Monday, July 16, 2018

An achievement worth celebrating, Victorian Opera's William Tell opens at Melbourne's Palais Theatre: Herald Sun Review

Published in the Herald Sun edited form Tuesday, 17th July, 2018

An achievement worth celebrating, Victorian Opera pulled off Rossini’s final grand work with a sumptuously sounding cast of local and international soloists, a riveting and unified chorus and music that breathed with ease and purpose under artistic director Richard Mills. Incredibly, William Tell has not been performed in Australia for 142 years.

Armando Noguera as William Tell and Paolo Pecchioli as Gesler
Shared on social media and pertinent was an affecting account of one chorus member’s battle and silver-lined outcome to reach the stage. “All opera singers are willing to suffer for their art”, he wrote. Driven by passion to overcome suffering and oppression are at the core of the work. This man and all his colleagues, like the legendary Tell, can bask in victory. 

Director Rodula Gaitanou takes Tell’s original 13th century Swiss setting into a dystopian future. Mills cut Rossini’s more than 4-hour score to a little over three. The former makes a glaring distinction between the simple living, tight-knit community of Swiss villagers and the brutal, black-caped oppressors/exterminators - though at first sight rather comical - who storm into Act I spraying a vaporous cloud. The latter succeeds marvellously to give taut dramatisation. 

Argentinian Armando Noguera propelled suave baritone muscularity with skilled declamatory outbursts in portraying Tell heroically. Tempered with tenderness for his son Jemmy - a spirited Alexandra Flood who sings with diamond strength - Noguera’s performance was both enigmatic and genuine. It’s a touching father-son combination that culminates in the apple and the arrow moment that not even a technical glitch on opening night tarnished. 

Carlos Barcenas as Arnold and Gisela Stille as Mathilde
Embedded in the broader picture is the dilemma of Arnold and Mathilde’s love. Tenor Carlos Barcenas contoured the taxing demands of Rossini’s eloquent writing and drew a sympathetic and complex figure as Arnold. As Mathilde, a forest-thick lushness and determination accompanied Danish soprano Gisela Stille’s stirring interpretation.

The malevolent Gesler and his henchmen Rodolphe were in formidable form with Paolo Pecchioli and Paul Biencourt. As Walter, a steadfast Jeremy Kleeman joins Noguera and Barcenas in a thrilling trio of solidarity, Teddy Tahu Rhodes was towering as a sage-like Melcthal and Liane Keegan’s reliable expertise gave impact to Tell’s wife Hedwige.

Of course, there’s the famous gallop as part of the overture which 70-odd musicians played impressively but there’s glorious music to revel in throughout and one gigantic victorious ending to stay for.

William Tell 
Victorian Opera 
Palais Theatre 
Until 19th July 


Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Sunday, June 10, 2018

A delectable children's treat returns with Victorian Opera's delightful Hansel and Gretel

You know you’re engaging your young audience when they’re both attentive and interactive at a performance. “Why are they cuddling?”, “What kind of spell is it?”, the boy behind me uttered with inquisitiveness. Gleefully interruptive and unfiltered, but endearingly so, children were entertained with the art of opera boiled down to their level in a revival of Victorian Opera’s delectable 2014 production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s fairy-tale opera, Hansel and Gretel.

Cleo Lee-McGowan as Gretel and Shakira Dugan as Hansel
Elizabeth Hill’s lively direction melded excitingly on an easy to follow 50-minute condensed version of Humperdinck’s score more than double that length. Generating the drama, Humperdinck’s beautiful tapestry of effervescent melodies, musical landscapes and darker interjections that characterise the work were delightfully realised by conductor Simon Bruckard in leading a 14-strong contingent of musicians making up the Victorian Opera Chamber Ensemble in the Playhouse Theatre pit. Not a note appeared to drift off course and the warmth and care of playing provided thoughtful support for the stage.

Roller-mounted partitions painted with an interior picture-book representation of Hansel and Gretel’s house, the nearby woods and inside the witch’s gingerbread house looked a treat in Ross Hall’s context-effective designs with beautifully detailed folksy Germanic costumes completing the fairy-tale aesthetic. Peter Darby’s backdrop of mood-varying pin lighting and shadowy effects were especially evocative. A small quibble but just one thing I craved for, colourfully candied as the witch’s cottage was, were bigger helpings of them in the form of a more enticing gingerbread cottage than the flat wall it was. Still, the witch’s candy-camouflaging cloak added a clever sense of trepidation when Hansel and Gretel happen upon the cottage.

It wouldn’t have mattered if it was sung in English or Swahili as the young cast of eight familiar developing artists on the local opera scene brought Adelheid Wette’s German libretto to sparkling life with aplomb. And with a family of four all enjoying an opportunity to dance, and competently too, the little household captivated.

Kirilie Blythman as Mother and Stephen Marsh as Father
Deliciously creamy mezzo-soprano Shakira Dugan was perfect as a scallywag of a Hansel, impressing with her top notes and toasty vibrato. Lithe and full of expression, sweet and pure soprano Cleo Lee-McGowan sparkled as a sensible blonde pigtailed Gretel. Together, Dugan and Lee-McGowan offset sibling contrasts adorably along their rocky adventure, coming together for their divinely sung evening prayers and in a lovely balanced duet highlight as they celebrate their victory over the Witch. 

