Friday, November 17, 2017

Opera Australia's The Merry Widow opens with a clear emphasis on razzmattazz in Melbourne: Herald Sun Review

http://www.heraldsun.com.au/lifestyle/melbourne/the-merry-widow-finds-new-festivity/news-story/e72bad969ac99f7979b0099cd99aa27d
Published online at Herald Sun on 16th November and in print 17th November, 2017.



On this especially festive-like evening when the country voted #YES Opera Australia’s new production of Franz Leh├ír’s effervescent 1905 operetta, The Merry Widow, seemed the perfect compliment to open the spring season.

Danielle de Niese as Hanna in Opera Australia's The Merry Widow
Directed and choreographed with endless razzmatazz by Graeme Murphy and moved a smidgen ahead to the 1920s, it’s a glitzy Art Deco spectacle that frames the story of rags-to-riches young widow, Hanna Glawari. Michael Scott-Mitchell’s lavish sets and Jennifer Irwin’s haute couture fashions are, at the very least, testament to the remarkable artisans behind the scenes.

Hanna’s millions are the fictitious Grand Duchy of Pontevedro’s only hope of escape from bankruptcy but she’s kicking up her heels in Paris to a chorus of swooning hopefuls. Will former lover Danilo, living it up his own way at Maxim’s, pluck up the courage to say “I love you” and overcome the pride that keeps him from marrying Hanna for her money? Personalities might be bruised but tragedy is avoided.

A large cast and intricate intrigues keep the plot afloat despite the cross-section of messy accents and high melodrama. Justin Fleming’s new English translation is interpreted with bawdiness over the scandalous on a canvas more brash New York than elegant Paris. It’s fun but the innuendos begin to tire and the razzle-dazzle often overwhelms character sculpting.

Danielle de Niese as Hanna with the grizettes in The Merry Widow
We also no longer have the great Joan Sutherland on hand to sing her Hanna and the nostalgic ‘Pontevedrian’ folk song Vilja but, as a world-class opera company, why the patchily balanced miking? Internationally acclaimed soprano Danielle de Niese’s much-anticipated return to Melbourne was highly compromised, taking the spotlight more for her vivacious dancing, from waltz to cancan, than hearing her gorgeously smooth and luminous voice. Alexander Lewis, as the vacillating Danilo, pairs splendidly with de Niese, his golden tone put to superb use at the top notes. Soaring in the subplot, rich tenor John Longmuir is the big standout as lovestruck Camille among voices that generally sat below the company’s usual excellent standards on opening night.

Orchestra Victoria impressed under Vanessa Scammell’s persuasive conducting and, #YES, the stage celebrated at curtain call.


Opera Australia
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until 25th November

3 -stars


Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Sunday, November 12, 2017

From Melbourne Opera, intellectual and visceral strength greet the long overdue Australian premiere of Donizetti's Roberto Devereux


Make no bones about it, as an independent company that receives no government funding, Melbourne Opera's 2017 season has delivered a degree of consistency and excellence that places it firmly amongst the city's well-funded cultural institutions. First, it was a jolly good HMS Pinafore in March. Then, a riveting Lohengrin followed in August that demonstrated an increasing ambitiousness that now comes with proven flexibility. Finally, on Saturday evening, Melbourne Opera capped off the year with a rave-worthy production of Donizetti's Roberto Devereux, in its long overdue Australian premiere, to complete the company's study of the composer's Tudor trilogy. Directed by Suzanne Chaundy, who likewise directed Maria Stuarda in 2015 and Anna Bolena in 2016, what is evident is a ripened sense of detail and quality that surpasses the former two works with both its intellectual and visceral strength.

Helena Dix as Elizabeth I in Act 3 of Roberto Devereux
If it wasn't for the high standard of vocal output, the retina-stimulating force of the sumptuous period-inspired costumes by Jenny Tate (on loan from the Opera Australia wardrobe) might have overwhelmed. Even with the same aesthetic employed in the previous two works, Christina Logan-Bell's effective and beautifully crafted design that features the Tudor rose motif and Lucy Birkinshaw's evocative lighting made for an even more eye-catching setting that pushes towards a vividly stylised hyper-realism and compliments a story that pushes history's boundaries of truth.

Embroiling emotional sentiments with political judgement, an ageing, unmarried and vain Queen Elizabeth I has cemented her status as a monarch but cannot conceal her frustration as a woman, spurned by her 'favourite', a man a third her age, Robert, Earl of Essex.

