Saturday, October 24, 2015

Sydney Chamber Opera's masterfully honoured contemporary work of Malouf's Fly Away Peter

Two little dickie birds sitting on a wall, 
One named Peter, one named Paul. 
Fly away, Peter! Fly away, Paul! 
Come back, Peter! Come back, Paul!

Brenton Spiteri as Ashley Crowther
This simple nursery rhyme is the first association I make with the title of Australian author David Malouf's 1982 novel, Fly Away Peter. Despite there being no protagonist in the novel called Peter, its central character, Jim Saddler, has a deep understanding of bird life and 'flies' on a journey beyond the safety of the 'wall' to the Western Front during World War One. What once felt meaningless as a rhyme becomes a source to ponder and in Malouf's story, the ponderations are bountiful as Jim's once self-contained life takes flight.

Sydney Chamber Opera's Fly Away Peter creates a perfect companion to Malouf's novel, paralleling the contrasts of idyllic distance and distant insidious warring with touching contemporary opera-theatre.

Across its eight scenes and 75 minutes, the young Jim Saddler's ornithological knowledge and observations in the tranquility of an Australian estuary setting are abruptly rocked by newfound observations of horrific warfare that become layered with blasts of emotional ardour. Where once Jim's perspective soared above the earth with the flight of birds, his life in the trenches of war inhabits an earth that becomes the resting place of corpses. As his journey unfolds, Jim becomes cognisant of the enduring condition of dealing with identity, of war and the transience of his own life.

The work premiered at Sydney's Carriageworks Theatre in May and despite its relevance in the ANZAC centennial year, the work never feels locked to the specifics of war. Instead, a captivating cerebral depiction is attained which director Imara Savage and the creative team have masterfully honoured.

Pierce Wilcox's engaging and thoughtfully condensed libretto is assisted with a poetically sculptured vocal line. Within its directness, the listing of dozens of eloquently rolled bird names colour the picture, then, in war, are affectingly replaced by the names of soldier mates.

With neither climactic sweep nor pompous dramatic demarcations, Elliott Gyger's music washes the story with a restless heartbeat within ebbs and flows of time, more a music that seeps into, rather than strike, the listener. Dappled with the squawks, chirps and chit-chat of bird-life recreated in music, a remarkable energetic soundscape is constructed by the seven musicians tended expertly by conductor Jack Symonds.

A gentle respect between music, voice and emotion play out, its three roles beautifully filled by artists at one with their character. The fluctuating intensities of the more poetic vocal lines appropriately belong to the introspective Jim Saddler, touchingly portrayed with freshness and polish by Mitchell Riley. Brenton Spiteri stretches his role not only as the privileged but kind landowner Ashley Crowther, but as several soldiers on the battlefield. Spiteri's charismatic warmth and vocal agility adds priceless weight and his maturing excellence is clearly evident. As the nature photographer Imogen Harcourt, Jessica Aszodi sings with exciting vocal brightness and feeling, and when not exposed to the foreground of war, moves about the stage with focused sensitivity. All three characters are united by a passionate bond which transcends class and sex while forging the most admirable attributes of humanity to which movement director Lucas Jervies gives full attention to with poignancy.

Jessica Aszodi as Imogen Harcourt
The amphitheatre-styled Arts Centre Melbourne Fairfax Studio's performance space highlighted the staging rewardingly. Nothing more than an asymmetrical stepped podium is employed by Elizabeth Gadsby's set design, yet nothing feels lost in its metaphorical associations of a riverbank, a summit or even as a stone grave top. Gadsby's costume designs continue the simplistic visual stream with everyday casual wear and Verity Hampson's lighting design deftly snaps each of the eight scenes with varied shafts of golden light in a low intensity lit field.

Dozens of blue buckets are gradually carried out as the only props. At first, their random placement on the stage might symbolise the soldiers on the battlefield. Through time, they are manoeuvred steadily into measured rows to represent first the lines of planted crops as life continues around battle, then both powerfully and unmistakably, the headstones of the fallen. Some contain clay that the cast of three smear themselves with, in a nod to the disappearance of the present and one's eventual return to dust. The overall staging achieves remarkable sense of grandness which connects the audience with hand-reaching ease.

