenge as Lucia, singing with rich, refulgent tone, hitting all the high notes, including an excellent E-flat at the end of the Mad Scene, while ducking the first one. She can still do justice to this role, although for how much longer it is anyone's guess. The voice has gotten bigger, heavier, and less flexible. Her trill, never her forte, is no longer true, and her scale work is approximate. In a few years, I can imagine that she could be a very credible Manon Lescaut or Tosca. Interpretively that's a different story. Dramatically she is a good Lucia but not a great one. Simply put, she does not embody the character; she is too healthy-looking and not sufficiently unhinged to make you really believe her. Unlike Natalie Dessay who is utterly convincing, with Netrebko, one gets the feeling here is a soprano impersonating the mad Lucy on this particular afternoon.

The rest of the cast was strong. Polish baritone Marius Kwiecien is a youthful Enrico. He sang well although he pushed his compact-sized baritone dangerously. Also impressive was bass Ildar Abdrazakov as Raimondo. Fast-rising South African tenor Colin Lee was wasted in the small role of Arturo - let's hope he will be given bigger assignments at the Met. Only the dry and aging tenor of Michael Myers as Normanno disappointed. The atmospheric sets by Mary Zimmerman evokes the Scottish countryside. The colours are deliberately muted, recalling scenes from old English movies. Her stage direction is very middle-of-the-road and generic, nothing controversial, but just interesting enough to hold one's interest. The only misfire is to have Lucia's ghost appear at the end of the opera, physically helping Edgardo kill himself with the dagger - how hokey can you get! The host this time around was Natalie Dessay, whose English markedly improved since her last appearance, although she was hopelessly tied to her cue cards. The endlessly fascinating scene changes at intermission were almost as good as the opera itself. Marco Armiliato, now more or less a fixture at the Met, conducted stylishly if rather slowly. This Lucia, with two intermissions, stretched to almost four hours.

I was in Cinema #3 at the Sheppard Grande, and the transmission was once again near-flawless, with only a couple of split-second freezing of the picture. However, the sound coming from one of the speakers on the left wall (when facing the screen) in the middle of the cinema was distorted at high volume - it needs to be fixed before the next showing. Another problem had been the concession stand, which was always crowded and slow-moving. This time, a separate station selling regular coffee and sandwiches was set up in another location, easing the traffic greatly - kudos to the managment for listening to the customers. This is why for me the Sheppard Grande continues to be the theatre of choice when it comes to Met in HD. For those interested in catching Thais, an encore presentation is this coming Saturday. The next new show - Puccini's Madama Butterfly - is slated for March 7 at 1 pm.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, February 6, 2009

This Week in Toronto (Feb. 7 - 13)

Richard Margison takes over the role of Florestan at the COC
Photo: Henry Grossman
(Courtesy of Moira Johnson Consulting)

By Joseph So

The Canadian Opera Company is in full swing this week, with performances of Fidelio and Rusalka at the Four Seasons Centre. The major news is the cast change on Feb. 12, when Canadian tenor Richard Margison takes over from Icelandic tenor Jon Ketilsson as Florestan. Readers may remember the eleventh hour withdrawal of American Jon Villars from the production. Fortunately the COC was able to secure the services of not one, but two Florestans, no mean feat as heldentenors sure don't grow on trees!

I attended the performance on Feb. 4. and found Mr. Ketilsson to be a fine Florestan, much better than his reviews on opening would indicate. Although the media is always invited to attend opening night, there is something to be said about attending a later performance, when all the first night jitters have subsided and any potential problem ironed out. It could not have been easy for Mr. Ketilsson to step in at the last minute and without adequate rehearsal. By Feb. 4, he had had three performances under his belt and was able to relax and sang up to his potential. His compact tenor has a pleasant timbre with a strong top register. Many tenors have come to grief in the final minutes of the Dungeon Aria with its impossibly high tessitura, but Mr. Ketilsson sang it very well. I find his Florestan altogether satisfying. On Feb. 12, Richard Margison takes over the role for five performances. The Canadian tenor has been branching out into the Germanic repertoire in recent years, in roles such as Bacchus, Aegisth and Florestan, the latter he sang to critical and audience acclaim at the Vancouver Opera. He has not sung at the COC for some years now, so it is good to have him back. This will be his Four Seasons Centre debut.

