Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Adventure and enthusiasm aplenty in Victorian Opera's youth opera, The Second Hurricane

Published in print in Melbourne's Herald Sun, in edited form, 10th October, 2017.

Youth's adventurous spirit and boundless enthusiasm is on full display in Victorian Opera's latest production that nurtures the future of young singers as part of Victorian Opera Youth Chorus Ensemble (VOYCE).

Victorian Opera's VOYCE, The Second Hurricane
American composer Aaron Copland's The Second Hurricane, premiered in 1937 and written specifically as a youth opera, gives a compelling account of a group of six high school students who volunteer and fly off to aid victims of a hurricane. Avidity takes a turn as they become stranded with floodwaters rising around them but learn to resolve their differences and rally together after a second hurricane strikes.

Copland and librettist Edwin Denby's one-hour work unfolds like a music parable. Copland's fizzing score notes an insistence on "ascetic Brechtian performance style", as the program outlines, which director and VO Developing Artist Alastair Clark adheres meticulously to and delivers with invigoration along its course. Accordingly, in its Marxist-influenced social message of solidarity, focus is on the collective rather than individual characters and commentary is strongly and directly addressed to the audience, mostly in linear stage-fronting formation.

Rare, and a shame, are the use and warmth of personal interaction and eye contact. In its place are simple hand waving, crouching, salutes and other well-choreographed sequences of community solidarity that, despite their eye-catching style and impeccably timed nature, end up sugaring rather than churning the experience.

What clearly stood proud on opening night was the excellent and exuberant singing, along with crystal diction, that the more than forty youth combine to perform. The work's emphasis on chorus work gave them ample opportunity to shine. Conducting, Angus Grant did a sterling job in securing a seamlessly rich sound from both the performers and Tom Griffiths' solo piano accompaniment.

Victorian Opera's VOYCE, The Second Hurricane
Mellifluous soprano Shimona Thevathasan sparkled as head of the class, Queenie, pairing with James Emerson's firm-voiced and balanced, natural appeal as Gyp in a touching moment of crisis. James Young's meaty vocals pushed their weight as class bully Fat and Lachlan McLean  was resonant as the new kid Butch trying to take leadership. Other roles were covered solidly with Thomas Harvey as an effeminate nerd and class "brain" Lowrie, Saskia Mascitti as the determined Gwen and Dorcas Lim in the pants role as Jeff, the country-boy hick.

Eduard Ingles' efficient design is a simple jumble of chairs hung over a broad, stepped platform that incorporates lighting that subtly captures mood. Hues of blue denim and casual tops provide effective costumes (supervised by Joanne Paterson) for a chorus that become the floodwaters surrounding the students in a deeply atmospheric scene and whose identities stand out in bold, stereotypical costumes.

The Second Hurricane entices visually and showcases the strength and discipline of our young local singers marvellously but faithfulness to its staunch Brechtian ways also tends to be its entrapment.

The Second Hurricane
Victorian Opera
Horti Hall, 31 Victoria Street, Melbourne
Until 15th October
3.5 stars

Production Photos: Charlie Kinross

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Ferruccio Furlanetto and Igor Tchetuev in recital - an affecting and incisive intrepretation of Russian art songs

How rare it is to hear the deepest extremes of the human vocal instrument given centre-stage attention in recital. In opera, as devils and gods, kings, leaders and fathers, the bass voice embraces, smothers and thunders its hefty way into the drama, more often without stealing the limelight from the glamorous sopranos or tenors. It's these such roles that internationally acclaimed Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto has stamped his mark on in all the major opera houses - the title role of Boris Godunov aside, there's Jacopo Fiesco in Simon Boccanegra, Prince Gremin in Eugene Onegin and Philippe II in Don Carlos, which Furlanetto sang in his Australian debut in Sydney in 2015.

On Monday evening, in a recital presented by Opera Australia, local audiences had the fortune to attend Furlanetto's Melbourne debut at the Melbourne Recital Hall in an all Russian program of songs by Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) and Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881). On show was the superbly refined sound of an artist whose secure, resonant and smouldering bass clad the songs in thrilling dramatic purpose. At piano, Ukrainian born pianist Igor Tchetuev's insightful playing and judiciously balanced support provided additional striking textures. Together, a lush and thickly blanketed acoustic blend filled the venue's large Elizabeth Murdoch Hall.

Furlanetto and Tchetuev have appeared numerous times together and the polish they apply to performance is evidently ingrained. In 2010, the pair released a CD recording of Rachmaninov and Mussorgsky songs on Prestige Classics Vienna, simply titled, Songs. It's from this collection that the Melbourne recital is predominantly based (as was the same program performed at Sydney Recital Hall on 30th September).

The evening was characterised by songs of pronounced introspection, often plaintive and eerie, to verse that speaks to the landscape, to the unseen and to the heart and Furlanetto meandered through them eloquently. A complimentary program booklet included the English translation of the songs, though it would have been helpful to see in print the Russian being sung. Nonetheless, and notably, Furlanetto guided the listener through the text via expertly described interpretations.