Lush-voiced Kirilie Blythman effortlessly took to the initially cranky but loving Mother and as an amiable Father, Stephen Marsh’s mellow and firmly buttressed baritone came with usual polish. The evil act of baking children into gingerbread was carried out by a Weimar cabaret-inspired Witch who Tomas Dalton rendered with largesse.

Smaller roles were filled pleasingly by Douglas Kelly as a rustic Sandman, Michelle McCarthy as a striking Dew Fairy with Matthew Thomas who, as all but the titular leads of the cast did singing dual roles for children and angels, sang robustly as an Angel and Child. Despite the sound voices, what felt missing was a real chorus of children who would certainly have convinced the young critics in the audience. Nevertheless, Victorian Opera do a remarkable job in stimulating the creative heart of and educating children in the art of opera. 

Two children’ operas have already now been presented this 2018 season - a wonderful revival of The Magic Pudding having opened the season. Adult entertainment is only now in rehearsal for the bigger fare when Rossini’s William Tell takes the Palais Theatre stage in July. That’s what Melbourne’s avid opera goers are patiently waiting for.

Hansel and Gretel
Victorian Opera
Playhouse Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne 
Until 12th June

Production Photos: Charlie Kinross 

Saturday, June 9, 2018

A little uneven musically but thoughtful direction makes Aida worthy gold in Singapore

Despite having a lively arts scene, opera is an infrequent experience in Singapore, a city geographically distant from Europe or North America where enviable density exists more than a 10-hour flight away. Championing the art form locally for over 25 years, however, Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO) have brought opera’s most popular works to the stage and, since 2008, have made the modern 1950-seat Esplanade Theatre its performance home. In recent years, just one fully staged work is presented annually for which an international team of artists and creatives are regularly engaged. For 2018, it was Giuseppe Verdi's iconic 1871 opera, Aida.

Scene from Act II of Singapore Lyric Opera's Aida
The storytelling bode well when the curtain went up during the brief orchestral prelude in Australian director and current Resident Director of the Royal Opera Andrew Sinclair’s new production. Diving straight into the plot’s emotional heart, Sinclair added a thoughtful touch when Aida (Singaporean soprano Nancy Yuen) appeared left of stage just before the King’s guards marched from the right with Radamès (Norwegian tenor Thomas Ruud) following. Aida and Radamès sneak a brief embrace that allowed a glimpse of the secret love between the captured Ethiopian princess and the Egyptian soldier who would lead his country to battle. 

Thereon, Sinclair showed a knack for supplying effective narrative padding over the opera’s 4 acts that imbued the work with a sense of depth in the overall drama. Only when Aida and her father Amonasro (local baritone Martin Ng) flee the guards in Act 3 as a disgraced Radamès gives himself up did the clumsy execution tarnish the otherwise seductive drama. Still, it finished well with Amonasro’s onstage death by sword and gave further evidence of Sinclair’s deftly resolved interpretation that enhances the text marvellously - just as well because the English and Chinese translation didn’t always keep up with things. 

Sinclair also mobilised the large cast superbly, giving multi-dimensional weight to an enthusiastic and tuneful chorus and utilising the stage effectively. And it all looked stunning with its simplistic realisation of the story’s ancient Egyptian setting. Justin Hill's sets compromised little more than a painted flat - a sturdy-columned drop that demarcated interior and exterior spaces - on a split-level stage on which foreground and background action effectively and often simultaneously unfolded. Simple but appealing too in its stagecraft was Amneris’ arrival by boat at the Temple of Isis and the final scene of airless entombment under a thick-ribbed apex. The visual effect could not have succeeded without Adrian Tan's lighting that captured day’s beginning and end evocatively as well as Moe Kasim’s exquisite, vibrant-hued costumes.

Thomas Ruud as Radamès and Grace Eschauri as Amneris
It wasn’t entirely rosy on the musical front but Mexican mezzo-soprano Grace Echauri's Amneris was something special. In possession of a deliciously plush and versatile instrument, Echauri addressed the text assuredly and turned Amneris easily into an approachable woman ready to confide in friendship, express her love for Radamès genuinely and impulsively resort to vengeance when the heart was spurned.

In a sensitive portrayed of a youthful Aida that included a measure of poise and trepidation, Yuen emanated an inner glow and sang with appealing colour. Though warming up in not so formidable style in her musical liaisons early on, Yuen - especially luxurious of voice in the mid to lower range - showed off her depth and capability that set her in convincing territory with her first big aria, Act I’s “Ritorna vincitor” (“Return a conqueror"). But for an occasional sharpness at the top of the voice, Yuan went on to elicit sympathy in her predicament of capture and manipulation and contribute marvellously to the love triangle’s realism.

Ruud’s Radamès well out-shaped Yuen’s petite figure to give him the stereotypical burliness and strength of a commander and the large, muscular voice to match. A master of exciting recitative, love’s tenderness was for Ruud a little harder to express with warmth in his opening Act I aria, “Celeste Aida” (“Heavenly Aida") - there was a tendency to overexert - but that was corrected as the plot became thornier. Then, in the final scene, Ruud melted the voice without loss of muscle and complimented Aida in the dying moments superbly. 

