Saturday, December 2, 2017

A strong and committed cast but Pinchgut Opera's reimagined The Coronation of Poppea misses its potential.

Making opera contemporarily relevant is at the forefront of pretty much any opera company today wishing to promote and vivify the art form. More easily able than many, Claudio Monteverdi's final opera, The Coronation of Poppea - premiered some 375 years ago - remains acutely relevant today and survives as a potent example of drama that simmers, boils, confronts and intrigues in its story of lust for power, sexual obsessions and ruthless dominance. In Pinchgut Opera's new production directed by Mark Gaal, wonderfully sung and boldly conceived as it is, attempts to reimagine the story's ancient Rome setting in a modern day context don't, however, always pay off so convincingly.

Helen Sherman and Jake Arditti
Power struggles, manipulative tactics and corruption exist in all spheres and levels of society but Gaal's interpretation creates an unpalatable friction and raises question marks over Giovanni Busenello's libretto - sung in Italian and surtitled in an eloquent English translation at odds with what is seen on stage.

Monteverdi's work is a sensational account of the Roman emperor Nero’s (Jake Arditti) abuse of position and blind pursuit of love for his mistress Poppea (Helen Sherman). Poppea's ambitions of power aggravate the Empress Ottavia (Natalie Christie Peluso) who is gravely aware of the vulnerable position she is in and who counteracts with a scheme to have Poppea disposed of. Woven through, the goddesses of Fortune, Virtue and Love, vie for supremacy.

Here, a mighty hip and bleached-haired Nero takes on the aura of a teen pop star mixed up in a life of sex, drugs and violence. Surrounded by his hoodlum mates who roam the confines of a stark, often coldly lit, concreted world (sets by Charles Davis and lighting by Ross Graham), it seems a confused take on the work's adaptational potential.

As Nero, Jake Arditti exhibits much colour and lightning flashes of dynamism with his rich and lively countertenor. And there's much happening to excite him in the process. Soon after Nero makes his entrance with a hooker-like, dangerous-looking Poppea, he knocks down a man, who Poppea straddles, then crawls across him seductively to remove his belt from under Poppea's loins. Later, partying and cocaine-fixed after ordering the death of his philosophising adviser Seneca, Nero is pleasurably sucked off by one of his men during which I don't recall what the music was doing. Gaal certainly highlights Nero's salacious pleasures yet Nero doesn't cut the figure of authority as the Roman emperor in the text reads.

Natalie Christie Peluso
The luscious, full-bodied mezzo-soprano of Helen Sherman gives a striking, attractively hued and phrased voice to Poppea. What begins as a grungy windowless world oddly becomes a glitzy fashionable one by end with Poppea making a surprise transformation into what looked like a celebrity model for a pageant coronation. Sherman stepped into the limelight radiantly for the opera's final melting duet with Arditti - "Pur ti miro/Pur ti godo" - in their only tender and restrained encounter without groping each other and, while doing so, paired lusciously in voice. Nero had secured his beauty and Poppea her position, precarious as that would be.

Perhaps if the libretto was completely reworked to reflect the characters portrayed, a more easy coexistence of drama, setting and text would have resulted. In this setting, I was seeing one possibility taking a topical Weinstein-like approach concerning alleged abuse of power and women which life is never short of.

Thankfully, Arditti and Sherman are part of a strong and committed cast that provide the propulsion needed. Smouldering baritone David Greco's vocal heft makes a notably firm standout as Seneca with his inviting and authoritative performance and ornamental touches that waft in precisely placed curls. Excitingly animated tenor Kanen Breen - indisputably shaping up as one of Australia's hottest theatrical talents - struts with towering height, form and delectable knowingness and confidence as a transvestite Arnalta, Poppea's subordinate and confidante.

Natalie Christie Peluso is another solid link as she spectacularly delineates the two widely contrasting roles - the venomous and vengeful Ottavia and more reserved, alarmingly naive Drusilla - to which her dark and expressively charged soprano she employs for Ottavia is brightened and softened as she portrays Drusilla. Countertenor Owen Willetts comfortably conveyed the passions and turns of the swooning Ottone who is in love with Ottavia in leaps of rich and fleshy warmth.

Kanen Breen as Arnalta
In the twin smaller roles as Seneca's friend Famigliari III (likely a little more than a friend) and Tribuno, bass baritone Jeremy Kleeman's resonating and firm vocal presence are an ear-catching luxury, as is Roberta Diamond's delightfully sweet soprano that emanates from her fallen-on-hard-times Amore as she follows love's triumph when least it is deserved and highlighting how love doesn't always behave.

The Orchestra of the Antipodes didn't carry through with the force and conviction of their usual breathtakingly layered textures on opening night. A few misses didn't escape notice, including some late shaky trumpeting, but the several open orchestral passages were consistently realised in top form. Conducting from harpsichord, overall, Artistic Director Erin Helyard's mixed and effective tempi provided ongoing momentum, more so in the second part but I couldn't help but feel that the music often seemed overtaken by an indulgent interpretation that attempts to make the story's relevance feel real but, instead, strangled it in theatrical melange.

The Coronation of Poppea
Pinchgut Opera
City Recital Hall, Sydney
Until 6th December.

Production photos: Brett Boardman

Friday, November 17, 2017

Opera Australia's The Merry Widow opens with a clear emphasis on razzmattazz in Melbourne: Herald Sun Review
Published online at Herald Sun on 16th November and in print 17th November, 2017.