Although not exclusively a Toronto event, a highlight this week is the Met in HD showing of Lucia di Lammermoor on Saturday Feb. 7, with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon. It was announced two days ago that the wildly popular Mexican tenor Villazon has cancelled due to illness - best laid plans of mice and men, as they say! This comes as a blow to his legions of fans, but perhaps it was not totally unexpected. On opening night last week, Villazon ran into heavy weather, sounding strained and cracking on several occasions. The audience was in shock when Villazon came to a complete stop during the ensemble before the Mad Scene. The conductor halted the orchestra and there were several seconds of tense silence, until Villazon cleared his throat and resumed. Clearly he was not in good voice, and Peter Gelb came out at the intermission to make an announcement. Villazon regrouped and finished the performance without incident. He was replaced in the second performance by Italian tenor Giuseppe Filanoti. On the telecast, it will be Polish tenor Piotr Beczala. I saw Beczala as Werther last July in Munich, and he will be a worthy replacement. He has an ingratiating voice and looks fine onstage, but without the same measure of energy and magnetism as Villazon. So don't expect the high voltage charisma a la Villazon, nor the special chemistry between Villazon and Netrebko tomorrow. And let's hope the setback of the beloved Mexican tenor is only temporary.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Met Trashes Gluck' s Orfeo ed Euridice

Review by Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

In 2006, while he was gearing up to take over as the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb stated that one of his major goals was to “broaden the audience and make it younger at the same time.” He also made it clear that he believed the way to do this was to make more extensive use of new technology and bring in directors from film and Broadway who could bring the quality of the theatrical experience at the Met up to the level of its singing and orchestral playing.

Three years later and we are beginning to get a sense of Gelb’s achievements. He has certainly made use of technology by making Met HD Live a widely-appreciated fact of life along with more extensive use of broadcasts of Met performances on Sirius Satellite Radio. These innovations have doubtlessly won thousands of new listeners for the Met. On the other hand, while new stage directors have been brought in to shake things up, their work has often been disappointing. The latest offering, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice with choreographer Mark Morris doubling as stage director, is yet another recent Met production notable both for its silliness and its extravagance.

Big Hall the Wrong Way to Go With Orfeo
The first question that needs to be asked is why a small-scale classical opera from 1762 is being performed in a house seating 3,800 people? This is an opera designed for small theaters of the sort that were the norm in the mid-Eighteenth Century. Gluck’s orchestra was small – no more than 30 players – and there would have been a small chorus and dancers and only three solo singers. In the Met production, conductor James Levine was true to period style in limiting the size of his orchestra, but this nod to scholarship only served to underline the absurdity of the situation; such a small orchestra can barely be heard in such an enormous space. So the whole project is misconceived from the start.

Choreographer as Director Should Have Worked Well
Next, someone familiar with the piece decided that while it is not hard to find solo singers and a chorus to do justice to Orfeo, it is much harder to figure out how to deal with all the dancing required in the piece. Not only is there a lot of it, but it is even harder to figure out correct period style for dance than it is for music. In the latter case, at least we have the instruments from the period to give us some clues.

It is a worthy idea, therefore, to put a choreographer in charge of staging Orfeo, but only if that choreographer has made a study of Eighteenth Century dance style. Unfortunately, Mr. Morris gave no indication whatsoever that he knew anything about this subject. What is more, he appeared to take the view that it didn’t matter anyway; he was quite prepared to do as he pleased. And so he did. The result was a mishmash of classical and modern dance clichés.

One particular dance sequence – the scene in the Elysian Fields – appeared to be borrowing from the iconic Monty Python skit dealing with the Ministry of Silly Walks; it was that awkward and risible.

Patchwork Costumes & Hollywood Squares Set Design
In this production, as in too many recent Met productions, we had the patchwork costume problem. Although Isaac Mizrahi was credited with “designing” them, once again the costumes appeared to have been put together by the cast members themselves, perhaps rifled on their way to work from bags intended for Good Will.