Nancy Yuen as Aida and Thomas Ruud as Radamès
Local singer Ng was excellent as a courageous Amonasro, sporting a voice burnished with determination and a performance acted with vigour. Amongst the cast of other local singers in smaller roles, smooth bass Alvin Tan stood out as the dignified Ramfis the High Priest, Cherie Tse’s silken beauty wafted divinely as the High Priestess and, though singing just the morsel of music assigned to the Messenger, Jonathan Tay made it notably impressive. 

Disappointing, but the expectation that authority shows its mettle in vocal prowess fell flat in Steven Ang’s somewhat ailing Pharoah. Under his frail rule, however, the SLO Choir were well-prepared in both richly harmonised voice and purposeful acting as the chorus of priests, priestesses, soldiers, slaves and prisoners. Altogether, they combined gloriously in the opera’s big moment, Act II’s majestically realised Triumphal March alongside choreographer Gani Karim’s athletic dancers who remarkably made themselves integral to the picture. Orchestral forces occasionally lacked  expanse in the strings and the tempi headed on the slower side but the singers were always well-supported under Thai conductor Somtow Sucharitkul. 

Verdi’s Aida has travelled far and wide with ongoing popularity since 1871. This year alone, I’ve seen it prove its worth in Dubai, Seattle and now Singapore with a new Opera Australia program opening in Sydney to come in July and, with smart direction such as seen here, I’m finding more and more in it that pleases. 

Singapore Lyric Opera
Esplanade Theatre, Singapore
Until 6th June, 2018

Production Photos: courtesy of Singapore Lyric Opera

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Shining a light on a classic nursery rhyme, Opera Australia's Schools Tour of By the Light of the Moon premieres in Melbourne: Herald Sun Review

Published in Melbourne's Herald Sun 31st May, 2018 (incorrectly under the reviewer's name Catherine Lambert)

More than 20,000 primary school children from across Victoria are in for a marvellous treat as Opera Australia begins its 2018 schools tour. Liesel and Michael Baddorek, who devised the endearing family opera, El Kid, have turned out another gem that opened at Port Melbourne Primary School on Friday.

Cast and piano accompanists of Opera Australia's By the Light of the Moon
Taking Edward Lear’s 19th century nonsense nursery rhyme, The Owl and the Pussy-Cat, Liesel and Michael have crafted an enchanting backstory to Pussy and Owl’s journey on a beautiful pea-green boat, aptly titled By the Light of the Moon

Pussy - aka Agatha - a top-hatted Goth of a cat, is ordered to find a paramour by her reigning, ruthless Queen of Hearts. After a fruitless search on land, Agatha meets Cedric the Owl at the port and pays her way for a search at sea for what becomes a delightful adventure that blends nursery rhyme characters with music arrangements to some of operas most recognisable tunes. As a serenading valorous sailor, Cedric finally wins Agatha’s heart, the mission to find love is accomplished and they set sail again into the nursery rhyme as we know it.

“Row, Row, Row Your Boat” is snugly sung to “La donna è mobile" from Rigoletto. The Queen of Hearts twirls in a bewitched-like trance singing to the tune of Brünnhilde’s “Battle Cry” from Die Walküre and the “Flower Duet” from Lakmé becomes a kooky exchange when Agatha meets quite contrary Mary. 

Most importantly, it’s sung with clarity and acted with such conviction by a troupe of enthusiastic and exceptional singers - Kate Amos, Eleanor Blythman, Shakira Tsindos, Nathan Lay, Simon Meadows and Michael Lapina with expert piano accompaniment by Jane Matheson/Pam Christie - that no kid critic could criticise.

The text is awash with clever witticisms that perfectly mirror Lear’s sing-song style. Leisel’s direction is energetic, the story incorporates charming stick puppetry and a punchy palette of colour and imagination comes with Mark Thompson’s easily transportable fairytale-brought-to-life designs. 

And on its zany way, wise words that sing of moral muscle over materialism, the beauty to behold in uniqueness and the joyful finale “Ain’t love grand!” bring meaning to this adorable work adults might want to sneak into as well.

By the Light of the Moon
Opera Australia Schools Tour
Until 31st August 


Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Hits and misses on a fine, brooding piece of art in LA Opera’s Rigoletto relic

Back in 1997 on a visit to San Francisco, I remember being enraptured by a new production of Rigoletto at San Francisco Opera. Inspired by the Surrealism-influencing artist Giorgio di Chirico’s motifs of empty piazzas, arcaded architecture and long-cast shadows, Rigoletto’s dark plot seemed to be a perfect match for the atmosphere of mystery and gloom pervading the production’s concept.

Ambrogio Maestri as Rigoletto
I next happily chanced upon it in 2010 at LA Opera and, low and behold, it’s the same production - 21 years since it premiered - now on the stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion once again. In between, so many other stagings of Rigoletto may be remembered for perhaps being more intensely felt, but this production still has the potential to illuminate the brooding nature of the piece. 

