Friday, August 11, 2017

When world class is ordained magnificently so - Opera Australia's Parsifal in concert at Sydney Opera House


Two elements of Opera Australia's much-anticipated performance of Richard Wagner's Parsifal might not go down too well with the composer, who conceived opera as Gesamtkunstwerk - a complete work of art - a fusion of music, voice, drama, setting and design. Firstly, the nuts and bolts of a fully staged production were forgone for a concert presentation in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall (the originally intended home for opera in the larger shelled section of the venue). Secondly, conductor Pinchas Steinberg's Israel-born status brings to mind the composer's rejection of the German-born Jewish court conductor at the Munich Opera, Hermann Levi, presiding at the work's Bayreuth premiere in 1882. To King Ludwig, who sponsored the opera, Wagner had expressed alleged dissatisfaction in having a Jew conduct "this most Christian of works". 


M. Honeyman, K. Youn, J. Kaufmann, P. Steinberg and M. DeYoung
Wagner lost on the second account in Bayreuth where Levi took the baton. On the first account, 135 years later, Wagner would hopefully be proud of Opera Australia's world class concert interpretation directed by Hugh Halliday and Steinberg's patient approach and graphic musical rendering.

With over four hours of time-distorting music drama - what Wagner described as "Ein Bühnenweihfestspiel" ("A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage") - the Opera Australia Orchestra nudging 100 untiring musicians, 16 passionate soloists and an 80-strong chorus, the story of the unassuming and ignorant Parsifal, who is destined to become the saviour of the Grail Knights, is enacted with heartfelt commitment, captivating detail and deep respectfulness. 

Amongst them all, in the title role and a certain drawcard who the world wants to brand its greatest tenor, Jonas Kaufmann brought his trademark, deliciously handsome, intense and warmly burnished sound to one of opera's most humble characters. Kaufmann, depicting Parsifal's youthful unease in the dignified attire of tuxedo, sensitively championed Parsifal's humility and subsequent enlightenment and compassion. With the backing of experience in the role, Kaufmann's smooth effortlessness, complex depth and grip on the text made an edifying performance as his pensiveness took on the demeanour of a man who knows not how to relate to his world. The star tenor didn't disappoint.


Pinchas Steinberg, Michelle DeYoung, Simon King and Michael Honeyman
American mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, who tantalised Melbourne audiences in excerpts of Parsifal's blustery Act II alongside Stuart Skelton last year with the MSO, dug deep into her role as Kundry, the wild woman and seductress of the knights. Broad in range, from cavernous drumming lows to a full-bodied middle and topped with mighty chilling lighting strikes of the voice, DeYoung delivered the complete multi-dimensional package, not without a dismissive smugness of expression that comes with her character's tormented and exiled soul. 

But if Kaufmann was the drawcard, Korean bass Kwanchul Youn was the evening's firm foundation as the veteran Knight of the Grail, Gurnemanz. Straight shouldered and planted with commanding confidence, Youn embodied the wisdom of the sage and charisma of an orator with his thrilling, intoxicatingly well-enunciated declamatory delivery, shades of warmth and seemingly infinite reserves of power from subterranean lows to billowing highs.

Australian baritone Michael Honeyman moves from strength to strength with every role he tackles and continues to impress in Wagnerian territory. Honeyman's role debut as Amfortas was accompanied with soul-searching gravitas, golden-edged resonance and purity in depicting the ruler of the Grail kingdom, aggravated by guilt and suffering in pain, his wandering, at times fixed, wide-eyed gaze full of inner anguish.


Pinchas Steinberg and Jonas Kaufmann
As the magician Klingsor, who was expelled by the Grail knights for his impure desires and established himself in the valley outside Montsalvat, Warwick Fyfe brought his unique combination of vocal and performance style to his villainous character (with Vincent Price coming to mind) in a magnificent display. With powerfully heated stentorian might, as if delivered from a smelter within, the energy that Fyfe delivered came skilfully forged and phrased, adding further weight to the heights he can reach after his excellent Alberich in Opera Australia's Ring. 

Smaller roles were filled marvellously by a strong contingent of local regulars at Opera Australia with David Parkin well-grounded and resonant as Amfortas' father, Titurel and Eva Kong with Anna Dowsley opening eloquently as the First and Second Esquire before joining Stacey Alleaume, Jane Ede, Julie Lea Goodwin and Dominica Matthews, who, as the six Flower Maidens, harmonised gorgeously. Graeme Macfarlane, Simon Kim, Dean Bassett and Alexander Hargreaves made great work of the Third and Fourth Esquire and First and Second Knight respectively, with Hargreaves having a particularly secure and appealing baritone. 

Back of stage, when the Opera Australia Chorus of knights and flower maidens took to their feet, they sang with beautifully structured layering and superb gradations in volume, the men especially moving with their thrilling crescendos. A fine silken beauty shone through the 20 children in their midst.