Superfluous and expensive sets are also a trademark Met feature. This week we had an enormous steel fire escape-type structure lowered into place from the flies. Stephanie Blythe as Orfeo walked up to the first level of this contraption, then back down again. And away it went never to be seen again!

There now appears to be a full-fledged Hollywood Squares school of set design ensconced at the Met. We saw it earlier this season in “Le Damnation de Faust” and “Dr. Atomic,” and now in Orfeo ed Euridice. The basic concept is to have people seated in cubicles three or four tiers high staring out at the audience.

In this production, the people were made up and costumed in all different ways to suggest well-known folks from the past. It was hard to tell exactly who was whom, but I thought I saw the likenesses of Henry VIII, Ghandi, Elizabeth I and Abraham Lincoln.

The general idea, according to director Morris, is that these are ‘dead people’ looking on as interested observers as Orfeo attempts to bring the dead Euridice back to the land of the living. On a more practical level, it was a way for the director to keep his busy chorus on stage and make them somehow part of the action. From time to time these dead personages made stylized and incomprehensible gestures. Some of these gestures even appeared to resemble similar gestures made by the dancers on stage. The one that particularly puzzled me was in the manner of holding an invisible beachball. The gospel lyric “He’s got the whole world in his hands” comes to mind. Perhaps again Morris was invoking something from Monty Python.

Vocal Brilliance and Orchestral Precision Don’t Save the Day!
On the musical side, this production fared much better. Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe has the ideal voice for Orfeo. It was effortless and beautiful from top to bottom. Danielle De Niese and Heidi Grant Murphy were very good in the other roles. James Levine made little effort to approximate period style but he and his players contributed immaculate precision and expressive phrasing.

I have often complained in the past that on Met broadcasts the orchestra is recorded at a much lower level than the singers, much to the detriment of the score as a whole. This was not the case with Orfeo. In fact, we had the opposite problem; as if to compensate for its size, the little chamber orchestra positively boomed out of the speakers while the voices appeared to be recorded at just the right volume.

In summary, this opera has no business being presented in a huge theater like the Met and a production this misguided made the worst possible case for it.

On the basis of what I have seen so far this season, I am not surprised that ticket sales have fallen and that Gelb has been forced to cancel or replace four productions planned for next season. The current and global economic mess is mostly to blame, but it doesn’t help that artistic judgment is lacking, that poor directors are hired over and over again and that vast amounts of money are being wasted on dreadful productions.

To be fair, we did see a terrific Salome earlier this season. Still to come are Lucia di Lammermoor with Netrebko and Villazon (Feb. 7), and La Sonnambula with Dessay and Florez (March 21), and ‘hope,’ after all, springs eternal.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at

Add to Technorati Favorites

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Met in HD: Puccini's La Rondine

Angela Gheorghiu as Magda in Metropolitan Opera's La Rondine

La Rondine, the "wall flower" among Puccini's operas, has barely a tenuous hold on the fringes of standard repertoire and for good reason. Others may disagree, but to my ears, this piece marks a low ebb in the composer's creative genius. Yes, it does have its moments, particularly the showpiece "Che il bel sogno di Doretta" and the splendid concertato in the Second Act, two genuinely inspired moments. But the rest of the piece does not really represent Puccini at his best, despite an occasional perfumy melody here and there. Also problematic is the rather thin, sugary plot where there is little action, particularly in Act One. The story bears some resemblance to La traviata except less developed, with elements of Strauss's Die Fledermaus thrown in for good measure. Frankly it pales in comparison to those two, far more successful operas. True, Puccini intended to write an operetta in the great Viennese tradition, complete with opulent setting, frothy melodies - but minus the spoken dialogue. In the end, the composer reverted back to the more conventional operatic form. There is even an alternate ending (to the one performed currently at the Met) where Magda dies. But either way, the end result does not measure up to some of Puccini's greatest creations, whether as an opera or operetta. It is no wonder that it has been absent from the Met stage since the 1930s.