Prolific designer Michael Yeargan’s sets  are meticulously dimensioned to evoke de Chirico’s world and Rigoletto’s tragedy as well as provide spatial interest and heightened perspective on an inclined stage for director Mark Lamos. Rigoletto’s rolled-in, two-levelled and bare, blood-red house interior, in contrast, seemed an afterthought. Constance Hoffman’s luxurious costumes imaginatively reference librettist Francesco Maria Piave’s Renaissance setting of Mantua (via Victor Hugo’s play Le roi s’amuse), while Robert Wierzel’s vivid glowing colours establish both mood and time to great effect. Lamos’ direction fist the bigger picture well but the potential was often there to better dramatise crucial details, notably in Act III’s climactic storm scene in which Gilda’s murder is seemingly censored by darkness for too long as she enters Sparafucile’s house. 

Accomplished singers Juan Jesús Rodríguez (Rigoletto), Lisette Oropesa (Gilda) and Arturo Chacón-Cruz (Duke of Mantua) opened the current season on 12th May. For this performance reviewed on Sunday - and the remaining two - Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri, Romanian soprano Adela Zahari and American tenor Michael Fabiano have taken over the principal roles, adding emotional colour in various degrees to the de Chirico palette.

Chorus Director Grant Gershon had his men and women of Mantua solidly prepared for their corrupted court life. In the title role, however, the large-framed Maestri moved sluggishly in his bulbous and hunched depiction of Rigoletto but that may have been due to a lack of direction needed to infuse Rigoletto with convincing purpose. Why, in the music's frenzy, was there neglect in his search to take a short flight of steps to his daughter Gilda’s room after her kidnapping? Overall, Rigoletto’s complex character struggled to come to the surface. Vocally, Maestri’s rich and smoky baritone showed much appeal and came with impressive diction, phrasing and long finishing notes. But the top of the voice exhibited discomfort more than once, shattering belief that the stamina was there to reach the grieving end. 

Michael Fabiano as the Duke of Mantua, Rigoletto
As the womanising Duke of Mantua, Fabiano easily looked and convincingly acted the part - from deceiving the vulnerable and innocent Gilda in tender romance to deriving sexual pleasure with the mistreated whore Maddalena. Fabiano sports the lung-power to effortlessly reach the far corners of a voluminous theatre the likes of New York’s Met where he regularly performs. For his LA Opera debut in the 3000-plus capacity of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, no shortage of passion accompanied Fabiano’s vocal performance - and that’s what the audience loved - but warmth and nuance were a little less on hand to balance and compliment the imposing muscularity. 

It was Zahari’s shimmering pure tones, suppleness of voice and sympathetically executed depiction of Gilda that made her performance stand out for its unerring strength and consistency. Last year’s Operalia winner, Zahara swept through her music with grace and beauty as she deftly revealed her character’s psychological strain - one that would recklessly give her life in place of a cheating man she refused not to love. Zahara made even more telling the hopeless sense of freedom Gilda feels under the suspicious eye of an overprotective father in a hint that her reasoning was damaged as much by her ‘imprisonment’ as by her sweetheart’s deception. It was in Zahara’s shared scenes with Ambrosi and Fabiano where the night’s most convincing pairings occurred. And, believing the duke to be a poor student in the contemplative coloratura aria “Gualtier Maldè!... Caro nome", Zahara’s luminous delivery, smooth phrasing and exquisitely contoured delicate vibrato exemplified the faculty she has in bringing touching interpretation to her art.

Ambrogio Maestri as Rigoletto and Adela Zahari as Gilda, Rigoletto
As Count Monterone, robust bass Craig Colclough thundered in appropriate chilling manner with the threatening curse that so obsessed the plagued Rigoletto and, on taking the stage midway through the first scene, raised the drama single-handedly. As the other more cavernous bass, Morris Robinson reliably cloaked the murderous Sparafucile in sinister form and dark mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson sung with luscious excellence as Sparafucile’s accomplice and seductive sister, Maddalena. 

In the pit, the excitement abounded with young and energetic conductor Matthew Aucoin whipping up a thrilling sense of drama. Aucoin’s approach displays a refreshing instinct to shift dramatic focus when needed and his sensitivity in keeping his singers buoyantly on top of the LA Opera Orchestra - faultless musicianship on that note - was clearly evident. After it was all done, however, it will be my first impressions of 21 years ago, not by pictorial setting alone, that will live on in having brought fulfilment to the work’s dark and disturbing aspect.

LA Opera 
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, LA Music Center 
Until 3rd June, 2018

Production Photos: Karen  Almond

Friday, May 18, 2018

Seattle Opera's inventively re-interpreted and gorgeously sung Aida

Verdi’s grand opera, Aida, is so inextricably linked to its ancient Egyptian Old Kingdom setting of towering pharaonic statues and monolithic stone architecture that it takes a strong argument to convince an audience, many of whom will be opera first-timers, that any such departure in time is justifiable. A new co-production from Seattle Opera, having come via San Francisco, Washington National and Minnesota Operas, takes a more contemporary view, inventively re-interpreted by prolific American opera director Francesca Zambello.

Leah Crocetto as Aida and Brian Jagde as Radamès
Here, the Old Kingdom is stripped away and replaced, it appears, by a highly stylised pseudo-1970s context, judging by costume designer Anita Yavich’s colourfully printed kaftans. Or was it WWII-era inspired judging by the handsome military uniforms. Then, there is graffiti artist and artistic designer (born as Marquis Duriel Lewis) RETNA’s bold use of sharply stylised graphic hieroglyphics that etch their exoticism upon the work and which are superbly integrated with Michael Yeargan’s capacious and rigorously symmetrical sets. 

