Sunday, April 30, 2017

A yesteryear romp in operetta where the champagne's a tad flat - Opera Australia's Two Weddings, One Bride

First I was thrilled - a new work from Opera Australia. Then, uncertain - it's a pastiche of operetta hits stitched onto the foundations of a libretto derived from the work of a now generally unfamiliar 19th century French composer, Charles Lecocq. Then again, from the sharp-looking promotional material, it looked like it could be lots of fun. So how did it go?

Cast of Opera Australia's Two Weddings, One Bride
There's a great company of artists and creatives that make Opera Australia the premium brand it is but I was left scratching my head after Saturday night's opening of Two Weddings, One Bride. Frankly, I was disappointed. It's not the Opera Australia brand I'm used to and, for me, it elicited more questions than laughs.

Of course, when the Joan Sutherland Theatre becomes unavailable for Opera Australia's large-scale fare due to its closure for renovations, it creates a conundrum of sorts. The rest of the 2017 Sydney season is pared back to a couple of concert operas with Moffat Oxenbould's iconic Madama Butterfly getting stage time at the Capitol Theatre as the only fully staged opera. Julie Andrews' My Fair Lady gets a rerun at the Capitol too, so it leaves very little to whet the opera appetite in Australia's largest city. Pinchgut Opera come to the rescue with their now customary two productions.

Was a lighthearted new pastiche the answer to filling the gap? If it wasn't for its lack of punchy humour, self conscious slapstick style and undernourished musical support, perhaps it could be. But Australians take pride in their humour so, for laughs, where is the investment in something that reflects this in opera?  No easy task but why spend money on a 'new' work that has the trademarks of European yesteryear?

Charles Lecocq's Giroflé-Girofla, an opéra bouffe in three acts that premiered in 1874, and the curious work creator Robert Andrew Greene based his Two Weddings, One Bride on, enjoyed popularity in its day, including an appearance in Sydney in 1875 so it seems. A fair enough start.

The gist of librettists Albert Vanloo and Eugene Leterrier's story remains intact but it's updated from its 13th century setting in Spain to one day in the mid 20th century French protectorate in Morocco during WWII. As pawns in their parents' plans to save themselves and their state, identical twin sisters Giroflé and Girofla (played by the same actor and differentiated by their pink and blue costumes) are coerced into marriages of convenience. Giroflé's wedding goes accordingly to plan but Girofla is kidnapped and, so as to appease the other impatient groom, Giroflé is forced to marry a second time. The truth eventually comes out in a day of mayhem in Morocco that's rescued by an ocker Aussie digger who saves things getting further out of hand, one that attempts to guide the work into local laps.

John Bolton-Wood, Julie Lea Goodwin and Geraldine Turner
A rear-facaded single set featuring a rattan lounge setting opens out to include exterior depth by Owen Phillips' dutifully created exotic Moorish style. Tim Chappel's slick costumes brightly delineate characters and John Rayment's warm and romantic lighting adds lushness to the picture. But the overall effect is conservative, one that limits director Dean Bryant to mostly spreading the action linearly on a shallow stage and around a few furnishings - some that tricked the opening night cast.

Opera Australia created the work "to give some of the most delightful songs of operetta an outing", as the program notes state. Offenbach, Lehár, Kálmán and Stolz, with a sprinkling of Lecocq's music itself, make up the score but it's Strauss' signature that provides the most froth, in particular music from his bubbly Die Fledermaus. Greene was at piano, giving jaunty-tuned precision and violinist Yuhki Mayne added expert technique bound in warmth at his side. But most of the tunes would be familiar in their full orchestral beauty so the spare backing made you wonder where the rest of the band were and what kind of outing was intended because it's not such a cheap one at that.

There's ample fun on stage amongst the cast but it doesn't always convert to hoped for laughs. Opening night suffered with a few hiccups in comic timing and lines like "I'm too old to do the can-can....I can't can't" started to wear thin. One the whole, quality voices carry the drama forward but you can bet your bottom dollar that if Opera Australia revived it's own celebrated Die Flerdermaus by director Lindy Hume, you'd be getting the bells and whistles of operetta and the company's full attention to delivering the best.

Andrew Jones, Julie Lea Goodwin, Nicolas Jones
The cast, however, stepped up to the task with enthusiasm. Sparkling soprano Julie Lea Goodwin was a breath of fresh air and took the spotlight charmingly as she alternated between Giroflé and Girofla, making Lehár's "Vilja Leid" from Die lustige Witwe a sweet and expressive rendition as she reluctantly goes ahead with the second wedding. Nicholas Jones' suave good looks and drop-dead gorgeous honey-toned tenor befits the man of class his Marasquin is as Giroflé's chosen. Laying on thick the impassioned romantic tune of "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" from Das Land des Lächelns, Jones sailed high on the night's best performances.

Not to be confused with the other Jones, the rich and roaring chesty baritone of Andrew Jones' General Modigliani comes with unbridled pistol-pride and macho heft in his demands to take his bride. David Lewis slipped comfortably between multiple roles in fine voice and overcooked accents as Pedro the spirited Spanish chef, Francois the pesky French cousin, the "stone the flaming crows" Aussie colonel and the pious celebrant.

Long associated Opera Australia favourite John Bolton-Wood fit the comic glove as the agitated twins' father, Philippe. Playing his bumptious and disgruntled wife Aurore, musical theatre personality Geraldine Turner, in her company debut, took to the geared-up shenanigans but the voice faltered in puffing up "Orlofsky's Aria" from Die Fledermaus in her opening song and struggled thereon. The ensemble singing, too, will no doubt coalesce as the season progresses.

Near end, it wasn't the most cleverly dropped line when "We hope you liked our show" rang out from the stage. It's hard telling the generous host and hostess the champagne's a tad flat. As the long 50-plus show season of Two Weddings, One Bride lies ahead for Opera Australia in Sydney, the company makes its usual move to Melbourne for the autumn season which gets underway in a few days. Now that you shouldn't miss.

Two Weddings, One Bride
Playhouse Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Until 22nd October

Production Photos: Prudence Upton

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Emotionworks Cut Opera's vivid, genre-crossed Tosca bound in Soul, Blues and R&B in Melbourne: Herald Sun Review

Published in Herald Sun in print 26th April and online 27th April

YOU would be hard pressed hearing someone leaving Puccini’s Tosca saying how much fun it was but Emotionworks Cut Opera do it differently. Like trying to prove that oil mixes with water, creator and director Julie Edwardson deconstructs opera’s lengthier form and adds her own genre-crossing music.

Puccini’s work doesn’t survive in its grand tragic way but, bound in this Blues, Soul and R & B mix, it’s a Tosca full of vivid life and high libidos too.

Lachie Purcell, Justine Anderson, Jason Wasley and Lauren Jaksetic 
Presented in a courtyard of the historic Pentridge Prison, this former palace of sinners shackles the story’s tragedy effortlessly, transferring the action from Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo in 1800, where Puccini set the final act, to within these high bluestone walls in contemporary times.

The political prisoner Angelotti (Richard Woods) escapes from Pentridge, the painter Cavaradossi (Jason Wasley) harbours him and Tosca (Justine Anderson), Cavaradossi’s opera-singing lover, is caught in the crossfire when the Chief of Police, Scarpia (Michael Lampard), schemingly traps her in an attempt to catch his escapee. Everyone falls victim to the hand of another.

Props are sparse but Edwardson cleverly weaves in two enigmatic dancers (Lauren Jaksetic and Lachie Purcell) as the ghosts of Tosca and Cavaradossi who relive the lovers’ last day and gently shadow them.

It is a beautiful effect and makes a striking black-and-white contrast to five unsmiling female prison guards with no shortage of dominatrix flair in the service of Scarpia. Consistently belting out most of the best vocals as these Soul Sirens, Antoinette D’Andrea, Natasha Jacoel-Kaminski, Joanna Collyvas, Georgia Chalfon and Terese Scalisi are indispensable to the show’s success.

More than 30 song snippets nestle in the show’s 90 minutes, most fitting the bill creatively, some feeling squeezed in. The focus isn’t entirely on Tosca but my quibble is that it is unnecessary having the tight four-member band step in and sing their tunes too.