When I saw Canadian soprano Sondra Radvanovsky sing the taxing role of Elizabeth at New York's Metropolitan Opera, she was hailed with huge and deserved applause. I ruminated. As her understudy, how would Australian-born Helena Dix have navigated the role, one resplendent with the thrilling ornamented singing that characterises the bel canto repertoire?

Helena Dix as Elizabeth and Henry Choo as Robert
Melbourne now has the evidence of Dix's grandeur. In a performance that is interpreted with not only vocal prowess but done so all the way down to the fingertips, local audiences are further acquainted with Dix's formidable stage presence and dramatic capability after impressing as Elsa in Lohengrin. Dix imbues Elizabeth with wealthy helpings of character without limiting her to the dismissive hand of imperiousness. A cheeky flirtatious tickle of a squire's beard as she makes her entrance in the Great Hall at Westminster, a girlish self-consciousness with the arrival of Robert and her often temperamental swings establish a firm portrait inbuilt with ageless emotional identity and ageing physical form.

Of her vocal exhibition, Dix locked together a dazzling spectrum of expression from sweet musings to defiance and ultimate despair with seemingly effortless and arabesque melodic turns. Sung in English, there was nowhere to look but at a queen reigning over the stage. And it's not often you hear coloratura that contains bursts of character and meaning that drive the drama rather than simply providing exciting vocal fireworks - and an audience that engagingly responds to it on the way.

Henry Choo as Robert & Danielle Calder as Sara
Alongside Dix, more familiar faces at Melbourne Opera honoured her presence in some of their best performances yet, delivering both compelling acting and singing. Fighting off charges of treason as Robert in the titular role, increasingly charismatic tenor Henry Choo reinforces the complex dynamics in his character's liaisons and presents a passionate, sturdy and full-bodied vocal vehicle that is polished with conviction. Choo's diction is superb, adding great appeal to his performance and his various duets are well-calibrated but it's in his final scene, as Robert awaits execution, where raw emotion escapes in one of the night's poignant highlights.

With her privileged position, noble femininity and pure top notes, creamy mezzo-soprano Danielle Calder is exquisite as Sara, Robert's lover and the queen's rival. Warm baritone Phillip Calcagno journeys through his initial backing for his friend Robert and subsequent betrayal by his wife Sara with focused and natural step as the Duke of Nottingham. In minor roles, Jason Wasley and Eddie Muliaumaseali’i add a tier of sound support as Lord Cecil and Sir Walter Raleigh respectively. Gorgeously harmonised with a spring in delivery, a well-prepared Melbourne Opera Chorus light the evening splendidly despite their sometimes incomprehensible content.

It takes a while acclimatising to the Athenaeum's dry acoustic but, apart from an occasional blemish, the Melbourne Opera Orchestra made a fine soundscape, conducted with vigour by Greg Hocking. Once the perplexing overture is over, Donizetti's wonderful dramatic momentum and transitions take flight. Of note, Act 3's opening string playing produced a breathtaking introduction to Robert's isolation and the timpani and piccolo always amazed with their well-executed presence.

Melbourne Opera's year is almost over and the signposts point towards potentially even greater rewards for its artists and audience in 2018. It's time our government recognises that too.


Roberto Devereux
Melbourne Opera
Athenaeum Theatre
Until 18th October, 2017


Production photos: Robin Halls

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Australian Brandenberg Orchestra's musically engaging and curious three-course early opera selection


Kudos to Australian Brandenburg Orchestra for their 2017 season programming which included a stage-directed production of Handel's Messiah in February and for having just concluded a run of seven performances in Sydney and Melbourne of three contrasting early operatic works that came under the title Bittersweet Obsessions: Monteverdi and Bach. Created in a pastiche-like manner by Artistic Director Paul Dyer, Bittersweet Obsessions courses through a lament, a tragedy and a comedy via Monteverdi's Lamento della Ninfa and Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, followed by J.S. Bach's Coffee Cantata.

Jakob Bloch Jespersen as Tancredi and Natasha Wilson as Cloirinda
The final performance which I attended was propelled by a team of strong international singers who appeared in various roles - soprano Natasha Wilson from New Zealand, tenors American Karim Sulayman and Australian Spencer Darby, and Danish bass Jakob Bloch Jespersen. Each 'scene' was preceded by period pieces that presumably aimed to seam the three works together, all demonstrating the high quality musicianship and warm musical fabric the orchestra achieves. Dyer conducted from harpsichord and organ with notable regard for his soloists before him.