On this especially festive-like evening when the country voted #YES Opera Australia’s new production of Franz Lehár’s effervescent 1905 operetta, The Merry Widow, seemed the perfect compliment to open the spring season.

Danielle de Niese as Hanna in Opera Australia's The Merry Widow
Directed and choreographed with endless razzmatazz by Graeme Murphy and moved a smidgen ahead to the 1920s, it’s a glitzy Art Deco spectacle that frames the story of rags-to-riches young widow, Hanna Glawari. Michael Scott-Mitchell’s lavish sets and Jennifer Irwin’s haute couture fashions are, at the very least, testament to the remarkable artisans behind the scenes.

Hanna’s millions are the fictitious Grand Duchy of Pontevedro’s only hope of escape from bankruptcy but she’s kicking up her heels in Paris to a chorus of swooning hopefuls. Will former lover Danilo, living it up his own way at Maxim’s, pluck up the courage to say “I love you” and overcome the pride that keeps him from marrying Hanna for her money? Personalities might be bruised but tragedy is avoided.

A large cast and intricate intrigues keep the plot afloat despite the cross-section of messy accents and high melodrama. Justin Fleming’s new English translation is interpreted with bawdiness over the scandalous on a canvas more brash New York than elegant Paris. It’s fun but the innuendos begin to tire and the razzle-dazzle often overwhelms character sculpting.

Danielle de Niese as Hanna with the grizettes in The Merry Widow
We also no longer have the great Joan Sutherland on hand to sing her Hanna and the nostalgic ‘Pontevedrian’ folk song Vilja but, as a world-class opera company, why the patchily balanced miking? Internationally acclaimed soprano Danielle de Niese’s much-anticipated return to Melbourne was highly compromised, taking the spotlight more for her vivacious dancing, from waltz to cancan, than hearing her gorgeously smooth and luminous voice. Alexander Lewis, as the vacillating Danilo, pairs splendidly with de Niese, his golden tone put to superb use at the top notes. Soaring in the subplot, rich tenor John Longmuir is the big standout as lovestruck Camille among voices that generally sat below the company’s usual excellent standards on opening night.

Orchestra Victoria impressed under Vanessa Scammell’s persuasive conducting and, #YES, the stage celebrated at curtain call.

Opera Australia
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until 25th November

3 -stars

Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Sunday, November 12, 2017

From Melbourne Opera, intellectual and visceral strength greet the long overdue Australian premiere of Donizetti's Roberto Devereux

Make no bones about it, as an independent company that receives no government funding, Melbourne Opera's 2017 season has delivered a degree of consistency and excellence that places it firmly amongst the city's well-funded cultural institutions. First, it was a jolly good HMS Pinafore in March. Then, a riveting Lohengrin followed in August that demonstrated an increasing ambitiousness that now comes with proven flexibility. Finally, on Saturday evening, Melbourne Opera capped off the year with a rave-worthy production of Donizetti's Roberto Devereux, in its long overdue Australian premiere, to complete the company's study of the composer's Tudor trilogy. Directed by Suzanne Chaundy, who likewise directed Maria Stuarda in 2015 and Anna Bolena in 2016, what is evident is a ripened sense of detail and quality that surpasses the former two works with both its intellectual and visceral strength.

Helena Dix as Elizabeth I in Act 3 of Roberto Devereux
If it wasn't for the high standard of vocal output, the retina-stimulating force of the sumptuous period-inspired costumes by Jenny Tate (on loan from the Opera Australia wardrobe) might have overwhelmed. Even with the same aesthetic employed in the previous two works, Christina Logan-Bell's effective and beautifully crafted design that features the Tudor rose motif and Lucy Birkinshaw's evocative lighting made for an even more eye-catching setting that pushes towards a vividly stylised hyper-realism and compliments a story that pushes history's boundaries of truth.

Embroiling emotional sentiments with political judgement, an ageing, unmarried and vain Queen Elizabeth I has cemented her status as a monarch but cannot conceal her frustration as a woman, spurned by her 'favourite', a man a third her age, Robert, Earl of Essex.

When I saw Canadian soprano Sondra Radvanovsky sing the taxing role of Elizabeth at New York's Metropolitan Opera, she was hailed with huge and deserved applause. I ruminated. As her understudy, how would Australian-born Helena Dix have navigated the role, one resplendent with the thrilling ornamented singing that characterises the bel canto repertoire?

Helena Dix as Elizabeth and Henry Choo as Robert
Melbourne now has the evidence of Dix's grandeur. In a performance that is interpreted with not only vocal prowess but done so all the way down to the fingertips, local audiences are further acquainted with Dix's formidable stage presence and dramatic capability after impressing as Elsa in Lohengrin. Dix imbues Elizabeth with wealthy helpings of character without limiting her to the dismissive hand of imperiousness. A cheeky flirtatious tickle of a squire's beard as she makes her entrance in the Great Hall at Westminster, a girlish self-consciousness with the arrival of Robert and her often temperamental swings establish a firm portrait inbuilt with ageless emotional identity and ageing physical form.

Of her vocal exhibition, Dix locked together a dazzling spectrum of expression from sweet musings to defiance and ultimate despair with seemingly effortless and arabesque melodic turns. Sung in English, there was nowhere to look but at a queen reigning over the stage. And it's not often you hear coloratura that contains bursts of character and meaning that drive the drama rather than simply providing exciting vocal fireworks - and an audience that engagingly responds to it on the way.