Most attentive to drawing the soloists into to the music, Steinberg kept a firm hand on what were buoyant and invitingly paced results. Each of the Vorspiel and orchestral interludes, in particular, demonstrated the refined musicianship and the score's wide-reaching colours.

It all came presented pleasingly with Halliday making sensible choices for the comings and goings of the soloists and John Rayment's subtle lighting that, in the final moments, tinged the acoustic discs above the stage in red as the Grail is 'unveiled'. 

While the Opera Australia 2017 Sydney season was looking thin while renovations are currently in progress at the Opera House Theatre, the company have, nonetheless, made a successful step onto the Concert Hall stage which won't be forgotten. 


PARSIFAL
Opera Australia 
Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House 
Until 14th August

Production Photos: Keith Saunders

Monday, August 7, 2017

Melbourne Opera's Lohengrin radiates gloriously in its mysterious medieval vision: Herald Sun Review

http://www.heraldsun.com.au/lifestyle/melbourne/melbourne-operas-lohengrin-is-a-triumpn/news-story/19ba2fcdd1512efefac5daf5127c7e45

Published online at Herald Sun 8th August and in print 9th August, 2017



With its riveting drama, glorious music, radiant voices and its mysterious medieval vision, Melbourne Opera adds a crown to its credentials with its new production of Richard Wagner’s sprawling romantic work, Lohengrin.

For a composer who created some of the most monumental works of the repertoire and who envisioned and had constructed an opera house exemplifying his ideals, there is no surprise that he dictated all aspects of production scrupulously.

Marius Vlad as Lohengrin with Melbourne Opera Chorus
Now almost 170 years since it premiered in 1850, the work beams under Suzanne Chaundy’s subtle and effective direction in an interpretation that is clearly suggestive of its intended 10th century Germanic setting.

Realism and fantasy collide on a background of impending battle in which Elsa of Brabant is wrongly accused of her brother’s murder. Sailing in on a swan (deftly staged with magical projections in a rain of mist), an enigmatic knight arrives to defend her honour, precipitating a marriage with the caveat that Elsa is never to question his identity. A big ask! And, just as there are no guarantees of victory in war, there are no guarantees of doubtlessness in love. When seeds of doubt are planted, Lohengrin becomes a dramatic essay on the attack of faith by reason.

In an extraordinary wash of rich colour and atmosphere from Chaundy’s all female creative team — Christina Logan-Bell (sets), Lucy Wilkins (costumes), Lucy Birkinshaw (lighting) and Yandell Walton (video designs) — Lohengrin pulsates as much visually as it does musically (bar a tentative start on opening night) under conductor David Kram’s splendidly measured tempos and the 70-piece MO Orchestra. Rallying clarion trumpet fanfares from the side balconies add an especially spectacular dynamic.

On a sculptured run of steps under a changing sky that reflects the mystery, menace and jubilation of the narrative, the cast delivered quality from top to bottom.

Helena Dix as Elsa and Marius Vlad as Lohengrin
Wagnerian tenor Marius Vlad imparts calm and charisma in the taxing titular role as a gallant and near-saintly Lohengrin, his featherlight vibrato touching the air in a range of easy command and steadiness.

Making a formidable long-awaited return home to Melbourne, soprano Helena Dix confirmed her expertise in a captivating and tenderly calibrated vocal rendition of the innocent Elsa, her deep reserves of power gem-cut and pure.

On the dark side, Icelandic heldenbaritone Hrólfur Sæmundsson’s imposing and agitated Telramund is a vocally percolating spitfire, matching the evil and crazed Ortrud who mezzosoprano Sarah Sweeting conjures with magnificent, threateningly carved and luscious-voiced cunningness.

As King Henry the Fowler, gravelly bass and familiar figure at MO, Eddie Muliaumaseali’i presides with confident, balanced authority in what points to a grand career highlight and baritone Phillip Calcagno impresses with unwavering resonant muscularity as his Herald.

Guided by Raymond Lawrence, the vivid, undulating immensity of the 60-strong MO Chorus contribute markedly to the many tableaus and are directed with increasingly detailed action as the drama progresses.

Chaundy’s Lohengrin addresses conflict, doubt and vulnerability sublimely on a scale of love and war. On a scale of should I or shouldn’t I, no procrastination necessary. Simply go!


Melbourne Opera

Regent Theatre, until 12th August

Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University, 19 August

4.5 stars


Production Photos: Robin Halls

Thursday, July 20, 2017

An edgy, intelligent and dramatically well-paced Poppea from Lyric Opera of Melbourne: Herald Sun Review

http://www.heraldsun.com.au/lifestyle/melbourne/the-coronation-of-poppea-is-a-faithful-yet-dynamic-production/news-story/0f0f1212d1e3df1fd134413155bff94a

Published online at Herald Sun 17th July and in print 18th July 2017.