Kapsberger's Toccata Arpeggiata set the atmosphere going in Scene I with its eerie and tumultuous shades to introduce the brief snapshot that Lamento della Ninfa gives on a nymph's distress after being betrayed by her lover. In a billowing white gown, Wilson brought a poignancy to the sighing melodies with her attractive, smooth and relaxed soprano. As shepherds, Sulayman, Darby and Bloch Jespersen added distinctive harmony in their interjections and observances as they all passed through a pastoral setting that consisted of a field of wheat backed by a lofty, full-height copy of Claude Lorrain's pastoral scene, Ascanius Shooting The Stag of Sylvia.

Deliciously evocative without overwhelming, Charlotte Mungomery's design, Genevieve Graham's appropriately delineated costumes and John Rayment's subdued lighting set a striking start under Constantine Costi's perfectly sensitive direction.

The gloriously featured zipping violins and strummed backing of Falconieri's lively Ciaccona, followed by a dignified interpretation of Monteverdi's overture from Il Ritorno d'Ulisse In Patria, opened Scene II's Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda thrillingly. Claude Lorrain's tranquil setting fell to reveal a tri-level scaffolded structure. On it, the inconceivable and bitter tragedy of Clorinda's death in combat by her lover Tancredi was played out in slow-gestured stylistic movement and magnified more physically by aikido performers Andrew Sunter and Melanie Lindenthal on the (wheat)field of battle. Again, the creative and visual effect cut through splendidly, with Clorinda's death, marked by a cascading cloth of blood-red fabric from high, a particularly powerful moment that proceeded the punctuated metallic clash of swords that percussionist Adam Cooper-Stanbury reproduced wonderfully amongst many other detailed sound effects.

Bloch Jespersen was firm, robust and commanding as the Christian knight Tancredi with Wilson's ethereal and fine glassy soprano echoing the story's haunting ominousness. But it was Sulayman who sang the major part as Testo (the Text) the narrator, done so with passion and conviction but with most assuredness and warmth in moderate-paced passages.

After interval, Bach's comic Coffee Cantata, on the other hand, arrived in Scene III as a somewhat curious anomaly to the deftly resolved Monteverdi works. Opening the scene and though captivatingly played - concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen illuminated the florid lines superbly on violin - the first movement of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No 4 seemed to break the spell cast by the first two scenes with its widely familiar tune.

K. Sulayman, J. Bloch Jespersen and N. Wilson in Coffee Cantata
Familiarity also appeared with the stage transformed into a trendy cafe run by a hipster barista who Sulayman added a little campness to. The lightness edged on the side of the ridiculous with Coffee Cantata becoming an exaggerated and over-acted distraction, as if buzzing with an excess of caffeine. Based around the young woman Liechen's addiction to coffee and what she's prepared to do without in order to have it, it was difficult working out how her flapping fur-coated, selfie-snapping behaviour belonged there.

As a spoiled, inelegant and recalcitrant Liechen, Wilson nonetheless demonstrated the range, flexibility and shading of her soprano beautifully. At ease in her comic skin, Wilson's melodic sweetness soared delectably in her central aria, "Ei! Wie schmeckt der Coffee susse" / Ah! how sweet coffee tastes" as if seemingly fed by the numerous spoonfuls of sugar she took. In between the need for a nicotine fix to calm his see-sawing parenting, Bloch Jespersen sang firmly as her unfortunate father Schlendrian. Dyer fuelled the music with a liveliness that the orchestra played with great appeal and depth.

More like three district tableaux - touching, entertaining and musically engaging as the evening was - Bittersweet Obsessions was advertised with the expectation of "three timeless tales that follow one woman’s journey through the bitter and sweet of life". That was always going to be a decent challenge to overcome. It was more a case of the one woman, in this case soprano Natasha Wilson, embodying three distinct characters on her own operatic journey. Still, the vivid theatrical portrayal and overall interpretation was a welcome addition to Australian Brandenburg Orchestra's repertoire and a feature that the stage will hopefully be utilised for again.



Bittersweet Obsessions: Monteverdi and Bach
Australian Brandenburg Orchestra
City Recital Hall, Sydney
25th October - 1st November 2017
Melbourne Recital Centre
4th & 5th November 2017


Production photos: