Monday, December 26, 2016

Revealed via Twitter @OperaChaser on 27th December 2016 commencing at 5pm.
Dromana, Victoria.

 Award for Outstanding Production - Melbourne, Die Walküre, Opera Australia

Every night of the year, opera takes to the stage and impresses its musical, vocal and emotive force on audiences anywhere from Adelaide to Zurich and Reykjavik to Cape Town, from mega-cities to rural outposts, stages big and small. Annual global audience number the tens of millions and people continue to be drawn to its artistic mystique on both sides of the curtain.

This year I was drawn to 95 diverse opera productions in 21 cities across 4 continents, a lofty number considering my home in Melbourne is far from the operatic centres of Europe and North America. I reviewed 59 of those and everything not reviewed was given extensive 'Twitterviews' via @OperaChaser.

I'm proud of the exceptional work and standards I see from companies large and small, together with the innovative ways I see from those that strive to connect with a wider audience. Opera is alive and will forever remain so.

The 2nd Annual OperaChaser Awards and Commendations are an opportunity to reflect on the year and are dedicated to all who have contributed in sharing their artistic pursuits by nourishing their audiences with immeasurable and lasting enjoyment.

Thank you to all involved in creating the ephemeral beauty of opera in performance. Again, there is no ceremony, no trophy and no prize, but I sincerely hope that these awards bring a little pleasure to the deserved artists who brought excellence to the art of opera and all who continue to dig deep into their artistic, dramatic and creative energies.

2016 OperaChaser Awards, Melbourne 
From 32 productions including Gertrude Opera for the Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival.

Outstanding Production
Die Walküre, Opera Australia

Outstanding Production - Independent
Tannhäuser, Melbourne Opera

Innovative Opera Company
Lyric Opera of Melbourne

Outstanding Director
Neil Armfield
Die Walküre, Opera Australia

Outstanding Director - Independent
Greg Eldridge
Trouble in Tahiti, Gertrude Opera for the Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival

Outstanding Male in a Lead Role
Warwick Fyfe
Alberich, Das Rheingold, Opera Australia

Outstanding Male in a Lead Role - Independent
Marius Vlad
Title role, Tannhäuser, Melbourne Opera

Outstanding Female in a Lead Role
Lise Lindstrom
Brünnhilde, Götterdämmerung, Opera Australia

Outstanding Female in a Lead Role - Independent
Lee Abrahmsen
Elizabeth, Tannhäuser, Melbourne Opera

Outstanding Male in a Supporting Role
Jud Arthur
Fafner, Siegfried, Opera Australia

Outstanding Male in a Supporting Role - Independent
Paul Biencourt,
Pedrillo, The Abduction from the Seraglio, Melbourne Opera

Outstanding Female in a Supporting Role
Jane Ede
Musetta, La bohème, Opera Australia

Outstanding Female in a Supporting Role - Independent
Kate Amos
Milly, Our Man in Havana, Lyric Opera of Melbourne

Outstanding Conductor 
Pietari Inkinen
Götterdämmerung, Opera Australia

Outstanding Conductor - Independent
Pat Miller
Our Man in Havana, Lyric Opera of Melbourne

Outstanding Ensemble
Laughter and Tears, Victorian Opera

Outstanding Ensemble - Independent
Tannhäuser, Melbourne Opera

Outstanding Set Design
Robert Cousins
Die Walküre, Opera Australia

Outstanding Set Design - Independent
Christina Logan-Bell
Tannhäuser, Melbourne Opera

Outstanding Costume Design
Harriet Oxley
Laughter and Tears, Victorian Opera

Outstanding Costume Design - Independent
Jenny Tate
Anna Bolena, Melbourne Opera

Outstanding Lighting Design
Damien Cooper
Götterdämmerung, Opera Australia

Outstanding Lighting Design - Independent
Luke Leonard
The Scottish Opera, Gertrude Opera for the Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival

Special Award for Outstanding Duo
Bradley Daley and Amber Wagner
Siegmund and Sieglinde
Die Walküre, Opera Australia

Commendation for Outstanding Production, Luisa Miller, Opera Australia

2016 OperaChaser Commendations, Australia
From 12 productions seen in Adelaide, Brisbane and Sydney.

Outstanding Production
Luisa Miller, Opera Australia, Sydney (review of Melbourne opening)

Outstanding Director
Gale Edwards
Cloudstreet, State Opera of South Australia

Outstanding Male in a Lead Role
Russell Harcourt
Nerone, Agrippina, Brisbane Baroque  in association with Göttingen International Opera Festival

Outstanding Female in a Lead Role
Rachelle Durkin
Title role, Armida, Pinchgut Opera, Sydney

Outstanding Male in a Supporting Role
Kanen Breen
Truffaldino, Love for Three Oranges, Opera Australia, Sydney

Outstanding Female in a Supporting Role
Desiree Frahn
Rose Pickles, Cloudstreet, State Opera of South Australia, Adelaide

Outstanding Conductor
Andrea Molino
The Barber of Seville, Opera Australia, Sydney

Outstanding Set Design
Michael Yeargan
The Barber of Seville, Opera Australia, Sydney

Outstanding Costume design
Tanya Noginova
Love for Three Oranges, Opera Australia, Sydney

Outstanding Lighting Design
David Finn
Cosi fan tutte, Opera Australia

Commendation for Outstanding Production, La Juive, Bayerische Staatsoper

2016 OperaChaser Commendations, International
From 51 productions seen in 16 cities: Beijing, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Chicago, Fort Worth, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, Berlin, Hamburg, London, Ljubljana, Madrid, Munich and Prague.

Outstanding Production
La Juive, Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich

Innovative Opera Company
Fort Worth Opera

Outstanding Director
Arnaud Bernard
Roméo et Juliette, Opera Hong Kong in collaboration with Le French May Arts Festival

Outstanding Male in a Lead Role
Alexander Tsymbalyuk
Boris Godunov, Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich ^

Outstanding Female in a Lead Role
Sondra Radvanovsky
Elizabeth I, Roberto Devereux, The Metropolitan Opera, New York  ^

Outstanding Male in a Supporting Role
Matthew Rose
Ochs, Der Rosenkavalier, Lyric Opera of Chicago

Outstanding Female in a Supporting Role
Ambur Braid
Dalinda, Ariodante, Canadian Opera Company, Toronto

Outstanding Conductor
Jaroslav Kyzlink
Carmen, Slovenian National Opera and Ballet, Ljubljana

Outstanding Set Design
Giles Cadle
Les Huguenots, Deutsche Oper Berlin

Outstanding Costume Design
Outstanding Lighting Design
Bruno Poet
Akhnaten, English National Opera, London

Outstanding Chorus
LA Opera Chorus
Macbeth, LA Opera, Los Angeles

Once again, thank you to all!