As part of the Melbourne Festival and only with three performances, the work sits comfortably alone. But Gyger and Wilcox's initial intention for it to form a companion piece to Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale of 1918 lends even further possibility for the work to resonate in the future for a more fully programmed evening.

Less importantly, as youngsters, my brother Peter and I, Paul, were the 'two little dickie birds' of the family. I wasn't exactly comfortable with being a 'dickie', but now I can at least see being 'dicke' with a completely fresh perspective.

Production photographs: Susannah Wimberley

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival: Herald Sun Review

Opera Australia and Barking Theatre Company's The Rabbits: Herald Sun Review

Friday, October 16, 2015

Going gaga over Gheorghiu at Hamer Hall, Melbourne

Angela Gheorghiu and Tiberiu Soare
For any vocal artist, preparations including deep breathing, relaxation of the muscles, adequate rest and an understanding of the work would be expected before a performance. Readying for the likes of Romanian soprano sensation Angela Gheorghiu, an audience might also benefit by similar preparations, in order to revel in the best possible experience. The dividends would pay off, for Gheorghiu's artistry is not to be taken halfheartedly.

In Australia recently for the first time to give three recitals, Gheorghiu made a striking entrance on Melbourne's Hamer Hall stage after two excerpts from Händel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks". In a soft powdery pink pleated gown, her glistening black hair spun tightly, her deportment was regal. But when Romanian conductor Tiberiu Soare lifted his arms to release the first bars of music alongside her, I sensed unease in the eyes and in her voice as she slipped into her opening aria, "Lascia ch'io pianga" from Händel's Rinaldo. Within seconds, her hand made hesitant reaches to the music stand. Soon after, her heels got caught under the train of her gown and, for a while, she fidgeted with her shawl. It was not the supremely confident diva I had seen perform at some of the world's most famous opera houses. Seemingly locked out of focus, Angela Gheorghiu appeared uncharacteristically distracted.

It was Gheorghiu's third and final concert and her only Melbourne appearance after two concerts at the Sydney Opera House, less than a week after making the long journey across half the world's time zones. Her opening said more about the demands of a diva than the pathos of her aria. It may not have helped that she was facing an audience of around 1300 in the magnificence of a concert hall that seats close to 2500. I felt Melbourne had failed her.

Following, in Jules Massenet's "Adieu notre petite table" from Manon, Gheorghiu showed off a beautifully supported pianissimo, a firmly extended voice and exposed a smashing lower register.

The recital's neatly structured program of paired arias were separated by pleasing orchestral pieces, given overall well-worked musicianship from the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra. Concentrating on French Romantic and Italian verismo repertoire, the diva's bread and butter was on offer. Whipping it into a magic would eventually come.

Returning to the stage with a different shawl after the orchestral "Intermezzo" from Puccini's Manon Lescaut, Gheorghiu's profound feeling for the text showed in "Pleurez mes yeux" from Massenet's Le Cid. Occasional erratic breathing transitions impacted the fluidity but the voice took strident flight and opened up generously in the night's first part final aria, "Song to the Moon" from Antonin Dvořák's  Rusalka with deep luscious chesty strength, a seamless middle register and strong highs. The charismatic shifting colours, immense depth and striking range characteristic of Gheorghiu's voice was now blooming on stage. 

Angela Gheorghiu
After interval, the energetic orchestral  oomph of the "Aragonaise" from Bizet's Carmen set a new pace. Gheorghiu emerged more relaxed, brimming with smiles. In a plush reddy-pink gown and hair loose, an assured and confident voice then melted the moment in "Un bel di vedremo" from Puccini's Madama Butterfly. In "Habanera" from Bizet's Carmen, a supremely eloquent dance on the vocal line was matched by the seductress' dance around the conductor's podium, Soare's eyes becoming increasingly tricked by her whereabouts and Gheorghiu becoming less and less attached to the music stand. Signing off the two aria progression with a wide outstretched wave, Gheorghiu accelerated to the stars.

After the night's buzzing orchestral highlight, George Enescu's "Romanian Rhapsody op.11 nr.1 in A Major", Gheorghiu returned in a sleek black gown featuring an extravagant ruffled equine-like mane that formed the gown's rear. The glamorous show of various costume changes seemed to fire up an increasingly compelling performance.