Justine Anderson and Michael Lampard
Anderson’s Tosca turns on the heat with unrestrained hot-bloodedness and sexual confidence, portraying both strength and vulnerability. Despite some top-note struggles, Anderson’s dark-hued tone carries attractively, singing the opera’s most famous aria, l lived for art with starry depth and pathos. Imagine that, followed by Tina Arena’s Chains sung movingly by the Soul Sirens as Scarpia undoes his trousers. Not easy?

Or Cavaradossi’s aria, And the stars shone, sung with poignancy and grit by a muscular-voiced and impassioned, fine acting Wasley followed by Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine in a gorgeous rendition by Antoinette D’Andrea as he dropped to the ground.

But it’s Lampard’s slimy, limping and crotch-centric Scarpia that steals the show, deftly portraying man as beast in well-articulated hair-raising resonance and dramatic fullness.

Angelotti’s vocal chords are apparently ripped out in Block A Division, which explains Woods’ raspy operatic opening, but he sinks comfortably back to where his voice resides — to ACDC’s Jailbreak and back on guitar.

There are the songs of Christine Aguillera and Adele, Stevie Wonder and James Brown among many in a musical seesaw ride with Puccini that Edwardson makes work.

Come open minded and come to enjoy. And add a must-do tour of Pentridge for extra effect.

Pentridge Prison, 1 Champ Street, Coburg, until May 7

Rating: three stars

A clearly devised concept with mixed results in fledgling BK Opera's Werther in Melbourne

Another small opera company popped up on the scene in Melbourne last year to provide valuable performance opportunities for the city's enthusiastic band of singers. Great news for opera! Actually, I'm not entirely convinced. It seems to me that opera in the city needs to start focusing on building up and not out.

"No sets. No props. No microphones. Just beautiful music and amazing singers". It sounds like concert opera. That's newcomer BK Opera's catchphrase for presenting "bare bones" opera to Melbourne audiences but their new production of Massenet's Werther, with minimal cuts, doesn't really come as bare as all that.

Allegra Giagu as Charlotte and Patrick MacDevitt as Werther
Director Kate Millet and conductor James Penn's interpretation - that this is a story not about 'dying for love' but dying from undiagnosed depression and that the poet Werther may still have taken his own life even if Charlotte had married him - is spot on.

Millet brings this clearly devised concept to the table and it's smartly groomed with a serviceable performance area, a few props - a portrait of the newly reigning young Queen Elizabeth centred over two solid armchairs and a side table with lamp, telephone and record player - with some stylish post-WWII costumes that add immensely to the effect. We're in England and, though sung in French, the idea works well, thankfully with the help of English surtitles (compliments of Lyric Opera of Melbourne). The cast, when not 'on set', rested at trestles on the hall's perimeter - a good touch that reinforced the up-close nature of the production.

But, as appealingly grafted the aesthetic is with the venue, a combination of singers misgauging comfortable audio levels, together with Abbotsford Masonic Hall's low-level acoustic sophistication and rehearsal room-like atmosphere, hindered the overall experience.

A few old vinyl tracks play before the boisterous Le Bailli (Samuel Thomas-Holland), and his friends Johann (Joshua Erdelyi-Götz) and Schmidt (Steve Carolane) arrive in an atmosphere the antithesis of gloom that pervades the work - a jolly trio initially held back by a lack of tuning into each other but rectifying this by their final attractively sung and aptly restrained "Noël! Jésus vient de naître".

In 'normalising' the difficult and tragic foreground of Werther's and Charlotte's more introspective portrayal and subsequent loss, contrasts are worked further with the innocent and bubbly Sophie, crisply and sweetly sung by April Foster and Charlotte's betrothed and grounded Albert, firmly, warmly and handsomely sung by Finn Gilheany.

Patrick MacDevitt as Werther and Finn Gilheany as Albert
As the titular character, however, it seemed our dishevelled Werther, Patrick MacDevitt, was never going to escape from the sickly pain that consumed his whole being. Truckloads of ardency in vocal thrust and persistent downcast frowns weren't converting into a convincing picture. MacDevitt, who understudied the role for Lyric's Werther in 2014, has a striking and large tenor. There is warmth and pliancy to be discovered in the voice but, here, it was heavily sacrificed for unrelenting power, making it hard to invest sympathy in his character's two-dimensional desperate obsession.