^ links to reviews not penned by myself

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Opera highlights in 2016 and expected highlights in 2017 on the Melbourne opera scene

Highlights of the Melbourne opera scene in 2016

In my three decades of opera-going that I'm now calling OperaChasing and the piles of opera programs I'm not sure what to do with, 2016 will remain special: 95 opera productions in 21 cities across 4 continents. The memories of many may wilt as they hopefully nourish the heart and soul but others presumably will have everlasting immediacy.

Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival's Trouble in Tahiti
In Melbourne, I love seeing how the operatic pulse beats and I'm always wishing more people would taste what's on offer, from the smell-of-an-oily-rag budget productions to the polished bells and whistles of the hugely funded national opera company. One thing for certain is that the smell of an oily rag is often at least as overwhelmingly affecting and rewarding as any high-end work performed to the more toffee-nosed culture that sticks to opera's heals.

Melbourne staged no less than 24 opera productions in 2016. Adding Gertrude Opera's Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival, a little weekend outing for city dwellers to combine wine and opera, the number swells to 32. Ok, part of that diverse program included three "nano" operas around 15 minutes in length each, but how their succinct attack still penetrates. Apart from the bacchanalian-steered opening night dinner and gorgeously sung operatic arias, Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti directed by Greg Eldridge and The Scottish Opera, a new gripping, shortened and stylised meshing of Verdi's Macbeth in an 80-minute work directed and designed by Luke Leonard, still resonate.

Opera Australia's Götterdämmerung
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the return of Opera Australia's Ring Cycle directed by Neil Armfield surprised me how much more arresting it was than its 2013 premiere (possibly due to that wilted memory). Elements of the everyday, mixed with the symbolic and surreal accompanying detailed characterisation and the year's most extraordinary singing and music-making, came together in a work of astounding beauty. Thank the gods it wasn't staged earlier in the year. I was so emotionally pummelled that immersing in anything outside The Ring seemed completely mundane.

Of the four, I had to see Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung again, and not just because of the allure of the double-dotted diacritics. Let's hope the cycle returns to Melbourne in 2019 so that it can be ticked off many more bucket lists.

But take note Opera Australia. More double-dotted Wagnerian repertoire got a magnificent outing by independently funded Melbourne Opera with Tannhäuser. This was a huge achievement that saw the company take a bold risk while making opera look right at home in the iconic Regent Theatre. Wagner's recurring theme of redemption resonated with glorious singing, expert orchestral support and director Suzanne Chaundy and her creative team's compelling staging portraying the contrast between one world of societal strictures and another of sexual pleasures. Perhaps Melbourne does have the initiative and resources to call itself a Wagnerian city after all. Is there any dream this city can't dream without making it a reality?

Victorian Opera's Laughter and Tears
Victorian Opera's innovative arm muscled up once again under Artistic Director Richard Mills's tireless efforts in giving a fresh approach to the art. Directed by Emil Wolk, Laughter and Tears saw Mills's powerful reimagining of Leoncavallo's great tragic one-act opera, Pagliacci – the tears – come with a prologue made up of a pastiche of Baroque and Renaissance music imbued with comic abandon and contextual contrast – the laughter. Integrated circus arts handsomely illuminated the stage for one of the company's most compelling recent works that saw opera return to another splendid venue, the Palais Theatre. Certainly a work worthy of revival.

Later in the year, Virgil Thomson's nourishing music and Gertrude Stein's near-nonsensical libretto for Four Saints in Three Acts was brought to the stage in a heavenly 3-D experience from director Nancy Black and gleamingly sung by the Victorian Opera Youth Chorus Ensemble (VOYCE) alongside the young guns of Victorian Opera's professional development program. Let's pray that it'll be resurrected because those 3-D glasses need to be used again.

Finally, little Lyric Opera of Melbourne delivered an exquisite three-season adventure headed by the succulently staged, mojito-driven and rarely seen operatic version of Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana by Aussie composer Malcolm Williamson. The musical richness of the score – brilliantly sung by many of Melbourne's young artists – the witty libretto and the directorial flesh Suzanne Chaundy gave to this festering black comedy (performed to an audience not much larger than 150), reflects the knack Artistic Director Pat Miller has in unearthing varied and exciting works.

Bavarian State Opera's La Juive (The Jewess) 
Much further afield, controversial Catalan director Calixto Bieito's dark, thought-provoking interpretation of Fromental Halévy's rarely seen 1835 La Juive (The Jewess) at the Bavarian State Opera stood out for its subtlety and strength. Musically and vocally outstanding, it remains for me the year's most powerfully relevant work highlighting the oneness and differences in humanity, the instilled fear of the other as a threat, and of intolerances we harbour but can't see. Much food for modern thought.

For those interested in the many great contributions made to the art of opera in 2016, I'm running a one-hour Twitter night for The 2nd Annual OperaChaser Awards and Commendations via @OperaChaser at 5pm AEST on 27th December. I've given only a little away so come join in and have a drink to find out more to celebrate our artists with me.

Expected highlights of the Melbourne opera scene in 2017

If you think opera isn't your thing, maybe 2017 might change that. Bizet's ever-popular Carmen comes to town in a new production from Opera Australia so that could do the trick but I saw it in Sydney earlier this year and it's Cuban-set concoction needed a deal of attention I hope it gets by May. Two works at the top of my list are Opera Australia's King Roger – a 1924 work by Polish composer Karol Szymanowski and a co-production with London's Royal Opera House – and Melbourne Opera's second outing at the Regent Theatre for hours and hours of more Wagner with Lohengrin.

Rarely do we see Czech composer Leoš Janácek’s powerful works so Victorian Opera's Cunning Little Vixen, his poignant reflection on the cycle of life, shouldn't be missed either. Make sure you add Tom Waits and William S Burroughs's allegory of addiction, The Black Rider, to the list as well. It's a co-production with Malthouse Theatre starring Paul Capsis with Meow Meow and Kanen Breen.

Lyric Opera of Melbourne will no doubt enchant with a contemporary work by female composer Rachel Portman, The Little Prince. Based on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's delightful 1943 book, it premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 2003 with Teddy Tabu Rhodes in the role of the Pilot.

Finally, on the international front, for something quirky amongst so much impressive work that'll be impossible to see, there's a new comic opera based on that botched restoration of a fresco of Jesus likened to a hedgehog. Written by two Americans, librettist Andrew Flack and composer Paul Fowler, Behold the Man will premiere in a fully staged production in the town of Borja where everyone's laughing at how a town's misfortune turned with just a few well-intended brushstrokes. That I'd love to see.

Unified strength prevails in MSO's concert performance of Handel's Messiah: Herald Sun Review

FROM its modest 1742 premiere, Handel’s great oratorio and one of classical music’s best known works, Messiah has cast itself in Western music culture and, as the festive season barrels towards Christmas, it spikes to make its annual appearance.

The numbers involved in its performance vary and often swell to several hundred but there exists no definitive Messiah. If Saturday evening’s Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s historically informed performance achieved one thing, it was through the powerfully absorbing and reverently handled nature of the work under the guidance of conductor Paul Goodwin.