Back in the mid 17th century, Claudio Monteverdi was writing musical dramas before the word opera was coined to describe them. As opera in its infancy, his final such work, The Coronation of Poppea, is a masterpiece of mature dramatic clout that, in this 450th anniversary of his birth, surges to life in Lyric Opera of Melbourne’s outstanding new production.

Rebecca Rashleigh as Poppea and Nicholas Jones as Nero
Director Tyran Parke’s fine credentials are put to the test in an opera directorial debut that delivers an edgy, intelligent and dramatically well-paced entertaining treasure.

Monteverdi’s sensational account of the Roman emperor Nero’s (Nicholas Jones) blinkered pursuit of love for his mistress Poppea (Rebecca Rashleigh), her ambitions of power and the Empress Ottavia (Caroline Vercoe) gravely aware of the vulnerability of her position, is the basis on which moral compasses on all fronts break down. Threaded through, the goddesses of Fortune, Virtue and Love, are having a cat fight of their own for supremacy.

In the spirit of a Venetian Carnivale, or simply the everyday, Virtue (Hew Wagner) and Fortune (Robert Macfarlane) open proceedings outrageously as two drunken and dishevelled drag queens with Love (Alison Lemoh) spying from above. After this eyebrow-raising start — spicy fodder for the salaciousness and depravity that ensues — superbly depicted character interactions accompanied by quality singing culminate in Nero and Poppea singing a heavenly love duet that comes with its own sense of irony.

Planted firmly on the poetry of the text, Parke’s inventiveness is replicated by design (Dann Barber, Rob Sowinski and Bryn Cullen) that brims with sophistication. Time appears fluid but a beautifully tailored 1950s-like aesthetic peers comfortably through more classical details, centred around a versatile imposing pedimented armoire that conceals Nero and Poppea’s bed. The effect is fresh and modern with the sense that Ancient Rome is just as palpably present.

Caroline Vercoe as Ottavia
Coalescing deliciously with the drama, Monteverdi’s music (though it’s not entirely his) trickles and wafts divinely with sympathetic support for the performers from a small ensemble conducted from keyboard by Pat Miller.

As cute as a kitten and calculating with her feline charm and intrigue, Rashleigh is radiant as the plotting Poppea. Exuding suaveness and authority, Jones’ dynamic-voiced Nero is a superb compliment to Poppea. Vocally rich and darkly hued, Vercoe’s touching expressivity is a standout as the rejected Ottavia. Nicholas Tolputt meets countertenor demands with polish as the murderously manipulated Ottone, Elizabeth Stannard-Cohen makes a shining beacon of Drusilla, Damian Whiteley’s philosophising and suicide-forced Seneca comes with stamina and conviction and Bernard Leon shows his vocal chops as a sinisterly lurking Mercury.

Including an aria sung as popcorn is stuffed down the gullet, Parke’s part-prankish approach is an enlivening accompaniment to the percolating drama, one he gives truthfulness to that celebrates the opera’s near 400-year existence and a highly recommended one to head off to.


The Coronation of Poppea
Lyric Opera of Melbourne
Chapel off Chapel
Until 22nd July

4-stars

Production Photos: Sarah Walker

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A vivid and tantalising Il viaggio a Reims at Opera di Roma from director Damiano Michieletto


Art and opera afford all sorts of ways to look at ourselves, our world and our history. In one of the many vivid and tantalising tableaux in director Damiano Michieletto's new production of Il viaggio a Reims, the subjects of a series of familiar paintings hanging in a modern gallery come to life splendidly, parading through the space observing and silently commenting on the others that hang around them - a Van Gogh self-portrait, Magritte's apple-nosed "The Son of Man", Botero's "Melancholia", Goya's "The Duchess of Alba" among them, as well as a Keith Haring dancing man.

The way in which Michieletto both transposes the story of Rossini's staged rarity and turns it inside out is reminiscent of what radical art critic John Berger once stated, "I can't tell you what art does and how it does it, but I know that often art has judged the judges". Known for his own insightful and unconventional style, Michieletto's inspired way of seeing has art even judging itself in this new coproduction first seen at Dutch National Opera last year and completing its current run at Teatro dell'Opera di Roma.

Il viaggio a Reims, Teatro dell'Opera di Roma
The kind of musical merry-go-round of marvellous melodies that characterise Rossini scores are in full bloom in this punchy work composed for the coronation of the French king, Charles X, and which many of the greatest singers were assembled for, including the esteemed Giuditta Pasta. Rossini's vitality and wit is brought to a story that documents the coronation itself in a near three-hour dramma giocoso about a menagerie of characters on their way to Rheims for the festivities.