The many and varied stage pictures are striking. From Act 1’s opening cavernous concrete bunker and long trestle table - around which an army of military officers mill about planning war strategies - to the high-screened enclosure and gateway flanked by spectator stands and thrones either side for the grand triumphal march of Act 2 and the final airless tomb that robs Aida and Radamès of life in Act 4, Zambello’s fluidly moving scene changes capture moments both grand and intimate. For this, Mark McCullough’s lighting lends an evocative hand throughout to which revival director E. Loren Meeker, in her Seattle debut, comfortably balances effective detail with vocal delivery.

Leah Crocetto as Aida and cast members of Seattle Opera
As impressive and memorable as it is, a disquieting sense of flux in time and place permeates the work and occasionally distracted the imagination. For a time, in Act 3’s opening scene on the banks of the Nile as prayers are chanted - here the Seattle Opera Chorus shone at their best - it even looked more like Princess Turandot’s China presided as a giant full moon hung low, a processional background of priestesses glided from right to left and a large screen took more the appearance of Chinese characters. But it was inconsistency of style in the choreographed dances that was the biggest detraction, beautiful at times in its streamlined execution, floundering at others in its tweeness. Was I the only one not able to expel from mind an image of The Sound of Music’s Von Trapp family more than once, starting with the cute troupe of boy soldiers that brought liveliness to Amneris’s veiled chamber? In the end, it felt as if other elements that could have dominated - namely the tensions that religious and political rule had created - were compromised.

That’s not to say that the production lacked ongoing dramatic punch, aided by an excellent cast and conductor John Fiore’s command in expressing the tender, triumphant, solemnity and tension of the score with warmth, pliancy and exhilaration. At his service, musicians from the Seattle Symphony Orchestra played with over-all quality to admire.

Brian Jagde as Radamès
Taking the story off to a rock-solid beginning, mammoth-voiced and deep, rumbling bass Daniel Sumegi gave a brilliant, threatening performance as the high priest Ramfis and single-handedly brought out the heavy-handedness of religious authority that I’d hoped to see taken up in greater force around him. Sturdy bass Clayton Brainerd stood authoritatively yet warily in political counterpoint as the King of Egypt and burly bass Gordon Hawkins (alternating in the role with Alfred Walker) brought an imposing voice to Aida’s father Amonasro, the King of Ethiopia, despite looking like an imprisoned janitor in his undignified uniformed greens. In the smaller role of the High Priestess, Marcy Stonikas, without exaggeration, simply touched the senses with her divinely plush soprano. 

But it is the circumstantially fraught love triangle that constitutes the story’s meaty heart where the most tension and complex emotional turns reside. Brian Jagde‘s huge octane-rich tenor fired away from the word go and was put to marvellous use in portraying a highly fervent and eventually punished Radamès. Diction-perfect and phrased with purpose, Jagde (alternating in the role with David Pomeroy) effortlessly made belief of Radamès’ love for Aida and unsavoury road of dishonour. 

Deep, dark and plummy mezzo-soprano Milijana Nikolic capably steered her portrayal of the King’s daughter Amneris from evil-edged haughtiness to momentary sincerity then maniacal vengeance as her love for Radamès goes unrequited. Nikolic (alternating in the role with Elena Gabouri) had a tendency to lose resonance in the lowest range of the voice but she gave one of the evening’s many highlights in a riveting scene as Amneris curses the priests in Act 3’s hall of the Temple of Justice and tugs at a web of wide drapery as Radamès is sentenced to death. 

Milijana Nikolic as Amneris
Most remarkable, however, was the superbly refined vocal beauty and emotionally compelling performance by luminous soprano Leah Crocetto in the title role as the captured Ethiopian princess, Aida. In love with Radamès, in Crocetto, a sweet sense of purity and courage bonded on a voice in which the high notes were taken to elegantly sustained length, vocal shading impeccably realised and register shifts as smooth as butter. Crocetto, who alternates in the role with Alexandra Lobianco, easily garnered her audience’s sympathy, poignantly encapsulating the aguish Aida sings in “Qui Radamès verra .. O patria mia” (“Oh, my dear country!") and never seemed to tire until her last breath when, entombed, she expires in the arms of Radamès.

Balancing well the spectacular and intimate, there’s much that impresses in Zambello’s Aida. It’s gorgeously sung too and, despite thoughts that more could be achieved in painting its historically updated background and rethinking much of the choreography, this fresh perspective on Egypt’s Old Kingdom allows the plot’s central conflict to fester splendidly.

Seattle Opera 
Marion Oliver McCaw Hall at Seattle Center
Until 19th May 2018

Production Photos: Philip Newton

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Brilliantly sung but the tale of Don Quichotte mostly lumbers in Melbourne's Opera Australia production: Herald Sun Review

Published online at Herald Sun 7th May and in print 10th May, 2018.

Massenet’s loosely adapted interpretation of Cervantes’ sprawling epic, Don Quixote, is no standard repertoire work. Not only has the choice of bringing San Diego Opera’s 2009 production served Opera Australia’s purpose adequately in mounting it for first time, but wisely importing acclaimed Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto with it to infuse driver-seat authority as the eponymous knight-errant proved highly worthy.