Sung from scriptural text compiled by Charles Jennens, Messiah is rich in Handel’s operatic signature and composed in three parts for four soloists and chorus — prophecy of Christ’s birth and nativity, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ and, finally, victory over death. On Saturday night, its beauty was illuminated by Goodwin’s astuteness in harnessing the vocal and musical forces and crafting them with appealing balance. What resulted was an interpretation, diction-clear across the board, which transcends religious and ecclesiastical pomp to deliver a performance buttressed with meditative poignancy and universality.

The 40-plus MSO musicians maintained superb support for the excellence and fastidiousness on display from the little over 100 orderly and time-perfect MSO Chorus, impressively prepared by chorus master Warren Trevelyan-Jones. A unified strength prevailed. Soloists Christopher Richardson, Charles Daniels, Luciana Mancini and Emma Matthews were splendid in voice and apart from Daniels’s persistence in distractingly turning pages of his score with head lowered, all were deferentially bound to the whole.

With a near-packed Hamer Hall standing for the great “Hallelujah” chorus, a fine magisterial elegance resonated without any bombastic attitude, the voices suspended divinely over a bed of music on which even the clarion trumpet mannerly nudged itself. The delicacy and finely threaded chorus work in “For unto us a child is born” was particularly resplendent for its smooth graduation and uplift as was “He trusted in God” with its thoughtful pacing and sublime bleeding vocal parts.

Effervescent soprano Emma Matthews’s adeptly controlled phrasing, crystal clarity and accomplished ornamentation came with spirited delivery. Later, an enchanting, lulling evenness was brought to “I know that my Redeemer liveth”.

Noticeably engaged with the awe of the work and her audience, mezzo-soprano Luciana Mancini’s performance came with heartfelt conviction to the text. Plush-voiced and effortlessly strident in the lower range, Mancini’s fiercely sung “He was despised” was so compelling that pleas for humanitarianism and moral deliverance rang loud and clear.

Smooth, dark and resonant bass Christopher Richardson was outstanding throughout, his final “The trumpet shall sound” noble and assured with a comforting vocal flexibility that even his colleagues clearly delighted in.

And despite looking clearly on his own path, character-rich tenor Charles Daniels transformed with gusto, opening Part the First with a strikingly multifaceted “Comfort ye” and “”Ev’ry valley”, ranging from silken to silty toned and bringing much liveliness to his part.

When the untiring expertise of the MSO Chorus reached to a mighty “Worthy is the Lamb” and the final tidal splendour of “Amen”, they further elevated the evening in a concert already full of polish and glorious in issuing its voice of hope. Let the festive season resonate.


Arts Centre Melbourne until 11th December

Rating: four stars

Simone Young conducts Wagner and Bruckner: Herald Sun Review

FOR last week’s Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concert, the welcome return of guest conductor Simone Young came with an equally thrilling and demanding evening of Bruckner with Symphony No.9 in D minor (1894) and excerpts from Act 2 of Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal (1882).

A smart last-minute program change swapped the order, placing Bruckner’s symphony ahead of Wagner’s Parsifal excerpts, both expansive works composed at the end of their creator’s lives.

Bruckner’s restless three-movement No.9, unfinished but still one-hour in length, ends in a soaring escape of shining brass above gently integrated string and woodwind. It brings tranquillity and passage to someplace distant, making a fitting introduction to the work of a composer he esteemed, to the convoluted medieval tale of grail hunters.

For that, two outstanding singers, American mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung as Kundry and Australian tenor Stuart Skelton as Parsifal, brought a combined dramatic trajectory that took the evening to a fulfilling close.

In Bruckner’s Symphony No.9, Simone Young’s incisive, vibrant and meticulous conducting whipped up a vivid landscape of the work’s ever-changing mood. Within the first minutes of the first, misterioso movement, the quietly solemn and explosively grandiose are spliced side by side with ease, setting the tone for what characterises much of the work. Occasionally marked by pauses of silence, themes are so quick to change that there’s little time to hold onto their threads and comes across rather like a composer’s resume of orchestral genius.

The sharp angularity of the second, scherzo movement is thematically tighter. Within it, perfectly unified plinking strings are answered by exciting, stomping brass and percussion. The theme returns in an increasingly coalescing picture. Here, the force of around 100 MSO musicians struck gold.

The much-grounded first two movements give way to a greater sense of expansive warmth in the final adagio where rich thematic medleys return. With lots to absorb, an ending seems nigh as a siren-like sound is emitted followed by a thunderous crash in which confident brass playing returned after a momentary hiatus. Bruckner then takes that characteristic devious pause and expels the air tenderly from the orchestra’s bellows.

After interval, imposing figures DeYoung and Skelton took the stage before Wagner’s Vorspiel, or Prelude, to Act 2 of Parsifal, setting the scene of temptation and redemption between Kundry, wild woman and seductress, and Parsifal, the “innocent fool” who, in learning compassion and resisting Kundry becomes saviour of the Grail Knights.

Rewardingly, fervour in character immersion accompanied mountainous vocal strength. Printed text in the program to follow their dialogue also gave assistance.

The sumptuous, broad-based foundation of DeYoung’s richly textured soprano became fast evident and impressive. Initially showing rock-solid composure and evoking mystery to her character as Kundry woos Parsifal with the story of his unknown mother, DeYoung transforms with untamed ferocity in a performance of iron-hot emotion as her charms are resisted. Big in range with superb phrasing and firm and powerful at the top, DeYoung easily demonstrated her abilities that see her sing arduous soprano roles on the world stage.

Twice this year I saw Skelton rise to great heights to give Wagner’s Tristan compelling form in London and New York. When Wagner comes with hours of gruelling on-stage demands, 45 minutes might seem trifling but Skelton made every one of them edifying. Skelton’s Parsifal opened with poignant geniality, vocally warm and effortlessly resonant. From there, the depth of complexity escalated and an emotively charged Skelton sung with as much defiance and authority that Parsifal expresses, each phrase exciting and considered. Pairing splendidly with DeYoung, the two forged a meteoric combination for the concert’s second part.

Throughout Parsifal’s excerpts, Simone Young led a superbly primed MSO, giving breath to the score’s descriptive and organic beauty and attentive support to the duo. I imagine no one was disappointed by the program change.


Hamer Hall, Arts Centre until December 3

Rating: four stars

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Opera Australia's emotionally throbbing Götterdämmerung you could immerse yourself in over again: Herald Sun Review

Once Wagner’s four-part Der Ring des Nibelungen premiered in 1876, it was entrusted to eternity. Opera Australia notched their mark on it with Monday’s opening night of Götterdämmerung to conclude the first cycle with a Ring of immense power, emotion and beauty.