In wide contrast, dressed in mourning black, the richly centred and emotively well-calibrated mezzo-soprano, Allegra Giagu, mixed radiance with elegance and poise as Charlotte. In a woman she effortlessly showed as kind and dutiful, troubled and empathetic, Giagu's Charlotte also portrayed a love for Werther that felt real despite the picture of incompatibility. In Act III's opening aria, "Werther! Qui m'aurait dit ... Ces lettres!", in which she dolefully reads over Werther's letters, Giagu dug deep with heartfelt voice on every rise and fall and effected a quivering vibrato that mirrored a crushed inner soul - a performance highlight.

At the side, as conductor, Penn's broad sweeps of the air lovingly shaped what could be gleaned from Massenet's score with only two musicians - Pam Christie attentive on piano and Grace Gilkerson providing excellent technique and essential lugubrious underpinning on cello arranged by Penn.

Just how well this new little boat fairs and finds its raison d'être within the existing scene is yet to be seen. BK Opera's Werther has much appeal but, at this stage, it feels as if it needs tweaking for its audience.

Masonic Hall
141 Gipps Street, Abbotsford
Until 7th May

Production photos: courtesy BK Opera

Friday, April 21, 2017

A fantastic, dark world expires with Deutsche Oper's long-running Der Ring Des Nibelungen in Berlin

When Deutsche Oper's long-running Ring came to an end Monday night, so too did the life of director Götz Friedrich's iconic 1984 production. Soon after Valhalla went up in flames after 17 hours of operatic indulgence over 4 evenings, it was off to the recyclers in an inelegant ending for all the bits and bobs that pieced together its fantastic, dark world.

Inspired by mass transit subway tunnels that connect their cities above, more than three decades on, the concept behind Friedrich's "time-tunnel" Ring still remained vivid to the end even if its age was showing through the few loose boards, creaking set changes and, more distracting, Brünnhilde's wonky platform of punishment. Small reservations aside, it was a magnificent and mammoth achievement befitting Wagner's epic and life-affirming work.

Friedrich's Ring turned to the past as it awakened the future, truncating the action to give sharp focus to its tireless, fully fleshed characters, all 34 of them meeting the dizzying demands as a strong, totally committed and vocally splendid cast.

Before long, the geometric grandeur of Peter Sykora's set design draws the audience in to join the heavens, earth and underworld created within this gently arched tunnel that travels beyond its theatrical scale to form an enormous imagined elliptic torus. It sounds galactic and in Friedrich's version it rather is as its story of power, greed, vengeance and love was taken up in its hulking, metallic tubular world.

A 1980s mixed aesthetic lingered with strains of Spielberg sci-fi and punk rock occasionally orbiting near what now seem a tad cheesy - including the huge, blocky 'mechanitron' that goofily puffed smoke and lit up as a Fafner dragon. An overt sinister and airless atmosphere pervaded in the lighting design, frequently creating the oppressive and claustrophobic weight that married atmosphere with plot. But on the downside, faces were often stuck in shadows and the more colourful costumes were only discovered at curtain call.

"The beginning means the end, and the end is the beginning.” (Götz Friedrich, 1984).

Friedrich's Das Rheingold begins with the Gods shrouded in sheets - as if redundant or in storage - before the waters wash up to set the course of change. They return to the same state in the final scene of Götterdämmerung, therefore helping to emphasise humankind's attempts to make good but inability to escape from a cycle of destruction and rejuvenation.

Renouncing love for power, from the Rhinemaidens' stolen gold, a ring is forged by the Nibelung dwarf, Alberich. In the meantime, Wotan, ruler of the Gods, hasn't bargained too well for the payment of Valhalla, his newly constructed palace for the Gods, built by the Giants Fasolt and Fafner. Rather than keeping his word in handing over his sister Freia - who happens to provide the apples that maintain their youth -  Wotan steals the gold and the forged ring from Alberich, convincing the Giants to release Freia for the gold but, with it, is forced to hand over the ring. Since Alberich had put a curse on the ring, no sooner do the Giants have it than Fafner slays Fasolt and the long struggle to possess it over illogical altered time states takes hold - mostly in clearly delineated vignettes in Freidrich's "time-tunnel".

