Friday, June 16, 2017

Pinchgut Opera's visually succulent, musically beaming and conceptually clever Baroque Triple Bill

In the 15 years since Sydney's Pinchgut Opera have been successfully building its reputation in bringing rarely performed 18th century operatic works to the stage, the challenges might not have been greater than those faced in staging a triple bill, their latest new production that opened on Thursday night.

Lauren Zolezzi as Cupid and Richard Anderson as Anacréon
Taking two mid-18th century French actes-de-ballet or single act ballet-operas by Jean-Philippe Rameau, Anacréon and Pigmalion, and sandwiching between them a popular intermezzo in its day, Leonardo Vinci's Erighetta e Don Chilone, Artistic Director and conductor Erin Helyard's attempt to capture the spirit of that "...hothouse atmosphere of Paris in the 1750s", goes far in perhaps questioning the merits or not of an Enlightenment debate. From my perspective, the heat was somewhat lacking. Nonetheless, it's a visually succulent and musically beaming exposition of long-forgotten works that focus on the universal theme of love and its accompanying ungraspable quirks, of wine, art and self in an evening, including interval, that ends in under 140 minutes.

Director Crystal Manich's clever concept to unite the three disparate works in contemporary times - one that includes lots of period costume dress-ups - gets off to a clear enough start. Beginning with Anacréon, the action unfolds in preparation for a Gala du Musée - as Alicia Clements' handsome and classically inspired set design informs us - with a cast of gallery-related characters crisscrossing and coming together, often in neatly choreographed tableaux, over the course of a day that ends in a joyous pairing of lovers in Pigmalion. It's a bold and creative move that, while solving the City Recital Hall's limitations in dealing with complex theatrical stagings by relying on its single set construct, adds complexity to the otherwise straightforward nature of each individual work. Without prior knowledge of Manich's restructuring and alignment of the characters, the goings on could be difficult to decipher. On the other hand, together as a whole, they do leave one memorable taste behind. Studying the program notes was beneficial, as was the informative pre-opera talk.

Taryn Fiebig as Erighetta and Richard Anderson as Don Chilone
Billed as "a riotous evening of fabulous French opera", it was only the milked cheekiness in Vinci's Italian intermezzo that came anywhere near the riotous. Melanie Liertz's rich mix of punchy costumes and Matthew Marshall's evocative lighting changes made a dazzling good show but, apart from its few highlights, a dreamy-like Anacréon lumbered along despite the swift comings and goings in the gallery and the poetry of Pigmalion rarely transformed into theatrical magic - perhaps more to do with the esoteric nature of the libretti.

Amongst what seems a truckload of interesting museum pieces and lavish party props that move in and out, its Lauren Zolezzi, as Cupid, who lit up the stage with both unbound youthful energy and supple-voiced charm. Taking her bright, delicately filigreed and assured soprano to stepladder heights, Zolezzi's tomboyish Cupid was the star of the night in which love itself triumphs. She's also the daughter of the wealthy gallery donor, played by Richard Anderson in the pivotal title role as the self-important Anacréon, marginally undone by breathing inconsistencies, but coming to confident bass vocal life, farts and all, in the play-within-a-play as the hypochondriacal Don Chilone.

Plush soprano Taryn Fiebig is the other standout, demonstrating her well-honed versatility in both the serious, as the Priestess of Bacchus in Anacréon and The Statue in Pigmalion, and the comic, as the cheekily conniving Erighetta in Vinci's intermezzo. She's the stiff and stylish Academic and the donor's ex-wife, who the bartender has his eye on. This bartender, Agathocle in Anacréon, is also a sculptor and presents his figurative masterwork to the gallery, no doubt bearing semblance to the Academic under its period costumed depiction.

Lauren Zolezzi, Taryn Fiebig and Samuel Boden as Pigmalion
With a warm and lyrically attractive tenor, Samuel Boden served up a convincing Agathocle but, as the sculptor Pigmalion, passion and determination headed a tad wayward, as did projection, before his more compelling slow and tender encounter with the living statue. In his vocal armoury is an effortlessness in phrased ornamentations and they leave their mark indelibly.

Soprano Morgan Balfour sang with clarity and beauty as Pigmalion's rejected lover and gallery cleaner, Céphise, and Allegra Giagu elegantly took the floor as the donor's wife Lycoris. They were joined by a retinue of fine, clarion vocals from an ensemble of gallery staff (Alistair Cooper-Golec, Julian Curtis, Heather Fletcher and Mariya Tkachenko), a florist (Clara Solly-Slade) and security guard (Owen Little).

Best of all was the music, with the always reliable warmth and sumptuousness of sound of Pinchgut Opera's Orchestra of the Antipodes in top form, performing with verve and passion to a now clearly devoted audience. They have a totally committed and exciting interpreter of music in their midst to thank for that, in conductor Erin Helyard, who was equally as animated and expert on harpsichord.

At the end of the evening, despite how marvellous it looked, how lovely it sounded and how clever the concept was, I didn't feel particularly enthralled by the total product and perhaps needed to taste something a little less spiced and a little more meaty. But at its centre was a perfectly plump and delicious treat.

Pinchgut Opera
City Recital Hall, Sydney
Until 20th June.

Production Photos: Courtesy of Pinchgut Opera

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Australian Ballet's inventive and captivating Nutcracker – The Story of Clara: Australian Arts Review

Published online at Australian Arts Review 4th June, 2017.

It’s 25 years since Graeme Murphy’s inventive reimagining of The Nutcracker for The Australian Ballet premiered in Melbourne and, after Friday night’s opening for its fourth revival, it’s sure to captivate a new audience with its plethora of evocative scenes, comic Aussie touches and in bringing substance to the fascinating background story of ballet in Australia.

Retold as Nutcracker – The Story of Clara, Tchaikovsky’s glorious score remains intact, transposed convincingly on a reverse telling of Clara’s life – an ageing Russian ballet dancer who had danced around the world for the Ballets Russes before settling in Melbourne. For all its entrenched European foundations, the work is transformed with a moving and close-at-hand relevance that speaks of our resilient and deeply affected immigrants.

It’s 1950s suburban Australia, a Hills Hoist in the grassed backyard where the footy is kicked and far from the tumultuous revolutionary past that Clara had fled. From Clara’s humble post-war home where she entertains her gregarious veteran ballet friends with vodka, cake and entertaining dance, to the battlefields where her soldier-lover is shot, from the ballet school to the world stages, imperial balls and her arrival amongst the happy-go-lucky Aussie sailors, Kristian Fredrikson’s stylish set and costume designs serve the story wondrously without overpowering the clarity of characterisation.

Much use is made of projected black and white film footage that races across a scrim and, while adding energetic fire and adrenaline on the one hand, at times it camouflages the dance on the other – especially frustrating as Bolshevik Rats scurry and attack in battle in near darkness. Nonetheless, Murphy and Fredrikson’s concept shines through powerfully.

Precision wasn’t always achieved in the cleverly structured and dynamic formations, but what stands out in Murphy’s eclectic choreographic hand is the lean towards sensitivity, boldness and beauty in the portrayal of individuals, pairs and ensembles, over gratuitous showy athleticism. In this, the dancers delivered amply.

Ai-Gul Gaisina, who joined The Australian Ballet in 1973, dances Clara the elder with inviting gestural tenderness before she falls unwell and exhausted, taken over in her dream by the effortlessly graceful Leanne Stoymenov as the passionate and headstrong, career-building Clara. Stoymenov’s magnetic presence, expressed heart and fluid technique come in one binding force that brings Clara’s past to riveting life, all the while sharing the limelight generously. Among her highlights are two beautiful pas de deux – one full of romantic fortitude with the impressive Kevin Jackson as her dashing Beloved Officer, the other in accomplished grandeur alongside the equally imposing Jarryd Madden as the handsome ‘Nutcracker’ Prince.