Lise Lindstrom, Stefan Vinke and Taryn Fiebig
In Götterdämmerung, the cursed ring is returned to the Rhine and a cataclysmic end for the gods comes coupled with the redemption of love. Wagner’s sublime music and easy to follow libretto are its engine but director Neil Armfield gives it heightened lucidity together with his excellent cast and design team. Armfield’s adeptness at detailing his characters and supplying dramatic context is magnified in very real and relevant ways.

Once his three frumpy Norns have sewn the curtain of fate in the prologue, designer Robert Cousins’s large-framed gable structure features on a revolve that plays a major part in complimenting orchestral passages as time and place segue through each of the three acts.

It’s shelter for Brünnhilde and Siegfried’s lovemaking, a glam home gym for Hagen’s cunning plan to obtain the ring and a marquee for a frou-frou double-wedding reception. Its prominence continues as the forest in the hunting-scene where Siegfried is murdered, the subsequent place of ritual for the tear-inducing washing of his body, then portal of fire for the dramatic immolation. Alice Babidge’s identifiable contemporary costumes assist to lock in immediacy, all sharpened by Damien Cooper’s evocative accented lighting.

A spot of stage and pit tussling didn’t take away from the splendid results conductor Pietari Inkinen once again achieved. The music breathed with attentive modulation and the Melbourne Ring Orchestra took the stage for well-deserved standing ovations for their brilliant and committed work.

Stefan Vinke as Siegfreid and Lise Lindstrom as Brünnhilde
It took time but the boy-hero Siegfried makes a hugely welcome transformation from scruffy kid to suited buff man and tenor Stefan Vinke’s performance seemed to turn with it. The huge weight of the voice acquired limberness to become aflame with a rich timbre. It was Vinke at his most convincing. In Siegfried’s final words relating his past and adoration of Brünnhilde, Vinke nailed the death of innocence compellingly.

Soprano Lise Lindstrom lit the stage with an outstanding and intensely nuanced Brünnhilde. Everything in Lindsrom’s persona from the joy of love’s security to the vulnerability of sexual violation, grief in hopelessness and nobility in death was a touching masterpiece of portraiture rendered in untiring vocal radiance.

With torpedo projection, dark rumbling bass Daniel Sumegi was magnificent as the pleased-as-punch, calculating and uniformed Hagen. Gunther, the naval captain half-brother, provided the perfect contrast in the gentlemanly hands of Luke Gabbedy and his impressive burnished baritone.

Luke Gabbedy, Daniel Sumegi and Stefan Vinke
Warwick Fyfe’s shorter stage time was no less full of dramatic vocal deployment and spidery creepiness as Alberich, all the way to greedily spying end. Taryn Fiebig added high gloss as the kept-sister Gurtrune and Sian Pendry, as Waltraute, was riveting in her plea to Brünnhilde to relinquish the ring.

Lost without their gold, the glitzy Rhinemaidens returned after what looked like a week on the town but the alluring trio of Lorina Gore, Jane Ede and Dominica Matthews glowed in melodious voice. As the three Norns. Tania Ferris, Jacqueline Dark and Anna-Louise Cole sewed up an ominous start with nurturing vocal care with Cole’s gleaming soprano projecting superbly in particular and Opera Australia Chorus, in the work’s spare use of their services, massed fervently in voice.

After the seven-hour evening (including intervals), you leave Götterdämmerung pummelled by its emotional force, the artistry by which it is conveyed and more sensitive to the world outside. And you’ll want to do it all over again.

Opera Australia
State Theatre, Arts Centre until 16th December

Photo credits: Jeff Busby

Rating: four and a half stars

An unlikely hero, Opera Australia's Siegfried comes with its challenges: Herald Sun Review

Reaching part three, Siegfried lies at the nexus of Richard Wagner’s vast four-part journey through Der Ring des Nibelungen. Grandson to Wotan, ruler of the gods, the young mortal Siegfried is destined to retrieve the ring, ignorant of the supreme power it bestows on its beholder, and win Brünnhilde over.

Stefan Vinke as Siegfried
In Opera Australia’s Siegfried, the almighty music-making from the Melbourne Ring Orchestra under conductor Pietari Inkinen’s assiduous leadership continued its exquisite run on opening night. The creative team’s incisive devices — featuring a false proscenium that links each act — provided further intriguing theatricality and director Neil Armfield’s piquant and detailed exploration of the libretto remained evident. For the all-important titular role, however, the results yielded ambiguity.

Whether it’s because Siegfried is the offspring of Sigmund and Sieglinde’s incestuous love, or deprived of contact with the world under Mime’s selfish desire in raising him for purposes to attain the ring, Armfield’s Siegfried is so overplayed and weighted down as a mentally stunted wretch that Siegfried’s subsequent actions in his pursuits to learn fear and quest to find Brünnhilde seem unconvincing as the hero wanting to be seen depicted.

Navigating the balance between this uncomfortable marriage of immaturity and heroism over four hours didn’t come without issue for Stefan Vinke in this punishing role. Vinke’s command and terrific vocal freedom in Act 1’s compelling sword-crafting scene took a trajectory towards visible strain by Act 3 despite sterling heldentenor strength, excellent range and top notes resonating with pinpoint accuracy. Greater reinforcing texture in the voice was hoped for.

Alongside unwavering soprano Lise Lindstrom’s pure-toned and supple liquid radiance as Brünnhilde, the Siegfried Lindstrom faced wasn’t the one on show as she sang out “Do not come near me with your fierce presence”. Siegfried, still persisting with boyish demeanour, looked anything but the man to match Brünnhilde’s poised feminine strength.

Lise Lindstrom as Brünnhilde and Stefan Vinke as Siegfried
Honours for staying power go to towering baritone James Johnson’s increasingly forged temperament as Wotan’s disguised earthly Wanderer.

The surrounding top-gear cast featured Jud Arthur in outstanding form, pumping out bellowing bass from his suitably giant subwoofer-like cave as a naked and grotesque Fafner. The greedy Nibelung dwarf-brothers were impressively realised again with even greater fortified vocals by Graeme Macfarlane and Warwick Fyfe’s nervily animated Mime and Alberich.

Erda returned confused from her wisdom-rejuvenating slumber via Liane Keegan’s colossally sensitive performance and Julie Lea Goodwin’s fluttering golden soprano soothed the air as the Woodbird.

Reservations aside, this seamless fantastical other-dimension nonetheless continues to spin its ever so heightened portrayal of humankind’s travails with enthralling theatre.

Opera Australia
State Theatre, Arts Centre until December 14

Photo credits: Jeff Busby

Rating: three and a half stars

Superbly concentrated drama in Opera Australia's Die Walküre: Herald Sun Review

The mightiest words would crumble in shame in describing the beauty of Wednesday night’s opening of Opera Australia’s Die Walküre, the second instalment of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Almost four hours of Wagner’s absorbing music and libretto became realised in near perfection through director Neil Armfield’s sensitive vision, a cast of superlative reach and conductor Pietari Inkinen’s all-encompassing grasp on extracting its soul with the 135-piece Melbourne Ring Orchestra clearly on the same page. The effect was staggering, more so than the production’s 2013 triumph.

Amber Wagner as Sieglinde and Bradley Daley as Siegmund
Even a technical glitch that delayed Act 2 and sent the night over one hour behind couldn’t harm the resilience of an enthralled audience. Over and over again, time proves an inconsequential concept in The Ring.

After Das Rheingold’s broader landscape of power, greed and love renounced, Die Walküre’s night zooms in on the vicissitudes of love with Armfield’s intelligently sharpened focus on character nuance.

Robert Cousins’s restrained designs — Act 1’s little timber hut in the snow, Act 2’s ramped helical structure to the gods and Act 3’s dark emptiness punctured by a huge ring — all aid to concentrate the drama superbly.

Paired as convincing siblings, charismatic tenor Bradley Daley and formidable soprano Amber Wagner portrayed Siegmund and Sieglinde’s newborn but forbidden love with utter and compelling immediacy. Wagner’s performance was nothing less than breathtaking with effortless carriage of the text, firm technique and resourcefully rich expression that secures her in the company of greats.

James Johnson as Wotan and Lise Lindstrom as Brünnhilde 
In a more seamless performance than Monday night’s Das Rheingold, baritone James Johnson masterfully measured his portrayal of a Wotan clearly lacerated by the dilemma of power, love and sacrifice. Mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Dark, too, fired up a scorching spit-and-grit performance as an incensed Fricka long bearing the infidelity of her husband and Jud. Arthur notched up a gripping, thunderous-voiced and barbaric Hunding.

Of course, all are eager for Brünnhilde and soprano Lise Lindstrom burst from on high as a renegade young paratrooper in that unworldly vocal power and assuredness one hopes for. Notably, the same command characterised her more tender depiction of Brünnhilde’s turmoil and the pathos-filled final farewell to Wotan.

As her sisters in battle, eight other Valkyries supplied muscular support for the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” in a surprisingly vivid scene directed solely on a bare stage as they make their descent in harnesses.

Every moment belonged in a mesmerising continuum of palpable life and if you could convince the most unlikely suspect to see it, they may very well become committed to the The Ring for life.

Opera Australia
State Theatre, Arts Centre until December 12

Photo credits: Jeff Busby

Rating: five stars

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Opera Australia's El Kid is an entertaining kids opera with meaningful impact: Herald Sun Review

A magnificent, playful and character-focused Das Rheingold in Melbourne: Herald Sun Review

In Wagner’s epic journey through the four-part Der Ring des Nibelungen, the concept of time diminishes and an expansive musical landscape opens to set its story of power, greed, dirty deals and the price of love with the power to knock at the conscience. That story started magnificently again Monday night in Das Rheingold (Wagner’s ‘Preliminary Evening’), the first part in Opera Australia’s mammoth Ring Cycle that premiered in 2013 by director Neil Armfield.

James Johnson as Wotan and Jacqueline Dark as Fricka
From the opening majestic orchestral drone and humankind seemingly under the microscope, Armfield keeps the uninterrupted two and a half hours bobbing. Stripped of the superfluous and communicated simply and legibly — conveyed by Robert Cousins’s spacious eye-catching sets -Armfield responds with playful touches on the music while focusing squarely on the characters.

Props are few but none more cleverly lighthearted than the magician’s cabinet, the Tarnhelm. With Alice Babidge’s costumes combining an eclectic mix of power suits, bathing costumes, workwear, feathers and sparkle to define gods, mortals, giants, dwarfs and water nymphs, the total effect is a tantalising breath alongside the swells and contractions of Wagner’s score which conductor Pietari Inkinen rendered with grand sensitivity.

Possession of the Wagnerian might of voice to project well clear of the polished 135-piece Melbourne Ring Orchestra below wasn’t always evident in all but nothing can be taken away from compelling and distinctive characterisation by the strong cast.

Standing vulnerable in his realm as Wotan, ruler of the Gods, James Johnson wore the weight rather than the crown of authority, his richly seasoned and strong-topped baritone needing bottom strength to ride the orchestra. As Fricka his wife, Jacqueline Dark added creamy dark-voiced dominance. Michael Honeyman was a solid oaky-resonant Donner alongside the smooth ringing tenor of James Egglestone’s Froh with fright and hope equally portrayed by Graeme Macfarlane’s dear cowering Mime.

Lorina Gore, Jane Ede and Dominica Matthews sparkled as the mocking, leggy and alluring Rhine maidens, riding their crowd assisted pompon-gold hoard in glittering form and Hyeseoung Kwon brightly lit up a dragged about Freia

Andreas Conrad as Loge and Warwick Fyfe as Alberich
Performances increased in stature with the thuggish giants Fasolt and Fafner, contracted to build the new palace for the gods and filled out hugely by Daniel Sumegi’s rumbling earth and Jud Arthur’s benzene bass. Andreas Conrad brought superb emphatic fire as the cunning Loge and a riveting, deep lusciously sung Erda came via Liane Keegan.

Most of all, it was Warwick Fyfe’s night as the nerdy and gnarly Alberich, renouncer of love and absconder of the treasure. In a reprise of his 2013 performance, Fyfe completed the music, commanded the stage and, with his intense and fulsome baritone, conveyed his character’s stench with utter magnetism.

As the gods climb the stairs to Valhalla in a glorious rainbow of chorus-girl colour, a chapter closes but the artistic chemistry at work in Armfield’s concept might achieve for its audience the potential to etch itself on raw music long after the production is over.

Opera Australia
State Theatre, Arts Centre until December 9

Photo credit Jeff Busby

Rating: four stars

Two popular works, two very different evenings and one champion conductor: La bohème and Carmen in Ljubljana


Hats, coats, gloves and scarves came off for a seat at Slovenian National Opera's evening in wintery Paris for Puccini's perennially popular work, La bohème. Popular it is, but still there were quite a few empty seats in Ljubljana's compact house for director Vinko Möderndorfer's now 10 year-old production.

Act 2, La bohème, Slovenian National Opera and Ballet
Curiously, Möderndorfer steels attention away from Mimi and Rodolfo by a pair of mature-age 'clowns' tracing the lovers' tragedy. Then, Möderndorfer's 'clowns' feature large, with Act 2's Café Momo madly overrun with their robotic mechanical gesturing. For what purpose they served remained a mystery, apart from slapping heaps of gaiety and colour contrast to the impending tragedy. At least for Parpignol, he was never short on like company.

Marko Japelj's sets were simple and serviceable with Act 1 and Act 4's spacious grey stud-walled garret with side-stage stair taking the appearance of being someplace back-of-set. Slavic lace-making skills got a good workout in Alenka Bartl's cuffed and colourful satin 'clown' costumes but the bohemians were thankfully outfitted in more subdued tones and attire. Annoyingly, the staging was hampered by poorly cued lighting.