The raison d'etre for the current production is Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu. Much like the Met Thais for American prima donna Renee Fleming, a production of Rondine can be successful as a diva vehicle. Gheorghiu has a particular affinity for this opera, having recorded it a decade ago and has previously sung it on stage. The Met spared no expenses in mounting a super-lavish production by Nicolas Joel to showcase the soprano. The decor is fin-de-siecle Art Nouveau, suitably French, with lovely imitations of Tiffany glass panels mixed in with splashes of early Deco. Some of the decor reminds me so much of the Franz von Stuck house (now a museum) in Munich I visited last summer! Some may criticize the Joel production for its rather cold aesthetics but overall it's really pleasing to the eye. The period costumes are uniformly gorgeous, the ones worn by Gheorghiu are particularly lovely, although the summer dress in Act Two with its uneven hemlines aren't terribly authentic.

As to the musical side of things - Peter Gelb went in front of the curtain to announce that Ms. Gheorghiu had a bad cold but didn't want to disappoint her fans so she consented to sing. Her first phrases were low, sounding uncomfortable in the chest voice. There wasn't much time before she had to sing the big aria, and it was clear that she wasn't sufficiently warmed up for "Che il bel sogno". With the big screen HD in Sheppard Grande, one could clearly see her working hard to get the saliva going to lubricate her throat for the aria. Other than a couple of pushed notes and a lack of high pianissimo singing, she did well under the circumstances. Her acting as Magda was endearing but not overdone, unlike Fleming's excessive posturing as Thais. Roberto Alagna was in acceptable voice, a little dry in spots and his forte top notes typically went sharp, but he was clearly enjoying himself as Ruggero, savouring the chance of singing with his wife. The two exhibited a dramatic and physical freedom with each other in art that is only possible (and probable) when such freedom extends to their personal lives as well. At one point, Alagna spontaneously kissed Gheorghiu's bosom - I ask you, when was the last time you see that happen between two singers onstage?!

The second couple were well taken by Marius Brenciu (Prunier) and Lisette Oropesa, suitably as - Lisette! The 2001 Cardiff winner Brenciu has a slender voice which he uses with taste and style, refraining from pushing it beyond its limits. Oropesa, who made her Met debut as Susanna in fall 2007 replacing a very pregnant Isabel Bayrakdarian, was a delicious Lisette, acting up a storm and her soubrette tailor-made for the part of the maid. The only superannuated singer onstage was Samuel Ramey as Rambaldo. His once impressive bass isn't what it used to be, and he wobbled his way through. But given the character of Rambaldo, this kind of imperfect vocalism actually adds to the role, and Ramey did well. Marco Armiliato deserves credit for treating the lightweight score with the respect of a work many times its status.

I saw it at my theatre of choice, the Sheppard Grande in North York. The facility was late opening this time. Given that the mostly elderly opera audience has a tendency to be early, the queue waiting to get in was extremely long by noon, and I heard quite a lot of grumbling. I spoke with Greg Buller, the theatre manager, who explained that he was short-staffed that day and for safety reasons he couldn't open the facilities any earlier. The transmission in Cinema #3 was perfect except for a few seconds worth of silence at the beginning of Act Three. The cinemas were as usual well maintained and spotless, no sticky floors anywhere that I was able to find. The service at the coffee-sandwich concessions continued to be on the slow side. Given that there are usually four or even five staff members behind the counter, service should be a lot more brisk. The washrooms had attendants stationed outside to take care of any special needs should they arose - a nice touch. The next show is the encore presentation of Damnation of Faust next Saturday, and the next new presentation is Orfeo ed Euridice on January 24.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, January 9, 2009

"It's all a bunch of crap!" - Thaïs on Met HD Live!

Classical Travels with Paul E. Robinson

Over the years opera has developed a reputation for telling stories that are too often silly, risible or incomprehensible, and sometimes all three at once. As we settle into the twenty-first century most managers of opera companies have faced up to this problem, and to the fact that it makes selling their product very difficult indeed. The solution is often to bring in a director whose primary function seems to be to alter everything except the music. So, we often see stories set in Biblical times moved up to the present on the premise that they will thereby seem to be less ridiculous. The result is usually that they then appear both ridiculous and mismatched with the text and the music.