Scene from Act I, Opera Don Quichotte, Opera Australia
To a libretto based on a play by Jacques Le Lorrain, the story centres on Don Quichotte’s heroic deed to retrieve village beauty Dulcinea’s stolen necklace — he blindly convinced she loves him — and win her in marriage.

On show was Furlanetto’s outstanding nutrient-rich vocal earthiness and authentic portrayal of an ageing man’s adventure, clad in tarnished armour and mocked while trumpeting chivalric virtue. For this, Furlanetto conveyed the pathos and oft-ambiguous delineation between the delusional and Christlike with touching sensibility.

At his side, the impressive trusty expertise of baritone Warwick Fyfe complimented Furlanetto brilliantly as the comically endearing Sancho. You get the sense that Sancho‘s music is the more stirring and Fyfe gave it immense idiosyncratic weight the further the piteousness of Don Quichotte’s dying end neared.

Mellifluous mezzosoprano Sian Pendry wafted through Dulcinea’s early flippant, later nonchalance then regretful tenderness with assured step. Her four fawning suitors add little to the plot though fervent tenor John Longmuir stood out as the valorous Juan.

Ferruccio Furlanetto as Don Quichotte and Warwick Fyfe as Sancho
But once the burst of music and exuberantly choreographed Act 1 celebratory Spanish dance was done, the puff momentarily ran out. Even the theatrical stunner created for Act 2’s dreamy windmill scene lumbered in dramatic purpose.

More the fault of the narrative’s lack of dramatic thickening than revival director John Sheedy’s period-sympathetic approach, not until the final two acts of its rather short five do the characters galvanise with each other convincingly to match Massenet’s tremendously beautiful music, divinely crafted in rich sound-colour by conductor Guillaume Tourniaire, Orchestra Victoria kept superb form, serving its various solo highlights hypnotically.

Ralph Funicello’s handsome set, Missy West’s rustic costumes and Marie Barrett’s evocative lighting are effective enough but to sit back and melt into the music alongside Furlanetto and Fyfe’s affecting connection are the few glorious comforts worth a ticket.

Don Quichotte
Opera Australia
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until 12th May, 2018


Production Photos: Jeff Busby

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The fortuitous encounter with Icelandic baritone Olafur Sigurdarson in the title role of Verdi's Falstaff at Opera Colorado

Falstaff, Verdi’s final opera based on William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV, Parts I & II, owes much to librettist Arrigo Boito’s wonderfully structured and witty adaptation concerning the Bard’s “great whale of Windsor”, the big-bellied knight John Falstaff whose attempts to seduce two married women come to a mocking end. And layered with the composer’s swift, narrative-enriching music, the libretto’s inbuilt comic charms bristle with opportunity for directorial enlivenment. 

Andrew Hiers, Nathan Ward and Olafur Sigurdarson as Falstaff
In a new production that opened at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House closing Opera Colorado’s 2017-18 season on Saturday night - it’s been 30 years since the company first presented the work - director David Edwards, to his credit, succeeded well in capturing the speed and oddball realism of the piece while cleverly harmonising action with music.

In its simple and straightforward rustic setting, the comedy percolated through seamlessly. Stephen D. Mazzeno’s set design, featuring a large Tudor-esque two-dimensional wall with lead light windows and timber strapping, fills the stage and is neatly utilised for both interior and exterior settings with either the addition of a staircase (for Act 1’s Garter Inn and a room in Alice Ford’s house in Act 2) or potted hedged greenery (Act 1, Scene 2’s garden in front of Alice Ford’s house). Falstaff’s ditching in the Thames at Act 2’s end comes across rather clumsily on a sheath of blue cloth and, with just a silhouetted oak tree and low lying distant crenellations for Act 3’s Windsor Park, the overall concept relies on economy of means. It does the job with humble honesty - though without inspired sophistication - as do Clare Mitchell’s variety of fabric-laden village costumes and Lucas Krech’s mostly warm obedient lighting.

Edwards uses the space broadly and has the fortune of a spirited cast with strong acting chops at his disposal. Led by Icelandic baritone Olafur Sigurdarson’s adroitly caricatured vocal largesse and the paunchiness to go with it, Falstaff took larger than life form in Sigurdarson’s experienced grip. 

Olafur Sigurdarson as Falstaff and Cynthia Clayton as Alice Ford
He might be grubbily garbed in 16th century long coat and high-reaching pantaloons on first encounter (though he scrubs up rather dashingly in heavy brocade in preparation for his tryst with Alice), but Falstaff, in all sorts of physical manifestations, still has his match today. Sigurdarson entertainingly makes us laugh with him and at him. We can even sympathise with the thick-skinned Falstaff as he’s drowned in mockery and extols his girth and morally questionable virtues. 

And Sigurdarson always looked at ease in the title role’s weighty and complex demands, bringing a cheeky comic agility to an otherwise slovenly lump. And how the voice projected with resonant strength and bucolic depth as if supported by the great mass below. The use of text was superb and the expression to match made a gourmet performance. Then there was the fine falsetto to cap off his character’s own derisive comments. Here was a fully-studied and naturally drawn interpretation that has years of delight to give. 