Starting tentatively, Martina Zadro's Mimi leaned on the dull and demure side but her rich and bright soprano blossomed pleasingly. Branko Robinšak gave Rodolfo warm-rounded appeal, solid projection and sang with conviction, though he seemed creepily more like Mimi's father and the sparks rarely appeared to jump from one to the other.

 Martina Zadro as Mimi
Urška Breznik's Musetta had voluptuousness and presence, if a little overexerted on her top notes, but it was Darko Vidic's toasty-toned and sensitive Marcello that most impressed. Some of the best vocal flesh was added in ensemble work, especially so in the buzzing Act 2 finale and Act 3's earth and fire two-sided quartet.

Maybe a lack of budding little songsters among Ljubljana's ankle biters accounted for the sadly missed kids chorus but, despite the gaudy costumes, the men and women of the chorus shone appealingly. Down below, however, was where the best was happening. Excellence was sustained in the pit under conductor Jaroslav Kyzlink's sympathetic, never grandstanding approach.

But overall, the dots weren't really joining in Ljubljana's La bohème even though the music breathed marvellously and worthy vocals sprouted. It's high time the 'clowns' move on.

Slovenian National Opera and Ballet, Ljubljana
10th November 2016


Taking its audience somewhere warmer on a cold and wet Ljubljana evening, Slovenian National Opera's newish 2015 production of Carmen by British director Pamela Howard would prove a welcome and highly satisfying escape.

Directed and designed with great care, detail and expression, Howard's vision magnified the stage and keenly struck many emotional cords. In particular, Howard showed depth of skill at crowd management - Act 4's spectacle of almost 80 singers on stage was presented with pulsating reality. It was also great to see Ljubljana's children on stage after missing their jollity in La bohème the evening before and another welcome luxury with English surtitles posted.

Blessed with superb musicianship, conductor Jaroslav Kyzlink repeated his superb form after the prior evening's La bohème by delivering a Carmen plump with clarity, polish and ongoing tension.

Nuska Drascek Rojko as Carmen 
Dark-haired and free-moving Nuška Drašček Rojko was a tremendous Carmen - provocative, seamlessly convincing, luscious in voice and as exotic as her name. Even a persistent asymmetrical smirk on the face lured you into her performance as she sang and spun her charms. Solid vocal technique, Spanish flair, castanets and all, Rojko heated up the stage. That her Carmen was so vividly portrayed made the single-minded gypsy's death that much more heartrendingly tearful.

As Don José, Aljaž Farasin performed superbly, giving him great complexity, vulnerability and pent up aggression. It wasn't a big voice but Farasin sang with charismatic warmth, shapeliness and a tender sweet vibrato. A distinguished Escamillo came with Jože Vidic's hearty meat-and-gravy baritone but the upper register tended to stretch out unattractively. As an unflattering and peasant-dressed Micaëla, honeyed soprano Andreja Zakonjšek Krt made an admirable, if not absorbing mark.

When you get crowd scenes so alive with wide-ranging mannerisms and vibrant, unified singing to go with them, you have to applaud all involved. The men, women and children of the chorus deserve credit indeed.

Ljubljana's Carmen from Slovenian National Opera might not have lavish wealth behind it, but it undeniably has the impact to drive home its tragedy in riveting form. Nuška Drašček Rojko is a major stake in its success and following her engagements should certainly come with rewards.

And as it turned out, I also got to hear Jaroslav Kyzlink conduct Smetana's The Bartered Bride just a few days later in Prague and the musical richness continued with similar ebullience and feeling. There's a conductor I'd like to hear again.

Slovenian National Opera, Ljubljana
11th November 2016

Friday, November 18, 2016

Splendidly sung, astutely referenced and never dull: Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots at Deutsche Oper Berlin

On opening night at Deutsche Opera's new production of Meyerbeer's grand French opera, Les Huguenots, the bravos and boos rang out as director David Alden and his creative team took to the stage. Thankfully the bravos outweighed the boos in Alden's brazenly teasing, astutely referenced and edgy staging. Over its more than four-hour duration, however never dull, it didn't come without a few sidestepping oddities and a little derrière discomfort.

Juan Diego Flórez (centre), Act 1, Les Huguenots
Amongst the epic orchestral grandeur of Meyerbeer's score and irony housed in Eugène Scribe and Émile Deschamps' libretto, little flecks of comic additive surface that also comment on religious hypocrisy raised by the 'pleasure-seeking' Catholics at odds with the 'pious' Huguenots, each accusing the other of blasphemy. The Protestant Huguenots don't emerge without being harmed. As tensions increase, "Dieu le veut" or "God wills it" is signposted in large letters above the stage, giving sickening justification for what culminates in a religious assault and the bloody massacre of thousands on St Bartholomew's Day. In Meyerbeer, Scribe and Deschamps's work that premiered in 1836, the historical drama (set in the actual time of the events of 1572) plays out while misinterpreted circumstances surrounding a cross-religious love between the Protestant Raoul and Catholic Valentine ends in a tragic mess.

Alden resets the events unhistorically with hints of fin-de-siècle flair that combine opulence and austerity in a series of handsome and eye-catching strokes with the creative team coming to the party magnificently. An open trussed roof lingers above the stage for many a scene in set designer Giles Cadle's numerous scene changes that not only impart legibility but give Alden utilisation of the stage's entire volume to mix intimate fore-stage scenes with mid-to-deep spatial variations. Costumes by Constance Hoffman clearly delineate the Catholics as distinguished top-hatted and tailed gentleman and elegant-gowned ladies alongside the Huguenots who are drably garbed in grey, like an infestation of rats needing extermination. Adam Silverman's lighting paints a masterpiece of atmospheric appropriateness.

Olesya Golovneva, Patrizia Ciofi and Juan Diego Flórez
Cadle responds freshly and dutifully to the drama many a time, including reference to Act 1's song to the wine of fair Touraine with the Count of Nevers's chateau hall festooned in burgundy and Act 4's lofty-walled salon covered with Nevers's brave predecessors as he sings of his refusal to participate in the massacre as a murderer.

For the first three acts of the five-act work, Alden's playful approach pushes the envelope with showy entertainment that tends to divert attention from the long dramatic arc. Poor-mannered gents singing arias from tabletops, synchronised foot-moving from the gentlemen's sofa, a jaunty cabaret-like banquet with orgiastic tones featuring balloon-clad beauties, then two pretty maids feather-dusting the leading man - Alden's touch teases but it's neither destructive nor crass.

On the other hand, the final two acts do a complete turn as Raoul arrives to meet Valentine, overhears the plot to murder the Huguenots and is torn between cautioning his people and remaining with Valentine. This shift, with all the pathos and sensitivity that Alden exposed between the amorous pair, did more to strike the historical heart of the drama than all the politicking surrounding them.