Henry Choo as Robert & Danielle Calder as Sara
Alongside Dix, more familiar faces at Melbourne Opera honoured her presence in some of their best performances yet, delivering both compelling acting and singing. Fighting off charges of treason as Robert in the titular role, increasingly charismatic tenor Henry Choo reinforces the complex dynamics in his character's liaisons and presents a passionate, sturdy and full-bodied vocal vehicle that is polished with conviction. Choo's diction is superb, adding great appeal to his performance and his various duets are well-calibrated but it's in his final scene, as Robert awaits execution, where raw emotion escapes in one of the night's poignant highlights.

With her privileged position, noble femininity and pure top notes, creamy mezzo-soprano Danielle Calder is exquisite as Sara, Robert's lover and the queen's rival. Warm baritone Phillip Calcagno journeys through his initial backing for his friend Robert and subsequent betrayal by his wife Sara with focused and natural step as the Duke of Nottingham. In minor roles, Jason Wasley and Eddie Muliaumaseali’i add a tier of sound support as Lord Cecil and Sir Walter Raleigh respectively. Gorgeously harmonised with a spring in delivery, a well-prepared Melbourne Opera Chorus light the evening splendidly despite their sometimes incomprehensible content.

It takes a while acclimatising to the Athenaeum's dry acoustic but, apart from an occasional blemish, the Melbourne Opera Orchestra made a fine soundscape, conducted with vigour by Greg Hocking. Once the perplexing overture is over, Donizetti's wonderful dramatic momentum and transitions take flight. Of note, Act 3's opening string playing produced a breathtaking introduction to Robert's isolation and the timpani and piccolo always amazed with their well-executed presence.

Melbourne Opera's year is almost over and the signposts point towards potentially even greater rewards for its artists and audience in 2018. It's time our government recognises that too.

Roberto Devereux
Melbourne Opera
Athenaeum Theatre
Until 18th October, 2017

Production photos: Robin Halls

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Australian Brandenberg Orchestra's musically engaging and curious three-course early opera selection

Kudos to Australian Brandenburg Orchestra for their 2017 season programming which included a stage-directed production of Handel's Messiah in February and for having just concluded a run of seven performances in Sydney and Melbourne of three contrasting early operatic works that came under the title Bittersweet Obsessions: Monteverdi and Bach. Created in a pastiche-like manner by Artistic Director Paul Dyer, Bittersweet Obsessions courses through a lament, a tragedy and a comedy via Monteverdi's Lamento della Ninfa and Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, followed by J.S. Bach's Coffee Cantata.

Jakob Bloch Jespersen as Tancredi and Natasha Wilson as Cloirinda
The final performance which I attended was propelled by a team of strong international singers who appeared in various roles - soprano Natasha Wilson from New Zealand, tenors American Karim Sulayman and Australian Spencer Darby, and Danish bass Jakob Bloch Jespersen. Each 'scene' was preceded by period pieces that presumably aimed to seam the three works together, all demonstrating the high quality musicianship and warm musical fabric the orchestra achieves. Dyer conducted from harpsichord and organ with notable regard for his soloists before him.

Kapsberger's Toccata Arpeggiata set the atmosphere going in Scene I with its eerie and tumultuous shades to introduce the brief snapshot that Lamento della Ninfa gives on a nymph's distress after being betrayed by her lover. In a billowing white gown, Wilson brought a poignancy to the sighing melodies with her attractive, smooth and relaxed soprano. As shepherds, Sulayman, Darby and Bloch Jespersen added distinctive harmony in their interjections and observances as they all passed through a pastoral setting that consisted of a field of wheat backed by a lofty, full-height copy of Claude Lorrain's pastoral scene, Ascanius Shooting The Stag of Sylvia.

Deliciously evocative without overwhelming, Charlotte Mungomery's design, Genevieve Graham's appropriately delineated costumes and John Rayment's subdued lighting set a striking start under Constantine Costi's perfectly sensitive direction.

The gloriously featured zipping violins and strummed backing of Falconieri's lively Ciaccona, followed by a dignified interpretation of Monteverdi's overture from Il Ritorno d'Ulisse In Patria, opened Scene II's Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda thrillingly. Claude Lorrain's tranquil setting fell to reveal a tri-level scaffolded structure. On it, the inconceivable and bitter tragedy of Clorinda's death in combat by her lover Tancredi was played out in slow-gestured stylistic movement and magnified more physically by aikido performers Andrew Sunter and Melanie Lindenthal on the (wheat)field of battle. Again, the creative and visual effect cut through splendidly, with Clorinda's death, marked by a cascading cloth of blood-red fabric from high, a particularly powerful moment that proceeded the punctuated metallic clash of swords that percussionist Adam Cooper-Stanbury reproduced wonderfully amongst many other detailed sound effects.

Bloch Jespersen was firm, robust and commanding as the Christian knight Tancredi with Wilson's ethereal and fine glassy soprano echoing the story's haunting ominousness. But it was Sulayman who sang the major part as Testo (the Text) the narrator, done so with passion and conviction but with most assuredness and warmth in moderate-paced passages.

After interval, Bach's comic Coffee Cantata, on the other hand, arrived in Scene III as a somewhat curious anomaly to the deftly resolved Monteverdi works. Opening the scene and though captivatingly played - concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen illuminated the florid lines superbly on violin - the first movement of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No 4 seemed to break the spell cast by the first two scenes with its widely familiar tune.

