Thursday, December 22, 2016

Opera highlights in 2016 and expected highlights in 2017 on the Melbourne opera scene

Highlights of the Melbourne opera scene in 2016

In my three decades of opera-going that I'm now calling OperaChasing and the piles of opera programs I'm not sure what to do with, 2016 will remain special: 95 opera productions in 21 cities across 4 continents. The memories of many may wilt as they hopefully nourish the heart and soul but others presumably will have everlasting immediacy.

Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival's Trouble in Tahiti
In Melbourne, I love seeing how the operatic pulse beats and I'm always wishing more people would taste what's on offer, from the smell-of-an-oily-rag budget productions to the polished bells and whistles of the hugely funded national opera company. One thing for certain is that the smell of an oily rag is often at least as overwhelmingly affecting and rewarding as any high-end work performed to the more toffee-nosed culture that sticks to opera's heals.

Melbourne staged no less than 24 opera productions in 2016. Adding Gertrude Opera's Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival, a little weekend outing for city dwellers to combine wine and opera, the number swells to 32. Ok, part of that diverse program included three "nano" operas around 15 minutes in length each, but how their succinct attack still penetrates. Apart from the bacchanalian-steered opening night dinner and gorgeously sung operatic arias, Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti directed by Greg Eldridge and The Scottish Opera, a new gripping, shortened and stylised meshing of Verdi's Macbeth in an 80-minute work directed and designed by Luke Leonard, still resonate.

Opera Australia's Götterdämmerung
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the return of Opera Australia's Ring Cycle directed by Neil Armfield surprised me how much more arresting it was than its 2013 premiere (possibly due to that wilted memory). Elements of the everyday, mixed with the symbolic and surreal accompanying detailed characterisation and the year's most extraordinary singing and music-making, came together in a work of astounding beauty. Thank the gods it wasn't staged earlier in the year. I was so emotionally pummelled that immersing in anything outside The Ring seemed completely mundane.

Of the four, I had to see Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung again, and not just because of the allure of the double-dotted diacritics. Let's hope the cycle returns to Melbourne in 2019 so that it can be ticked off many more bucket lists.

But take note Opera Australia. More double-dotted Wagnerian repertoire got a magnificent outing by independently funded Melbourne Opera with Tannhäuser. This was a huge achievement that saw the company take a bold risk while making opera look right at home in the iconic Regent Theatre. Wagner's recurring theme of redemption resonated with glorious singing, expert orchestral support and director Suzanne Chaundy and her creative team's compelling staging portraying the contrast between one world of societal strictures and another of sexual pleasures. Perhaps Melbourne does have the initiative and resources to call itself a Wagnerian city after all. Is there any dream this city can't dream without making it a reality?

Victorian Opera's Laughter and Tears
Victorian Opera's innovative arm muscled up once again under Artistic Director Richard Mills's tireless efforts in giving a fresh approach to the art. Directed by Emil Wolk, Laughter and Tears saw Mills's powerful reimagining of Leoncavallo's great tragic one-act opera, Pagliacci – the tears – come with a prologue made up of a pastiche of Baroque and Renaissance music imbued with comic abandon and contextual contrast – the laughter. Integrated circus arts handsomely illuminated the stage for one of the company's most compelling recent works that saw opera return to another splendid venue, the Palais Theatre. Certainly a work worthy of revival.

Later in the year, Virgil Thomson's nourishing music and Gertrude Stein's near-nonsensical libretto for Four Saints in Three Acts was brought to the stage in a heavenly 3-D experience from director Nancy Black and gleamingly sung by the Victorian Opera Youth Chorus Ensemble (VOYCE) alongside the young guns of Victorian Opera's professional development program. Let's pray that it'll be resurrected because those 3-D glasses need to be used again.

Finally, little Lyric Opera of Melbourne delivered an exquisite three-season adventure headed by the succulently staged, mojito-driven and rarely seen operatic version of Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana by Aussie composer Malcolm Williamson. The musical richness of the score – brilliantly sung by many of Melbourne's young artists – the witty libretto and the directorial flesh Suzanne Chaundy gave to this festering black comedy (performed to an audience not much larger than 150), reflects the knack Artistic Director Pat Miller has in unearthing varied and exciting works.

Bavarian State Opera's La Juive (The Jewess) 
Much further afield, controversial Catalan director Calixto Bieito's dark, thought-provoking interpretation of Fromental Halévy's rarely seen 1835 La Juive (The Jewess) at the Bavarian State Opera stood out for its subtlety and strength. Musically and vocally outstanding, it remains for me the year's most powerfully relevant work highlighting the oneness and differences in humanity, the instilled fear of the other as a threat, and of intolerances we harbour but can't see. Much food for modern thought.

For those interested in the many great contributions made to the art of opera in 2016, I'm running a one-hour Twitter night for The 2nd Annual OperaChaser Awards and Commendations via @OperaChaser at 5pm AEST on 27th December. I've given only a little away so come join in and have a drink to find out more to celebrate our artists with me.

Expected highlights of the Melbourne opera scene in 2017

If you think opera isn't your thing, maybe 2017 might change that. Bizet's ever-popular Carmen comes to town in a new production from Opera Australia so that could do the trick but I saw it in Sydney earlier this year and it's Cuban-set concoction needed a deal of attention I hope it gets by May. Two works at the top of my list are Opera Australia's King Roger – a 1924 work by Polish composer Karol Szymanowski and a co-production with London's Royal Opera House – and Melbourne Opera's second outing at the Regent Theatre for hours and hours of more Wagner with Lohengrin.

Rarely do we see Czech composer Leoš Janácek’s powerful works so Victorian Opera's Cunning Little Vixen, his poignant reflection on the cycle of life, shouldn't be missed either. Make sure you add Tom Waits and William S Burroughs's allegory of addiction, The Black Rider, to the list as well. It's a co-production with Malthouse Theatre starring Paul Capsis with Meow Meow and Kanen Breen.

Lyric Opera of Melbourne will no doubt enchant with a contemporary work by female composer Rachel Portman, The Little Prince. Based on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's delightful 1943 book, it premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 2003 with Teddy Tabu Rhodes in the role of the Pilot.

Finally, on the international front, for something quirky amongst so much impressive work that'll be impossible to see, there's a new comic opera based on that botched restoration of a fresco of Jesus likened to a hedgehog. Written by two Americans, librettist Andrew Flack and composer Paul Fowler, Behold the Man will premiere in a fully staged production in the town of Borja where everyone's laughing at how a town's misfortune turned with just a few well-intended brushstrokes. That I'd love to see.

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