Olesya Golovneva and Juan Diego Flórez in Act 4, Les Huguenots
But without such a talented and resilient cast as the work demands, time could crawl and, here, every one of the long list of soloists clearly demonstrated their worthiness, both in solo and ensemble display. Juan Diego Flórez luxuriously outfitted the Protestant gentleman Raoul with breathtaking chiaroscuro and dynamic sensibility in voice, sensitive and courageous in action. Opening in superb form to the accompaniment of the solo viola d'amore with "Plus blanche que la blanche hermine” was only a blimp on what was to come. Throughout, note after note provided tantalising listening as the voice reached poignantly deeper while punctuating the air gloriously higher with its delicately serrated vibrato and caressing with its warm viscous tone.

It takes some time before femininity slips in and when it does it arrives in two gorgeously contrasting forms. Angelic and pure-toned soprano Olesya Golovneva's Valentine (daughter of Count de Saint-Bris) began primly and reservedly before becoming more determined and finally heroic in a suitably measured performance. Convincingly heartfelt alongside Flórez, her tormented state of love, faith and duty were masterly brought together with fluidity and force in Act 4's room in Nevers's Parisian town-house.

Oppositely, Patrizia Ciofi dazzles with her slightly zany and playful yet commanding Marguerite de Valois, Queen of Navarre. Ciofi opened with sensuous appeal before singing with a lusciously crazed elegance, providing one of the night's early highlights as she comically took her agile coloratura descent while undressing for a regal change in "O beau pays de la Touraine".

Derek Welton and ensemble in Act 3, "Dieu le veut" Les Huguenots
Immense bellowing bass Ante Jerkunica preceded Ciofi in a compelling portrayal of anti-Catholic sentiment in the ricocheting "Piff Paff" aria as Raoul's servant and Huguenot soldier, the loose gun Marcel. In every appearance Jerkunica loomed high as a rough diamond while not only belting out brilliant strength but capturing the quiet, doleful and fine-edged voice of the inner soul. Other noteworthy performances came from Irene Roberts, with her spritely and beautifully ornamented soprano, as the Queen's Page Urbain, Marc Barrard's permeating resonant baritone as the Count of Nevers and Derek Welton's knock-out. clear and authoritative Count of Saint-Bris. Suffering from disunity, the mens chorus lacked the dignified sound of their appearance early on, but transformed marvellously alongside their refined female colleagues.

With Les Huguenots comes an intricate tapestry of music that conductor Michele Mariotti steered commendably, perfectly alternating exposed orchestral showpiece passages with attention to and support of his massed cast. By the time the horrific massacre ends, carried out with dark stylistic theatricality, the eyes and ears have absorbed a walloping great artistic achievement that you're likely to want to see a second time for so many reasons.

Deutsche Oper Berlin
Until 4th February 2017

Production photographs: Bettina Stöss 

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Evocative, confronting and a knock-out vocal beauty: Canadian Opera Company's Ariodante in Toronto

Canadian Opera Company's new and exhilarating production of Handel's Ariodante (1735) comes with a curiously evocative and confronting adaptation by British director Richard Jones, over three hours of radiant Baroque music and knock-out vocal beauty to accompany it.

A scene from Canadian Opera Company's Ariodante
Jones pulls Ariodante's story of love, honour and deception out of its royal Medieval Scotland setting and drags the audience into his mid-20th century Hebridean island adaptation as voyeurs of a small, idiosyncratic community. It's an isolated place steeped in puritanical religious stringencies in which Jones emphasises harshness and injustices explicitly, one where women serve their men, abuse goes unpunished and a 'priest' can do what the heck he likes.

Removing the royal titles of the original, Ariodante is a working class scrubber in love with Ginevra, daughter of the island's governor (the King of Scotland in Handel's original). They have his blessing to marry but the insidious Polinesso desires Ginevra (in Jones's version he's disguised as a visiting priest) and dupes the home helper Dalinda, who pines for him, into disguising herself as Ginevra. Bragging to Ariodante that Ginevra loves him, he sets up the trap that reveals Ginevra (the disguised Dalinda) accepting him into her bedroom in order to prove his point. The repercussions are immediate.

Drawing much attention to Polinesso, Jones shifts dramatic weight to the villainy and, though Polinesso's priestly disguise creates some ambiguity in the drama, at the very least, it acts to generate the blind trust a community has in religious cloth.

Alice Coote as Ariodante
The action occurs across three distinct rooms of a rudimentary cabin - bedroom, communal/dining area and kitchen. Adding interest, invisible walls and doors respectively separate the action and guide character movements. Resembling an entrenched working class world one might encounter in a Lars von Trier movie, a chilling edginess pervades this remote society that British set and costume designer Ultz and lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin have created.

Jones tears this 'opera seria' drama apart successfully and balances gravity with lighter relief. Sometimes the two share the same moment with some scenes so confronting, including Polinesso's rape of Dalinda, that they're almost too hard to watch. Then, where ballet would close each of the three acts, not only does Lucy Burge's choreographed Scottish dancing effectively convey the tightness of community, but the clever and stunning use of puppets entertainingly make comment on the what-ifs or what-will-be within the story.

Most expertly handled is the way Jones consistently employs pronounced theatricality and gently choreographed slow-motion drama to extend, enliven and interpret the text, marvellously connecting the action to the lengthy repetition of lines in the A-B-A Baroque 'da capo' ternary form.

One after another, Handel's arias unleash their glory from a strong cast led by four women of magnanimous talent, two in trouser roles.

Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote leaps from strength to strength as a virile yet sensitive and laddish Ariodante, drawing on resources from which only the best can do. In the voice there is lightness, power, beauty and a fleshy coloratura but, most astoundingly, a perfectly employed and descriptive rough-and-ready contrast to reflect Ariodante's working class status. The moment we see Dalinda thrown wildly about Ginevra's bedroom by Polinesso, and Ariodante stands disbelievingly outside assuming it's Ginevra, Coote brilliantly imparts Act II's "Tu preparati a morire" with immeasurable suffering and haunting pity.

Johanness Weisser, Jane Archibald and Alice Coote
As Ginevra, Jane Archibald is a radiant stage presence, depicting her with hopefulness and singing her with pathos. Sweet daintiness and angry outburst are treated with equal aplomb in a voice that displays great control and that rises to clean top notes. The great tragedy of being condemned by her father as a whore is whipped into one of many vocal highlights and riveting theatre in Act II's "Il mio crudel martoro".

Varduhi Abrahamyan slips between two personas, one the sometimes Rossini-like comical buffo character of Don Alonso as the 'priest', the other with a believable egocentric machismo she portrays as the vile Polinesso. The most clearly enunciated of the principals, Abrahamyan's warmth of tone and appealing flickering vibrato resonate with strength.

But then comes soprano Ambur Braid's formidable performance as Dalinda, one you can't help but hold your breadth and lose yourself in. To make sense of her character, Jones seems to want to make her gullible, simple-minded and deeply affected by a victimised past. Braid gives all this with frightful pain as she ill-thinkingly pursues the love of a brutish sado-masochist. Cowering on the sidelines in her apron, Braid's rich and fulsome mezzo-soprano poignantly imbues Dalinda with a nobility that seems to beg respect. Before the jubilation of Act I's finale, Braid showcases a fluttering and acrobatic coloratura amongst a marvellous field of colour, contour and shade as she sings of her love for Polinesso in "Il primo ardor" with the audience no doubt wishing they could knock some sense into her.