The program's first part featured eight songs by Rachmaninov (some coming in at barely a minute's length), including "The Silent Night" and "O, No, I Beg You, Do Not Leave!" from the early Op. 4 designated song set and "A Dream" from the Op. 8 of 1893. From the Op. 21 set of 1902, Furlanetto began the evening in commanding form with the heavy air that the song "Fate" carries, the word 'Стук' (Stuk), or 'knock' hammered three times and interspersed through the text to reinforce the ominous end to come. Furlanetto established an immediate connection to the spirit of the song, extracting its dark colours as he stood in front of the piano and occasionally leaning a hand on it to take the weight of an anxious and affected character.

Also from Op. 21, Furlanetto imbued the songs "Lilacs" and "How Nice it is Here" with ample richness within their brevity, a big and beautifully harnessed middle and low range burning from the engine inside. If one could detect a slight hesitancy and push at the top of the voice early in the first part, any doubts about its health and powerful soaring height was easily swept aside before the first part's last song, "The fields are covered still with snow" of Op.14, was over, a song that yields radiance and warmth in tone and hope.

Nine songs by Mussorgsky formed the second part of the program, including the four-song cycle composed in the mid-1870s considered to be Mussorgsky's masterpiece in the genre, "Songs of Dance and Death", which were saved for last. Within them, Furlanetto delivered the sadness and horror of death, which arrives in various forms, for each of the dark-hued and individualistic songs - "Trepak", "Lullaby", "Serenade", and the tumultuous "The Field Marshall" - in enigmatic storytelling style and diverse chromatic beauty. The conviction, fluidity and fire in Furlanetto's interpretation was to become the evening's runaway highlight.

In the first five songs, mostly brief but which generate just as much poignancy in their little vignettes, Furlanetto maintained a believable love for the music he sang, beginning with a soulful "The Leaves were Whispering Sadly" (written when Mussorgsky was 19 years old) which featured the voice's tremendous steadiness and clean crescendos. The  sense of tension relayed in "What are Words of Love to You?", the warm and chesty resonance that compliments "Song of the Old Man" and the determination to convey the sadness of loneliness in "The Winds Blow" with effortlessly cohesive phrasing - even in depths of gravitas, Furlanetto has the ability to edge the voice in attractive golden light.

Next May, Furlanetto returns to Melbourne to take the title role in Opera Australia's new production of Massenet's Don Quichotte. For those in the audience who saw the calibre of performance that Furlanetto brought to this collection of Russian art songs, an outstanding treat awaits.

Ferruccio Furlanetto and Igor Tchetuev in Recital
Melbourne Recital Hall
2nd, October 2017

Sunday, October 1, 2017

On the Coolangatta sands, Verdi's Aida is dazzlingly brought to life in Opera Australia's Griffith Opera on the Beach

Treated to a clear and calm evening with a background of pre-performance Middle Eastern music and a Pacific Ocean horizon view, Opera Australia's new production of Verdi's Aida promises exoticism to sink the teeth into and sand to dig the feet in. It's Old Kingdom Egypt on the beach at Gold Coast's Coolangatta and it's an experience few barefooted opera-goers would leave unimpressed by. This is the national opera company's Griffith Opera on the Beach, a collaboration between Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University with support from Tourism and Events Queensland (amongst others) and it comes in first-class form.

 Opera Australia's Griffith Opera on the Beach - Aida
On top of there being so much to love about the concept of opera on the beach, director Hugh Halliday's Aida unfolds gloriously on the sands in a musically fulfilling, vocally splendid and boldly presented evening of astutely realised drama in a broadly traditional approach.

Rising above a stepped terrace on which two minor sphinxes demarcate the outer area, two lofty sandstone pylons form a centralised gateway flanked by two 6-metre high statues of seated pharaohs. Set designer David Fleischer's imposing scheme is guided by symmetry and fantastic realism, providing three doorways as entry points on the edifice. Further access is achieved via left and right forecourt sides as well as steps from the sands up to it. Fleischer gives Halliday much to work with. Halliday obliges with rewarding results, commendably conveying the expected pageantry with vivid and uncomplicated effectiveness as he carefully juxtaposes a large community chorus (alongside 7 members of the Opera Australia Chorus) with scenes of dramatic intimacy and reserves of sensitivity.

Two well-behaved camels transport their cargo appropriately. Local surf lifesavers assist in presenting the spoils of war (a smiling nod to the oddity of it) in Act 2's famous moment as part of a gorgeously rendered and sung triumphal celebration of victory,  Gloria all'Egitto, ad Iside / "Glory to Egypt, to Isis!" and Elise May's dynamic choreography of her 10 flexible dancers from Expressions Dance Company weaves itself eye-catchingly without intrusion on proceedings. The creative picture is enhanced by Anna Cordingley's stylised ancient Egyptian and Ethiopian costumes that punch their shimmering beauty through with vibrancy and cohesiveness and David Walter's lighting design that captures everything from the colossal to the focused with exciting and evocative moods.

Anna-Louise Cole as Aida
Fine pageantry aside - fireworks included - the turns and tension of the story of forbidden love between the Ethiopian slave princess Aida and the captain of the Egyptian army Radamès are skilfully driven by a strong cast of soloists.

Signalling what should be more big roles to come, soprano Anna-Louise Cole is exquisite in the title role as Aida (which she shares with Natalie Aroyan), depicting her with an affecting multi-dimensional spirit that captures everything from the gently feminine to the defiant and coercive. Cole sings with highly attractive vocal richness, expression and poise while exhibiting an easy comfort across a broad range to elevate the demands on every account. If there was just one moment to keep close in Cole's performance, it would be the burning tenderness brought to Act 3's Qui Radamès verra .. O patria mia / "Oh, my dear country!", in which Aida waits for Radamès outside the Temple of Isis on the eve of his wedding to Amneris, daughter of the King of Egypt. The crowd acknowledged it enthusiastically.

Arnold Rawls as Radamès
In fact, Act 3's entirety is a riveting and emotion-charged highlight both in direction and delivery, centring around Aida's cornered heart that faces loyalty to her father Amonasro and love for Radamès.

As Radamès, robust tenor Arnold Rawls powerfully invokes the warrior spirit and gives it unwavering vocal muscularity in a Goliathan and most convincing outing. But Rawls, just as marvellously, expresses Radamès heart in passionately warm tones in his love for Aida and for country, soaring through Act 1's Celeste Aida / "Heavenly Aida" in a thrilling opening aria full of melting resonance and command. Showing both the authoritative and affectionately paternal sides of Amonasro, King of Ethiopia, resonant and dusky baritone Michael Honeyman is the third in the trio of best performances.

Although at ease and beauty in top-range rage with her lush, dark mezzo-soprano, Sian Pendry's angulated-acted and overwrought-directed Amneris (whose role she shares with Milijana Nikolic) becomes an overdramatised distraction. There's pleasing firmness and openness in Gennadi Dubinsk's High Priest Ramfis and heavy bass solidity in David Hibbarb's steadfast King of Egypt. Two minor roles are filled impressively with tenor Stuart Haycock's strident-voiced Messenger and Leah Thomas as the delicately sweet-sounding High Priestess. The Opera Australia Community Chorus, in a range of roles from Egyptian soldiers and Ethiopian slaves to priests and priestesses, move with confidence and sing in excellent form.

Michael Honeyman as Amonasro
Behind the scenes keeping Verdi's score in eloquent and resplendent form, conductor Tahu Matheson leads an outstanding team from Opera Australia Orchestra and Griffith University student musicians. The contrasts between expert billowing woodwind and crisp brass playing brilliantly compliment the warm string section, which the cellos and double basses support with beautifully cushioned passages. Much credit goes to sound designer Adrian Riddell in attaining such high standards in the acoustic execution of music and song in an outdoor setting.

In Act 4's final scene in which Radamès is sealed in the vault of the Temple of Vulcan and where Aida had previously snuck into, the lighting on the sandstone central gateway is evocative enough to make a convincingly airless end to a night in which not a breath of wind blew to drive the sand. The suffocation is palpable, the effect breathless as Cole's Aida and Rawls' Radamès unite in death. And after the scaffold, fibreglass, gantries and low-backed beach chairs are removed, the picture-book-brought-to-dazzling-life quality of this Aida will remain for those who took the journey.

The local community of Coolangatta is waiting for the next project. So will those who'll want to visit again from far and wide. Griffith Opera on the Beach, @OperaAustralia #OperaBeach, is one of the national companies great and outreaching endeavours.

Opera Australia, Griffith Opera on the Beach
Coolangatta Beach, Gold Coast
Until 30th September.

Production Photographs: Scott Belzner

Thursday, September 28, 2017

A voyeuristic edge frames BK Opera's inescapably gripping La voix humaine

Bethany Eloise, La voix humaine
At first, it was difficult to know whether I had arrived at the right spot for BK Opera's final production of their three-opera season for 2017. But, after a tentative climb above a few flights of stairs at 193 Bourke Street in central Melbourne, I was greeted by artistic director, Kate Millett and relieved to be where I was supposed to. As part of Melbourne's Fringe Festival, the enigma of dabbling into theatrically unsophisticated and surprising new spaces was palpable. What was to come could very well leave its dramatic stain upon them.