Alongside Sigurdarson, some noteworthy voices shone. At the top of the list for unwavering consistency and interpretation, there was silken soprano Susannah Biller as the winsome ingénue Nannetta, hearty mezzo-soprano Dana Beth Miller as the nettlesome Dame Quickly and grainy, robust bass-baritone Andrew Hiers as Falstaff’s thieving double-crosser, Pistola. 

Cynthia Clayton, Susannah Biller Dana Beth Miller, Sandra Piques Eddy
With all their comic requirements, the quality work from other members of the large ensemble cast appeared compromised by an unawareness that, periodically, their voices weren’t carrying into the large 2000-plus seat theatre. Still, soprano Cynthia Clayton’s gorgeously projected top notes and spirited delivery as Meg Ford and lush mezzo-soprano as Meg Page enhanced the game of trickery in bubbly fashion to show Falstaff a lesson. Mingjie Lei’s soothing warm tenor provided the perfect romantic compliment to Nannetta and Marco Nisticò put in a distinguished performance as Alice’s husband, Ford. At one with slapstick delivery, Nathan Ward‘s light comically wiry tenor could have done with a little more flesh as Falstaff’s other cheating henchman, Bardolfo and Alex Mansoori made a bold early showing as Dr Caius. 

One of the performance highlights was the comic spark set off between Miller’s Dame Quickly and Sigurdarson’s Falstaff with voices matching so marvellously you might have wondered whether an amorous rendezvous would come too. The ladies’ front-of-stage lineup in Act 1, as they decide to punish Falstaff after Meg and Alice receive the same love letter, is a vibrantly sung and gesticulated affair but when the larger ensemble fronted, the quick-tempo demands invariably lost tightness and form. From below, conductor Ari Pelto kept the drama well lubricated, its three acts (including two intervals) moving tautly at a swift pace with the Opera Colorado Orchestra in overall good command.

Conceived without show-stopping and stand-and-deliver arias, Verdi’s Falstaff makes for a fortuitous encounter with Shakespeare’s rotund indelible character and, on that account with Sigurdarson in the picture, Opera Colorado have delivered in spades.

Opera Colorado 
Ellie Caulkins Opera House
Until 13th May, 2018

Production Photos: Matthew Staver

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Fabulous singing and full of laughs, Don Pasquale entertains in 50s Hollywood style at Fort Worth Opera

Burak Bilgili as Don Pasquale and Ji-Min Park as Ernesto
The comic madness that accompanies Donizetti’s effervescent score in his 1843 premiered Don Pasquale comes with a jolly good 1950s Hollywood update from director Chuck Hudson in a production from Arizona Opera that was first seen in 2014. It opened on Saturday night courtesy of Fort Worth Opera and, apart from the occasional over-the-top slapstick hijacking, it entertained marvellously. 

Hudson’s concept imaginatively incorporates the black and white celluloid world of the silent film era to identify Don Pasquale as “The Sovereign of the Silver Screen”. When the vibrant overture began, Hudson gave his audience black and white movie magic with Don Pasquale starring in the title role of his most celebrated film, “The Sheik of Arabia”, a hoot of a start using old footage and fake superimposed characters. More of those celluloid divertissements popped up later and kept up the fun act. 

But when the curtain goes up, Don Pasquale’s star has long faded and he’s living in his long-gone Oscar-winning glory surrounded by shelves of old movie reels in a home with a view to the Hollywood sign as part of Peter Nolle’s smart-looking designs, Kathleen Trott’s period-appropriate costumes and Eric Watkins’s crisp lighting. Interestingly, as the plot unfolds, Pasquale's world around him transitions from black and white to technicolor and with it the out-of-step geriatric appears sadly left behind.

Audrey Luna as Norina
If not for being acted out in such well-honed comic form and sung so thrillingly, Donizetti’s topsy-turvy work - with the moral that “The man who marries old is weak in the head” - would collapse. But, treated to the talents of four fine principals who connected with and complimented each other superbly, the story gets a generous dose of comic preposterousness, extreme as it sometimes becomes. 

The work’s melodious array of arias, duets, trios and quartets were showcased excellently, brimming with vitality and astute vocal balance. The precision between stage and pit lapsed occasionally in the prestissimo runs but conductor Joe Illick otherwise brought out the lovely lyrical aspects while guiding the well-supported sound of Fort Worth Symphony.

Richly fortified Turkish bass-baritone Burak Bilgili instantly set the antics alight as the spright and elderly, pallid and bespectacled Don Pasquale. Bilgili sang the Italian lines with zinging articulation and characterful expression, projected with a big throaty resonance and adeptly portrayed an old man deciding to take a young bride with self-entitled celebrity flair. But, despite his creepy and lecherous ways, there's an ounce of sympathy Bilgili makes you have for him.