Tall, handsome and kilted, Johannes Weisser exudes overall good-mannered governance as the 'King of Scotland', bar when dragging his wrongly accused daughter before the community to shame her. Weisser doesn't look quite old enough to convince as Ginevra's father but he comes with pleasing oaky toned richness and a robustly centred voice that travels with greatest ease to the lowest range.

Jane Archibald, Ambur Braid, Varduhi Abrahamyan
In love with Dalinda, Owen McCausland's Lurcanio is convincingly forthright and there's impressive resonant power and clarity to his brawny bass-baritone if but a tendency to overexert. A small chorus of 12 snake through the cabin, contributing strong in voice as well as dancing and delightfully acting as puppeteers.

The list of highlights are extensive but, unlike a few daft patrons who departed after Act II, Act III reaches breathtaking heights with three thrilling consecutive arias. First comes Coote's "Cieca notte" (Ariodante) as she makes dazzling register shifts while displaying seemingly immense laryngeal pleasure. Next, Braid's fireball coloratura sets alight "Neghittosi or voi che fate?" (Dalinda) and Abrahamyan follows with an impassioned, smooth and confident "Dover, giustizia, amor" (Polinesso).

Handel's score took a moment to translate into its exhilarating potential under conductor Johannes Debus's command, but it eventually rose and comfortably cruised alongside the quality on stage. Apart from some wobbly brass peering through, the COC Orchestra showed their stamina with evenness of playing.

In presenting Handel's Ariodante, COC not only shows off the beauty of Baroque music in full bloom with a superlative cast, they also give it modem theatrical relevance in a fresh and insightful interpretation.

Canadian Opera Company
Four Seasons Performing Arts Centre, Toronto
Until 4th November

Production photos: Michael Cooper

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Janáček's The Makropulos Case lucidly told and brilliantly sung at San Francisco Opera

From director Olivier Tambosi, San Francisco Opera's revival production of Leoš Janáček's penultimate opera, The Makropulos Case, creates a clever juxtaposition of lucidly unfolding drama set in a sunless and mainly monotone world. Appreciatively sung in Czech with English supertitles, in it, a stream of convincing characters brilliantly take their position in one of opera's outer-orbital stories.

Imagine given the opportunity to live through centuries of change in secret without growing old. It might be a highly desirable proposition. But in 1585 Elina Makropulos had no such choice when her alchemist father, Hieronymus Makropulos, was ordered to test a potion on her at the request of Emperor Rudolph II in order to extend his life.

Charles Workman , Nadja Michael and Dale Travis
More than 300 years later, after copious identities and forever an escapee, her contemporary incarnation, Emilia Marty, is facing the final curtain unless she can find the formula to extend her life another 300 years. As luck would have it, she hears of the generations-spanning case of Gregor vs. Prus over rights to a disputed estate she was once a part of that she insists a will exists for and a sealed envelope she is desperate to retrieve.

It sounds like the beginnings of a dark fairytale but what we get from Janáček is an exciting, potent and mature psycho-drama that nudges realism. Premiered in 1926, the story's eccentricity is masterfully played out in Janáček's highly expressive and musically conversant score and natural flowing libretto that clearly reflects the writing of Karel Čapek's play written a few years earlier. Tambosi commendably mines it for gesturally large effects together with the exact amount of lighter moments of relief that are inextricably bonded to the score.

A sturdy and colourful overture guides us through landscapes that could easily depict shifting historical moods to take the observer to the opening scene. In his San Francisco Opera debut, conductor Mikhail Tatarnikov gave the work multi-faceted life and extracted interest and clarity from all sections of the pit. Tatarnikov provided generous space for his singers and the draft for emotion that resulted in an inseparable and symbiotic relationship throughout.

Nadja Michael as Emilia Marty
But the work's success hinges on the performance of the woman at the centre of this affair who is rarely off stage. Slim, streamlined and seductive as she slinks about her domain, German soprano Nadja Michael is a scorching dynamo as the minx-like and spiked-blonde-haired Emilia Marty or E.M., the initials she uses for every one of her previous identities. Michael takes little time to establish her authority over men and her command of the stage. At her youthful 337 years of age, Emilia has mastered a few techniques, including operatic star quality as a singer, so mounting the attorney's desk or hurling insults is all part of the power she exerts.

But life has become numb for Emilia and the cold and uncaring self-interested woman eventually boils over with pitiable emotive force as she realises she has lost life's meaning. Michael encapsulates the steely coldness and later impassioned Emilia with remarkable force in a performance that makes its case against immortality. Michael showed not only unfaltering staying power, but her dark volcanic soprano intensified right through to Emilia's final melodramatic collapse.

Despite her dominance, Michael never shredded her strong surrounding cast. Handsome, tall and smooth-acting as Albert Gregor, Charles Workman easily falls into Emilia's grasp and complements this authoritative figure with passionately charged vocal muscularity, technical dexterity and sharp emotive turns.

Scene from Act III, The Makropulos Case 
Stephen Powell's broad and earthy baritone adds vocal weight to his middle-aged, stout and dignified Baron Jaroslav Prus. As the case lawyer Dr. Kolenatý, Dale Travis imprints a solid presence but with a similar earthy vocal quality and stage presence as Powell, the pair are presumably more indiscernible the further the audience is distant.

Joel Sorensen opens vocal proceedings strongly as the diligent but mildly dithering Vitek, Dr. Kolenatý's clerk, with his fine, piercing and distinctive ringing tenor. As his geeky daughter Kristina, second-year Adler Fellow, rich and fulsome soprano Julie Adams gives a charming performance as she swoons over her opera idol Emilia. Continuing a character list with few degrees of separation, Kristina's affable boyfriend Janek, the son of Prus, is sung with polish by tenor Brenton Ryan and Matthew O'Neill clearly looks and sings like he's been given a second shot at life after distracting proceedings as the aged and wiry Count Hauk-Sendorf.

Frank Philipp Schlössmann's generally black and white monotone set and costume designs and Duane Schuler's subdued lighting appropriately reflect the numbness of Emilia's life. It also effectively masks its 20th century setting well. A revolve presents the opera's three acts with real-time moving forward on a large clock. But the striking opening set, depicting Dr. Kolenatý's office in an exaggerated litter and height of books and papers, isn't repeated with the same flair in subsequent acts but there's no overall damage done.

The chance to see The Makropulos Case doesn't come often but San Francisco Opera have gladly revived it after just six years. Seeing it once for Nadja Michael's performance alone is worth it  but second time around you'll find there's so much more you'll discover.

San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
Until 29th October

Production Photos: Cory Weaver