Jessica Stratton-Smith deserves much credit too for her sparkling performance as the young Clara and who features in one of the most delightful scenes – at the ballet school of St Petersburg’s Imperial Conservatoire amongst a budding group of dedicated youngins before a clever transformation via the studio mirrors takes her to adulthood.

There were moments when I thought that Murphy could have got away with anything because Tchaikovsky draws you into his intoxicating rhythms and melodies so easily. Orchestra Victoria showed expert musicianship and stamina in the pit. At their lead, conductor Nicolette Fraillon seemed to interpret the score with overly tender-heartedness that occasionally failed to materialise into dramatic richness – a reading, uncharacteristically, not particularly Russian in flavour – but still in control of foregrounding Tchaikovsky’s brilliance.

Murphy’s Nutcracker – The Story of Clara is ballet as meaningful theatre and soulful dance as a vehicle for storytelling without words, created in a way that gives the impression of having spoken its conversations over its entirety. That’s about as close as you can get to feeling completely absorbed in the art of ballet. Let it shine for the next generation.

Nutcracker – The Story of Clara
State Theatre – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St. Kilda Road, Melbourne
Season continues to 10 June 2017

For more information, visit: for details.

Image: Jarryd Madden and Leanne Stojmenov feature in Nutcracker – The Story of Clara – photo by Jeff Busby

Review: Paul Selar

Jarryd Madden and Leanne Stojmenov - photo Jeff Busby

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Gertrude Opera gives Menotti's The Consul perfected pedestal-piece punch

It's almost 70 years since Gian Carlo Menotti's first full length opera, The Consul, premiered in New York in 1950 and it still resonates with power and freshness in a world increasingly divided by fear. As composer and librettist, Menotti based the story of The Consul on a 1947 newspaper report about the suicide of a Polish emigrant after being refused a visa to the USA.

Karen Van Spall, Linda Thompson as Magda Sorel and Michael Lampard
Three years ago, with limited resources at its disposal, Melbourne's Gertrude Opera presented a compelling case for the work's modern-day relevance in a production bolstered by Theresa Borg's incisive direction. In a revival of Menotti's "...nightmare thriller of an opera", with its striking, richly characterised and expertly sung portrayal, director Greg Carroll has achieved the same splendid results, punching home the desperation for survival, change and betterment in the face of oppression on one side and bureaucratic processes on the other. Poignantly, it also reflects the hardline political crackdown and inhospitable treatment and scrutiny of refugees seeking asylum in our own backyard. When little support and no answers are given, we too become responsible for the tragic outcomes.

This time, the work is performed in Gertrude Opera's current temporary warehouse-style lodgings to an audience of around 80. The setting easily matches its successful presentation at Fortyfivedownstairs in 2014, with fine balance and firm resonance of sound pleasurably filling the space.

Characterised by its woven mix of dissonance and melody, angst and delicacy, Menotti's music easily drives the narrative forward without overpowering it. With only Peter Baker's expert and dexterous grand piano accompaniment to set the musical framework, conductor Rick Prakhoff's unflinching attention to drawing out shape and texture paid satisfying dividends on opening night.

On a low black platform, two rudimentary chairs, a stove/cabinet, a tall bookcase and a stepladder form the sparsely furnished stage with a backdrop featuring a translucent plastic curtain, behind which non-performing cast members rest in character. The late Peter Corrigan’s scant set design is an evocative interpretation of the impoverished circumstances in which Magda Sorel, wife of her political freedom fighting husband John, his mother and her infant child live. With a quick turn of the stove and a secretary presiding from a tall bookcase of papers, the platform doubles as the consulate office waiting room of grey-faced visa applicants. Greg Carroll’s lighting design adds atmosphere and mystery while well-delineated costumes dress hard, unsophisticated times in this drab, unidentifiable European police state.

Leading by example, Artistic Director and assured, wide-ranging soprano, Linda Thompson, reprises the role of Magda Sorel - one she makes so heartfelt - moving with urgency, determination and stealth as Magda deals with a withering home, persistent police and an indifferent consul secretary in her quest for a visa for her family to leave. Culminating in a time-stopping and magnificently haunting "To This We've Come", in which she sings with dour pain and defiance after being refused permission to see the consul once again, Thompson stamped her mark indelibly on the performance.

D. Carroll, J. Erdelyi-Gotz, J. Dufour, J. Wasley and B. De Poi
As her husband John, Eugene Raggio returns with greatly improved physical acting that effortlessly ricochets off his fraught situation and utilises his attractively dusky baritone impressively. In a richly layered and focussed performance, Karen Van Spall is magnetic as John's salt-of-the-earth Mother as she relentlessly clutches her stricken grandchild. Rumbling baritone Michael Lampard's cold and automatic brutality as the Secret Police adds greatly to the festering tension. Rose Nolan gives stellar, deeply carved mezzo-soprano richness and emphatic angular diction to her pursed-lipped Secretary. Light comedy brings momentary relief to the waiting visa applicants courtesy of Jason Wasley's robust-voiced and entertaining Persian-costumed Magician.

The 2017 Gertrude Opera Studio Artists filled the smaller roles glowingly with Darcy Carroll's steadfast baritone having notable impact as the kindly Mr Kofner along with luscious soprano Juliet Dufour's patient but weary Anna Gomez. Joshua Erdelyi-Gotz's Assan, Lisa Parker's Foreign Woman and Brigette De Poi's Vera Boronel complete the ensemble of 11, all contributing drama and meaning to this superb and chilling work.

Never underestimate the power hand-to-mouth opera delivers. Gertrude Opera's current season of The Consul reaches pedestal perfection. I only wish those patrons of large-scale opera could take a detour to experience it.

Gertrude Opera
130 Dryburgh Street, North Melbourne
Until 2nd June

Production Photos: Lyz Turner-Clark 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Opera Australia's psychologically commanding and seductive King Roger: Herald Sun Review
Published online at Herald Sun 22nd May and in print 23rd May

IT’S not often an opera comes along that sidesteps sentimental and emotional foci and zeros in on the psychological so seductively and commandingly, but Polish composer Karol Syzmanowski’s explorative and concise work King Roger achieves just that.

If you’re unfamiliar with it you’re not alone but, once seen, it will brand its combination of penetrating music and story of wrestled desire and personal torment well beyond the final curtain.

Michael Honeyman as King Roger, Lorina Gore as Roxana
In Opera Australia’s new production — co-produced with London’s Royal Opera directed by Kasper Holten (revival director Matthew Barclay) — Syzmanowski’s titular figure is revealed in stone as a monumental towering head centred within a lofty coliseum as symbol of the king’s power and subject of public scrutiny. Tensions boil as a people conditioned by draconian religious strictures demand blood when the mysterious Shepherd arrives preaching freedom of Dionysian pleasures causing Roger’s fight between resistance and desire.

Holten extrapolates the text with such striking clarity, underpinning the composer’s own infused sexual identity, and creates a vision so enduring with Steffen Aafing’s sets and costumes and Jon Clark’s joyless lighting, that it’s hard to imagine its original 12th century Sicilian setting giving it the substance Holten does — an austere place costumed in a time alluding to Syzmanowski’s 1920s Northern Europe.

The head revolves for Act 2 to reveal an industrial-like network of stairs. Holten literally takes us into Roger’s mind and we’re churned about in his psychological turmoil of desire, entangled in the sexual urges of near-naked writhing dancers in a homoerotic dream/reality.

Act 3 is more ambiguous. The head is gone, Roger’s wife, Roxana, has joined the Shepherd’s mass of followers and books are burned in revolt. Consumed by the Shepherd’s spell, Roger has a cryptic epiphany in a finale that questions what it is but, potently, how we manage desire within context.

Dominica Matthews, Arthur Espiritu, Gennadi Dubinsky and OA Chorus
Exotic Middle-Eastern threads, impressionist lucidity and tearing expressionist strokes flourish from Syzmanowski’s adventuresome mind in a score of luscious beauty. Orchestra Victoria’s adroitness and conductor Andrea Molino’s resolute understanding of the music on opening night showed despite the weight occasionally bearing on lower vocal reaches.

Steadfast baritone Michael Honeyman’s robustly buttressed performance and solid grasp of Roger’s taunted psyche and situational tug of war was luminous. Liquid-warm tenor Arthur Espiritu coolly captivated as the enigmatic Shepherd. The gentle outstretched reaches between the two, the Shepherd’s suggestive brush of the stone head’s lips and Roger’s beguiled looks all add depth to Holten’s well-conceived details.

Radiant soprano Lorina Gore exuded crystalline elegance as Roger’s overlooked and unfulfilled wife, Roxana. James Egglestone’s genial adviser to Roger, Edrisi, Dominica Matthews’ unbending Deaconess and Gennadi Dubinsky’s lordly Archiereios handsomely satisfied in smaller roles and Opera Australia Chorus rang out superbly with combined solemnity and agitation.

King Roger is as profoundly compelling as it is mysteriously beautiful and it’s exactly the type of work that adds power and piquancy to Opera Australia’s stage.


Opera Australia
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until May 27

Rating: four stars

Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Opera Australia and John Frost's meticulously recreated and effervescent My Fair Lady opens in Melbourne

Between the uncouth and the upper crust, Eliza Doolittle has much to navigate and stomach in her quest for betterment in Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's sparkling iconic musical, My Fair Lady. It's a journey that's both touchingly portrayed and brought to effervescent life in Opera Australia and John Frost's impressive new show based on the original 1956 Moss Hart directed production. And giving vibrant and sensitive directorial clout from start to finish, as Broadway's first 'I'm a good girl I am' Eliza Doolittle, Dame Julie Andrews has wasted not a stage moment in setting the story alight with her spirited cast, including Christopher Gattelli's effective task-driven choreography that integrates without overpowering.

Ensemble, Ascot Scene Act One, My Fair Lady
Sydney and Brisbane have already enjoyed its spectacularity but when it opened at Melbourne's ornate Regent Theatre on Tuesday night, it was as if a much-hyped world premiere had arrived to give Eliza Doolittle's story her most gracious home, be it an oversized one that distant occupants might need to pick up their own Ascot Racecourse field glasses for.

The meticulous recreation of the original doesn't preclude the vast amounts of creativity that have gone into bringing the work back to the stage and the supervising design team deserve huge credit for the brilliant work done to resurrect set designer Oliver Smith's intricate locales and Cecil Beaton's lavish costumes. From the dingy backstreets of Covent Garden to Henry Higgins' capacious but cosy study, to the prim-penned stiffness of Ascot and the glamorous chandelier-studded embassy ballroom, the Edwardian sets and costumes tantalise and beguile. Scene after scene effortlessly moves along with their copious details and quirkily expressed perspectives all dazzling under Richard Pilbrow's lighting.

Sometimes, recreating a work truthfully has more to say the second time round than it did in its day and My Fair Lady seems to do just that. Six decades on, Eliza Doolittle's audience will be more informed - the swinging 60s followed the premiere with the sexual revolution and the women's movement's fight for sexual equality continuing to resonate in its ongoing struggle to make equality a reality in all aspects of society today.

On the backstreets of Covent Garden, Act One, My Fair Lady
We can look at Henry Higgins with greater distaste for the sour assaults he lashes on Eliza while treating her like a lab-rat in a social experiment to prove he can transform her from a 'guttersnipe' flower girl to a duchess in six months. We can see Eliza dreaming big, abused by class and sexual differences yet nudging through with strength and free will. It makes Eliza's return to Higgins in the final scene feel compromised but by the time the curtain goes down on its foggy ending, Eliza seems to be the one who'll be giving Higgins much-needed training.

In it all, Andrews has bitten in deeply to highlight the emotional connections without resorting to sentimental sugar-coating. In her service is a tuned, character-driven cast led by two exceptionally solid leads.

Through and through, as Eliza, Australian musical star Anna O'Byrne gives an enticingly sophisticated performance as she transforms convincingly from unkempt common flower girl to elegant fair lady. Layers of natural charm accompany O'Byrne's performance and, whenever she sings, she does so following in the great Andrews tradition with a keen sense of expressive outlay and gleaming purity of voice. Whether it be the daintily melodic "Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?" or the hearty ferocity of "Just You Wait and Show Me", O'Byrne's ability to take the text, mould it and dance with it is a delight to watch, especially so as Higgins' frazzled specimen persevering in mastering the elocution of "The Rain in Spain".

English stage and screen actor, Charles Edwards, twinkles as a perfect paradoxical, blindly misogynistic and eccentric Professor Henry Higgins. Diction-clear and authoritatively savvy with sing-speak, Edwards effortlessly captures his audience as his Higgins' depth of intellect and lack of maturity and compassion challenge in keeping oneself from biffing him a beauty for his gross insensitivity. The spark Edwards creates on stage alongside O'Byrne is a cracker and, though it comes late, his Higgins' softening heart coyly peers through.

Embassy Ballroom Scene, Act One, My Fair Lady
Colonel Pickering, Higgins' gentlemanly chum, is superbly styled in the hands of Tony Llewellyn-Jones. Veteran stage legend Reg Livermore brings cartloads of energy to the indecorous Alfred Doolittle with jollity and cheekiness pouring out in pleasingly raw song in "With a Little Bit of Luck" and "Get Me To The Church On Time".

Robyn Nevin puts high polish to Mrs Higgins' plum aristocratic airs and no-nonsense sensibility, Deirdre Rubenstein comfortably warms the house as Higgins' housekeeper, Mrs Pearce, and as the love struck Freddy, Mark Vincent's melting warmth and resonance make a big impression with a heartfelt "On the Street Where You Live".

On opening night, dutifully supporting the cast, ample musical richness and vitality wafted from the pit under musical director Guy Simpson as he led a meticulous, primed and luscious-sounding 22-piece orchestra. Michael Waters' sound design added final touches of finesse.

The fusion of artistic and creative elements that make Opera Australia and John Frost's My Fair Lady so special will continue to enamour its audience just as the runaway success of the 1956 Broadway production did. Only, we are hopefully more ready to embrace the equality of the sexes.

Opera Australia and John Frost
Regent Theatre, Melbourne
Until 29th July

Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Two cleverly threaded and ardently sung works in Opera Australia's emotionally vivid Cav and Pag: Herald Sun Review

Published online at Herald Sun Melbourne on 11th May and in print 12th May.

OFT-paired in a double bill, Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (1890) and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (1892) are fused tightly as one in Opera Australia’s emotionally vivid and stirring new production to Melbourne by Italian director Damiano Michieletto.

Popularly referred to as Cav and Pag, both works were originally set in Italy’s 19th century south where jealousy, revenge and murder erupt under the heavy air of religious festivity — Cav’s Easter morning in a Sicilian village, Pag’s Feast of the Assumption in Calabria.

Dragana Radakovic, Dominica Matthews, Diego Torre and OA Chorus
In Michieletto’s gritty reality, updated to a late 20th century singular setting, there is no censorship on violence, the characterisation is solid and the details employed that trickle through his worn rural Italian village suggest that tensions are spawning elsewhere about town. Where the price paid for infidelity is high, men are quick to throw a fist, alcohol fuels rage, women are victimised and religion is no innocent bystander.

Paolo Fantin’s spatially diverse sets revolve frequently to carry the action swiftly forward. Cav centres about the village bakery (run by Turrido’s mother, Mama Lucia) and its facing square, then transformed into a village hall and dressing room for Pag. Carla Teti’s costumes are place-perfect and Alessandro Carletti’s lighting adds austerity to a community harbouring deep and dark undertones.

The posters go up for Pagliacci’s upcoming performance in Cav as Pag’s Nedda and Silvio have their first encounter. Then, during the famous and reflective intermezzo that releases some of the tension, Nedda and Silvio meet in amorous rapture. Later, during Pag’s intermezzo, Cav’s Mamma Lucia and Santuzza put the past behind in a reconciliatory embrace.

The intertwining threads work marvellously to consolidate the two works’ similar themes but it is the exquisitely tuned cast that keep the tension alive.

Diego Torre as Canio and the Opera Australia Chorus, Pagliacci
Every new role tenor Diego Torre challenges comes with more fluid acting to accompany his richly lubricated vocals that resonated securely on opening night. Torre took on the rarity of performing two hot-tempered characters — as the stark-real, emotionally coiled and cheating Turiddu in Cav and the cheated on and vengeful Canio in Pag — and nailed the pair compellingly.

With full range strength and superb emotional shading, Dragana Radakovic was riveting as a hysterically fraught Santuzza. There’s years of life, local wisdom and heart in Dominica Matthews’ assuredly sung Mamma Lucia and Anna Princeva is intensely focused as she poignantly conveyed the frustration and dreamer in Nedda with her succulent and shapely soprano.

José Carbó’s solid, incisive and authoritative performance as Cav’s slick Alfio and Pag’s detestable Tonio, Sian Pendry’s seductive and shameless Lola, Samuel Dundas’s handsome and romantic Silvio and John Longmuir’s versatility as Bepe all fuelled the fire alongside an uplifting Opera Australia Chorus of villagers.

Patches of nervous brass aside, Orchestra Victoria worked superbly under conductor Andrea Licata’s sumptuously coaxed reading to include ample climactic vigour.

When the curtain goes up, Cav’s chilling fateful tragedy is immediate. By the time it goes down on Pag, you’ll be completely embroiled.


State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until May 20

Rating: four stars

Production Pictures: Keith Saunders.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

An evening of outstanding bel canto bliss with Victorian Opera's La sonnambula in concert

A near-packed Hamer Hall set the scene for a concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini's La sonnambula on Saturday evening that sent shock waves of rapturous applause and a standing ovation. Not only did Bellini's semiseria opera shower its ostentatious and sublime music on its eager-ear local audience, it was presented with ample and compelling dramatic acuity surpassing expectations of what a concert performance gives. For this, from an assembled cast delivering a gloriously sung evening, Artistic Director and conductor Richard Mills deserves congratulations. That, and bringing sensational Australian soprano Jessica Pratt back to Melbourne to crown the performance in diamond quality.

G. Bradman, R. Hislop, J. Pratt, C. Bárcenas and P. Pecchioli 
La sonnambula continues Victorian Opera's commitment to presenting concert performances of gems from the great library of bel canto works that adorn the repertoire - in 2014 it was Bellini's Norma and I Puritani followed in 2015 in which Jessica Pratt wowed as Elvira.

The opera premiered in Milan in March 1831 (Norma followed before the year was out) and tells an amusing tale driven with intense melodrama by librettist Felice Romani. Sung in Italian with English surtitles, the story centres around the village girl Amina who, after her betrothal ceremony to Elvino, is found asleep in the room of the mysterious stranger, Count Rodolfo, who is staying at the village inn. Of course, the plot thickens - Elvino is outraged, breaks off the engagement and gives his heart back to Lisa, the proprietress of the inn to whom he was formerly betrothed. Amina is bereft but when Rodolfo realises that the villagers' story of a ghost appearing each night is, in fact Amina, a somnambulist, the misunderstanding is cleaned up and a happy ending ensues. Accompanied with such highly elaborate music, this somewhat frivolous story powers a sweet message to never jump to conclusions without adequate proof - or have a very good excuse why you've been found in an admirer's bed when you're engaged to another. How Amina hadn't realised she's a sleepwalker does tend to stretch belief.

It began with a discernible nervous start, taking a little time for the chorus to settle smack on the orchestral line and balance out the layers, but a sense of confidence took over. Mills firmly planted the seeds to support a sumptuous and responsive sounding 50-plus member Orchestra Victoria. That beauty was carried through to a subtly dappled orchestral introduction, the horns and woodwind especially deserving compliments, to Act 2's "Qui la selva è più folta ed ombrosa" and a splendorous and distinctive chorus sang in its wake.

Jessica Pratt as Amina and Carlos Bárcenas as Elvino
When Pratt took to the stage wearing a black bodiced gown of evening blue and long-draped smokey shawl, then catapulted her recitative and cavatina, "Care compagne - Come per me sereno", to extraordinary heights, a palpable change took hold that seemed to guarantee the magnificent night it was to become. Assured, relaxed and commanding a sense of effortless freedom, Pratt embodied the stupendous beauty of voice that places her as a leader in her art and gives the 21st century a new bel canto star. Every smoothly shaped phrase came with an emotively expressed and engaged magnetism that aided in deflecting attention away from her and onto the first joyous, then innocent, wrongly accused and aching-hearted Amina.

Pratt's consummate professionalism shone through via her rapport with her colleagues and commitment to her understated acting while exuding soft and natural elegance befitting her presence as both a star performer and role interpreter. As Act 1 headed towards a colossal finale in which Elvino rejects Amina, Pratt's prowess with the most fragile pianissimo and ability to sustain length of note was a moving experience. From there, Pratt embarked on a blazing display of coloratura fireworks big enough to stun the city. Then, returning in a long black fitted gown in Act 2, Pratt maintained the perfection and natural warmth all the way to the jubilant finale.

Italian bass Paolo Pecchioli was the other standout as Amina's admirer, Count Rodolfo. Suave, rich and cavernous-voiced, Pecchioli's articulate line and dashing flexibility brought many rewarding moments that included a piquantly crafted duet with Pratt as Rodolfo's conscience gets the better of him when alone with the vulnerable sleepwalking Amina.

Searing young tenor Carlos E. Bàrcenas dug deep into his character and projected with large Italianate warmth as the first besotted, then suspicious and incensed Elvino. Bàrcenas continues to pack exciting dynamism and expressivity in the voice with a beautifully controlled vibrato and smooth register shifts. A marginal loss of flesh in the top head voice was heard but it didn't detract from what was a highly commendable performance in which he paired comfortably with Pratt. That pairing was at its finest in Elvino and Amina's pledge of love in Act 1 before the plot's sharp turn.

 Greta Bradman, Roxane Hislop, Jessica Pratt
It was a welcome sight to see Australian soprano Greta Bradman back in Melbourne. As the shady, unprincipled innkeeper Lisa, Bradman's chocolatey-rich soprano and gorgeous use of vibrato added impact to the performance. In Bradman's Act 1 opening, sudden leaps in range came with exaggerated power but as she progressed, the voice became increasingly pliant to reach its most lush in Act 2's "Lasciami: aver compresoassai dovresti", coming with attractive glint and fluttering coloratura.

The ensemble was reinforced solidly by mezzo-soprano Roxane Hislop as Teresa, Amina's affectionate mother. Velvety-dark and sumptuous of voice, Hislop's experience cut through with ease in her portrayal of dignity and staunchness and unflinching attention to detail. As Alessio, Lisa's hapless admirer, young artist Timothy Newton brought robust bass support and held strength in ensemble work. In the smaller role as the notary, Tomas Dalton didn't go unnoticed for his refined tenor display.

Victorian Opera's annual concert opera presentations have become a highlight of Melbourne's opera scene. After La sonnambula was over, I was shaking with excitement, my pulse certainly racing. What might next year bring? I'm going to take a stab in the dark and say another Bellini, the explosive romantic tragedy, I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Fingers crossed.

La Sonnambula
Victorian Opera
Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
5th May

Production Photos: Charlie Kinross 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Opera Australia's dazzling and dramatic new Carmen opens in Melbourne: Herald Sun Review

Published online at Herald Sun Melbourne 5th May and in print 9th May 2017.