These thoughts came to mind as I watched John Cox’s production of Massenet’s Thaïs, a vehicle for Renée Fleming and made available to millions around the world last week via the Met’s HD Live series.

Massenet’s libretto is based on a contemporary novel by Anatole France set in Alexandria, Egypt in the fourth century A.D. Cox has updated it to something close to our time, presumably, to clarify the universality of the story. Cox’s updating, however, is so haphazard that we end up losing our bearings completely.

Some characters in the Cox production appear to be dressed in costumes approximating fourth century Egypt, others in modern dress and still others seem to have grabbed whatever was left on the racks in the Met’s wardrobe department. Set and costume designer Paul Brown created a lavish world for his Thaïs - so lavish that one might think he had somehow benefited from all the billions of bucks flying around New York these days, as Wall Street investment houses run amok and the U.S. Treasury rushes to reimburse them!

Cox’s vision called for monumental sets requiring battalions of high-priced stage hands to move them around – Met HD Live generously showed us in great detail how it was all done – but in the end Cox could probably have achieved much more with a bare stage.

These observations notwithstanding, the basic problem with this opera, is that Louis Gallet’s libretto is dreadful. The story originally told by Anatole France has a monk Athanaël attempt to convert the courtesan Thaïs to a Christian life (i.e. enter a convent). No sooner has Athanaël achieved his goal, however, than he realizes that he lusts after the girl himself. Too late! He rushes back to the convent to declare himself, but Thaïs passes away in his presence without understanding or appreciating his declaration of love.

The tough part here is Thaïs’ conversion, and Gallet simply couldn’t figure out how to handle it. Without a convincing conversion, the opera really doesn’t work. Nor is there much in the libretto to enable the singer playing Athanaël to grow from religious obsession to earthly passion.

In an interview published in the Met HD Live Program Guide, Thomas Hampson, singing Athanaël, articulated perfectly what it is all about: “It’s in the last scene, when Athanaël comes crashing into reality, that he probably blurts out the most self-examining line of the entire evening, right before she dies and (he) says, ‘It’s all a bunch of crap; it’s only about finding love in life – that’s the only thing that matters.’ ”

The problem lies in convincing the audience that this man Athanaël could really come to such a realization based on who he appeared to “be” earlier in the opera. The libretto doesn’t give him much to work with, and the director John Cox hasn’t offered much help to either Hampson, or Fleming in working out their characters. What he does do is throw in some pathetic Middle Eastern kitsch in the form of laughable belly dancing.

A more imaginative director could have mirrored the motivations of the protagonists by means of projections, or perhaps some kind of dramatic tableau during the famous Méditation, beautifully played by concertmaster David Chan. Such elements could have been incorporated into a production still based in the fourth century, or even into a more abstract version. Cox just didn’t seem to be able to come with anything integrally creative.

The result was that Fleming and Hampson were left to fend for themselves. The direction, sets and costumes all seemed to be working against them. Fortunately, they both sang magnificently and for many opera fans that was more than enough. But why then bother spending all that money on sets and costumes?

Another factor that worked against one’s enjoyment – at least mine – was the way the opera was presented to the Met HD Live audience. The producer seems to feel that the audience needs to be looking at something interesting all the time; accordingly, we got to see every scene change in great detail, including all the sweating and some of the swearing too.

All this backstage business was engaging, perhaps, but it doesn’t belong in the live performance. After all, in any theatrical production, the curtain is lowered so that our ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ (Coleridge) is not utterly destroyed.

This Met HD Live producer apparently doesn’t understand that when there is music being played by the orchestra, as in the Méditation and the Prelude to Act Three, it is meant to express feelings related to the story, not to be an accompaniment to parts of sets being heaved about behind the curtain.

Finally, I could also have done without the breathless interviews done by Placido Domingo, as Fleming and Hampson either prepare to go on stage or as they are leaving the stage. This ‘between innings chatter’ may be alright for sports events but it again breaks the spell of the drama.

There is not much point in the artists suiting up as Thaïs and Athanaël if they are going to present themselves to the audience seconds later - still in costume and make-up - as, well, Fleming and Hampson.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at

Labels: , , , , ,