Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival excites with a fine festival vintage

The richness of expression opera can achieve feels a perfect match in a setting where a tiny fruit is transformed into great complexity. Spread across three landmark wineries, Fowles, Mitchelton and Tahbilk in central Victoria and packaged strongly by Festival Artistic Director Linda Thompson, there was noticeable structural improvement, subtle new complexities and added maturity in this 2016 festival vintage, the second Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival.

Raphael Wong and Alexandra Lidgerwood, Bastien et Bastienne
At Fowles's serviceable Wine Shed, what a thrill it was to meet Bastien et Bastienne (1868), a little work written when Mozart was just twelve. How he could look at young lovers' games and write with melodious maturity!

Though bare-staged, Greg Carroll's vivid, bravely ill-mannered and lively direction and Pam Christie's crisp piano accompaniment will keep the one-act singspiel alive in memory. As a pair of soft-punk hotheads, Alexandra Lidgerwood's bright peachy-voiced Bastienne and Spencer Chapman's light, mellifluously sung Bastien made a lightning and convincing duo, both having no qualms in cheekily engaging the audience. Raphael Wong provided superb heavyweight baritone resonance as the cloaked soothsayer, Colas.

Three contemporary Nano-Operas highlighted just how effective opera can beautify and brace simple storytelling, strangely enough, even when the text is not clear. Sometimes we can add our own, as in composer Katy Abbott-Kvasnica's The Domestic Sublime (2011)It wasn't often clear what soprano Alexander Ioan was singing about from Chris Wallace-Crabe's text but as she ironed and folded clothes and sat down to a cup of coffee, she did so with intoxicating force and a limpid effortlessness while her voice floated breathtakingly to the ears.

Composer Natalie Williams showed her diversity of style with two works. The first, Puddle of Youth (2013), gleamed under Greta Nash's smart direction together with Wendy Grose and Karen Van Spall's eccentric and heartwarming portrayal of old friends Gladys and Estelle. When Gladys is confronted with Estelle's fear of drowning in the fountain of youth, a clam-shaped kiddies pool which Michael Lampard exotically presides over, she decides friendship is more important than the promise of youth.

Williams's second work, Tuesdays with Pictures (2015), to a libretto by Madeleine St Romain, is a story about three para-natural private investigators (Elizabeth Chennell, Lisa Parker and Joshua Erdrlyi-Gotz) who believe they can cleanse a couple's house of ghosts (Allegra Giagu and Spencer Chapman). Realised with black and white gothic darkness, the polished performances weren't enough, however, to shine insightfulness on the work.

A short and informative Q&A session followed with the two composers hosted by Adrian McEniery, Williams outlining how Puddle of Youth was composed in 12 hours alongside the librettist Vynne Meli, then given 12 hours in rehearsal and subsequently performed. Winner of the Atlanta Opera 24-hour Composition Competition 2013 and the most enjoyable of the three works presented, it showed and shocked with what sharpness and quality can be achieved under pressure.

Quite the highlight on the first full day was the thoughtful direction from Greg Eldridge and the strong cast assembled for Leonard Bernstein's dark Trouble in Tahiti (1952). In a simple but effectively furnished staging in Fowles's Wine Shed incorporating bedroom, living room, kitchen and office in a 1960s setting, Eldridge gives heroic resolution to the story of a bickering couple whose relationship has withered.

Patrick MacDevitt, Hadleigh Adams, Raphael Wong and Desiree Frahn,
Trouble in Tahiti
As an exasperated Dinah, you found the lusciously hearty and pure-toned soprano Sophie Yelland staring at her audience as if pleading through a camera lens. Hadleigh Adams brought an aggravating tension to the drama with his deeply cavernous and adrenaline-rich baritone. The two matched each other in power and a feeling for their roles that was nothing less than impressive, with Scene IV's "Well, of all people" given a powerfully poignant interpretation of their accidental lunchtime street encounter in which they lie about having appointments.

Desiree Frahn, Patrick MacDevitt and Raphael Wong threaded through the domestic tension with well-sung cheesy appeal as the satirical trio. Inconspicuously from the side, conductor Matthew Toogood led a band of seven providing plump musical support, if at times bearing too heavily on the voices.

On Saturday night, wine glasses were filled and emptied in jubilant surroundings as part of a three-course, three-chef-prepared gourmet dinner for around 150 guests at Mitchelton for a gala evening entitled Losing the Plot. Hosted by the festival's Music Director, conductor Brian Castles-Onion giving a spicy and unconventional insight into the arias and ensembles presented, some big names and exciting newcomers in Aussie opera entertained in style.