In Michieletto's twist, the Golden Lily spa hotel, at which the travellers stop on route, becomes the Golden Lilium Gallery, a white-walled and down-lit modernist exhibition space that fills the stage as part of Paolo Fantin's crisp designs. Characters either reside in the real world, a picture world or, what generates much comic interplay, both. For all this, Carla Teti's meticulous costumes and Alessandro Carletti's evocative lighting create a wondrously captivating effect.

If Michieletto is saying anything during the course of this slowly cooking surreal world, apart from giving his audience a crack at Berger's ways of seeing, it's perhaps that the world we look at in art can be transformational, that art does mimic life and, as he majestically presents it, vice-versa. It seems a far cry from Charles X's big day but Michieletto ingeniously brings into the picture François Gérard's 1825 painting, "The coronation of Charles X”, to be unveiled at the exhibition opening. In what leads to a spectacle-rich conclusion, characters that appear to have stepped out of one painting (something of an unappreciated and tired Classical Roman-set historical Enlightenment work) over the course of the day, take their place to recreate Gérard's painting in a magnificent tableau vivant that subsequently morphs into the 'real' (photo image) of the work.

Il viaggio a Reims, Teatro dell'opera do Roma
Getting there wasn't so straightforward for the uninitiated with so many attention-seeking characters making their entrance (how can they not be while dazzling with the score's flamboyant and devilishly difficult vocal writing), not as Rossini originals and, often illogically, at odds with Luigi Balocchi's libretto which does, at least, get some revision.

For this final performance, some of the lead roles were taken by the second cast who stepped into their parts with aplomb. Other roles were filled with a young batch of developing singers who, for the most part, meet the demands but whose vocal enthusiasm at times obstructed the underlying heart of their music.

Madame Cortese, who soprano Valentina Varriale sung with lovely embroidered elegance and ample richness, is the gallery curator, a stylish, bespectacled and hard-nailed sort who is preparing for the exhibition opening. Smooth and oaky bass-baritone Nicola Ulivieri distinguished himself superbly as Don Profondo, scholar and lover of antiquities in the original, here a learned fine art auctioneer. Soprano Adriana Ferfecka shone honourably as Corinna, a coy art student, opening up with delightfully sweet lyricism and taking it away in her radiantly secure final extended aria.

After an unremarkable start to the busy preparations at Madame Cortese's gallery, the purity and agility of Maria Aleida's honeyed soprano was the first to impress as Countess Folleville, the fashionable, bonneted young widow. Rossini's Lord Sidney, is a restoration technician who falls in love with the woman in the painting he is working on and was depicted with a refined and mellowed romantic sensibility by bass Adrian Sâmpetrean. An excellent display also came from suave-voiced baritone Davide Giangregorio as the check-shirted, hard-hatted foreman, Antonio, and Cecilia Molinari's rich, dark and exquisite Melibea.

Characterful bass Bruno De Simone, singing the role of Barone di Trombonok as a dishevelled history painting subject, becomes the dignified archbishop in the final tableaux. Not so fulfilling were the tenors on the night but Cristian Collia acquitted himself admirably as Zefirino and Juan Francisco Gatell developed nicely with his warmth and luminosity as Belfiore.

A well-prepared large chorus of cleaners, white overalled exhibition labourers and gallery staff worked the music and stage with great appeal. What emanated from the pit under conductor Stefano Montanari, however, despite the fine musicianship on show and eloquence of style, failed to consistently deliver Rossini's inimitable effervescence.

All in all, Michieletto's production worked its magic but knowing who is who in Rossini's menagerie and who they are represented as in Michieletto's interpretation takes a little getting used to.


Teatro dell'Opera di Roma
Until 24th June.


Production Photos: Yasuko Kageyama





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.

http://artsreview.com.au/nutcracker-the-story-of-clara-2/


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
Bookings: www.artscentremelbourne.com.au

For more information, visit: www.australianballet.com.au 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.


THE CONSUL
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

http://www.heraldsun.com.au/entertainment/arts/opera-australias-king-roger-is-profoundly-compelling-and-mysteriously-beautiful/news-story/302dd5f1574ca37d26e877dd19bb8ae6
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.


KING ROGER

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.


MY FAIR LADY
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

http://www.heraldsun.com.au/entertainment/arts/opera-australia-presents-mascagnis-cavalleria-rusticana-and-leoncavallos-pagliacci-in-a-double-bill/news-story/5e804c4d3602de8b0414395064cd724a

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.



CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA/I PAGLIACCI by Opera Australia

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

http://www.heraldsun.com.au/entertainment/arts/opera-australias-carmen-creates-dramatic-effect/news-story/ae9da2e645b858891785484cb178a282

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.


CARMEN
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

http://www.heraldsun.com.au/entertainment/arts/review-emotionworks-presents-tosca-in-a-courtyard-of-the-historic-pentridge-prison/news-story/76b5d6e31219cb52865eb7f93872d6fd

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