The spell-binding beauty of Gheorghiu's complete artistry was to come with two final Puccini arias, "Vissi d'arte" from Tosca followed by "Sola perduta, abbandonata" from Manon Lescaut, the first given full dramatic deployment, the latter, and final aria of the program, explosive emotional force.

Three encores followed, a pure Puccini superlative rendition of "O mio babbino caro" from Gianni Schicchi, a tender folk-style Romanian a capella that seemed to reduce the hall's enormity to a salon, and concluding with a cheeky entrance to sing the zesty "Granada".

Gheorghiu achieved much this night. She more than satisfied an audience going gaga that had waited so long for the chance to see her on our stage. But above all, Gheorghiu demonstrated how the voice of art transcends life's rigorous demands for which no recording could ever capture.

Photographs courtesy of Angela Gheorghiu's website

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Floria Tosca and China's Three Tenors vie for the limelight at Opera Hong Kong

Wie Song, Warren Mok and Dai Yuqiang as the three Cavaradossi
Opera Hong Kong presented a novel way of spicing up an old favourite in their recent production of Puccini's Tosca. It wasn't enough to rely on a strong cast of singers and a technically polished orchestra to propel the tragedy of Floria Tosca's eventual suicidal leap from Rome's Castel Sant'Angelo. No, alongside internationally acclaimed soprano He Hui as Tosca, Opera Hong Kong matched each of the opera's three acts with a Cavaradossi taken on by China's Three Tenors: Wei Song, Dai Yuqiang and Artistic Director and producer, Warren Mok. If that wasn't enough, even more surprisingly, Cavaradossi's notable Act III aria, "E lucevan le stelle" turned into a dawning ground-hog day of chuckles as each of the tenors took their turn in stamping their mark before the trio came together to belt out the last lightning phrase. It was to be an opening and closing night highlight. Sadly, Puccini's enduring work came awfully close to being served up as a dog's breakfast.

The diversion stunted a beautiful but otherwise conventional staging by director, set and lighting designer Enrico Castiglione's production which harks from the Taormina Opera Festival. Vivid colours, evocative architectural elements and ornate detailing formed a powerful backdrop. Sonia Cammarata's refined costumes shimmered but lacked the worn realism of French-occupied 1800 Rome. Castiglione's lighting charged the drama thoughtfully but sudden and inexplicable extreme lighting shifts snapped one's attention from the performances. Tensions existed in the visual whole.

He Hui and Warren Mok
He Hui surmounted all. The delectable fullness and strength of Hui's soprano rang clear, only diminished by an early tussle with the orchestra. Hui's dark and creamy lower range complimented Tosca's coercive and jealous streak while her lucent trills and crisp high notes that of the popular singer's confidence. Her Tosca was elegant and theatrical, and fortunately, blindly in love with each of her Cavaradossi. The power of her performance elicited an engagement akin to exposing a mirror to her thoughts, notably, while in the entrapment of Scarpia's offices at the Palazzo Farnese in Act II's moment of weakness and subsequent flash decision to save herself from his lustful advances. As she reflects on her fate in "Vissi d'arte", her religiousness struck by God's seeming abandonment, Hui was compelling, impassioned and on her knees in a distressing portrayal of hopelessness. With perfect diction, effortless breathing and eloquently phrased, razor-sliced top notes and unwavering sustained extension, Hui's technique appeared flawless.

China's Three Tenors supported Hui well as a curiously clean-of-paint and distinguished Cavaradossi. The shift from one to the next in itself was handled well by all, but the opportunity to engage in one artist's vocal and dramatic progression through the opera felt encumbered. Wei Song's early forced attack settled to reveal resonant warmth and appealing vibrato. Warren Mok's leaner, simmering but brighter tone pleasingly matched Cavaradossi's resistance to torture and Dai Yuqiang's grounded, fullness of sound carried inbuilt determination. All three demonstrated flair in driving home all the big notes.

Sebastion Catana's wide experience in the role of Scarpia showed impeccably. Full of heaving weight and ferocity, the voice was sharpened with all the evil of Hell. Other fine performances were given by Freddie Tong as the agitated escapee Angelotti, Sammy Chien as a doddery, bent-over Sacristan and Chen Yong's especially impressive and aggressive Spoletta.