Audrey Luna, Andrew Wilkowske and Burak Bilgili 
As Don Pasquale’s theatrically confident double-crossing friend and doctor, one who appears to have suppressed dreams of Hollywood stardom but nonetheless basks in his own suave good looks, buff and burnished baritone Andrew Wilkowske was an exuberant Malatesta. Wilkowske’s timing with the quick alternations between feigning assistance with Pasquale’s plans to marry and twists of deceit were always delivered with sharpness and polished finish. Together with Bilgili, the duo hammed it up big time, including punching out the ripper pitter-patter rhythms of Act 2’s “Cheti, cheti, immantinente” and a rollickingly mimed scene in Act 3, outside the Hollywood Bowl for some incongruous reason, as Malatesta unsuccessfully tries to get Pasquale’s elastic-attached keys. 

On this note, the downside was that poor Ernesto’s mostly offstage aria, “Com'è gentil”, was laughed all over but Korean tenor Ji-Min Park had already won his audience over with his youthful innocence and thrilling adrenaline-rich tenor. Doing so in the unequivocal opening night highlight with Act 2’s lament, “Cercherò lontana terra”, Park both movingly and humorously portrayed Ernesto’s despair in believing he was no use to his sweetheart Norina and powerfully embodied a yin and yang like inseparability of tragi-comedy as he made one failed suicide attempt after the other - a scene that came with the kind of subtlety and depth that parts of the performance missed.

Ji-Min Park and Audrey Luna with Fort Worth Opera Chorus
For the lone female soloist playing Norina, Donizetti ascribed tantalisingly elegant and filigreed music which much pleasure was had in hearing plush and creamy Italian soprano Audrey Luna give sparkle and pliancy to. Making a first appearance ‘on set’ in a bubble bath, Luna plays a stylish Hollywood starlet who Pasquale forbids his nephew Ernesto to marry - if so, Ernesto will lose his inheritance. Luna captivated with her gleam and purity of tone but then came the icing on the cake with her trills and ornamentations that danced athletically in step with her lithe foxiness and vivacious nature. When lured into Malatesta’s plot as his direct-from-the-convent virginal sister Sofronia, in order to trick Pasquale into falling for her and marrying him in a fake ceremony, Luna turned on every comic muscle effortlessly.

But the party of pop cultural icons made no convincing reason for taking the place of Sofronia’s (Norina’s) newly hired servants in the original. And as brilliantly shaded and secure as the chorus work was, the likes of Groucho Marx, Carmen Miranda, James Dean and Elvis Presley, amongst others, made lukewarm representations.

Still, Donizetti’s ‘opera buffa’ comes up trumps. Simply delighting in its fabulous singing is enough to recommend it but you get to laugh when you might least expect to and that surprise alone is priceless. 

Don Pasquale
Fort Worth Opera
Bass Performance Hall 
Until 6th May, 2018

Production Photos: Ben Torres

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

A splendid cast sing up the spine tingling drama marvellously in Opera Australia's Tosca in Melbourne: Herald Sun Review

Published online at Melbourne's Herald Sun 25th April and in print 26th April 2018

In director John Bell’s Tosca for Opera Australia, Puccini’s original 1800 Napoleonic setting in Rome is catapulted into the time of the city’s 1943-44 Nazi occupation — and with it comes a spine tingling dramatic overlay that rivetingly reinforces its unjust tragedies under brutal forces.

Diego Torre as Cavaradossi and Latonia Moore as Tosca
In this persuasive revival by Hugh Halliday, if the arrival of Nazi uniformed soldiers in Act I’s magnificent church of Sant’Andrea waving swastika emblazoned blood red flags isn’t enough to chill — Michael Scott-Mitchell’s sets create an ongoing evocative architectural backdrop — Puccini’s music conveys the mood startlingly. From beginning, Andrea Battistoni’s powerfully driven and intense conducting served impressively with an expert and secure Orchestra Victoria in the pit.

In a work containing some of Puccini’s most famous arias the microseconds matter in conveying dramatic realism or the ‘verismo’ that characterises his style. Its most compelling interpretation comes in one of all opera’s most unnerving scenes, that of Act 2’s blend of desperation, lust, torture and murder centring on three stellar leads.

Plush soprano Latonia Moore, as the jealous diva-ish Tosca, scorching tenor Diego Torre, as her accommodating lover, the painter Cavaradossi, and hellfire baritone Marco Vratogna, as the detestable Nazi commander Scarpia, captured the persistent unnerving tension hauntingly.

Latonia Moore as Tosca and Marco Vratogna as Scarpia
Moore’s animated fluctuations in Act 1 periodically clashed with her unswerving thrilling vocal splendour — a small quibble — but, as the titular tragedienne reflecting on her fate in “Vissi d’arte” (”I lived for art”), her piety struck by God’s seeming abandonment, Moore brought sobs of heartbreaking distress that superbly illuminated her dramatic prowess.

A fine actor, smooth in delivery and comfortable in monumentalising sustained finishing notes, Torre, oft-seen principal for Opera Australia, was an exceptional match as Cavaradossi.

The Opera Australia Chorus raised a glorious “Te Deum” against a ferocious-voiced Vratogna, who, as one of the most fearful Scarpias you’re likely to see, was outstanding as he thrust his command in viscous bursts before succumbing to Tosca’s calculating knife attack.

Finally, Tosca’s end in accepting bullets rather than taking a suicidal plunge from Castel Sant’Angelo seems a less convincing way to end but Bell’s overall concept is a terrifically breathtaking.

Opera Australia
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Until 10th May, 2018


Production Photos: Jeff Busby