In Opera Australia’s new production of Carmen, esteemed director John Bell seems acutely aware of both enticing newcomers to opera as well as giving regulars justification to see Georges Bizet’s popular work yet again. And see it you should. Bell draws out and magnifies the contrasts and tensions of the story marvellously and bends them to their limits with dazzling and dramatic effect.

Rinat Shaham as Carmen and the Opera Australia Chorus
The perennial buzz of sexual attraction and ugliness of sexual violence with the curse of jealousy at the core, in Bell’s depiction, makes a powerful and confronting lesson — none more so than a final scene that is disturbingly graphic and brings you to thoughts of today’s news of domestic violence.

Under the creative team of Michael Scott-Mitchell (set), Teresa Negroponte (costumes) and Trent Suidgeest (lighting), a cooling breath of Broadway flashes over Bizet’s Seville. Here, it’s a Cuban-inspired retro-contemporary, dilapidated and seedy world contrasting with costumed fluorescent colour and military camouflage, assisted by Kelley Abbey’s energetic choreography for skilful juvenile street dancers and cavorting couples.

You have to stretch your imagination to accommodate librettist’s Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy’s Seville of 1820 but the passions of extremes are perfectly preserved, in no small part due to a superbly sung opening night, conductor Brian Castles-Onion expert handling of the score’s pulse and Orchestra Victoria on top form.

Two international leads gifted their credentials in truckloads. In complete control of her performance as Carmen, mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham seduced with the grit and intensity of the persona she has perfected in over 40 productions worldwide. Shaham effortlessly oozes with sexual strength and exposes Carmen’s cracks of vulnerability in her flirtatious road for freedom with a voice of endless richness and a devastating, dark lower range full of adamancy and soul.

Coming with a hugely resonant, noble and fierce tenor, Dymtro Popov’s masterfully calibrated performance as the unhinged Don José sets up the tragedy compellingly alongside Shaham’s determined Carmen as he mirrors the mind in vocal and dramatic conviction.

Dmytro Popov as Don José and Rinat Shaham as Carmen
The satin-suited bullfighter Escamillo — the kind of guy who steals a kiss then gives it to another — came with distinctive flair from a robust-voiced Shane Lowrencev who gladly did a sterling job of the famous Toreador Song.

Soprano Stacey Alleaume wasn’t far away from a standing ovation after her innocent but brave-hearted Micaëla pulled at the heartstrings with her sweet, angelic beauty of voice.

Smaller roles were handled with aplomb with Carmen’s shallow, beauty-conscious companions Frasquita (Jane Ede) and Mercédès (Sian Pendry) especially shining in style with Adrian Tamburini’s brutish Zuniga leading his forces with solidly grounded bass. And the Opera Australia chorus, with 12 clarion scallywags, fired up magnificently as a chorus of suspect citizens for a splendid bullfighters’ welcome.

At the heart of it all, nothing feels lost in Bizet’s enduring work. Coming with strong vocal, musical and dramatic commitment, the gains made in Opera Australia’s new production should last as long as the blaze of colour in its makeup.

Opera Australia
State Theatre, Arts Centre until May 26
Rating: four stars

Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Sunday, April 30, 2017

A yesteryear romp in operetta where the champagne's a tad flat - Opera Australia's Two Weddings, One Bride

First I was thrilled - a new work from Opera Australia. Then, uncertain - it's a pastiche of operetta hits stitched onto the foundations of a libretto derived from the work of a now generally unfamiliar 19th century French composer, Charles Lecocq. Then again, from the sharp-looking promotional material, it looked like it could be lots of fun. So how did it go?

Cast of Opera Australia's Two Weddings, One Bride
There's a great company of artists and creatives that make Opera Australia the premium brand it is but I was left scratching my head after Saturday night's opening of Two Weddings, One Bride. Frankly, I was disappointed. It's not the Opera Australia brand I'm used to and, for me, it elicited more questions than laughs.

Of course, when the Joan Sutherland Theatre becomes unavailable for Opera Australia's large-scale fare due to its closure for renovations, it creates a conundrum of sorts. The rest of the 2017 Sydney season is pared back to a couple of concert operas with Moffat Oxenbould's iconic Madama Butterfly getting stage time at the Capitol Theatre as the only fully staged opera. Julie Andrews' My Fair Lady gets a rerun at the Capitol too, so it leaves very little to whet the opera appetite in Australia's largest city. Pinchgut Opera come to the rescue with their now customary two productions.

Was a lighthearted new pastiche the answer to filling the gap? If it wasn't for its lack of punchy humour, self conscious slapstick style and undernourished musical support, perhaps it could be. But Australians take pride in their humour so, for laughs, where is the investment in something that reflects this in opera?  No easy task but why spend money on a 'new' work that has the trademarks of European yesteryear?

Charles Lecocq's Giroflé-Girofla, an opéra bouffe in three acts that premiered in 1874, and the curious work creator Robert Andrew Greene based his Two Weddings, One Bride on, enjoyed popularity in its day, including an appearance in Sydney in 1875 so it seems. A fair enough start.

The gist of librettists Albert Vanloo and Eugene Leterrier's story remains intact but it's updated from its 13th century setting in Spain to one day in the mid 20th century French protectorate in Morocco during WWII. As pawns in their parents' plans to save themselves and their state, identical twin sisters Giroflé and Girofla (played by the same actor and differentiated by their pink and blue costumes) are coerced into marriages of convenience. Giroflé's wedding goes accordingly to plan but Girofla is kidnapped and, so as to appease the other impatient groom, Giroflé is forced to marry a second time. The truth eventually comes out in a day of mayhem in Morocco that's rescued by an ocker Aussie digger who saves things getting further out of hand, one that attempts to guide the work into local laps.

John Bolton-Wood, Julie Lea Goodwin and Geraldine Turner
A rear-facaded single set featuring a rattan lounge setting opens out to include exterior depth by Owen Phillips' dutifully created exotic Moorish style. Tim Chappel's slick costumes brightly delineate characters and John Rayment's warm and romantic lighting adds lushness to the picture. But the overall effect is conservative, one that limits director Dean Bryant to mostly spreading the action linearly on a shallow stage and around a few furnishings - some that tricked the opening night cast.

Opera Australia created the work "to give some of the most delightful songs of operetta an outing", as the program notes state. Offenbach, Lehár, Kálmán and Stolz, with a sprinkling of Lecocq's music itself, make up the score but it's Strauss' signature that provides the most froth, in particular music from his bubbly Die Fledermaus. Greene was at piano, giving jaunty-tuned precision and violinist Yuhki Mayne added expert technique bound in warmth at his side. But most of the tunes would be familiar in their full orchestral beauty so the spare backing made you wonder where the rest of the band were and what kind of outing was intended because it's not such a cheap one at that.

There's ample fun on stage amongst the cast but it doesn't always convert to hoped for laughs. Opening night suffered with a few hiccups in comic timing and lines like "I'm too old to do the can-can....I can't can't" started to wear thin. One the whole, quality voices carry the drama forward but you can bet your bottom dollar that if Opera Australia revived it's own celebrated Die Flerdermaus by director Lindy Hume, you'd be getting the bells and whistles of operetta and the company's full attention to delivering the best.

Andrew Jones, Julie Lea Goodwin, Nicolas Jones
The cast, however, stepped up to the task with enthusiasm. Sparkling soprano Julie Lea Goodwin was a breath of fresh air and took the spotlight charmingly as she alternated between Giroflé and Girofla, making Lehár's "Vilja Leid" from Die lustige Witwe a sweet and expressive rendition as she reluctantly goes ahead with the second wedding. Nicholas Jones' suave good looks and drop-dead gorgeous honey-toned tenor befits the man of class his Marasquin is as Giroflé's chosen. Laying on thick the impassioned romantic tune of "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" from Das Land des Lächelns, Jones sailed high on the night's best performances.