Opera Hong Kong's Tosca: Act I, Te Deum
Opera Hong Kong Chorus and Children's Chorus sounded their very best, the vocal parts beautifully layered and attentiveness to timing, exemplary in the thrilling depth of Act I's mighty "Te Deum", courtesy of chorus director Alex Tam's preparedness. Puccini's score resonated with eloquence under conductor Gianluca Martinenghi and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra obliged with fine musicianship. The music's dramatic rushes of intensity on the strings, however, begged more.

Opera Hong Kong is capable of achieving the highest standards through seriously insightful productions and without resorting to gimmicks. Two recent productions, Faust and The Flying Dutchman, soared in excellence across all criteria. This was a faux pas. When China's Three Tenors want to sing together, it would be best to keep them apart from the same role in the same opera. Thank goodness there was the sense to have in-between performances presented in a typical, intended manner.

Production photos: Opera Hong Kong

Saturday, October 3, 2015

A delightful, adventuresome jaunt with The Grumpiest Boy in the World

It's a finely sung evening in the Briddling household as seven-year, four-month old Zachary (Jacob Lawrence) is making his frustrations known to Mum (Shakira Tsindos) and Dad (Matan Franco) while the family pet dog goofily entertains. Zachary is just very ordinary and wants to be more amazing than a kid whose crayon drawings adorn the family fridge.

Jacob Lawrence as Zachary and the Victorian Opera Youth Chorus

In Victorian Opera's world premiere of a homegrown work, The Grumpiest Boy in the World, a little bit of magic was made at Malthouse's Merlyn Theatre. It's a delightfully adventuresome jaunt from the living room to a world of fantasy that reintroduces ourselves to a comfort zone we often ignore. 

The true and deeper beauty of its story lies in its ability to bridge perceived differences with simple commonalities between all peoples, all the while realised with child-to-adult engagement. It's a struggle for individuality, for finding ourselves, and a victory for the collective in one fantastic adventure. It's also just lots of fun and continues Victorian Opera's investment in opera's future using the resources of its remarkable youth.

From composer Joseph Twist and librettist Finegan Kruckemeyer, two Australians each successfully shaping their work internationally, a music of pulsing melodic variation intertwines easily with the skilfully direct simplicity of the writing, based on Kruckemeyer's own play.

Director Cameron Menzies responds to the work's neatness, exercising his youthful cast to create drama full of vitality and rich in details that, for the most part, ticks along seamlessly. On opening night, a mightily well-rehearsed cast must have made Menzies proud, especially when moving about in swarms with startling blink-and-you'll-miss-it speed. 

Menzies is colourfully assisted by designer Chloe Greaves' delicious costumes, a giant pair of sneakers, a striped brigade of cheerleading youth, of little Zachary critters and the IKEA-honed eye of casual living that spans the globe, can unpack in a whisker and that gives the production understated power. Spanning the stage from kitchen to family room, the world of Zachary Briddling is one that is fast marching across the world in its own sameness, yet one in which we demand to express difference. Joe Mercurio's lighting design obediently adds mood. 

Jacob Lawrence as Zachary Briddling 
As Zachary, Jacob Lawrence disguises his tall, athletic leanness well to convince with boyish charm, darting across the stage with the changeability of the wind. Lawrence, who alternates in the role with Alastair Cooper-Golec, sings with chesty warmth, crystal clarity and confidence to match. I was caught at times feeling this grumpy kid feels a tad overly pushed into endearing territory but, on the contrary, it helps to understand that only Zachary needs to believe he is the "superest thing" and the "grumpiest king" in order to feel a sense of self-worth which he finds in Grumptown. 

The energetic, attentive cast perform as if to win the audience heart, and they do. More than 30 members of the Victorian Opera Youth Chorus feature in a crisply sung and stylistically choreographed ensemble. They are ably supported by Simon Bruckard's thoughtful conducting which drew smooth, precise playing from a small band of nine musicians of Orchestra Victoria on opening night, a credit to his work as a Developing Artist with Victorian Opera.

Other notably strong performances come from Kiran Rajasingam as Scientist 1, Stephen Marsh as Grump 1 and Lizzie Barrow, whose feathery rich voice fluttered high as Bird.

In less than 50 minutes it's all over when the King of Grump triumphs, but there's a certain feeling his story in music will live to reign over many a theatre to come.

Production Photographs: Charlie Kinross