It may even leave you feeling that you weren't meant to be there. In Francois Poulenc's haunting one-act opera, La voix humaine, Millett creates a setting for four disturbing and fluidly connected encounters with a nameless woman ("Elle" or "She" in French) who is suffering after the breakdown of a 5-year relationship with her "Mon Cheri" and who eventually takes her life after a series of real-time telephone conversations in 45 minutes of dramatic monologue. We are by no means guests in her cocooned little bed chamber, four of them - each with its own singer who depicts her mental deterioration - but attend, watch and listen in voyeuristic and helpless quietude. The result is inescapably gripping.

The human state is not immune from the pain of breaking up and each of the four singers - Bethany Eloise, April Foster, Adelaide Greenaway and Lara Vosicano (who replaced an indisposed Lisa Lally) - brought out a spectrum of touching and nuanced colours along the way. In particular, Bethany Eloise, who opens the work, immediately draws you in with her engaging style, beautifully articulated and attentively emotive recitative as well as richness of singing. The French-sung libretto is surtitled in English but their inconveniently high-placed position stretches the neck away from the scenario.

The risk of compartmenting such a specifically solo-focused work into 4 sections is that cohesiveness and focus could easily collapse. In this case, with no space for more than a small audience of 10 who stand, sit or kneel in a tight and up-close arrangement, each brief part highlighted the voyeuristic nature of the experiences. It also provides these 4 young singers an opportunity to share the rigorous demands of the role.

Adelaide Greenaway, La voix humaine
As an odalisque-like figure just an arm's reach away and as up close as it gets, "Elle's" private world of hot pink vibrancy, an obsession with fluffy stuffed animals and a mood of soft sensuality describe the first of the 3m x 4m rooms. Moving from one room to the next, the intensity of pink diminishes until the last room wears a dominant white palette, metaphorically suggesting that the emotional toll on "Elle" has gradually drained her of purpose. Pam Christie's skill on keyboard and James Penn's narrative-friendly musical direction provide simple and adequate backing from out in the corridor.

The final moments lose power when "Elle" twists the telephone cord dangerously yet almost playfully around her neck but the overall tragedy is starkly realised. You leave the last room and walk past each of the other three spying on each of these young women frozen in their little rooms of soft-lit pinks. It might even remind you of the plush window boxes in Amsterdam's red light district. Perhaps this "Elle" had wanted so much to be loved that, when its no longer there, the pain and humiliation is too great. Whichever way you think of it, this is a Fringe Festival show worth looking and standing for.

La voix humaine
BK Opera
Carlton Club
Level 4, 193 Bourke Street, Melbourne
Until 30th September.

Production Photos: courtesy of Kate Millett

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Thoughtfully realised and eerily captivating - Victorian Opera and Malthouse Theatre's Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets

Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets isn't a new work but it looks and feels piquantly so in Victoria Opera and Malthouse Theatre's latest co-production and presented as part of the 2017 Melbourne Festival. Premiered in Hamburg in 1990 with music and lyrics by Tom Waits and text by William S. Burroughs, the story has its roots in the dark and unsettling German folktale which the Romantic composer Carl Maria von Weber set to a luscious and haunting score back in 1821, in the opera Der Freischütz.

Dimity Shepherd (Käthchen) and Kanen Breen (Wilhelm) 
The marriage of the daughter of a celebrated huntsman is dependent on her suitor having the finest shooting skills as dictated by her father. The young man she is in love with is desperate to succeed - to the point of entering into a pact with the devil, who supplies magic bullets in order that he accurately shoots his target. But the bargain goes horribly wrong as the price paid is a shot that takes his lover's life. 

Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets runs without interval in a one-hour 40-minute showcase of diverse musical styles while employing a rich and rhyming poetic beat in its structure. In it, a marvellous and ingenious confluence of ideas are reflected which somehow - perhaps in the way in which the sense of the operatic is threaded through and refracted - manage to make the work apt material for an opera company. Including German Weimar cabaret, vaudeville, blues ballads, rock, American western and European-derived Klezmer tunes, in Waits' version, the sense of desperation, of addiction, of choice and repercussion is powerfully visceral. Under the direction of Matthew Lutton, the work is wild and eerily captivating.

Meow Meow as Pegleg
From the start, the audience is lured into a carnival sideshow of sorts, tempted by the devil, Pegleg, with the lyrics "We'll have a gay old time", and on which Cabaret sensation Meow Meow stamps her indelible dark charm. Zoë Atkinson's design mimics an ingenious oversized shooting gallery, a three-walled rectangular room that surprises with its many concealed hatches and forest-game cutouts, painted backdrops and overhead cables on which painted story-enhancing sheets are drawn in and out on. Within it all, Lutton's characters - in their befitting half-tailored colour-identifying costumes - move in captivating, quasi-mechanical ways that metaphorically make all of them a potential target, the devil's target, as well as compliment the rhythm of the text. 

Like the sideshow nature of the setting (beautifully lit by Paul Jackson's lightning design), each scene often holds its own as a unique sketch, yet together they mould the storytelling marvellously with much credit to Lutton. No less captivating is the talent that each individual performer brings to the stage. 

As the devil-host of her own entertainment, Meow Meow, the limping Pegleg, licks her text with seductive flair and sings in lush-toned and superbly crafted ricocheting style as she slyly eyes her domain. In a fabulously layered performance, Kanen Breen's agile tenor, warm sensitivity  and unstoppable showmanship come in full-strength quality as the desperate young man Wilhelm, hilariously contorting his way on the road to mastering his rifle, writhing his body through desperation and wearing his heart on his sleeve in love. 

Käthchen, his bride-to-be, is touchingly portrayed with the rich and deliciously phrased mezzo-soprano of Dimity Shepherd. In a memorable highlight in duet with Breen, Shepherd sings the dreamy and poignant "The Briar and the Rose" and later, as she waits for Wilhelm's return, brings enthralling intensified anguish to "I’ll Shoot the Moon".

Dimity Shepherd (Käthchen), Richard Piper (Bertram), Jacqui Dark (Anne)
The commanding and earthy-voiced Richard Piper adds a star to his copious theatrical credits as Käthchen's insistent father, Bertram. At his side, richly hued mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Dark imbues balanced control and tender motherly guard as his wife, Anne, and impresses as her penetrating top notes ring through the ensemble.

In a supporting role, Paul Capsis is a blazing sideshow unto himself with his dazzling high-wired falsetto and quirkily animated actions. Le Gateau Chocolat, in deep oratorial authority as the Duke/Old Uncle, and Winston Hillyer's brawny Robert round out the superb cast.

In the pit, 10 musicians forming the Victorian Opera Chamber Orchestra play with keen attentiveness to Phoebe Briggs' musical direction to create a music breathing with dynamism, unspoiled by the odd moment of slackening brass on opening night. Jethro Woodward's sharp soundscape design adds further depth to this mysteriously conjured world.

Beware the choices made and the pacts bargained when, perhaps unknowingly, there's a price to pay. This time, Victorian Opera's fearless approach in presenting opera-wayward work has paid off well. Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets is a thoughtfully realised, engrossing and unashamedly flamboyant piece of powerful theatre.

Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets
Victorian Opera and Malthouse Theatre
Merlyn Theatre, The Coopers Malthouse 
Until 7th October.

Production Photographs:  Pia Johnson Photography

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Gertrude Opera serves a Triple Treat in a perky and entertaining romp

Surviving on the lowest of budgets, Gertrude Opera makes smart and efficient choices in the delivery of good quality work, often with neglected pieces that larger companies might eschew. Three rarely performed one-act operas spanning three centuries in a two-hour evening featuring eight young singers tucked away in an intimate performance space in North Melbourne - arriving at this Triple Treat feels like a clandestine gathering of sorts. It turns out to be all very harmless and entertaining.

All sung in English starting with Salieri's Prima la musica, poi le parole (1786), followed by Menotti's The Telephone (1947) and concluding with Ravel's Le Docteur Miracle (1857), what links these historically isolated works is their ludicrous comic charm and farcical bite. That's not to say that they don't zoom in on the complexity and tensions of human relationships, something these developing singers handled commendably.

Darcy Carroll as The Composer and Bethany Hill as Tonina
And though seemingly disparate in musical style, all three are connected by a delightful perkiness that music director Brian Castles-Onion conveyed expertly on piano. A small band might be asking too much but there were times when that's exactly what the ear wanted, so as to texturise and shape the music and provide greater warmth for the voices.

Salieri's Prima la musica, poi le parole (First the music, then the words) sets up the evening admirably, a short work concerned with artistic frictions between a composer, poet and two singers after the commission of an opera. Directed with vitality and cheek by Jeremy Stanford, the space bloomed with larger-than-life spiritedness. Mezzo-soprano Allegra Giagu shook the room in sumptuous and dominant style as the elegant haughty diva, Eleonora, making her grand audition a hilarious highlight as she sings of maternal love, clutching her 'required boys' for the aria, first to bosom, then to groin.

Her boys are none other than the Composer, Darcy Carroll, and Poet, Josh Erdelyi-Gotz, both of whom are sorting out their own argument in bursts of prankish charm. Carroll does an excellent job with his firm and smoky bass-baritone alongside Erdelyi-Gotz who sports an appealing light baritone but which loses clarity at the top.

Bright soprano Bethany Hill's exaggerated and frenetic portrayal of the poet's zany girlfriend Tonina, who also wants a lead, comes at the expense of timing and fluidity but that all changed when she took to Menotti's The Telephone as Lucy in a strong and vivid performance. It all ends smoothly as each of the characters settle into there place and in which the final ensemble comes together in well-harmonised voice.