Das Rheingold ended in a striking tunnelled rainbow of colour as the Gods stepped a pavane into the distance. Fires rose menacingly from five substage burners to surround Brünnhilde's long wait for her hero in Die Walküre. In Götterdämmerung, adding to the scope of wonderful stage pictures, were the lofty pillared hall of the Gibichungs and the broad river of glinting cloth that gave the impression of an underground canal within the tunnel (not a sewer thankfully) when Siegfried rested at the Rhine before his encounter with the Rhinemaidens. A generous and memorable flow of creative splendour there was.

On the other hand, in Die Walküre, what looked like a huge decaying Swiss Army knife in dim light that turned out to be a twisted tree housing the hallowed sword Nothung, seemed not only excessive but out of place and overpowering in Siegmund and Sieglinde's iron-walled abode. A sole overhead light beaming on Siegfried during the long, gut-wrenching Funeral March in Götterdämmerung seemed not enough. Nonetheless, the overall production was characterised by a creatively sound and cohesive structure.

With Wagner's libretto comes an intricately detailed but clearly signposted reference to action present and past, as well as a score rich in easily identifiable leitmotifs that describe characters and objects. You're never lost. And when you realise you've confidently answered the six questions that Wotan, as the Wanderer and Alberich's despised brother Mime put to each other in a contest of wisdom in Siegfried, you've understood the Ring's underlying structure. To what extent the final performances adhered to the original 1984 premiere, however, I can't be sure but revival directors Jasmin Solfaghari and Gerlinde Pelkowski elucidate Friedrich's Ring in bold storytelling. The result is a powerful message - we're not to believe for a minute that any one of us is exempt from behaviour that swings between extremes. Just how far apart those extremes lie become haunting. They should.

It feels innately odd that one might never truly be prepared for Wagner's Ring until those first distant droning opening bars unleash. No amount of study and analysis can replace the rewards invested in experiencing it. In the pit, its lifeblood emanated with Donald Runnicles - Generalmusikdirektor of Deutsche Oper since 2007 - steering the more than 100 musicians of Das Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin through what headed towards a satisfying majestic and well-weighted extravaganza.

The great entrance to Das Rheingold started, however, with a sagging hesitancy and patchy brass tainted an otherwise eloquent sound that took flight once the descent to Alberich's subterranean world arrived. The richness followed in Die Walküre but it was the flawless musicianship in Siegfried that matched the  sensational onstage vocal work where the best results came. It set up a transcendent evening of music for Götterdämmerung and it came in spades with a poignantly drawn and orchestrally shaded reading replete with accentuated elastic tempi.

But the tour de force rested in singing that carried forward the drama absorbingly. As Siegfried, Stefan Vinke reigned supreme, tempering a mix of brashness with tenderness and heroism in a performance taken to precipitous heights that I didn't see at Opera Australia's Melbourne Ring last November. An invincible determination and unimaginable magnificence rang through Vinke's Forging Song in Act I of Siegfried. Both in vocal completeness and physical depiction, Vinke's Siegfried made a believable transition to the hero that Brünnhilde required.

Evelyn Herlitzius stood out with immense fighting spirit and an effortless, highly charged voice to match when she made her appearance as a long ginger-haired Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, the Valkyrie who becomes mortal and redeems the world. A new, transformed Brünnhilde woke up with Ricarda Merbeth's richly blossomed, focussed and intoxicating performance in Siegfried before Herlitzius returned to her splendorous form in Götterdämmerung. Of the two, Merbeth had the edge with clean, smooth and confident stokes accompanying Brünnhilde's introspection but Herlitzius, having the more taxing job, had the voluminous power and forthrightness to shake the house.

Their Valkyries looked oddly and heavily dressed for a punk rock gig but they were a strongly bound and fierce singing contingent, giving the epic's most popular tune, The Ride of the Valkeries, thrilling layers and texture.