K. Sulayman, J. Bloch Jespersen and N. Wilson in Coffee Cantata
Familiarity also appeared with the stage transformed into a trendy cafe run by a hipster barista who Sulayman added a little campness to. The lightness edged on the side of the ridiculous with Coffee Cantata becoming an exaggerated and over-acted distraction, as if buzzing with an excess of caffeine. Based around the young woman Liechen's addiction to coffee and what she's prepared to do without in order to have it, it was difficult working out how her flapping fur-coated, selfie-snapping behaviour belonged there.

As a spoiled, inelegant and recalcitrant Liechen, Wilson nonetheless demonstrated the range, flexibility and shading of her soprano beautifully. At ease in her comic skin, Wilson's melodic sweetness soared delectably in her central aria, "Ei! Wie schmeckt der Coffee susse" / Ah! how sweet coffee tastes" as if seemingly fed by the numerous spoonfuls of sugar she took. In between the need for a nicotine fix to calm his see-sawing parenting, Bloch Jespersen sang firmly as her unfortunate father Schlendrian. Dyer fuelled the music with a liveliness that the orchestra played with great appeal and depth.

More like three district tableaux - touching, entertaining and musically engaging as the evening was - Bittersweet Obsessions was advertised with the expectation of "three timeless tales that follow one woman’s journey through the bitter and sweet of life". That was always going to be a decent challenge to overcome. It was more a case of the one woman, in this case soprano Natasha Wilson, embodying three distinct characters on her own operatic journey. Still, the vivid theatrical portrayal and overall interpretation was a welcome addition to Australian Brandenburg Orchestra's repertoire and a feature that the stage will hopefully be utilised for again.

Bittersweet Obsessions: Monteverdi and Bach
Australian Brandenburg Orchestra
City Recital Hall, Sydney
25th October - 1st November 2017
Melbourne Recital Centre
4th & 5th November 2017

Production photos:

Sunday, October 29, 2017

An energised and entertaining show but love at first sight doesn't quite gel in The Production Company's Brigadoon

Heading into its 20th year, The Production Company have been nurturing local musical theatre talent and bringing Broadway entertainment to the stage in consistent sparkling form. In this year's final production of the season, the company's characteristic verve and high standards similarly shone in Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe's (music) 1947 romantic fantasy, Brigadoon. But something prevented me from feeling completely absorbed by its quaint frothy tale despite director Jason Langley's fresh update, Cameron Mitchell's exhilarating choreography and musical director Michael Tyack's vivacious reign over the gorgeous music-making from the 21-member orchestra.

Genevieve Kingsford as Fiona and cast of Brigadoon
For modern eyes, it's probably unsurprising that everyone seemed a little odd in Brigadoon, the mystical Scottish village that reawakens and appears once every 100 years for just one day. In its story -  from the creative duo who went on to pen Gigi, My Fair Lady and Camelot - adventurous New Yorkers Tommy Albright (Rohan Browne) and Jeff Douglas (Luke Joslin) first seem to think so when they stumble on this quirky village in the Scottish Highlands stuck in another time. From afar, at least from my perspective in the dress circle, Fiona MacLaren (Genevieve Kingsford) might seem its oddest, the pretty village maiden who zooms in on Tommy in a love-at-first-sight encounter.

If we are to believe in love at first sight's inexplicability, I wanted to believe that there's credibility to its magic on stage. Lerner's book wastes no time in setting the scene but falling desperately in love is different to looking hopelessly desperate, which we see in Kingsford's portrayal. Was I taking it far too seriously in this lighthearted escape fuelled mainly by good helpings of comic charm and adrenalised action? I don't think so because believing that Fiona and Tommy's relationship is completely based on love forms the core of the story, not on some ulterior motive which appears to permeate through Fiona's desperation. If that was unequivocally established, the comedy could run with abandon.

Garishly bright-orange-wigged, Kingsford is a talented and magnetic artist to watch and she sang with a rich and attractive sound on opening night, though there were times the top of the voice lost shape at full power. Browne's was a passionate and sensitive portrayal of Tommy, a handsome and modern metrosexual who he gave an impressive sunshiny timbre to. In duet with Kingsford, Tommy and Fiona shared a superbly sweetened interpretation of Act 1's "The Heather on The Hill" but the most vocally seductive and poignant moment the pair melted together in was to come in Act 2's "From This Day On", when Tommy decides he needs to leave Brigadoon.

Nancye Hayes, Genevieve Kingsford and Rohan Browne
In entertaining and cracking comic form, Joslin drew many a genuine laugh playing the laid back and jokester Jeff and made a memorable moment of his disinterest in the largely embraced village strumpet, Meg. Depicting her, suitably voluptuous-voiced Elise McCann gave an unashamed dazzling sauciness and polished up the melodious pair of songs, Act 1's "The Love Of My Life" and Act 2's "My Mother's Wedding Day", with exceptional appeal.

There was not only Fiona's one-eyed desperation and Meg's looseness, but also Maggie's (Karla Tonkich) creepy obsession with Harry and Tommy's blonde and shallow socialite New York fiancé, Miranda Ashton (Adele Parkinson). I couldn't get the solid supply of pretty young faces but unflattering female portraits hanging in the show's gallery out of my mind. If you're older and made up to be plainer, you get a little more substance and two of Australia's esteemed musical theatre performers made certain of that. Sally Bourne gave warmhearted and imposing presence to Fiona's mother Alice and Nancye Hayes was both commanding and approachable as the village matriarch Mrs Forsythe, who Langley gives clever elevation to by replacing her with the original book's schoolmaster Mr. Lundie.