The sketched succinctness and power that The Telephone's story tells is both affecting and comic and to which director Greta Nash neatly gives focus to. Ben is desperately trying to propose to Lucy before he departs on a trip but Lucy's addiction to her phone prevents the question being asked. Menotti's tricky but melodious score is a gem for which Carroll reconvenes with Hill in a sensitive and insightful interpretation that replaces the 1940s telephone with a smartphone and its original domestic setting for a table at a fine restaurant. Its construct is all too relevant today as the battle between technology and face-to-face socialisation impacts all of us.

Darcy Carroll as Ben and Bethany Hill as Lucy in The Telephone
On piano, Castles-Onion inserts a smartphone ringtone, Carroll makes a guy look like a doormat most convincingly (again bringing quality and emotion to the table in voice) and Hill's sparkling performance as the characterful and self-absorbed Lucy is a hoot. On each call she is on, the score's mood and style shift and, with it, Hill's versatility and confidence compliments them gorgeously. Ben finally gets to propose after his departure has virtually gone unnoticed. It works a treat on FaceTime.

At around 50 minutes and the longest of the works, Ravel's Doctor Miracle, is a quirky story based on commedia dell'arte principles. A young lass is forbidden by her father (the mayor), to marry a man of the military but her soldier lover manages to outsmart him through disguise, first in gaining access to the household as the hired servant Pasquin, then as the quack, Dr Miracle, who is called to the house after the mayor believes himself to be poisoned after being served a foul omelette by Pasquin.

Once again, director Jeremy Stanford infuses the plot with energy and interest, this time adding loads of cheesiness that also goes appropriately into making the opera's famous "Omelette quartet" the absurdity it is. Then again, French cuisine is to be venerated. There's a little trepidation on the part of the cast, whose timing could be sharpened, and diction is sometimes fuzzy, but the comic flavour nonetheless cuts through on this rather over-egged and frothy romp.

From dressing gown to dressed up, sweet soprano Juliet Dufour bounces about with soubrettish delight as the young lass, Laurette, her lyric polish beautifying the pre-omelette quartet deliciously in her romantic aria, "Do not scold me for it". As her lover Silvio, warm tenor Hew Wagner took to disguise more successfully as the slovenly, buffoon-like Pasquin than the creepy, warlock-like Dr Miracle. Bass-baritone Henry Shaw cleverly paces his performance from stiff pomposity to blood vessel-bursting rage as the Mayor and sings with skilful fluidity and staunchness throughout his range. As Veronique, his gold-digging wife and Laurette's step-mother, soprano Lisa Parker is dressed to impress with champagne in hand at breakfast and sings with pleasing richness.

After the shining ensemble finale and the enthusiastic applause for the evening's complete cast, what wasn't expected was a further show of singing when a "Happy Birthday to You" was sung to Allegra Giagu. They did a fine job of that too.

Gertrude Opera
130 Dryburgh Street, North Melbourne
Until 20th September

Production Photographs: courtesy of Gertrude Opera

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Maximised melodrama and touching poeticism - a delightfully sung Così fan tutte at Dubai Opera

Premiered just short of two years before his death in 1791, the delightful vitality and arabesque beauty that features in the music of Mozart's two-act opera buffa, Così fan tutte, never ceases to work its charm. Neither does its fanciful story, in which women's fidelity is wagered on and mercilessly tested via a game of deception in the course of a day that goes awry. I've never thought of it as being a particularly savoury work to take a sweetheart on a date to but, as the opera's subtitle, La scuola degli amanti (The School for Lovers), implies, there are lessons to be learned along the way as part of the natural desire to accept love into our hearts.

Soloists of Teatro di San Carlo's production of Così fan tutte at Dubai Opera
Here, in a new specially commissioned production from Naples' Teatro di San Carlo and presented by Dubai Opera as part of the trio of Mozart works in which the composer collaborated with the prodigious librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, director Mariano Bauduin maximises the melodrama while infusing it with the touching poeticism the work contains. In it, the complexity of love is no less diminished by farce and fantasy.

One of the more effective aspects of Bauduin's direction is in how he 'releases' a character from the action during more introspective arias, allowing greater focus on the singing and text while keeping surrounding action gently moving along.

On centre stage, a three-sided latticed garden folly that houses a large marble statue sits on a small revolve in front of which their accompanying spaces provide just a marginal sense of scenic difference. In the background, a stepped area on either side allows for some useful ancillary action but, as a platform for chorus work, it more or less makes them feel disconnected, even redundant. It all overlooks, from on high, a painterly coastal backdrop that makes the arrival of a floral-adorned, gondola-like craft behind the little latticed folly look rather preposterous. Nicola Rubertelli's set design, as pretty as it first looks, begins to tire by opera's end, despite all sorts of dramatic lighting changes thrown on it.

Giusi Giustino's late 19th century fresh, frilled Neapolitan and exotic "Albanian" costumes colour the setting in a pantomime-like diversion but the night didn't go by without a bench being knocked over, the statue almost toppling and almost every footstep on stage noisily getting in the way. Perhaps Bouduin was aiming at the work's sticky, unsettling nature and the frailty of commitment in this prettily contrived picture.

