Monday, November 10, 2014

Gertrude Opera's effervescent production of The Magic Flute

Athenaeum Theatre
Thursday 6th November, 2014

When the performing arm of The Melbourne Opera Studio, Gertrude Opera, presented their fully staged half-length version of The Magic Flute, I was surprisingly taken aback. Here I was in the intimate clutches of the historic Athenaeum Theatre, gobsmacked by the journey in time it swept me into. The choice of venue and the brooding, carnival-like period atmosphere tricked me into imagining I was plonked into Mozart’s midst as he himself conducted his last opera, a fairy-tale of sorts championing the forces of good over evil, reason over revenge and the just rewards of perseverance, at the Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden, a suburban Viennese theatre where the work premiered in 1791.

Belinda Prakhoff, Damien Noyce, Rada Tochalna and Karen Van Spall
Artistic director Linda Thompson achieved much with her creative team and effervescent group of predominantly young performers and guest professional artists, putting a smile of disbelief on my face as The Magic Flute entertained. Running just under 90 minutes without interval with swathes of recitative omitted, many arias reduced in length, emphasising the magical and fantastical minus the Masonic symbolism and its ceremonial choruses, the troupe performed and sang admirably and clearly to a delightful English libretto.

Even the musicians felt directed into the production. As patrons took their seats, the performance almost unknowingly got underway with a sense of invitation and informality as the seven musicians of the Magic Chamber Orchestra played a charming orchestral piece on the stage, appropriately a light and airy take on the opera's glorious overture. When they were done they positioned themselves in the pit and remained there for the performance, making Mozart's music emanate warmly under conductor Warwick Stengards' stewardship. Tempi wobbled from time to time with attempts to reign in vocal activity on the stage but clean, skilled playing was evident, especially from the honey-toned flute of Derek Jones and Pamela Christie's stealth at the piano.

In its plump simplicity, set design (simply attributed to Gertrude Opera), incorporated symmetry, height, side-stage steps and a central, hinged platform supporting four "tree" posts slung with fairy lights which illuminated when help seemed at hand or at moments of celebration. Jason Bovaird's delicious lighting design, though executed with occasional opening night mishap, cast a vivid palette of colour on the performance, drenching Amelia Carroll's costumes of period-inspired quirkiness, Gothic-darkness and showbiz glitter. The entire concoction presented Mozart's singspiel in a most pantomime-like manner.

The young, well-rehearsed cast, at times overcoming some stiffness in delivery, engaged with positive energy, keeping the momentum alive and earning the experience to forge stage-building dreams.

Juan Enrique Guzman and Alexandra Ioan
Juan Enrique Guzman displayed praiseworthy stamina as his expansive, warm-voiced Tamino undertook his quest with seriousness as he "played" the magic flute with impressive believability. Alexandra Ioan, pure and rich-toned as Tamino’s promised wife Pamina, gilded the stage with strong emotive phrasing. As the evil Queen of the Night, Joelene Griffith channelled her vocal strength, as if through a pipette, to slither the air with cold rage. Playing the knock-about, happy-go-lucky bird catcher Papageno, Eugene Raggio, with an at-ease comfort, was happily awarded his prize-catch lovebird, Papagena, cheerily and squeakily brought to life by Alissa Andraski. The pair’s final duet especially tickled the funny bone as they dreamed of a life together with many "Papageni" while unfolding a concertina-cut-out of kids.

Projecting with a solid appealing voice, Damien Noyce menaced with risk-taking, hyperactive acrobatics as a harlequin-like and low-life Monostatos. Guest professional artist David Gould added thunderous vocal bass and wisdom as he starred from an offstage balconette, commanding in the role of Sarastro, preacher of the way to enlightenment.

Eugene Raggio and Alissa Andraski
Rada Tochalna, Karen Van Spall and Belinda Prakhoff swooned and paraded as the three Ladies to the Queen of the Night and invigorating the evening with multiple synchronised scooter appearances the three Spirits, Tamzyn Alexander, Alexandra Lidgerwood and Rhiannon Stevens, amused as a trio of scraggy blonde-wigged golden girls, clearly having fun while singing with heavenly-voiced lightness.