Amongst the smorgasbord of talent, soprano Desiree Frahn impressed with "Quando m'en vo" from La Bohème. Of soprano Natalie Aroyan's two main course arias, her "Ritorna vincitor" from Aida was truly victorious. Soprano Sophie Yelland extended her splendid run with a sublimely luminous "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix" from Samson et Dalila and baritone Michael Lewis provided an ample tasting and brute emotion for his following day's performance with "Pietà, rispetto, amore" from Macbeth. Guest artists Dimity Shepherd, Alexandra Ioan, Michael Lapina, Andrew Moran and Hadleigh Adams all added their own fine vocal and theatrical signatures and the entire festival ensemble came together marvellously, concluding with Natalie Aroyan and Michael Lewis leading "Libiamo ne' lieti calici" from La Traviata. Everyone no doubt drank to that.

On Sunday, in the imposing Barrel Hall at Tahbilk Winery, the reaction was thunderous for soprano Desiree Frahn as Stephanie and mezzo-soprano Dimity Shepherd as Anne in the Australian premiere of Jake Heggie's one-act 40-minute opera, To Hell and Back (2006).

Desiree Frahn and Dimity Shepherd, To Hell and Back 
Part of the beauty in the vocal writing revealed in this short work is the robust support the mezzo soprano line gives to the soprano, seemingly mimicking the confronting story of one woman's survival after violent spousal abuse thanks to her mother-in-law. In this one-off performance, Shepherd's foundation-firm and luscious tone bonded powerfully with Desiree Frahn's achingly expressive and cleanly cut soprano. Costumed in bright floral printed dresses and performing in a pristine white-curtained stage surround on a white stage floor, intended or not, the at-odds aesthetic/emotional association spoke loudly of abuse's insidious impact on the purity of souls.

In the final work of the weekend, a faultless cast blasted Mitchelton's Underground Cellar with chilling force in a world premiere, The Scottish Opera (2016). Arranged by Peter Stopschinski and directed and designed by Luke Leonard, this 80-minute work is a gripping, shortened and stylised meshing of Verdi's Macbeth. Seemingly set in a post-industrial construction site, with Alison Heryer's costumes showing the kilted Scots wearing toolkits in place of the sporran and fitted with status-bearing hard hats, a testosterone-charged climate prevailed.

Lighting pulses accompanied a total effect that included eerie projected soundscapes which, together with a storm of voice and music, resonated through the darkness with 'Sensurround'-like intensity as each scene bled intriguingly to the next. Only in the final moments as Macbeth is ambushed did the theatrical impact wane in an otherwise handsome production.

Stopschinski's percolating arrangement for just seven out-of-sight musicians, including Geoffrey Morris on electric guitar, conveyed the essence of Verdi's score remarkably with Warwick Stengards conducting with passion.

Michael Lewis and Linda Thompson, The Scottish Opera
In the title role, Opera Australia regular Michael Lewis mirrored Macbeth's soul with haunting power together with measures of anguish and vulnerability while contouring his robust and expressive baritone sensationally with the text.

Artistic Director Linda Thompson led by example with a fine portrayal of Lady Macbeth. With cold-faced and calculated manner in calmly assessing her domain, Thompson displayed a fearsome elegance and sung with a confident, rich and easy flight across her soprano, demonstrating too a pleasing coloratura. Amongst the many fine performances, Michael Lapina impressed, raising his immense coiling tenor with fearsome excellence as Macduff, as did the smooth stony bass of Michael Lampard's commanding yet apprehensive Banquo.

For those who saw last year's eerily stylised The Difficulty of Crossing a Field by David Lang, you'll recognise Leonard's edgy choreographed directorial style, and it's easy to imagine these two works paired alongside each other in what would be a deeply rewarding double bill.

Finally, at the Tahbilk Barrel Hall, I haven't forgotten the nonsensical comic jaunt that came with Gilbert and Sullivan's Thespis (1871), in an arrangement based on the duos first 'lost' collaboration. While the gods, ruled by Jupiter, were losing popularity, I was losing interest in this festival anomaly. A few good numbers couldn't help but raise spirits, the community chorus sang along capably and enthusiastically with a sumptuously dressed troupe of thespian aesthetes and Max Gillies's doddery Jupiter and Adrian McEniery's perfectly refined Thespis did the trick, but the marvellous merry-go-round momentum of quality Gilbert and Sullivan operetta didn't show.

And after all that I might be souring the grapes by pooh-poohing frequent references made to the festival as being world-class. Certainly some world-class performances graced the wineries but one ought to be celebrating these early years for the ideas, growth and humble beginnings before adding world-class labels to a festival. The hard work that goes into staging it and the already fine results are by no means going unappreciated. The challenge lies in padding it out and getting it noticed.

The Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival is over for 2016 already but it's bound to return in 2017 with its admirable mix of seasoned professionals and young artists. Let's then drink to the festival's future! For that, the continued generous support given by the local wineries and the wider community is instrumental.

Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival
2nd-4th September 2016
Mitchelton, Tahbilk and Fowles Wineries

Production photographs: Lyz Turner-Clark

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