Fortunately, Bauduin is aided by a cast who sing pleasingly in Italian and act marvellously to the beat of each other, singing with especially refined subtlety and appeal in swathes of delicious ensemble work. The experience is assisted with English and Arabic surtitles.

If one is to be elevated above the others, it would be soprano Karen Gardeazabal's well-phrased and lush-voiced Fiordiligi. Vocally, Gardeazabal displays consistent directness and purity, her Act 2 aria "Per pietà, ben mio, perdona", a performance highlight. In it, Fiordiligi has paired off with the disguised Ferrando and Gardeazabal sings with fullness of expression and shading, divulging her heart's dilemma and guilt at entertaining another man while her lover, Guglielmo, is away (he is having better success at wooing Dorabella).

Nao Yokomae, Karen Gardeazabal and Chiara Tirotta
Alongside Gardeazabal, the firmly buttressed and velvety mezzo-soprano Chiara Tirotta is perfectly placed as Fiordiligi's sister, Dorabella, with the pair offering absorbing, precision-timed interpretations in their duets, something their lovers, Maharram Huseynov's Guglielmo and Francisco Brito's Ferrando, couldn't always reliably capture.

Brito's youthful agility and primed slapstick behaviour provide many comic moments but he takes a serious and pensive approach when needed, giving Act 1's  aria, "Un’ Aura Amorosa",  a warm and radiant lyricism as he prematurely smells victory in his sight and praises his lover, Dorabella. Huseynov gives ample bravado in character and a robust and burnished baritone to Guglielmo.

As the sisters' lowly but world-wise housemaid Despina, bright soprano Nao Yokomae lights up the stage with her ebullient and cheeky, pocket-rocket performance while forcing through a delightful coarseness in tone, though sometimes at the expense of phrasing. Handsome-toned and more secure in the lower and middle range, bass Abramo Rosalen entertains marvellously as a colourfully costumed and dandyish Don Alfonso. The chorus of soldiers and townsfolk enter and perform with lukewarm results.

A wondrous sound, however, emanated from the pit where beautiful and markedly delicate orchestral textures were created courtesy of Andrea Albertin's sensitive conducting. Notably, the percussion's patina integrated excellently as did the woodwind's mellowness. The orchestra of the Teatro San Carlo played with glowing  expertise.

When the final ensemble applaud the ability to accept the good with the bad, sung silhouetted in the fore stage with the revolve on a continuous turn, chandeliers moving up and down and the gondola moving back and forward, the shenanigans are done but the topsy-turvy ride love gives feels far from over. A cute finishing touch!

Così fan tutte
Dubai Opera
Performed by Teatro di San Carlo
Until 15th September

Production Photographs: Courtesy of Dubai Opera

Monday, September 11, 2017

Mozart in leather and chains - Emotionworks Cut Opera's wild and cleverly devised Don Giovanni


Published online at Melbourne's Herald Sun 11th September 2017 and in print 12th September. 

Death literally comes knocking at the door in Mozart’s dark blend of the serious and comic in one of opera’s everlasting cornerstones, Don Giovanni. Expect to be surprised.

Michael Lampard as Don Giovanni
Emotionworks Cut Opera cut and splice to create their own unique blend, this time fusing the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Alice Cooper, Eurythmics and Queen alongside a well-represented chunk of some of the most recognisable arias and ensembles from the opera.

Inventively devised by Julie Edwardson, the two-hour show is buoyed by more than 20 well-interpreted popular snippets and a terrific expletive-laden English adaptation, despite the comedy being mostly knockabout and the work’s operatic base unevenly polished. More than anything, Edwardson’s formula demands vocal adaptability to smoothen the storytelling — something only half the cast achieves.

But the story of the arrogant, licentious and murderous nobleman, whose evildoing spells his demise, is transposed wildly and cleverly from 18th century Spain to an Australian rock festival at which Don Giovanni (Michael Lampard), rock legend, is the headline act.

All other original roles slip effortlessly into Edwardson’s scheme — including band manager, Leporello (Peter Hanway), support act, Ottavio (Patrick Macdevitt), band guitarist, Masetto, (Richard Woods) and Commendatore (Wayne Cuebass), the murdered band drummer whose ghost returns with a vengeance to drive Don Giovanni into hell.

Lampard dynamically captures the virile, fierce and self-entitled legend, his solid baritone straddling both sides of music comfortably, a highlight being his more bourbon-fuelled Act 1 Champagne Aria mixed with J.J. Cale’s dazed Cocaine.

Kate Bright as Elvira and Peter Hanway as Leporello
Macdevitt gets the festival off to a sound start as the supporting act with Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door and equally succeeds in bridging musical extremes, as does Kate Bright’s foxy Elvira (festival act and Don Giovanni’s former girlfriend), who opens with a warm version of Pat Benatar’s Love Is a Battlefield, then impresses with her rich operatic mezzosoprano. Katrina Waters works a treat as Ottavio’s histrionic girlfriend Anna and Katy Turbitt makes a sweet “little pony” as Masetto’s girlfriend Zerlina. Leporello, Masetto and Commendatore are more accomplished and in tune as rock singers and musicians than opera artists.