Derek Welton, as the first, most youthful, of three Wotans, stamped vocal excellence on the role in an iron-clad performance underneath which a deeply nuanced vocal power full of molten riches percolated through. Iain Paterson followed up robustly, demonstrating in ample vocal expression the exasperation Wotan feels as ruler of the Gods in Die Walküre. And bringing steady, compelling hungry resolve and vocal engine power, Samuel Youn reinforced the desperation and decline of Wotan the Wanderer with heightened belligerence and dramatic magnetism in Siegfried.

Tirelessly authoritative yet loveless in marriage to Wotan, Daniela Sindram's luscious, jewel-encrusted mezzo-soprano accompanied the poise and nobility she depicted as Fricka. The exact measure of vitriol poured from Werner Van Mechelen's broad, gnarly-voiced and snakily determined Alberich while Paul Kaufmann cowered and grovelled as Mime in Das Rheingold. Burkard Ulrich took the part over in impressive tensile, stringy-voiced form in Siegfried after having animated the role of Loge glowingly in Das Rheingold.

The Giants Fasolt and Fafner were a little precarious on their 12-inch steel-framed heels but what they couldn't make up for in mobility was more than delivered with thuggishness. Albert Pesendorfer's heated-voiced Fasolt was taken down by Andrew Harris's more rugged and muscular-voiced Fafner. Returning as Alberich's offspring Hagen, Pesendorfer stealthily took back command in cunning fashion and depths of rich vocal viscosity.

With an especially formidable gift of the heart, Eva-Maria Westbroek sang through her ordeal with class and gravitas as Sieglinde. As her incestuously in love twin brother Siegmund, Stuart Skelton worked bravery to convincing lengths with full-bodied power and as much heroic appeal as befits the future father of Siegfried. Sealed with a more than a cursory kiss, allusions to incest popped up again rather unnecessarily on twins Gunther and Gutrune's road to power-broking marriages. But Seth Carico's fine mix of distinguished polish and nervousness as Gunther and Ricarda Merbeth's return from Brünnhilde as the vixen-like Gutrune were planted strongly in voice.

And Ronnita Miller's brief appearance as Erda in Das Rheingold rather froze time as she edged mysteriously forward in earth-shattering form. Holding a deeply carved and cavernous instrument, Ronnita Miller was a superhuman sensation, returning with penetrating galactic force in Siegfried.

The list of star turns goes on. Götz Friedrich's Ring does not, but one thing is certain - the profound art that exists in Wagner's Ring will. It starts up once again in 2020 at Deutsche Oper under the command of Stefan Herheim in what's going to be a much anticipated affair.

Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Until 17th April 2017

Production Photos: Bettina Stöß

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Staatsoper Berlin's vocally exquisite Die Frau ohne Schatten in a nightmarish psychological thriller

Opera, as an art form, rattles the senses to interpret freely. Indeed, it seemed that way for me in seeing Staatsoper Berlin's new production of Richard Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten  (The Woman without a Shadow) which had come via earlier seasons at La Scala and Covent Garden. I came to Berlin to see Götz Friedrich's final outing of Wagner's Ring at Deutsche Oper. Seeing Staatsoper Berlin's Die Frau ohne Schatten in between was akin to adding a diamond to my visit.

Camilla Nylund (Empress)
Sung in German with German surtitles, it could have been enough to lose me but familiarisation with the synopsis, advised beforehand, lent a good degree of background. In the theatre, however, it's an exercise requiring sustained curiosity and concentration. I gave up whether or not I was on the right track and just took a train of thought to my own conclusion. The rewards were abundant, not least of which included exquisite vocal work, a smashing orchestral landscape with Zubin Mehta at the helm and a visually seductive staging from director Claus Guth.

Strauss' long-time collaborating librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, created the story from sources that included Goethe's "The Conversation of German Emigrants", the Arabian Nights and Grimms' Fairy Tales. In a fantastical collision of spiritual and earth worlds, the onetime gazelle and now shadowless half human/half spirt Empress (Camilla Nylund) - symbolising her inability to bear children - must acquire a shadow. Failing, she will be reclaimed by her father, Keikobad, and her husband turned to stone, the Emperor (Burkhard Fritz), who captured her as a gazelle. The Empress' Nurse (Michaela Schuster) concocts a plan to steal the shadow of a mortal and for this they visit the home of Barak (Wolfgang Koch) and his Wife (Iréne Theorin), she who secretly doesn't want children. 