Presented here was a refreshingly entertaining kind of opera that reflects the energy and aspirations of our young crusaders on an operatic platform at a grassroots level in a production that impressively packages Mozart’s work for a place and time to suit many an occasion.

Production photographs courtesy of Gertrude Opera

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Sondheim's Passion rewards and frazzles

Life Like Company
Playhouse Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
5th November 2014

Given the fact that a string of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals have hit Melbourne’s stages of late, theatre-goers are getting to know that nothing is ever quite what it seems in a Sondheim world. With a penchant for topsy-turvy storytelling and persistently prodding his audience with many an uncomfortable truth, a Sondheim musical rarely feels like a light affair. Passion dangles disconcertingly at this extreme, presented here in Life Like Company’s fine inaugural production.
Kane Alexander and Theresa Borg

A safe but deft hand in direction by Neil Gooding, musical director Guy Simpson's sensitive interpretation of the score and energetic embrace of the 15 musicians, together with a well-seasoned cast, all combine in a production that both rewards and frazzles.

From Iginio Ugo Tarchetti's 19th Century novel Fosca, to the 1981 Italian film Passione d'armore, the story of a bewilderingly obsessive love of a sick woman for a remotely posted army captain, who in turn is in love with and having an affair with a married woman in Milan, was adapted for the stage with Sondheim's signature biting lyrics (from James Lapine’s book) and melodious though oddly restrained music.

Passion’s stage drama contains forces aplenty that lap the audience unrelentingly.  Shifting scenes regimentally choreographed, intertwined vocal lines originating from different premises of time and place, storytelling within storytelling, repetition of vocal lines and a fluid music intercepted by military reminders of the snare drum and trumpet, march the story along with rhythmic ease.

The multi-tasking creative designer, Rob Sowinski, keeps the lighting subdued but varied while scant furnishings define space and costumes define the period on a raw black-curtained working stage. It's neither elaborate nor overly ambitious but it does work to sharpen the focus on the characters from whom Gooding extracts every ounce he can. The cast of 12, a broad mix of musical theatre talent, is balanced and strong.

Fosca, as fragile as she is, is the story's vortex, and because of whom outcomes spiral. Theresa Borg's Fosca is harrowing as she summons power and gravitas in her voice from a mind and body sucked of life. Stiff in action and gaunt in expression, Borg's disturbing melodies, depth of voice and unswerving performance of an obsessed love press down with a frightening emotional burden.

The man of her obsession, Captain Giorgio Bachetti, is handsomely portrayed by Kane Alexander. After an uneasy, under bedcover and unclothed start, Alexander developed charismatically with a warm and resonant voice, his sensitive obliging nature seemingly at odds with military isolation. You wait for that cordial spirit to break and it finally does in a burst of harsh and confronting words as Fosca follows him on his train to Milan. It is at this point that you come to see and feel Alexander’s full range.

Borg and Alexander build up Fosca and Giorgio's complex chemistry in an aching, frustrating display. The less we understand something, the more disturbing we find it. Love is not what it seems and viewing their relationship makes challenging and effecting theatre.

Polar opposite to Fosca's pitiable, deep melancholy, Silvie Paladino as Giorgio's lover Clara, glides with lithely beauty and stretches the voice high and bright with measured control. It is easy to imagine Paladino as the consummate entertainer but despite a polished performance, the role seems to demand a greater sense of lusty vigour. 

Silvie Paladino and Kane Alexander
The trio is complimented by fine performances from Mark Dickenson as Fosca's cousin and protector, Colonel Ricci, whose robust voice can fire like a cannon, and John O'May as the officious Doctor Tambourri, your somewhat dubious master-of-ceremonies-like-glue guiding proceedings in hardly a singer's role but endearing nonetheless.

Completing the cast is a uniformed regiment of colourful characters whose chorus work coolly take the drama off the boil. Sadly, their choreographed drills stumble, dragging down "military madness" with twee, juvenile marching.

It seems impossible to walk away from this staging of Passion without being completely drained by the drama. That can hardly be poor theatre. It may just require some distance in time from reaching Sondheim saturation. 

Production photographs by Ben Fon