Not to be confused with the other Jones, the rich and roaring chesty baritone of Andrew Jones' General Modigliani comes with unbridled pistol-pride and macho heft in his demands to take his bride. David Lewis slipped comfortably between multiple roles in fine voice and overcooked accents as Pedro the spirited Spanish chef, Francois the pesky French cousin, the "stone the flaming crows" Aussie colonel and the pious celebrant.

Long associated Opera Australia favourite John Bolton-Wood fit the comic glove as the agitated twins' father, Philippe. Playing his bumptious and disgruntled wife Aurore, musical theatre personality Geraldine Turner, in her company debut, took to the geared-up shenanigans but the voice faltered in puffing up "Orlofsky's Aria" from Die Fledermaus in her opening song and struggled thereon. The ensemble singing, too, will no doubt coalesce as the season progresses.

Near end, it wasn't the most cleverly dropped line when "We hope you liked our show" rang out from the stage. It's hard telling the generous host and hostess the champagne's a tad flat. As the long 50-plus show season of Two Weddings, One Bride lies ahead for Opera Australia in Sydney, the company makes its usual move to Melbourne for the autumn season which gets underway in a few days. Now that you shouldn't miss.

Two Weddings, One Bride
Playhouse Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Until 22nd October

Production Photos: Prudence Upton

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Emotionworks Cut Opera's vivid, genre-crossed Tosca bound in Soul, Blues and R&B in Melbourne: Herald Sun Review

Published in Herald Sun in print 26th April and online 27th April

YOU would be hard pressed hearing someone leaving Puccini’s Tosca saying how much fun it was but Emotionworks Cut Opera do it differently. Like trying to prove that oil mixes with water, creator and director Julie Edwardson deconstructs opera’s lengthier form and adds her own genre-crossing music.

Puccini’s work doesn’t survive in its grand tragic way but, bound in this Blues, Soul and R & B mix, it’s a Tosca full of vivid life and high libidos too.

Lachie Purcell, Justine Anderson, Jason Wasley and Lauren Jaksetic 
Presented in a courtyard of the historic Pentridge Prison, this former palace of sinners shackles the story’s tragedy effortlessly, transferring the action from Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo in 1800, where Puccini set the final act, to within these high bluestone walls in contemporary times.

The political prisoner Angelotti (Richard Woods) escapes from Pentridge, the painter Cavaradossi (Jason Wasley) harbours him and Tosca (Justine Anderson), Cavaradossi’s opera-singing lover, is caught in the crossfire when the Chief of Police, Scarpia (Michael Lampard), schemingly traps her in an attempt to catch his escapee. Everyone falls victim to the hand of another.

Props are sparse but Edwardson cleverly weaves in two enigmatic dancers (Lauren Jaksetic and Lachie Purcell) as the ghosts of Tosca and Cavaradossi who relive the lovers’ last day and gently shadow them.

It is a beautiful effect and makes a striking black-and-white contrast to five unsmiling female prison guards with no shortage of dominatrix flair in the service of Scarpia. Consistently belting out most of the best vocals as these Soul Sirens, Antoinette D’Andrea, Natasha Jacoel-Kaminski, Joanna Collyvas, Georgia Chalfon and Terese Scalisi are indispensable to the show’s success.

More than 30 song snippets nestle in the show’s 90 minutes, most fitting the bill creatively, some feeling squeezed in. The focus isn’t entirely on Tosca but my quibble is that it is unnecessary having the tight four-member band step in and sing their tunes too.

Justine Anderson and Michael Lampard
Anderson’s Tosca turns on the heat with unrestrained hot-bloodedness and sexual confidence, portraying both strength and vulnerability. Despite some top-note struggles, Anderson’s dark-hued tone carries attractively, singing the opera’s most famous aria, l lived for art with starry depth and pathos. Imagine that, followed by Tina Arena’s Chains sung movingly by the Soul Sirens as Scarpia undoes his trousers. Not easy?

Or Cavaradossi’s aria, And the stars shone, sung with poignancy and grit by a muscular-voiced and impassioned, fine acting Wasley followed by Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine in a gorgeous rendition by Antoinette D’Andrea as he dropped to the ground.

But it’s Lampard’s slimy, limping and crotch-centric Scarpia that steals the show, deftly portraying man as beast in well-articulated hair-raising resonance and dramatic fullness.

Angelotti’s vocal chords are apparently ripped out in Block A Division, which explains Woods’ raspy operatic opening, but he sinks comfortably back to where his voice resides — to ACDC’s Jailbreak and back on guitar.

There are the songs of Christine Aguillera and Adele, Stevie Wonder and James Brown among many in a musical seesaw ride with Puccini that Edwardson makes work.

Come open minded and come to enjoy. And add a must-do tour of Pentridge for extra effect.

Pentridge Prison, 1 Champ Street, Coburg, until May 7

Rating: three stars

A clearly devised concept with mixed results in fledgling BK Opera's Werther in Melbourne

Another small opera company popped up on the scene in Melbourne last year to provide valuable performance opportunities for the city's enthusiastic band of singers. Great news for opera! Actually, I'm not entirely convinced. It seems to me that opera in the city needs to start focusing on building up and not out.

"No sets. No props. No microphones. Just beautiful music and amazing singers". It sounds like concert opera. That's newcomer BK Opera's catchphrase for presenting "bare bones" opera to Melbourne audiences but their new production of Massenet's Werther, with minimal cuts, doesn't really come as bare as all that.

Allegra Giagu as Charlotte and Patrick MacDevitt as Werther
Director Kate Millet and conductor James Penn's interpretation - that this is a story not about 'dying for love' but dying from undiagnosed depression and that the poet Werther may still have taken his own life even if Charlotte had married him - is spot on.

Millet brings this clearly devised concept to the table and it's smartly groomed with a serviceable performance area, a few props - a portrait of the newly reigning young Queen Elizabeth centred over two solid armchairs and a side table with lamp, telephone and record player - with some stylish post-WWII costumes that add immensely to the effect. We're in England and, though sung in French, the idea works well, thankfully with the help of English surtitles (compliments of Lyric Opera of Melbourne). The cast, when not 'on set', rested at trestles on the hall's perimeter - a good touch that reinforced the up-close nature of the production.

But, as appealingly grafted the aesthetic is with the venue, a combination of singers misgauging comfortable audio levels, together with Abbotsford Masonic Hall's low-level acoustic sophistication and rehearsal room-like atmosphere, hindered the overall experience.

A few old vinyl tracks play before the boisterous Le Bailli (Samuel Thomas-Holland), and his friends Johann (Joshua Erdelyi-Götz) and Schmidt (Steve Carolane) arrive in an atmosphere the antithesis of gloom that pervades the work - a jolly trio initially held back by a lack of tuning into each other but rectifying this by their final attractively sung and aptly restrained "Noël! Jésus vient de naître".

In 'normalising' the difficult and tragic foreground of Werther's and Charlotte's more introspective portrayal and subsequent loss, contrasts are worked further with the innocent and bubbly Sophie, crisply and sweetly sung by April Foster and Charlotte's betrothed and grounded Albert, firmly, warmly and handsomely sung by Finn Gilheany.

Patrick MacDevitt as Werther and Finn Gilheany as Albert
As the titular character, however, it seemed our dishevelled Werther, Patrick MacDevitt, was never going to escape from the sickly pain that consumed his whole being. Truckloads of ardency in vocal thrust and persistent downcast frowns weren't converting into a convincing picture. MacDevitt, who understudied the role for Lyric's Werther in 2014, has a striking and large tenor. There is warmth and pliancy to be discovered in the voice but, here, it was heavily sacrificed for unrelenting power, making it hard to invest sympathy in his character's two-dimensional desperate obsession.