 Camilla Nylund (Empress), Michaela Schuster Nurse)
In the bright outcome of Hofmannsthal's story pointing at marital love being blessed by children, the two couples unite in praise of their Unborn Children. But Guth appears to distort the intrinsic dark magic profusely, emphasising the macabre  and allowing it to unfold like a nightmarish psychological thriller sung in a treacherous storm of vocal immensity with little note of the joyous ending. The match he makes to Strauss' turbulent score - a spectrum of sublimely lush orchestral layers from dreamy lyricism to tempestuous terror and ecclesiastical glory - is impressive. At curtain call, Maestro Mehta stood genuinely proud, and rightly so of his 100-plus musicians who took the stage after giving non-stop, pounding orchestral vividness.

The curtain rises to reveal a segmented circular-walled, timber-panelled bare bedchamber with the Empress lying comatose-like, attended by the winged Nurse, the winged Messenger of Keikobad dressed as a doctor (Roman Trekel) and the caped Emperor. A sense of loss prevails.

Camilla Nylund (Empress) and Burkhard Fritz (Emperor)
When, in the end, we see the Empress back in her rudimentary steel bed before getting up in her nightgown and gazing emptily through a frosted window, everything in between seems to suggest she had been committed to a sanitarium for the mentally ill, her life precipitously on the edge. 

In a deeply coercive performance as the Empress, Camilla Nyland attacks the role with sensational depth, anxious and writhing in moments of agonised migraine fits and wafting amongst visions of her gazelle-headed counterpart and spirit-world characters with the sense of being taunted by the hopelessness of ever having bearing offspring who she sees as faun-headed children happily dancing about her.

Set and costume designer Christian Schmidt's early 20th Century restrained modernist aesthetic, including a neatly rear-centred revolve that supplies the many scene changes, parallels the time the opera premiered in 1919 and includes Freudian references via Andi A. Müller's video projections, including a hand petting the gazelle's fur and schools of fish. Olaf Winter's lighting design shapes a marvellous, dark, evocative and complex beauty.

Nyland tears through the vocal writing in wondrous form, the agility, grace, beauty and alertness of the gazelle clearly replicated in her plush dramatic soprano. She is joined by two equally outstanding women in Michaela Schuster, who sang the role of the Nurse in both Milan and London, and Iréne Theorin as Barak's Wife.

Burkhard Fritz (Emperor)
Alluringly rich and acrobatic in vocal technique, indefatigable dramatic mezzo-soprano Schuster grips and plucks the air in sinister and selfish witch-like behaviour, winged in black as if mimicking the Empress's distrust in her dependency on her carer's expected guardian angel-like quality. To Barak's scolding and defiant Wife, Theorin gives expressive command and a rich forest of vocal shading. 

Burkhard Fritz's distinguished, capacious sounding Emperor and Wolfgang Koch's muscular-voiced, rustic and berated Barak sturdily complimented the power of the women alongside an entire cast that shone brilliantly, never faltering in staying above the volume from the pit. Roman Trekel's resonant, dark and dusky bass-baritone as the Messenger of Keikobad, tenor Jun-Sang Han's suave and sonorous woos as The Apparition of a Youth with Narine Yeghiyan's refined and mellifluous soprano accompanying her watchful and flapping Falcon all added dramatic depth. 

I was completely carried away by the quality, strength and splendour of the cast. The audience were clearly enraptured too in this production that will continue to etch its captivating and haunting stage pictures in time to come, in an interpretation in which I want to remember Die Frau ohne Schatten.

Staatsoper Berlin
Schiller Theater
Until 16th April 

Production photos: Hans Jörg Michel

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Soaked in an eerie, blood-red beauty, a foreboding Lucia di Lammermoor opens in Beijing

Venera Gimadieva as Lucia and Marco Caria as Enrico
In Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor of 1835, the image of a bloodstained nightgown goes hand in hand with opera's most famous mad scene, in which a young bride forced into marriage is driven to despair and murder on her wedding night. For optimum effect, the blood is rarely spared in the theatre.