The small band, including Edwardson on keyboard, Woods on guitar and Cuebas on drums pumps the pace smashingly and Brunswick’s grungy, wall-art heavy Rubix Warehouse supplies the perfect backdrop that sound and lighting designer Mattieu Delepau overlays with effective concert atmosphere.

Leather and chains, rugged guys and headstrong gals, drugs, alcohol and a messy trail of sexual abuse — it’s all in the mix. And when Leporello says he’s off for a drink at the bar after Don Giovanni’s off his hands, followed by an excellently harmonised Bohemian Rhapsody, you’ll probably want to join him.

Emotionworks Cut Opera
Rubix Warehouse
63 Phoenix Street, Brunswick
Until 24th September


Production Photos: Phil Thomson

Monday, August 21, 2017

Well-tuned dramatic intent accompanies BK Opera's simple but effective La Traviata

Simple but effective, with a few notable performances, although not without issue, the heart of Verdi's La Traviata remains in place in BK Opera's latest production.

BK Opera chorus, La Traviata
A woman's portrait shaped by soft-coloured camellias forms the centrepiece of the company's sharp-looking promotional material, an idea that no doubt stems from the source of Verdi's popular mid-period work, Alexandre Dumas' 1848 novel, La Dame aux Camélias or The Lady of the Camillias. They also come incorporated into director Kate Millet's work as back-wall projections as part of a range of flowers in a botanical parade of time-lapse photography of blossoming beauty. They're succulent and sexual but they don't strike with theatrical impact in the small display field they are allotted below the prominent English surtitles.

There are no shortage of clever ideas brought to the table in an overall vision that balances the background of gaiety and an accumulation of fateful circumstances that envelop Violetta Valéry's world but some are not resolved in a way that enhance the audience's experience. The large space of the arch-ceilinged Reid Street Auditorium is pleasantly serviceable for the cast of young singers but the results are mixed with the audience seating placed perpendicular to a small open stage area facing a central aisle where some of the action occurs.

In a fine start, Act 1 opens with a small, lively ensemble of bunny-eared sex kittens ready to party at Violetta's salon in every which well-choreographed raunchy way. In their see-through light silken ivory outfits, the feel is 1940s, attractive alongside the attending men in black and white formals. Together, they do decent work of setting a scene of debauchery and harmonising richly in voice.

Rada Tochalna as Violetta
The aisle works a close-up treat for Act 2's encounter between Violetta, a radiant Rada Tochalna who lays out a beautifully paced interpretation and breezes firmly through ornamentations, and Giorgio Germont, a role well considered in portraying him as Alfredo's brother and who Josh Erdelyi-Gotz brought warmth, forthrightness and emotional weight. But the effect was compromised by lighting that the audience's eyes take a direct hit from.

Violetta's bedroom, scene of Act 3, starts well enough on the stage, though wasn't there something more than a hall chair that Violetta could sit ill and dying on? Tochalna made the most of it as the confidence and drama in her performance took a further leap but the final tragedy is played out sprawled on the aisle floor, blocked from view. Had the area been raised, the desired effect could have been delivered more effectively for a dying Violetta being nursed by a distraught Alfredo, who Patrick MacDevitt brought bull-at-a-gate temperament and a jealous streak to but tended to push vocal warmth through an overwhelming roaring forte in the top range with it.

In smaller roles that include Beth Paterson's pasty-gothic Flora and Stephen Carolane's upbeat Gastone, Finn Gilheany makes the biggest impression with his warm and burnished-voiced Barone Douphol. The role of Violetta's maid, Annina, is doubled and delivered with sweet humility by Alicia Groves and Lara Vosciano. Dottore Grenvil is, positively why not, a female doctor - for this, luscious and creamy mezzo soprano Lisa Lally elevated a minor role memorably after her solid contribution as part of the chorus.

Music comes supplied by a string quartet, at their best in a soul-searching rendition of Act 3's opening aching lament but a tad more fine-grained work was required for the overall night. Pam Christie does an expert job at piano and, taking lead, conductor James Penn exercised attentiveness in giving the tempi effectual variations. The music's separation from the main stage area on the opposite side of the hall, however, seems to take something away from Verdi's powerful and sumptuous score.

Diving into the deep end, BK Opera are providing valuable performance experience as a platform for young singers. Now with three productions to their credit, the signs of well-tuned concepts and dramatic intent are evident but some nutting out in bringing this to the audience would reap further benefits.

BK Opera
75 Reid Street Auditorium, North Fitzroy
Until 26th August

Production Photos: Third Life Photography

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. 

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


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


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


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