In wide contrast, dressed in mourning black, the richly centred and emotively well-calibrated mezzo-soprano, Allegra Giagu, mixed radiance with elegance and poise as Charlotte. In a woman she effortlessly showed as kind and dutiful, troubled and empathetic, Giagu's Charlotte also portrayed a love for Werther that felt real despite the picture of incompatibility. In Act III's opening aria, "Werther! Qui m'aurait dit ... Ces lettres!", in which she dolefully reads over Werther's letters, Giagu dug deep with heartfelt voice on every rise and fall and effected a quivering vibrato that mirrored a crushed inner soul - a performance highlight.

At the side, as conductor, Penn's broad sweeps of the air lovingly shaped what could be gleaned from Massenet's score with only two musicians - Pam Christie attentive on piano and Grace Gilkerson providing excellent technique and essential lugubrious underpinning on cello arranged by Penn.

Just how well this new little boat fairs and finds its raison d'être within the existing scene is yet to be seen. BK Opera's Werther has much appeal but, at this stage, it feels as if it needs tweaking for its audience.

Masonic Hall
141 Gipps Street, Abbotsford
Until 7th May

Production photos: courtesy BK Opera

Friday, April 21, 2017

A fantastic, dark world expires with Deutsche Oper's long-running Der Ring Des Nibelungen in Berlin

When Deutsche Oper's long-running Ring came to an end Monday night, so too did the life of director Götz Friedrich's iconic 1984 production. Soon after Valhalla went up in flames after 17 hours of operatic indulgence over 4 evenings, it was off to the recyclers in an inelegant ending for all the bits and bobs that pieced together its fantastic, dark world.

Inspired by mass transit subway tunnels that connect their cities above, more than three decades on, the concept behind Friedrich's "time-tunnel" Ring still remained vivid to the end even if its age was showing through the few loose boards, creaking set changes and, more distracting, Brünnhilde's wonky platform of punishment. Small reservations aside, it was a magnificent and mammoth achievement befitting Wagner's epic and life-affirming work.

Friedrich's Ring turned to the past as it awakened the future, truncating the action to give sharp focus to its tireless, fully fleshed characters, all 34 of them meeting the dizzying demands as a strong, totally committed and vocally splendid cast.

Before long, the geometric grandeur of Peter Sykora's set design draws the audience in to join the heavens, earth and underworld created within this gently arched tunnel that travels beyond its theatrical scale to form an enormous imagined elliptic torus. It sounds galactic and in Friedrich's version it rather is as its story of power, greed, vengeance and love was taken up in its hulking, metallic tubular world.

A 1980s mixed aesthetic lingered with strains of Spielberg sci-fi and punk rock occasionally orbiting near what now seem a tad cheesy - including the huge, blocky 'mechanitron' that goofily puffed smoke and lit up as a Fafner dragon. An overt sinister and airless atmosphere pervaded in the lighting design, frequently creating the oppressive and claustrophobic weight that married atmosphere with plot. But on the downside, faces were often stuck in shadows and the more colourful costumes were only discovered at curtain call.

"The beginning means the end, and the end is the beginning.” (Götz Friedrich, 1984).

Friedrich's Das Rheingold begins with the Gods shrouded in sheets - as if redundant or in storage - before the waters wash up to set the course of change. They return to the same state in the final scene of Götterdämmerung, therefore helping to emphasise humankind's attempts to make good but inability to escape from a cycle of destruction and rejuvenation.

Renouncing love for power, from the Rhinemaidens' stolen gold, a ring is forged by the Nibelung dwarf, Alberich. In the meantime, Wotan, ruler of the Gods, hasn't bargained too well for the payment of Valhalla, his newly constructed palace for the Gods, built by the Giants Fasolt and Fafner. Rather than keeping his word in handing over his sister Freia - who happens to provide the apples that maintain their youth -  Wotan steals the gold and the forged ring from Alberich, convincing the Giants to release Freia for the gold but, with it, is forced to hand over the ring. Since Alberich had put a curse on the ring, no sooner do the Giants have it than Fafner slays Fasolt and the long struggle to possess it over illogical altered time states takes hold - mostly in clearly delineated vignettes in Freidrich's "time-tunnel".

Das Rheingold ended in a striking tunnelled rainbow of colour as the Gods stepped a pavane into the distance. Fires rose menacingly from five substage burners to surround Brünnhilde's long wait for her hero in Die Walküre. In Götterdämmerung, adding to the scope of wonderful stage pictures, were the lofty pillared hall of the Gibichungs and the broad river of glinting cloth that gave the impression of an underground canal within the tunnel (not a sewer thankfully) when Siegfried rested at the Rhine before his encounter with the Rhinemaidens. A generous and memorable flow of creative splendour there was.

On the other hand, in Die Walküre, what looked like a huge decaying Swiss Army knife in dim light that turned out to be a twisted tree housing the hallowed sword Nothung, seemed not only excessive but out of place and overpowering in Siegmund and Sieglinde's iron-walled abode. A sole overhead light beaming on Siegfried during the long, gut-wrenching Funeral March in Götterdämmerung seemed not enough. Nonetheless, the overall production was characterised by a creatively sound and cohesive structure.

With Wagner's libretto comes an intricately detailed but clearly signposted reference to action present and past, as well as a score rich in easily identifiable leitmotifs that describe characters and objects. You're never lost. And when you realise you've confidently answered the six questions that Wotan, as the Wanderer and Alberich's despised brother Mime put to each other in a contest of wisdom in Siegfried, you've understood the Ring's underlying structure. To what extent the final performances adhered to the original 1984 premiere, however, I can't be sure but revival directors Jasmin Solfaghari and Gerlinde Pelkowski elucidate Friedrich's Ring in bold storytelling. The result is a powerful message - we're not to believe for a minute that any one of us is exempt from behaviour that swings between extremes. Just how far apart those extremes lie become haunting. They should.

It feels innately odd that one might never truly be prepared for Wagner's Ring until those first distant droning opening bars unleash. No amount of study and analysis can replace the rewards invested in experiencing it. In the pit, its lifeblood emanated with Donald Runnicles - Generalmusikdirektor of Deutsche Oper since 2007 - steering the more than 100 musicians of Das Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin through what headed towards a satisfying majestic and well-weighted extravaganza.

The great entrance to Das Rheingold started, however, with a sagging hesitancy and patchy brass tainted an otherwise eloquent sound that took flight once the descent to Alberich's subterranean world arrived. The richness followed in Die Walküre but it was the flawless musicianship in Siegfried that matched the  sensational onstage vocal work where the best results came. It set up a transcendent evening of music for Götterdämmerung and it came in spades with a poignantly drawn and orchestrally shaded reading replete with accentuated elastic tempi.

But the tour de force rested in singing that carried forward the drama absorbingly. As Siegfried, Stefan Vinke reigned supreme, tempering a mix of brashness with tenderness and heroism in a performance taken to precipitous heights that I didn't see at Opera Australia's Melbourne Ring last November. An invincible determination and unimaginable magnificence rang through Vinke's Forging Song in Act I of Siegfried. Both in vocal completeness and physical depiction, Vinke's Siegfried made a believable transition to the hero that Brünnhilde required.

Evelyn Herlitzius stood out with immense fighting spirit and an effortless, highly charged voice to match when she made her appearance as a long ginger-haired Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, the Valkyrie who becomes mortal and redeems the world. A new, transformed Brünnhilde woke up with Ricarda Merbeth's richly blossomed, focussed and intoxicating performance in Siegfried before Herlitzius returned to her splendorous form in Götterdämmerung. Of the two, Merbeth had the edge with clean, smooth and confident stokes accompanying Brünnhilde's introspection but Herlitzius, having the more taxing job, had the voluminous power and forthrightness to shake the house.

Their Valkyries looked oddly and heavily dressed for a punk rock gig but they were a strongly bound and fierce singing contingent, giving the epic's most popular tune, The Ride of the Valkeries, thrilling layers and texture.