But in this first-time coproduction between Beijing's National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) and Mariinsky Theatre of Russia, directed and designed by Yannis Kokkos, the blood had metaphorically already ran. Awash with scarlet and cardinal from interiors to costumes, Kokkos's formidably dark production is soaked in a foreboding and painterly eerie blood-red beauty.

In a work based on Sir Walter Scott's Scottish-set 1819 novel, The Bride of Lammermoor, only the smallest hint of tartan splashes the plush period-inspired costumes. Juxtaposed breathtakingly against numerous abstracted geometric sets that evoke grandeur through simplicity, prominence is given to a tumultuous, ever changing sky as part of Vinicio Cheli's immensely moody lighting design.

Then there are references to the deer hunt. Symbolising tenderness tempered with strength, a large statue of a deer commands the opening scene and appears at different times in different forms. In a painted backdrop to Lucia's Mad Scene, the deer is struggling for survival - able to be brought down in seconds by a pack of dogs in a hunt - much as Lucia herself is.

Venera Gimadieva as Lucia and Stefano Secco as Edgardo
Already battered by the death of her mother, Lucia finds strength in love, though one that is at odds with family expectations. She is betrayed by her brother and, believing she is betrayed by her lover, is asphyxiated by circumstance and patriarchal norms. The total staged effect gives palpability to Lucia's precipitous state and achieves a visual poetry comfortable at one with the tragedy. Kokkos reveals himself as a master of dramatic interpretation, of rich aesthetic composition and emotively structured direction.

Two casts alternated in the principal roles across just four nights at the smaller opera theatre of the Tianqiao Performing Arts Centre while the NCPA undergoes stage maintenance and renovation. I attended the third performance in which Russian soprano Venera Gimadieva sang the title role as she did on opening night (alternating with Zhang Liping). Gimadieva's more winsome and angelic Lucia was mildly problematic but she took the Mad Scene compellingly by the horns, noticeably exciting the mostly Chinese audience who otherwise thought nothing of scrolling through their mobile devices during the performance. Gimadieva required an ounce more power to combat the drama and a little more fluidity across the coloratura but a superfine crystal top and striking flexibility of voice with underlying emotional intent made for a beguiling and graceful Lucia.

It was the men who came out victorious in this male-dominated world. Demonstratively rich and expressive in voice and acting, Stefano Secco and Marco Caria were outstanding as Lucia's lover Edgardo and her brother Enrico respectively. High-heat tenor Secco brought superb clarity to his fiercely passionate and gallant Edgardo. Together with Gimadieva the pair harmonised convincingly and, as Edgardo nears his own end in the final scene, Secco digs even deeper to give compelling gravitas.

Marco Caria as Enrico, Venera Gimadieva as Lucia and Shi Lina as Alisa
Caria put his impressive dusky and smouldering baritone to virulent use as Enrico with acting that always added tension. Sergey Artamonov was an authoritative, pious Raimondo. Wang Chong gave pronounced strength and bright arrow-sharp capability in voice with the stature to match Lucia's betrothed, Lord Arturo and smaller roles were filled soundly with Kou Jing as Normanno and Shi Lin as Alisa. The large 70-plus chorus sang with dutiful care and acted in great sympathetic accord.

 I had issue, however, with the pit. Russian conductor Valery Gergiev was scheduled to take the baton but cancelled due to personal reasons. Israeli conductor Daniel Oren was the replacement. Despite excellent musicianship, Oren's tendency to over-egg the tempi and volume didn't always pay off, giving the feeling that the music was combatively toying with the stage.

Minor reservations aside on the musical front, the evocative theatricality of Kokkos's Lucia di Lammermoor adds intelligent and dramatic three-dimensional weight to Donizetti's work. It opens to St Petersburg audiences later in the year, hopefully to zero tolerance on smartphone use.

Tianqiao Performing Arts Centre
Until 12th April

Production photos: Ling Feng