Other excellent performances came from Matthew Manahan as the excitable bridegroom Charlie and his bonny bride Jean, Fiona's sister, Stefanie Jones. Young talented artist Joel Granger shaded the work enormously as the disturbed Harry and the well-experienced Stephen Hall was strong and expressive in the role as his father Archie Beaton.

Luke Joslin as Jeff and Elise McCann as Meg
The ensemble singing was driven with gusto, occasionally overly so, and the dance routines were a series of energised spectacles - Act 1's Sword Dance and Reel and Act 2's Chase, representative of both the traditional and cheesy. Then there was Browne's streamlined moonwalking dance steps to provide contrast. And the solemnity of Harry's funeral with bagpipe accompaniment was heart wrenching. A seat in the stalls would be preferable. From above, the stage can look a tad bare.

At first I was perplexed by the sky-full of crosses that hung above the stage as part of designer Christina Smith's simple and effective set. Then it dawned on me - to protect Brigadoon from being changed by the outside world. It also added an eeriness that is further sensed in the wooden stepped structure in the town's square, a platform that supports the wedding celebration as easily as it could the gallows. Isaac Lummis' costumes are delineated in a thoughtfully detailed spread of colour and Matt Scott's extensive lighting palette captured the various moods wonderfully.

As the wise Mrs Forsythe says, "When you love someone deeply, anything is possible." And as Brigadoon presents it, that can be both a celebration (for Tommy and Fiona) and a curse (as befalls Harry). The appeal of Langley's production is that even when the buzzing entertainment is over, it leaves a little left over to ponder.

The Production Company
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until 5th November.

Production photos: Jeff Busby

A splendid evening showcasing young operatic talent in The Herald Sun Aria Final: Herald Sun Review

Published online at Herald Sun on 26th October and in print on 27th October, 2017

In a splendid evening presided over by informative and jocular MC, Christopher Lawrence of ABC Classic FM, the diversity, expression and beauty of the classical voice shone brightly at the 93rd Herald Sun Aria final. For the distinguished panel Richard Mills, Roxane Hislop and Suzanne Johnston, judging the five finalists wasn’t an easy task. Mills rightly pointed out that they’re all winners and the competition is part of the ongoing journey.

Countertenor Maximillian Riebl
For countertenor Maximilian Riebl, that journey is now injected with added prestige of joining celebrated winners that include Kiri Te Kanawa and Nicole Car.

Riebl opened the competition strong, poised like an athlete for “Dove sei, amato bene?” from Handel’s Rodelinda. Riebl brought an affecting and contemplative interpretation with the mesmerising sound of the sustained and perilously high falsetto, his voice a generously buttressed one, effortlessly smooth and firm at the top.

Four other finalists followed, each singing one aria in the first part of the program and, in the same order, presenting a second in part two.

Agile tenor Michael Petruccelli’s “È un folle, e un vile affetto” from Handel’s Alcina came intelligently structured with heartfelt passion and attractive shading. Warm baritone Raphael Wong’s lively animation of the famous “Largo al factotum” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, dexterous as it was, sadly had timing issues. Lone female, luscious soprano Olivia Cranwell, took to the stage like a ship’s figurehead, surging ahead of the orchestra and ornamenting “Pleurez! pleurez mes yeux!” from Massenet’s Le Cid with exquisite delicacy, an outstanding rendition that would take her to runner up. Then, bright tenor Shanul Sharma displayed all the fireworks of the fair with aplomb that Rossini so skilfully scribed in “Si, ritrovarla io giuro” from La Cenerentola.

M. Petrucelli, S. Sharma, M. Riebl, O. Cranwell and R.Wong
However, it was the consistency in Riebl’s composed delivery, technical expertise and natural expressivity that won him the trophy. In Riebl’s second aria, “Venga pur, minacci e frema” from Mozart’s Mitridate, the adrenaline rushed with virility and force together with flexing coloratura and superbly disguised breathing. Riebl’s was an honest performance, fine-grained, without flamboyance.

Petruccelli’s well-contrasted aria was a touching and assured “Una furtiva lagrima” from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. Cutting through the orchestra, Cranwell’s immersion into Puccini’s lucent “On bel di vedremo” from Madama Butterfly emitted a focused intensity.

Wong acquitted himself remarkably with a deliciously smooth and suitably selected “Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen” from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt. And standing by Rossini’s melodic whizzes, including a degree of difficulty of 10 High Cs, Sharma shook “Asile héréditaire ... Amis, amis, secondez ma vengeance” from Guillaume Tell with forthrightness to take a well-deserved encouragement award.

On the whole, a dashing Orchestra Victoria supported the finalists admirably with maestro Mills doubling as conductor — attentions might have been divided on that front. While the judges deliberated, two young guest artists, pianist Hannah Shin and cellist Vincent Wang charmed with their virtuosic playing. It was, all in all, a night to celebrate the talents that nurture our opera future.

Herald Sun Aria Final
Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
25th October 217


Sunday, October 22, 2017

Director Penny Woolcock's brilliantly contemporised interpretation of The Pearl Fishers comes to LA Opera

After an initial 18-performance run at Paris' Théâtre Lyrique in 1863, Georges Bizet's The Pearl Fishers (Les pêcheurs de perles) never saw the stage again until 1886. Though it has entered the repertoire since, it was only performed for the first time in 100 years at New York’s Metropolitan Opera last year. It is this production, by British director and filmmaker Penny Woolcock, that LA Opera is currently presenting on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The production was created for English National Opera and it makes a fine and welcome case for Bizet's lesser known work getting exposure today.

Alfredo Daza as Zurga, Nino Machaidze as Leïla and LA Opera Chorus
For the most part, the work is presented as a lush curio that gives directors and designers license to delve into Asian exoticism, often overly glamourised and generally far removed from our time. But Woolcock's version is a brilliantly contemporised and inventive interpretation of its story - one that centres on the bonds of friendship, love and loyalty - and it comes with refreshing directness and realism. Woolcock's sharp cinematic eye is evident from the moment the dreamily atmospheric overture plays. The entire stage is a cross-section of a deep blue sea in which three divers, the pearl fishers, swim through in a sensationally choreographed aerialist display that unsurprisngly brought applause. 

The setting (formerly Ceylon) is a little Sri Lankan village sitting vulnerably, as the circumstances are, at the edge of the water - poor, shanty-like and buzzing with its locals in spice-coloured costumes under a mostly inky sky (set designer Dick Bird, costumes by Kevin Pollard and lighting by Jen Schriever). The overall effect is masterful and adaptable in its scene changes. Of question, however, is the way how Woolcock turns Act 2's storm scene into a rogue tsunami reminiscent of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake that would wipe out such a village. From there, projections of the disaster's aftermath mark scene changes (and they are lengthy) that are more detrimental in effect than being relevant on her otherwise insightful storytelling. On that front, Woolcock draws a wonderful picture of believable performances from her cast.

The story focuses on a friendship put to the test between Zurga and Nadir, who are both in love with the priestess Leila. She has sworn an oath of chastity as part of a religious ritual in order to protect the pearl divers, but weakens when Nadir’s arrival inflames her desires. 

Alfredo Daza as Zurga and Javier Camarena as Nadir
Bizet's scoring is sensitive, mature and gorgeously threaded but it is the opera's duet between Zurga and Nadir in Act I, "Au fond du temple saint”, that is its most well-known part. An impressive-voiced pair, Javier Camarena (Nadir) and Alfredo Daza (Zurga) made the duet a poignant highlight as they explored their character's friendship and tension, first singing apart before coming together to join in song as comrades wounded by a hint of uncertainty in their encounter. Camarena displayed much to impress in both his role and house debut, his warm and glimmering tenor on show and power when needed. Daza's striking presence, handsomely dark-hued and resonant baritone perfectly matched the command he exhibited as leader. With it came the dramatic interpretation and an underlying suspicion he layered on his character, coming to a climactic highlight in Act 3's opening as Zurga see-saws from remorse to jealousy. 

It's the role of Leïla that has the most taxing music and soprano Nino Machaidze, a regular and much-loved artist at LA Opera, made it divine. Machaidze brought to Leïla a beautifully poised demeanour and a devastatingly well-calibrated and touching performance as a 21st century woman sacrificing her freedom under religious demands in a male-dominated society. In Machaidze's genuinely felt rendition, sung with both spoonfuls of purity and magnetic resolve, Leïla has never been so relevantly portrayed. 
Nino Machaidze as Leïla
Big-brewing bass baritone Nicholas Brownlee gave a dignified performance as Nourabad, the humble high priest of Brahma. The chorus of fishermen, townsfolk, priests and priestesses didn't always harmonise to the excellent standards that audiences are accustomed to at LA Opera, but they still did a fine job, more so the ladies, and they certainly detailed their acting like they knew what's required of them for a Hollywood screen test.

For this matinee performance, Plácido Domingo took the baton up after only having taken the title role of Nabucco by the horns in the previous evening's opening night. There seems no stopping this maestro's tireless pursuits. Musically, Domingo issued the score with superbly balanced weight and energetic thrust in company with precision playing from the LA Opera Orchestra.

If The Pearl Fishers isn't amongst one of your favourite operas, this Penny Woolcock production, so gorgeously realised and sung, will likely change that.

The Pearl Fishers
LA Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, LA Music Centre
Until 28th October.

Production photos: Ken Howard

Anna Netrebko stops by in Melbourne as a worthy queen of the stage: Herald Sun Review

Published online at Melbourne's Herald Sun, 19th October, and in print 20th October 2017.

Opera lovers around the globe are finally having the privilege of seeing today’s most celebrated diva in live performance on their stages. Russian soprano Anna Netrebko is sharing her gift of voice on a current concert tour in between a demanding schedule at the world’s leading opera houses. It was Melbourne’s fortune last night when the glamorous superstar of opera graced the Hamer Hall stage. Netrebko was radiant, in outstanding form and riveting to watch from the start.

Elchin Azizov, Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov at Hamer Hall
On entrance, Netrebko was all smiles before plunging into Verdi’s turbulent aria of conflicting feelings from Aida, "Ritorna vincitor!" And victorious she was! Demonstrating mesmerising flexibility, it was not only her rich tone, lustrous finish and soaring top that impressed. Making full use of the stage, Netrebko conveyed her character with power and commitment.

Singing a comprehensive and balanced program of mostly Italian opera excerpts, Netrebko dazzled from one to the next with works that reflected not only the more dramatic quality and broadening of the voice, such as a poignant aria from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, but the lighter, more melodic style she illuminated in "Stridono lassù" from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Netrebko’s effortless control and comfortable presence continued, shining with ethereal and crystalline beauty in Dvořák’s "Song to the Moon" from Rusalka.

But Netrebko wasn’t alone, sharing the limelight with husband Yusif Eyvazov — he is an increasingly successful tenor in his own right and impressing immensely with his toasty, passionate and voluminous Italianate sound. First came a nobly rendered aria from Verdi’s Il trovatore, later a knockout "E lucevan le stelle" from Puccini’s Tosca — to which he signed his own robust signature on — then a gripping and impassioned "Vesti la giubba" from Pagliacci. Alongside his wife, the chemistry palpable, their embrace and kiss added melting expression to Verdi’s "Già nella notte densa" from Verdi’s Otello.

Yusif Eyvazov, Anna Netrebko and Mikhail Tatarnikov
Surprise entry and guest artist Elchin Azizov added to the celebratory three-way mix, his smouldering and firmly buttressed baritone evident. Azizov paired with Eyvazov in a stridently militant duet from Verdi’s Don Carlos, then joined with Netrebko for a romantic, waltzing start to the second half with "Lippen schweigen" from Lehár’s The Merry Widow.

Warm and affectionate, Netrebko shared her enthusiasm all around. Behind her but always acknowledged, the Opera Australia Orchestra sounded glorious in this rare emergence from the pit with exuberant conductor Mikhail Tatarnikov at the helm. Employing spirited tempi, the orchestra responded with layers of plush and relentlessly magnificent orchestral detail.

But it was Netrebko who reigned, matching the ticket prices with a superlative evening that was worthy of her crowned status. In an operatic escapade around some of opera’s best-known arias and duets with a stop by a few lesser-known ones, Melbourne will be begging for more.

Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov
An Evening of Opera Highlights
Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
18th October 2017


Production photos: Brett Schewitz

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A splendidly realised contextual exploration of Verdi's Nabucco at LA Opera

First, there was the inexhaustible champion of opera, Plácido Domingo, taking on the title role. Adding to that, the powerhouse Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska made a sensational house debut as Abigaille. Under James Conlon's fervent conducting, the music utterly soared and, to tantalise, a resplendent feast for the eyes came courtesy of director and set designer Thaddeus Strassberger - LA Opera's new production of Verdi's Nabucco opened on Saturday with an array of outstanding attributes to win the audience's favour.

Plácido Domingo as Nabucco
The production comes via Washington National Opera, where it premiered in 2012 with later seasons at Minnesota Opera and Opera Philadelphia. It also came with an interesting twist. Strassberger has created a novel historical inset that uses the work's 1842 premiere at Milan's Teatro alla Scala as a point of reference in the presentation of its biblical story of religious tensions within which a complicated love triangle boils through.

While a few details in the historical facts are condensed and brushed over in Temistocle Solera's libretto, accompanied by Verdi's grand and tempestuous score, it became a symbol of Italy's subjugation under Austrian rule and a small ingredient that reflected the push towards Italy's unification. Rapturously received, Strassberger uses its perceived political undertones by placing his modern audience in the context of a 'reimagined' Milanese premiere at which distinguished foreign aristocrats in the audience watch on while a group of military soldiers, observed on stage at the beginning of every act, are at the ready should trouble emerge. It eventually does.

Monastyrska couldn't resist a condescending glance directed to her little well-heeled audience during her performance. Then, what came as a huge surprise to the actual opening night Los Angeles audience following the curtain call, there was a rousing uptake of the opera's most famous chorus number, “Va, pensiero", started by one voice, picked up across the stage, then open for all of us to sing. "Viva Verdi" bloomed on stage and the soldiers weren't happy. In its time, encores were not permissible by the Austrian authorities. But, regardless of the circumstances, the ingenuity of Strassberger's contextual exploration lies in how he uses Nabucco to press upon theatre's role in stirring political and social change. On the whole, Strassberger carries the concept off with an intriguing perspective and in impressive style, notwithstanding Act 3's embedded "Va, pensiero" being presented as a backstage view that unnecessarily interrupts its course.

Liudmyla Monastyrska as Abigaille
A three-tiered slice of La Scala edges the Dorothy Chandler proscenium, looking into each of the exquisitely detailed flats and backdrops that depict an architecture of impressive proportion, beginning with the striking coffered ceilings and weighty carved columns of Jerusalem's Temple of Solomon. Mattie Ullrich's eye-catching costumes display reams of vivid colour for the Assyrians with the Hebrews robed in creamy white, all of which glow evocatively under Mark McCullough's lighting design to give it the wonder of a Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic, though with much less action.

Just as impressive were the individual performances on opening night. Tenor turned baritone Plácido Domingo never ceases to amaze (following opening night he conducted a matinee of The Pearlfishers). When Domingo made his first appearance well into the first act with his warriors, he arrived with a voice that rang with both firm authority and beguiling freshness. In previous baritone roles at LA Opera such as Macbeth in Verdi's Macbeth and Athanaël in Massenet's Thaïs, Domingo's masterful technique, intelligently shaded expressivity and staying power excelled.

Domingo was similarly impressive as Nabucco, the King of Babylon. Being amongst the finest operatic actors to watch, Domingo coloured his character's emotional range with conviction and subtlety, from stern leader to demented self-proclaimed god, a miraculous return to reason and subsequent conversion to Judaism. As Nabucco's introspection intensified, Domingo oozed with natural warmth, culminating in Act 4's splendidly sung prayer, "Dio di Giuda". If there was just a little of something needing in Domingo's performance, it was a desire for greater consistency when projecting thrilling power which happened to waver on occasion.

Morris Robinson as Zaccaria with LA Opera Chorus
That proved no issue for Liudmyla Monastyrska as Nabucco's illegitimate daughter of slave blood, Abigaille. Making a macabre entrance wielding a sword and slaying a Hebrew, Monastyrska also wielded a vocal instrument with hair-raising volcanic force and impressively nuanced expression. Contrasting fire and ice combined with a delicious, deep lustre, evenly edged top notes and plunges to a meaty low range, Monastyrska commanded the stage from the start. The vocal dynamics of Act 2's "Anch'io dischiuso un giorno" were especially outstanding and on full display as Abigaille first discovers the document that reveals her slave bloodline before blazing into "Salgo già del trono aurato" with her determination to seize the crown.

Strong resonating bass Morris Robinson was coercive as the high priest of the Hebrews, Zaccaria, his Act 2 prayer to god for the Assyrians to find their way to Jehovah in "Tu sul labbro" interpreted with a smoothly arching vocal beauty. In the face of her dominant sister, lush mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera gleamed consistently as Nabucco's true daughter Fenena. As Ismaele, nephew of the King of Jerusalem and together in love with Fenena, tenor Mario Chang, though complimenting her with appropriate warm-toned richness, faded in the lower seat of the voice. Gabriel Vamvulescu made solid work of a smaller role as the hunched over High Priest of Baal.

There are lashings of opportunity for Verdi's tremendous chorus work to take the spotlight but that didn't always translate into the hoped for dream of excellence - at times, the harmonies sounding underpowered and murky. The best came with a rousing Act 1 finale as the Israelites curse Ismaele and Act 4's "Immenso Jehova", leaving  “Va, pensiero" feeling soulful but lukewarm in comparison. In the pit, however, Conlon went to work enthusiastically and the adrenaline and variety of the score was realised with superb playing by the LA Opera Orchestra with some notably melting moments of brass.

If Verdi's Nabucco could rally its audience at its premiere, why not do so again? On show was more than enough splendour and expertise in Strassberger's Nabucco for an audience to willingly rise together in voice.

LA Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion , LA Music Centre
Until 19th November.

Production photos: courtesy of LA Opera

Melbourne Festival's Taylor Mac: A 24-Hour History of Popular Music (Chapter I: 1776-1836) - outrageously bawdy, sensory and highly pertinent

Published in print in Melbourne's Herald Sun, in edited form, 13th October 2017.

Imagine a drag queen born from the cosmos in an explosion of light and glittering colour. Then, imagine this being as an all-knowing disciple of the universe, arriving to bring enlightenment to a world wounded and suffering. Finally, imagine being transfixed by her aura, under her spell and converted by her message of love, inclusiveness and acceptance. This is Taylor Mac, creator, writer, performer, and codirector of A 24-Hour History of Popular Music, here as part of the Melbourne Festival.

Taylor Mac, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: Chapter I
In an epic deconstruction of American history, 1776 to the present, Mac scrutinises a world of oppression and fear that obstructed and injured many as others exerted their superiority. Mac does this through songs of the period and an all-embracing charisma in an outrageously bawdy show that ignites the 'what were' and 'what ifs' in a wild ride.

It's 24 hours in length, spread across four six-hour chapters over four nights. Chapter I: 1776-1836 burst open in a ricochet of rich and raucous entertainment, at the heart of which community building is paramount, boundaries are expanded and normal is an alien concept. Not to worry if you're not familiar with American history, Mac makes it memorable, immediate, sensory and highly pertinent. To begin, a welcome exchange of gifts from local indigenous representative Aunty Di Kerr made certain it would be.

From the American Revolution to the Indian Removal Act of 1830, coursing through the early Woman's Lib and Temperance movements with a heteronormative narrative as colonisation, Mac bites into history and humanity. Song after song - with new arrangements by music director and pianist Matt Ray - is sung with absorbing power, inexhaustible energy and chameleon-voiced subtlety. Ray leads an exceptional band of 24 versatile musicians with one lost every hour.

Taylor Mac, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: Chapter I
An ensemble of "Dandy Minions" weaves about with items including dress-ups to reimagine ourselves, pamphlets, apples, beer, ping pong balls, flowers, grapes and blindfolds that stir participation. At times you might feel lost (blindfolded for an hour, you are) or uncomfortable (that's ok too) and thirsty (there's a bar to head to) but Mac is always there if you need him as he changes from one wild costume to another, crowned with elaborate headdresses of tinsel, cork and feathers by costume designer Machine Dazzle.

From the message that forgiveness and redemption are possible in "Amazing Grace", Mac stamps impact on over 50 songs, some familiar, many not, all with purpose. There's "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and an appearance by cabaret sensation Meow Meow in "10,000 Miles". Further along, there's the clash of puritanism with debauchery in "Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes", a rousing "Shenandoah" from a beautifully harmonised chorus on the way to the moving Cherokee songs on the Trail of Tears as the colourful story of Harry, Jane and Louisa Maria is threaded until we reach a soaring rendition of "Banks of the Ohio".

By this point, you're never going to let anything stand in queer's way.

Taylor Mac: A 24-Hour History of Popular Music
Melbourne Festival
Forum Theatre
11th October 2017


Production Photos: Sarah Walker

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