Derek Welton, as the first, most youthful, of three Wotans, stamped vocal excellence on the role in an iron-clad performance underneath which a deeply nuanced vocal power full of molten riches percolated through. Iain Paterson followed up robustly, demonstrating in ample vocal expression the exasperation Wotan feels as ruler of the Gods in Die Walküre. And bringing steady, compelling hungry resolve and vocal engine power, Samuel Youn reinforced the desperation and decline of Wotan the Wanderer with heightened belligerence and dramatic magnetism in Siegfried.

Tirelessly authoritative yet loveless in marriage to Wotan, Daniela Sindram's luscious, jewel-encrusted mezzo-soprano accompanied the poise and nobility she depicted as Fricka. The exact measure of vitriol poured from Werner Van Mechelen's broad, gnarly-voiced and snakily determined Alberich while Paul Kaufmann cowered and grovelled as Mime in Das Rheingold. Burkard Ulrich took the part over in impressive tensile, stringy-voiced form in Siegfried after having animated the role of Loge glowingly in Das Rheingold.

The Giants Fasolt and Fafner were a little precarious on their 12-inch steel-framed heels but what they couldn't make up for in mobility was more than delivered with thuggishness. Albert Pesendorfer's heated-voiced Fasolt was taken down by Andrew Harris's more rugged and muscular-voiced Fafner. Returning as Alberich's offspring Hagen, Pesendorfer stealthily took back command in cunning fashion and depths of rich vocal viscosity.

With an especially formidable gift of the heart, Eva-Maria Westbroek sang through her ordeal with class and gravitas as Sieglinde. As her incestuously in love twin brother Siegmund, Stuart Skelton worked bravery to convincing lengths with full-bodied power and as much heroic appeal as befits the future father of Siegfried. Sealed with a more than a cursory kiss, allusions to incest popped up again rather unnecessarily on twins Gunther and Gutrune's road to power-broking marriages. But Seth Carico's fine mix of distinguished polish and nervousness as Gunther and Ricarda Merbeth's return from Brünnhilde as the vixen-like Gutrune were planted strongly in voice.

And Ronnita Miller's brief appearance as Erda in Das Rheingold rather froze time as she edged mysteriously forward in earth-shattering form. Holding a deeply carved and cavernous instrument, Ronnita Miller was a superhuman sensation, returning with penetrating galactic force in Siegfried.

The list of star turns goes on. Götz Friedrich's Ring does not, but one thing is certain - the profound art that exists in Wagner's Ring will. It starts up once again in 2020 at Deutsche Oper under the command of Stefan Herheim in what's going to be a much anticipated affair.

Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Until 17th April 2017

Production Photos: Bettina Stöß

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Staatsoper Berlin's vocally exquisite Die Frau ohne Schatten in a nightmarish psychological thriller

Opera, as an art form, rattles the senses to interpret freely. Indeed, it seemed that way for me in seeing Staatsoper Berlin's new production of Richard Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten  (The Woman without a Shadow) which had come via earlier seasons at La Scala and Covent Garden. I came to Berlin to see Götz Friedrich's final outing of Wagner's Ring at Deutsche Oper. Seeing Staatsoper Berlin's Die Frau ohne Schatten in between was akin to adding a diamond to my visit.

Camilla Nylund (Empress)
Sung in German with German surtitles, it could have been enough to lose me but familiarisation with the synopsis, advised beforehand, lent a good degree of background. In the theatre, however, it's an exercise requiring sustained curiosity and concentration. I gave up whether or not I was on the right track and just took a train of thought to my own conclusion. The rewards were abundant, not least of which included exquisite vocal work, a smashing orchestral landscape with Zubin Mehta at the helm and a visually seductive staging from director Claus Guth.

Strauss' long-time collaborating librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, created the story from sources that included Goethe's "The Conversation of German Emigrants", the Arabian Nights and Grimms' Fairy Tales. In a fantastical collision of spiritual and earth worlds, the onetime gazelle and now shadowless half human/half spirt Empress (Camilla Nylund) - symbolising her inability to bear children - must acquire a shadow. Failing, she will be reclaimed by her father, Keikobad, and her husband turned to stone, the Emperor (Burkhard Fritz), who captured her as a gazelle. The Empress' Nurse (Michaela Schuster) concocts a plan to steal the shadow of a mortal and for this they visit the home of Barak (Wolfgang Koch) and his Wife (Iréne Theorin), she who secretly doesn't want children. 

 Camilla Nylund (Empress), Michaela Schuster Nurse)
In the bright outcome of Hofmannsthal's story pointing at marital love being blessed by children, the two couples unite in praise of their Unborn Children. But Guth appears to distort the intrinsic dark magic profusely, emphasising the macabre  and allowing it to unfold like a nightmarish psychological thriller sung in a treacherous storm of vocal immensity with little note of the joyous ending. The match he makes to Strauss' turbulent score - a spectrum of sublimely lush orchestral layers from dreamy lyricism to tempestuous terror and ecclesiastical glory - is impressive. At curtain call, Maestro Mehta stood genuinely proud, and rightly so of his 100-plus musicians who took the stage after giving non-stop, pounding orchestral vividness.

The curtain rises to reveal a segmented circular-walled, timber-panelled bare bedchamber with the Empress lying comatose-like, attended by the winged Nurse, the winged Messenger of Keikobad dressed as a doctor (Roman Trekel) and the caped Emperor. A sense of loss prevails.

Camilla Nylund (Empress) and Burkhard Fritz (Emperor)
When, in the end, we see the Empress back in her rudimentary steel bed before getting up in her nightgown and gazing emptily through a frosted window, everything in between seems to suggest she had been committed to a sanitarium for the mentally ill, her life precipitously on the edge. 

In a deeply coercive performance as the Empress, Camilla Nyland attacks the role with sensational depth, anxious and writhing in moments of agonised migraine fits and wafting amongst visions of her gazelle-headed counterpart and spirit-world characters with the sense of being taunted by the hopelessness of ever having bearing offspring who she sees as faun-headed children happily dancing about her.

Set and costume designer Christian Schmidt's early 20th Century restrained modernist aesthetic, including a neatly rear-centred revolve that supplies the many scene changes, parallels the time the opera premiered in 1919 and includes Freudian references via Andi A. Müller's video projections, including a hand petting the gazelle's fur and schools of fish. Olaf Winter's lighting design shapes a marvellous, dark, evocative and complex beauty.

Nyland tears through the vocal writing in wondrous form, the agility, grace, beauty and alertness of the gazelle clearly replicated in her plush dramatic soprano. She is joined by two equally outstanding women in Michaela Schuster, who sang the role of the Nurse in both Milan and London, and Iréne Theorin as Barak's Wife.

Burkhard Fritz (Emperor)
Alluringly rich and acrobatic in vocal technique, indefatigable dramatic mezzo-soprano Schuster grips and plucks the air in sinister and selfish witch-like behaviour, winged in black as if mimicking the Empress's distrust in her dependency on her carer's expected guardian angel-like quality. To Barak's scolding and defiant Wife, Theorin gives expressive command and a rich forest of vocal shading. 

Burkhard Fritz's distinguished, capacious sounding Emperor and Wolfgang Koch's muscular-voiced, rustic and berated Barak sturdily complimented the power of the women alongside an entire cast that shone brilliantly, never faltering in staying above the volume from the pit. Roman Trekel's resonant, dark and dusky bass-baritone as the Messenger of Keikobad, tenor Jun-Sang Han's suave and sonorous woos as The Apparition of a Youth with Narine Yeghiyan's refined and mellifluous soprano accompanying her watchful and flapping Falcon all added dramatic depth. 

I was completely carried away by the quality, strength and splendour of the cast. The audience were clearly enraptured too in this production that will continue to etch its captivating and haunting stage pictures in time to come, in an interpretation in which I want to remember Die Frau ohne Schatten.

Staatsoper Berlin
Schiller Theater
Until 16th April 

Production photos: Hans Jörg Michel